What’s the Next Best Thing to Learn?

10 Oct

With Gaurav Gandhi

Recommendation engines are everywhere. These systems recommend what shows to watch on Netflix and what products to buy on Amazon. Since at least the Netflix Prize, the conventional wisdom is that recommendation engines have become very good. Except that they are not. Some of the deficiencies are deliberate. Netflix has made a huge bet on its shows, and it makes every effort to highlight its Originals over everything else. Some other efficiencies are a result of a lack of content. The fact is easily proved. How often have you done a futile extended search for something “good” to watch?

Take the above two explanations out, and still, the quality of recommendations is poor. For instance, Youtube struggles to recommend high-quality, relevant videos on machine learning. It fails on relevance because it either recommends videos that are too difficult or too easy. And it fails on quality—the opaqueness of explanation makes most points hard to understand. When I look back, most of the high-quality content on machine learning that I have come across is a result of subscribing to the right channels—human curation. Take another painful aspect of most recommendations: a narrow understanding of our interests. You watch a few food travel shows, and YouTube will recommend twenty others.

Problems

What is the next best thing to learn? It is an important question to ask. To answer it, we need to know the objective function. But the objective function is too hard to formalize and yet harder to estimate. Is it money we want, or is it knowledge, or is it happiness? Say we decide its money. For most people, after accounting for risk, the answer may be: learn to program. But what would the equilibrium effects be if everyone did that? Not great. So we ask a simpler question: what is the next reasonable unit of information to learn?

Meno’s paradox states that we cannot be curious about something that we know, and, using a Rumsfeld-ism, we cannot be curious about things we don’t know we don’t know. The domain of things we can be curious about hence are things we know that we don’t know. For instance, I know that I don’t know enough about dark matter. But the complete set of things we can be curious about includes things we don’t know we don’t know.

The set of things that we don’t know is very large. But that is not the set of information we can know. The set of relevant information is described by the frontier of our knowledge. The unit of information we are ready to consume is not a random unit from the set of things we don’t know but the set of things we can learn given what we know.  As I note above, a bunch of ML lectures that YouTube recommends are beyond me. 

There is a further constraint on ‘relevance.’ Of the relevant set, we are only curious about things we are interested in. But it is an open question about how we entice people to learn about things that they will find interesting. It is the same challenge Netflix faces when trying to educate people about movies people haven’t heard or seen.

Conditional on knowing the next best substantive unit, we care about quality.  People want content that will help them learn what they are interested in most efficiently. So we need to solve for the best source to learn the information.

Solutions

Known-Known

For things we know, the big question is how do we optimally retain things we know. It may be through Flashcards or what have you.

Exploring the Unknown

  1. Learn What a Person Knows (Doesn’t Know): The first step is in learning the set of information that the person doesn’t know is to learn what a person knows. The best way to learn what a person knows is to build a system that monitors all the information we consume on the Internet. 
  1. Classify. Next, use ML to split the information into broad areas. 
  1. Estimate The Frontier of Knowledge. To establish the frontier of knowledge, we need to put what people know on a scale. We can derive that scale by exploiting syllabi and class structure (101, 102, etc.) and associated content and then scaling all the content (Youtube video, books, etc.) by estimating similarity with the relevant level of content. (We can plausibly also establish a scale by following the paths people follow–videos that they start but don’t finish are good indications of being too easy or too hard, for instance.)

    We can also use tools like quizzes to establish the frontier, but the quizzes will need to be built from a system that understands how information is stacked.
  1. Estimate Quality of Content. Rank content within each topic and each level by quality. Infer quality through both explicit and implicit measures. Use this to build the relevant set.
  1. Recommend from the relevant set. Recommend a wide variety of content from the relevant set.

Good News: Principles of Good Journalism

12 Mar

If fake news—deliberate disinformation, not uncongenial news—is one end of the spectrum, what is the other end of the spectrum?

To get at the question, we need a theory of what news should provide. A theory of news, in turn, needs a theory of citizenship, which prescribes the information people need to execute their role, and an empirically supported behavioral theory of how people get that information.

What a democracy expects of people varies by the conception of democracy. Some theories of democracy only require citizens to have enough information to pick the better candidate when differences in candidates are material. Others, like deliberative democracy, expect people to be well informed and to have thought through various aspects of policies.

I opt for deliberative democracy to guide expectations about people for two reasons. Not only does the theory best express the highest ideals of democracy, but it also has the virtue of answering a vital question well. If all news was equally profitable to produce and was as widely read, what kind of news would lead to the best political outcomes, as judged by idealized versions of people—people who have all the information and all the time to think through the issues?

There are two virtues of answering such a question. First, it offers a convenient place to start answering what we mean by ‘good’ news; we can bring in profitability and reader preferences later. Second, engaging with it uncovers some obvious aspects of ‘good’ news.

For news to positively affect political outcomes (not in the shallow, instrumental sense), the news has to be about politics. Rather than news about Kim Kardashian or opinions about the hottest boots this season, ‘good’ news is about policymaker, policy-implementor, and policy-relevant news.

News about politics is a necessary but not a sufficient condition. Switching from discussing Kim Kardashian’s dress to Hillary Clinton’s is very plausibly worse. Thus, we also want the news to be substantive, engaging with real issues rather than cosmetic concerns.

Substantively engaging with real issues is still no panacea. If the information is not correct, it will misinform than inform the debate. Thus, the third quality of ‘good’ news is correctness.

The criterion for “good” news is, however, not just correctness, but it is the correctness of interpretation. ‘Good’ news allows people to draw the right conclusions. For instance, reporting murder rates as say ‘a murder per hour’ without reporting the actual number of murders or comparing the probability of being murdered to other common threats to life may instill greater fear in people than ‘optimal.’ (Optimal, as judged by better-informed versions of ourselves who have been given time to think. We can also judge optimal by correctness—did people form unbiased, accurate beliefs after reading the news?)

Not all issues, however, lend themselves to objective appraisals of truth. To produce ‘good’ news, the best you can do is have the right process. The primary tool that journalists have in the production of news is the sources they use to report on stories. (While journalists increasingly use original data to report, the reliance on people is widespread.) Thus, the way to increase correctness is through manipulating aspects of sources. We can increase correctness by increasing the quality of sources, e.g., source more knowledgeable people with low incentives to cook the books, increase the diversity of sources, e.g., not just government officials but also plausibly major NGOs, and the number of sources.

If we emphasize correctness, we may fall short on timeliness. News has to be timely enough to be useful, aside from being correct enough to guide policy and opinion correctly.

News can be narrowly correct but may commit sins of omission. ‘Good’ news provides information on all sides of the issue. ‘Good’ news highlights and engages with all serious claims. It doesn’t give time to discredited claims for “balance.”

Second-to-last, news should be delivered in the right tone. Rather than speculative ad-hominem attacks, “good” news engages with arguments and data.

Lastly, news contributes to the public kitty only if it is original. Thus, ‘good’ news is original. (Plagiarism reduces the incentives for producing quality news because it eats into the profits.)

Canonical Insights

20 Oct

If the canonical insight of computer science is automating repetition, the canonical insight of data science is optimization. It isn’t that computer scientists haven’t thought about optimization. They have. But computer scientists weren’t the first to think about automation, just like economists weren’t the first to think that incentives matter. Automation is just the canonical, foundational, purpose of computer science.

Similarly, optimization is the canonical, foundational purpose of data science. Data science aims to provide the “optimal” action at time t conditional on what you know. And it aims to do that by learning from data optimally. For instance, if the aim is to separate apples from oranges, the aim of supervised learning is to give the best estimate of whether the fruit is an apple or an orange given data.

For certain kinds of problems, the optimal way to learn from data is not to exploit found data but to learn from new data collected in an optimal way. For instance, randomized inference also us to compare two arbitrary regimes. And say if you want to optimize persuasiveness, you need to continuously experiment with different pitches (the number of dimensions on which pitches can be generated can be a lot), some of which exploit human frailties (which vary by people) and some that will exploit the fact that people need to be pitched the relevant value and that relevant value differs across people.

Once you know the canonical insight of a discipline, it opens up all the problems that can be “solved” by it. It also tells you what kind of platform you need to build to make optimal decisions for that problem. For some tasks, the “platform” may be supervised learning. For other tasks, like ad persuasiveness, it may be a platform that combines supervised learning (for targeting) and experimentation (for optimizing the pitch).

