Monday, May 30, 2011

Why do we imprison people?

Kwame Anthony Appiah, a philosophy professor at Princeton University, in his article in the Washington Times on the subject of “What will future generations condemn us for?” had listed, among other things, our practice of imprisoning people, which, he believes, is certainly destined for future condemnation.

Coming to think of it, what do we really intend to achieve by imprisoning people? Prevent them from committing more crimes? Set examples that would serve to deter other budding offenders? Satisfy a principle that the ‘guilty should not go unpunished?

Two philosophers, Ken Taylor and John Terry, have tried to tackle the issue. They ask, “ What are prisons for? And run through five reasons. (source)

. retribution, crime deterrence, rehabilitation, restitution to the victims, or social denunciation.

In the first case, we should set up the system so that criminals are justly punished for what they did, though of course that raises the exceedingly thorny question of what, exactly, constitutes just punishment.

In the second case, however, we are concerned with affecting the criminal’s cost-benefit analysis, so to decrease the chances that he (most criminals, particularly of the violent type, are men) will not in fact engage in the crime to begin with.
In the case of rehabilitation, one cannot even properly talk of punishment, but rather of an attempt to change the ways of the individual and turn him into a productive member of society.

Restitution to the victims is yet another concept possibly informing how and why we imprison people, where the goal is to set up conditions that make it possible for the criminal to compensate (according to whatever parameters) the victim or the victim's family.

And finally, the social denunciation approach says that we imprison people because we wish to send the message that certain kinds of behavior are unacceptable in our society.

Naturally, we may wish to achieve more than one of these goals, but the point is that we ought to be clear on which ones, on how to prioritize them (is retribution more important than deterrence?), and especially on how to go about maximizing the likelihood of the intended outcome(s). But we don’t. The public and politicians don’t seem to make these (not so subtle) distinctions most of the time, let alone engage in serious reflection about what they mean and how they can be pursued. This is bizarre, considering that the prison system is dramatically affecting the lives of literally millions of people, many of whom arguably shouldn’t be there in the first place, as well as costing the rest of us an increasingly large bundle of money, at a time when cries of cutting the budget are all the rage

So, tell me, what is Kanimozhi in jail for?

'We will get him, wherever he is".

After Bin laden was eliminated, I heard a US media person (sorry, I didn’t note his name, but trust me, I heard him) say that it was a clear message sent to terrorists that you can’t mess around with America. “We’ll come after you wherever you are and get you’.

This is the classic response of those still living in a world of the past and conditioned by fairy tales, where victory in the last page of the story was what mattered. The villain may have led a jolly life for 70 years. But if you manage to score over him in the end, you are the real victor, even if you have been knocked around your entire life.

By executing the operations clinically and flawlessly and bringing down the WTC towers like a pack of cards – which should rank as one of the greatest engineering achievements ever, if you ignore the wrongness of the purpose- Osama had achieved what he wanted to. There was no more ‘victory’ that was left to be grabbed by the US. It was all over on 9/11.

Similarly, when Kasab was handed the death sentence by the Court, P.Chidambaram had come out with a statement: “The verdict (against) was a clear message to Pakistan. “If they do (export terrorism) and we apprehend the terrorists, then we will bring them to justice.”. This was just idle boasting. 26/11 was a plot planned meticulously and carried out efficiently. The intended purpose was achieved on that day, and victory was theirs. Catching one Kasab and hanging him is not going to send any message to the terrorists who are holed out in Pakistan. He was sent here to die and he came here mentally prepared to die on 26/11. He is now on extended time. A bonus period, so to say.

Just as rules of conventional warfare don’t apply in the case of war against terrorism, certain beliefs and honour codes that held sway in the era of conventional warfare need to be abandoned when dealing with terrorism. Victory is when you foil an attempt to blow up a building or when you nab the planners in their den based on intelligence tip-offs. It is when you manage to close in on the institutions that are operating as terror factories. Any post-facto action after the disaster cannot be claimed as a victory. It is too late by then.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Coverage of Rajinikant's illness

Once, during my school days (many decades back), a dreaded Science teacher was asked to stand in for a History teacher who was absent on that day. Many of us were convinced that, true to her Science class tradition, she would make us draw a picture of Emperor Akbar and name all the parts.

