Thursday, April 28, 2005

Australia's role in the Vietnam war 

(via Tony) Australian writer and New South Wales solicitor-general Michael Sexton has an article in today's edition of The Age, titled "The war we gatecrashed." His thesis is that Australia encouraged the US to enter a full-blown conflict in Vietnam and then invited itself to this war. In Sexton's words:

Australia's diplomats in Washington told the Americans that the bombing of North Vietnam should be increased. In early January 1965 Hasluck was concerned that the Americans might opt for negotiations with the North Vietnamese. He cabled the Australian embassy in Washington to urge them to "take advantage of whatever opportunity may arise of helping to bring certainty to American policy and planning". The "certainty" that Hasluck wanted was escalation. In February the State Department said it was under "some pressure" from the Australian government to make a request for troops.

This was a particularly cynical exercise by the Australian government because it is clear that it was quite indifferent to the survival of South Vietnam or its people but simply wanted to lock the Americans into the ANZUS treaty in case of trouble with Indonesia. The first American combat troops landed in Vietnam in March 1965. On April 29, 1965, Menzies announced in Parliament that an Australian battalion would be joining them.

To someone like me who grew up knowing nothing about Australia other than platypi, marsupials and a tremendous cricket team, this article is certainly an eye-opener on the attitudes of its political class. For now, I'm taking this with a grain of salt, though, since Sexton's viewpoint might well be a strongly partisan one. I hope readers more familiar with Australia will comment.

What to listen for in music 

This was the title of the book I bought last week while on the pick-up-old-books at a second-hand store routine. A title like that would normally evoke skepticism, but in this case, the author was Aaron Copland. Copland, the premier American composer for around four decades, toyed with different genres; from ballet and orchestral music to choral music and movie scores. Having gone through half of it, I must admit it is a great resource. Written first in 1957, the book is available on Amazon.

To make the most of it though, a little knowledge of music is useful. That is not to say that a layman can't take a few valuable perspectives away from it. The thing I liked the most is the simplicity and the clarity he brings to the process of composing. Highly recommended!

Monday, April 25, 2005

The Economist on Bangalore 

The current issue of the Economist has a special report on the IT and outsourcing industry, with a special focus on Bangalore. Not that any of it comes as a surprise to those of us who know the Bangalore scene intimately, but the Economist makes an important point to begin with -- Bangalore is already choking on its own success; but the boom has barely begun.

The new administration, under its chief minister, Dharam Singh, a portly grass-roots politician who prides himself on his common touch, forswore the “urban bias” of its predecessor. The city soon felt the pain of the government's inattention. “As companies we have scaled up,” says Bob Hoekstra, boss of a big Bangalore software centre for Philips, a Dutch consumer-electronics giant. “But the government has scaled down.”

The government showed its disdain for the IT billionaires by allowing the withering of the “Bangalore Agenda Task Force”. This was an initiative led, and largely financed, by Nandan Nilekani, chief executive of Infosys, to improve governance and infrastructure in Bangalore through partnership with the private sector. Worse still, from the IT industry's point of view, the government decided to apply an “entry tax” of 13.5% on goods brought into the state—a big burden on firms relying on imported computers. For those perennially pessimistic about India, all this was just the latest proof that its democratic structure will always end up stifling its economic prospects.

Few in the IT industry have much good to say about the new government. At least, however, it is pretending to be friendly to business. It has dropped the entry tax for exporting firms and is even talking of setting up a committee with the private sector, along the lines of Mr Nilekani's defunct task-force. All its talk of expansion will inevitably be bogged down in bureaucratic delay, and the building will itself cause disruption. Things will get worse before they get better.

It is in this context that Bangalore's troubles have to be seen: as the acute growing pains of a still-infant industry. It is a worry not because the difficulties are insuperable, but because some can be solved only by the government. India's IT industry has thrived in part because, unlike most other sectors of the economy, it has largely kept the government out of its business. That period is coming to an end. Neglect, the industry is learning, is not always benign.

Commanding Heights online 

As far as documentaries on globalization go, I haven't seen a better series than Commanding Heights: The Battle for the World's Economy, the PBS TV adaptation of the book of the same name by Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw. There is a 3 DVD box set of the 6-hour show, which is how I first saw the series.

However, there is an alternative way to watch the series now, especially for those of you who live outside the western hemisphere and do not have easy access to Amazon and the like. I found, via Jacqueline Passey, that PBS has made the entire show (all 6 hours) available online. Yes, it's a sub-optimal way of watching it, but now you have no excuse for not watching it.

Academic fraud? 

Having made the rounds of some prominent blogs, the email circuit, and many prominent news sites, the story of SCIgen, "An Automatic CS Paper Generator", is now all too familiar. In case you came in late, the linked MIT website gives you all the basics and a Google search will point you to more news stories than I feel like linking to from this blog. The executive summary is that one former Venezuelan professor Nagib Callaos, who is notorious in the CS research community for continually spamming people requesting submissions to some conferences of questionable merit that he runs, was devilishly duped by three MIT grad students who managed to get ten pages of computer-generated technobabbly gibberish accepted to the "conference" that calls itself WMSCI 2005.

Most interesting to me, however, are various professional computer scientists' take on this sorry incident and on its reportage in the popular media. There seems to be agreement among us that the whole affair is unfortunate. Exactly who is most guilty, and by how much, seems to divide us, though. Is it
  1. Callaos, who started this whole nasty business in the first place?
  2. the MIT students, who are guilty of somewhat questionable practices (this blog goes as far as to accuse them of a kind of academic fraud)?
  3. a c.v.-inflation-enouraging academic culture that allowed a thing like WMSCI to grow?
  4. the popular media, who have chosen to cast CS conferences in general (and sometimes even the academic world in even-more-general) in an unduly negative light, based on what is after all an isolated incident at a conference that no one in the CS community took seriously?