That’s Smart! What We Mean by Smartness and What We Should

16 Aug

Many people conceive of intelligence as a CPU. To them, being more intelligent means having a faster CPU. And this is despairing as the clock speed is largely fixed. (Prenatal and childhood nutrition can make a sizable difference, however. For instance, iodine deficiency in children causes mental retardation.)

But people misconceive intelligence. Intelligence is not just the clock speed of the CPU. It is also the short-term cache and the OS.

Clock speed doesn’t matter much if there isn’t a good-sized cache. The size of short-term memory matters enormously. And the good news is that we can expand it with effort.

A super fast CPU with a large cache is still only as good as the operating system. If people know little or don’t know how to reason well, they generally won’t be smart. Think of the billions of people who came before we knew how to know (science). Some of those people had really fast CPUs. But many of them weren’t able to make much progress on anything.

The chances an ignoramus who doesn’t know correlation isn’t causation will come across as stupid are also high. In fact, we often mistake being knowledgeable and possessing rules of how to reason well for being intelligent. Though it goes without saying, it is good to say it: how much we know and knowledge of how to reason better is in our control.

Lastly, people despair because they mistake skew for the variance. People believe there is a lot of variance in processing capacity. My sense is that variance in the processing capacity is low, and the skew high. In layman’s terms, most people are as smart as the other with very few very bright people. None of this is to say that the little variance that exists is not consequential.

Toward a Better OS

Ignorance of relevant facts limits how well we can reason. Thus, increasing the repository of relevant facts at hand will help you reason smarter. If you don’t know about something, that is ok. Today, the world’s information is at your fingertips. It will take you some time to go through things but you can become informed about more things than you think possible.

Besides knowledge, there are some ‘frameworks’ of how to approach a problem. For instance, management consultants have something called MECE. This ‘framework’ can help you reason better about a whole slew of problems. There are likely others.

Besides reasoning frameworks, there are simple rules that can help you reason better. You can look up books devoted to common errors in thinking, and use those to derive the rules. The rules can look as follows:

  1. Correlation is not the same as causation
  2. Don’t select on the dependent variable. What I call the ‘7 Habits of Successful People’ rule.
  3. Replace categorical thinking with continuous where possible, and be precise. For e.g., rather than claim that ‘there is a risk’, quantify the risk. Or replace the word possibility with probability where applicable.
  4. Have a better grasp of your own ignorance using some of the tricks described here.
  5. The tree of inference starts with the question. Think hard about what data you would need to answer the question well. And then what data you have. And then calibrate your assessments about the answer based on the difference between the data you would have liked to have and the data you have.

Star Trek: Trekking Uncertainly Between Utopia and Twentieth Century Earth

27 Aug

Star Trek (and its spin-offs) are justly applauded for including socially progressive ideas in both, the themes of their stories, and the cultural fabric of the counterfactual imagination of the future. For instance, women and minorities command positions of responsibility, those working for the ‘Federation’ take ethical questions seriously, both ‘Data’ (an android) and empathy (via a ‘Betazoid counselor’) play a central role in making command decisions (at least in one of the series), etc.

There are some other pleasant aspects of the show. The background hum of a ship replaces cacophonous noise that passes for as background score on many shows; order prevails; professionalism and intelligence are shown as being rewarded; backroom machinations are absent, and the thrill of exploration and discovery is elevated to a virtue.

However, there are a variety of places where either insufficient thought or distinctly twentieth-century considerations intrude. For one, the central protagonists belong to ‘Star Fleet’, a military (and peacekeeping) arm of the ‘Federation.’ More distressingly, this military arm seems to be run internally on many of the same time-worn principles as on earth in the twentieth century including, an extremely hierarchical code, uniform clothing, etc. The saving grace is that most members of the Star Fleet are technical personnel. Still, the choice of conceptualizing the protagonists as belonging to the military wing (of arguably a peaceful organization) is somewhat troubling.

There are other ‘backward’ aspects. Inter-species stereotyping is common. For instance, Ferengis are mostly shown as irredeemably greedy, the Romulans and Klingons as devoted to war, and the Borg and the Dominion as simply evil. While some shows make some attempts at dealing with the issue, attributing psychological traits to entire cultures and worlds is relatively common. Further, regrettably, uniforms of women in some of the series are noticeably tighter.

More forgivably perhaps, there is an almost exclusive focus on people in command. This is perhaps necessitated by demands of creating non inter-personal drama, most easily achieved by focusing on important situations that affect the fate of many—the kinds of situations only people in command confront (in the hierarchical institutional format shown). The hierarchical structure and need for drama often create some absurdity. Since those in command have to be shown ‘commanding’, the captain of the ship is shown giving the largely superfluous order of ‘engage’ (akin to asking the driver to ‘drive’ when he knows he has to drive you to the destination) in a theatrical fashion. Similarly, given the level of automation and technological sophistication shown, opportunities for showing heroism have to be many a time contrived. Hence many of the ‘missions’ are tremendously low tech.

Where does this leave us? Nowhere in particular but perhaps with just a slightly better appreciation of some of the ‘tensions’ between how the show is often imagined by ‘nerds’ (as a vision of utopia) and what the show is really about.

The Laws of Suffering

10 Feb
  • All around us, people are suffering, and making others suffer.
  • Immaturity causes a great deal of suffering. Rest is caused by lack of scruples.
  • Immaturity is almost as hard to cure as lack of scruples.
  • Few people are interested in anything other than their own troubles.
  • Hierarchy of suffering is decided mostly by the importance one places on it; it is uncorrelated with actual suffering.
  • More mature shoulder the burdens of the less mature, sometimes willingly.
  • Absolute levels of well-being [or ability, looks, resources] have less to do with happiness than comparative levels
  • Comparison mostly reduces happiness, rarely does it increase it, even when positive.
  • People are inadequately motivated to be happy.
  • A great many people have the dough for happiness, but never bake the cake.

Delay Shooting the Help

25 Dec

Procrastination

Procrastination, delaying without reason doing something that one has to do, makes little sense. If the voluntary delay also causes anxiety, which in most cases it does, it may be particularly pointless. Yet a lot of people procrastinate at least some of the times. Why?

One can make a case for postponing unpleasant things that are avoidable—in fact why bother doing those things at all—but not things that are unavoidable, or things that a person intends to do.

The desirability of a task influences the decision to procrastinate or not. Rationally, it should not matter but the fact that it does provides a possible toehold into why we procrastinate:

  1. Sometimes problems don’t appear to have a good solution right away and one hopes that a solution would appear over time even though one may not have good reasons to think that such good fortune would strike.
  2. For example, one hopes that the ‘unavoidable’ task would become avoidable? Or we wait till the point ‘it is clear’ that the problem cannot be avoided?

Procrastination is understood exclusively as a problem about ordering and assumes that the net amount of time expended on task remains constant, irrespective of order. Perhaps that is a problematic assumption. Starting things later may just mean that we spend less time on the task than we otherwise would. However, one can easily reframe the issue as one about when to spend the reduced time, than one where we must delay achieving the aim of spending less time on the task.

Shooting the help

At times when people are worried, and when well-intentioned people try to help them, they simply become annoyed, or even mildly angry at them. Why is it that we refuse help, or more puzzlingly become angry or annoyed with people who are trying in good faith to be of help.

When people offer advice, they often use munitions from similar events and incidents they have encountered. This can be a bit galling as it undermines the ‘uniqueness’ of our problems. This ‘feeling’ is further compounded by the fact that many a time people are also over-eager and often too quick to offer solutions without a more patient listening to the individuating data. And then arguably many people while eager to help don’t do much thinking (either through incapacity, lack of motivation, or on the assumption that no thought is needed) about the problem itself, and offer comments that are not particularly insightful. And then many a time all people want is a sympathetic ear or a pat on the back. In other words, sometimes public self-pity is all we want. This is typically so when either the solutions are obvious or non-existent.

Outside of this, it is also the case that high achievers are less likely to seek help, and bristle when offered help, for seeking help forces them to face their own vulnerability.

On Love

25 Nov

Mothers spend a great deal of their time and energy on their kids, especially newborns. They spend far more time thinking, and working to ensure welfare of another human being (their kid), than most humans will spend on any other human being, say their romantic partner or sibling. Add to this that till the child reaches adulthood, often till much later, the relationship is overwhelmingly one-way – with children thinking little about their parent’s welfare. Still, most mothers find the experience, and the work that goes with it, greatly rewarding.