I remembered this when I saw a story in Times of India on Rajinikanth’s illness. I think the regular photographer was absent, so they deputed their science reporter to the hospital to get the full details. And sure enough, he drew a picture of Rajinikanth and named all his parts in gory detail.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Chinese typist deserves respect

In his book, “Mother Tongue", Bill Bryson explains the difficulty of designing a typewriter to type out Chinese letters:

Since every word requires its own symbol, Chinese script is immensely complicated. It possesses some 50,000 characters of which about 4000 are in common use. Chinese typewriters are enormous and most trained typists cannot manage more than about ten words a minute. But even the most complex Chinese typewriter can manage only a fraction of the characters available. If a standard Western typewriter keyboard were expanded to take in every Chinese ideograph, it would have to be about fifteen feet long and five feet wide.

An article in “Wired” carries a photograph of a monster typewriter on display at a museum in Barcelona and explains how it worked.

The only part that resembles a QWERTY typewriter is the rubber roller at the back. From there, things quickly become absurd. Take a close look and you’ll see that the flat bed is in fact full of tiny metal symbols, similar to a letter case used for traditional typesetting.

In that case there are a couple of thousand characters, and other cases can be swapped in as needed. You’ll notice that there’s no keyboard — instead, the operator uses the levers to line up a kind of grabber over the required letter. Then he hits a switch and the letter is moved up to the paper and the letter printed. Slow? Very. Apparently a good typist averages just 20 characters per minute

What about computers? The “Wired” article adds:

It doesn’t get much easier with computers, either. Because Chinese is made up of meaningful symbols instead of letters built in to words, a keyboard simply can’t contain everything without being the size of a table. To get round this two methods are commonly used. Wubi is similar to actually drawing the ideograms — the typist hits keys one by one to build up the picture from a series of strokes marked on each key. This is then translated into the correct symbol.

Better is Pinyin, which involves typing the letters phonetically in Roman letters (the ones we use). The computer then translates these into symbols. This is still something of a pain, but short of dropping their entire alphabet, what are the Chinese to do.

Here’s a photo of a Chinese keyboard that I came across today and which prompted me to come up with this post. (via)

Bill Bryson, in the same book that I referred to in the opening para, points out another limitation of the pictorial language:

The consequences of not having an alphabet are considerable. There can be no crossword puzzles, no palindromes, no anagrams, no games like Scrabble, no Morse code. In the age of telegraphy, to get around the last problem, the Chinese designed a system in which each word in the language was designated a number. Person, for instance, was 0086. To this day in China, and other countries such as Japan where the writing system is also ideographic, there is no logical system for organizing documents. Filing systems often exist only in people’s heads. If the secretary dies, the whole office can fall apart.


Thursday, May 12, 2011

Start...don't stop.

Jason Kottke links to a video of a wooden box with a flip switch. Once the switch is on, a bent rod pops out of the box and switches it off.

Here is how Arthur C Clarke described this mechanism that was invented by Claude Shannon, an American mathematician, electronic engineer, and cryptographer.

"Nothing could be simpler. It is merely a small wooden casket, the size and shape of a cigar box, with a single switch on one face. When you throw the switch, there is an angry, purposeful buzzing. The lid slowly rises, and from beneath it emerges a hand. The hand reaches down, turns the switch off and retreats into the box. With the finality of a closing coffin, the lid snaps shut, the buzzing ceases and peace reigns once more. The psychological effect, if you do not know what to expect, is devastating. There is something unspeakably sinister about a machine that does nothing - absolutely nothing - except switch itself off."

I can’t help thinking, rather cynically, that this box is a perfect metaphor for India. We’ve got sufficient resourcefulness and drive to switch ourselves on. But, as soon as we do this, a ‘hidden hand’ comes out and stops the process, preventing us from moving forward. It’s as if a Kareena Kapoor, like in her Airtel ad, is instructing us to ‘start’ followed immediately by a directive to ‘stop’.

