Saturday, December 31, 2005

If you haven't seen it already...

... the Times is running The Face and Voice of Civilian Sacrifice in Iraq, a collection of photos of civilians who survived attacks, or had their families and lives shattered.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Notes on News, continued

I promised in my last-but-one post to explain why I like the New York Times so. (And while we're on the subject of lasts-but-one, did you know that 'antepenultimate' was a word? It means what you'd expect: before the next-to-last in a sequence. If referring to a specific item of the sequence, it means the one third from the end. I only learned this two days ago, but it got me curious. Who coined this word, and why? Ok, end of digression.)

I suppose that the reason I love the Times is that one can. Let me explain that: I grew up with The Hindu and I still enjoy reading it, but one couldn't love the Hindu; it's too impersonal. There's no magic to it; it reports the news, and that's it. While tabloids are at one extreme, the Hindu is at the other. I don't mean that I'm interested in the love lives of celebrities, far from it! But reading the Hindu, one feels that every trace of character has been excised. Young World and the Sunday magazine section were exceptions, but by and large the paper just sticks to the facts. In contrast, the Times has a distinct personality, a delightful one. There are two things I find particularly endearing.

First, the editorial observers and similar contributors. Verlyn Klinkenborg, in particular, is the perfect observer; his pieces have just the right touch of wonder as he describes the little things he notices, the things that most of us simply don't see. Recent articles that stand out in my mind have described riding the train into Grand Central station, driving across western America, and the pace of life on his farm. Today, at the end of the year, the Times had six poets write for the feature Closing Time.Two days ago, Nora Ephron wrote about her quest for long-lost Cabbage Strudel. A newspaper which can publish a 2-page article on cabbage strudel can't possibly take itself too seriously.

Then there are the short-term guest columnists. This month, Alexander McCall Smith is writing The Adventures of an Itinerant Scotsman, and in November, graphic artist Marjane Satrapi wrote (and drew) An Iranian in Paris. These posts are witty, whimsical, and full of joy in life. Last week, the transit strike in New York City left millions of New Yorkers with inadequate transportation. Alongside detailed coverage of the strike, reports on negotiations, and advice for commuters, the Times featured Scenes from a Strike-Bound City, in which local writers described how the strike affected their lives in a series of little vignettes on cycling to a poker game across town, dealing with the fact that the pizza didn't show up because there was a huge backlog of deliveries, and much else.

Second, the multi-page, 5000+ word stories that draw you in and keep you at the screen clicking 'next' until you're done. They could be about anything at all: news and analysis of current events, or from trends in the New York restaurant scene to economic trends in the past quarter, from the Science and Technology sections, or the Arts, or 'Home & Garden'. Invariably well-written and instantly engaging, they're also a great way to learn about a subject you knew nothing about. I've linked to a couple in the past, on the Orange revolution in Ukraine and Social security. Also, there are series that cover different aspects of a subject; the most recent have been about the struggle to create a modern legal system in China, and gold mining.

And that's why, every morning, the first thing I do is roll out of bed, turn on the computer, open Opera, and look at the New York Times homepage.

It snowed today...

for about an hour. Big flakes that whirled madly in the wind, then settled softly and quickly carpeted the lawn, the streets, and the parking lot next door. Completely unlike our usual light flurries, or the little snowflakes that pelt down for hours. I hurried home from the library, to get my camera before sunset. I was just a little too late, and so I sat by the window as night fell, watching the wild dance of the snow.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Notes on News

I'm a news junkie. I read at least two (online) newspapers every day: the New York Times and the Washington Post. I also sometimes browse through the online versions of the L.A. Times and the Chicago Tribune, to say nothing of the host of blogs and other news sites I religiously visit every day. A day seems incomplete without a quick morning fix and some time in the evening to relax and look up anything I missed.

Lakshmi tells me I even write like a newspaper sometimes. (She's right; look at the last two sentences of your previous post: "But their importance entitles them to a fair debate, and they should each receive a vote on their merits. Bundling them into one omnibus bill serves no one's interest." I rest my case. -ed.)

If you're still reading, I warn you that this post doesn't really have a point; I'm just going to ramble a little.

I was thinking this evening about the two newspapers I read most often, and the differences between them. The first thing I look at is the op-ed section, and the Post is miles ahead of the Times here. The editorials of both are comparable, but the columnists aren't in the same league. The Times line-up:

- Nicholas Kristof, probably the most sincere writer I read regularly. His concern for the genocide in Darfur (and other forms of injustice) is laudable, but I think he writes about it too often. I believe that the Darfur story is underreported in the U.S. media as a whole, but one writer dwelling on it (practically to the exclusion of much else) doesn't do much good; I think it would be safe to assume that after his twentieth story, everyone who reads his columns was aware of the crisis. It's certainly not his fault that the story hasn't caught on and I admire the man for doing everything he can to increase public awareness of the issue, but his Darfur focus detracts from the strength of the op-ed page as a whole.

Actually, that may be one of the chief problems with the Times: It takes a particularly strong and well-balanced opinion section to accommodate a columnist on a crusade, and the Times seems to have too many of those.

- Thomas Friedman, who can mix a metaphor with the best of them. His columns come in four categories: How/why China and India are overtaking America, how conserving energy will solve all the country's problems (reduce the deficit, make people more responsible, reduce global warming, decrease the amount of money flowing to unfriendly regimes such as Iran and Venezuela), what to do in Iraq, and combinations of the first three (such as environmental issues in China and India). While much of what he says makes sense, the repetition of the same basic ideas quickly gets monotonous. And sentences like "The walls had fallen down and the Windows had opened, making the world much flatter than it had ever been — but the age of seamless global communication had not yet dawned" just make me shudder. Quoting Matt Taibbi: "It's not that he occasionally screws up and fails to make his metaphors and images agree. It's that he always screws it up. He has an anti-ear, and it's absolutely infallible; he is a Joyce or a Flaubert in reverse, incapable of rendering even the smallest details without genius."

- Maureen Dowd, who isn't as shrill as Ann Coulter, but sometimes comes close. Lately, she's become obsessed with 'Dick' (aka 'Vice'). While Dowd does sometimes make me smile, I can't remember the last time she really made me think.

- Paul Krugman, who was something of a disappointment. With his reputation, I was expecting an outstanding column, but he's merely good (except when he strays from economics, when he's only average). His strong dislike for Bush works against him; one sometimes feels that he's not being completely impartial. Daniel Okrent, the then Times Ombudsman wrote: "Op-Ed columnist Paul Krugman has the disturbing habit of shaping, slicing and selectively citing numbers in a fashion that pleases his acolytes but leaves him open to substantive assaults."

While on the subject of Daniel Okrent, his columns as ombudsman were superb; his replacement at the Times, Byron Calame, doesn't write as frequently and isn't nearly as good. The Post's Deborah Howell isn't great, either, so we'll call that a tie.

- Bob Herbert, who does a good job and David Brooks, the token conservative on the page, who is possibly the best the Times has. There's also John Tierney, and Frank Rich, who writes a longer piece once a week on 'the intersection between culture and the news'.

And those are all the columnists. Particularly when one or two of them are on vacation or book leave (which happens fairly often), the page is remarkably bare. The Post, on the other hand, seems to have a rich and diverse opinions section. Conservative writers are better represented, and even though I often don't agree with them, they're almost always worth reading. They make cogent arguments, are intellectually honest, and unafraid to attack the administration when they think it's wrong.

Of the Post columnists, Anne Applebaum, Richard Cohen, Charles Krauthammer, William Raspberry (who is, sadly, retiring) and George Will are uniformly excellent. Eugene Robinson and E. J. Dionne are also good. Then there are several contributors who write about once a week: Michael Kinsley, who used to be editor of the editorial/opinions page at the LA Times is my favourite. Colbert King, Robert Samuelson, David Ignatius, David Broder, Harold Meyerson, Sebastian Mallaby and Jim Hoagland all do a fair job. It rarely happens that none of the Post columns gives me something to think about. Further, the Post gets a fair number of political figures to contribute to their opinions page. Today, for example, there's an article by Senators Barack Obama and Sam Brownback. I've read at least three columns by Kofi Annan, and several by heads of state and ministers from other countries.

Another difference between the newspapers is their approach to the Internet. The Times seems to want nothing to do with it. I'm currently paying $50 a year for TimesSelect, which essentially gives me the right to read their columnists. I also have access to the archives, which I don't really want, though the one time I did want an archived article, the website refused to show it to me (but it decremented the total number of archived articles I could access). Besides making me pay to read news (a sure way to drive away online readers), the Times site makes me deal with annoying ads: both banners, and occasional full-screen videos.

