Ditty for Bush

6 Dec

Seldom has a country reached such levels of obsequiousness that Pakistan reached when officials chose to include a rhyming poem titled, The Leader, praising George W Bush in its English-language course book for 16 year-olds. The poem spells out George W Bush in addition to coming up with lines like – “Strong in his faith, refreshingly real” and “Bracing for war, but praying for peace”.

Patient and steady with all he must bear,
Ready to meet every challenge with care,
Easy in manner, yet solid as steel,
Strong in his faith, refreshingly real
Isn’t afraid to propose what is bold,
Doesn’t conform to the usual mould,
Eyes that have foresight, for hindsight won’t do,
Never backs down when he sees what is true,
Tells it all straight, and means it all too.

Going forward and knowing he’s right,
Even when doubted for why he would fight,
Over and over he makes his case clear,
Reaching to touch the ones who won’t hear.
Growing in strength he won’t be unnerved,
Ever assuring he’ll stand by his word.

Wanting the world to join his firm stand,

Bracing for war, but praying for peace,
Using his power so evil will cease,
So much a leader and worthy of trust,
Here stands a man who will do what he must.

Highway to India

5 Dec

Amy Waldman recently wrote a series of four articles about the socio-cultural impact of highways and the burgeoning number of cars.

Here are the links:

The articles include interactive features with audio commentary and slideshows. While the photographs are well shot, Waldman’s hurried narration leaves much to be desired.

Brief comments and caveats: Waldman puts far too much emphasis on the posited transformative cultural power of both the highways and the increasing number of cars. Waldman repeatedly paints the “old India” in stereotypical terms (like the land of dharma etc.) and then talks about the “transformation” that these new things are wrecking on the cultural landscape of India.

The Art of Reading

27 Nov

The value of reading is constrained by how one chooses to read aside from what one chooses to read.

Reading is anti-evolutionary. Neither our brains nor our eyes were designed to excitedly decipher small symbols printed on a paper. But then reading is much more than deciphering symbols. Words provide wonderful abstract worlds in which we can embody the characters that are described in the book. But to live with them, in them and empathize with them, we need to spend time with them and nurture them carefully in our minds. A character in a novel is truly subjective (it is often left deliberately open to manipulation). The emotions, the pitch of the scream, rationality of action and the sinister atmosphere are all amplified or mellowed, tampered with or abandoned in our minds. The true pleasure of reading lies in reading slowly to go over the nuances and the phraseology. Of course, not all novelists and all passages invite this cohabitation. In fact, some novelists will go out of their way to create atmospheric dread that pushes you away from the analysis but then you are living through the temporary paralysis of emotions that comes when environment overwhelms you. But then you need to pause and introspect for that is when you can empathize with the character.

Reading slowly can help one introspect and come to a better understanding of oneself and the world around us. If one chooses to look at a novel merely as a teleological progression towards the resolution of some quibble, then it merely becomes a tool for entertainment.

Perhaps a more important virtue, as compared to reading slowly, is reading critically. A novelist imposes his or her worldview on you and you need to be able to critically think through the points that s/he makes, and separate out the chaff from the wheat.

The Lost Art

Today, reading slowly is a lost art. Leisurely reading a passage and then mulling over its contents seems archaic. Doubtless, pointless drivel camouflaged as writing has taken much away from the pleasure (and motivation) for reading slowly. The other obvious villain is the television with its increasingly crazed editing. Once upon a time, a shot lasted 90 seconds. Now it lasts for less than 6 seconds on average. The reader today needs a more action-packed story that relentlessly moves across scenes, countries, and emotions—all in a hurried progression to the end. So not only are novelists concocting stories that encourage hurried reading, readers are actually reading books the same way as they watch telenovelas or sitcoms—mindlessly.

Let me end with a caveat. I am not saying that speed reading is necessarily bad. In fact, there is good reason to believe that it is a very important tool for academics and few other people who need to consume a lot of information in a very limited amount of time.

End of Information Hierarchy

11 Nov

Today, people have a variety of ways to explore a collection via the Internet as opposed to carefully orchestrated explorations in a brick and mortar museum with a curated exhibition.

