Muslim issues, humanitarian issues

4 Aug

The latest Lebanese crisis [I cringe at using the word crisis for it seems news organizations use it all too frequently to condense all human suffering and all other news into this pointless pithy] has been covered in the Arab media as a predominantly Muslim affair where a Jewish state is attacking Muslims. While the thrust of the statement remains true, the fact of the matter is that what is happening in Lebanon is a humanitarian crisis, a human tragedy if you will and has little or nothing to do with people there being Muslims or non-Muslims. The portrayal is all the more bankrupt given the fact that Lebanon has about 40% Christian population. Kashmir, Chechnya, Palestine, Lebanon or Bosnia are and should be treated as humanitarian crisis and not as Muslim crisis by the Arab media. There is a subtext in all the coverage in the Arab media that a Saudi resident or an Arab should feel more about the Lebanese than say someone sitting in EU. There is subtle and not to subtle racism that accentuates the us vs. them schism that has opened up between the world and Islam as a whole. There are mitigating reasons that are offered including the fact that Arab press is deliberately framing it as a Muslim issue to demand action from their ostensibly Muslim governments but then again I think it is giving too much credit to the Arab media for this deep rooted problem that finds its face in all major Muslim media from Indonesia to Pakistan.

Of course the Western media can’t go scot-free either. Western media outlets eager to portray Hezbollah as a Shiite militia backed by Iran and eager to portray Lebanese as a bunch of ‘enemy terrorists’ have overlooked the fact that “Hezbollah is principally neither a political party nor an Islamist militia. It is a broad movement that evolved in reaction to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in June 1982” NY Times

Roger Pape, in his NY Times op-ed piece, adds,

“Evidence of the broad nature of Hezbollah’s resistance to Israeli occupation can be seen in the identity of its suicide attackers. Hezbollah conducted a broad campaign of suicide bombings against American, French and Israeli targets from 1982 to 1986. Altogether, these attacks — which included the infamous bombing of the Marine barracks in 1983 — involved 41 suicide terrorists.

In writing my book on suicide attackers, I had researchers scour Lebanese sources to collect martyr videos, pictures and testimonials and the biographies of the Hezbollah bombers. Of the 41, we identified the names, birth places and other personal data for 38. Shockingly, only eight were Islamic fundamentalists. Twenty-seven were from leftist political groups like the Lebanese Communist Party and the Arab Socialist Union. Three were Christians, including a female high-school teacher with a college degree. All were born in Lebanon.”

Urban Landscapes: The coming inertness

3 Aug

Modern architecture with its heavy use of bleached wood, glass and aluminum has robbed countless buildings of charm and turned entire buildings into soulless boxes where people only have a tentative relationship with the environment.

Architecture has a huge impact on the way people interact with their surroundings. The severity of the lines, soulless glass vistas all together reflect a sense of oppressiveness detachment, making one feel lonelier and almost afraid of interacting with the environment. The sense one gets at being in the building is that of the powerlessness and of the fact that the environment is controlled by same faceless czar. This dehumanizing architecture today has become the most felicitated form of architecture and countless new architects use concrete, glass and aluminum to carve out a new form of social death every day.

When I look at buildings today, I can’t imagine how these buildings will age. It is hard to imagine that the building is even inhabited by people today and that these people have personalities and that the building will allow space so that people can leave an imprint of their personalities on them. The little poster boards on which people will stick their family photos in these vacuous orifices are dwarfed and overwhelmed by the almost too bright sunlight shining on the aluminum bar through the glass wall.

These inert architectural spaces are here for a reason and that the rapid commercialization of the social spaces. When you come to really think of it – where do we interact now with people – in malls and in movie theaters and restaurants. The public, non-commercial physical space in which we can interact with other people is rapidly coming to an end. We must reclaim our space before it overwhelms us.

Roger Cohen of the New York Times –Paris vs. Havana; 2008/12/08

“But squalor connects. When you clean, when you favor hermetic sealing in the name of safety, you also disconnect people from one another. When on top of that you add layers of solipsistic technology, the isolation intensifies. In its preserved Gallic disguise, Paris is today no less a globalized city than New York.”

Reforming the college application process

1 Aug

College application process in US is now overrun by blatant self-serving marketing and cronyism. We must reform the application process if we need to change the way students look at education.

Graduate application process:

While US based schools uniformly ask for a “Statement of Purpose” and occasionally a personal biography so as to mention things which “may not have been covered otherwise”, UK based schools like LSE only ask for a formal thesis proposal from their Ph.D. applicants. The subjectivity introduced by essays like the “Statement of Purpose” gives the admissions committee enough elbow room to fit in candidates whose backgrounds may otherwise be suspect. LSE’s demands only a formal thesis proposal, which includes research design and bibliography, and gives a better understanding of a student’s intellectual ability to handle research than say 3-4 pages of carefully crafted spiel to please the head honcho of the department or to whomever holds the key to your admission.

