Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Supreme Court threw its weight behind live-in relationships on Tuesday, observing that for a man and a woman in love, to live together is part of the right to life, and not a “criminal offence”.
The Supreme Court of India decriminalized homosexuality last year. Now they've approved pre-marital sex between a man and a woman. What next? Pre-marital sex between gays. Whatever happened to our moral fabric?

Update: A friend asked what was up with me. Of course, satire doesn't come to me naturally. I thought the label 'Oddballs' would give it away.

Monday, March 22, 2010

I had CNN on for almost 3 hours yesterday to see the final minutes of the health care reform bill pass the House. It will now go to the Senate and soon the White House where it eventually becomes a law. If I find the inclination & time I'll write about this historic bill [1]. But now I want to point out something else - the remarkable narrowness of politicians.

For the sake of the uninitiated, U.S is a representative democracy, not a direct democracy. In a country like Switzerland which practices direct democracy, decisions are made by the assembly of citizens. Most policies (be it at the level of a town or country) are in the hands of the public - the recent vote to ban minarets being one of them. Whereas in the U.S (and most other democracies) the general public elects officials who are entrusted to make decisions concerning their welfare - from their county to the country. Essentially, the elected officials are believed to possess a sharp long-term understanding of what's good and what's not for their societies.

Watching the debate yesterday was quite appalling because the representatives of the House were just echoing the popular opinion of their constituencies. Every Republican and 34 conservative Democrats voted against the bill. (It passed 219-212). As a representative, not of the lower House of the U.S Congress, but of the U.S democracy, their job is to evaluate the bill and vote based on the what they think is right. But what happened was everyone bowing down to the political pressure of pleasing their constituents and pitching for re-election. All Republicans acknowledge how screwed up the health care system is, but they're just not happy with the bill tabled (although it has close to 200 suggestions from their party members). They want reform, but not in this format which is going to result in record deficit.

Obama joked a few weeks back when talking to members of the Congress: "When Americans say they're concerned about jobs, they mean their jobs, not ours". Only that he wasn't joking.

[1] Here's my very brief take: I support this bill in spite of being a fiscal conservative. The bill is watered down and doesn't actually reform. And though the budget office estimates that over a 10 year period the government will save $140 billion with its Medicare cuts, I highly doubt that. Taxes inevitably are going to go up and people are going to dislike that. Once people get used to a welfare scheme it becomes politically impossible to revoke (like reservations in India). And the right-wing would be quite right in fighting government expansion only if it weren't for health care system. But I believe any great nation should have a great health care system, where one doesn't go bankrupt in the process of taking care of one's family or is dropped coverage when one develops an expensive illness. It is a moral issue not a money issue. Good health coverage should be ahead of good education and good military for a developed nation.


From Andrew Sullivan, on a retired U.S General's testimony before Congress:
SHEEHAN: The case in point that I’m referring to was when the Dutch were required to defend Sbrenecia against the Serbs, the battalion was understrength, poorly led. And the Serbs came into town, handcuffed the soldiers to the telephone polls, marched the Muslims off and executed them. That was the largest massacre in Europe since World War II.

LEVIN: And did the Dutch leaders tell you it was because there were gay soldiers there?

SHEEHAN: It was a combination –

LEVIN: Did they tell you that?


Friday, March 19, 2010

Tony Judt writes:
My generation was obsessed with the distinction between theory and practice—I knew a man in California whose doctoral dissertation was devoted to “Theory and Practice in theory and in practice.”

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Here's a sentence from 'Fashionable Nonsense' on epistemic relativism:
But the numerous discussions we have had during which the theory-ladenness of observation, the underdetermination of theory by evidence or the alleged incommensurability of paradigms have been put forward in order to support relativist positions leave us rather skeptical.
This quote appears in the 50th page - a point where the authors can safely assume that the reader is well in tune with the context and subject matter of the book. I was, in fact. Even then I had to read the sentence twice to understand what the authors are trying to convey. I've read books by professors written for mainstream audience and I've found most of them strikingly clear in getting the message across. Richard Feynman once said that however a difficult a concept may be, if you understand it thoroughly you should be able to explain it to a 17-year old satisfactorily. The authors of this book (Sokal & Bricmont) are professors and from what I've read of the book I can say that they know their stuff. But frequent sentences like this where the reader is expected to perform vocabulary gymnastics can be tiresome.