The Post, by contrast, has welcomed their internet readers, setting up as a separate company. They have added content online, with frequent video feeds of breaking news, and 'The Debate' with Emily Messner (a forum in which Messner posts about a controversial topic, and users discuss it in the comments thread). The Post also experimented with a blog, cross-posting Andrew Sullivan's posts for a week, and finally settling down with Joel Achenbach's Achenblog. Dan Froomkin's White House Briefing - a round-up of articles, columns, and Froomkin's thoughts about White House activities - is also very good. Best of all are the 'Live Online' discussions, where the author of a Post article or opinion piece will answer questions from readers for an hour. Recent victims have been Judge Richard Posner and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

And yet, I like the Times better than the Post. An explanation will have to wait until later, because I've already spent too much time writing this evening.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

How not to legislate

The U.S. Congress never ceases to amaze me. Lately, I've been puzzled by some of the more bizarre procedures and tactics that members of Congress use to pass legislation. From a New York Times article on Dec 14th:
With a budget-cutting measure stymied by stiff resistance to opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, Congressional Republicans began exploring Wednesday a new tactic to win approval of both $45 billion in cuts and the drilling plan.

Lawmakers and senior aides said they were seriously considering tacking the drilling proposal onto a Pentagon spending bill that is among those that must pass before Congress heads home in the next few days... "It's going to be on one bill or the other before I go home," said Senator Ted Stevens, Republican of Alaska, a leading proponent of opening the Arctic plain to oil production.

Where is the connection between drilling in Alaska and the war in Iraq? The sole reason to combine them (admitted by legislators) is to allow an unpopular proposal to pass.

Sure enough, when the House approved the defense spending bill, the provision to allow drilling in the ANWR was tacked on. Democrats in the Senate then vowed to fight it, using a filibuster (another weird and wonderful practice essentially unique to America) if necessary. A Reuters story in the Times this afternoon quotes Stevens, who intends to stand firm:
"Extreme environmentalists think it (ANWR) is their playground, that they should set the policy for Alaska."

Stevens warned if ANWR is dropped from the defense bill, he would seek to delete other items attached to it such as funding for Hurricane Katrina reconstruction, the bird flu pandemic and a program that helps poor families pay heating bills.

Much as I dislike Stevens, I think he's on to something here (though he has it backwards). In a reasonable world, ANWR would not be part of the defense bill, but nor would Katrina-related funding, or anyone else's pet project. Don't get me wrong; I think that these are all worthy issues: the Government should undoubtedly provide more money to New Orleans and other coastal areas, prepare for a bird flu pandemic, and help poor people who cannot afford heating. But their importance entitles them to a fair debate, and they should each receive a vote on their merits. Bundling them into one omnibus bill serves no one's interest.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Sullivan on Torture

It would be extremely remiss of me not to link to Andrew Sullivan's excellent essay The Abolition of Torture. It is widely agreed that torture is morally repugnant, besides usually being counter-productive (as it generates little actionable intelligence, and stokes resentment against the torturers). Charles Krauthammer, though, recently defended the practice, arguing that it should be legal to use torture in certain cases, such as the 'ticking-bomb scenario'. In fact, he goes further, arguing that one would be morally compelled to use torture in this situation.

Sullivan's essay was written largely in response to Krauthammer, and he makes the following outstanding point (among many others). Even assuming that all of Krauthammer's conditions apply (there is a terrorist who has planted a nuclear bomb in a major city, he has been captured after planting the bomb but before it goes off, he will divulge the location of the bomb under torture, and that there is no other way to obtain this information):
It is possible to concede that, in [such] an extremely rare circumstance, torture may be used without conceding that it should be legalized. One imperfect but instructive analogy is civil disobedience. In that case, laws are indeed broken, but that does not establish that the laws should be broken. In fact, civil disobedience implies precisely that laws should not be broken, and protesters who engage in it present themselves promptly for imprisonment and legal sanction on exactly those grounds. They do so for demonstrative reasons. They are not saying that laws don't matter. They are saying that laws do matter, that they should be enforced, but that their conscience in this instance demands that they disobey them.

In extremis, a rough parallel can be drawn for a president faced with the kind of horrendous decision on which Krauthammer rests his entire case. What should a president do? The answer is simple: He may have to break the law. In the Krauthammer scenario, a president might well decide that, if the survival of the nation is at stake, he must make an exception. At the same time, he must subject himself--and so must those assigned to conduct the torture--to the consequences of an illegal act. Those guilty of torturing another human being must be punished--or pardoned ex-post-facto. If the torture is revealed to be useless, if the tortured man is shown to have been innocent or ignorant of the information he was tortured to reveal, then those responsible must face the full brunt of the law for, in Krauthammer's words, such a "terrible and monstrous thing."
Go and read the entire essay for the best analysis of this issue that I've seen. It concludes:
By endorsing torture--on anyone, anywhere, for any reason--we help obliterate the very values we are trying to promote. You can see this contradiction in Krauthammer's own words: We are "morally compelled" to commit "a terrible and monstrous thing." We are obliged to destroy the village in order to save it. We have to extinguish the most basic principle that defines America in order to save America.

No, we don't. In order to retain fundamental American values, we have to banish from the United States the totalitarian impulse that is integral to every act of torture. We have to ensure that the virus of tyranny is never given an opening to infect the Constitution and replicate into something that corrupts as deeply as it wounds. We should mark the words of Ian Fishback, one of the heroes of this war: "Will we confront danger and adversity in order to preserve our ideals, or will our courage and commitment to individual rights wither at the prospect of sacrifice? My response is simple. If we abandon our ideals in the face of adversity and aggression, then those ideals were never really in our possession. I would rather die fighting than give up even the smallest part of the idea that is 'America.'" If we legalize torture, even under constrained conditions, we will have given up a large part of the idea that is America. We will have lost the war before we have given ourselves the chance to win it.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Two to read

Say what you will about conservative intellectuals, at least many of them can write. And many of them are willing to take on Congress or the administration, especially when they abandon conservative principles. Andrew Sullivan, with his criticism of the torture policy is a case in point. Today's column, though, is by George Will in the Washington Post, attacking legislation aimed at subsidizing the purchase of digital televisions. To be fair, though, Will doesn't deserve too much credit; the targets are just too inviting and easy to hit.

Via Crooked Timber, I found this interview in the New Yorker with the author of an article on the evolution trial in Dover, Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, the article itself is not available online. This is, actually, my biggest gripe with the New Yorker: you can't access their content online. Of course, it is their content, and they have every right to keep the best stuff for their magazine instead of making it freely available on the Internet. Still, I live in an entitlement culture; the idea of paying to read a newspaper or magazine just seems wrong. I suppose I'll just have to subscribe, though, because I really want access to everything in the magazine; I've never read anything from the New Yorker that was less than good.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

The True Story

If you have access to it, read The Real Thanksgiving by David Brooks. It came at a good time for me; I needed the laugh. Among the best bits:
[O]nward they ventured, across the vastness of the ocean until finally the infinite wonder of the New World came into view, and the passengers of the Mayflower realized here they could raise their children and their children's children to be snooty and the subjects of John Cheever stories.

They were greeted at the shore by a tribe of native peoples, led by chief Massasoit and his lobbyist Abramoff. The Pilgrim leader William Bradford spoke first: "Behold! We have come to drive you from your land..."

And it came to pass that Massasoit was relieved by this declaration, for at least the strangers had not come promising to spread democracy. In exchange, all he asked was that he and his people be allowed to open casinos...

Others reacted to these difficult beginnings with murmurings of mutiny and discontent. It was said that Miles Standish had brought the flock to the New World on the basis of faulty intelligence, while others claimed the pilgrimage had been ruined by the religious right.
And my favourite sentence of all:
In the midst of these hardships, many did find spiritual succor by returning their attention to the Holy Book (even though parts of it were now behind a firewall as part of ScriptureSelect).
Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Doing the Math

Yesterday's Washington Post carried an article on a study which showed that working out could improve your life expectancy. Essentially, the study claims that if you walk for half an hour a day, your life span will go up by nearly 1.5 years. More strenuous exercise produces even more benefits (up to almost 4 years).

Of course, I immediately had to figure out whether it was worth it. Sure, you live a little longer, but if you have to spend time exercising every day, is there a net gain? That is, does the total amount of time spent exercising exceed the increase in life expectancy? A quick calculation showed that there is a substantial benefit; depending on the amount of exercise you do, the total time invested is only between 1 and 6 months. (Admit it, you were disappointed. You were hoping for an excuse not to exercise - ed.)