Joy despite this sizable disparity has been explained by cynics, but only poorly. While parents proclaim that children bring joy to their lives, it doesn’t cause parents to invest time and money for often similar joy can be had at much lower rates of work. And financial investments, investments of time, the toll on the mother’s body, and inconveniences like lack of sleep, problems traveling, etc. likely outweigh potential financial benefits, which are likely either way away from most parents’ minds.

In this puzzle there are perhaps a couple of lessons about love – one is that relationships that are overwhelmingly one-way, say in resources like time and money, can still be basis for mutual joy; second perhaps is that spending more time on people we love can make those relationships more fulfilling, and us happier.

Measuring Love

Love and to love are vague conceptually and in minds of people who use these terms. The concepts have evolved such that attempts to define or deliberate these concepts rile sensibilities – offend the notion that love is really the domain of emotion, not thought. Such thoughtlessness has meant that nearly everyone can get away with claiming love, even when the overall impact on the quality of life they have on their loved one is a deeply negative one.

One way to think about how much we love each other is to take into account how much time we spend actively thinking about the welfare of those we love. Such exercise when done without deliberation elicits an emotionally biased line up of instances where we were thoughtful. To move beyond such selective counting, for what matters are averages, with a penalty for egregious negatives, one ought to think carefully and honestly, and perhaps base assessments on the testimony of the loved one. Intentionality ought to play a part in calculations but not as a blanket defense – I truly want your welfare but there is nothing in the record that backs up the claim – but to down-weight some instances of sub-optimal decision making under pressure, and limited resources.

Complimentary Spam

5 Aug

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Some Notable Ideas

30 Jun

Education of a senator

While top colleges have been known to buck their admissions criteria for the wrong reasons, they do on average admit smarter students, and the academic training they provide is easily above average. So it may be instructive to know what percentage of Senators, the most elite of the political brass, have graced the hallowed corridors of top academic institutions, and if at all the proportion attending top colleges varies by party.

Whereas 5 of the 42 Republican senators have attended top colleges (in the top 20), 22 of the 57 Democratic Senators have done the same. The skew in numbers may be because New England is home to both top schools and a good many Democratic Senators. But privilege accorded by accident of geography is no less consequential than one afforded by some more equitable regime. As in if people of fundamentally similar caliber are there in Senate in either party, a belief cursory viewing of CSPAN would absolve one-off, some due to the happenstance of geography have been trained better than others.

Discounting elite education, one may simply want to look at the extent of education. There one finds that whereas 73% of the Democratic Senators have an advanced degree, only 64% of Republican Senators have the same. While again it is likely that going to top schools increases admission to good advanced degree programs, thereby making advanced education more attractive perhaps, there again one can conjecture that whatever the reason – some groups of people, due to mere privilege perhaps, have better skills than others.

Why do telephones have numbers?
Unique alphabetical addresses could always be uniquely coded using numbers or translated as signals. However technological limitations meant that such coding wasn’t widely practiced. This meant people were forced to memorize multiple long strings of numbers, a skill most people never prided themselves with, and when forced to learn it, they took to it like fish to land. Freedom from such bondage would surely be welcomed by many. And now, unsparing hands of technological change which have made such coding ubiquitous hope to deliver comeuppance to telephone numbers. Providing each phone with an alphabetical ID that maps to its IP address would be one smart way of implementing this change.

Misinformation and Agenda Setting
People actively learn from the environment, though they do so inexpertly. Given an average American consumes over 60 hrs of media each week, one prominent place from they learn is the media. Say if one were to watch a great many crime shows – merely as a result of the great many crime shows on television – one may impute wrongly that crime rate has been increasing. A similar, though more potent, example of the this may be the 70% of Americans who believe breast cancer is the number one reason for female mortality.

Lifting the Veil on Some Issues Around The Burka Debate

30 Mar

For the unfamiliar, the BBC guide to Muslim veils.

The somewhat polemical:
Assuming that God has recommended that women wear the burka, assuming that burka has no impact on a woman’s ability to communicate or quality of life, as has been suggested by its supporters, then here’s a suggestion—to all men, who haven’t been ordered by God to wear burka, and who don’t see a downside to wearing it—why not voluntarily commit to wearing the burka, since no law opposes such a voluntary act, to show solidarity with the women. My sense is that even the French would come to support the burka if Muslim men en masse chose to wear it.

More considered:
‘The interior ministry says only 1,900 women wear full veils in France, home to Europe’s biggest Muslim minority’ (BBC). If the problem is interpreted solely in terms of women wearing the veil, then it is much smaller than the dust in its wake.

There are three competing concerns at the heart of the debate: Protecting rights of women who voluntarily want to wear it, protecting rights of women who are forced to wear it, and protecting (French) ‘culture.’ Setting aside cultural concerns for the moment, let’s focus on the first two claims.

People are incredulous of the claim that women will voluntarily choose to wear something so straightforwardly unpleasant. Even when confronted with a woman who claims to comply voluntarily, they fear coercion, or something akin to brainwashing at play. There is merit to the thought. However, there is much evidence that women subject themselves to many unpleasant things voluntarily, such as wearing high heels (which I understand are uncomfortable to wear). So it is very likely indeed that there is ‘voluntary compliance’ by some women.

Assuming there exist both, voluntary compliers, and those forced to wear the niqab, wouldn’t it be pleasant if we could ensure the rights of both? In fact, doesn’t the extant legal framework provide for such a privilege already? Yes and no, mostly no. While it is true that women forced to wear the niqab can petition the police, it is unlikely to happen for a variety of reasons. Going to the police would mean going against the family, which may mean doing something painful, and risking financial and physical well-being. Additionally, the laws governing such ‘coercion’ are likely to carry modest penalties and unlikely to redress the numerous correlated issues including inadequate financial, and educational opportunities. Many of the issues raised here would seem familiar to people working with domestic abuse, and they are, and the modern state hasn’t (tried to) found a good solution.

Perhaps both camps will agree that wearing a niqab does dramatically limit the career opportunities for women. Of course, people in one of the camps may be happy that there are limits to such opportunities but let’s assume that they would be happy if the women had the same opportunities. Part of the problem here then is the norms of dressing in business environments in the West. Entrepreneurs in Saudi Arabia recently brought to air a television talk show in which both of the hosts wore the niqab. The entire effect was disturbing. However, that isn’t the point. The point is that there may be ways not to reduce career opportunities for women based on the dress code, which after all seems ‘coercive.’

Time considerations mean a fuller consideration of the issue will have to wait. One last point – One of the problems cited about the burka is that it poses a security threat, which has some merit, given its long history in being used a method of escape, including by militant clerics.

You Got (Fraudulent) Mail!

22 Jan

Republican [Con-]census

The party that dislikes the census, put a hold on the nominee for census bureau, is now sending out fraudulent mail surveys that seem as if they were from the census bureau. Read here, here, and here. Accusation for being ‘fraudulent’ stems, not only from the use of `census’, but also from it being an attempt at “frugging”, the practice of cloaking a fund raising appeal in what appears to be a research. (“Suggers” sell using surveys.)

Who Knew
One of the people who has benefited the most from Macaulay’s reforms recently sent an email, part of a larger email chain that now generally implies some travesty, which quoted Macaulay as having spoken the following (on Feb 2nd, 1835 in India, the same day his gave his Minute on Education in Britain) –

I have traveled across the length and breadth of India and I have not seen one person who is a beggar, who is a thief. Such wealth I have seen in this country, such high moral values, people of such caliber, that I do not think we would ever conquer this country, unless we break the very backbone of this nation, which is her spiritual and cultural heritage, and, therefore, I propose that we replace her old and ancient education system, her culture, for if the Indians think that all that is foreign and English is good and greater than their own, they will lose their self-esteem, their native self-culture and they will become what we want them, a truly dominated nation?

Of course, Lord Macaulay never said such a thing. He said many other tawdry things but never did he eulogize the absolutely hokum positive images of India. While we all want glorious histories, past isn’t as glorious. Neither are confessions of colonial rapacity generally so naked.

Suggestion: For greater imagined glories one must go further back than just 1835, when the ‘Muggles’ had had their way (as Hindus may point out), writing had been invented, into the mists of more obscure pre-history where one can have his way with the truth. How about the crowning glories of Lord Rama and his return on an airplane like ‘pushpak’ vahan?

‘Disproving’ God

24 Jan

A tribute to Charles Darwin on his 200th birth anniversary

Some say that science should be absent from discussions about God is because while science concerns itself with the material, God concerns himself with the ‘spiritual’ ‘nonmaterial’ realm. But there are a number of theories of God that explicitly deal with the material realm. To that extent science has standing.