The Lost Tribes of Mizoram? 

I suppose many of you are familiar with the story of the Menashe tribe of Mizoram and Manipur, who have for the longest time argued that they have Jewish roots. This Passover, they got an early surprise when the chief Sephardic Rabbi recognised the B'nei Menashe as one of the fabled lost tribes of Israel. The Rabbi is planning to send a team of rabbis to convert them formally and take them back to Israel.

On the face of it, it is hard to imagine a more unlikely story. A tribe, exiled from Israel by the Assyrians around 720 B.C. somehow finds its way, via Afghanistan and China, to this thin slice of India sandwiched between Bangladesh and Myanmar. On the way, they forget their language, their history and most of their traditions. Their genes are so mixed up they look like their Mongoloid neighbours, their memories so faded they speak a Tibeto-Burmese language, rear pigs and eat pork. Almost all that remains is a name -- Manasseh, Menasia or Manmase, an ancestor whose spirit they invoke to ward off evil.

Before Christian missionaries came from Wales and England to these misty, forested hills in the late nineteenth century, the Mizo, Kuki and Chin peoples worshipped one Almighty God, albeit challenged by more than a dozen other spirits. Some of the practices involved in animal sacrifice were similar to ancient Hebrew traditions, while an ancient song among one tribe talked of "crossing the Red Sea", with enemies in chariots at their heels, she says. Mizo woven shawls are not unlike Jewish prayer shawls in design. In place of circumcision, is a cleansing ceremony eight days after a child is born, involving burning of incense.

Science has yet to give a conclusive answer to Mizoram's mystery. Calcutta's Forensic Science Laboratory found no trace of typical Jewish genes in the male Y chromosomes of the Kuki-Chin-Mizo, but found some evidence of a possible, but diluted, maternal link to the Near East. Research by Israel's Technion institute and the University of Arizona may provide more conclusive results, even if they are unlikely to change the Menashe's fate. For now, the ball is in the court of Israel's Chief Rabbinate -- a spokesman said a final decision on whether to allow mass conversions outside Israel would be taken after Passover ends on April 30.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

China: Export Tax the Answer? 

One of the biggest issues between the US and China now is whether the Chinese currency is undervalued. The US insists it is, making imports to the US unfairly cheap. China says it will move at its own pace. The US should also be careful what it wishes for, because as the number two banker of the US debt after Japan, China would not have to buy as many US dollar denominated assets and could lead to a rise in US interest rates, points out the IHT.

Revaluation of a pegged currency like the yuan is quite tough - what to do with currency speculators, and how should it be smoothly instituted? In fact revaluation of the yuan across the board is an extremely blunt change to a specific gripe of "too cheap imports."

The most rational alternative (subscription required) to an all out revaluation comes from Joe Stiglitz (Columbia) and Lawrence Lau (Stanford and Chinese University of Hong Kong) - export tax. Their argument in using a surgically precise tool like a tariff is compelling:

This the most refreshing insight so far on the yuan issue. Why has the media not talked to real economists instead of politicians? China bashing is a sport enjoyed by U.S. Democrats and Republicans alike. (There's something special about an issue that both Hillary Clinton and Henry Hyde can agree on.)

But the US cannot ignore the sad reality pointed out by Stiglitz and Lau: "America's defence that it is doing the world a service by consuming vastly beyond its means is self-serving and rings hollow: US fiscal policies and low savings have become the fundamental source of global imbalances."

And that's something that China can only do so much about.

Hinduism and feminism 

Continuing the thought from my previous post on Draupadi : A very interesting article that approaches the Indian classics from the perspective of Women's Studies is "The Bad Seed : Senior Wives and Elder Sons" by Sally J. Sutherland Goldman at Berkeley, wherein she explores the themes of rivalry between senior and junior wives. She writes :

The popularity and durability of these stories demonstrate that they articulate for their audiences a crucial social configuration of the Indian family and, by extension, society. In doing so, we must remember that the epics were composed and, for the most part, transmitted by males who were expressing male concerns and fears. Their audiences, however, were both male and female, and the epic tradition has been used as a means of indoctrinating audiences of both sexes with its patriarchical attitudes. Finally, it is not until one can understand the underlying patriarchical concerns of a society, that we can begin to go beyond them.

The times, they are a-changing, and patriarchical attitudes are becoming a thing of the past. There is no question that the Indian classics were written in a partiarchical time. However, there are strong women characters in the Mahabharata and strong themes of feminism in the Indian classics. (Hinduism is, of course, one of the few major religions that has ideas of a female God and the Divine Feminine). Draupadi's question "As the master of whom?" is not only a feminist question, it is also the feminist question for its historical context.

Draupadi's character expresses feminism at least as strongly as women characters in the Bible. There are few major female characters in the Old Testament and the New Testament, and scholars have relied on characters such as Mary to explore feminist expression. David Van Biema wrote in Time magazine for their Christmas cover story Behind the First Noel, an wonderful, well-researched article on the story of the Nativity. I wonder if they have articles such as these exploring contemporary interpretations of Indic religions in mainstream Indian magazines - I do not recall many from when I was in India. From Time :

These days, however, some feminist readers like Vanderbilt University's Amy-Jill Levine, editor of the forthcoming "Feminist Companion to Mariology" are more interested in what might be called Mary's feistiness. After all, Levine points out, the handmaid line does not follow immediately upon the angel's tidings that "thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and call his name Jesus ..." Rather, Mary poses the logical query, "How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?" Says Levine: "She asks, 'How's that going to happen?' And when his answer makes sense to her, she in effect gives permission." Was this what Luke had in mind when he put the schene down on papyrus? "

Religion is, of course, an evolving phenomenon, and exploring religion from the perspective of contemporary issues is what keeps it alive. As Indian magazines expand beyond India and start catering to a wider audience, perhaps we will see more such interpretations.

