Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A Modest Proposal

On Christmas Day 2009, aspiring Nigerian pantybomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab set his explosive-laden underwear on fire in an attempt to bring down the aeroplane on which he was traveling to Detroit. This was the first attempt to bring down an American airliner since shoebomber Richard Reid tried to light his explosive shoes on fire in late 2001. It was also a huge failure in airport security, since security protocols had been strengthened multiple times since the September 11 attacks, and this sort of thing was just not supposed to happen anymore.

To it's credit, the US administration immediately tried to rectify these security holes. Homeland Security Janet Napolitano tried in a time tested manner to stick her head in the metaphorical sand and pretend that security worked just fine. The Transportation Security Administration issued new guidelines that would ban blankets, toilet privileges for passengers and inflight movies on the theory that if flying was made tedious enough, terrorists would refuse to fly. Bill Clinton (who is not a member of the administration but might as well be) redoubled his efforts to reduce the number of virgins in the world and the next, thereby denying terrorists a valuable recruiting tool.

However, it is already apparent that these measures will not fly. The American public is in no mood to be denied its blankets, potty breaks and the chance to catch up on old reruns of Friends on boring long-haul intercontinental flights. They are even less inclined to put up with intrusive searches by hand or even by the proposed new millimeter scanners (that would report TSAs to see, save and share with 37 of their best friends images of your privates). The administration is thus caught between a chunk of vitrified minerals and a hard place: It must make sure that such attacks never come so close to success in the future, but it must also try and not inconvenience the great majority of the American flying public. The security apparat is this scrambling to find a new security protocol that will allow them to stay within these two strictures.

It is our opinion that there already exists a method that would allow the TSA to secure American planes while at the same time keeping most passengers from unnecessary discomfort. However the weak-kneed civil libertarians and bleeding heart liberals who currently populate power structures in Washington are too yellow to even consider it. That method, that solution, that silver bullet is a simple technique perfected by police departments in ghettos across America: Profiling. But how would this profiling work?
A Typical Engineer
Consider this: What is common to Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, Mohammad Atta and Umar Frouk Abdulmutallab other than they are all lowlife terrorist scum? That's right, they are all engineers. Engineers are overrpresented in the membership Jihadi terrorist groups. Al-Qaeda and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (the parent organisation of Hamas), the Lashkar e-Taiba, Jamiya Islamia and Hezbollah were chiefly founded by engineers. It is no exaggeration that most if not all the top leadership of jihadi groups are trained in engineering. This phenomenon is so striking that sociologists write lengthy papers (link pdf) trying to explain this trend.

But what does this have to do with airplane security and with profiling? Well, it's simple. While it is true that most engineers are not terrorists, it is evident that almost all terrorists are engineers. That being the case, it is the our opinion that if you are male, an engineer and between 18 and 28 years of age, you should be strip searched at the security gate of airports. This is a serious and harsh version of profiling, but if we do not do this, we are going to lose an airliner. It also has the effect of reducing the level of scrutiny that other passengers go through. Sadly, given the climate of appeasement and political correctness that permeates the holders of power in this country, that is unlikely to happen. And I think that is the problem.

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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Avatar as a Rorschach Test

On the cab ride back from the theater where we saw Avatar, my friend Uthra remarked how it was odd that protagonist Jake Sully's avatar in the movie appeared with a U-shaped marking on his forehead which very closely resembled the naamam of the Indian Vaishnavite Brahmin The Na'vi achieved their dexterity and flexibility through intense training with fellow Vaishnavite BKS Iyengarsubcaste. She also remarked that the blue colouring of Na'vi, the alien race to which Jake's avatar and many other characters belong was similar to Ram and Krishna, two of the avatars of Vishnu. Clearly, she said, the Na'vi were Vaishnavites.

Of course, we just had to stretch the metaphor further. The very concept of Avatars is Vaishnavite in origin. Also, the Na'vi are worshipers of Eywa, a force that maintains the balance of life on their world. This is also the prime motivation of Vishnu. The Na'vis' human antagonists, on the other hand, wish to destroy much of their world to extract resources for their own civilisation - a motivation that can broadly be described as Shaivite. The main human villain, Colonel Quaritch, ever has three horizontal slashes on his head that resemble the tilak that Indian Shaivite Brahmins wear on their foreheads. Clearly, by our reasoning, Avatar is Vaishnavite propaganda aimed at showing Shaivites in a negative light and positing a victory for the Vaishnavites in the future struggle between the two (this is obviously nonsense - Shaivites are the the Vaishnavites' superior in everything that matters).

But when I came back home and read the multitude of reviews of Avatar, I realised that almost everyone else that saw the movie had been engaging in similar allegory. Some praised it as a metaphor for the displacement and genocide of the Native Americans. Others hailed it as a commentary on the unjust seizure of private property by corrupt local governments using eminent domain. Ross Douthat of the New York Times eviscerated it as an advertisement for taking up pantheism in preference to the Western world's more prevalent Abrahamic religions. Annalee Newitz of io9 decried it as an escapist fantasy seeking to assuage white guilt while maintaining white privilege. Other people looked through their 3D glasses and saw variously notions of the white man's burden, the noble savage, blame-America-first liberals, Iraq War criticism, the military-industrial complex, gorilla researchers in the Congo and many other things besides. And they either loved or hated the movie for these reasons.

