Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Review du Jour -- Fahrenheit 9/11 

So, I watched Fahrenheit 9/11 at long last. I dont know if the movie can be classified as a documentary in the sense that some people define documetaries as documenting fact. It's pure propaganda. On the other hand, is there a rule that states that a documentary cannot be propaganda? Are Leni Reifenstahl's movies documentaries or propaganda or both? For my own part, I dont see why a documentary cannot be biased. After all, even a purely journalistic piece is injected with the bias of the reporter, however subtle it may be. Every day, the editor of a newspaper exercises his/her discretion in deciding what news stories to carry. And that process is certain to have an element of bias involved. And to Mike Moore's credit, he calls it an op-ed piece, not a news story.

I digress. Mike Moore does go over the top with this movie and takes excessive liberties with known facts. In the process, some very useful information that Joe Public really ought to know about loses its credibility. For example, he tries very hard to suggest that the Bush family is in the employ of the house of Saud without actually saying so, by means of some clever editing (which is very similar to the way Team Bush sold the Iraq war to the public). In the process, a lot of valuable information that I believe the American public deserves to know (and I have posted about on this blog several times) gets drowned out in the angry noise and rhetoric.

Then again, as a muck-raking movie and as an exercise in outraged self-expression, its a brilliant movie. Trouble is that the biases will probably make it difficult for anyone but the choir to appreciate it, which is a real pity. For what its worth, if this movie makes a dent even among 1% of the swing voters, Moore would be a happy (not to mention rich) man.

PS: I watched it in a Manhattan theater and it was like watching a Bollywood movie in Bombay. Catcalls, loud laughter and tremendous applause right through the movie.

Wikipedia in Indian languages 

Wikipedia, the excellent open-content encyclopedia has started up editions in several Indian languages. You can test-drive Wikipedia in Tamil, Hindi, Urdu, Gujarati and Malayalam. You may need to download fonts to have these editions work.

Monday, June 28, 2004

The 50 best websites 

(Via Rajesh) Time has a list of what it considers the 50 best websites. Among my regulars, it includes BBC News, Google News, Fed Stats, Craigs List (where I just found my Sting tickets for the weekend), and Ref Desk. Go forth and surf!

Sunday, June 27, 2004

Au revoir 

Guys, I am back to posting on my blog. It was great fun and Reuben, thanks a bunch for letting me post on ZS. Anand, thanks a bunch for buttressing my arguments and Sanjay, thanks for arguing. I'll be back when Reuben takes off next. In the meantime, please check into my blog.

Columbia Journalism Review strings up Lou Dobbs 

Prashant Kothari points to a brilliant CJR piece that exposes Lou Dobbs for what he is -- a hypocrite. For those who came in late, Lou Dobbs has been using his show on CNN to trash outsourcing for well over a year now. Prashant culls the relevant paragraphs from the CJR story.

The distinguished-looking host of CNN's "Lou Dobbs Tonight" has ... turned his nightly news show into a one-man campaign -- the head of the Business Roundtable called it a "jihad" -- against the practice.

He makes little attempt to hide his disdain for the companies that are, as he puts it, "exporting America." And Dobbs is watched, so it's fair to say his views sway voters.

Dobbs even asks viewers to send him the names of companies that outsource. He then posts the list (scroll down) on his CNN website, under the heading, "These are U.S. companies either sending American jobs overseas, or choosing to employ cheap overseas labor, instead of American workers."

But there comes a time when Dobbs takes off his anti-outsourcing hat. That's when he switches from financial journalist to investment advisor-for-hire, peddling a monthly newsletter containing his investment recommendations. Pony up $398 and you receive Dobbs' investment tips for two years. You'll recognize some of the companies that Dobbs recommends. That's because they're on his list of firms that are "exporting America" by shutting down U.S. operations and opening overseas facilities.

Unlike most investment advisors, Dobbs goes beyond talking up the earning potential of these companies. He typically goes out of his way to praise them as good corporate citizens. The newsletter keeps a running tally of the companies profiled, under the heading, "The following companies have been featured in the Lou Dobbs Money Letter as those 'doing good business with good people.'" The appeal is alluring: You're not just buying a smart investment choice, you're buying a piece of good citizenship.

But Dobbs' newsletter doesn't just "acknowledge" successful corporation. He goes further, painting his featured companies as good corporate citizens -- and encourages readers to invest in them partly on that basis -- without mentioning that they conduct business practices that, by his own admission, he “detests.”

Winston Churchill, apostle of freedom and democracy!! 

Last month, I had made a post about the unthinking deification of Winston Churchill in the West, especially in the United States. Sure, he was a creature of his times, but I am not sure why historians (for the most part) gloss over some of the outrageous things Churchill has said. The outrageous things would give future generations a more nuanced view of the man rather than the mindless glorification in vogue today.

Anyway, Prashant Kothari offers us some more Churchillian gems.

On Eugenics:

'The unnatural and increasingly rapid growth of the feeble-minded and insane classes, coupled as it is with a steady restriction among the thrifty, energetic and superior stocks, constitutes a national and race danger which it is impossible to exaggerate ... I feel that the source from which the stream of madness is fed should be cut off and sealed up before another year has passed.'

About the use of gas against Arabs in Iraq:

'I do not understand the squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poison gas against uncivilised tribes"

On Hitler (in 1937):

'One may dislike Hitler's system and yet admire his patriotic achievement. If our country were defeated, I hope we should find a champion as indomitable to restore our courage and lead us back to our place among the nations.'

To these, let me add a few more Churchillian quotes that I found recently.

On "lower races":

'I do not admit... that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America, or the black people of Australia... by the fact that a stronger race, a higher grade race... has come in and taken its place.'

On the Irish:

'The choice was clearly open: crush them with vain and unstinted force, or try to give them what they want. These were the only alternatives and most people were unprepared for either. Here indeed was the Irish spectre - horrid and inexorcisable.'

This, then, is the Briton of the Century. Everyone is free to make up their minds on the greatness of individuals, but I do believe these decisions should be made after at least a feeble attempt to ascertain the whole truth. That's all I ask of those writers of history -- the winners.

Saturday, June 26, 2004

Virgin on-demand 

I flew Virgin Atlantic on the London-New York sector and they have introduced an excellent new video-on-demand system. I saw "new" because the system wasn't in use the last time I flew Virgin, 6 months back. The VOD system offered me a choice of 52 movies on my personal screen, including a few Bollywood films (which are normally only offered on the India routes, not on the trans-atlantic ones). For my own part, I watched Love Actually (whatta stupid movie), Gus Van Sant's Palme D'Or winning Elephant (a real let down) and Lost in Translation (reviewed on this blog earlier and a real delight, no matter how many times you watch it).

I'd say 3 movies during a 7 hours flight is not bad at all, especially when you're struggling with asthma. Now, if only Virgin could provide a little more leg room to go with the 52 movies. Sir. Richard???

PS: The other good thing about Virgin is that they do not censor in-flight movies. Even a movie like In the Cut can be watched in all its graphic glory. I have never seen the point of censoring in-flight movies since the advent of personal screens. Hopefully, more airlines will take the cue from Virgin.

PPS: The other innovative new service Virgin offers is the ability to SMS other passengers in their seats. What better way to kill time on long flights than to flirt with fellow passengers :)

Friday, June 25, 2004

Blog Anniversary 

Exactly a year ago, I started writing Zoo Station, not expecting it to last beyond a few initial weeks of enthusiasm. Instead here we are -- 365 days and 630-odd posts later, Zoo Station is alive, kicking and well. For this, I have to thank everyone whose feedback, pointers/links and comments gave me the incentive to keep at it, Rajesh for providing me the push to start blogging, and various guest bloggers (especially Jaideep) who have added to the diversity of opinion on here. As I had mentioned in an earlier post, I am probably going to set up Zoo Station with many more guest bloggers in the next couple of months.