Anyway, I'm bringing this up because I thought at the time that the article could have been strengthened by including this information. It would have been intellectually honest to point out that the 'net' increase in life span was a little less than claimed (especially when they claimed precision by using figures like 1.7 years), it would have saved geeks like me from performing the necessary computation, and most important, it would have helped readers relate to this kind of simple cost-benefit analysis. I put the omission down to the general math-phobia in the media, imagining some assistant-deputy-sub-editor removing it on the grounds that the math would drive readers away from the article.

I was surprised and delighted, then, to find an editorial - no less - in today's Post with all the omitted math - and then some. It adjusts the time spent exercising depending on how it affects the rest of your day and makes allowances for sleep (something I forgot to do!). Best of all, it includes the compound interest idea! That is, it assumes that time now is worth more than later, and allowing for the possibility of accidents, etc., it discounts the future at a (compounded) rate of 3% per year.

Unfortunately, even after making all the allowances one can, there's still an overall benefit. I guess that means I no longer have a good reason not to exercise.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Curse you, Blogger!

I haven't posted here for ages, but I had a little free time today, and since the Pennsylvania news cheered me up a little, I thought I'd write about it. After I composed the post and clicked publish, the text disappeared! Frustrated, I tried again; at least the 'Recover post' feature seems to work. Blogger's consistent, I have to admit... the bug was 100% reproducible.

Eventually, I had to switch to Firefox to actually get the post published. Ok, I have a workaround now, but I don't want to have to use Firefox! Particularly when I'm blogging and have 15-20 pages open, Opera works much better. Switching around between browsers is just ugly. What makes it more frustrating is that Opera always used to work just fine.

While I'm ranting, why on earth has Blogger overloaded Shift-Ctrl-arrow? I'll grant that may not be the world's most popular shortcut, but it's the standard way to select a word in a text box. Perhaps this is also Opera-specific, but it loads the preview (which should be reached via Shift-Ctrl-p). It's disconcerting, to say the least, when your text box disappears in a heartbeat.

(Aren't you overreacting a little? You've posted 4 times in the last 3 months - ed. Look, it's the principle of the thing. Now that changes everything... -ed. Ok, fine; I'm done whining.)

To end on a positive note, Dan Drezner was offered a tenured position at Tufts. Regular readers of this blog will remember that he was denied tenure at the University of Chicago last month. (Two comments: First, what regular readers? Second, you didn't post about it! - ed. Well, I meant to; that should count for something, right? And I've been busy lately...)

Bravo Pennsylvania

Right on the heels of the Kansas Board of Education effectively approving the teaching of intelligent design in biology classes (and redefining science while they were about it), all the members of the current Pennsylvania school board who were up for re-election were thrown out of office by voters. The board had required that science students hear about so-called gaps in the theory of evolution, and that alternative theories such as intelligent design be presented. It is likely that the new board will reverse this policy.

Life has a way of pleasantly surprising you once in a while.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Senate passes anti-torture amendment

The Senate voted tonight on John McCain's amendment to define and restrict interrogation techniques used on enemy combatants and passed it 90-9.

Thank God for McCain, and the other Republican sponsors of the bill, including Lindsey Graham, Chuck Hagel, and (I think) Susan Collins and Gordon Smith. Also for Ian Fishback and other members of the armed forces who spoke out against the torture at great personal cost. If you haven't read Capt. Fishback's letter to Senator McCain, head over to the Washington Post and read it now. From the final paragraph:
[T]he most important question that this generation will answer [is]: Do we sacrifice our ideals in order to preserve security? Terrorism inspires fear and suppresses ideals like freedom and individual rights. Overcoming the fear posed by terrorist threats is a tremendous test of our courage. Will we confront danger and adversity in order to preserve our ideals, or will our courage and commitment to individual rights wither at the prospect of sacrifice? My response is simple. If we abandon our ideals in the face of adversity and aggression, then those ideals were never really in our possession. I would rather die fighting than give up even the smallest part of the idea that is "America."

President Bush has threatened to veto the military spending bill if the anti-torture amendement is attached to it, so it may not become law. In the face of opposition from the administration, it's incredibly gratifying to see such bi-partisan support for this amendment. It's restored the hope that we can move beyond the politics, that we can hold accountable those responsible for these crimes, and that Americans will never again torture prisoners.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

The Expander Blog

I once wished that I could get (academic) credit for blogging. It turns out I now can! I mentioned in an earlier post that I was taking a course on Expander Graphs. There is no homework, no final exam, or anything else of that nature. Grades are determined by participation in class, posts on the course blog, and improvements made to the Wikipedia stub on expanders.

Dilbert Goodness

This had me laughing out loud for five minutes. Ok, so it's not that funny, but the last panel was so completely unexpected that I cracked up.

This one is hilarious as well.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Katrina and Relief

The big news of the last week is obviously hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. I haven't written about it so far because pretty much everything I wanted to say is being said well somewhere else. Along with the rest of the world, I'm shocked at the pitiful response from the authorities and in awe at the generosity of ordinary people - people who have rescued survivors at risk to themselves, welcomed evacuees into their cities and homes, and raised over $400 million to assist those affected by the flood.

I've been reading all week about the criminal incompetence of FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency), but today was the last straw. Constructive Interference has collected some of the worst incidents from last week. Read them and weep!

(Link via Andrew Sullivan.)

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised...

... at writers of op-ed articles being less than 100% accurate. But something like this always makes me see red. Georgia has a new voting law which requires voters to show valid photo identification at the polls. Critics of the law contend that it discriminates against minorities, who are much less likely to have an acceptable form of ID. Defenders say that it is not discriminatory, but simply intended to reduce fraud. I have no strong opinion either way; I think requiring photo ID is desirable, but efforts should be made to ensure that every citizen can easily obtain a valid form of ID (which apparently is not the case in Georgia now, though the new law will go some way towards addressing this problem).

So what am I worked up about? These sentences in the linked article:
Of Georgia's voting-age population, 2,260,437 more people hold such identification than are registered to vote. Thus the number of voting-age citizens who lack photo identification cannot, as a matter of math, be large.
The phrase "as a matter of math" obviously implies that mathematics shows that the truth of their statement cannot be denied. Unfortunately, mathematics shows no such thing: If the only thing we know is that a set X is larger than another set Y, there is nothing obvious that can be said about the number of elements in Y that are not in X.

Granted that the writers are non-mathematicians, and may know nothing at all about set theory. We could be charitable and assume that they thought it was simply common sense, and would be supported by mathematics. But that doesn't support their assertion. Consider this statement, which is entirely equivalent (with the numbers reduced, but remaining roughly in proportion according to the U.S. Census Bureau):
"Of the 150 students in a high school, 50 more played basketball than baseball. Thus the number of students who play baseball but not basketball cannot be large."
Perhaps we have 30 who play only baseball, 80 who play only basketball, 30 who do both, and 10 who do neither. That sounds plausible, but one-fifth of the students play baseball but not basketball. Certainly any law which disqualifies a fifth of the voting population would be unacceptable. So common sense doesn't really help them.

Ok, so I'm overreacting; this isn't even a particularly egregious example of using 'mathematics' to mislead. But I wish there were a penalty for regular offenders... maybe insist that they take high-school math again?

Friday, August 26, 2005

On Buying Books

Yesterday was the first day of the annual Urbana Free Library book sale. Surplus books are practically given away - one dollar will buy you a hardcover in good condition, or 3 mass-market paperbacks. I bought close to 25 books, including a Graham Greene collection, Richard Adams's Watership Down and Isaac Asimov's Black Widowers mysteries.

There are good reasons I shouldn't have gone to the sale: I don't have sufficient shelf space to store the books I already own, and the more books I own, the less time I spend doing anything besides reading. What's worse, I haven't even read all the books I bought in the last year! Given the abundance of excellent libraries around here, there's no reason for me to actually buy books. And yet... the annual sale of the Champaign Public Library will be held early next month, and I'll be there when it opens.

I'm not normally an acquisitive person, but I make an exception for books. There's ... something about a full shelf, running your finger along the tops of the books and pulling one out, deciding that this is the universe in which you will wander for the next few hours. There's something intensely pleasurable just in opening a book, whether you're trying something completely new or renewing your acquaintance with an old favourite, in the smell of the book, the way the paper feels when you turn a page, the weight of the book in your hands.