Make no mistake, Avatar is a path breaking movie. It is perhaps even a historical movie - the first to utilise technologies such as performance capture, the first to depict CGI characters in primary roles without entering the uncanny valley, the first to use 3D in a non-gimmicky fashion in a mainstream film. It is visually appealing and an incredible experience to watch and listen to. But in spite of all this, Avatar serves as a kind of Rorschach test to project our hopes and fears into. We either love or hate Avatar based on not what it is, but on the deeper meaning we read into it. It becomes to us either a needed confirmation of cherished views, or an unwelcome statement of positions we despise and we develop strong feelings based on these readings of the movies.

So what I am basically saying is that Avatar is the cinematic equivalent of Barack Obama. Stay tuned for the inevitable Nobel Prize next year.

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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Reflections on Armistice Day

As an Indian, the 11th of November never really had much significance for me. World War I is largely absent from the Indian consciousness. Sure, many English-speaking Indians are aware that it happened - we studied it in our history books and perhaps even read British and American books about it. Even so, it is largely a war that happened to other people. We wear no poppies on the 11th of November, and nor do we hold solemn marches on the 25th of April. The poem In Flanders Fields hold no significance for us, nor does the vast majority of the literature written by men who fought in that futile and pointlessly wasteful war.

Yet Indian soldiers served, fought and died in this war. A million men - forming the largest all-volunteer force to serve in the war - were sent overseas to fight for a country they would never see and a King-Emperor whose name they could not pronounce. They fought in the meat-grinder of the Western Front, where Khudadad Khan became the first non-white man to win the Victoria Cross. They fought in the East Africa Campaign where they died in the thousands of disease and privation while their incompetent commanders let a tiny German force run rings around them for four years. Some were even sent to Gallipoli to fight in the ill-considered and badly thought out Dardenelles Campaign. The greatest number by far fought in the original War for Oil - the Mesopotamia Campaign.

Perhaps the defining event of the Indian experience in World War I was the Siege of Kut, a part An Indian survivor of the Siege of Kut and subsequent imprisonmentof that same Mesopotamia campaign. The Siege began in the December of 1915, when the Sixth (Poona) Division of the Indian Army established a position in the town of Kut after retreating from another battle. Their dithering commander, Charles Townshend, failed to break out of the town despite multiple opportunities to do so, and his equally incompetent counterparts in the relief force failed to dislodge the numerically inferior Turkish besiegers. Finally after four months, his soldiers starving and reduced to eating their pack animals, Townshend surrendered unconditionally to the Turks. While he lived out the rest of the War in comfort, Townshend's troops were treated brutally by the Turks. Of the 30,000 odd troops he started out with, about 13,000 lived to surrender along with Townshend. Barely four thousand survived the two and a half years of ill-treatment and privation at the hands of the Ottoman Army. After failing to do much to protect his men from their captors, Townshend returned home to a hero's acclaim and was elected to Parliament.

While the Siege of Kut is a particularly egregious example of the suffering of Indian troops in the War, other theaters and battles were quite bad as well. Three thousand Indians died in East Africa of disease alone. The Indian contingent in Gallipoli suffered close to 60 per cent losses, along with most of the other Allied forces. Why did so many sign up to fight this faraway foreign war in such terrible conditions? Undoubtedly many joined up for the money, for the steady pay and the wartime bonuses. Some joined to continue the martial traditions of their families and communities. A large part of the Indian contingent in World War I were actually soldiers in the armies of the Indian Princes, sent to fight for the Emperor of India, who also conveniently happened to be King of England. Given the paucity of written accounts by these soldiers though, in most cases we will never know why they joined up.

My great-grandfather was one of those men. We do not know why he joined, but he served as a Regimental Medical Officer in the 1/1 Gurkha Rifles for duration of the War. He spoke of serving in Iraq and Palestine, so perhaps he took part in the Mesopotamia Campaign (where, among other actions, his unit participated in one of the failed attempts to relieve the Siege of Kut) and Allenby's march to Jerusalem. He left the Army at the War's end, settled down in Bombay and began a successful practice. He was a pillar of the community who raised five children, including my grandmother. He was lucky. Lucky not to have been with his unit in the year it spent on the Western front (where they were gassed by the Germans in the second battle of Ypres, the first use of chemical warfare in modern warfare). Lucky not to have been in the Siege of Kut, where only one out of six who joined survived to the end of the war. Lucky not to have otherwise fallen to enemy bullets, disease or hunger, as fully one in every ten Indian soldier in that war did.

Many were not as lucky. Between 90,000 and 100,000 Indian soldiers died in World War I. A similar number were wounded, and perhaps some of them died of their wounds in peacetime. Many surely returned physically whole, but mentally and emotionally scarred by shell shock and post-traumatic stress to communities that did not understand their conditions and could not treat them. Their courage, sacrifice and honourable service in this futile foreign war won them few favours from the British, who continued to think them inferior. And we, their descendants, have largely forgotten them, made their names mere footnotes in the histories of our newly independent nations, and ignored their memorials.