Previous posts : 1, 2, 3

Thursday, April 21, 2005

The Flat World Society 

I saw the beginnings of Tom Friedman's new book, The World Is Flat when he came down to Bangalore to research it and spoke to all manner of call center employees, CEOs, street-side vendors and other usual suspects. Since then, I've seen excerpts from those interviews on various television channels and newspapers and it appears Friedman is as naive as ever - oversimplifying and approaching his subject with the wide-eyed awe of a child that is more irritating than illuminating.

When I came across this extremely caustic review of his book in The New York Press, an excellent alternative newspaper, I was more than happy that someone had something to say that was not eulogizing Friedman's efforts.

On an ideological level, Friedman's new book is the worst, most boring kind of middlebrow horseshit. If its literary peculiarities could somehow be removed from the equation, The World Is Flat would appear as no more than an unusually long pamphlet replete with the kind of plug-filled, free-trader leg-humping that passes for thought in this country. It is a tale of a man who walks 10 feet in front of his house armed with a late-model Blackberry and comes back home five minutes later to gush to his wife that hospitals now use the internet to outsource the reading of CAT scans. Man flies on planes, observes the wonders of capitalism, says we're not in Kansas anymore. (He actually says we're not in Kansas anymore.) That's the whole plot right there. If the underlying message is all that interests you, read no further, because that's all there is.

It's impossible to divorce The World Is Flat from its rhetorical approach. It's not for nothing that Thomas Friedman is called "the most important columnist in America today." That it's Friedman's own colleague at the New York Times (Walter Russell Mead) calling him this, on the back of Friedman's own book, is immaterial. Friedman is an important American. He is the perfect symbol of our culture of emboldened stupidity. Like George Bush, he's in the reality-making business. In the new flat world, argument is no longer a two-way street for people like the president and the country's most important columnist. You no longer have to worry about actually convincing anyone; the process ends when you make the case.

IP and international development 

Cory Doctorow is right: India's statement at the UN World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) on how to reform the IP regime so that it promotes development and not just monopoly rights is truly amazing. As Doctorow suggests, it should indeed be taught at universities.

The real "development" imperative is ensuring that the interest of Intellectual Property owners is not secured at the expense of the users of IP, of consumers at large, and of public policy in general. The proposal therefore seeks to incorporate international IP law and practice, what developing countries have been demanding since TRIPS was forced on them in 1994.

The primary rationale for Intellectual Property protection is, first and foremost, to promote societal development by encouraging technological innovation. The legal monopoly granted to IP owners is an exceptional departure from the general principle of competitive markets as the best guarantee for securing the interest of society. The rationale for the exception is not that extraction of monopoly profits by the innovator is, of and in itself, good for society and so needs to be promoted. Rather, that properly controlled, such a monopoly, by providing an incentive for innovation, might produce sufficient benefits for society to compensate for the immediate loss to consumers as a result of the existence of a monopoly market instead of a competitive market. Monopoly rights, then, granted to IP holders is a special incentive that needs to be carefully calibrated by each country, in the light of its own circumstances, taking into account the overall costs and benefits of such protection.

If only India could have applied the same enlightened reason and logic while discussing the new Patent Bill instead of passing it with undue haste, succumbing to pressure from international pharmaceutical lobbyists.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Remittances, back again 

Way back in October 2003, I had made a series of posts (I, II, III) on the migration of workers from developing countries and the costs it imposed on these countries. These posts were made in the wake of an influential essay in Foreign Affairs by Jagdish Bhagwati. In one particular post made in response to Bhagwati's idea on external taxation, I wrote thusly:

Much has been made about the cost to developing countries of emigration. In fact, a UNDP report suggested that India loses about $2 billion every year because of the emigration of computer professionals alone. Let me ballpark that number a bit and suggest that India perhaps loses $5-$6 billion every year due to emigration of all hues. Sounds huge, except none of the naysayers takes into account the role of remittances. The remittances from Indians abroad amounts to somewhere in the region of $9-$11 billion per year, depending on where you look. That's a net gain to India and makes the idea of taxation on emigrants rather superfluous, besides complex and problematic to enforce.

In this context, I was truly amazed at the statistics revealed in the newly released Global Development Finance 2005 report. According to this World Bank report, remittances by overseas Indians exceeded $23 billion in 2004. Yes, $23 billion!! And these numbers do not even take hawala channels into account. By comparison, the entire IT industry in India (Software, ITeS and Hardware) brought in revenues of $21.5 billion in the same year. Similarly, the revenues generated for the government by income taxes in 2004 was about $ 9 billion.

I am using these comparison to drive home two points.

1. I hope the occasional flirtation with the idea of external taxation will cease once these remittances numbers become public knowledge.

2. Instead of treating them like outsiders and pariahs, the Indian government must find a way to tap into the considerable financial and intellectual resources of the non-resident community. The Indian American Council founded by the CII (headed by Sam Pitroda), whose opening I attended the day before yesterday in New York, is an excellent first step in that direction.

A 'Liquid' Alternative Investment 

Increasing interest in Chinese and Indian art as investments has got many business magazines to write about such alternative investments. The focus on art from these regions is driven by simple supply and demand trends. Investors in Chinese and Indian art are betting on the scenario that as people in these regions get richer they will purchase art, driving up the prices.

There is however another alternative investment that is receiving significant attention - Wine. As Indians get richer and acquire wine drinking habits (already happening - see this), the demand for fine wines (mostly from France) is bound to increase but the supply is, for geographical reasons, limited.

A PBS interview on investing in wine claims impressive returns and the benefits of knowing exactly where to invest (Wines from Bordeaux, vintage ports and fine champagnes are said to be investment drinks).