When I was young, how much I enjoyed visiting a family often had less to do with the people in it than it did with the books they possessed. (My sister claims this is still partly true!). I suspect this is partly why I buy so many books, especially those I've read and enjoyed in the past, but doubt I'll ever read again. I buy them for kids like me who could never find all the books they wanted, for whom finding a new book to love is a joy like no other.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005


Here's another of my excuses for not blogging: I've been spending a lot of time working on BITS2MSPhD. Essentially, it's a program (run by BITS, Pilani alumni) to help BITSians applying to grad schools. Besides the BITS2MSPhD website which contains application-related information, there's a Yahoo! group where alumni in grad school answer questions and help in any other way they can.

Since the only way to sustain the group is to build a large community, join the Yahoo! group if you aren't already a member. Also, the website needs content! We've got quite a lot of information up there already, but we can do with much more. You could write about your university or department (Who's looking for new students? Who's got funding?), your research area, or anything else that you think might be useful. The site is set up as a wiki, but editing permissions are limited at the moment (we'll soon be shifting the website, probably to a BITSAA server), so please email me any new content, and I'll upload it.

Comments/Suggestions about the group and website are welcome from everyone, whether you're a BITSian or not.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

And So It Ends

A wonderful holiday, that is. I was away for nearly two months, during which I visited 4 countries, attended 3 weddings and the baptism of a cousin's baby, and generally had a fantastic time with friends and family. As I mentioned earlier, my access to the internet was limited for a while, so that's my lame excuse for not blogging. Of course, that doesn't apply to the last month or so, but who's keeping track?

The new semester begins tomorrow, and I'm looking forward to it. I'm done with all my breadth requirements (though that required counting Complexity Theory as a systems course. I have no clue why the department does that, but I'm not complaining!), so this semester's pure fun: Combinatorics, Randomized Algorithms, Computational Geometry, Expander Graphs, and an independent study with Sariel. Yes, I know I can't do them all, but I want to! Most of them will help with preparation for quals, so that's another reason to take them. Choices, choices...

I'm also TAing the undergrad section of CS 473 (Algorithms) this semester. It's the course I wanted, but since it's also one of the courses most hated by students, it'll be... interesting. At the least, it should be good for a funny story or two.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Books that Shaped Me

Re-reading this post, it's surprisingly personal. Instead of just answering a few questions, I've gone on about the books that changed the way I read while growing up, and by extension, changed me. I suspect that half my readers will be bored to tears, but I enjoyed writing it. Thanks, Indu.

Indu's tagged me for this book meme that's been everywhere around the blogosphere. This is the first meme I've seen a large number of BITSians involved in, and the first time I'm participating as well. Here goes...

Total number of books I own:
This is surprisingly hard to answer. There are about 300 books I have immediate access to at home. Then there are perhaps 150 in boxes some friends gave us recently when they went to Muscat, but we left India before I even looked carefully through this set. The books I did find were mostly very good - while scanning through one of the boxes, I discovered several Steinbecks I hadn't read. My grandmother's house contains another 80 or 90 books she left us when she died, and I have about 40 in America. All told, I guess it comes to somewhere between 550 and 600.

Last books I bought:
The Pickwick Papers
So Many Books, by Gabriel Zaid. This is a fabulous collection of essays on books and reading. Interestingly, Zaid owns over 10,000 books.

Last books I read:
Original Sin, P.D. James. This is the first of her books I've read, and I enjoyed it much more than I expected. I normally dislike murder mysteries where the reader doesn't have a fair chance of solving the crime, but Original Sin is worth reading as a novel, not just a mystery. Lady James creates a wonderful atmosphere, and she capture the Thames - in many different moods - superbly.
First Meetings in the Enderverse, Orson Scott Card. A terrible disappointment. This is the only one of the many Card books I've read that I positively dislike. (The Shadow series is not good, but it has some redeeming qualities.) First Meetings is a collection of short novellas, each of which describes the coming together of some of the key players in the Ender's Game Universe (I refuse to use the term Enderverse!). A couple of the stories just don't work, and the retelling of Ender's time at Battle School is, frankly, awful. A large part of the reason for my distaste is that it contradicts Ender's Game in so many ways that the result is terribly sloppy. Card used minor contradictions well in Ender's Shadow as an illustration of how perspective shapes narrative; Bean's perspectives are different from Ender's. I doubt that's what he was trying with this book; it looks much more like lazy writing and editing.
UPDATE: Apparently, the novella I disliked so much was the original version of Ender's game that Card wrote; he later expanded it into the widely-read novel. Much of my criticism is then unjustified, but I still think the novel is far better. In my defense, the book never makes this clear; I had the impression that Card cut down the novel so he could include it in this collection to add cohesiveness.

Currently Reading:
Nothing! (Stifles a sob, and uses the hem of the sack-cloth robe to wipe ash out of his eye.) I'm completely book-deprived in Brunei now, but I'll be back in India early next week. I can't wait to do some serious reading!

Books that have had an impact on me:
I have no idea where to begin answering this. I think I'll pick some of the more unusual ones; most of these have affected my reading, rather than being life-changing. So, in chronological order:

The first has to be the Bible, and it would be even if I were going in order of importance. It didn't just affect my reading, though it did that too. When I was little, my family would read out stories to me from various children's adaptations of the Bible, but at family prayers, they would often read aloud from the King James version. I've heard it described as the only translation of any work that's a stylistic improvement on the original, and I can believe it. Even when I couldn't understand all the words, I was mesmerised by their rhythm and flow. I think that was the first time I realized that writing could do more than tell a story; good writing could sound good. To this day, the King James (or Authorised) version is my favourite, and the one I find easiest to memorise - the words just sink into your consciousness.

From around the same time, I'll list Enid Blyton's Noddy series. I was 3, and my sister Nisha - 5 years older than I - would read to me when my parents weren't around. (My parents being doctors, that happened fairly often.) I loved the adventures of Noddy, Big Ears, Tessie Bear, and the rest of the gang, and I kept pestering Nisha to read to me even when it wasn't convenient - when she was busy, or when her friends were around. Partly out of exasperation, but mostly because she enjoyed it, she taught me how to read so I could entertain myself. The first words I remember reading are "See Spot Run", and Nisha kept me at it until I could read Mr. Plod and Little Noddy by myself. I have both Noddy and Nisha to thank for a lifetime of pleasure.

Fast forward a few years, till I reach the second grade. I spent that year in Coimbatore with my grandmother, when my parents were in England. I was 6 and she was 71, so we didn't really have too much reading material in common; most of her children's books had been given away years ago. While rooting around in a cupboard, I found an illustrated edition of Le Morte d'Arthur, and it captured my imagination. Of course, I didn't understand any of it, but when I dug deeper, I found a modern retelling. I've forgotten the title and author, but the stories - The Sword in The Stone, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Sir Balin and the Stroke Dolorous, The Quest for The Holy Grail - enthralled me. I spent longer with the Arthurian cycle than with my schoolbooks; that was the beginning of my fascination with legend and myth. It probably paved the way for all the Fantasy and Science Fiction I read, as well.

In the fourth grade, I was bored and cranky when recovering from a bad bout of fever. The head of my mother's department at the time, Dr. Valerie Major from Wales, lent her The Hobbit to keep me occupied. I loved it so much that she sent me her precious copy of The Lord of the Rings a couple of days later. That started a life-long love affair with Tolkien, and fantasy in general; I've read the Rings trilogy 21 times so far, and the rest of the middle-earth canon fairly often.

Readers Digest is a magazine, not a book, but I'm going to include it anyway. We've subscribed to the magazine for as long as I can remember, and the arrival of each new issue was one of the events of the month. The whole family would fight over who got to read it first; I usually won. (Being the youngest has advantages!) The quality of the magazine was a lot higher then, and I would read and re-read every issue several times. For many years, whenever I had nothing to do, I would while away a few hours with an old Readers Digest out of the collection. In those days, the contents were printed on the front cover, and I can still close my eyes and picture some of my favourite issues. Readers Digest made me a much more discriminating reader - I consciously thought about why I liked Penny Porter's regular articles about her ranch, and why I often disliked the 'Drama in Real Life' feature, why an article about shipping in the South China Sea might unexpectedly stay in my memory, and the story of a murder investigation would not. 'Test Your Own Word Power' probably improved my vocabulary, so that's another way Readers Digests had an impact.

Sophie's World is the only book on this list I don't love. That's putting it mildly; someone gave it to me in the eighth grade, and I hated it. It's a history of philosophy shoved badly into a novel, it just doesn't fit. Perhaps I was just too young, but the two parts seemed very badly interwoven; the philosophy was fairly good, but I detested the plot. Still, I enjoyed my first experience of philosophy, and came to read more. I also realized that a good plot wasn't as central to my enjoyment of a book as I had thought, which led to a significant increase in the amount of non-fiction I read.