We have the imagination to come up with grandiose schemes and the means to execute them too, but an inner, destabilising force soon materializes to put paid to the plans. All that energy that goes in to kick-start the process gets converted efficiently into a ‘braking force”. The gap between ‘intent’ and ‘achievement’ therefore remains huge. This is true for infrastructure projects, social welfare schemes, law making, reforms, etc.

To borrow from Clarke, there is something unspeakably sinister about a group of people who do nothing but pull others down, following the Crab principle. …

Learning from the metaphor, we will have to tweak the design a bit .Eliminating the ‘hidden evil hand’ is impossible. We’ll have to introduce another ‘rod’ that will spring into action a fraction of a second after the first one, and push the latter back inside before it switches off the box. What can that be?

Friday, May 06, 2011

On white dwarfs and Tamil

In an article in Science 2.0 that dealt with White dwarfs, Neutrons and Neutrinos, there is the inevitable reference to Dr Subrahmanyam Chandrasekhar, the Noble prize winner in Physics, for his calculations that showed that the weight of a white dwarf cannot exceed 1,44 times the mass of the sun.

The article carries a sketch that Dr Chandrasekhar had made in 1930 on his voyage to England. It is interesting that he wrote down the labels for the X axis and the Y axis  in Tamil.  Honestly, I didn't know the words, but the picture explains that they stand for ' radius' and 'mass'.

Dr Chandrasekhar had done his undergraduation course at the Presidency College, Madras where the subject must have been taught in English. But, the Tamil words must have come to him spontaneously, for some reason, when he was plotting the graph. Not that he knew that he was on to something big, when he was doing it.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

The debriefing sessions

The British had a meticulous system of ‘examining’ their officers returning from India and collecting evidence. These were  elaborate sessions and the evidence was patiently recorded and documented. The questions could cover a wide assortment of issues- administration, governance, justice, feedback on the perception of the natives and many other.  

This compilation of ‘minutes of evidence taken before the Select Committee on the affairs of the East India Company” and published in the year 1832 makes interesting reading. Here is an extract from one of the questioning sessions ( begins on page 153)


Captain Turner Macan, called in; and Examined.

In what service are you?

The King's military service, in the 16th Captain T. Macan. Lancers.

For how many years were you in India?

Twenty-three years

During that period did you discharge also any civil functions in India?

For the last 12 years of my residence in India, I held the situation of Persian interpreter to three successive Commanders-in-chief, Lord Hastings, Sir Edward Paget, and Lord Combermere. It cannot be called a civil function, it has always been held by a military officer.

Did the duties of that situation necessarily bring you in contact with the civil servants of the Company ?

With the exception of the Persian secretary to government, the residents at native courts, and political agents, the duties of that situation did not bring me in official contact with the civil servants of the Company, but it brought me in contact with the natives of India, both in correspondence and in personal intercourse.

Were you conversant with any other Oriental languages than the Persian?

The Persian, Arabic and Hindostanee are the languages I am conversant in, but most so in the Persian.

You have stated, that during your 23. years residence in India you have had occasion to make frequent tours in the provinces; has your intercourse with the natives on those occasions been considerable ?

It has, partly from official duty, partly from my Oriental pursuits. I have occasionally corresponded and held personal intercourse with almost every native of rank and talent

Generally speaking, how have you found the natives affected towards the British Government?

I think they have almost universally acknowledged the superiority of the British government over all former Asiatic government; and the learned men have frequently observed, that we have realized in practice the theoretical perfection of the Institutes of Acbar. They admit our intentions to be always good, but they censure many of our regulations and much of our system, both judicial and revenue, as not being founded on sufficient experience and data. The tardiness of justice they complain of as the greatest of evils. In giving these favourable sentiments of the natives on our government, I do not mean that there is one man of them that would take up arms to defend it; on the contrary, except the mercantile population of Calcutta, or those connected with the mercantile interests generally, I do not believe there is a native in India who would not desire a change.

You find, then, the educated natives universally conversant with the details of the British government in India?

Not universally conversant either with the regulations or details, but with the practical effects of the administration.

You have stated that you consider that for the most part they would desire a change; will you define more particularly what you contemplate by the word change ?