COLVIN: Okay, so you don't have to be the kind of person who can identify 1982 Chateau Margaux blindfolded.

RYNECKI: No, you don't have to be that person at all. Because what's simple about it, and this is what makes wine investing beautiful compared to stock investing, in stock investing you have 7,000, 8,000 public companies and just as many mutual funds. It's impossible to actually figure out what will do well. In wine investing, you're really talking about 20 to 25 blue chip wines, and they primarily come from the Bordeaux region of France.

COLVIN: Well, some of them have done fabulously. I mean if we look at some of the returns, just over almost 5 years, a little less than 5 years, Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, up 875 percent; Le Pin, up 700 percent; Chateau Petrus, 531 percent. Those are fabulous returns for 5 years.

That the profits are not taxable is also often touted as an advantage. but here is a great site to infuse some realism (storage costs, insurance, scams) into wine investing. As the website clarifies...

You should not use drink as your primary investment vehicle. Only invest what you can afford to lose. You have to buy the right wines at the right price and the right time.

Well, the upside with investing in wine is that even in the worst case scenario you'll be sitting with some old empty bottles of wine and some drunk friends!

In any case, I rather start distributing in India some wines from smaller vineyards in Europe and from the 'New World'. Is anyone reading already doing this?

UPDATE: Another alternative is to simply invest in a fund that invests in wine. One such recent hedge fund doing this is OWC asset management. Their site has wine prices and the fund performance since it started.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Troubled Tradition 

For over four months now, I've been at the core of a controversy about traditional values in Indian classical music. Though the actual circumstances surrounding the controversy are a little dated, reactions to what happened on January 8, at the Chowdiah Memorial Hall (a traditional concert venue in Bangalore) are still pouring into my in box.

The issue involves one of India's most respected tabla players - Ustad Zakir Hussain. I'm putting down a brief sequence of events and a short paragraph of what actually happened on January 8. I'd love to hear your take on the issue.

Tina Sugandh is a tabla player in New Jersey, and driven by commercial considerations, chose to hit the glamorous route to popularize her music and the tabla. One of her publicity pictures features Tina wearing stilettos, seated with tablas in front of her. I used this as the cover image for my December issue with an accompanying story. Zakir Hussain, who saw the image, was extremely angry and chose to haul up Rave Magazine at a press conference in Chowdiah Memorial Hall before a scheduled performance with sarangi player Ustad Sultan Khan in January. Here's a transcript of what he said that day:

I am extremely upset with Rave Magazine. I saw the (December 04, Tina Sugandh) cover with this girl who’s got her shoes on while playing the tabla – that’s simply not done. (At this point Ustad Sultan Khan says, ‘Yeh Bilkul Acchi Baat Nahi Hai, Aisa Kabhi Nahi Kar Sakte). I think you guys have lost your focus. I had plans of doing a lot of stuff with you guys, but not anymore. This girl was born, like, this morning, and there are artistes who have worked very, very hard for 40 years, who don’t get this kind of coverage. What you’ve done is very wrong – even with someone like Ustad Sultan Khan, who is really a great Ustad, and he should be treated such, because he’s right up there with all the other greats – you can’t put him down below this kid, to a second level on your cover. I have a copy of Rave Magazine in my room – and I see that on the last page there are all these pictures of the previous covers: the first few are of established classical Indian musicians, but then later, all you have are pretty women. There is clearly a loss of focus. And you cannot say it’s still all about the music, because it’s not about quality music any more. I know it’s about selling units, but this is about respecting senior artistes. I mean, I could give Ustad Sultan Khan a plastic surgery job, so you can put him on your cover! (Aside, Ustad Sultan Khan says to Ustad Hussain: ‘Jo Ho Gaya So Ho Gaya,’ and Ustad Hussain replies: ‘Aage Jo Hoga Yeh Dekha Jaayega.’)

Verizon: We're Laughing at You 

Over the years while living in Hong Kong, I've seen the US continually lagging in ICT growth and development. But perhaps this is the darkest and most ominous sign yet that the US is dangerously insipid, naive and ready to be roadkill.

Ivan Seidenberg, the CEO of Verizon, in the SF Chronicle, first lambasts public Wifi networks being created by municipalities such as San Francisco and Philadelphia. Standard FUD for a telecom CEO. What is truly flabbergasting is this comment about his own cell network:
"Why in the world would you think your (cell) phone would work in your house?" he said. "The customer has come to expect so much. They want it to work in the elevator; they want it to work in the basement."
Did you hear that? It's the sound of 1.3 billion Chinese laughing at you.

I can only speak for what I know about China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. But whether you're in Beijing downtown, the Hong Kong subway, Gobi Desert, the Three Gorges, Guilin's karst peaks, or a Shanghai elevator, you're covered. Yes, Mr. Seidenberg, in the elevator of the Charms Hotel in Shanghai, is a plaque inside that says, "This elevator is covered by China Mobile."

People in Asia expect ubiquitous coverage. They're appalled when they visit the States.

Why have US customers tolerated bad cell phone service for so long? Shouldn't competition have delivered better results? And I don't buy the excuse that "The US is a big country, with lower population density." Reception in midtown Manhattan stinks. Reception in Sunnyvale, California, in Silicon Valley, with tightly packed $750,000 homes stinks.

Please tell me something optimistic about the US mobile market.

Thanks to Dan Gillmor for pointing this out.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

A World of Good 

The 2004-05 edition of the Global Social Venture Competition, a business plan competition for new business ventures that address social or environmental change had its final round at Berkeley yesterday. This competition is co-hosted annually by the London School of Business, Berkeley and Columbia University. The first prize winner, was a team titled 'A World of Good', a venture that plans to sell handicrafts manufactured by artisans from all over the world at fair trade prices. Interestingly as one of the judges mentioned during the prize distribution ceremony, this venture employs a proven business model. Although related or similar models and organizations exist at micro and macro levels in several parts of the world, this team's successful operational performance over the past year was the key factor that separated it from the other contestants.