They were, as the saying goes, the unknowing, led by the unworthy, doing the impossible for the ungrateful. So this Armistice Day, I say, let us just think of these men. Let us remember them, and the courage they displayed in the face of great hardship for little reward. That is the least they deserve.

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Friday, November 06, 2009

The Gustavus Adolphus theory of Viking Conquest


Today is, as we all know Gustavus Adolphus Day. It is a day of solemn celebration of this great Gustavus Adolphus won the Thirty Years War and secured religious freedom for all Europe through the sheer magnificence of his nameman, of marzipan medallions eaten on no other day (thanks for the factoid Betsy!) and of general Gustavus Adolphusness all around. But it is also an occasion to consider Gustavus Adolphus's greatest achievement: his awesome name. As a keen student of Renaissance European history I feel I can say with no fear of exaggeration than Gustavus Adolphus' is the awesomest royal name of the entire era.

But a closer look at the history of the Swedish monarchy will reveal that Gustavus Adolphus is by no means the awesomest of Swedish regnal names. Amongst Gustavus's royal forbears of the Houses of Munsö and Stenkil you will find such awesome names as Eric the Victorious, Emund the Evil, Magnus the Strong and my favorite, Blood Sweyn (this last king was so awesome, his less awesome nickname was Sweyn the Sacrificer). All these are good, manly names. They are names to strike terror into the hearts of recalcitrant subjects and people who are tardy with their taxes. These are, then, names that inspire hardened warriors to get into boats, sail to distant lands, rape, pillage and carve blood eagles into their enemies.

That last point is an important one. For many years, historians have puzzled over the ferocity, bloodlust and sheer military prowess of the Vikings that terrorised the known world (and parts of the unknown) from the 8th century to the 11th. These bloodthirsty beserkers made their presence felt from Newfoundland in the west to Azerbaijan in the east, from Iceland in the north to Morocco in the south. They toppled long established kingdoms, harried others, and founded nations that bear their mark to this day. This is all historical fact. What is not so well understood is how they did it. The Vikings were not superior in any outward way to their adversaries. They shared a common descent and language family with their victims in England, France and Italy (all ruled at the time by Germanic kingdoms that had not long ago conquered the Latin civilisations there). They were at a similar level of technology and culture. Their strategy and tactics were not vastly different from the way the Saxons, Franks and Lombards they faced would have used at the time. Why then did were the Vikings able to carve a swath of war and destruction across all lands within their reach?

To answer that question, I now ask you to consider the names of their Kings. The Kings of the Swedes we have already seen. The names of their counterparts across the Oresund are no less dripping in cojonidad*. The Danish Kings rejoiced in such names as Sweyn Forkbeard, Halfdan the Cruel and Ragnar the Hairy. Across the Scandinavian mountains, the hardy Norwegians knelt to Kings such as Eric Bloodaxe, Harald Hard-Reign and Haakon the Broad-Shouldered.

Clearly these are names to inspire awe and strike fear into the heart of the disobedient. When Eric Bloodaxe tells you to get into a boat, cross the Atlantic and scalp some Skreylings, well, by Odin, you do it. Hafdan the Cruel probably never had his subject question his orders. Blood Sweyn's nobles surely quaked in their boots, tormented in their dreams by fear of the consequences of not obeying his foolhardiest command.

This theory seems doubly strong when you consider the names of these Vikings' adversaries. The King of England at the time of Sweyn Forkbeard was widely known as Aethelred the Unready. His forbears included such kings as Edgar the Peaceable and his successors included Edward the Confessor. The French were ruled by kings such as Louis the Pious (and as if that were not bad enough, his alternative name was Louis the Debonair) who was succeeded by such men as Louis the Stammerer, Charles the Fat, Charles the Simple and Louis the Lazy. The Lombard Kingdom of Italy from about that time was ruled by such men as Rodoald the Lecherous and Hildeprand the Useless. Clearly, no sensible man would fight for kings such as these. When in the army of one of these kings, facing an army led by say Harald Hard-Reign or Emund the Evil, abandoning one's colours and fleeing for one's life certainly seem like good, prudent choices.

Thus, we have a working hypothesis for the success of the Viking bands against the armies of the Germanic Kings of Western Europe. The question remains, then, of what we can gain from out newfound knowledge of this piece of history. The answer to that, I think is simple. Too often we have found our leaders, the leaders, indeed of the entire free world lacking in the authority to deal with their adversaries and contemporaries in the rest of the world. The simple solution to this issue is to give them manly, bloodthirsty regnal names along with their Presidential and Prime Ministerial dignities. Would Mahmoud Ahmadinejad feel free to defy Barack the Disemboweller with as much impunity as he does now? Would plucky MEPs dare to question Gordon the Blood-Drinker on the floor for the European Parliament? Would upstart Pakistani generals dare to upstage Manmohan Iron-Fist? The answer, I hope you will agree, is no. They would not. And the world would be a better place for it.