Any native government instead of that of the British; I mean that our rule in India is supported, not by the justice and wisdom of our laws or the love of the people, but by our military supremacy alone.

Do you consider that they appeared to feel themselves aggrieved by their exclusion from what they would deem a share of the civil administration of the affairs of their country ?

I think a due share in the administration of the country would tend to attach them more to our government, and make them feel an interest in it, which they now do not.

Will you state to the Committee your opinion of their capacity for being admitted to a larger share of the administration of the government ?

Their intellectual capacity is undoubtedly great; their moral capacity has been much doubted; but under an arbitrary government, where every man who holds a public situation was supposed to be necessarily corrupt in extent to his powers, and was treated as if he had been, whether innocent or not, there was no encouragement to morality or virtue, and a man who could not escape the suspicion of corruption, would endeavour to have the sweets of it. The natives of India are acute and intelligent, have great capacity for business, and, in fact, much of the business of India is now transacted by the native Omlah, without the responsibility attaching to it.

By what means should you propose to ameliorate any existing moral defects in the character of the natives ?

By education; more particularly instruction through the means of the English language, and employment in civil administration.

Do you believe that a general system of education, coupled with opening to the natives all such civil offices as they might become competent to fill, would have that tendency ?

I think it would; if you give a man something to lose, he will be cautious how he loses it. I think their employment should be limited to the judicial and revenue branches of the service. A great part of the expense of our executive administration would undoubtedly be lessened by the employment of more natives and fewer Europeans.

You have stated that you consider the introduction more generally of English language as a great object, with a view to the better establishment of our power in India; by what system does it occur to you that it might be more generally introduced ?

I would propose, that a proclamation be issued in Calcutta, stating, that at the end of a specific period, say five years, which I think sufficient, the proceedings in all the courts under the Calcutta circuit should be conducted in the English language. In the schools in Calcutta there are many Hindoo boys who can read English, even Milton and Shakspeare, with much fluency, and explain difficult passages in those authors. The language now used in the different courts of justice is as foreign to the natives of the country as the English language, except Bengal and Orissa, because in those provinces the use of the vernacular dialect is optional; in all other provinces the Persian language is used: it was forced into judicial proceedings by Mahomedan conquerors, and is not understood by any one of the witnesses that are usually examined, and but imperfectly by the native officer who takes down the evidence, and perhaps still more imperfectly by the judge.

(Remember that this was in the year 1832, much before the rumblings of the freedom movement were heard or felt. In fact, it was much before the British Govt took over the administrative responsibility from the East India Company)

Vacuous and Verbose-27

A news report says:

Tamil Nadu chief minister M Karunanidhi today said Home Minister P Chidambaram's remark that Election Commission (EC) had adopted stringent guidelines in Tamil Nadu but followed different norms in other states that went to assembly polls, cannot be "ignored."

Stating that everyone in the state knew about the Election Commission adopting strong guidelines like vehicle check, seizure of cash and transfer of officials. Karunanidhi said the EC should act as a "neutral body".

It should not adopt different guidelines as it would not help democracy. This was what Chidambaram had said, Karunanidhi pointed out.

The CM actually wants us to sympathise with his party for having been caught with cash amounting to crores of rupees. How dare the EC check their vehicles and seize cash that was intended to bribe voters? How can the EC unilaterally impose such strong and ridiculous guidelines that the voter should not be bribed? While cribbing thus, he has the support of no less a person than the Home Minister.  

What difference does it make to the case in TN, even if it is true that the EC had not implemented the same guidelines in other states with the same level of strictness? Does it lessen the magnitude of the crime in TN?

Can I rape a woman in TN and when caught by the police cry foul and argue that some rapist in Delhi has not been pursued with the same vigour by the police there, and therefore the law is not neutral?

Update 04/05/11: The more I thought over this, the more I am outraged. The Home Minister, instead of lauding the EC's efforts in TN and arguing for the same strict guidelines to be enforced all over the country seems to be suggesting that TN should not be singled out and that the guidelines must be relaxed and diluted to ensure consistency with the other states. In other words, TN's politicians should not be robbed off their cash and unfairly denied their right to bribe the voters.