Professor Emeritus James G.March, famous for co-authoring many works in organizational theory - most notably with Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon, has written about firms indulging in Exploration (seeking out new markets, strategies or technologies) and Exploitation (exploiting existing technologies or strategies). It is indeed interesting to note that some contemporary business plan competitions do seem to favor 'Exploitation' strategies that showcase executional efficiency as opposed to uncertain but potentially high-impact 'Exploration' ventures.

On another note, the Indian School of Business is gearing up to become a major partner in this endeavour and is planning to conduct an Asian Challenge, drawing entries from all over Asia as a precursor to this competition next year. Way to go ISB!

Blogging on Hinduism 

There are few topics that interest me as much as Hinduism (Previous posts : 1, 2). I don't intend to make this blog a pulpit. The posts are merely a result of my intellectual curiosity and fascination about a religion with more than 800 million followers, and whose tradition I was born into. Many religious practitioners, including many of my Christian friends, don't place much importance on an intellectual understanding of their religion, since religion is anyway, after all, about faith. I tend to agree. What I personally find particularly interesting about Hinduism are the intellectual aspects of the religion - philosophy, beliefs, literature and mythology.

There are a couple of approaches to Hinduism - that of the devotee or the religionist, and that of the scholar or the student. My approach is primarily intellectual. I tend to think of the Indian classics as religious and philosophical works of a group of people of a certain time and place, and the Hindu traditions to be representative of those people and those times. I don't nescessarily hold any particular tradition sacrosanct above the others, but by the same token, the references in the classics are artifacts of the conventions of their historical and geographic context.

Such a contextual approach is no different from interpreting anything else historical, say, the Dred Scott decision of 1857. The case sounds shocking today. One of the major questions of the case was whether Dred Scott ought to be considered 'property'. However, even the defendants of the litigant used what would be considered today politically incorrect terminology, and I think the defense ought to be understood in the context of its time. As a 'colored' person, and even otherwise, I, of course, sympathise entirely with Dred Scott.

There is an effort to to promote a more sensitive, humanistic and informed approach to the interpretation of the classics and Hinduism. I read Prof. Hiltebeitel's "Rethinking the Mahabharata" a couple of months back, and I cannot recommend highly enough the modern, culturally aware approach to interpreting the Mahabharata in the book. His book presents a very different look at the Mahabharata, as the title suggests, but it always remains sensitive and scholarly. The discussion of the famous incident of the disrobing of Draupadi is a good example of the latter.

There is no question that Draupadi's fate was decided under decidedly anti-woman legal conventions. It is easy to think of the incident as the perfect example of a bunch of men brutalizing a helpless woman, which in turn could be interpreted as indicative of a deliberately callous attitude towards women. However, it is important to note that the Mahabharata itself views the event as brutal and distasteful. What the Mahabharata itself tries to bring out is not the humiliation of Draupadi, but the humiliation of Duryodhana, Duhshaasana and the others. When Duryodhana sends an usher to get Draupadi after Yudhishthira loses her in an underhanded dice game, the Mahabharata's treatment of the incident reveals the sophistication of Draupadi's response. I found Prof. Hiltebeitel's reading of the incident of Draupadi very, very interesting.

When Duryodhana's usher ... tells Draupadi she is to come with him as a slave, she asks three questions in a burst: "How do you speak so, an usher? What Rajaputra would wager his wife? The king was befooled and crazed by the dicing. Was there nothing else for him to stake?' In these questions, she sounds angry, incredulous and then sarcastic. But when the usher has explained the betting sequence, with Yudhishthira having bet himself before he bet her, she uses her wits : "Go to the game. Having gone, ask in the sabha, what did you lose first, yourself or me? (kim nu purvam parajaisir atamanam mam nu) Having learned that, then come to take me". Draupadi formulates her question in a way that opens up two things that might work in her favor. She definitely wants the question raised "in the sabha", where she can expect it to be treated "in court" as a case of "law", dharma. And, where cleverly or inadvertently - and if we grant that she is clever to address the court, she is probably being clever here too - in asking Yudhishthira a question whose answer she has already obtained, she makes it clear at least to readers that her question is about more than it says.

The usher goes back and puts her question before the sabha, the site of the gambling which, as Draupadi keenly realizes and utilizes to her advantage, is also the court. He further quotes her on a separate question : "As the owner of whom did you lose us?'" Draupadi is, in effect, confronting the sabha with a prashna, a question.

Here, Yudhishthira did not stir, as if he had lost conciousness and made no reply... whether good or ill.'" The questions snowball even as their meanings double : "As owner of whom?" or, "As master, or lord, of what?: One may ask, did Draupadi really ask this new question? In effect, the "usher" joins Draupadi's question with Vidura's observation that Yudhishthira was "not his own master or lord" when he bet her.

By asking a tough question that has no clear legalistic answer, Draupadi has left the sabha in a state of bafflement. Yudhishthira, the master of dharma, has no answer. Nor has Bhishma, the partriarch of the family. Duryodhana is surprised at this turn of events, because he assumed that he had won Draupadi in the gambling match, but as events are turning out, a frustrated Duryodhana realizes that he may not able to arrogate his power as he likes. The disrobing incident that follows illustrates Duryodhana's frustration as opposed to his power, and shows what a pitiful person he really is.

Draupadi's question is a prasna, and as Shulman observes, "The Epic is fond of such prasnas: this is the term Draupadi uses when she tries to save herself and her husbands at the dice-game... There, as elsewhere in the text, the prasna points to a baffling, ultimately insoluble crystallization of conflict articulated along opposing lines of interpretation" (1996, 153). Draupadi's question unsettles the authorities, brings forth higher authority where it is silenced or absent, and opens the question of authority to multiple voices, including her own and the poets'. The sabha is the epic's ultimate setting for constructing, deconstructing and rethinking authority.