The way then is clear. Let us do what we can to bring this about. Write your representative, sign petitions and make phone calls to bring about the necessary constitutional amendments and laws in your country to do this. Let us make this so, and together we shall create a better world.

(* I just made this word up)

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Saturday, October 10, 2009

My Nominee for next Year's Peace Prize: The Norwegian Nobel Committee

Ever since the announcement yesterday morning that US President Barack Obama has been awarded this year's Nobel Peace Prize, some (or at least me) have begun to wonder who 'This silly pick has ruined my legacy. It's like I blew up all those people for nothing!'might be in line for next year. Since the Norwegian Nobel Committee that awards the Prize famously only accepts nominations until the first day of February in the year of the Prize, I figure its not too early to nominate a winner. And my nominee is the Norwegian Nobel Committee itself. Or more specifically, the current Norwegian Nobel Committee. Thorbjørn Jagland, Kaci Kullmann Five, Sissel Rønbeck, Inger-Marie Ytterhorn and Ågot Valle, I nominate you yourselves to be next year's Nobel Peace Prize winners.

Why do I want to nominate these worthies for the Prize? Well, they have managed, through their surprising and likely poorly-thought-out Peace Prize pick, to unite people from all over the world in shock, disbelief and disdain at their decision. Not often do you hear the Taliban, the Republican National Committee, pretty much the entirety of the US media and arguably Barack Obama himself agree on something like this. People all across the world, whether in the US, Norway or India, whether leftists, rightists or typists all agree that Barack Obama did not deserve the Peace Prize this year. They may have different reasons for this belief: that his awesome work is still to come, that he is the AntiChrist and will plunge the world into cataclysmic war, or even that this Prize will hurt Obama's Presidency. But they all agree that the decision to give him the Prize right now was stupid.

Now sure, there are some among the President's supporters who think the Prize was rightly awarded, or that he totally deserved it, or that they knew this was going to happen this year. But then, the fringes of any movement produces some seriously loopy individuals. Hell, some of Barack Obama's supporters like to paint him naked, being given an oil massage by a Unicorn. Uniting the rest of the world, the vast majority of the people on this planet, is achievement enough. In making their strange decision, the Norwegian Nobel Committee have united the fraternity of peoples in a way that Alfred Nobel could scarcely have imagined. So take a bow, you crazy Norwegians, and award yourself the Prize you so richly deserve.

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Thursday, October 01, 2009

That Silly Tom Friedman

So earlier today, a friend of mine posted a link to a column by NY Times impresario Thomas L. Friedman on Facebook. Foolishly misinterpreting her accompanying comment as agreeing with my general view of Friedman, I commented on the link, saying how I marveled his ability to churn out incredibly silly columns at a brisk clip. Now my friend was actually agreeing with that one column, and she must have thought me a prize ass to hate on her link the way I did. Complaining about my unfounded accusation of silliness, took the link down. I do feel like quite an ass myself, but I would like to stress that I am not in the habit of randomly telling people their links are silly. I have some long standing issues with Friedman's columns, and I honestly thought my friend was a kindred spirit on this issue. (Aside: An astonishingly high proportion of my FB notes seem to be long-winded explanations to people I have pissed off why I am not as much of an asshole as they think I am. This is probably not a good thing.)

But back to the issues. To begin with, let me say that Thomas Friedman is a pretty awesome Nice 'stache, dudewriter and journalist. They don't randomly hand out Pulitzers to the unaccomplished, and Friedman has three of those babies sitting in his trophy cabinet. His reporting on Middle East conflict and the First Palestinian Intifada in particular are well regarded. His book From Beirut to Jerusalem has won awards for what I presume is its general awesomeness. Another thing is, being who he is he has access to the world's elites, and in between wining, dining and golfing with them, he manages to glean some of their insights and knowledge in a way few other people do. Most of all, Friedman is a good writer, and he manages to hold his reader's attention even when they do not agree with him. I don't generally share Friedman's views, but I have been reading his columns off and on for the past six years.

But here's the thing, Friedman tends to take all these great things he possess and harness them to create arguments of unsurpassed silliness. Let me give you three examples, three especially egregious columns from the New York Times:

Our One-Party Democracy
In this howler, Friedman, lamenting that the Republican legislators vote like Republicans, Goddamn obstructionistdecides that this means that the Chinese political system is now better than the US's. After making some unsupported statements about Chinese commitment to "green technology", he notes that the Republican failure to vote with the party in control of the Presidency and supermajorities in both Houses of Congress implies some sort of failure of Democracy itself. He notes that even though authoritarian systems have some problems, they generally manage to do stuff they think is important in spite of such nuisances as popular opposition. The key, he insists, is getting the right people in charge.