On to undergraduate application process:

Today an application to a top-echelon school passes through many rounds of editing before it reaches the desk of the admissions officer. There are numerous websites and books dedicated to the craft of writing a successful admissions essay. The key to a successful admissions essay is to have “an angle” around which you weave your life story and tell the admissions officer why your life has led you to ‘this’ particular program at this college. Of course the logic and events are sham or nip-tucked to give them the exaggerated appearance that is needed for the storyline. The sham stories, I believe, give admissions officers a poor idea of student’s interests and capabilities especially because they can so easily be spun around to sound and say what is wanted. In writing dishonest essays students also fail to analyze if they really want to join a particular school or a program. Still by far the more insidious effect of the growing importance of the extra-curricular activities in the college application process is that today high-school students are hustling to get into multiple extra curricular activities at the expense of studying. It may also be argued that the admissions essays unfairly favor the rich students who can carefully tend to the admissions essay with the help of online services. Let me actually refine my statement – I think the admissions essays reward the ‘hustlers’, and not the people with the best academic records. It is this thing, which is in fact unique to US, that it rewards entrepreneurship and salesmanship over scholarship.


Application process at undergraduate level should highlight the importance of academic achievement in schools and pay little or scant attention to frivolities like admission essays.

Annan finds his voice as end of term nears

26 Jul

Kofi Annan, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, recently seems to have found his voice. His not-so-oblique statement calling Israeli air strike that led to the death of four UN peace keepers “apparently deliberate” was probably one of the most blunt statement of his tenure. Of course the evidence is damning,

“17 Israeli bombs fell within one kilometer, or .6 miles, of the post during the day, the initial U.N. investigation found. In addition, 12 Israeli artillery rounds landed within 150 meters of the post, four of them hitting it directly.”

[ Washington Post]

But then again Annan has shied away from ascribing ulterior motives to America’s favorite ally in the past. The thing that appears to have changed is the fact that now Annan is near the end of his second term and finally free of renomination worries.

Annan over the past five years has led a largely neutered UN. In fact post 9/11, UN has seemed like an organization sitting outside the door with a hang dog expression waiting for the master to finish up his job inside and come outside and pet it.

Now apparently trying to make the most of his position in the last few days, Annan has taken upon himself to issue a verbal rebukes about the many annoyances of leading a largely pointless organization with little credibility. Annan has chosen to vent his feelings through the media in almost a school boy fashion complaining to anybody who will hear.

Truth is that he squandered away his decade at the UN when he could have accomplished something more than aside from being America’s lapdog.

What now: After the bomb blasts

12 Jul

Nearly 200 people lost their lives in the serial bomb blasts in India’s financial capital of Mumbai. The number is insignificant in a country of a billion, but deliberate planned massacres have this cruel meaninglessness to them that rile up the hearts of even the stoics.

The immediate Indian response to the blasts has been muted as the government has refused to pin down the attack on Pakistan supported (or at least based) militant groups before corroborating evidence documenting such comes to the fore, against the norm. The response has been markedly different from the theatrical over-the-top response of the BJP led government, which deployed troops at the border after the attack on the Indian parliament.

The muted response comes amidst strong pressure on Indian government to take ’strong measures’. While a casual observer may take this to be a sign of pussyfooting, there is a pragmatic rationale behind toning down the response – the elbow room that India has when it comes to Pakistan is very limited given that outright conventional war is not an option and that hostile rhetoric will only play into the hands of right-wing elements in Pakistan. The argument in more abstract terms can be understood as follows – Negotiation without leverage is a failed enterprise; and any efforts to create leverage through hostile rhetoric are likely to backfire.

Pakistan government’s negotiating stance is likely to be governed by the fact that working with India to dismantle terrorist infrastructure is likely to be reasonably costly, given it is likely to be destabilizing in the short term, and politically costly given efforts are going to seen as towing the line of India. For Indian government, incentives to use this “opportunity” to address some of the issues at the root of the conflict – if not terrorist attacks – is likely to be non-existent given the following – any latent or explicit demands made by people conducting terrorist attacks are automatically seen as lacking legitimacy, sources and explanations of terrorism are seen to be external, and any attempt to deal with demands of terrorists is likely to provoke a backlash.

What is clear is that problem understood thus is likely to thwart dealing with issues that are likely to be rewarding in the longer-term. Both Pakistan and India would clearly benefit from not hiding behind temporary exigencies, and dealing with problems head on. In the long term Pakistan would benefit from tackling the terrorist infrastructure, though it may lose some leverage in Kashmir, which is probably fine. Similarly, India would likely gain by addressing Kashmir which will likely strengthen the hands of moderates in Pakistan. Political entrepreneurship can do much to reframe the problem. After all, considerable entrepreneurship (pandering) is behind the current understanding of the problem as a zero-sum game.