In the meanwhile, I am now optimistic enough to believe this blog will actually last another year. I hope you enjoy reading ZS at least as much as I enjoy blogging it.

Thursday, June 24, 2004

The Hegemon 

In this condensed version of a larger article soon to appear in Foreign Policy, Niall Ferguson makes a strong case for US hegemony. He warns critics of the US that seeking an alternative to an un-polar world need not necessarily result in a multi-polar world, but could take us all back to the Dark Ages.

What if the world is heading for a period when there is no hegemon? What if, instead of a balance of power, there is an absence of power? Such a situation is not unknown in history. Though the chroniclers of the past have long been preoccupied with the achievements of great powers--whether civilizations, empires or nation states--they have not wholly overlooked eras when power has receded. Unfortunately, the world's experience with power vacuums is hardly encouraging. Anyone who dislikes U.S. hegemony should bear in mind that, instead of a multipolar world of competing great powers, a world with no hegemon at all may be the real alternative to it. This could turn out to mean a new Dark Age of waning empires and religious fanaticism; of endemic rapine in the world's no-go zones; of economic stagnation and a retreat by civilization into a few fortified enclaves.
Waning empires. Religious revivals. Incipient anarchy. A coming retreat into fortified cities. These are the Dark Age experiences that a world without a hyperpower might find itself reliving. The trouble is, of course, that this Dark Age would be an altogether more dangerous one than the one of the ninth century. For the world is roughly 25 times more populous, so that friction between the world's "tribes" is bound to be greater. Technology has transformed production; now societies depend not merely on freshwater and the harvest but also on supplies of mineral oil that are known to be finite. Technology has changed destruction, too: Now it is possible not just to sack a city, but to obliterate it.

Tala Matrix 

Ravi Shankar and Zakir Hussain had to make several adjustments to their lifestyles and ideologies while playing for drugged out crowds across the US. Things appear to have changed vastly since then. Second and third generation Indians in the US seem to have no qualms about taking classical rhythms from India, layering them with everything from hip hop to drum solos and putting the resultant sounds out to swish 20-somethings at hip lounges in NYC. In a recent Critic's Notebook in the NY Times, Jon Pareles writes of this growing trend.

For South Asian and Asian-American musicians, producers and disc jockeys who have been building their own scene in New York, the latest East-West hybrids are not just occasion for musical connections and experiments. They are also affirmations of an identity that grows ever more complex and cosmopolitan. "If you come from India," Ms. Khambata said, "you can't help integrating the social aspect. There are so many things that just get intertwined in the music."
A few weeks ago, the sound of a man singing a ghazal, a love poem from an ancient Persian tradition that made its way to India, hovered above the room at Kush, a lounge on the Lower East Side done up in quasi-Moroccan style. So did the haze of a drug that's now illegal in most other New York City clubs: tobacco, wafting from hookahs on the bar.
There was a buzz of conversation from a crowd of people in their 20's, about half of whom looked Indian or Pakistani. Soon, an electronic bass line slipped in below the ghazal, and then the muffled thump of a downtempo drumbeat. It was suave international lounge music; it was also unmistakably Indian. Karsh Kale was at the turntables, wearing one earphone to cue the next song and keeping an eye on the crowd; he smiled as a few people started to sway. It was a night of Kollective, a weekly gathering for fans of Asian Massive, a New York blend of South Asian and Western music.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Moore's last sigh 

I don't really like Michael Moore. Not as a filmmaker or as a libertarian. I found Bowling for Columbine very sophomoric and self-aggrandizing. I haven't yet had the chance to watch Fahrenheit, but from what I've heard and read, it follows in the same tiresome, juvenile path as its predecessor. I came across two interesting takes on the movie; in the New York Times and on Slate. I've excerpted passages from the NYT first and later, from Slate.

While Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" will be properly debated on the basis of its factual claims and cinematic techniques, it should first of all be appreciated as a high-spirited and unruly exercise in democratic self-expression. Mixing sober outrage with mischievous humor and blithely trampling the boundary between documentary and demagoguery, Mr. Moore takes wholesale aim at the Bush administration, whose tenure has been distinguished, in his view, by unparalleled and unmitigated arrogance, mendacity and incompetence.
That Mr. Moore does not like Mr. Bush will hardly come as news. "Fahrenheit 9/11," which opens in Manhattan today and in the rest of the country on Friday, is many things: a partisan rallying cry, an angry polemic, a muckraking inquisition into the use and abuse of power. But one thing it is not is a fair and nuanced picture of the president and his policies. What did you expect? Mr. Moore is often impolite, rarely subtle and occasionally unwise. He can be obnoxious, tendentious and maddeningly self-contradictory. He can drive even his most ardent admirers crazy. He is a credit to the republic.

To describe this film as dishonest and demagogic would almost be to promote those terms to the level of respectability. To describe this film as a piece of crap would be to run the risk of a discourse that would never again rise above the excremental. To describe it as an exercise in facile crowd-pleasing would be too obvious. Fahrenheit 9/11 is a sinister exercise in moral frivolity, crudely disguised as an exercise in seriousness. It is also a spectacle of abject political cowardice masking itself as a demonstration of "dissenting" bravery.
A film that bases itself on a big lie and a big misrepresentation can only sustain itself by a dizzying succession of smaller falsehoods, beefed up by wilder and (if possible) yet more-contradictory claims. President Bush is accused of taking too many lazy vacations. (What is that about, by the way? Isn't he supposed to be an unceasing planner for future aggressive wars?) But the shot of him "relaxing at Camp David" shows him side by side with Tony Blair. I say "shows," even though this photograph is on-screen so briefly that if you sneeze or blink, you won't recognize the other figure. A meeting with the prime minister of the United Kingdom, or at least with this prime minister, is not a goof-off.

Indian summer 

James F Hoge Jr, in his speech at Johns Hopkins University, paints a pretty picture of India's economic future in the region. Though he warns the west of potential pitfalls and mistakes from history repeated, the Foreign Affairs editor is pretty clear about the role India (and China) will play in Asia. There are a couple of things which need highlighting. As Reuben has pointed out in numerous posts earlier, there can't be enough said about looking into rural India as an untapped market base. This appears to be the direction in which Dr Manmohan Singh's government is going, but unless reform strategies are adhered to and the culture of roll-backs is avoided, we might find ourselves missing out on immense opportunities. Also, the west's march into the continent, with its numerous military bases in central Asia and increased military co-operation with Pakistan, India and Taiwan, could trigger off a reaction from emerging Islamic fundamentalists in the region. For India, this is bad news - considering the existing population of such extremists in the Valley, across the border in Pakistan and the growing support for jehadi's in Bangladesh.

Today, China is the most obvious power on the rise. But it is not alone: India and other Asian states now boast growth rates that could outstrip those of major Western countries for decades to come. China's economy is growing at more than nine percent annually, India's at eight percent, and the Southeast Asian "tigers" have recovered from the 1997 financial crisis and resumed their march forward. China's economy is expected to be double the size of Germany's by 2010 and to overtake Japan's, currently the world's second largest, by 2020. If India sustains a six percent growth rate for 50 years, as some financial analysts think possible, it will equal or overtake China in that time.
Despite the halting progress of its economic reforms, India has embarked on a sharp upward trajectory, propelled by its thriving software and business-service industries, which support corporations in the United States and other advanced economies. Regulation remains inefficient, but a quarter-century of partial reforms has allowed a dynamic private sector to emerge. Economic success is also starting to change basic attitudes: after 50 years, many Indians are finally discarding their colonial-era sense of victimization.