The New Sputnik
Here, Friedman claims that the US has just had a Sputnik moment (ie a sudden and dramatic demonstration of its technological inferiority, as with the Soviet launch of the first ever artificial satellite) with China and green technology. Let us leave aside the fact that the realm of "green technology" is in no way a race as early space exploration was, or that OMG! They made it all green!any Chinese advance in such technology does not threaten the US in any way. What sudden and dramatic Chinese advance in alternate energy reminded our Tom of the Space Race? Two things: first that a solar panel manufacturer opened a research center in China, and second that an ethnic Chinese businessman reported that local party bosses were supportive of his multi-billion dollar solar panel factory in China. How he manages to go from this evidence to his conclusion, I cannot discern. Presumably to Friedman, two solar equipment manufacturers setting up in China prove that the world's biggest polluter is not only going green, but surpassing the US in sheer greenness. I, however, do not see the logic.

Where Did ‘We’ Go?
Here, a Facebook poll about killing President Obama so horrifies Friedman that he remembers Israel in the lead up to Yitzhak Rabin's assassination by a right-wing extremist. Never mind that there are polls, groups and pages on Facebook that talk about killing almost every political leader from a country with internet access. (I checked this by searching for "kill+names of prominent politicians" on FB - which means I am probably now on every FBI watchlist ever. The things I do for my readers...) Friedman is convinced that unless Obama's opponents come out strongly You Lie!!against the poll (which has since been deleted), they are as good as sanctioning his assassination. From this rather astounding leap of logic, Friedman goes on to note that this is a particularly horrible time for American political discourse. Technology, gerrymandering, campaign finance and (worst of all) cable news have made American politics so partisan, he says, that the whole political system itself will collapse. The nation that saw a Vice President and a Secretary of the Treasury duel to the death, where a man was beaten to an inch of his life for making fun of a stroke victim on the Senate floor, where a President was assassinated over his ideas for the civil service and whose legislators have resorted to bloody brawls to break filibusters is apparently no longer strong enough to deal with a Congressman being rude to the President during a speech. Go figure.

Now, you might argue that three such weird columns are no more than can be expected from a guy who churns one out every week for years on end. But the really sad thing is, this in not a list of all time Friedman howlers. These were only the three worst op-eds Friedman put out in September. This September. As in, the last thirty days. And its not like the other columns from this month were exemplars of fine rhetoric either. They were the same mish-mash of half-baked ideas, unsupported assertions and wild extrapolation from one or two data points - the difference was not in kind but in degree, to use Mr. Friedman's phrase.

Unlike others, I do not fault Tom Friedman for his wanton mixing of metaphors, or for his preaching environmentalism while living in a power-guzzling mega-mansion (with gargoyles and everything!), or even for cheerleading, supporting and then slyly seeking to distance himself from the Iraq War. Me, I'd just like very much if he would make sure his premises are connected to his conclusion by some form of logical structure. Until then, unfortunately, I shall persist in calling his columns silly.

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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Why Can't We All Just Say Hi?

Ever since I came to the US, I have noticed (and appreciated) how polite the people here are. Store clerks and shoppers greet each other while shopping. Passengers thank bus drivers while getting off the bus. Strangers smile at each other while passing each other on the street. People always, always tell you that you're welcome when you thank them. I realise it may sound weird to any US/Western readers that I am citing these as examples of extraordinary politeness, but in India these things do not happen. At all. There are complex sociological reasons for this difference for sure, but that is fodder for another post. We will not get into them here.

One thing that strikes me about American politeness though, is how so many of the greetings these polite people call out at each other are interrogative. You might hear "What's up?" or "How's it going?" or "How are you?", depending on the formality of the situation. The expected, and completely rote answer to such a question generally aims to reassure the questioner that you are fine, and inquires about their general well-being in turn. Again, American readers might think it weird that I spell this out, but it really is not obvious to foreigners. Many US universities inform their international students about this convention in orientation. Unless specifically told how to respond, many of us actually do start telling people making polite inquiries how we're actually doing. In great detail. You can see, of course, how that might get ugly.

All this is fine, of course. International students can, and do get used to quaint local customs. What is exasperating about this very American way of greeting your fellow men is that many of them take a hit-and-run approach to it. "How's it going?", one of my colleagues once asked as she walked by me in the hallway, with nary a pause to hear any rejoinder. "How are you?", asked a friend from my department as he stepped into an elevator I had just stepped out of. "Hey Kunal, whats up?" shouted an acquaintance as we passed each other on escalators going opposite ways (yes, this actually happened). Now my regular readers know I have trouble responding in time to unfamiliar greetings, so it will not surprise them that I reacted to these situations by gaping open-mouthed at the greeters. But I seriously doubt that even someone born in this country, with quick, socially conditioned reflexes could have gotten out an "I'm great, how are you?" in time. Well, maybe auctioneers. But not normal people, that's what I am saying.

I'm sure this kind of thing happens all over the country. Well meaning people, conditioned by long years of such behavior, unthinkingly call out such greetings in situations where they cannot possibly be answered. When the equally conditioned response is not forthcoming, however, at least some of these people must feel nonplussed, irritated even. Surely this causes some ill-feeling, and ill-feeling is something this country can do without right now. I therefore propose that the US, as a nation, should collectively stop using interrogative greetings at all times. Instead of asking "What's up?", say "Hi!". Instead greeting your boss with a cheery "How are you?", say "Good morning!" instead. If the entire nation takes urgent action, surely the amount of bad feeling will decrease. Who knows, that might even decrease the spate of incivility, racism, heckling, mic-snatching and wanton frog-boiling that has been troubling the country for the past couple of months. And that can only be a good thing for America.