One prominent theory of the divine made with ungodly frequency is that God has a direct impact on the material well-being of humans. Here’s why the claim falls short:

Given systematic temporal and geographic variance exists in poverty, life-expectancy, etc. and given we have been able to attribute a majority of the causes for such to human action, it appears God plays only a peripheral part in the destiny of man, albeit a larger role in the destiny of women (mostly through the hands of believers). Mortality rates differ by geography. For example, the US versus Africa, Northeast US versus Southern US (maybe god likes ‘godless NE liberals’). And mortality rates vary by time—we live longer today than we did 200 years ago. The variance in mortality and life-expectancy also seems to respond to human intervention—discovery of new technologies and medicines, war, etc. So unless we believe God systematically dislikes Africans or liked people born 200 years ago less, when arguably people were more moral on some variables favored by the current fundamentalists, we have little reason to believe that God is a large force in determining life-expectancy, or mortality.

Let’s assume for devil’s sake that God is a confounding variable, which is true in at least one way—he is alleged to work in mysterious ways, i.e. God determines both temporal, geographic, racial and other kinds of variance in distribution of poverty, the human action to which it is causally attributed, and life-expectancy. But that version of God conflicts with our theories about human action (say greed) and our theories about God, who ought not to reward people motivated by such things as greed. But then punishment can come in the afterlife – via hell, where an ever larger number of people are being systematically tortured through a great expense of energy, and in a manner that will leave the Bush administration officials chagrined. Even if we imagine that theories of after-life action are true, their impact on the material world is limited to the extent people believe in the threat of punishment. To that extent, God is an instrumental identity for achieving some version of morality.

Another challenge to the presence of God comes from the probabilistic nature of our causal models. Theories about God ought to be perfect (explain about 100% of the variance) while theories of social action can be probabilistic. To ascribe probabilistic thinking and action to God would significantly conflict with theories of God, though one can imagine that he sets the mean, and will cause the error term. A starker version of the same would be that God allows free will, and to that degree that he allows for it and the world is shaped by free will, and God is immaterial to bettering social condition. Another reason to discount challenge to God theory can be the following – we just don’t know the generating mechanism (or life/death) and probabilistic conditioning seems to come from fitting known world models onto data generated by God model, which is by the way synergistic enough with the world model (more poverty = earlier death) to be disturbing.

One way to look at the argument presented here is that God may exist, but s/he/it isn’t particularly strong. And if strength/omnipotence is taken to be a fundamental descriptive attitude of the object (God), it is likely that the object doesn’t exist as well. The counterargument to the above would perhaps need to factor in differing conceptions about the object and its power. For example, one may say that s/he/it is doing all it can to reduce evil to its lowest form – and that is indeed the present condition. Perhaps then more minimally – since he is already doing all he can and rest depends on us – we can argue that God isn’t a particularly useful intervention for changing one’s situation in the world.

Understanding Delhi and the Delhi Walla

8 Jan

The article was written for The Delhi Walla

The Delhi Walla is a journalist’s blog, albeit without the drama and urgency with which journalism and journalists are often associated with today. The writing on the blog represents that prior tradition among journalists which was about subtle observation, gentle humor, as evinced in journalists’ travelogues, and in shows like BBC’s “From our own correspondent.”

The blog is a significant achievement. More so because reporting on cities is generally skillfully and purposefully bankrupt, formulaic and inane, an orgy of crummy descriptions of pointless people, and events, and soulless corporate jingles about places to eat, and entertain, infested almost always with a touch too colorful poorly shot photos.

With an eclectic choice of topics, a choice that is many a times dictated by the city rather than by an urge to puppeteer description in grips of pincers of prejudice, with gentle and subtle humor, Mayank shines a weak but almost always pleasant humanistic light on the myriad facets of Delhi, and the occupations, preoccupations, habits, of its residents. The wonderful aspect of the blog is that it catalogs ‘real life,’ an all too absent commodity in newspapers, be it then a story about the need to find a second home in a city with cramped homes that provide all too little privacy, the rather oddly structured stories on colonies (as they are called in Delhi), or the succession of charming articles on bookstores, and their proprietors. Perhaps seen hence, it is a writer’s blog. And that is probably a more accurate description of the sensibility of the blog, and the author, and explains the void comparisons to newspapers that I make above.

Understanding
One can try to understand things of interest by disinterring things, breaking them apart skillfully, through analysis and connecting those parts into an explanation or simply description conjoined by some connective tissue. It is a bit like looking at white light through a prism, with colored rainbow being the distillate. Of course, more often we just describe a part of one color, and the rest is at best in the penumbra. Analysis is generally purposive and demands specificity. It struggles to contain, and cast, and organize, and too often the aim is to achieve that aha! moment. For all these reasons, the enterprise is often fraught with problems of myopia, and of force.

Another feature of the analytical method is the method of writing – it is writing through contestation. For example, the account that I provide here is often times a ‘negative’ account — describing what this blog isn’t, rather than simply focusing on what it is. The method may be insightful if the analysis has legs, but it is seldom enjoyable.

The Delhi Walla chooses differently; he observes, describes, narrates, engages in reverie, and gently analyzes. He does it with great modesty and some charm. His method of understanding isn’t analytic introspection, but subtle observation that produces that warm flush of vague but liberalist accepting, even embracing, empathy, and exultation in the shared existence. It is akin to the understanding and exultation one feels while standing on the roof of the house on a pleasant summer evening, and looking over the gullis and Mohalla.

Delhi
Delhi is an easy city to caricature. It is bleak, dirty, loud, and crowded. And it is certainly all that. But the reality is simultaneously substantially more mundane and textured. Likewise, people sometimes mistakenly make the inferential leap from bleak surroundings to bleak lives; all too often bleak surroundings are peripheral to the fuller psychological lives lived among acquaintances, friends, relations, and more.

Delhi is a city that carries the hopes and aspirations of people living in it, the location of deaths, marriages, jobs, cars, monuments, history, politics, money, and more. One can take respite, if so is needed, in the beauty of some of its monuments, sometimes in just its familiarity, in its traditions and landmarks, even in its oppressive heat, as Mayank occasionally does, food, conversation, and intimacy of friends and family, among other things.

The Delhi Walla
The Delhi Walla is an eclectic account of Delhi. It is an ode to the passions of Delhi Walla — the Muslim heritage of Delhi, books, Arundhati Roy, and gay life in the city. It is an account of his questions, and more interestingly a live account of an unfailingly interesting life.

In the Middle of Nowhere

12 Sep

Given that wealth is hard to measure, the middle class has often been defined in terms of income. Gary Burtless defines it as families earning anywhere between half of median income ($24,000) to twice as much ($96,000). Frank Levy, based on Census data for families in their prime earning years, pegs that range between $30,000 and $90,000. This seems much too wide a ‘middle’ to be meaningful. These incomes likely reflect very different lifestyles and options. But the definition is slippier still. The World Bank defines the middle class as people making between $10 and $20 a day — adjusted for local prices — which is roughly the range of average incomes between Brazil ($10) and Italy ($20).

The middle-class has been described as a rentier class with no social basis but one with a specific function. Benefits are distributed asymmetrically in a Capitalist system, with the top .01% gaining significantly more than the next .09%, who in turn gain significantly more than the next 1%, and so on. This pyramid is held in place by the inclusive meritocratic rhetoric, and by the aspirants (middle class) in whose hands success seems the nearest. More broadly, each economic system has a legitimizing (sense-making) discourse for its winners and losers, and in Capitalism — it is the inclusive, achievable, democratic discourse about merit and hard work. The successful are caught in the need for ascribing their success to their own ingenuity and hard work.

The moralism of middle class can be better understood if we look to its historical roots in Victorian England. One of the defining features of the middle-class in the Victorian era was its extreme moralism — railing against the corrupt degenerate aristocracy, and the equally corrupt breeding-like-rabbits poor — and trying to define meritocracy as the only ethical framework. Hence meritocracy has become the defining ethos of the society — inclusive yet elusive — inclusive enough to keep the bottom salivating, and yet elusive enough to keep it nearly always out of reach of the lower classes.