Militarily, the United States is hedging its bets with the most extensive realignment of U.S. power in half a century. Part of this realignment is the opening of a second front in Asia. No longer is the United States poised with several large, toehold bases on the Pacific rim of the Asian continent; today, it has made significant moves into the heart of Asia itself, building a network of smaller, jumping-off bases in Central Asia. The ostensible rationale for these bases is the war on terrorism. But Chinese analysts suspect that the unannounced intention behind these new U.S. positions, particularly when coupled with Washington's newly intensified military cooperation with India, is the soft containment of China.

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

More doings from Seymour 

I have long been looking at the Kurds as creating a potential trouble zone in Iraq. Apart from the fact that they have had long-term relations with Israel, the minority has a history in the region that dates to the Arab conquests of Mesopotamia in 637 BC. They have long sought independence and the war in Iraq is perhaps the ideal situation for them to renew their claim. Seymour Hersh has been irrepressible over the past year, filing reports for the New Yorker and digging up more dirt than anyone else I've read. In his latest dispatch, he discusses the Kurdish angle to the war and its possible repercussions in the region.

There are fears that the Kurds will move to seize the city of Kirkuk, together with the substantial oil reserves in the surrounding region. Kirkuk is dominated by Arab Iraqis, many of whom were relocated there, beginning in the nineteen-seventies, as part of Saddam Hussein's campaign to "Arabize" the region, but the Kurds consider Kirkuk and its oil part of their historic homeland. "If Kirkuk is threatened by the Kurds, the Sunni insurgents will move in there, along with the Turkomen, and there will be a bloodbath," an American military expert who is studying Iraq told me. "And, even if the Kurds do take Kirkuk, they can't transport the oil out of the country, since all of the pipelines run through the Sunni-Arab heartland."
A top German national-security official said in an interview that "an independent Kurdistan with sufficient oil would have enormous consequences for Syria, Iran, and Turkey" and would lead to continuing instability in the Middle East - no matter what the outcome in Iraq is. There is also a widespread belief, another senior German official said, that some elements inside the Bush Administration - he referred specifically to the faction headed by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz - would tolerate an independent Kurdistan. This, the German argued, would be a mistake. "It would be a new Israel - a pariah state in the middle of hostile nations."

Comma hither 

I am pretty sure this post will attract no comments - English grammar is hardly the subject of everyone's favorite party game - but Lynne Truss' Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation has been elevated to cult status by the New York Times and my friendly neighborhood grammarian, so it was great fun to see Louis Menand take the book apart in his review in the New Yorker.

Parentheses are used, wrongly, to add independent clauses to the ends of sentences: "I bought a copy of Eric Partridge's Usage and Abusage and covered it in sticky-backed plastic so that it would last a lifetime (it has)." Citation form varies: one passage from the Bible is identified as "Luke, xxiii, 43" and another, a page later, as "Isaiah xl, 3." The word "abuzz" is printed with a hyphen, which it does not have. We are informed that when a sentence ends with a quotation American usage always places the terminal punctuation inside the quotation marks, which is not so. (An American would not write "Who said 'I cannot tell a lie?'") A line from "My Fair Lady" is misquoted ("The Arabs learn Arabian with the speed of summer lightning"). And it is stated that The New Yorker, "that famously punctilious periodical," renders "the nineteen-eighties" as the "1980's", which it does not. The New Yorker renders "the nineteen-eighties" as "the nineteen-eighties."

Monday, June 21, 2004

The Central Scrutiniser was watching me!!! 

Dubai, for some bizarre reason, blocks Orkut. I mean of all the things they could block, why pick on Orkut?? Especially since they dont have a problem with IM etc. Maybe I gave Dubai too much credit? It's seeming progressiveness may only be relative to what surrounds it. That's all I have to say, for now. Back to Jaideep.

Sunday, June 20, 2004

Happy (your message here) Bloomsday  

Like Metallica and Rahul Dravid, Bloomsday has become more about the hype than the essence. This post comes a little late, but I think it's still valid. For someone who spent a month wading through Ulysses and eventually collapsing from the effort and like Roddy Doyle, wondering what Joyce was on when he wrote the book, I think the hype surrounding Bloomsday is a cruel comeback - a sort of 'the market thumbs its nose at postmodernism.' What follows is an excerpt from The Economist on Bloomsday.

This mass devotion to James Joyce is a fine example of a spreading trend in tourism in which a dead author becomes a lure for living admirers and the merely curious. Laura Weldon, who runs ReJoyce Dublin 2004, the official organiser of a five-month-long celebration of Bloom's busy day, says the idea is "to give the masterpiece back to the people in intelligent, but accessible ways." A late-night light show on the banks of the River Liffey will project images of Joyce; and Joseph Strick's film of Ulysses will have an open-air screening. There will be a concert, exhibitions, readings and guided walks. It is "a unique, high-quality cultural tourism experience," says John O'Donoghue, Ireland's minister of tourism. An international symposium will consider more recondite areas of Joyce's work - The Menippean Strain in Ulysses, for instance.
A large majority of the breakfast celebrants will not have read the book, and a free breakfast might not be enough to get them started. Plenty of readers are familiar with the first line ("Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather..."), but few get past the first 50 pages.

Saturday, June 19, 2004

The Old Man and the sea change 

Reuben will flog me for resurrecting a ghost he thought was exorcised decades ago, but I think recent trends among the isolationist right in the US call for bringing Comrade Trotsky back from the grave. A review of Issac Deutscher's three-volume colossus - The Prophet - by Christopher Hitchens and an article Trotsky wrote in 1909 lend a measure of authenticity to this train of thought.
Among other things, Hitchens says the right has been using the Stalinist ploy of invoking Trotskyism to defame rootless cosmopolitans - in the modern context, the neocons. This is not a passing trend. Listen to Patrick Buchanan on any given day and you'll see what Hitchens means.

Even today a faint, saintly penumbra still emanates from the Old Man. Where once the Stalinist press and propaganda machine employed the curse of Trotskyism to criminalize and defame the "rotten elements" and "rootless cosmopolitans," now the tribunes of the isolationist right level the same charge at neoconservatives and the supporters of regime change. In Patrick Buchanan's vituperations, and in a plethora of related attacks on a hidden American "cabal," it is openly said that the cunning members of a certain ethnic minority are up to their old tricks of "permanent revolution," and even that the arcane figure of Leo Strauss is the partial reincarnation of Trotsky. Intended as a mortal insult, and wildly, not to say laughably, mistaken in point of any theoretical resemblance, this charge might yet have a faint tincture of interest to it. As Alan Wald helped demonstrate in his brilliant if orthodox 1987 study The New York Intellectuals: The Rise and Decline of the Anti-Stalinist Left From the 1930s to the 1980s, there is an occluded relationship between Trotsky and the founding editors of Commentary, Dissent, The Public Interest, and Partisan Review. Harold Isaac's The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution - once the best-known book in America on a seismic event - was first published in 1938 with an introduction by Trotsky himself. (It was later, in less congenial times, republished without that contribution.) If any young scholar were now possessed of equivalent daring, a biography of the protean, scintillating revolutionary and Cold War sage Max Schachtman could be an intellectual Rosetta stone for the story of mental and moral combat in the modern American mind. Sometimes the kinship is merely an anecdotal or autobiographical one: Saul Bellow was once an admirer of Trotsky's and became close to Allan Bloom; the philosopher Martin Diamond did move from Trotskyism to Straussianism. In other instances the relationship is more paradoxical: in 1989 the Communist world was convulsed by a revolution from below, whereas "revolution from above" (Trotsky's inadequately satirical comment on Stalinism) might be a closer description of the design, at least, of the American intervention in Iraq.

Trotsky's 1909 article prompted me to go further into the Iraq mess. Though The Old Man speaks to the proletariat in his article, if you look beyond the instrument of striking work as a weapon of terror, parallels between the Muslim fundamentalist ideology and Trotsky's own opinions begin to emerge.