He said, She said

11 Jul

New York Times in its article on Mumbai blasts and Kashmir Grenade attacks, ended the story with the following, “New Delhi has continued to accuse Pakistan of training, arming and funding the militants. Islamabad insists it only offers the rebels diplomatic and moral support.”

It is amazing to see that a simple relatively incontestable fact that Islamabad arms and trains militants is hedged by words like “accuses” and the ‘accusation’ followed by a rebuttal by Pakistani Government. There is absolutely no doubt – and this comes from reports from numerous non-partisan experts and numerous stories from Pakistani, BBC and other creditable international journalists that Pakistan engages in all of these practices. This form of equivocation which borders on he said/she said kind of journalism in which even the most basic facts are shown as contestable do a great disservice.

‘Objectivity’ doesn’t imply (and certainly doesn’t demand) equivocation, or getting government hacks on either side to comment on issues. Compare this instance to how reporting is done say on 9/11, where the press doesn’t go out of its way to highlight ludicrous claims made by the opposition. And rightly so.

From satellites to streets

11 Jul

There has been a tremendous growth in Satellite guided navigation systems and secondary applications relying on these “GIS” systems like finding shops near the place you are etc. However, it remains opaque to me as to why we are using satellites to beam in this information when we can easily embed RFID/or similar chips on road signs for pennies. The road signage needs to move from the ‘dumb’ painted visual boards era to electronic tag era, where signs beam out information on a set frequency to which a variety of devices may be tuned in.

Indeed it would be wonderful to have “rich” devices, connected to the Internet, where we can leave our comments, just like messageboards, or blogs. This will remove the need for expensive satellite signal reception boxes or the cost of maintaining satellites. The concept is of course not limited to road signage and can include any and everything from shops to homes to chips informing the car where the curbs are so that it stays within lane.

Possibilities are endless and we must start now.

Iraqi losses remain uncounted

9 Jul

Andrew J. Bacevich asks in his Washington Post article, “What’s an Iraqi’s Life Worth?, and finds that it is not much. He believes that this lack of respect of Iraqi deaths may be the key reason why the Americans are losing the war in Iraq. And I agree. Here’s an excerpt from the article –

“Through the war’s first three years, any Iraqi venturing too close to an American convoy or checkpoint was likely to come under fire. Thousands of these “escalation of force” episodes occurred. Now, Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the commander of U.S. ground forces in Iraq, has begun to recognize the hidden cost of such an approach. “People who were on the fence or supported us” in the past “have in fact decided to strike out against us,” he recently acknowledged.

….”You have to understand the Arab mind,” one company commander told the New York Times, displaying all the self-assurance of Douglas MacArthur discoursing on Orientals in 1945. “The only thing they understand is force — force, pride and saving face.” Far from representing the views of a few underlings, such notions penetrated into the upper echelons of the American command. In their book “Cobra II,” Michael R. Gordon and Gen. Bernard E. Trainor offer this ugly comment from a senior officer: “The only thing these sand niggers understand is force and I’m about to introduce them to it.”

Such crass language, redolent with racist, ethnocentric connotations, speaks volumes. These characterizations, like the use of “gooks” during the Vietnam War, dehumanize the Iraqis and in doing so tacitly permit the otherwise impermissible. Thus, Abu Ghraib and Haditha — and too many regretted deaths, such as that of Nahiba Husayif Jassim.”

On India: reforms don’t reach rural heartland

6 Jul

Pankaj Mishra, writing for the New York Times, takes on the myth of “New India” –

“Recent accounts of the alleged rise of India barely mention the fact that the country’s $728 per capita gross domestic product is just slightly higher than that of sub-Saharan Africa and that, as the 2005 United Nations Human Development Report puts it, even if it sustains its current high growth rates, India will not catch up with high-income countries until 2106.

Nor is India rising very fast on the report’s Human Development index, where it ranks 127, just two rungs above Myanmar and more than 70 below Cuba and Mexico. Despite a recent reduction in poverty levels, nearly 380 million Indians still live on less than a dollar a day.

Malnutrition affects half of all children in India, and there is little sign that they are being helped by the country’s market reforms, which have focused on creating private wealth rather than expanding access to health care and education. Despite the country’s growing economy, 2.5 million Indian children die annually, accounting for one out of every five child deaths worldwide; and facilities for primary education have collapsed in large parts of the country (the official literacy rate of 61 percent includes many who can barely write their names). In the countryside, where 70 percent of India’s population lives, the government has reported that about 100,000 farmers committed suicide between 1993 and 2003. ”

A related article in BBC talks about how the recent economic growth in India and China has meant little reprieve for those living in the rural areas.