Media and the Middle Class: Example of India

The timing of India’s liberalization was fortuitous in a way – especially as we trace the story of the ascent of the middle class in the past decade – as it coincided with the advent of transnational satellite broadcasting in Asia. In 1991, Hong Kong-based (Murdoch owned) Star TV started broadcasting to several Asian countries from a clutch of transponders aboard Asiasat 1. Its mainstay was recycled American programming. Star TV found instant reception due to Gulf War which had revolutionized cable. The satellite dishes/and cable/ operators showed images from gulf war and then showed Hindi movies at the end of the war. Overnight, video parlor owners changed to cable operators offering Star TV’s five channels — including BBC and MTV. BBC was later dropped.

The government took a lax view of the mushrooming illegal cable industry and didn’t take steps to regularize it until 1995, and even then enforcement was lax, if not non-existent. The rise of cable was significant in shaping the middle class, and how it chose to see itself – at once liberal, and aware of global trends in fashion and entertainment.

But if it were not for further liberalization of media, and the new generation that took reigns of that media – the story may still have been different.

The narrative around media’s role in the construction of the new middle class is more completely understood if we move beyond analyzing the product or the stated strategic intentions of the actors, and instead look at the people running media today.

Till the early nineties, the only game town used to be the state media. Even the newspapers trod lightly, if progressively, under threat of government boycott of ads. The dominant ethos in reporting and programming on the state media were the liberalist bureaucratic ethos and on radio dominated by people likely to be friends with university professors. Doordarshan ran public service ads, and social cohesion promoting dramas.

This all changed, first with the introduction of cable, which initially featured foreign channels carrying a sprinkling of preppy foreign-bred hyphenated Indians, and then with the rise of native media led by clawing young brigade. The recruits to the media industry – young, turgid with ambition, aiming to please, and imbibed in business ethos- were key in hastening the spread of middle-class discourse. A similar process is underway in American journalism with a shift in technology necessitating a significant generational shift. It is patently clear reading Times of India with its Leisure sections (something which was started by Washington Post Style Section in the 1980s) that newspaper today looks like a vastly different animal than a decade and a half ago. One can argue that some of the change in media was a result of the change in economy, and not a cause of some of the changes but the alacrity with which media changed, the speed with which it contorted, and the multiple places in which it behaved as the vanguard speaks of fundamental change in ethos that could only have happened with the active participation of the eager to be indoctrinated/ or already indoctrinated.

A Walk Down the Memory Lane: Connaught Place

14 Jul

The romance of a Delhi summer can be savored by conjuring up just one image: the vast, cool corridors of Connaught Place.

The Raj-era building, built between 1928 and 1934 though formally opened in 1931, was based on the designs of World War I veteran Robert Tor Russell, Chief Architect to the Public Works Department. Russell had worked in India before the War as an assistant to the famous John Begg, who along with George Wittet is generally credited with developing the Indo-Saracenic style. Thankfully, due to exigency or choice, none of Begg’s influence invaded Russell’s design aesthetic, which was dominated by the understated yet stately stucco neo-classical style popularized by Sir Edwin Lutyens. Russell’s aesthetic, however, did carry distinct echoes of Italian architecture- The opulent gracefully executed Tuscan loggias on both on both levels (the upper-level structures have been increasingly converted into offices) being the defining features of Connaught Place.

Growing up in the eighties, Connaught Place, with its massive arcaded colonnades, circular columnar geometry which was never oppressive, upscale if slightly frumpy shops, as opposed to upscale shops now which have interior designs that are almost always preternaturally youthful, with humming air conditioners, when air conditioners were a rarity, was a source of wonder and awe. It was also the only place where one saw foreigners in Delhi. They, almost always in their sunglasses and shorts, walking unhurriedly yet purposefully.

Going to Connaught Place meant going through India Gate and parts of Lutyens Delhi. As we neared India gate, the temperature dropped a few degrees as bus gathered pace and air shed its molten edge in the leafy embrace of trees, and over the grassy expanse of the maidans. Suddenly the furrowed brow of the bus passengers relaxed as we entered the non-gridlocked, beautiful, stately, tree-lined Delhi, and a near bonhomie was restored.

Getting down at Barakhamba Road, I remember always taking a few seconds to take in the faint yet pleasant excitement of being in this glorious commercial hub, feeling happy, and almost dreamily becoming aware of the pleasant rush of traffic and how the car horns sounded different — more sonorous, here. However, the two things that I remember most about going to Connaught Place are the shoe shops and Nirula’s. If mom wanted a sandal, it had to be from the Liberty shop in Connaught Place, and the Bata shop there was considered absolutely irreplaceable for men’s shoes. The air-conditioned Nirula’s with its exotic pizzas, which never tasted good but were ravenously consumed, and burgers, and ice-creams was heaven, albeit a heaven in which the feet and heart were as timorous as excitement complete.

On the way back home at night, happy with the day, the relatively empty bus with its dull yellow light seemed positively romantic. As we passed the ice-cream wallahs with their fluorescent lights covered in colored cellophane, and the strolling families, near India gate, the adventure was complete.

Why Obama?

17 Jan

Chaste and I on why Obama is the better candidate for the Democratic primary.

The system of democracy that we have been assigned to only allows us to make comparative judgments between candidates standing for election. We do not get to vote for “ideal” candidates but merely the best among the ones who are running. At this stage, Democratic partisans and independents (in some states) get to choose between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. One of these candidates will eventually represent the Democratic Party in November against a Republican candidate.

The past eight years in this country have been an unmitigated disaster – they have not only been financially ruinous (an average of about $12,000 of debt has been added to the already burdened back of an average American, the dollar has plummeted), they have also proven to be catastrophic for America’s reputation and caused grievous harm on vitally important issues like climate change. All of the major Republican candidates running today – while careful in distancing themselves from Bush – espouse positions that are virtually indistinguishable from that of Bush. There is little doubt in my mind that if we elect another Republican to the White House, we are going to see a rehash of the policies that have proven to be so ruinous. So for all who are concerned about having another Republican in White House come January 2008, it is important to pay attention to electability.

As Frank Rich points out in his column for the NY Times, Republicans are all set to dig up the unending mounds of dirt that emerged from the White House under Clinton Era. The Clinton closet hides more than Lewinsky’s stained blue dress; it also contains sodden episodes like the Whitewater kickbacks, the White House as a guest house for donors, pardoning of Marc Rich, the Clinton library donation from the Saudis, among many others. More than that, Hillary is widely seen (justly or unjustly) as a “divisive” candidate unlikely to win any converts among independents. There is now empirical evidence from the four contests and national opinion polls that that is indeed true, as Obama has handily won amongst independents in each of the contests and leads amongst independents nationwide.

Let me move next to discussing their stances on the Iraq war –a core issue for a lot of Americans not only for its price tag, estimated at over $2 trillion by Columbia and Harvard professors, but also for the active disinformation campaign by the administration and the complicity of press and “opposition” leaders.

Senator Obama had the judgment and the courage to call the Iraq war correctly from the beginning. This was no happenstance or knee-jerk response. “I am not opposed to all wars. I’m opposed to dumb wars,” he had said in 2002. His argument was based not only on the insultingly egregious evidence presented for going to war but also steeped in pragmatism – he accurately predicted that American troops won’t be greeted with flowers in Iraq. His sound judgment is in part the product of his abiding interest in foreign policy: his major at Columbia was International Relations. It is also due in part to his life experiences: as a boy with a Kenyan father and later an Indonesian stepfather, who spent four years growing up in Indonesia, and who lived in the multicultural swirl of Hawaii. Fareed Zakaria, a former managing editor of Foreign Affairs Magazine and currently Editor of Newsweek International, said that Senator Obama is the only candidate who knows “what it means not to be an American”, an understanding critical to a successful foreign policy in our time. Senator Obama is an admirer of the foreign policy of President Truman who combined the establishment of NATO with the Marshall Plan, and of President Kennedy who combined a military buildup with the establishment of the Peace Corps. He wants to make Foreign Aid a strong component of American foreign policy to establish American military and moral leadership. He is currently the only candidate running for office who is open to talking to Iran without any preconditions.

Senator Obama also has a clear grasp of economic policies. Recently, a Washington Post writer decided to grade all the candidates based on the stimulus packages they proposed to address the recent economic downturn. As the candidates put together these responses relatively quickly, they accurately indicate the quality of the candidates’ understanding of the economy. Senator Obama topped with an A-, Senator Edwards and President Bush had a B-, and Senator Clinton had a C+; the best grade for a Republican candidate was a D+. The article is a very good read so I would recommend that you read it in full.