Our class enemies are in the habit of complaining about our terrorism. What they mean by this is rather unclear. They would like to label all the activities of the proletariat directed against the class enemy's interests as terrorism. The strike, in their eyes, is the principal method of terrorism. The threat of a strike, the organisation of strike pickets, an economic boycott of a slave-driving boss, a moral boycott of a traitor from our own ranks - all this and much more they call terrorism. If terrorism is understood in this way as any action inspiring fear in, or doing harm to, the enemy, then of course the entire class struggle is nothing but terrorism. And the only question remaining is whether the bourgeois politicians have the right to pour out their flood of moral indignation about proletariatan terrorism when their entire state apparatus with its laws, police and army is nothing but an apparatus for capitalist terror!

Friday, June 18, 2004

Americanisms go missing 

I've found that Americans always begin to get slightly edgy when they notice another culture seeping into their own smorgasbord. I have had several friends in NYC question the idli before driving off in droves to Amma. This trend is particularly true with language. In a recent article, the Chronicle approaches the 'alarming' trend of Briticisms creeping into everyday American English (the crudest oxymoron, in my view), with a sense of impending doom and paranoia. An approach that I find surprising, given how easily America settles down to an amicable relationship with other cultures after a few initial hiccups.

Generally a Yank can get away with at most one such locution in his or her active vocabulary, for example the person I know who likes to refer to his time "at university," the university in question being a large land-grant institution. Any more than that and he would be laughed out the door, like the professor who habitually shows up at faculty meetings in a bespoke suit, Turnbull and Asser shirt, and Liberty of London tie, done in a Windsor knot.
Lately, however, the American press has become that professor. What set the ball rolling, I believe, was use of the verb phrase "to go missing" to mean "disappear," as in a person or object that at one moment is available and visible and subsequently is nowhere to be found. "Disappear" doesn't perfectly convey this idea -- it has too much of a Siegfried and Roy, presto-chango connotation -- but, along with its slightly more melodramatic counterpart, "vanish," it had to do the job for a long time. "Go missing" is better, but it was resisted, probably for the very reason that it sounds so British. Along with variants "went missing" and "gone missing," it appeared in The New York Times not at all in 1983, and only twice in 1993.
In 2001, however, the formulation was employed 24 times. The reason was a major national story about a person who went missing: Chandra Levy. And that year was the tipping point. In 2003, the Times had precisely 50 "go missings," and today even writers for USA Today and People use it with a straight face.

I don't know about you guys, but when I heard Will in Will and Grace tick off Jack with, "She's a person, Jack, not Tandoori Chicken," I thought to myself, 'A dhaba dish in a gay sitcom? How cool is that?'

Buruma on Lewis 

Despite the apologies and multiple-page retractions, there is little doubt that the New York Times provided the media muscle for the Bush government's campaign in Iraq. But there was a lesser known force working behind the scenes, buttressing Bush's arguments for a military presence in that country. The intellectual brush strokes of that policy were provided in large part by Bernard Lewis, a distinguished scholar and after Raphael Patai, America's best-known poster boy for Middle Eastern policy.
In his new book, From Babel to Dragomans, Lewis writes about everything from the role of dragomans in ancient Persia to Saddam's fate. In the excerpt that follows, Ian Buruma discusses one particular essay, which makes a strident argument for America's role in the Middle East.

This is not exactly the stuff that excites readers of the Weekly Standard, or the hotter heads in the Pentagon. There is, however, another Bernard Lewis to be found in this book, a more strident figure who believes not only that the United States was too soft during the Vietnam War but that Middle Eastern dictatorships must be overthrown with force. Negotiating with the ayatollahs of Iran, and with other anti-American autocrats, is useless: "As with the Axis and the Soviet Union, real peace will come only with their defeat or, preferably, collapse, and their replacement by governments that have been chosen and can be dismissed by their people." As for the immediate consequences of turning such ideals into policies, Lewis, particularly in his more recent writings, is oddly insouciant. He said in 2001 that public opinion in Iraq and Iran was so pro-American that both peoples would rejoice if the United States Army liberated them. A year later, he repeated the message that "if we succeed in overthrowing the regimes of what President Bush has rightly called the 'Axis of Evil,' the scenes of rejoicing in their cities would even exceed those that followed the liberation of Kabul." Most Iraqis did cheer the demise of their tyrant, but Lewis could have offered some words of warning about what might follow the celebrations.

Guest Blogging Intro 

Folks, as I had mentioned in an earlier post, I am going to hand over blogging responsibilities at Zoo Station to others while I am away or too busy to blog rather have ZS orphaned and boring. Blogging for the next one week will be handled by one of my closest friends from Bangalore, Jed, who has long had a penchant for posting comments on my blog using too-clever-by-half type nicks. Jed is a long-time writer and is currently editor-in-chief of Rave, by far India's best entertainment/rock n' roll magazine. Enjoy the ride!

The downside of American monolingualism 

As several pundits have pointed out, lots has been wrong with the American response to the Sept 11th terror attacks. Sam Freedman points to an issue that has received very little attention in the media and one that has been touched upon peripherally on this blog -- that advanced jet fighters are not going to stop any terrorist, but a deeper understanding of the context of terrorism might.

LESS than a year after the Soviet Union launched a satellite named Sputnik in October 1957, America answered with a counterstrike. It was a piece of legislation, the National Defense Education Act, which aimed at harnessing brain power rather than weaponry for the cold war. Mostly, the statute poured federal money into stimulating the study of mathematics and science, disciplines most relevant to the arms race, but a portion provided incentives for universities to develop skilled speakers of strategic languages, especially Russian.

Over more than three decades, as the support for language study was written into other federal laws, a steady stream of 30,000 or more American university students took Russian courses each year. They became not only the translators, cryptologists and intelligence agents required for what President John F. Kennedy famously called the "long twilight struggle" between Communism and the West but also the scholars, diplomats and sundry Sovietologists who in many ways enacted the policy of détente and assisted in the peaceful resolution of the cold war.

Now, nearly three years since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks by Al Qaeda and amid a turbulent occupation of Iraq, Congress and the Bush administration have failed to endorse and endow a similar cohort of civilian experts in the languages of the Muslim world.

Experts in language study offer several reasons for the administration's seeming indifference. President Bush's involvement in education is centered on the No Child Left Behind law, which itself has not been fully financed. Neoconservatives inside and outside government have assailed Middle East studies departments - the likely recipients of any increased federal money for advanced study of Arabic and related languages - for alleged bias against the United States and Israel. It is expensive and time-consuming to conduct security checks of Arab immigrants interested in serving as linguists.

"We can hope, but hope won't do it," said Richard Brecht, a former Air Force cryptographer who is executive director of the Center for the Advanced Study of Language, a joint project of the Defense Department and the University of Maryland based in College Park. "Five billion dollars for an F-22 will not help us in the battle against terrorism. Language that helps us understand why they're trying to harm us will."

Thursday, June 17, 2004

God Vs Gods or Polytheism Vs Monotheism 

Back to a subject I have touched upon several times on this blog. Ira Rifkin has written an interesting review, in the Toronto Star, of Jonathan Kirsch's new book called God Against the Gods:The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism. Among the points he makes is that Emperor Constantine adopted Christianity as the official religion of the Roman empire entirely due to political reasons (Council of Nicaea etc), a point that has received increased currency thanks to the stunning popularity of the Da Vinci Code. In fact, Dan Brown took it one step further and suggested that Constantine in fact died a pagan, not a Christian. The other interesting point Kirsch makes is about Emperor Julian.

