Saturday, November 29, 2008

Paleo and neowars

To quote Umberto Eco again ( I have just finished reading a collection of his essays and am trying to find suitable contexts to fit in what I have read):

In the course of the centuries, what was the purpose of that form of warfare we shall call paleowar? We made war in order to vanquish our adversaries and thus profit from their defeat.; we tried to achieve our ends by taking them by surprise; we did everything possible to ensure that our adversaries did not achieve their ends; we accepted a certain price in human lives in order to inflict upon the enemy a greater loss of life. The game was played out between two contenders. The neutrality of others, the fact that they suffered no harm from the conflict and if anything profited from it, was a necessary condition for the belligerents’ freedom of action. Oh yes, I was forgetting; there was one more condition: knowing who and where the enemy was. For this reason, the clash was a frontal one and involved two or more recognisable territories.

But what are the characteristics of today’s war or neowar as we will call it?

The identity of the enemy is uncertain. Were all Iraqis the enemy? All Serbs? Who had to be destroyed?

Neowar has no front. Because of the very nature of multinational capitalism. It is no accident that Iraq or the Taliban were armed by Western industry. This falls within the logic of mature capitalism, which eludes the control of individual sates.

Also, a feature of the neowar, is that the media puts the enemy behind the lines. In neowar, the enemy is among us. Even if the media is muzzled, new communication technologies would maintain the flow of information- a flow that not even a dictator could block. How can you have a war in which you cannot surprise your enemy? And, when the media publicity makes even the death of one of our men unacceptable? Thus, neowar is a media product, so much so that it can be claimed, paradoxically, that it didn’t actually take place but was merely shown on television

A point that Umberto Eco misses out is that paleowar and neowar can co-exist. As was clear during the recent terror incidents. The terrorists had meticulously planned out a sneak attack ; they could take the enemy by surprise. They knew who they were targeting. To this extent, they were following methods outlined in paleowar manuals.

But, the responders had to grapple with all the uncertainty and fuzziness of a neowar. Who are these people? Where are they from? What are they fighting for? How many of them are out there? How well are they armed?

But, the other point that Eco makes- about the media- is worth pondering over. Watching the ongoing battle at Mumbai with the terrorists, the question that kept coming to my mind was, what useful role did the media play? Certainly, it did not bring any insights or meaningful analysis. On the contrary, it harmed the rescue efforts, by disclosing the intentions and movements of the NSG at every stage.

The intended outcome of the outrageous acts was to spread panic and terror among the public. And, what better way to attain that objective than by getting hundreds of obliging television channels beaming hundreds of real-time images every minute continuously for many hours? Twenty terrorists could hold the entire nation captive and horrified, by leverage the power of the media and its multiplier effect. We simply played into their hands.

Terrorists adept in neowar methods and psychology exploit this power to achieve their ends and gain enormous mileage for their cause. And, they know that the media will cry foul if a blackout of news is imposed. So, they can set out on their mission, secure in the knowledge that the media will be willing coalition partners.

If we have to prevent the terrorists from pursuing their agenda, should we simply switch off our television sets at the first sign that there has been a terror attack?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


There are many philosophies available to help people cope with the idea of death. One religion will claim that you don’t have to worry about death, as you will be reincarnated again. Another will tell you not to worry too, but because you will land up in paradise, another will tell you that you won’t be conscious to know the difference, so why worry?

But the most practical philosophy comes from Umberto Eco. He advises that the best way to prepare for death is to convince yourself that everyone else is a complete idiot.

If you lie dying, how can you confront death, if you think that desirable, young people of both sexes are dancing in discos and having the time of their lives, enlightened scientists are revealing the last secrets of the Universe, incorruptible politicians are enjoying a better society, newspapers and television are bent on giving only important news, responsible business people are ensuring that their products will not damage the environment and doing their utmost to restore a nature in which there are streams with drinkable water, wooded hillsides, clear, serene skies protected by a providential ozone layer and fluffy clouds from which sweet rain falls once more? The thought that you must leave while all these marvelous things are going on would be intolerable.

Instead try to think that the world is full of idiots, that the dancers at the discos are idiots, the scientists who have solved the problems of the Universe are all idiots, the politicians who propose panaceas for our all our ills are idiots, the journalists who fill page after page with vacuous gossip are all idiots, so are the manufacturers- all idiots. In that moment would you not be happy, relieved, and satisfied to leave this world of idiots?

