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Sunday, September 27, 2009

Seeds of Objectivism

From Jon Chait review of a couple of books on Ayn Rand:
Anne C. Heller, in her skillful life of Rand, traces the roots of Rand's philosophy to an even earlier age. Around the age of five, Alissa Rosenbaum's [Ayn Rand] mother instructed her to put away some of her toys for a year. She offered up her favorite possessions, thinking of the joy that she would feel when she got them back after a long wait. When the year had passed, she asked her mother for the toys, only to be told she had given them away to an orphanage. Heller remarks that "this may have been Rand's first encounter with injustice masquerading as what she would later acidly call ‘altruism." (The anti-government activist Grover Norquist has told a similar story from childhood, in which his father would steal bites of his ice cream cone, labelling each bite "sales tax" or "income tax." The psychological link between a certain form of childhood deprivation and extreme libertarianism awaits serious study.)
I'm an eloquent man, most of the times. When questioned or in need of an explanation I put forth my thoughts quite clearly that the listener doesn't need a rephrasing or a repetition of my response. But with the missus I'm another man. Today morning at 5 there was a barrage of accusations that I don't wake up enough times to put my child to sleep. God knows how many tons of hours of sleep I've sacrificed; alas, there's isn't a god. And today morning as usual I was stuttering, marshaling my argument skills with no effect while the lady shot point by point, instance by instance, quoting date and time leaving me wanting a glass of water. Had it been another person in a different setting, I'd have shot back too, but this time I was merely repeating the same thing again and again which she incorrectly discredited.
And this is not the first time nor am I the only husband. What happens to our skill to logically progress an argument with the wife in tight family corners?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Look at the evolution of a blogger. Amit Varma, author of IndiaUncut, the most popular Indian blog used to write some decent pieces for Mint & Cricinfo. After winning the Bastiat Prize for online journalism, competing with serious writers like Clive Crook, he's now the most popular media-porn columnist in India. He now writes this & that about India and Indians, mostly nothing of substance. Clive was not a push-over when he lost to Amit, but since then he's grown in stature. He writes lucidly on matters of importance to the general public. Anyone who writes on serious stuff is never going to be as popular as the gossip columnist or the frivolous writer flaming conspiracy theories. Did Amit intentionally steer clear of writing 8 paragraph columns about what's ailing the Indian polity and settle on picking snafu headlines from tabloid? Only he can answer. But I still don't understand his popularity - the blog was nominated for the best Asian blog award (came in an unbelievable 2nd) and he's now on the panel to judge this year's Bastiat winner. Where is this all heading?

Monday, September 14, 2009

Watching Federer battle Del Potro is like watching Tendulkar and Dhoni on two ends of the pitch. While Potro can get the ball across the net effectively it's clumsy to watch, especially when you have Federer on the other side performing a ballet.

Update: I spoke too soon - Federer's unforced errors in the fifth set exceeded what he's committed in this whole tournament. Kudos to Del Potro.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

I wonder if there are any atheist or even agnostic musicians from India in the last 50 years (post-Darwin, generally speaking) whose legacy is half as impressive as that of Ilayaraja's or Rahman's or Balamuralikrishna's or M.S.Subbalakshmi's. I wonder if there's a direct relationship between submitting oneself to the divine and creating divine music.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Truly a useless observation but I have to point it out: After Federer won his first set and was walking to his chair, he took the optimum route so that the towel boy from the court corner didn't have to cover a few extra steps, which also means that Federer didn't have to wait a few extra seconds to grab his towel. Interestingly, he won the set without breaking a sweat.
After beating Robin Soderling 6-0,6-3,6-7,7-6 to reach the semifinals of the US Open, Federer said "It was cold in the beginning and I felt at home. After a couple of sets it was even cooler and he must have felt at home."

For those scratching heads - Federer's from Switzerland and Soderling's from Sweden.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The Arrow of Love

My feedreader is overflowing with unread pieces. My Netflix documentary remains unseen for weeks. The weekly magazines are barely skimmed. I don't know where my library check-outs are. Personal time and space are lost. But the loss has flown into something more beautifully indescribable. When I wake up at 2 in the morning to sing a boring song without a hint of scale or tempo, my daughter listens as if that's the only sound that will put her to sleep. And the tiredness and frustration resulting from hours of sleeplessness melt away at her smile. And when she pulls the hair off my forehand when she cries, it isn't really painful. The disappearance of her blissful smile as soon as I focus my camera isn't that disappointing.
All the things that my wife and I do to keep her happy, healthy, safe, comfortable, asleep & active have heigtened my respect for my parents. I never realized the amount of work involved in caring for an infant can be done with such eagerness. I'll never be able to reciprocate the emotional investment my parents have made in me. Same way, I'll have to accept that my daughter will be able to unconditionally give all of herself only to her children (if & when) but not her parents.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Brilliant reporting & analysis from Steven Brill in New Yorker about incompetent New York teachers and the rigidity of teachers union in protecting them. Sample their attitude:
I asked the woman for her reaction to the following statement: “If a teacher is given a chance or two chances or three chances to improve but still does not improve, there’s no excuse for that person to continue teaching. I reject a system that rewards failure and protects a person from its consequences.”

“That sounds like Klein and his accountability bullshit,” she responded. “We can tell if we’re doing our jobs. We love these children.” After I told her that this was taken from a speech that President Obama made last March, she replied, “Obama wouldn’t say that if he knew the real story.”