"Julian is one of the great `what ifs?' of history," said Kirsch, an intellectual property lawyer. "Human history is the history of our evolution toward greater individual liberty. I have the nagging feeling that, at least in the West, we might have gotten there faster and in a more direct way had Julian lived." Polytheism, the belief that there can be more than one god, was the ancient world's dominant religious system. Today it survives chiefly in Hinduism, in tribal traditions, in Afro-Caribbean faiths, and in Wicca and other neo-pagan movements that are growing in North America and Western Europe. Greco-Roman polytheism reached its philosophical peak in Neo-Platonism, which emphasized ethical behaviour and the existence of a unifying transcendent reality.

Polytheism's core value, Kirsch writes, is theological pluralism, a stark contrast to traditional monotheism's penchant for insisting that the "One God" demands theological conformity. And religious freedom, the 54-year-old Kirsch said in a telephone interview, paves the way for public differences of opinion on other topics as well. In his book, Kirsch begins the story of monotheism's rise with Akthenaton, the 14th century B.C. Egyptian pharaoh and proto-monotheist. (Kirsch skips the biblical prophets Abraham and Moses, whose historical reality he rejects as unproven.)

Not until the reign of King Josiah, the 7th century B.C. ruler of the Jewish kingdom of Judah, did the biblical Israelites fully elevate their chief god, Yahweh, to the status of the "One God." "Judaism as a faith of strict monotheism can be said to begin with King Josiah," said Kirsch. Kirsch devotes the greater part of his book to the reigns of Constantine, who embraced Christianity and made it Rome's official faith in the 4th century, and Julian the Apostate, Constantine's nephew who briefly restored polytheism to its traditional place in the Roman pantheon for one last time. Christian writers emphasize Constantine's faith conversion as the root of his Christianity. Kirsch emphasizes Constantine's political motivations.

He writes that Constantine's "preference for monotheism over polytheism reflected his own ambition to achieve the same absolute power on earth that the Christian god was believed to exercise in heaven." Likewise, Kirsch continues, Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea in 325 — out of which Christian tradition says came the faith's central statement of doctrine, the Nicene Creed — more out of a desire to impose control over an increasingly unwieldy church than out of concern for theological clarity in pursuit of spiritual truths.

Julian — who came to full power in 360, following Constantine's death and after some years of nasty internecine intrigue — was a pagan counter-revolutionary who restored religious legitimacy to classical Greco-Roman polytheism. However, Kirsch emphasizes, Julian did not try to eradicate monotheism as Rome's Christian rulers had sought for polytheism. Julian instead sought to place polytheism and Christianity on equal footing. "That's what's most appealing about polytheism — its openness to accommodating the faiths of others," said Kirsch.

Kirsch may have a sweet spot for polytheism, but he fully acknowledges that polytheists, including pre-Christian Romans, can be as brutish as fervent monotheists (his term for fanatical fundamentalists). The only difference between violent polytheists and violent monotheists is that the former kill to gain political control and the latter kill to assert theological dominance. The difference is subtle, said Kirsch, but important. Polytheists sought control over the public sphere alone; monotheists sought control over private thoughts as well.

Kirsch recounted a Buddhist aphorism to sum up his religious beliefs: "One moon, many pools. Many pools, one moon." The point, he explained, is that light from a single source can be reflected in many ways.

I am hoping I can convince Sanjay to post his response to this piece as a guest post. Watch this space.

Guest blogging redux 

Some time back, I had suggested that it might be a good idea to introduce guest posts. In fact, I had started blogging a few guest posts by regular readers. Instead, I have been thinking in terms of inviting some of my good friends to start writing on Zoo Station as well -- more along the lines of a team blog than just the odd guest post. Though I will continue to make the majority of posts, others can chip in from time-to-time. Not only would this diversify content, but it would also prevent long absences from blogging (like in the past couple weeks) when I am very busy. Someone else could do the blogging in my absence rather than ZS becoming orphaned. I am discussing the idea with a friend and hopefully we will see some blogging from him soon.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Spiderman India??? 

(Via Sree) This story is so bizarre it deserves to be posted in full. Apparently, Marvel Comics have decided to launch an Indian version of Spiderman. Instead of Peter Parker, we have Pavitr Prabhakar. I can almost see the smirks on your faces, so here's the Marvel press release in its entirety.

Bangalore, India (June 14, 2004) — Marvel Comics & Gotham Entertainment Group – Indian publishing licensee of Marvel Comics and the leading publisher of international comic magazines in South Asia – announces the launch of Spider-Man India.

Spider-Man India interweaves the local customs, culture and mystery of modern India, with an eye to making Spider-Man’s mythology more relevant to this particular audience. Readers of this series will not see the familiar Peter Parker of Queens under the classic Spider-Man mask, but rather a new hero – a young, Indian boy named Pavitr Prabhakar. As Spider-Man, Pavitr leaps around rickshaws and scooters in Indian streets, while swinging from monuments such as the Gateway of India and the Taj Mahal.

Mumbai’s (Bombay’s) first web-swinging superhero will be joined by a reinterpretation of the classic Spider-Man villain, the Green Goblin -- reinvented as a Rakshasa, an Indian mythological demon. “We feel this is one of the most exciting and unique projects in comic history,” said Gotham Entertainment Group CEO Sharad Devarajan. “Unlike traditional translations of American comics, Spider-Man India will become the first-ever ‘transcreation,’ where we reinvent the origin of a Western property like Spider-Man so that he is an Indian boy in Mumbai and dealing with local problems and challenges.”

Check the website for some absolutely nutter imagery of what's about to hit you.

Business Standard and RISC 

Folks, I am back from the dead. Well, sort of. Just to point y'all to a piece written by Rajesh in Wednesday's Business Standard (ICE World section) that profiles the RISC model. This story will hopefully get us some useful mileage, especially among policy makers who we really need on our side. For example, the chances that Montek Singh Ahluwalia (the newly appointed deputy chairman of the Planning Commission) reads the Standard is pretty high. I hope. :)

If there was one message which rang out loud and clear in the recent elections, it was that the poor of India want a better life. They voted for change – dispensing with those in power. This was not so much about “anti-incumbency” as “anti-incompetency.” Even as India makes strides in some sectors, much of the country and its people remain frozen in time. They will have to make do with the promise of free electricity – if the state governments ever get around to generating it. Bharat wants its own revolution – one built around development and opportunities, not handouts and freebies.

So, let’s play a game of strategy. You are the Indian chief minister who has just won the local mandate. Success is defined as getting re-elected in five years’ time (let us assume there are no mid-term polls). How do you do it? A look at the history books offers no relief. Eminent reform-minded brethren of yours – like Digvijay Singh in Madhya Pradesh, Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra Pradesh, S M Krishna in Karnataka -failed in the last round of the game which took place. Do you think reform or do you think populism? Do you think short term or long term? Do you think caste politics or computer policies? Do you think social development or infrastructure development?

As you think, let me give you my thoughts. The need of the hour in India is, very clearly, the transformation of rural India – not between two generations, but between two elections. Agreed, this is not something which can be done overnight. But let us remember that you have five years’ time. The right steps taken in the beginning can make a big difference in that period. The problem in India has been that few are willing to think that far ahead as they caught up in day-to-day politics and month-by-month survival.

What you need to do is to create a platform for rural development. It is not about providing free food and electricity which will only sap the economy further, but about creating a framework in which the people’s incomes increase to a point where they can pay for food and electricity. To use an old adage, “Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime.”

Rural India needs affordable services – from education to market access, from telecom to healthcare, from financial intermediation to entertainment. The key issue in rural India is the non-availability of services at affordable prices. Linked to this is the lack of perceived opportunities in rural areas. These twin factors create a situation in which few want to do business in rural India. It also leads to the exodus of people from rural areas to urban slums, which stretch the resources in the cities and towns even further. In other words, rural India is caught in a trap that it seems difficult to get out of. Which means…are you doomed to lose the next elections?