(This post has been slightly edited for length and style since it first appeared)

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Amit Varma for English Czar

For the past week, the English language media in India has been all over the utterly bizarre controversy following External Affairs minister Shashi Tharoor's offhand remark referring to economy class air travel as cattle class (in response, mind you, to a question about whether he would be flying cattle class). Amongst the incredible amount of mind numbingly stupid things said about this incident was a remark by BJP spokesman Ravi Shankar Prasad that really stood out. Responding to remarks by Amit Varma during a TV debate, he said, "Our English may be weak, we need to take lessons from Mr. Amit about that, but that is a separate chapter altogether."



(Video of Amit Varma and Ravi Shankar Prasad debating l'affaire Tharoor on CNN-IBN)

Thinking about this, it struck me that perhaps that should not be a separate chapter at all. Perhaps what we really need is a rigorous introduction to spoken English for India's supposedly Anglophone ruling classes. Too long have we suffered our betters ignorantly (or perhaps willfully and mendaciously) misinterpreting perfectly innocuous usages in the English language and taking offense at them. There was this little tempest in a teapot at the phrases "cattle class" (which is apparently offensive to economy class travelers) and "holy cows" (which, in an incredible case of cognitive dissonance, is held to be offensive to Hindus by the same people who took offense at the previous phrase). There was the ridiculous assertion that the title of the film Slumdog Millionaire was offensive to either slum dwellers, dogs or millionaires (I forget which). Then there was the insanely idiotic brouhaha about the title of the movie Billu Barber (apparently the word "Barber" is offensive to barbers. Or something).

In any case, there is a pressing need to educate supposedly English-speaking people about the existence of metaphors in English, and that not all English words are a direct condemnation of them personally. And I can think of no man better suited to lead this effort than Amit Varma. Yes Amit Varma - he of the novel My Friend Sancho, of the blog India Uncut, creator of writer for the immortal Timex Timepass, journalist, Bastiat Prize winner and sideburn-wielder extraordinaire. (Aside: I would probably support raising Amit Varma to any executive position - God-Emperor of the Entire Known Universe even - just so that we could create an entire Kurvi-Taschist cult of personality around his magnificent sideburns. But I digress.) Aside from these impressive qualifications, Amit is also a graduate of Fergusson College, home to the finest English Department east of the Western Ghats.

To carry out his important mandate, Amit will surely need wide-ranging executive powers removed from legislative checks and interference. Happily, precedent for such positions exists among the Obamite Czars of the US. I propose that the Government of India create for Amit just such a position - that of English Czar Plenipotentiary and Extraordinary. The holder of this office would have wide ranging powers to force public figures to read the classics (and India Uncut), to summarily quash litigation based on an utter lack of understanding of English metaphors and ultimately plenary authority to punish English-language media for excessive cliche and overenthusiastic punning.

I hope, dear readers, that you will see the urgent need and the utter good sense of this proposal. It is imperative that we not let this issue rest - we must take action, and take action NOW. Write to your MP, talk to your politician uncle, organise candlelight vigils, compile petitions, sit on hunger strike, burn buses, whatever. We must do whatever it takes to get this done. Because together we can, and we will.

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Saturday, August 22, 2009

Inglorious Basterds: A Revue

MAAJAR SPOILER ALERT
(Don't read this before watching the movie. If you do, don't bother watching it. Unless you see it on HBO for free. Then it's okay.)

Tarantino fans might think I blaspheme when I say this, but here goes: Inglorious Basterds is my favorite Quentin Tarantino movie yet. Now to be fair, Tarantino's previous masterpieces haven't dealt with the genres that I am particularly familiar with, so perhaps they did contain the peculiar blend of homage and parody that I appreciated so much in IB. This movie though, hit all the right places, at least for me.

The movie is divided into chapters, and each one of them is awesome by itself. I especially enjoyed the first chapter that acquaints you with the chilling terror inspired by the sociopathic SS officer Hans Landa. I also really liked the chapter in the middle, when two of the basterds and a British spy must rendevous with an agent in a cellar full of drunk German soldiers and secret policemen. Other reviewers found this scene boring, but I was on edge throughout the scene, waiting for the inevitable moment when the spies' cover would be blown. There were several ways that could have gone down: the bumbling drunk Feldwebel Wilhelm or the suspicious SS Sturmbannführer Hellstrom could have found seen through Lt. Hicox's not-quite-there German accent, Stiglitz anger at being in the presence of a hated Nazi secret policeman could have got the better of his patience, the double agent von Hammersmark could have betrayed the spies. But the way the British Agent blew his cover was amazing and (IMO) showed the kind of geeky attention to detail I like to see in movies, but seldom do.