When must one start thinking like this? Not too soon in life, says Eco. We should start by thinking that all the others are better than others and then, shift bit by bit, having our first doubts around forty, revising our opinions between fifty and sixty and attaining certainty soon after.

Even removing this piece of wisdom from the morbid context of death, Eco’s philosophy has immense appeal. There is something liberating and invigorating about the idea that everyone around you is a complete idiot. It makes one feel supreme.

Don’t you idiots agree?

Monday, November 24, 2008

Velcro generation

“The kids of the next generation may be net-savvy and may be wizards at their Playstations, but do they know to tie their shoe laces? Can they wear shoes only with Velcro straps?” wonders the author of this article.

“What else have we lost, or failed to pass along, to the generation of kids about to inherit an increasingly compromised planet?

Is this generation heading into a coming dark age with little more than the ability to update their Facebook statuses and watch Youtube, all with laces untied?

While this generation can text-message, download, update and surf online simultaneously, this constant deluge of information is in fact something of a mirage. Information is not knowledge, nor even close to wisdom. And it is actually getting harder to learn and remember things.

If the lights start to go out sometime in the near future, and Walmart closes its doors, who would really be useful? The answer changes, but basically it comes down to people who know how to do things, farmers, carpenters, doctors, people with a body of knowledge that can be applied directly, physically to the real world. It certainly won't be film critics or bond traders.

When it comes to the crunch, and if required to roll up their sleeves and dig ditches, the kids of today simply will not be up to the task.

If our first impulse is always to protect our children, are we actually doing them a disservice? If suffering breeds character, does a complete lack of suffering foster utter helplessness?”

Hmmm, an overly pessimistic view, but she may have a point. I wonder what you kids have to say about this?

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The anti-depressant

A story posted widely on the Internet goes like this:

There was a man who lived by the side of the road and sold hot dogs.He was hard of hearing so he had no radio.He had trouble with his eyes so he read no newspapers.

But he sold good hot dogs.

He put up signs on the highway telling how good they were.He stood on the side of the road and cried; “buy a hot dog, mister?

And people bought.

He increased his meat and bun orders. He bought a bigger stove to take care of his trade.He finally got his son home from college to help him out.

But then something happened.

His son said, “Father, haven’t you been listening to the radio?Haven’t you been reading the newspapers?There’s a big depression.The European situation is terrible.The domestic situation is worse.”

Where upon the father thought, “well, my son’s been to college, he reads the papers and he listens to the radio, and he ought to know.”

So the father cut down on his meat and bun orders, took down his advertising signs, and no longer bothered to stand out on the highway to sell his hot dogs.

And his hot dog sales fell almost overnight.

“You’re right, son” the father said to the boy.“We certainly are in the middle of a great depression.”

The moral of the story is that phenomena such as depression, recession, etc are self-fulfilling prophesies. Negative sentiment can lead the world through a downward spiral.

Our Finance Minister, Mr P.Chidambaram, believes that the converse is also true. Keep harping on the few positives, try to keep the sentiment in check, wish away the problem and hope that the economy will hold up, at least till the elections. “Cut prices and boost demand” he exhorts the industry. “Go out and buy more” is the Friedmanian sub-text to the consumers.

If you are not sure what to buy, here is some help from the Smart buy section of BusinessLine.

Vu manufactures LCDs not only for your living rooms and offices, but now also for your glamour rooms! Luxury in the bathroom does not have to stop at that luxurious shower, the towel rail or the under floor heating. Having a waterproof LCD TV in the bathroom can help you relax better, is it not? Watch the game of football whilst you shower or just catch up with the latest news as you are freshening up. Vu Waterproof LCDs are available in two sizes 15 and 17 inches. The 17-inch Vu comes with a contrast ratio of 400:1 and a response time of 16ms, with built-in loudspeakers and is wall-mountable.

Rs. 48,000 – 15 inches

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Conversation with daughter-26

Me: I read an amazing story today. There is this British explorer deep inside a forest in Africa. With him is one of those Bushmen. Suddenly, in their vicinity, a lion hunts down a deer and kills it.

Daughter: Appa, is this one of the gory animal stories that you keep watching on National Geographic Channel?

Me: No. This has got something more. Let me continue. At the precise moment when the lion hunts down the deer, the Bushman points his finger in that direction and shouts “Gavangai”.

Daughter: What does that mean?

Me: That’s the mystery. The explorer was not sure if the Bushman was pointing to the lion or the deer or the tree or the grass or the hills beyond. So, he never knew what the word Gavangai stood for.