To Kill a Mockingbird was a book my father often talked about, and we owned not one, but two copies. Strangely, then, I didn't read it until the ninth or tenth grade; as soon as I did, it became one of my favourites. Atticus Finch, Jem, and Scout are each among my most-loved fictional characters, and Atticus remains one of my role models. To Kill a Mockingbird is also on my list of books to read to children. (Yes, I maintain such a list. No, I've never written it down; when I find a book that would be appropriate, I make a mental note. No, I don't have children, nor will I in the near future, but I have lots of young cousins to read to.)

I discovered The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant in BITS; BSL had copies of the first trilogy and part of the second. Not since Middle-earth has a world so rich been created; Stephen Donaldson portrays the land vividly and in exquisite detail. The themes are incredibly powerful - unbelief and leprosy and powerlessness, sacrifice, self-righteousness, guilt and despair, sin and redemption. Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever is a compelling, complex hero, far removed from the one-dimensional characters found too often in fantasy.
I've long been an advocate of simplicity in writing, of never using a difficult word where an easy one would do. Donaldson, on the other hand, never hesitates to use an unusual word if it conveys his meaning best. I like to think I have a good vocabulary, but I used a dictionary as often in the two days it took me to read Lord Foul's Bane as I had in the preceding five years. Not once did I disagree with Donaldson's choice of words. His prose is both powerful and beautiful; this is high fantasy at its absolute best.

Important! I'd love to hear other people answer these questions; if you have a blog and haven't participated yet, consider yourself tagged. Leave a comment letting me know where to find your post. If you don't have a blog, answer the questions in a comment to this post. Feel free to write as much or as little as you choose.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

On My Religion and Politics

John Danforth, a former (Republican) senator and an Episcopal minister, has an excellent op-ed in today's Times.
It is important for those of us who are sometimes called moderates to make the case that we, too, have strongly held Christian convictions, that we speak from the depths of our beliefs, and that our approach to politics is at least as faithful as that of those who are more conservative.
People of faith have the right, and perhaps the obligation, to bring their values to bear in politics. Moderate Christians are less certain about when and how our beliefs can be translated into statutory form, not because of a lack of faith in God but because of a healthy acknowledgement of the limitations of human beings. Like conservative Christians, we attend church, read the Bible and say our prayers. But for us, the only absolute standard of behavior is the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves. Repeatedly in the Gospels, we find that the Love Commandment takes precedence when it conflicts with laws. We struggle to follow that commandment as we face the realities of everyday living, and we do not agree that our responsibility to live as Christians can be codified by legislators.
[M]oderate Christians see ourselves, literally, as moderators. Far from claiming to possess God's truth, we claim only to be imperfect seekers of the truth. We reject the notion that religion should present a series of wedge issues useful at election time for energizing a political base. We believe it is God's work to practice humility, to wear tolerance on our sleeves, to reach out to those with whom we disagree, and to overcome the meanness we see in today's politics.

For us, religion should be inclusive, and it should seek to bridge the differences that separate people. We do not exclude from worship those whose opinions differ from ours. Following a Lord who sat at the table with tax collectors and sinners, we welcome to the Lord's table all who would come. Following a Lord who cited love of God and love of neighbor as encompassing all the commandments, we reject a political agenda that displaces that love.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Random Grammar Rant

I nearly put this in the middle of Hiatt's column in the previous post, but it was so irrelevant to his point that it deserved a post of its own. What is it with Americans and the use of the word 'different'? Things differ from one another, not than one another. X is different from Y, not than Y. When this sounds awkward (though it is right, nevertheless), one can modify the sentence to simply say "X and Y are different".

I see this mistake everywhere in America - in general conversation, on the evening news (not that that means much), and - worst of all - in the print media. It grates on the ear or eye. Sure, American spelling and grammar is different from that of most of the rest of the world, and that's fine; I can deal with it. But I'm told this isn't correct grammar even in America! Sure, ordinary people make occasional mistakes, and that's cool too; I know I'm not perfect. But I've never seen a mistake so widespread; one expects better of professional writers, at least.

Ok, done ranting. Question: What's the difference between zeugma and syllepsis? Those of you who know why I'm asking probably read Madeira, M'dear. I'm a little confused - some of it seems more like syllepsis than zeugma to me, though Martin seems to disagree.

Welcome to the Second Season of Pseudo-Random Thoughts

It's been a month since my last post, which is the longest I've gone without blogging since I began. Thanks to all the commenters; if it weren't for you, I might have waited even longer before resuming. My only excuse is that the net connection here is terrible, and blogging's no fun without decent internet access.

After leaving Champaign-Urbana, I spent a couple of days in Santa Barbara with Lakshmi - or perhaps I should say without Lakshmi. ;-) You haven't lived until you've eaten one of her super-sandwiches. Lachu, if you're reading this, what's the name of that cheese? It doesn't taste the same without it. I can't find any of the garlic sourdough bread either. The UCSB campus is incredibly beautiful (photos here) and I had a wonderful time, largely due to my charming hostess.
I flew out from LA to Brunei, where my parents have been working for the last year, and have been here ever since, except for a few days holidaying in Malaysia. In another 10 days or so, I'll be flying to India for a cousin's wedding. So that's my summer; more information on each part of the vacation in subsequent posts.

The Geomblog has had some very good posts in the last month, one of which pointed me towards Michael Nielsen's introduction to exander graphs. I've been meaning to read about them for a long time, but kept putting it off until now. Ditch, if you haven't already, check them out.

The reading assignment of the day, though, is definitely Fred Hiatt's superb piece in the Washington Post. I've been waiting a long time to read this; I wish more people understood it. I'm excerpting parts of it, but you have to read the whole thing:
"Two of the country's largest newspapers, for example, have devoted more than 80 editorials, combined, since March of 2004 to Abu Ghraib and detainee issues, often repeating the same erroneous assertions and recycling the same stories," [Rumsfeld] said. "By comparison, precious little has been written by those editorial boards about the beheading of innocent civilians by terrorists, the thousands of bodies found in mass graves in Iraq, the allegations of rape of women and girls by U.N. workers in the Congo."

The Post has criticized the administration for failing to give detainees hearings as called for under the Geneva Conventions; for writing memos that toyed with the definition of torture and undermined long-standing Army restraint in questioning prisoners; for prosecuting low-ranking soldiers while giving the brass a pass; for allowing the CIA to hold prisoners beyond the reach of the International Red Cross or any other monitor; and for refusing to empanel a truly independent commission to examine accountability for prison abuse up the chain of command, up to and including the White House... [Rumsfeld] would point out that none of these offenses, even if accepted as true, is as heinous as filling a mass grave.

But just invoking such a comparison, even implicitly, amounts to a loss for the United States. If we have to defend ourselves by pointing out that we are morally superior to terrorists, it's a loss.

The United States and this administration in particular continually assert the moral right to behave differently than [sic] other nations. We will not be bound by the International Criminal Court. We insist that other nations give up their nuclear weapons while we keep our own. We wage war without U.N. Security Council approval. We publish annual report cards on everyone else's human rights records.

[A]ny nation asserting such a high calling will be judged by an equally high standard. Are we better than the beheaders, the mass killers, the U.N. peacekeepers raping young girls in the Congo? That's not close to the right question.

Do we behave as well as we claim, as we should, as we expect of others? That's the beginning of the right conversation -- and why it's fair to write more editorials about exceedingly mild Koran abuse at Guantanamo Bay than about the unspeakable mass graves of Hilla.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Another Disaster

I just finished the Complexity exam. There were only a handful of us left in the class by this point. A total of seven people took the exam. One attended less than half the semester's lectures. One attended every lecture, but all his notes could be reviewed in an hour. One wrote "Via a simple induction" in response to a proof question, one made the same error on two different problems - and again, for another pair of problems. One walked in late, one left an hour early, one needed coffee to keep awake during the exam.

I've rarely seen such a sorry bunch. But it was a fun course, and I'm sorry it's over.

Friday, May 06, 2005

For Cherry and Mridula

Funnily enough, I too had the remarkable insight that one could use an external text editor instead of Blogger's cursed text box. But Word? And vi?? I use Emacs, you insensitive clods. :-)

The only thing that could get me blogging again...