Previous posts : 1, 2, 3

Ghee happy 

[Via Sepia Mutiny] Sanjay Patel has a great-looking children's book out, introducing kids to Hindu mythology with pictures of gods and goddesses. I would suggest changing the title, though, to something other than "Little India" since India is a multi-religious nation.

I don't think of the pictures as distortions, a point that Sanjay tries to clarify, but merely as a way to creatively interpret the mythology. I have even seen some people in India place pictures of Jesus right next to pictures of their own gods as a way of honoring him. Whether that is really an acceptable way of honoring him is an interesting question.

Friday, April 15, 2005

A Harmless Drudge? 

Today is Leonardo da Vinci's birthday. It is also the 250th anniversary of the publication of one of the most celebrated works in the English language, Dr Samuel Johnson's Dictionary. Beryl Bainbridge describes the importance of this truly remarkable book:

For more than half a century the English intellectual world had been mortified by the lack of a major English dictionary. The great national dictionaries had been produced by Italy and France, the former in 1612 and the latter completed in 1700. It seemed impossible that anyone in England could tackle the magnitude of such a task. A schoolmaster called Nathan Bailey had made a good attempt in 1721, but it dealt primarily with the origin of words. Some definitions were on the casual side, for example, "Horse - beast well-known". Johnson supplies five definitions, including "Joined to another substantive it signifies something large and coarse, as in horse-face".

In all, he defined more than 40,000 words, illustrating their meanings by the inclusion of 140,000 quotations drawn from writings in English from the middle of the Elizabethan period down to his own time.

Apart from the sheer scope of the work, what made Johnson's Dictionary such a landmark in the study of the language? Henry Hitchings answers the question:

One of [the Dictionary's] most important features was the use of illustrative quotations to buttress the definitions. Johnson saw that it was not enough to say what words meant; he had to show them in use.

To make this possible, he scoured the literature of the previous 200 years for suitable passages. In fact, this was where he began. Rather than dreaming up a colossal wordlist and then looking for examples of each word, he began with the illustrations and worked backwards from there. So, for instance, he came across a sentence of John Locke's in which Locke wrote of the "bugbear thoughts" which "once got into the tender minds of children, sink deep, so as not easily, if ever, to be got out again". Drawing on this - and on five other quotations, from four other authors - Johnson could distil the essence of the word and conclude that a "bugbear" was "a frightful object; a walking spectre, imagined to be seen; generally now used for a false terror to frighten babes".

This emphasis on finding source material and using it as evidence was, in British lexicography at least, an innovation, and it has been influential. The practice continues to this day in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Of course, no celebration of Johnson would be complete without mention of his devoted biographer, James Boswell. Here's Bainbridge again:

In any week in the broadsheets, in parliamentary debates, in discussion programmes on both radio and television, the remark "as Dr Johnson once said" frequently occurs, followed by a pithy and erudite quotation. The curious fact is that but for a young and often inebriated Scottish lawyer called James Boswell, the name of Samuel Johnson, Dictionary or not, would have been forgotten long ago; few people have read a word of the poems or essays. Boswell's biography of the "Good Doctor", whom he met in 1763, is a work of genius, so real, so modern in its immediacy, that its subject remains untouchable to this day.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

The Dual of Engrish 

The well-known website Engrish.com is dedicated to providing photographic evidence of accidental hilarity resulting from poorly informed usage of English signage and advertising in East Asia, especially Japan. The site has been around since before the blog era; in today's terminology it might be called a minimalist photoblog.

The interesting news is that there is now a blog, called Hanzi Smatter, that is a kind of dual of Engrish.com: as the blog's header announces, it is "dedicated to the misuse of Chinese characters (Hanzi or Kanji) in Western culture". I have been following the blog for quite some time now and I find it interesting that most of its examples come from people getting Hanzi writing tattooed on their bodies. I was certainly not aware of this fad before I started reading the blog.

Can Devanagari tattoos be far behind, now?

A Low Cost Solution for Malaria? 

Several reports on the web suggest that 'curcumin', the active ingredient in turmeric promises to prevent malaria. Given the number of people that are affected by malaria, this might be good news. One such report is at Deccan Herald

Scientists at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore and the University of Michigan Medical School in the United States showed that curcumin inhibits drug-resistant forms of plasmodium falciparum, the parasite that causes cerebral malaria.

When they fed curcumin to mice infected with Plasmodium bergheii, a related parasite that causes rodent malaria, the number of parasites in the mice's blood fell by 80% to 90%.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Porn and Society 

It is predictable now. Some pornography-associated business tycoon donates money to a political party ( a recent case is of Richard Desmond donating to the Labour party). An uproar follows.

Soon enough, there are two camps on either side of the question 'Is porn good for soceity'? This question is gaining in importance with ever increasing distribution channels for (explicit) content. It is only obvious how answering this question is more important in a world with TVs, internet and cam-phones. Moreover, the catalyst triggering this question - political donations -is only likely to occur more frequenlty as the porn business, currently a $10bn business in the US alone, heads towards greater sales.

The camp that believes that porn is good for society believes that exposure to porn provides a channel, that in turn reduces sexual crime. In academic circles this theory is known as "catharsis". Japan and Scandinavia are pointed to as supporting cases, where liberal attitudes accompany low crime rates against women. As an older BBC article points out

The "Danish experience" is often held up as good example. In 1969 Denmark lifted all restrictions on pornography, and sex crimes declined. For example, between 1965 and 1982 sex crimes against children went from 30 per 100,000 to about 5 per 100,000. Similar evidence was found for rape rates.