A curator comes up with a story along with other contextual information about the exhibit and arranges the exhibition so that the person exploring it has only a few chosen entry points and few ways of exploring the collection. Some of the impediments are put in deliberately while others are a result of hosting an exhibition in the real world where the design of building etc. still matter.

Cut to the online world and the user is untethered from most of the curated connivances. This, in turn, may be a result of the fact that people haven’t really understood how best to present a virtual museum but that is not the point I want to get into. The result of the untethered experience is that these cultural objects are seen in a twice removed setting -e.g. a pot taken from an archaeological site and then photographed and put on the Internet. So what is the result of all this? It is hard to give an objective listing but one can see that some of the “meaning” is lost in this journey of an artifact from the ground to the Internet.

What happens when information that was once tethered in a context or a story is made available virtually free of context over say Google. Is storing information in hierarchical networks or associations obsolete? How do you maintain the integrity of information when context-free snippets of information are freely available?

Say, for example, once upon a time people learned about history via a scholar who chose carefully the specific issues about history. Today, a teen gets his/her history by searching on the web often encountering a lot of miscellaneous information. I would argue that the person then can come away, from such a scattered exploration, with a bunch of miscellaneous trivia and no real understanding of the major issue at hand. The key idea here is that for transmission of “knowledge”, the integrity of information is of prime value.

War and Sex

11 Nov

War is deadly for both sexes. A missile doesn’t differentiate between a man and a woman. Then, what is the role of gender in war?

Nearly all active militaries in the world have substantially more male soldier than female soldiers and far more men die on the battle fields than women. But the impact of wars is never limited to artificial battlefields. War enters civilian life through hunger, inadequate health care, decline in availability of potable water, rape, pillage, and many other ways, reducing life expectancy drastically for both men and women. For example, life expectancy in Afghanistan is 46 years (men), 46 years (women) according to UN figures. The figures hide an important fact that on an average women will generally live longer than men. These figure mean that more women are dying as a result of war than men. These figures still don’t take into account the large number of crimes like rape that are committed predominantly against women.

Facts About South Asia

19 Aug

South Asia is home to one-fifth of the world’s population and about 40% of the world’s absolute poor—people living on less than $1/day. Imagine the lifestyle of an American earning $1/day and you will get a window into the poverty described by these figures.

India is home to nearly half of the illiterate population in the world. The adult literacy rate in South Asia (49%) is behind sub-Saharan Africa (57%) as well as that of Arab states (59%). To make matters worse, South Asia’s current annual expenditure on education is 1.9% of GNP. In contrast, military spending in the region is 3.8% of GNP and is as high as 7% in Pakistan which has 50% more soldiers than teachers. A brief zoom in on Pakistan’s education system…. what indeed are people fortunate enough to afford an education are taught? According to a report by an independent government agency, SDPI ( Sustainable Development Policy Institute. See Link at Bottom), ‘facts’ like “Hindu has always been an enemy of Islam.” and “The religion of the Hindus did not teach them good things — Hindus did not respect women…” have been included with the general objective of inculcating “Love and aspiration for Jehad, Tableegh (Prosyletization), Jehad, Shahadat (martyrdom), sacrifice, ghazi (the victor in holy wars), shaheed (martyr)”

Due process of law is often quoted as a key ingredient for a free society. With over 20 million court cases pending at the end of 2002, India doesn’t even pretend. More stark crime statistics in India include—over 1 million people in jail waiting for trial, and a conviction rate of about 1%.

Links
SDPI report on Pakistan Education System (pdf)
World Literacy of Canada

Merchants of Art

26 May

“Shakespeare Wallah” was my introduction to the magic of Merchant Ivory Productions. An elegy to a lost era, a bitter-sweet tale of a traveling English theatre troupe in India right after the Indian independence, it is still vivid in my memory. The debonair Shashi Kapoor and Satyajit Ray’s beautiful score are the two other things that I remember from the film. Since then, I have seen many other Merchant Ivory productions. And their films have always left me simultaneously reassured and disturbed.