Daughter: So, what’s the rest of the story?

Me: The explorer lived for another 40 years, travelling all over Africa to find out what ‘Gavangai’ meant. He did not succeed. Finally, when he was all alone on his death bed, just before he breathed his last, it struck him that Gavangai meant ‘dying’. The Bushman had tried to tell him that the deer was dying. Yes, now the explorer knew. He died in peace. Is it not a moving story?

Daughter: Hey, wait a minute. If the explorer realized it only at the moment of dying and he was all alone, how do we know what went through his mind?

Me: The explorer wrote his memoirs posthumously. It’s all in there.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Why didn't anyone notice it?

Queen Elizabeth has lost 25 million pounds in the global financial turmoil, according to this story.

When she was given a briefing on the economic meltdown, she asked the experts, “ Why didn’t anybody see this coming?” A question on all on our minds now, but when the Queen asks, she got a reply.

Professor Luis Garicano, director of research at the LSE’s management department, was quoted as saying,

“At every stage, someone was relying on somebody else and everyone thought they were doing the right thing”.

It is that old fable again.

"There were once four economists: Everyone, Someone, Anyone and Noone. They had a very important task to do, namely to forewarn the world about an impending meltdown. Everyone was sure that Someone will do it. Anyone could have done it, but Noone did it in the end. Everyone thought that Anyone could have done it, but Noone realized that Noone will do it in the end. In the end, Everyone was angry at Someone because Noone did what Anyone could've done.The Queen lost 25 m pounds and asked "Why didn't Someone tell me?" Someone said that Everyone thought he was doing the right thing till it was proved wrong.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

No warning.

When the Sensex crossed 21000 last year, I remember hearing some feeble voices say that the aggregate price-to-earnings ratio of the Indian stock market was unsustainably high. But such voices were soon drowned in the general euphoria.

How can a galaxy of distinguished economists and analysts fail to see the imminent crash? When oil prices touched $140 a barrel, how come nobody could see that it would roll back very soon and touch $60?

With so many analytical tools in the armoury, why weren’t there stronger warnings that the housing bubble was just that- a bubble? And why didn’t a consensus of economists at universities and other institutions warn that a crisis was on the way? Why weren’t any small boys observing that the Emperor wasn’t wearing clothes?

The field of social psychology may provide some answers, says Robert Schiller in this article. . He cites a 1972 classic, “Groupthink,” by Irving L. Janis, the Yale psychologist, that explained how panels of experts could make colossal mistakes. People on these panels, he said, are forever worrying about their personal relevance and effectiveness, and feel that if they deviate too far from the consensus, they will not be given a serious role. They self-censor personal doubts about the emerging group consensus if they cannot express these doubts in a formal way that conforms to apparent assumptions held by the group.

To go against the grain or to take a contrarian position is to risk being thrown out of the group. Evolution favoured group behaviour and this instinct still keeps ticking in us, even the experts amongst us.

So, the lesson is that we will never be forewarned of any impending disaster or, for that matter, tipped about an upturn. So, just relax and enjoy the ride.


' “Coalition of the willing”, “War on terror”, “pro-life”, “pro-choice” are examples of phrases that smuggle in political opinion. A whole partisan argument is packed into a sound bite. These precision-engineered packages of language are launched by politicians and campaigners and targeted at newspaper headlines and snazzy television graphics where they land and dispense their payload of persuasion into the public consciousness.'

In his book, “Unspeak”, Steven Poole exposes the dubious nature of such manipulative expressions. For example, “Coalition of the Willing” seems to suggest that a large group of countries had joined together in the war against Iraq, whereas the truth was that only the USA and Britain were partners in this venture. “War on terror’ managed to legitimize the war on Iraq, by introducing associations with Al-Qaeda. “Either you are on our side, or on the side of the terrorists’ was the sub-text.

Anti-abortionists by calling themselves ‘pro-life’, managed to cast their opponents as anti-life and even pro-death, when the debate itself was on what constituted life and when does it really begin.

Policy makers and coal lobbyists in the USA also managed to tone down the term “Global warming” to “climate change” and to temper the public concern over coal plants. The former had connotations of inferno and hell, while the latter seemed to describe a routine, benign, incremental transformation.

Who came up with the expression “global meltdown” to describe the present economic situation? By calling it global, were the national governments trying to externalize the problem and disown responsibility? And ‘bloodbath’ and ‘carnage’ to describe a sharp drop in share prices at the Stock Exchange?