However, it must be noted that, some of this may be due to a lack of reporting by these countries to keep their image intact - see, for example, a recent New York Times article emphasizing that domestic abuse is an unspoken problem in Sweden!

On the other end of the hanging balance are views that porn exploits women and promotes crime against them. A vocal group of feminists have subscribed to this view. One of them is Andrea Dworkin, who recently passed away, and another is Robin Morgan who famously proclaimed: "Pornography is the theory and rape is the practice." While this might be extreme it clearly cannot be dismissed as Gore Vidal did when he said "The only thing pornography is known to cause is the solitary act of masturbation".

While one can argue one way or another based on factors of cultural attitudes, social interaction, population density etc., I think the true answer will lie only in the kind of brain research that is now booming.

Perhaps the MIT Brain Lab needs to just see how the brain changes with high exposure to porn and whether such changes tend to make an 'unexposed' brain look more like the scans from someone who has committed sexual crimes (with and without impetus from porn). I really hope someone does this soon.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Hard Rock Bombay? 

Via Sepia Mutiny, I also came to know that the Hard Rock Cafe is setting up shop in Bombay come September. The only caveat is that this story appears in the Times of India. Most of you know what that implies. Either way, Bombay, consider yourself warned.

The Blogger meet on video 

Shashwati had filmed parts of the East Coast Blogger meet on DV. An edited QT movie of the event is now being mirrored at Sepia Mutiny. Kerim Friedman has some pictures up on Flickr too.

Good news on the biotech front 

For once, the Indian government has decided to be pro-active in fostering quick growth in a key sector for the future -- biotechnology. The government recently announced its intention to allow 100% FDI through the automatic route in the biotech sector. The goal the government has set is that biotech become a $5 billion industry by 2010. The draft biotech strategy also addresses the issues of embryonic stem cells and the creation of a biotech regulatory body.

The policy states that embryos will not be allowed to be generated for the sole purpose of obtaining stem cells for embryonic stem cell research. Only surplus, or spare embryos should be used after obtaining informed consent of both spouses. Research based on stem cells derived from adult bone marrow or foetal cord blood may be undertaken only after obtaining approval from the appropriately constituted Ethics Committee and informed consent from the concerned subject, the strategy states.

The government proposes to set up a National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority to provide an effective clearance mechanism for all biotech products. In medical biotechnology, priority should be accorded to research in molecular and cellular biology, neuroscience, molecular genetics, transplantation biology, genomics, proteomics, system biology and RNA interference.

I can only hope the ethics and regulatory authorities will do for the biotech sector what the TRAI did for the Telecom sector.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Google Maps now with satellite images 

[From Eugene Letuchy] Following up on my previous post on Google Maps, Google Maps now has satellite images. Go to maps.google.com. Type in your search query, and click "Satellite" : the effect is quite striking! The transition to the satellite map is not exact as you can tell from the coastline. Superimposing the two maps is a really neat idea, though.

Suhit and Atanu have posted on Deeshaa before on the transaction costs associated with lack of organized street addressing in India.

A typical letter in a typical developed world would read:

Ramesh Singh
123 Gandhi Road
Pune, Maharashtra 44123

In India, it would be

Ramesh Singh
Networld Building
Opp: Star Cinemas
Vasant Sagar Complex near Local Station
Deccan Gymkhana
Pune, Maharashtra 44123

Anybody who has been in a developing nation such as India without organized street addressing (or even countries like Japan that don't have such a system for historical reasons) knows how incredibly frustrating it is to spend time and effort in simply locating a street address. Since street addressing reduces transaction costs for everybody, the folks at Deeshaa have argued that it might be a good idea for the government to participate in standardizing street addresses. I think it would be a great thing to have, but I wouldn't hold my breath. What this might be, though, is an entrepreneurial opportunity for people to start a mapping service charging a few cents per lookup. Publicly available mapping technology could prove to be leap-frogging technology in developing nations.

On a different note : I have a whole bunch of GMail ids to give out. I am sure that the savvy readers of Zoo Station are all likely to have one by now, but if perchance you don't, please leave your id in the comments (username AT domainname DOT com) if you would like to get one. Two, if you are Japanese. Arigato gozaimasu.

India's open skies policy 

Some of you have been reading about India's new open skies policy, I presume. First, there was an agreement signed with the U.K., followed by one with the U.S. Negotiations are now ongoing for a similar agreement with Canada. Very briefly, an open skies agreement ensures unrestricted access by any number of carriers without specifying capacity, cities catered to, fares etc. An open skies agreement is almost always beneficial to the consumer since it brings down prices and increases the frequency of services, something that anyone who has tried to book a ticket to India in December will welcome.

Dramatic increases in the number of flights are also an absolute necessity for the Indian tourism sector to perform anywhere near its true potential. Andy Mukherjee addresses some of these issues in a column written for Bloomberg.

India needs visitors. Its "openness," measured as the combined share of inbound and outbound travel in gross domestic product, is lower than that of Iran and Nigeria. Nor is the 1.27 percent share much higher than 1.01 percent in 1995, according to World Bank figures. The continent-sized country got only 3.4 million overseas visitors last year, compared with 8.3 million in the city-state of Singapore. Lack of flights is the single biggest reason for India not getting its fair share. Between November 2004 and March 2005, when the Indian government temporarily relaxed controls on overseas flights to meet demand for peak season, it got flooded with requests for 2,400 additional flights, or about 500,000 seats.

If the malaise and the remedy are both known, as is the potential gain from easing the flight crunch, why isn't the government opening India's skies to all? The reason is Air India Ltd., the state-owned flag carrier. It was a leading Asian airline before the government nationalized it in 1953. Since then, the carrier has been usually profitable only because it has operated in a cozy cocoon, protected by the Indian government not only from foreign competitors but also from non-state-owned Indian carriers.