No! There is an alternative – and for that we have to turn to a model proposed by Atanu Dey and Vinod Khosla. This model, called Rural Infrastructure and Services Commons (RISC), holds the potential to transform rural India for a capital investment (not necessarily by the government) of no more than Rs 200 per person. The model recognises the fact that resources are limited, and we can get the maximum leverage by concentrating investment rather than by distributing it at uneconomical levels.

What Dey and Khosla propose is the creation of 5,000 rural hubs across India, each catering to a population of about 100,000 or about 100 villages, such that the hub is no more than a “bicycle-commute” distance away for people in the villages. These hubs will have about 10,000 square feet, built at a cost of about Rs 2 crore each. They will have state-of-the-art infrastructure – including 24x7 electricity, broadband connectivity, security and sanitation. This standardised infrastructure reduces the costs of operation for service providers in rural India. From the point of view of the rural populace, there is one place where it can get multiple services – services which were hitherto not available or too expensive. This also creates the platform for budding entrepreneurs to make rural supply and demand chains more efficient, much the same way as the programming interface of an operating system allows software developers to build higher-level constructs without worrying about the low-level plumbing.

Says Atanu Dey: “Fundamentally, the specific market failure that RISC addresses is that of coordination failure. RISC is designed to coordinate the activities of a host of entities-commercial, governmental, NGOs. It synchronises investment decisions so as to reduce risk. It essentially acts as a catalyst that starts off a virtuous cycle of introducing efficient modern technology to improve productivity that increases incomes and thus the ability of users to pay for the services, and so on. It creates a mechanism that reduces transaction costs and, therefore, improves the functions of markets.” The total investment of about Rs 10,000 crores is very little money in the Indian context today. The multiplier effect that it can have on rural India is dramatic. More importantly, it will get you elected. We all win, right?

Thursday, June 10, 2004

Comment du jour 

Folks, I wont be blogging until this weekend because I have been very very busy wrapping up my survey among the fishermen of Kerala who have adopted mobile phones in large numbers. So, today I heard a pretty amazing comment from a fisherman who uses a phone regularly. In response to a question in my survey that asked whether he would stop using the phone if the price of calls went up, he responded thusly -- "If the price of rice goes up, does it mean I stop eating?"

I was pretty amazed actually to see a poor fisherman draw that comparison. This should serve as a lesson to all the idiots in the Indian govt who pretended for years that mobile phones were a plaything for the rich (and taxed accordingly).

Friday, June 04, 2004

Why they dont get any.... 

The one thing I missed most about India while living in the United States was the poker-faced, dry, sarcastic and self-deprecatory humour that's very much in vogue (intentionally or otherwise) in most of the big cities and the biggish colleges. And everytime I had to put with some frighteningly irritating and pompous Americans (who think the sun shines out of a certain part of their anatomy merely by dint of being born in the U.S. of A), I desperately pitied their inability to take a piss on themselves for a change (some yanks do, mind you, just not enough).

Now, if you're wondering what the hell I am talking about, I present to you, dear reader, the funniest blog I have ever read -- Domain Maximus -- written by fellow Mallu, Sidin Vadukut. In this extraordinarily insighful post, he explains why South Indian men don't get any. This is socio-econo-geo-psychology at its incisive best. Yes, I am posting the piece in full here (and its the longest ever on zoo station). Do yourself a favour and read it in its entirety.

Yet another action packed weekend in Mumbai, full of fun, frolic and introspection. I have learnt many things. For example having money when none of your friends have any is as good as not having any. And after spending much time in movie theatres, cafes and restaurants I have gathered many insights into the endless monotony that is the love life of south Indian men. What I have unearthed is most disheartening. Disheartening because comprehension of these truths will not change our status anytime soon. However there is also cause for joy. We never stood a chance anyway. What loads the dice against virile, gallant, well educated, good looking, sincere mallus and tams? (Kandus were once among us, but Bangalore has changed all that.)

Our futures are shot to hell as soon as our parents bestow upon us names that are anything but alluring. I cannot imagine a more foolproof way of making sure the child remains single till classified advertisements or that maternal uncle in San Francisco thinks otherwise. Name him "Parthasarathy Venkatachalapthy" and his inherent capability to combat celibacy is obliterated before he could even talk. He will grow to be known as Partha. Before he knows, his smart, seductively named northy classmates start calling him Paratha. No woman in their right minds will go anyway near poor Parthasarathy. His investment banking job doesn't help either. His employer loves him though. He has no personal life you see. By this time the Sanjay Singhs and Bobby Khans from his class have small businesses of their own and spend 60% of their lives in discos and pubs. The remaining 40% is spent coochicooing with leather and denim clad muses in their penthouse flats on Nepean Sea Road. Business is safely in the hands of the Mallu manager. After all with a name like Blossom Babykutty he cant use his 30000 salary anywhere. Blossom gave up on society when in school they automatically enrolled him for Cookery Classes. Along with all the girls.

Yes my dear reader, nomenclature is the first nail in a coffin of neglect and hormonal pandemonium. In a kinder world they would just name the poor southern male child and throw him off the balcony. "Yes appa we have named him Goundamani..." THUD. Life would have been less kinder to him anyway.

If all the women the Upadhyays, Kumars, Pintos and, god forbid, the Sens and Roys in the world have met were distributed amongst the Arunkumars, Vadukuts and Chandramogans we would all be merry casanovas with 3 to 4 pretty things at each arm. But alas it is not to be. Of course the south Indian women have no such issues. They have names which are like sweet poetry to the ravenous northie hormone tanks. Picture this: "Welcome, and this is my family. This is my daughter Poorni (what a sweet name!!) and my son Ponnalagusamy (er.. hello..).." Cyanide would not be fast enough for poor Samy. Nothing Samy does will help him. He can pump iron, drive fast cars and wear snazzy clothes, but against a braindead dude called Arjun Singhania he has as much chance of getting any as a Benedictine Monk in a Saharan Seminary.

Couple this with the other failures that have plagued our existence. Any attempt at spiking hair with gel fails miserably. In an hour I have a crown of greasy, smelly fibrous mush. My night ends there. However the northy just has to scream "Wakaw!!!" and you have to peel the women off him to let him breathe. In a disco while we can manage the medium hip shake with neck curls, once the Bhangra starts pumping we are as fluid as cement and gravel in a mixer. Karan Kapoor or Jatin Thapar in the low cut jeans with chaddi strap showing and see through shirt throws his elbows perfectly, the cynosure of all attention. The women love a man who digs pasta and fondue. But why do they not see the simple pleasures of curd rice and coconut chutney? When poor Senthilnathan opens his tiffin box in the office lunch room his female coworkers just dissappear when they see the tamarind rice and poppadums. The have all rematerialised around Bobby Singh who has ordered in Pizza and Garlic bread. (And they have the gall to talk of foreign origin.)

How can a man like me brought up in roomy lungis and oversized polyester shirts ever walk the walk in painted on jeans (that makes a big impression) and neon yellow rib hugging t shirts? All I can do is don my worn "comfort fit" jeans and floral shirt. Which is pretty low on the "Look at me lady" scale, just above fig leaf skirt and feather headgear a la caveman, and a mite below Khakhi Shirt over a red t shirt and baggy khakhi pants and white trainers a la Rajni in "Badsha".

Sociologically too the tam or mallu man is severely sidelined. An average tam stud stays in a house with, on average, three grandparents, three sets of uncles and aunts, and over 10 children. Not the ideal atmosphere for some intimacy and some full throated "WHOSE YOUR DADDY!!!" at the 3 in the morning. The mallu guy of course is almost always in the gulf working alone on some onshore oil rig in the desert. Rheumatic elbows me thinks.

Alas dear friends we are not just meant to set the nights on fire. We are just not built to be "The Ladies Man". The black man has hip hop, the white man has rock, the southie guy only has idlis and tomato rasam or an NRI account in South Indian Bank Ernakulam Branch. Alas as our destiny was determined in one fell swoop by our nomenclature, so will our future be. A nice arranged little love story. But the agony of course does not end there. On the first night, as the stud sits on his bed finally within touching distance and whispers his sweet desires into her delectable ear, she blushes, turns around and whispers back "But amma has said only on second saturdays..."