The chapter that really blew me away though, was the end. So many "historical" movies change the course of history to fit their story or even worse, their writers' political and moral biases. But rather than change the lives of obscure Roman emperors (as in Gladiator), Crusader noblemen known only to historians (as in Kingdom of Heaven) or Scotsmen known more through legend than History (Braveheart), Inglorious Basterds makes a change we all know to be a historical innacuracy. After all, Hitler did not die in Paris in 1944 - he died in 1945 in Berlin by his own hand and the Second World War ground on for another year because of it. But if you are willing to watch the emperor Commodus die in the Colisseum by a gladiators hand when he was actually by his Praetorian Guard, or see Balian of Ibelin showed as a working class hero who shows remarkable tolerance to Muslims instead of a bigoted aristocratic Crusader, you really have no grounds to complain about this innacuracy. I may be overanalysing this, but I see the end of IB as a big F.U. to historical accuracy in Hollywood movies.

Yet another thing I like is the Tarantino's refusal to resort to the many creative shortcuts in charatcer development that fills the pages of tvtropes.com. Apart from the characters who were intended as homages to stock characters in such movies (such as Mike Myers' walking stereotype of a British General), almost none of the characters are cliched. The stoic and heroic Frenchman Perrier LaPadite, who seems to be almost a shoo in for a place in Yad Vashem, caves under the implicit threat to his family and betrays the Jews he was sheltering. The nameless German NCO the Basterds capture in chapter 2 seems to be brave, respectful and honourable - in other words the archtypical "Good German" in the vein of The Eagle has Landed's Rolf Steiner. But then, just before he is killed. he shows himself to be an antisemite by shouting a racist epithet at the mostly Jewish unit that has captured him. There are other instances through the film where bit characters subvert the tropes you expect them to follow, and appear to be more human than simple stock characters.

The one little quibble I had with the film was with the translation of the German ranks in the English subtitles. The character of Feldwebel Wilhelm, the new father from the cellar scene has his rank translated as Master Sergeant (although I am pretty sure the subtitles say "Staff Sergeant"). Feldwebel, a rank that is not really equivalent to any American rank (although it is close to the British concept of a Warrant Officer, or an Indian Subhedar). While it is understandable that this nuance is not easy to convey in a line of subtitles, a generic "Sergeant" would have worked as a translation, as it can mean any number of senior NCO ranks in armies. The translation to specifically Master Sergeant or Staff Sergeant is clearly wrong though. Similarly, the translation of Sturmbannführer Dieter Hellstrom has his rank translated as Major. Now while SS Sturmbannführers were held to be equivalent to German Army Majors, Hellstrom is not a soldier but a member of the Gestapo and a secret policeman. The British police rank of Inspector is equivalent to British Army Lieutenants, but you would not expect American adaptations of Sherlock Holmes stories to refer to Lieutenant Lestrade of Scotland Yard, would you? But hey, I am a the kind of military geek that can write a paragraph on the comparison between military ranks of the SS and the US Amry, and such little inaccuracies bother me. YMMV.

In the end, I guess Inglorious Basterds is definitely the kind of movie you would like to read the annotations to and watch again, as Roger Ebert said. There are so many little details and references in the movie, that seeing it once just will not do it justice. I plan to watch the movie again, and I would definitely buy a DVD, and so should you. It really is that good.

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Sunday, April 19, 2009

Predatory Taxation

Imagine this:

A smooth, oily mortgage salesman is selling his product to a newly married couple. Try our adjustable rate mortgage, he says. Its got an initial rate of only 3.5% per annum, he says. Well, technically, the rate will reset after two years, but the prime rate is going down and your payments will never increase. Balloon payment? What balloon payment? You don't think I would do that to you, do you? No, this mortgage is exactly how I say it is. No need to read the contract, just sign here and initial here, and you are on your way to owning your dream house. How can we afford to finance such an expensive house at such low monthly payments, you ask? Why, we'll just securitize your mortgage, of course! We'll bundle it up with hundreds of others, and sell them to investors all over the world. The geniuses at Wall Street have figured it all out. No need to worry, this makes sound financial sense.

The couple, thrilled, sign and move into their new home. They make their low monthly payments for two years, and all seems to be well. But at the end of two years, suddenly, their rate shoots up. They can't afford their new, high, montly payment. Worse, prices of homes in their neighbourhood have begun to fall, so their mortgage will soon be underwater. Even worse, they realise that contrary to what the salesman promised them, the mortgage does not amortise completely, and they will have to make a large balloon payment at the end. Clearly, the costs of staying in their home are higher than they can afford. But the mortgage salesman made it sound so much better! He specifically said that they would not ever find themselves in such a situation.

Now, what phrase would you use to describe the mortgage salesman's conduct? Why, you'd call him a predatory lender, of course. And you'd be right. While I am a little wary of using the P-word indiscriminately, surely such outright lies and innacurate statements qualify.