All that's changing now. There's pressure from foreign governments for greater access to more Indian cities. Meanwhile, private Indian airlines have prevailed upon the state to end its monopoly on international flights. From April 14, Jet Airways (India) Ltd., the country's biggest non-state airline, is starting a daily flight to Singapore. It will be joined next month by Sahara Airlines, another private Indian operator. Prices will crash on the lucrative -- and usually overbooked -- sector. And this will soon happen on other routes too, as Jet and Sahara extend their reach.

The Gmail Conundrum 

The Economist recently had a special on the consumer's ability to leverage the Internet into making better buying decisions. A story called Buying the Future made this comment about targeted advertising using Gmail as an example.

Gmail, a free online e-mail service offered by Google, could provide a clue to the way things are going. It has lots of features and offers 1,000 megabytes of storage space, much more than its rivals. In return, users agree to allow small text ads to be placed in their e-mails. The ads are selected to match the subject matter of the e-mail, with Google's ad-placement software picking up on certain key words.

Regular readers will remember that the privacy concerns of Gmail have been discussed on this blog earlier. Seeing this comment however reminded me of something I've been meaning to ask about the nature of Gmail's business model. For a while now, Gmail has offered free POP access. I, for one, read my Gmail using Thunderbird. Obviously, when I download the messages to Thunderbird, the ads that generate revenues for Gmail are stripped away.

How does Google plan to make money off advertising if a large number of users shift to reading Gmail via their clients? Or are they betting that most users will not use POP access? More likely, are they planning to do a Yahoo and start charging for POP access once they have a critical mass of users? The website says they have no plans of charging for the service now or in the future. So, how do they intend on making money then?

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Two for the price of one 

(Via Aditya) When search gets ultra competitive, Yagoohoogle happens. Split panes let you compare results between Google and Yahoo. If nothing else, you can waste time comparing search speeds. In my experience, Google is just a teeny bit faster.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Sir Richard and the Dabbawallahs 

Earlier today, Rediff.com put up this brilliant photograph of Richard Branson doing a, well, Richard Branson. Apparently, Sir Richard boarded the local train from Andheri along with the dabbawallahs and travelled all the way to Churchgate. In 2nd class, no less. He then delivered food for his staff in that custom-made Virgin Atlantic dabba. Now, this is how showmanship is done.

Final reminder: East Coast blogger meet on April 2nd 

In case any of you still want to attend, the east coast blogger meet that we've organised is on tomorrow in Manhattan. Tiffin Box has the updated details. As of this evening, we will have 26 bloggers of Indian origin, a television news crew and a journalist or two who will be attending. Should be fun to finally put faces to names.

Jeff Sachs's math on ARV drugs 

I was at a public lecture by Jeff Sachs yesterday, which was part of his nationwide promotion tour for his new book, The End of Poverty (more on the book in a later post). One of the statistics he threw out grabbed my attention. Sachs said that the cost of a single dose of ARV treatment for HIV/AIDS in Africa had dropped to $0.30 per day. Sachs has clearly worked out the costs for fighting HIV/AIDS in Africa (outlined in the book) under the assumption that he will continue to get drugs at these cheap prices.

The spanner in the works is the Indian Patent Bill, which I have posted about earlier (I, II). A very large part of sub-Saharan Africa's ARV drugs comes from CIPLA and Ranbaxy. If the new patent bill becomes law, the current ARV drugs are not under threat. However, if any new anti-AIDS drugs enter the market, neither CIPLA nor Ranbaxy will be allowed to make generic versions, and this will almost certainly mean that sub-Saharan Africa will be at the mercy of the pharma giants for access. Not a very pleasant thought, is it, especially when you consider their shenanigans in South Africa not so long ago?

It also affects the costing structure that Jeff Sachs has worked out in his book. If he cannot access drugs at $0.30 a dose, his numbers don't work out. I wanted to ask him yesterday how he could control for variables such as India's new patent law, but never got the chance to ask. If I ever do put the question to him, I'll be sure to update the blog on his thoughts on this issue.

Full Disclosure -- Jeff Sachs used to be my boss, in principle, at the Earth Insitute.

Dan Brown reveals the truth about Kashmir 

If the Times of India is to be believed, Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown is writing a new book called "The secret of the K-Word" which makes some amazing revelations about the true nature of Kashmir's accession to India.

Using spectroscopic analysis (a technique described in detail in The Da Vinci Code' the author claims to have discovered the original document over which the Instrument of Accession, signed by Kashmir maharaja Hari Singh and preserved in the National Archives, New Delhi, was later superimposed.) The secret document reveals that Hari Singh, equally apprehensive of joining either India or Pakistan, covertly ceded Kashmir to the US. According to Brown, when the map of Kashmir is reversed it becomes, uncannily, congruent with the hilly state of Kentucky in the southern US.

In a telephonic interview with The Times of India , the Houston-based author said he had employed the ancient Kabbalistic form of numerological interpretation to discover "amazing co-relatives between Kashmir and Kentucky which by no stretch of the imagination can be put down to pure coincidence". For instance, when the longitude of Frankfort, the capital of Kentucky, is divided by the latitude of Srinagar, the Kashmiri capital, the prime number so obtained has the same numeric valency as Article 370 of the Indian Constitution which accords a special status to Kashmir.

Disclaiming that America's Central Intelligence Agency had any role in these developments, the author said, "The truth can no longer be suppressed. We owe this much at least to the long-suffering people of Kashmir. May the truth set them free, at long last."

For those who haven't caught on yet, happy april fools day!!

Yes, I did check up on Frankfort since it sounded a little dodgy. It is, in fact, the capital of Kentucky. This means that the Times of India does more research on its fake news stories than it does on its real stories. Jon Stewart would be pleased.