I understand that authors sometimes are so deeply immersed in writing journal articles for elite societies and keep talking among themselves when evolving ideas for a book which might result in chapters that are jargon loaded like this. But it should have been the responsibility of the publisher to make the authors' ideas more accessible (without diminishing or simplifying) - if at all their target audience are general public. I'm going to try to continue reading, but if I find myself rereading frequently I'll have to shelve it for there are many more in my wish list.
I've seen many discussion board comments like this: "Do you have the required expertise to talk about the Narmada dam issue?", "I've worked in the election commission for 15 years, what rights do you have to question me on election fraud in rural India?", "I have a masters degree in journalism, don't teach me how to report riots"... I understand this style of argument because I've been there myself. This is mostly the result of reaching a point where they realize that they cannot satisfactorily progress (based on logic/facts/etc) a discussion because of their half-baked understanding of the issue or a realization that the other guy has brought valid points to the table that cannot be refuted and instead of conceding the discussion in an honest manner they hide behind their credentials.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Green Zone

I'm a huge fan of Paul Greengrass' Bourne movies and a very huge fan of his 'United 93'. His camera techniques (jerky movements, small takes, rapid transition between long & close-up shots...) in the Bourne movies created a sense of immediacy and tension which with a good story and a solid actor like Matt Damon generated genuine thrill. 'United 93' is the first (I think) 9/11 movie and by keeping it completely non-political and non-commercial Greengrass delivered a punch to me that's been equaled very rarely in probably the thousand movies I've seen [1]. In Green Zone he has tried to conflate politics and thrill and history. It succeeds moderately as an action movie, but the naive treatment of the political dimension takes away any seriousness a thinking adult may invest here thereby boiling it down to a popcorn story for teenagers discussing politics.

As pointed out by Anthony Lane of New Yorker, even a google search and subsequent clicks made by a warrant officer (Matt Damon) comfortably sitting inside his room is shown to the audience with the cameraman's acrobatics where the monitor is zoomed in and out and focusing on just the words that the director wants the audience to read. This is precisely my fuss when dealing with movies based on real events: just show everything - politically - and let the viewer decide where he should stand instead of the writer/director cherry picking actions, events and decisions to suit their needs. I know Hollywood's political affiliations (Spielberg, Lucas, Cameron, Stone and many other bigwigs are on the left-wing) and I understand it is not their job to inform the general public on political matters in a non-partisan manner, especially when it comes to wars. Does Greengrass, the creator of a masterpiece like 'United 93', realize that presenting a simplistic story ignoring the political complexity [2] results in a shoddy cinema?

[1] Here's a link to my half-ass review of United 93. Talking of raw punches, Irreversible is another movie that hit me very hard.

[2] At the risk of sounding redundant, but to emphasize my point, I'll say it again: The director has great artistic license in the case of fiction. A soldier can even sing a song and dance when bullets whiz past him [3]. But when you base your story on a real and ongoing war, you have a moral responsibility to not dilute the events. This movie is inspired by Rajiv Chandrasekaran's critically acclaimed, politically dense 'Imperial Life in the Emerald City'. By calling the screenplay an inspiration, the screenwriter has disabused himself of that moral responsibility. I understand that there's only so much that can be crammed into 120 minutes, even if you're shooting a documentary, but this movie is shamelessly one-sided.

[3] The semi-fictional semi-docudrama Waltz with Bashir actually features a scene like this - a soldier waltzes in the middle of the road in a war zone in Lebanon. If you get a chance see it just for the brilliant visual style.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Mornings With Infant

I was in the shower and my wife was all tied up getting our daughter ready for daycare.
"Can you get me a soap?"
"There should be a body wash."
"There are bottles of moisturizers and shampoos. No body wash."
"Okay." *Brief pause* "Use them."

Monday, March 08, 2010

Nassim Taleb's Fooled by Randomness

A few years back I read a book called Millionaire Next Door which when distilled had 7 or 8 bullet points which go like spend less than you earn, make a budget and stick to it, choose a profession you like, don't show off your wealth, etc. At the end of it, I thought, wow, this must not be hard. Then I realized that my parents and relatives and many of my friends' parents all have practiced most of the attributes mentioned in the book for most of their lives but they're nowhere near half as rich as the one's in the book. It wasn't hard to deduce - the authors of the book just looked at what the rich guys were doing; they weren't social scientists investigating the financial health of all of the cross-section of the society that had those millionaire attributes. While you could be persevering, smart, living well below your means and materialistically modest there are still pretty good chances that you could end up not becoming a millionaire. And I thought at that time what if a book dwelt on this aspect - where the author exposited in great detail that you could be doing all the right things successful people do and still remain not successful[1] enough all your life - the book would bomb at the marketplace. Who'd want to read a dejecting theory? Apparently, many. Taleb's Fooled by Randomness does exactly that and much more.

Taleb is a Wall Street trader and a professor in risk engineering in addition to many other things. He's well read and the range of references he makes here almost make me wonder if he were simply showing off his diverse education. The crux of the argument he makes in this book is that blind luck or chance occurrence is discounted by most, especially the successful people. His area of expertise is in the markets and he extensively draws analogies from the life in Wall Street to pound the idea home. He talks about the human nature to fit everything into a seemingly logical order and hence we fall into a narrative fallacy of explaining rare events (he calls them black swans) after they've occurred. Taleb effectively informs us that random (or rare, if you will) events will always be part of the human cycle and our historians and journalists should stop glamorizing them by fitting them into a logical flow and establishing a fake order retrospectively.