Senator Obama gives us grounds for trusting his integrity because of his record of putting his money where his mouth is. After graduating from Columbia, he worked for several years as a community organizer on the south side of Chicago, not the regulation one year that most law school applicants work to beef up their resume. After graduating Magna cum Laude from Harvard law, he chose to be a civil rights lawyer rather than making millions as a corporate lawyer.

Senator Obama also has a record of bringing people together to get things done. He has done this at least since his days at Harvard Law when he emerged as the consensus candidate as the president of the Harvard Law Review after bitter acrimony between ideological factions (no mean feat as law students like their own opinions very much, and have nothing to lose from being obdurate). In the U.S. Senate, he has worked with respected Republicans like Senator Lugar over the control of conventional weapons like hand-held anti-aircraft missiles and land mines, as well as with Republican ideologues like Senator Coburn over corporate transparency legislation.

Senator Obama’s main opponent, Senator Clinton often offers up her experience as the reason for preferring her. While Senator Clinton was very competent and successful in her long career as a corporate lawyer, her career in public life has unfortunately been marked by incompetence. Her mishandling of Healthcare reform not only resulted in the Republican landslide of 1994 that swept away strong Democratic majorities in Congress; it put off any serious consideration of Healthcare reform for more than a decade.

If part of the debacle of her Healthcare effort may be attributed to political inexperience, no such excuse exists for her vote to authorize the war on Iraq in 2002. At the same time, Senator Clinton also voted against the Levin amendment, which would have required Mr. Bush to come to Congress for war authorization if he failed to obtain a U.N. resolution. The two votes combined make it clear that Senator Clinton’s authorization for the war on Iraq was unequivocal and not conditional on exhaustive diplomacy as she would have us believe. Senator Clinton had access to the entire National Intelligence Estimate. The full report had considerable reservations about the WMD claims spun by the Bush administration. To date, she has consistently refused to say whether she did or did not read the full report, instead maintaining only that she was briefed on the report. Failure to read the report in an important matter like war would suggest incompetence and a lack of seriousness; her vote after reading the report would suggest that she attached more importance to the spin of the Bush administration and TV Pundits than to the assessments of career civil servants even in important matters like war. (NY Times, Hillary on War)

To err may be human, but not to learn from one’s mistakes is incompetence. Senator Clinton has refused to acknowledge that she even made a mistake in her war authorization vote, which suggests a temperament on which experience is wasted. An instance of this was her vote for the Kyl-Lieberman resolution in 2007, which urged the Bush administration to declare Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (numbering about 120,000) a “terrorist” entity. Many saw this resolution as the basis for a possible invasion of Iran in the future. Senator Clinton claimed that her vote would help negotiations with Iran. Yet calling a major state agency “terrorist,” will only make it difficult for the Iranians to compromise, and the “terrorist” label would increase domestic U.S. pressure against meaningful negotiations with Iran. Senator Clinton’s use of such flawed logic as the basis for a possible war creates grave doubts about the quality of her thinking. Fortunately, The Bush administration adopted a much more judicious and restrained approach than that advocated by Senator Clinton and declared only a small subset of the Revolutionary Guards as a “terrorist” entity. The tension was further defused recently when the National Intelligence Estimate concluded that Iran has had no nuclear weapons program for the past few years. It however very powerfully brings into question Senator Clinton’s judgment.

Senator Clinton has chosen to run a divisive campaign making liberal use of the gender and race cards. She has recruited surrogates including her own husband to launch a vitriolic campaign, which has only divided the Democratic Party. These are the actions of a candidate who is in ONLY to win. Senator Clinton was already a polarizing influence in the nation as a whole (though this is not entirely her fault). Her calculated dividing of the Democratic Party bodes ill for her chances in November if she is the candidate, and for passing her agenda if she becomes President.

The foregoing shows that when it comes to the qualities we seek in a president, such as soundness of judgment, clarity of understanding, quality of thought, and integrity, Senator Obama is by far the better candidate. He has a much clearer understanding of both foreign policy and of the economy. The domestic programs of all three Democratic candidates are substantially comparable. Senator Obama’s proven record of uniting people and working across the aisle gives him a much better chance of turning his program into legislation.

For all these reasons, I urge you to vote for Senator Obama in the primary on Feb 5.

Links:

Get Involved

On February 5th 22 states go head to head in contests that will essentially decide the Democratic candidate. If you support Obama’s candidacy, and would like to get involved, please go to Barackobama.com to learn more about how you can contribute. You can donate towards the campaign by clicking here.

Reducing the Nuclear Threat by Reducing Local Threat Perceptions

12 Jan

The drive to acquire nuclear weapons is thought to stem largely from local threat perceptions. The point becomes all the more clear when we take stock of the countries where the nuclear weapons activity is limited to.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) nuclear weapons program initially started as a response to the not-so-veiled nuclear threat from Truman during the Korean War. During a press conference on November 30, 1950, Truman acknowledged that using the nuclear bomb was part of the contingency planning. (Bruce Cummings, Korea’s Place in the Sun: A History, multiple other sources) and during 1951 active hints – moving Mark IV nuclear capsules – were dropped to convey that the usage was imminent. Beyond 1953, US’s continued presence in the Korean peninsula and in the Sea of Japan is seen as a key reason as to why North Korea assiduously followed its nuclear program. Iran’s drive for acquisition of Nuclear Weapons can be similarly understood as a response to guard against the US threat.

It is, however, hard to imagine what particular use the smallish stockpile of nuclear weapons would be to DPRK. Any nuclear escalation by it will surely be met by an ‘overwhelming’ US response. Simply put, there is no deterrent against a super-power. Except for perhaps an alliance with another superpower. (I will come to this point later.) However, nuclear weapons provide a country with the capability of making an assault on it costly for the superpower by attacks on its key allies (Japan and South Korea). So while North Korea is held in check by the incredible US military power, the US, in turn, is held in check (to some degree) through North Korea’s ability to inflict damage on its allies. The same goes for Iran, which feels vulnerable to unprovoked US attack, given its inability to inflict damage on its ally (Israel) in the region.

Strategy toward DPRK until now

The strategy to contain DPRK nuclear weapons program has consisted of the Agreed Framework signed in 1994, the multilateral ‘six-party’ agreement signed in 2007, and a multitude of covert Sun Tzuian attempts to effect regime change. All these strategies have ended at different levels of failure.

The Agreed Framework, which required the DPRK to “dismantle its nuclear facilities and dispose of all its weapons-grade plutonium, only temporarily interrupted production – the fuel rods, with weapons-grade plutonium embedded in them, were stored in a pool awaiting reprocessing, and never removed from North Korea – as DPRK simply re-prioritized its efforts to construction of delivery systems. The efforts culminated in the successful August 1998 Taepo Dong I missile test. DPRK, as AQ Khan confirmed in 2003, also developed an indigenous uranium enrichment capability in the intervening years. In a three week period in Dec 2002/Jan 2003, Kim Jong Il expelled all international weapons inspectors, restarted the Yongbyon reactor and withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Three months later the DPRK acknowledged it had nuclear weapons, and eventually tested one in Oct 2006.

After years of neglect, Six-Party Talks held in February 2007 resulted in an agreement that called for North Korea to shut down its 5 MW (e) graphite-moderated reactor at Yongbyon by 14 April 2007. Almost immediately, North Korea refused to comply with the terms of this agreement and the Yongbyon reactor continued operation for more than two months beyond the mutually agreed upon deadline. On 18 July 2007, the International Atomic Energy Agency finally confirmed that all five nuclear facilities at Yongbyon had been shut down. Since that time, “disablement” has continued. However, more recently on 26 December 2007, Hyon Hak Pong, vice director-general of North Korea’s Foreign Ministry, stated the disablement process will be delayed, in a statement reminiscent of the process of repeated delays practices following the signing of the 1994 Agreed Framework.

The 13th February agreement, which was signed on the precondition that US would release the $25 million dollars frozen by Washington at a Macau bank, Banco Delta Asia, which had allegedly helped the DPRK illegally launder money and pass counterfeit $100 bills, is a much weaker agreement than 1994 one. The 13th February agreement avoids the term dismantling and uses the more ambiguous terms “abandonment” and “disablement”, which allows the DPRK to essentially leave its entire nuclear infrastructure intact. Immediately following its signing, the DPRK state-run news agency announced that the offer of aid equivalent to 1M tonnes of fuel oil was made in connection with North Korea’s “temporary suspension of the operation of its nuclear facilities.”