How we choose to describe something or what we term an event, can influence the way we perceive it and well determine the course of that event.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

The watery trail

Whenever there is a political rally in Chennai (not an infrequent event), thousands of people converge from all parts of the state to ‘express their solidarity”. And, while in the city, they urinate all over the place. This act is not to merely mark their territories or leave evidence of their participation. It is simply because there are no public toilets. And even if a few exist, they are not worthy of patronage.

That’s why I was amused by this report on the daunting task faced by the organizers of the marathon event in New York, where 39000 runners participate. They need to gather and place 2250 portable toilets for a one-day event and then have them removed immediately after the event, as it ‘kinda starts smelling’.

Apparently, this practice has been started only recently. Till two years back, the marathon runners used to head for the bushes or a convenient slope near a bridge, even though “going to the bathroom in public is both an illegal act in New York City and a disqualifiable one in the marathon”.

I am trying to work out the logistics of bringing in thousands of portable toilets to meet the needs of lakhs of partymen who descend into the city each time. And, the challenge of convincing them to get into those boxes.

Rail or canal?

If the year is 1832, and you represent the East India Company in the Madras Presidency, and have to arrive at ways and means to improve the pace of movement of goods or the stones required for construction of various buildings, how do you proceed?

Do you try to build more roads or dig more canals or lay railroads? Railway lines not to move locomotives (that had just been introduced in England) but to move conveyance drawn by animals.

What you would need to consider are:

a) the expense of constructing such works

b) the returns they would make

c) the difficulties that might be expected, considering the present state of the arts in that country

d) what are the specific areas where such work should be undertaken so as to derive maximum benefit.

A committee appointed by the Company actually made an analysis and submitted its report to the British Parliament.( See page 679 in this Google Book link).

The conclusion was that a canal network would be more expensive and more labour intensive. It would also require more water, that was already in short supply in the Carnatic. And, a railway line would be a better option.

What about the difficulty in undertaking such work locally? “They are not such as the Natives under European superintendence cannot overcome” was the observation.

And what are the lines that should be carried out first?

It is probable that there are very few lines on which there is sufficient traffic in the Madras Presidency for it to be either profitable to construct works of this kind, or possible to combine the means of internal communication with those of irrigation. The only ones that hold any prospect of these are, 1st, the line from the coast of Tanjore through the towns of Combaconum and Trichinopoly (each containing 200,000 inhabitants), and the great grain districts of Tanjore and Trichinopoly to the province of Coimbatore ; 2nd, the line through Coimbatore along the irrigating channels of the Bhowany river; 3rd, that along the irrigating channels of the Noel, which passes directly through the centre of the same district ; 4th, those of the Ambravatty, which skirts the south-east part of the same district ; and, 5th, the line from near the town of Coimbatore to the Western Canal.

And, the final recommendation:

It seems very advisable to send out a small quantity of rails and waggon wheels, to be ready for any of the works that are constantly executing in the Tank department. About 1,000 yards of light rails, such as are used for temporary purposes in England, and wheels for 40 railway waggons, might be sent out for about 250 1.-\- The rails should be plain square bars, and would cost nothing more than other malleable iron, and would always be available for ordinary purposes. Some other things, such as small cast iron cranes and windlasses, & should also be kept at Madras, and some of the principal stations up the country, for the general use of the department, by which a great deal of money might be saved.

So, had the East India Company decided to go ahead with the canal network instead of the railway lines, Lalu Prasad Yadav might be the Minister for Waterways now.

It's all in the brain

If you are obese and tend to eat too much, it is not because you are a glutton, unable to resist food. On the contrary, it may be because you derive reduced satisfaction from a given quantity of food. So, to attain a certain level of satisfaction, in absolute terms, you simply need to eat more food.

That’s what this article in Science suggests ( via Jonah lehrer). Obese people have reduced activity levels in the pleasure centres (striatum) of the brain and so need to keep binging, in a manic search for satisfaction.

As a commenter on Jonah’s blog observes, “I immediately wonder whether this effect also applies to sex, drugs, gambling, and anything else people get addicted to ….

A millionaire who craves for more money may not be driven by greed. Poor fellow, due to reduced quantity of dopamine receptors in his striatum, he actually gets reduced satisfaction from a given sum of money, and so has to simply have more money to derive the same level of satisfaction that you have with your measly savings bank account. He is actually physically handicapped and is to be pitied. Reach out to him…..