... another election. What is it with me and elections? I sit glued to my computer, watching as the results come in one constituency at a time. At least twenty times a night, I update my estimates of each party's final seat tally. Indian elections, that's natural. American elections, that's reasonable given that I'm currently in Illinois. But British elections? The actions of the Prime Minister are unlikely to have a huge impact on me in the near future. Still, I reload the results page every half hour, not trusting the auto-refresh that runs every two minutes. The BBC's fantastic online election coverage - much better than that of any American network during the presidential elections here - completely destroyed any resolutions I made about uninterrupted study.

Anyway, congratulations to Tony Blair, though the sharply reduced Labour majority might indicate that he won't serve a full term. The Conservatives did fairly well, gaining over 30 seats for a total of 197. The commentators who kept predicting 209 Tory seats must have been smoking something; it seemed fairly clear after the first couple of hours that they'd be lucky to reach 200. The big surprise of the night was the Lib Dem haul; they did much better than expected, winning a total of 62 seats.

Ordinarily I wouldn't mind wasting an election night, but this is a bad time. I have a Complexity exam tomorrow, and really should have been studying. (For that matter, I shouldn't be blogging now, but I can't help myself.) This whole week has been kind of crazy; more on that later, though. There've been times I've itched to post about something, but I just haven't had the time. After tomorrow's exam, I should have a short breathing spell, so expect a couple of posts then.

We now return to the PCP theorem.

Friday, April 22, 2005

What's up with Blogger?

The service had problems last week, but I thought they had all been fixed. Every time I've begun a post recently, Blogger has erased the text after a few paragraphs! That partly accounted for the long silence; the rest was sheer laziness. Thanks to Mridula for pestering me to write!

Does anyone know what the problem actually is, and how I can fix or avoid it?

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

An Introduction to Recursion

Moebius Stripper has a fabulous post describing her first experience with runaway recursion. It made my day last week when everything else seemed to be going wrong. If you haven't read it already, check it out (and while you're at it, check her blog more often).

Tall, Dark and Mysterious also has a discussion of grading. I'd like to write on the subject, but I really have to get to work on my Operating Systems assignment. I'll update this post soon.

UPDATE: After every CS 225 mid-term, I dread the mind-numbing chore of grading over 200 exams. It has its moments, though, perhaps because American students seem to be much less repressed than their Indian counterparts. Every few exams, you'll find someone who was inspired to deliberately add a relevant joke for the graders benefit. I'm always tempted to go a little easy on someone who's made me laugh. (Perhaps we should have a policy of extra credit for humour, so we can reward them!) I was thinking of posting some examples here for my readers to enjoy, but decided against it after talking to Jason (who I TA for). You'll just have to take my word for it that they're hilarious.

Unforunately, the smiles don't last for long because some answers make you contemplate tearing your hair out. You occasionally wonder if you've been a complete failure as a TA... if you couldn't even communicate the key ideas to the one-third of your class that actually showed up at discussion. Grading a previous exam, I was sinking deep into depression when 6 students in a row couldn't correctly write a simple 5-line recursive function (Forget correctness; they weren't even close!). I almost gave up when I noticed that the next exam belonged to a student I'll call X. X had been struggling with the material all semester, largely because her understanding of the pre-requisites was weak. She worked extremely hard to catch up, though; I spent hours with her every week, helping her review her notes and debug programs. Still, she had not done well on the previous mid-term, and in no mood for further reminders of my failures, I was not looking forward to grading her exam. Five minutes later, I was in shock: X had perfect scores on every question I graded.

Moments like that make it all worthwhile.

Opera 8 released

Download it and give it a try. I normally dislike even minor changes to an application's user experience, but Opera 8 is prettier and more responsive than earlier versions. Best of all, Gmail works (out of the box), as does almost every other site I've tested it with, including those that Opera 7.54 choked on.

If you haven't used Opera recently, you don't know what you're missing.

Cardinal Ratzinger is Pope Benedict XVI

I don't know enough about his theology and positions to comment on the implications of this choice (besides, you can find such commentary anywhere you look), so I'll merely wish him well.

Fitting, somehow, that this post marks my return to blogging after a two-week absence.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Pope John Paul II is dead

There were few men I admired and respected more. May God rest his soul.

The Washington Post describes his life and message.

Friday, April 01, 2005

DeLay on the Judiciary

I had decided not to post again on the Schiavo case and matters related to it, but I can't ignore the comments Tom DeLay made yesterday. Talking to reporters in Houston, he said, "We will look at an unaccountable, arrogant, out-of-control judiciary that thumbed their nose at Congress and the president ... The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior."

To begin with, the judiciary didn't 'thumb their nose' at Congress and the president: Congress brought the issue into federal courts, most of which ruled against Terri Schiavo's parents. Congress asked for judgments, and the courts gave it to them. Rep. DeLay seems to be crying foul simply because the rulings went against him. (To be fair, though, one court did rule that the law transferring appeals to the federal courts was unconstitutional. Tom DeLay may think of this as being disrespectful, but it's an important component of the system's 'checks and balances'.) And anyone who complains about how the unelected judiciary abused its power is ignoring the fact that Florida elects its judges. The Post is carrying an editorial strongly critical of Mr. Delay's remarks and arguing that the real problem in the Schiavo case was an arrogant, out-of-control, irresponsible legislature that thumbed their nose at Florida's judicial system.

Instead of worrying about a non-existent problem with the judiciary, perhaps Tom Delay should spend time worrying about his own ethics troubles. On Monday, the Wall Street Journal had a scathing editorial concluding, "[DeLay's] real fault lies in betraying the broader set of principles that brought him into office, and which, if he continues as before, sooner or later will sweep him out." For the sake of Congress and its credibility, unless his behaviour changes, I hope it's sooner rather than later.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Response to Comments: The Schiavo Case

Instead of responding below comments to my post Morality vs. Legality, I decided to create a new post to provide detailed answers.
Moebius Stripper says:
For those who believe that people can choose not to be kept alive, but that Terri Schiavo's feeding tubes should be re-inserted, the only remaining moral position I can see is that the patient alone can make this choice and it must be recorded in writing (in the form of a "living will", presumably).

Where do you get this? I personally think that people can choose not to be kept alive, but that her feeding tube should be reinserted. This isn't based on a belief that only a patient can make the decision to die (like you, I'd have trouble committing to something ahead of time) - it's based on a belief that no one should die by being starved to death over a two-week period. I think that the most disturbing aspect of this case is that it's basically taken for granted that shooting Terri Shiavo in the heart or giving her a lethal injection that would kill her in seconds is murder, but that starvation over a two-week period constitutes death with dignity.

This is a good point; my original post was flawed. I presume you'd agree with what I wrote if we were discussing a similar case which didn't involve a protracted death? For completeness, when writing about the Schiavo case, I should have discussed this argument as well. If it's any comfort, MS, it hasn't been completely neglected; several websites and talk-shows have dwelt on the starvation issue and why it's cruel. Still, I don't think it makes much difference, because it doesn't seem like a tenable position, either.

The claim I've seen advanced most often is that removing the feeding tubes will cause Terri Schiavo to suffer terribly for two weeks or so. The problem is that the word starvation is loaded: our visceral reaction is to imagine patients in severe anguish for a long time. This is inaccurate; it is generally accepted that death by complete starvation/dehydration in a hospital is not particularly painful. Here are three different articles quoting several neurologists who believe that Terri Schiavo will not experience severe thirst or hunger. I'm quoting rather extensively from the best of these, an L.A. Times article devoted to this issue:
[M]edical experts say going without food and water in the last days and weeks of life is as natural as death itself. The body is equipped with its own resources to adjust to death, they say.
"What my patients have told me over the last 25 years is that when they stop eating and drinking, there's nothing unpleasant about it -- in fact it can be quite blissful and euphoric," said Dr. Perry G. Fine, vice president of medical affairs at the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization in Arlington, Va. "It's a very smooth, graceful and elegant way to go."
"The cessation of eating and drinking is the dominant way that mammals die," said Dr. Ira Byock, director of palliative medicine at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hampshire. "It is a very gentle way that nature has provided for animals to leave this life."

In a 2003 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, 102 hospice nurses caring for terminally ill patients who refused food and drink described their patients' final days as peaceful, with less pain and suffering than those who had elected to die through physician-assisted suicide.

The average rating given by the nurses for the patients' quality of death was an 8 on a scale where 9 represented a "very good death" and 0 was a "very bad death."
[The] pain of hunger is only felt by those who subsist on small amounts of food and water -- victims of famine, for instance, or concentration-camp inmates. They become ravenous as their bodies crave more fuel, said Sullivan, a senior fellow at Duke's Center for the Study of Aging.

After 24 hours without any food, "the body goes into a different mode and you're not hungry anymore," he said. "Total starvation is not painful or uncomfortable at all.
The weakening brain releases a surge of feel-good hormones called endorphins.