Reasons for failure

While the 13th February agreement holds the six-parties – China, Japan, the ROK, Russia and the U.S. – accountable, each has different motives and capabilities of performing the duty. For instance, while China may admonish DPRK publicly – as it did when DPRK fired ballistic missiles on the 4th of July and then conducted a nuclear test on 09 October – it has little incentive to be a truly accountable. After all, the nuclear threat from NK concerns the US much more than it does China. Similarly, Russia has little incentive to police North Korean compliance. Japan and the US have very little leverage with North Korea due to non-existent trade links, that make any possibility of tangible economic threat moot, and South Korea seems disinclined. North Korea, on the other hand, doesn’t quite have the security guarantee to comfortably forgo its nuclear program which makes it’s giving up of nuclear capability unlikely.

Strategy for success

Putting NK’s security needs at the heart of the debate is essential to gain a better understanding of how to craft a more sustainable agreement for North Korea. To gain a better understanding of its security needs, I will briefly survey the threat posed by Japan/US combine.

The US has over the past many years led the most cavalier foreign policy in the world. The policy has led to numerous regime changes, more failed regime changes, countless assassinations, and support of terror groups. In East Asia, US maintains a significant military presence, has bi-lateral security agreements with Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea – and as co-guarantor of their security flexes muscle at each of their expressed security worries – and regularly issues damning rhetoric like ‘axis of evil’. While US’s capability to launch an attack in East Asia has been severely compromised due to the ongoing conflagration in Iraq, it nonetheless remains a potent and continuous threat to North Korea.

While Japan has a strictly ‘pacifist’ constitution, it hasn’t stopped it from building a very sophisticated and well armed “self-defense force”. Similar kind of ambiguity underpins its nuclear strategy. While Japan under Prime Minister Eisaku Sato, promulgated the “Three Non-Nuclear Principles” on 05 February 1968 and has been a tireless promoter of non-proliferation at a variety of international venues, it also has one of the largest stockpiles of enriched plutonium in the world – estimated at over 46 tons. While the majority of its plutonium is in storage in France and the UK, an estimated 5.7 tones (still enough to build in excess of a thousand of nuclear weapons) exists within Japan. In addition, Japan currently possesses approximately 3 tons of “near” (i.e. roughly 90% Pu-239, 7% Pu-240, 3% Pu-241) Weapons Grade Plutonium (WGPu), and could immediately begin production of larger quantities of WGPu and Weapons Grade Uranium (WGU) for more reliable and higher yielding warheads. It also has potent delivery vehicles in the form of H-2 (ICBM capable of carrying a 4,000 kg payload over 15,000 km), and M-3SII (IRBM capable of carrying a 500 kg payload approximately 4,000 km). In addition, Japan possesses a robust Theater Ballistic Missile Defense (TBMD) system which forms the centerpiece of “deterrence by denial” strategy. Since 2002, many high-level Japanese officials have openly discussed the possibility of Japan pursuing an indigenousness nuclear capability. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda and Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara have bluntly called for “revising” the Three Non-Nuclear Principles.

Kim Jong Il is primarily interested in maintaining himself as North Korea’s Dear Leader. US rhetoric about democratization and omnipresent military threat jeopardize that. A “non-use of force” agreement between the US, South Korea, and the DPRK would go a long way in ameliorating North Korea’s concerns but still won’t remove all doubts from either side. Minus the trust in such a treaty, all things go back to some version of the status quo. A better idea would be to rope in China and ask it to sign a protection deal with North Korea styled on US Taiwan agreements. Of course, China’s interest in roping in North Korea is debatable given that a nuclear North Korea is a concern for the US and not China. China, however, can be enticed by incentives. This kind of a deal would mean sacrificing some of the military supremacy that the US has enjoyed in East Asia but in the longer term, it would lead to a safer region for its allies.

Threats from non-state actors and other contingencies

Since “Chicago Pile One” – the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction – in 1942, a total of 9 Nuclear Weapon States (NWS) have emerged. In addition to the 9 current NWS, Japan possesses the capacity to produce nuclear weapons on a quick notice. Two other countries, Libya and South Africa have come forth and disbanded their nuclear weapons programs.

However, the critical nuclear threat is now thought to come from non-state actors. None of the 9 NWS can provide an exact accounting of the amount of Weapons Grade Plutonium (WGPu) or Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) they possess. In Russia alone, only 64% of the basic Material Protection, Control, and Accounting (MPC&A) rapid upgrades (i.e. bricking over windows, installing detectors at doors) have been completed, and even fewer “comprehensive security and accounting upgrades specifically designed for securing each facility and its stored material(s), have been completed. More ominously, cases of trafficking of nuclear materials are becoming more commonplace. The most recent case came on 01 February 2006 in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi when North Ossetia resident and Russian citizen, Oleg Khintsagov attempted to sell 100 grams of weapons-grade uranium to a Georgian undercover agent posing as a rich foreign buyer. This uranium was obtained from the nuclear material storage facility in Novosibirsk, Siberia; the same facility suspected to be the source of another 2003 nuclear material trafficking case which involved the seizure of 170 grams of HEU. Also in 2003, a court case in Russia revealed that a Russian businessman had been offering $750,000 for stolen weapons-grade plutonium for sale to an unidentified foreign client.

There is legitimate concern about non-state actors using nuclear weapons but using them would mean such an unacceptable escalation that would surely jeopardize the larger aims of whatever organization. But non-state actors are much less rational than nation states and diffuse organizations may mean that the ability to conclusively hit back at them is limited at best. The other concern is that neutralizing the organization may not neutralize the threat of the ideology that the organization may purport. On the positive side, however, – non-state actors often times have depended on explicit nation state funding. As long as the nuclear material is traceable to its source – something which isotopic analysis can do now – the organization and the state actors funding it can be implicated providing each state actor with powerful incentive to control such activity by the organization they fund or support.

Summarizing

The US must embark on a much saner foreign policy course and tone down its rhetoric so as to ameliorate the security worries that countries feel. The other related action would be to see to it that countries like North Korea get their security guarantees from major powers to which they are close to. Little recourse exists as to dealing with non-state actors except strengthening state actors – including providing help in sealing nuclear materials and instituting a strengthened security program. It is important to keep in mind that the chance of a nuclear attack is minuscule and expenditure on security should be commensurate to it.

Use of nuclear weapons has been stigmatized in the international arena to such a degree that nuclear weapons are weapons of last resort for state actors, and likely for non-state actors too. The chance of usage of nuclear weapons hence remains minuscule and it is debatable whether it is worth focusing large amounts of resources on removing them from regimes with limited capacity to produce or use them. However, nuclear weapons do have strategic consequences (e.g. deterrence) on the ability of US to exercise power. The prominent worry is that with deterrence countries could feel emboldened to support terrorism. In addition, given the predicted cascading effect of nuclear weapons-neighboring countries feel threatened by nuclear neighbors and then their neighbors feel threatened etc. – strategic consequences can be immense. The course of action that I prescribe above focuses on mitigating security threat of countries that are intent on building nuclear weapons. But the strategy comes with consequences. Ameliorating threat perceptions of North Korea may also imply giving up the chance of ever really threatening North Korea. And therein lays the bargain and a key dilemma. You can have a nuclear-armed country with deterrence that successfully deters your attacks or be in a treaty with you or another major power which also effectively provides deterrence to it. There are two key advantages to the latter strategy – preventing the cascade effect, and limiting the threat of proliferation. The significant downside to both strategies is limiting the ability to mount punitive action. Given that alternative sanctioning mechanisms like levying economic sanctions have proven to be ineffective, very little edge ways space is available to counteract support for hostile entities except perhaps mounting negotiations – which may not quite work minus the threat of the stick.

It is perhaps best to look at the issue as to how much harder does the presence of nuclear weapons make the launching of punitive action in face of hostile activities. The fact of the matter is that propensity for mounting war as punitive action – even without nuclear deterrence – remains very low given the political and economic costs of war. So in the small minority of cases – really Iran and North Korea – presence of nuclear weapons may make US attack a little less likely from the already low number but given the overwhelming military superiority that the US enjoys – not terribly less likely than non-nuclear scenario.

Seen hence, nuclear weapons possession can be seen as a marginal gain for the countries but nothing which will decisively tilt the power equation.

Akshardham: “Spiritual Theme Park”

26 Oct

The huge red sandstone and marble monument, visible from the nearby highway, stands alone, proud, and out of place.