My question is, if this is predatory, what about a guy who gets elected by promising tax cuts to 90% of the population while simultaneously embarking on the largest peacetime spending increase in his nation's history? He's got financial and economic geniuses on his side who claim that the quantitative easing and the securitisation of his country's liabilities allow him to get something for nothing, but does that really make him so different from the mortgage salesman of the earlier example? The current regime of low taxes may survive in the short term, but the debt that finances current spending has got to be paid back eventually, either through higher government revenues or the devaluation of the currency. People who have been convinced to vote for and support such spending increases based on the promise that their taxes will not be increased have been deceived. "Preyed on", if you will

I therefore propose that Barack Obama's tax policy, insofar as it leads to high approval ratings for him, be referred to as Predatory Taxation.

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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

My article on Indian Elections and the Anti-Defection Law

An article I wrote about how the Anti-Defection Law makes Indian politics is up at The South Wing. Please check it out here. [Note to Indian readers: This was written for a mainly US audience. Please do not pain me about stuff like "saris (a garment worn by Indian women)".]

To see a previous (if less coherent) post about the Anti-Defection Law, see Is Indian Anti-Defection Law Undemocratic?, right here at Ceteris Paribus.

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Tuesday, April 07, 2009

New Featured Quote


A great system is one where Caligula could be elected president, and it wouldn't affect our liberties one iota, because he'd lack the power to do anything awful.

- Commenter Pro Libertate, commenting on the Reason Hit and Run Blog.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Gordon Brown: The devalued Prime Minister



I must learn to speak like this.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Taking NYU Back from Sanity

There was a flap recently at NYU, my university, about a student group staging an "occupation" of the student center to protest... well, something. The group, Take Back NYU (TBNYU), had presented the administration with a list of 13 demands and threatened to occupy the cafeteria at the Student Center and stage dweeby hipster freak-ins until their demands were met. The list of demands (which you can see here) went from things such as disclosing NYU's budget and the investment strategy for its endowment to scholarships for 13 Palestinian Students and the donation of surplus University supplies to the Islamic University of Gaza*. The University authorities quite magnanimously allowed the students to stay in the cafeteria overnight on the condition that they not break anything. Incensed by this condition, no doubt, the protesters broke open a door leading out to the balcony and started haranguing passers-by on the street below. Amazingly, the University allowed them one more day at the student center before moving in and expelling the protesters from the cafeteria (although not, regrettably, from the University). A protester (who as it turns out, is not even from NYU!) captured this footage from the last moments of the "occupation": (CAUTION: Video NSFW due to loud swearing. Also make sure you are not drinking a liquid while watching this video, spit-takes are likely)



Regrettably, the protesters could not reach their beloved consensus and were ejected from the building. The NYU students were suspended and stripped of student housing and financial aid. The non-NYU protesters (of whom there appear to be many) were politely show out. Order and sanity was restored to the campus.

I think there are lessons in all of this for aspiring student protesters. First, think your damn demands through properly. The thirteen demands TBNYU presented not only had very little to do with each other, but some of them actively pissed off the student body (opening our already crowded library to the general public, for example). Second, if you are going to make wide-ranging demands that will actually cost this University, make sure all the protesters actually are stakeholders in the University. Many of the TBNYU protesters were students from other schools bussed in to swell the numbers of the occupation. Kids, this isn't rocket science. If there is one thing that is almost certainly guaranteed to piss of the entire student body, it is bums from Muhlenburg College telling us how our University ought to be run. Thirdly, do not come between NYUers and their quesadillas. Surely TBNYU could have thought of a better place to occupy and deny to NYU than the NYU student cafeteria. I mean, you couldn't have pissed off more ordinary students if you were frikking trying to do so. And finally, if you are going to ignore all these things, please, please do not make videos of your dweebiness and put them up on YouTube. This video is now publicly available to anyone who searches YouTube for NYU. People might look at this video and think we're all like this. You are allowed your douchebaggery, but please, we did not sign up to be associated with you consensus-using non-corporate-water-drinking morons.

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Friday, March 06, 2009

My NGO (actually, make that QuANGO)

I have decided to form a new NGO dedicated to a cause dear to my heart. I shall call it The Society for the Promotion of Beards and the Prevention When you grow a beard like this, you can get away with the douchiest of capsof Shaving.

For too long, my brothers*, we have been in thrall of a pernicious fashion that forces us to deny the truth of our hairy visages. For too long, we have bowed to the power of the Razor regime, the evil Gillette empire that seeks to enslave us in order to secure a permanent market for their infernal blades. (Incidentally, did you know that King Camp Gillette was a Socialist?) Too long have we denied our masculine instincts at the behest of dweeby pretty-boy celebrities and bogus claims of high technology. Far too long have we participated in a bogus tradition designed to avoid beardless sissy Alexander the Great undue embarrassment from comparison to real men.

Enough, I say. No more. Cast off your chains and throw away your razors. Follow the inspiring example of Joseph Palmer, and defy you smooth-cheeked persecutors. Obey the precepts of Leviticus, Mohamed (p.b.u.h.) and Guru Gobind Singh. Rebel against the Man, that clean-shaven bastard. Be different. There are many, many reasons to grow your beard. Embrace one of them. Stop shaving. Join me, and be what you were meant to be.

[* I do not mean to be sexist, I'm just going by probabilities here. Any woman who can meet our entry requirements is welcome to join our Society.]

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