Once you accept that not everything follows a pattern, at least when it comes to the world of finance, then the expertise of a successful trader is called into question. That's what the author does - he claims to not know the how or where or what or when of markets - and in openly expressing his ignorance he also claims his superiority over many other traders who think they've somehow struck a golden forumla whereas in reality they're just deluded. Taleb even writes about a trading company that had Nobel prize economists[2] but crashed spectacularly in spite of their knowledge of the markets. Funnily, it looks like these economists referenced Taleb's papers on black swans after they went bust to absolve themselves - another attempt by these people to explain their losses and successes.

I'm terribly uninformed of what goes on a trading floor and I'm willing to take most of Taleb's theories at face value. But he extends most of his theories to life and I'm not too comfortable with his condescending tone here. Of course the rich and famous and successful guys did some right things at the right time - they either sat next to a venture capitalist in a long flight or were experts in a social phenomenon whose time has arrived because of technological breakthroughs or were married into a business/political family that had connections.... This interpretation of doing the right thing at the right time is something only time can confirm. It is appropriate to acknowledge the role of luck in making big. But Taleb gave me the impression that hard & smart work doesn't get you anywhere without luck and I don't warm up to that idea. In fact, he uses the example of dentistry as a stable profession through most of the book, and explains the low stress associated with a steady growth as opposed to a fund manager who is invariably stressed every minute of the day and has a high risk of crashing down. But he doesn't seem to imply dentistry as a successful profession by itself.

At some point I wanted to drop the book because it was getting redundant. He was just providing different use cases to illustrate his central theme; but at least he kept issuing nuggets from diverse fields such as philosophy, poetry, history & mathematics which kept me going. (With all that, I read only 13 out of 14 chapters). If you have a pragmatic view of life this book is not going to enlighten you - you already know that chance does things that smartness alone can never do. But that degree of unpredictability in our markets, as painted by the author, unsettled me a bit. In spite of its redundancy it's not a bad book. It was like having a cup of tea with your well educated, well traveled uncle - he repeats some jokes, but he tells them interestingly. So you sit and listen without fussing.

[1] Success in this context is mainly by money. The author cites a scenario where constant exposure to the ups and downs of market arrows takes a high toll on health and then goes on philosophical introspections on what good is money without good health.

[2] There's no such thing as Nobel prize in economics. The award is presented by the Swedish Central Bank and doesn't come from the Nobel fund. Taleb repeatedly points this out. He somehow can't get himself to place economists who predict and create patterns along with scientists.

PS: I'll take a 10 day break before I start my next book - Alan Sokal's Fashionable Nonsense.

Oscars 2010

My morbid curiosity for watching the Oscars live (and unedited) has come to an end. It's really a test of human endurance to watch people go through their laundry list of thank yous. Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin should be spanked for hosting one of the most boring most-watched prom nights. I was glad that 'Avatar' didn't win anything big* and 'Hurt Locker' did win the top categories. At the risk of generalization and simplification I'll say this - it's interesting that James Cameron did the most womanly of the movies I've seen in a long time (and a crappy one at that) and made a ton of money while Kathryn Bigelow made the manliest of movies I've seen in a long time (a very good one) and has until now remained relatively obscure. In a world where cinema audiences are increasing men (especially teenagers), I've got to give it to James for breaking successive records with maudlin movies featuring horrible dialogues.

I liked Sandra Bullock's speech and I'm happy for Jeff Bridges.

* Avatar won for cinematography and now I'm really confused. In a movie like 'Hurt Locker' the viewer is made to recognize the vastness and emptiness of an Iraqi desert, a bustling market, the sweats on the face of a soldier. There's a whole lot of special effects in Avatar and the cinematographer still guides the view through his lenses - but it all seems a bit fake to recognize such a movie with the highest Hollywood honor. When most of a movie is shot inside a room with a monochrome background and movements aided though software and sensors, it somehow seems unworthy of Oscars to me. But then who said that Oscars should always go to the worthy.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Two articles on the future of U.S solvency:

Eternal optimist Fareed Zakaria is being politically naive:
So, [deficit] problem looks unavoidable, but also insoluble. Remember, though, that America has a $14 trillion economy that was, until recently, growing quite fast. We can find ways to address even this challenge. Here are three simple proposals that would defuse the debt bomb, with money to spare... Each of these policies could be phased in so that the timing is right. They could be pared back, especially if other savings and reforms are enacted. (Currently, tax breaks and deductions cost the government $1.1 trillion a year.) But just these three fixes would place the United States on a firm fiscal footing, leaving it with ample resources to invest in research, education, infrastructure, alternative energy, and whatever else we want.
Niall Ferguson's ominous words:
Neither interest rates at zero nor fiscal stimulus can achieve a sustainable recovery if people in the United States and abroad collectively decide, overnight, that such measures will ultimately lead to much higher inflation rates or outright default. Bond yields can shoot up if expectations change about future government solvency, intensifying an already bad fiscal crisis by driving up the cost of interest payments on new debt. Just ask Greece. Ask Russia too... Washington, you have been warned.