The local road abutting the walled complex has a few informal ‘checkpoints’ where men in plain clothes check cars. As our Maruti Zen lurches into the ‘complex’, the true enormity of the ‘operation’ – the beehive of activity that keeps this place running – becomes clear. The complex employs at least a few hundred people (almost all men), mostly young, eager, full of self-importance, and too prone to giving directions where none are necessary. The job of frisking visitors, shepherding them through metal detectors, collecting parking tickets, maintaining order, among other things, at this massive complex clearly leaves the workers flush with tepid excitement akin to what one feels when one stands in the back lines of a violent mob.

Swaminarayan Akshardham temple complex in Delhi is a large red sandstone-and-white marble structure built on a 100-acre plot on the Yamuna riverbed, opposite the disintegrating dingy hovels and narrow lanes of Pandav Nagar. The prodigiously carved temple, which took about five years to build and reportedly employed over 7,000 artisans during its construction, cost around Rs 2 billion (or about $50 million).

The construction of this gargantuan complex right on the dried up riverbed attracted the ire of environmentalists concerned about its impact on the river’s future sustainability. Their protests seemed a bit misplaced given that the Yamuna is not more than a sickly nallah, and isn’t expected to do much better in the future. However, it is widely believed amongst the knowledgeable elite that construction of the temple, as the first building on the riverbed, was a master move by babus at the Delhi Development Authority interested in opening up the riverbed for commercial development. Being a temple, the structure will never be torn down, and under the aegis, corporate developers can furnish claims for future development. The plan seems to have borne fruit with a Commonwealth Village for Commonwealth games scheduled in 2010 scheduled to come up next to the temple complex in the very near future.

The temple is run by the Swami Narayan trust or more precisely, the Bochasanvasi Aksharpurushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS). The current leader of the group, Pramukh Swami Maharaj (which roughly translates to ‘leader’ ‘saint’ ‘king’ respectively), is credited with inspiration for the temple. Apparently, the guru had a vision in which he saw a temple near the banks of Yamuna, an erstwhile preserve of Mughal monuments, and voila in a few years, the dream was realized. A useful biography of this great man can be conveniently found on the web.

The complex, featuring a Disneyland kind 12-minute boat ride to allow visitors to sail through displays of Indian culture, and a large food court serving everything from Burgers (vegetarian) to Dosas, takes its name from the Akshardham temple in Gujarat’s capital, Gandhinagar. The temple in Gujarat was the site of a deadly bomb attack and hostage drama in 2002. Given the history, the temple in Delhi features extraordinary security measures – people are barred from taking in any electronic equipment, they are frisked thoroughly, and even asked to open up their wallets for inspection (strictly inspection, fortunately).

The Swaminarayan temple complex is a strange mix of architectural styles, ranging from Deccan to Mughal to Mewari. The intricately carved marble interiors are reminiscent of opulent Mughal tombs and palaces, the main building’s red sandstone facade seems to pay ode to Deccan style temples (most prominently Meenakshi temple in its ostentatious carving), while the boundary wall and supporting structure seem to be inspired by a mixture of Mewari and Mughal styles. Walking on the tiled pathways perpendicularly crossing its wide lawns (reminiscent of Mughal garden layout), dotted with garish faux roman (painted cast iron with paint starting to peel) sculptures narrating major Hindu allegories, and showcasing prominent Hindu mythological figures, I still vividly remember catching myself staring at a boundary wall that seemed deceptively similar to Red Fort’s. Similarities to Mughal architecture aren’t that surprising given that Mughal architecture itself borrows heavily from (Hindu) architecture in Rajasthan during the 16th century, but the effect is ironic indeed.

The temple exteriors seem to have been carved to inspire awe rather than convey a more aesthetic sense of beauty. The impulse to impress is most clearly seen inside the carved white marble interior sanctum, generally the most unadorned place in a Hindu temple – in line with the philosophy that devotees symbolically leave the world behind at the sanctum and enter a distraction-free meditative space. The effect of all the embellishment seems strangely contrived, much like that of sets from religious mythological shows on television.

More pointedly, as a monument to both Hindu pride and ‘Shining India’, it is appropriately both a religious monument and a theme park. Hindu pride stares at emptily from the narrative sculptural montages, the embellished shell, and the self-satisfied awed masses that congregate here while ‘Shining India’ gleams in its insipidity in the food court, in the boat ride, in the musical fountains, and in the multimedia museum devoted to Hindu mythology catastrophically crossed with Indian history. But then it is mere natural progression from gaudy television dramas based on religious epics to gaudy monuments inspired by the same mythological television dramas. It is a mere natural downward progression – to be precise- towards a not-so-unique blend of pride, philistinism, money, religious fervor, and entertainment.

Bemoaning Delhi

6 Oct

Delhi doesn’t look like anything. It is amorphous, and as misshapen as only third world cities can be. It is but a mass of hutments, box-like houses built to occupy every available inch of space (and a couple more created by bribery) crammed together across narrow lanes interspersed by indifferent wide diseased roads full of traffic and nauseous fumes, covered in brownish dust that suffuses the air, with a deathly sun beating over it.

People live in this place—a lot of them. But the city was not created for them. Instead, people have wrested savagely whatever little piece they can. And the combined savagery of poverty and corrupt government has created this tired undifferentiated mass of bricks, tar, garbage, and people.

It is as if the houses have come up, lanes been laid, roads built, with no thought, or care except the most pressing, the most basic one—to survive. To talk of architecture is a presumption, and to talk about the city’s “character” an even more absurd pretension still. It is weird to see Delhi through Western eyes, even their pictures of poverty with cute children with distended bellies due to malnutrition are exotic. There is nothing exotic about Delhi. There is no mystery that is lurking beneath its hutments, or its Nirulas, or behind the empty eyes of its ‘upwardly mobile’ middle class. Not that the brand conscious or the carefully brand weary middle class in West has something to boast about. But leave the pretensions home.

Delhi is there. People are living, driving, pissing on the disintegrating walls plastered with tattered posters that line some of its streets, fucking in their bedrooms, and coming out blank-eyed in the morning from their cells. It is a city of elbows and impatience. It is a city full of people bent upon joylessly eating, and consuming, to fill that enormous chasm that opens up when you live such warped lives. It is a city of broken men, and women – with distended pot-bellies, cracked hands, and tired disfigured faces. And no – they don’t want your fucking sympathy, or even your ‘understanding’ for there is nothing to understand, they exist only to dig up another day from the bowels of another sleepless night.

There is no redemption in Delhi, even for the rich. Why should there be? Rich can hide in air-conditioned cocoons but must give in and sadistically abuse their servants, generally young boys 10-12 years old – if the nimbupani isn’t cold enough.

Since the north excels in aborting female fetuses, and ‘protective’ attitudes towards women by their parents, and predatory attitudes towards them by young males stifle their movement, you only see hordes of young men on the road. Since there is little impetus to implement child labor laws, kids sell – sometimes surprisingly high-end books to people who will never read them but will talk about them– at red lights.

Delhi, as Dalrymple points out during one of his sane moments in the largely delusional novel dedicated to the city ‘City of Djinns’, is a refugee city. Delhi, until the economic reforms of the mid-90s, was defined by two things: entrepreneurial Punjabi refugees who came after partition and built their lives piece by piece, and the largish babudom. Post ’95, it increasingly became a grotto for the myriad poor – predominantly from North India, and simultaneously an embodiment of Delhi government’s aspirations, and the rich Indians’ aspirations, both mediated by the reality of poverty, corruption, philistinism, and greed. Both aspirations fed each other, as they still do, to sap soul out of the city – leeching the richer neighborhoods of languorous bungalows shaded by Gulmohar trees, and with walls draped by Bougainvilleas – carefully replacing them with multi-storied boxes, replacing town roads with enormous highways to accommodate the rapidly multiplying cars, and tearing down some of the poor localities and eviscerating small businesses based on their ‘unauthorized’ status. Whatever vestiges of culture Delhi clung on to were preyed upon and consumed during the last decade or so as Delhi grew one enormous housing project – endless grid-like arrays of shabby quality 4-5 story flats- after another. The taps dried as water shortage became acuter, and now aunties in ‘good’ neighborhoods rejoice if they get water for three hours every day. The sad part is that Delhi is the capital city and boasts of some of the best infrastructure that the country has to offer. There may be some joy still. The umbra of carnage wreaked over the past decade may still yield to the faint light of the globalized penumbra. After all, McDonald’s is here and Ronald, the jovial and orange clown, seems inclined to show us the way to perennial peace and civilization.