In one last effort here we attractive young men have taken on alter egos which may interest some of you women:

1. Gautam Kumar Raja, will now be known as Joshua Perreira
2. Sidin Sunny Vadukut, henceforth will be known as Dev Chopra
3. Ashwath Venkataraman is now Vijay Desai
4. Sudarshan Ramakrishnan no more, from now he is Barath Sharma
5. Gautam Chandrasekharan will now respond to Alyque Shah

Do mail me any time for a meeting with one of the above. One week notice if Italian or Chinese food is involved, or if the individual is expected to dance.

When you've stopped laughing and picked yourself off the floor, you should proceed to his Scott Adams impersonation. In this one, he provides insights on how to influence top management.

Rule 2: Looking busy.
While it may not be productive I have heard of guys who made VP purely by keeping an excel sheet open on their computers for over 8 hours a day. You can do even better. Open an excel sheet and fill a column with the random number function. Refresh every ten minutes. Give column headings like "YTD BFC over JFM" or "Indexed Fluctuation Quanitifier" In two days your boss will break into a sweat and in two weeks you should be all set to take over. However the all time great way to look busy is simply holding a piece of white copier paper roughly held between fingers in a creaseless arc. Walk, drink tea, go the canteen with the sheet always visible. Once in a while call home and talk to mom looking very seriously at the sheet.

PS: Trawl his blog when you get the time. There's plenty more of the same. It's good to know IIM-Ahmedabad (the top mgmt school in Asia, no less) continues to select the best of the best.

Watching Venus transit 

Nisha sent the Exploratorium website for the benefit of those who will not be able to see the transit of Venus on the 8th of June for geographic reasons. The Exploratarium plans to webcast the transit live. Check for your local timings. In the meanwhile, the
Economist provides a fantastic backgrounder and also several reasons why you should be try and catch the transit.

Astronomers have found scores of planets around other stars, mainly by searching for stars that wobble back-and-forth due to the gravitational pull of an orbiting planet. The problem with this indirect technique is that it does not tell you much about the planet you have discovered. In particular, that planet's diameter and composition remain unknown.

But if the planet's orbit is nearly edge-on, as viewed from Earth, then the planet will transit its parent star. Though even the nearest star is too far away for a planet drifting across its disc to be seen, astronomers can detect the drop in starlight caused by the obstruction. From the size of this drop, they can deduce the diameter of the planet. This was first done in 2000, when a Jupiter-sized planet was discovered around a star named HD 209458.

The next step is to figure out what is in the planet's atmosphere. This can be done by measuring the transit in different colours. Each type of atom or molecule absorbs particular colours. Sodium, for example, is fond of a certain orange-yellow hue. If there is sodium in the atmosphere, then there will be a little extra blockage of that colour during a transit.

This was actually seen for HD 209458, but the amount of sodium observed was less than predicted by models of planetary atmospheres. This could be an important discovery, or it could be the fault of the models. So it would be nice to test those models by observing a planet whose atmosphere is already well known: Venus.

NYT profiles Reliance 

The New York Times has a pretty exhaustive profile of Reliance Industries, the private sector giant that has once again topped the ET 500 list as the largest private sector company in India. Of course, the downside of Reliance is pretty well-known (uncomfortable proximity to politicians, for instance), but this profile has some interesting statistical tidbits on the company too, especially on the scale of its operations.

Its sales equal 3.5 percent of the country's gross domestic product, more than the combined global sales of all of India's outsourcing companies. Its $3.6 billion worth of exports are 6.1 percent of India's total. It helps fill government coffers, contributing 9.4 percent of India's so-called indirect tax revenues, from things like sales taxes, customs and duties.

The Reliance group - five listed companies and an undisclosed number of unlisted ones, with complex ownership structures and with interests that also include energy distribution, mobile and broadband services, insurance and financial services - reported net profits of $2.8 billion for its fiscal year ended in March. Sales were $22.6 billion, more than Coca-Cola or Halliburton reported for 2003.

Reliance Industries, which accounts for 30 percent of the total profits of India's private sector, runs the world's third-largest refinery, in Jamnagar, in the western state of Gujarat. The $6 billion refinery accounts for around 28 percent of India's refining capacity. Reliance Energy struck the world's largest gas find of 2002, and the country's biggest in three decades, in the Krishna-Godavari basin in eastern India. In January, it announced plans to build the world's biggest gas-fired power plant, in northern India, with a $2.2 billion investment. And when the power distribution systems in India's two biggest cities, New Delhi and Mumbai, were privatized in 2003, Reliance Energy became the largest electricity distributor in both cities.

And of course, the success of Reliance Infocomm I have documented on this blog earlier (becoming the largest mobile company in India a mere 12 months after entering the market).

The clairvoyance of exchange rates 

Ever since Indian foreign exchange reserves crossed $100 billion (and everyone in India becoming giddy), I have been trying to convince my currency trader friend/reader to write a guest post on what/how/why foreign exchange rates/reserves work. Unfortunately, the said currency trader has been too busy. Under the circumstances, this piece by Hal Varian is the best I have come across on the subject, that makes sense to lay readers too. Varian believes exchange rates could be a very good indicator of America's economic recovery. Here is the piece, in full.

Imagine living in a world where you had to have yen to buy a TV, renminbi to buy toys, and dollars to buy food. Think how complicated life would be. Surprise. That's the world we live in. Most TV's we buy are manufactured in Japan, most toys come from China, and most of our food is produced in the United States. And by and large, the workers who produce those goods want to be paid in their domestic currency. Luckily, this complexity is hidden from consumers; those nice currency traders handle all the grungy details. When you buy an imported TV with your hard-earned dollars, those dollars are exchanged for yen somewhere along the way to pay the Japanese workers who built the TV.

How is that exchange rate determined? The basic force is good old supply and demand. If the demand for yen exceeds the supply at the current exchange rate, the cost of yen in terms of dollars will rise, and if supply exceeds demand, it will fall. If the only reason to buy foreign currency was to use it to purchase foreign goods, international exchange would be pretty simple. Luckily for economists, the story is more complex.

People also want to acquire foreign currency to make investments. If America's interest rates are higher than Japan's, then Japanese investors will want to buy our bonds to take advantage of those higher rates. But to do so, they must first sell yen and buy dollars. This is where things get tricky. Eventually, those Japanese investors will want to end up with yen. So they will care about not only the current interest rates on American bonds, but also the likely movement of exchange rates in the future. What matters to them is the expected return denominated in yen, which involves both the rate of interest and the expected movement in exchange rates. This means the demand for yen will depend not only on the current exchange rate, but also on anticipations of future exchange rate movements.

The demand for currency to support international trade is pretty predictable, since the short-term trade patterns are reasonably predictable. It's the speculative demand that causes most of the short-term fluctuations, since foreign exchange traders have to make guesses about the future, and those guesses are constantly being revised. As foreign exchange speculators change their views about the future, their demand for currency changes, resulting in exchange rate fluctuations. On top of all this, central banks also intervene in foreign exchange markets for reasons that can be quite different from those of the other participants.

The Bank of Japan could easily decide to sell yen on the foreign exchange market. This would push down the value of yen, making Japanese goods cheaper in dollar terms. Why would the Bank of Japan want the yen to be cheap? Well, cheap yen translate into cheap TV's and Toyotas, which means Americans keep buying those products and Japanese factories keep humming along. Japan (or any other country that depends heavily on exports) wants a cheap currency to keep its citizens employed.