Doctors also have a host of treatments to ameliorate acute problems, such as sprays and swabs to moisten dry mouths and creams to moisturize flaky skin. They can also administer morphine or other powerful painkillers.
There's also some anecdotal evidence in a comment thread at DailyKos, but you might want to take that with a grain of salt. Given that this kind of death is fairly painless, I think it's reasonable to prefer it to lethal injections or the like. (And if the nurses in that study were right, dehydration is actually the less painful alternative.)

RL's comment was longer:
I would want my family to make the best decision they could based on medical advice and the probability that I would recover.

The courts have established that it is probable that she would not have wanted to be kept alive; even if this is discounted, her husband wishes it, and if anyone has a moral right to decide, it is her spouse.

Your above two statements are very disturbing as they lead to things very very dangerous. We are living in times of Harold Shipman. I don't think civilization has reached a decisive stage where even terminal patients themselves can be given the power to decide if or not to pull the plug - leave alone a third person - however he/she be close to him/her. It is not everyday that Bush comes up with sosmething like this - but it definitely makes a lot of sense to "err on the side of life"

If that be the question - I shudder to think of the debataes that will follow. Can severely depressed men and women allowed to take their lives? What about penuriously bakrupt people? What about people in lunatic asylums? What about people imprisoned for life without a chance for parole? What about people who cannot afford to keep their loved ones on life support - though they may have a good probability of recovery in the long term?

And when you ask proponents for legislation to define that "life is sacred, and that we may never choose to let it end" - I shudder to think of the consequences. Do you think law can ever be complete ? Do we need to define everyday activities in black and white laws? We will enter a Godel's world where there will always crop cases which cannot and should not be for the courts to decide.

Life is something we havent cracked - and we cannot ever make a decision for anybody. I am a leftist liberal, but I cannot bear to bring myself to defend for everything branded as "liberal" - just for the heck of it. I believe in the sanctity of life - and I hold that above any judiciary.
He raises several issues, and I'll try to address them one by one.

To begin with, when I said, "Adherents to [the belief that we can never choose to let life end] would do well, in my opinion, to petition for legislation in their favour.", I was making a serious suggestion. This is a viewpoint I respect, and I thought (and still think) that a law would be the simplest and quickest way to ensure that it is complied with. We certainly cannot pass laws to cover every situation, but if you believe in the sanctity of life and that patients can never choose to die, legislation to that effect could easily be drafted. In the absence of legal guidelines, there will always be disputes.

As regards the liberal/conservative issue, I actually think I'm less leftist than you, RL. I'm generally liberal on social issues, but moderate to conservative on fiscal issues. Like you, I can't defend every 'liberal' cause: In fact, it's morally unacceptable to me to support any party on an issue if I disagree with their position.

And finally, while I agree that "erring on the side of life" is desirable (I don't think anyone objects to this principle), this is distinct from insisting that no-one be permitted to choose to die. My position is that people in a persistent vegetative state, with no hope of recovery, should be allowed to die if they so wish (or rather, if they had indicated this wish while still able to). In the absence of such a wish, the next-of-kin can decide. Yours, I presume, is that this decision can never be made. I think that would actually be more complicated: for one thing, the government would have to financially support such patients. On this, then, we appear to disagree.

Many of the problems you describe are not directly related to this issue. As an example, I'll pick one, the case of people who cannot afford to keep loved ones on life support even if it is likely they will recover. Consider the following problem: a member of your family will die if he/she does not undergo complex, expensive surgery. The surgery will probably succeed, but you cannot afford to pay for it. Wouldn't you agree that this is essentially the same as the previous problem? The solution has nothing to do with life-support: it would be reasonable (from a logical point of view) for the state to pay for both or neither. From an ethical perspective, I - again, like you - would rather the state paid for both. But these are issues best discussed in a separate post.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Another break

I suspect that blogging will be sporadic, at best, in the near future: My roommates have given me the first three volumes of Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire! I've wanted to read it for the longest time, so I'm eternally grateful. God bless them both!

And if anyone's reading this today, Happy Easter!

Saturday, March 26, 2005

More blogroll updates

I just noticed that Dilip D'Souza and Bharati have blogs:Death Ends Fun and Lest I Forget, respectively. I also noticed that I've somehow neglected adding QuestionableTaktix to the blogroll. Remiss of me, and I apologise to Sanky, Nair, and Rahul.

Morality vs. Legality

After my last post on the Schiavo case, I spent some time thinking about the moral and legal issues involved, and how liberals and conservatives differ in their basic approaches to the problem. Today, David Brooks has a column on the subject in the Times. His thesis is that social conservatives believe that " ... the life of a comatose person or a fetus has the same dignity and worth as the life of a fully functioning adult", that life is sacred, and hence, presumably, that removal of feeding tubes is akin to murder. Social liberals, on the other hand, believe that there is "... a continuum between a fully lived life and a life that, by the sort of incapacity Terri Schiavo has suffered, is mere existence" and that "... it is up to each individual or family to draw their own line to define when life passes to mere existence." Brooks claims that there are flaws with both of these: the conservative viewpoint is not pragmatic, and the liberal argument lacks moral force.

I disagree with the last statement, as do Matthew Yglesias and others. The liberal argument is rooted in moral principles, just not those which Brooks considers. The principle is that faced with such problems, individuals should be free to choose; in the event of dispute, the courts can decide. Belief in freedom and respect for the law are surely good principles to hold dear.

I want to think about the principles held by those demanding Terri Schiavo be kept alive. Either they believe that people do not possess the right to choose to be 'allowed to die' in such situations, or that the right does not apply in this case. If the latter, why not? Terri Schiavo is in a Persistent Vegetative State (PVS); electro-encephalogram results show no brain activity, even though most people in PVS have about 5% of normal activity. The courts have established that it is probable that she would not have wanted to be kept alive; even if this is discounted, her husband wishes it, and if anyone has a moral right to decide, it is her spouse. The fact that Michael Schiavo may benefit from her death should not be considered; it is routine for relatives who decide to withhold care from a patient to be named as beneficiaries in the patient's will.

For those who believe that people can choose not to be kept alive, but that Terri Schiavo's feeding tubes should be re-inserted, the only remaining moral position I can see is that the patient alone can make this choice and it must be recorded in writing (in the form of a "living will", presumably). If not for the written requirement, there would always be disagreement. This is not a very attractive position, because not everyone would write such a document, and we cannot foresee all circumstances. I, for one, would be uncomfortable to commit either way in advance of an incapacitating accident. I would want my family to make the best decision they could based on medical advice and the probability that I would recover.

With those who believe that life is sacred, and that we may never choose to let it end, I can only disagree; I (sincerely) respect that belief, but it is one I do not share. Adherents to it would do well, in my opinion, to petition for legislation in their favour. It seems to me, though, that only a minority of the demonstrators against removal of the feeding tubes share this viewpoint. What, then, is the moral position of the majority of those demanding that Terri Schiavo be kept alive? I'm genuinely curious; I'd love comments.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Day Tripping

Photos from my trip to Chicago last Saturday have been uploaded.
To head off criticism from family and friends:
a) The only reason there aren't more is that I forgot to charge the batteries.
b) I know I'm not in any of the snaps, but this time it's not my fault. Amul took photographs with his camera, and I'm in those. When he sends them to me, they'll be added to the collection.

More Bits and Pieces

First of all, thanks to madmrid for all the comments. They're a very large part of what makes blogging worthwhile. :-)

Second, I went to Chicago last weekend, and I promised to post photographs here. They'll be up tomorrow. There aren't many of them; idiot that I am, I forgot to charge the camera batteries.

Three, Moebius Stripper is conducting a multi-player pre-calculus bingo contest. Give it a shot! (Full details and history on her site.)

Thursday, March 24, 2005

A Right to Life?

The Terri Schiavo case has been dominating the local news for several days now: every American news website I've checked has it as the number-one story today.

I'm not going to comment on the case itself; pretty much every reasonable position (and almost every unreasonable one) has been presented and argued over in thousands of fora, from TV debates to blog comment threads. The issue has become incredibly politicized: it seems farcical that Republicans brought the issue to federal courts, or even got the government involved in the first place. And subpoenaing her so that she would have to be kept alive was downright stupid. I honestly don't see what all the hoop-la is about. There seem to be only three options:
1) Let the courts decide, and abide by this decision. If the decision is not the one you want, you'll just have to accept it.
2) Pass a law which would deprive Mr. Schiavo of the power to stop the feeding of his wife. This could be specific enough to apply only to the Schiavos (but that would be ridiculous, and probably unconstitutional), broad enough to apply to all spouses of patients in a Persistent Vegetative State (but then who else could make the decision? Who could be closer than a spouse?), or somewhere in between.
3) Amend the constitution in one of a hundred ways that could keep Terri Schiavo alive.