A constant in all their movies has been the excellent production values, largely a product of Mr. Merchant’s vision, and his acknowledged genius for creating beautiful, authentic sets on a shoestring budget. With the demise of Ismail, we no longer have a producer who fussed over each detail.

The troika of James Ivory, Ruth Prawer Jhabwala, and Ismail Merchant over the past four decades virtually invented a new genre of films. They showed that you don’t need to compromise on art to be successful. And to me, that is the legacy of Merchant Ivory.

I will forever be indebted to their patience, art, and virtue.

Further Reading:
BBC article on Ismail Merchant

The Misspelled Universe

18 Apr

How many times have you typed something in Google to be asked “Did you mean: ….” Next time you reach this page, stay a little longer and take a look at the pages that Google did find. This is your gateway to the parallel universe of misspelled words. Well let me correct myself — these “misspelled” words can belong to a different language altogether or they even might be rarely used genuine English words with close resemblance to the heavily used ones.

An entire gamut of information is being denied to us due to mere errors in spelling. To deride these spelling mistakes as “mere errors in spelling” is to ignore a small minority of people who deliberately misspell words so as to make their pages less publicly accessible. This works as an effective low-tech solution for every underground society has demands obscurity.

Then there are people who exploit misspellings to make their living e.g. People searching auction sites like eBay for misspelled (or mislabeled) items, and hence hopefully underbid items. (* eBay now offers a spell-check utility but surprisingly few people still refuse to use it.)

Excepting eBay entrepreneurs, one thing that is clear is that we are “losing”‘ this increasingly vast pool of information containing misspelled “keywords” (words we type in a search engine). There is an argument to be made that the quality of information source with misspelled words may itself be poor and hence we needn’t worry about the “lost” information. Arguably, the frequency of misspelled words in a peer-reviewed journal is much lower than say my blog. ;) The normative question is, Does that rightly consign my blog to obscurity?

Internet search is a classic case of finding a needle in a haystack, and search algorithms are built of dispense with as much “clutter” (hay) as fast as possible, leaving a very small minority of websites that are given genuine value. What we are seeing are two trends implicit in Google’s search algorithm — most of our search needs are about “popular”‘ items (given a higher rank by Google), and it is progressively harder to find “unpopular” sources. On the face of it the trend is innocuous and even sensible but the wider ramifications include information hegemony.

Let us turn the discussion around to sites that use “syntactically correct but meaningless verbiage including commons search terms” (a sentence like “Indeed, a blind crenelation blasphemously a player inside the stictomys. For example, a whopper behind a ferrocyanide indicates that the saccharinity behind a casino tropez another euphausiacea from another modem.”) People also “Google bomb” (mass posting on blogs/lists associating a search phrase with online address). Some sites have in fact automated this by writing programs that automatically go to different blogs/lists and post entries/comments like “poker chips poker – [web address].” This problem is much worse as it is making it progressively harder for us to find “genuine” (or most popular/reliable) information.

So will there be too much seemingly reliable unreliable information or will we miss a lot of seemingly unreliable reliable information? Chances are that both will happen.

Some Die Young

26 Dec

There are 34 countries in Africa where life expectancy at birth of both men and women is equal to or less than 51.
Data are from the 2003 UN estimates.
Note that life expectancy at birth is strongly impacted by infant mortality.

Name of country Av. Age of Men  Av. Age of Women

Angola      39      41
Benin       48      51
Botswana    39      40
Burkina Faso    45      46
Burundi     40      41
Cameroon    45      47
Central African 38      40
Republic
Chad        44      46
Rep of Congo    47      50
DR Congo    41      43
Djibouti    45      47
Equatorial  48      50
Guinea
Ethiopia    45          46
Guinea      49      49
Guinea Bissau   44      47
Ivory Coast 41          41
Kenya       43          46
Lesotho     32          38
Liberia     41          42
Malawi      37          38
Mali        48          49
Mozambique  37      40
Namibia     43      46
Niger       46      46
Rwanda      39      40
Sierra Leone    33      35
Somalia     45      48
South Africa    45      51
Swaziland   33      35
Tanzania    42      44
Togo        48      51
Uganda      45      47
Zambia      33      32
Zimbabwe    34      33