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

The Afghan War

Diplomats and pundits and statesmen and politicians and professors and military men and reporters have written, spoken, argued, decried, urged, lauded and warned about the U.S war in Afghanistan. I earnestly add my share of bytes.

Obama has said a few times that the war in Afghanistan is a 'war of necessity' as against the 'war of choice', the one in Iraq. Few columnists recently delved into details of what actually constitutes 'necessity' and declared that this war cannot be called one such. (Briefly, a necessary war is when your security is threatened or when you can't pursue other options to resolve a conflict). But political speeches are such that complex ideas that require hours of explanations in thorough detail are conveniently simplified into understandable snippets for the common man. In that sense, what Obama implies is that the war in Afghanistan is more significant than the Iraq invasion which was launched on flimsy grounds and was executed without understanding their view of democracy.

But how necessary is this war, what are the stated objectives, how far are the U.S (and the International Security Allied Forces) in reaching them? After September 11, George W Bush decided to invade Afghanistan to root out Al-Qaeda and the Taliban that were harboring them. Presently, security analysts agree that there are very few pockets of the terrorist organization operating within the borders of Afghanistan. Most of them have moved east to the ungoverned tribal areas of Pakistan, some to Yemen and even as far as to Somalia. Understandably they seek Muslim countries with a weak state (and there are quite a few) and the U.S forces cannot keep stepping into these countries. And Al-Qaeda cannot forever hold a special place in the Pentagon/CIA/Whitehouse triad. If protecting American land and subjects is the point of 'war on terror', they should be lessening their focus on Afghanistan and adopt a zoomed-out view. (There are other forms of threat from grassroots terror camps that can easily target American embassy or personnel).

Two of the stated objectives after the fall of Taliban and driving away the Al-Qaeda is to institute a democracy and create sustainable conditions for nation-building. Theoretically, there's a democracy. Karzai was the democratically elected president in 2004 and as that term was coming to an end they had another election a week back and in a few weeks a winner will be announced. But how indicative are the subjects exercising their right to vote the vibrancy of their democracy? The government controls only one third of the area inside their political borders. Their army is poorly trained. The policemen demand bribe even if they're to do their part of the job. Money has to be pushed in almost all government offices - right from setting up a school to constructing a bridge. In spite of world's non-military assistance, it remains one of the poorest countries.

The U.S & allied troops are greatly outnumbered by the growing insurgents. There are approximately 29,000 US troops and 65,000 ISAF. The country's population is close to 40 million and for any adequate security, considering at least 1 armed person for 100 (such a ratio is not needed in a land of strong law enforcement) there needs to be 400000 troops, just to ensure that boys and girls can go to school and the lady can go to the market and the man can go to his office and all return safely. This is a whopping number. At this point, the international forces are not pitching in any personnel and U.S is the only active contributor. The chief of military operations there, Gen.McChrystal said that the current strategy is not working and it needs to changed radically. His aides suggested that he may need 40,000 more troops to plug the security holes. Considering the growing dissatisfaction at home at the way the war has evolved, the members of Congress may not approve for what could turn out to be another Vietnam.

Nation building is an abstract term. For the sake of this piece, let's say that it means building roads and bridges for effective transportation of men and materials, building and maintaining schools for the effective long-term growth, building & training a strong army that can defend itself, instituting an honest police force to resolve and contain civil conflicts… A diplomat recently said that 10 agricultural experts are more powerful than 100 soldiers in building a country. But when the nation's political entity itself makes money by cultivating poppy (for opium), there's not much one can do. And in areas where the corrupt police don't have much voice, there are warlords who wield their power over their tribes or cities. For a fee they resolve disputes; for a fee you can run your own mom-pop shop; for a fee you can build an office so that they don't blow you up; for a fee they'll return your son safely after kidnapping; for a fee they'll not disrupt your business; for a fee the international aid workers can continue to help the locals…

Afghanistan has been a place of constantly quarelling tribes. A unified leadership for the whole political entity cannot command respect and power, even if the leader is worthy of it. Hamid Karzai is clearly not that material. People are now longing the benign rule of Taliban. American officials say that they have to fight the kleptocracy, not insurgents, to create pockets of safe zones. Karzai recently brought in an exiled Uzbek warlord from Turkey to appease and win the votes of Uzbek tribes. Even during this election, local warlords and tribal leaders congregated and decided who they all should vote for. (In some areas, it is reported, a delegate of the local leader will walk into the polling booth and vote for everyone in the town). When power is distributed in this manner the U.S cannot dream of building a nation, instituting a democracy and happily flying back.

Should the U.S gradually withdraw its troops and call it a day? What if the Taliban from Pakistan heads back and wrests control of major provinces? Would that increase the threat level to America? Is it time to ditch the Bush doctrine of preventive/pre-emptive war and focus on protecting citizens like other countries do? After 8 years into war, is Afghanistan moving towards peace and stability? Do Afghans really like the presence of foreign troops? Do they feel safe or anger at the sight of a humvee? Should Obama consider cutting down on war expenses to prop up his starving economy and help finance his mammoth health care bill? (Taking a breath) If Obama were to pull out, what would happen to America's credibility? Is creating a monster there to counter Soviet expansion in the 80's not enough, need they create another one by leaving before the job is done now? Wouldn't American absence from the region embolden the militants in Pakistan in advancing and destabilizing the nuclear state? Would revising the military and political strategy (currently underway) reduce the pain? Can understanding and respecting their religious/regional affiliations of the populace and including their 'tribal leaders' in a bottom-up, 'you-have-the-power', decentralized approach be effective?