The third option is nonsense, and the second probably wouldn't work. That leaves only the first, but too many people seem to find it unpalatable. Even worse, they resort to legal irrelevancies like ad-hominem attacks on Michael Schiavo. (Some of the comments may be morally relevant, but that's a whole different ball game, which I'll come to in a later post.) In the absence of a "living will", the law says that the spouse decides, and Michael Schiavo wants the feeding discontinued. That should be all there is to it, and conservative talk-show host Neal Boortz explains why Christians should be willing to let Terri go to heaven after 15 years of suffering. Of course, if there is a reasonable doubt about the facts of the case, we should definitely "err on the side of life", as President Bush put it. Bill Frist's remote diagnosis doesn't cut it, though.

As an aside, Andrew Sullivan and Dahlia Lithwick point out another inconsistency in the Republican position: if marriage (even civil marriage) is a 'unique and special legal bond' between two people (one which must be protected from corruption by gay couples), then Michael Schiavo is the only person whose opinion matters in the slightest. (For someone who wasn't going to comment, you managed a fair bit - ed.)

Unfortunately, while the nation's attention is focussed on the circus that the Schiavo case has become, more serious issues are not being addressed. Cuts in funding for Medicaid and Medicare will result in many more lives lost over the next few years, but we don't have special Sunday sessions of Congress to consider that. E. J. Dionne Jr. has a good column on what being 'pro-life' really means. Sadly, I doubt we'll ever have thousands of people demonstrating in favour of Medicaid reform. Elizabeth Barrett Browning's lines in Aurora Leigh come irresistibly to mind:
A red-haired child
Sick in a fever, if you touch him once,
Though but so little as with a finger-tip,
Will set you weeping! but a million sick ...
You could as soon weep for the rule of three,
Or compound fractions.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005


The Harvard faculty passed a no-confidence vote against their president, Lawrence Summers. This isn't the end of the world for Mr. Summers, who is responsible to a governing board that supports to him. Still, it can't have been a pleasant experience.

The Times is carrying a good editorial on why reform should begin in primary school, not high school. This is obvious, and it's bothered me that more people weren't saying it all along.

When I visited the Washington Post website today, the headline "Poll: Iraqis Better Off But War Not Worth Fighting" screamed at me. The obvious assumption is that the poll was conducted among Iraqis; in much smaller type below, we read "Majority of Americans feel...". In all fairness to the Post journalists, the headline of the actual article is "Americans Believe Iraqis Better Off Today", but the way it's presented on the home page is misleading, to say the least.

Staying with the Post, Richard Cohen provides a good example of how media organizations striving for 'balance' in coverage can go too far. C-SPAN wants to balance an upcoming Holocaust lecture at Harvard with David Irving, a Holocaust denier who has been ruled "anti-Semitic and racist" by a court in a lawsuit he filed.

The best news of the last couple of days was the huge demonstration in Lebanon yesterday against Syrian intervention in their country. Most of the American media outlets I've looked at have only vague figures on the total crowd size, but organizers claim over a million participants and the Associated Press put the total at 'well over 800,000'. For some perspective, the total population of Lebanon is 3.5 million. That is, one in every four Lebanese was at the protest!

I have a Complexity exam tomorrow, so thoughts on these and other issues will have to wait until that's over.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Books of the Month: March 2005

In a email exchange yesterday, I wrote "I grew up in a small town in India where it was often very difficult to find books. It sometimes took years for me to get my hands on books I wanted, and I hated the waiting." One of my favourite things about America is that every book I really want is available from one of:
a) the Urbana Free Library
b) Campus Libraries (UIUC apparently has the third-largest academic library system in North America, after Harvard and Yale.)
c) the Illini Union Bookstore
d) Amazon or eBay.

In the last six months, I've read books ranging from Clausewitz' On War to E. B. White's The Trumpet of the Swan, books by Mark Twain and Stephen Donaldson, books of science fiction and on the science of Economics. I've found so many treasures that I've decided to pick (at least) two of my favourites every month and describe them here.

March's books are Manalive (Warning: The Amazon review contains spoilers!) by G. K. Chesterton and The Good Companions, by J. B. Priestley. They're both superb, absolutely; the only other thing I'll say about them is that you should get your hands on them at once, at once. If that last sentence seems awkward, you really need to read The Good Companions at once :-)

I discovered the books only because they were highly recommended by Deepak and Lakshmi, respectively. Readers are invited to list in the comments any outstanding books they've read in the recent past; I (and possibly some of the other commenters) would love to try them.

Monday, March 07, 2005

More on Software Patents

There were several things I wanted to blog about, including several good editorials in yesterday's Post, and one from today which begins:
Remember the gag about "the three biggest lies"? They were: "The check is in the mail," "Of course I'll respect you in the morning" and -- the punch line -- "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help you."

Maybe it's time to add a fourth: "We're from the private sector, so naturally we'll do it better."
William Raspberry explains why Private Doesn't Mean Better.

Worthy as all these subjects undoubtedly are, today's post is on everyone's favourite topic: Software Patents. The European Council approved a directive on Software Patents today in spite of opposition from Poland, Denmark and Portugal, and a demand by the European Parliament to re-write the directive. The directive now goes to the parliament again, but a larger majority is needed to reject or amend the directive. The Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure (FFII) - the best resource I've found for information on the status of Software Patents in Europe - has some good coverage, along with a 'Horror Gallery' of European Software Patents (including a patent by Sun Microsystems on converting Windows 95 filenames to the Windows NT format, allegedly taken for the sake of annoying Microsoft).

I really did intend to write a serious post about why patenting Software is Evil (TM), but this is just so funny I had to change direction slightly. Pat-rights, a Hong Kong-based company, is threatening to sue Apple for infringing on their patent on 'Internet User Identity Verification' - somewhat ridiculously titled 'Protection of software again [sic] against unauthorized use' - United States Patent number 6,665,797.

I spent half an hour trying to figure out what, exactly, the patent covers, but am not much nearer to any conclusions than I was when I began. It appears to apply to any software-based system for authenticating users attempting to access any server to obtain 'service(s) or software product(s) or alike' (which isn't even good grammar), particularly when secure operations must be performed when payment is involved. The date on the patent is December 16, 2003; the decades of prior art seem to be irrelevant. (Granted, e-commerce hasn't been around for decades, but software-based user authentication certainly has.) The patent application says:
Conventionally, software protection methods for protecting commercial software products such as programs, multimedia software, distributed through a communication network, such as a telephone system, require a user computer to have a piece of hardware comprising decryption keys and system be installed therein, for to be authenticated by a software program running on the computer.
Are we to believe that every system prior to 2003 distributed hardware to permit access to its servers? The application also states that the invention provides a method to to discourage rightful users of the software from copying it 'to [sic] someone else' by means of a 'psychological barrier.'

Pat-rights' business model (openly stated) is to file patents, and collect 'staggering' license fees from infringers. So far, they have a grand total of 3 patents in their portfolio - one described above, one on Mobile commerce, and the third covering 'Vehicle Smart Window Safety Control.' This last is absolutely hilarious: a smart window (for the ignorant, like me) is "a window whose transmissivity / transparency can be changed electronically, i.e., by depression of a button, for stopping excessive incoming sunlight or for providing privacy, etc." The patent does not cover technology for building smart windows because Pat-rights does not have any such technology. This didn't stop them; they came to the stunning conclusion that any smart window must have a method for the user to control the transparency. Further, if the window is insufficiently transparent, this would make driving the vehicle dangerous. Therfore, the geniuses at Pat-right have patented "preventing an occupant of a moving vehicle from inadvertently touching the manual switch and causing the transmissivity / transparency of a smart window [sic] to a level dangerous for forward driving." In the 'Commercial value' section of the patent description, they proudly proclaim "While betting on a particular smart window technology may be risky, our vehicle patent provides a more secure investment opportunity, because it will always be indispensable, as long as there will be a success [sic] smart window technology in the future!"

While I'm laughing helplessly now, I'm depressed that people would consider this a viable business model. What's worse, I'm horrified that many of these patents are actually being granted by governments world-wide. The entire patent system is in urgent need of an overhaul, but no-one seems interested.

More information on the Pat-rights claim of Apple's infringement (and another affecting the iPod) are available here and here.
Hat tip: Slashdot.