In the last two years, the United States has had abnormally low interest rates. A result has been that demand for dollars has weakened, making yen more costly, thereby raising the price and reducing sales of those imported TV's. Naturally enough, the Bank of Japan didn't want to see domestic unemployment go up, so it sold yen, keeping the currency lower than it otherwise would have been. The dollars received in exchange were used to buy Treasury bonds, with the Japanese accumulating $577 billion as of the end of January 2004. This huge currency intervention has received little attention in the popular press.

And it wasn't just Japan. The Taiwanese and the Chinese also bought United States Treasury bonds, trying to keep their currencies from appreciating against the dollar. This kept the dollar price of their exports low and kept their factories operating. But now what happens? The Japanese economy seems at last to be recovering, and the Chinese economy is overheating. This suggests that these two financial powerhouses will cut back on their purchases of dollars, pushing the value of the dollar down relative to their own currencies. On the other hand, American interest rates are also increasing. As the economy recovers, the Fed will push rates up, making United States bonds more attractive, which will tend to push the value of the dollar up. Which effect will dominate? Will the dollar go up or down in the coming months?

Anyone who can answer that question with certainty would be a wealthy man. But lots of people - including wealthy men like Warren E. Buffett - are betting against the dollar. Many experts think the foreign exchange interventions of the last two years have maintained the dollar's value at an unnaturally high level. As evidence, they point to the ballooning trade deficit and the hubbub over outsourcing and "predatory trade practices." If foreign goods and services look cheap, the dollar is probably overvalued.

Maybe it is. But by how much? And if it is overvalued, how rapidly will it fall? In the rosy scenario, the dollar has a steady decline against the renminbi and the yen; the Chinese economy has a soft landing; the Japanese recovery persists; and the American economy has a healthy recovery. Then there's the other scenario. The dollar drops precipitously; prices of imported goods shoot up here, rekindling inflation; the Japanese economy drops back into the doldrums; and unemployed Chinese workers riot in the streets. Needless to say, a lot hinges on which scenario materializes. Keep your eye on those exchange rates. They have a lot to do with America's recovery and the health of the world economy.

Thursday, June 03, 2004

The 10 commandments according to Martin Wolf  

On the heels of Jagdish Bhagwati's defence of globalisation comes Martin Wolf's tome on Why Globalisation Works. The Financial Times has published an excerpt includes a riposte to the critics and also the 10 commandments of globalisation, according to Martin Wolf.

1. The market economy is the only arrangement capable of generating sustained increases in prosperity, providing the underpinnings of liberal democracy and giving individual human beings the opportunity to strive for what they desire in life.

2. Individual states remain the locus of political debate and legitimacy. Supranational institutions gain their legitimacy and authority from the states that belong to them.

3. It is in the interest of both states and their citizens to participate in international treaty- based regimes and institutions that deliver global public goods, including open markets, environmental protection, health and international security.

4. Such regimes need to be specific and focused. But they also need means of enforcement.

5. The World Trade Organisation has been enormously successful. But it has already strayed too far from its primary function of promoting trade liberalisation. The arguments for a single undertaking binding all members also need to be reconsidered, since that brings into the negotiations a large number of small countries with negligible impact on world trade.

6. The case for regimes covering investment and global competition is strong. But such regimes do not need to be imposed on all the world’s countries. It would be better to create regimes that include fewer countries, but contain higher standards.

7. It is in the long-term interest of countries to integrate into global financial markets. But they need to understand the need for an appropriate exchange rate regime, often a floating rate, and a sound and well-regulated financial system.

8. In the absence of a global lender of last resort, it is necessary to accept standstills and renegotiation of sovereign debt. A particularly strong case can be made for developing ways to write off ‘odious debt’ – debt contracted by politically illegitimate regimes.

9. Official development assistance is very far indeed from a guarantee of successful development. But the sums now provided are so small, a mere 0.22 per cent of the gross domestic product of the donor countries in 2001, that more should help, if used wisely. Aid should go to countries with sound policy regimes, but it should never be large enough to free a government from the need to raise most of its money from its own people.

10. Countries should normally be allowed to learn from their own mistakes, even if that means that some make no progress. But the global community also needs the capacity and will to intervene effectively where states fail altogether.

I cannot wait to read this book. Heck, I havent read the Bhagwati book yet either. Pity it doesnt seem to be available at any bookstore I step into in Kerala. Mind you, everyone of them continue to keep *that* book by Joe Stiglitz ("The IMF and My Discontent", as the Economist called it) on their main display shelves :)

African Telecoms Indicators 2004 

(Via Tracy) The International Telecommunications Union has just released the 2004 edition of the African Telecommunications Indicators. Besides information on the mobile market, it also has information on wireless Internet and some data on broadcasting. As always, ITU data can be a little dicey when it comes to developing countries, but it porbably remains the best source there is.

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Spy Vs Spy? 

Yes, I know I was not supposed to blog today, but this one was a must-blog. The
New York Times finally has details on why even the neo-cons gave up on Ahmed Chalabi. It was NSA code and Iran, after all.

Ahmad Chalabi, the Iraqi leader and former ally of the Bush administration, disclosed to an Iranian official that the United States had broken the secret communications code of Iran's intelligence service, betraying one of Washington's most valuable sources of information about Iran, according to United States intelligence officials.

How did the Americans find out, you ask? Unbelievably enough...

According to American officials, the Iranian official in Baghdad, possibly not believing Mr. Chalabi's account, sent a cable to Tehran detailing his conversation with Mr. Chalabi, using the broken code. That encrypted cable, intercepted and read by the United States, tipped off American officials to the fact that Mr. Chalabi had betrayed the code-breaking operation, the American officials said.

So, Ahmed Chalabi was passing off secrets to the Iranian government. It's entirely like Chalabi to do something like that. But what if Chalabi himself was played? It apparently gets worse, according to the Guardian.

Some intelligence officials now believe that Iran used the hawks in the Pentagon and the White House to get rid of a hostile neighbour, and pave the way for a Shia-ruled Iraq. According to a US intelligence official, the CIA has hard evidence that Mr Chalabi and his intelligence chief, Aras Karim Habib, passed US secrets to Tehran, and that Mr Habib has been a paid Iranian agent for several years, involved in passing intelligence in both directions.

The CIA has asked the FBI to investigate Mr Chalabi's contacts in the Pentagon to discover how the INC acquired sensitive information that ended up in Iranian hands. The implications are far-reaching. Mr Chalabi and Mr Habib were the channels for much of the intelligence on Iraqi weapons on which Washington built its case for war.

"It's pretty clear that Iranians had us for breakfast, lunch and dinner," said an intelligence source in Washington yesterday. "Iranian intelligence has been manipulating the US for several years through Chalabi." Larry Johnson, a former senior counter-terrorist official at the state department, said: "When the story ultimately comes out we'll see that Iran has run one of the most masterful intelligence operations in history. They persuaded the US and Britain to dispose of its greatest enemy."

Mr Habib, a Shia Kurd who is being sought by Iraqi police since a raid on INC headquarters last week, has been Mr Chalabi's righthand man for more than a decade. He ran a Pentagon-funded intelligence collection programme in the run-up to the invasion and put US officials in touch with Iraqi defectors who made claims about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. Those claims helped make the case for war but have since proved groundless, and US intelligence agencies are now scrambling to determine whether false information was passed to the US with Iranian connivance.

This is the sort of thing Tom Clancy would be hard pressed to come up with. If this is true, it truly is an unbelievable coup for Iranian intelligence -- to get their dirty work (deposing Hussein and getting a Shia govt in place in Iraq) done by America. And boy, will the neo-cons look silly. If anyone has more information/leads on this development, please let me know. Also, watch out for Sy Hersh, this seems like his territory.

Blog break 

Folks, I apologise for the break in blogging. I have been extremely busy the past few days with a bunch of research-related stuff that needed looking into. I ought to be back to a regular schedule from tomorrow. See you then.