Sunday, December 24, 2006

why are the germans considered humorless?

This (whole article here) seems like an insightful paragraph:
I think that the British prejudice about Germany’s supposed humour famine stems from the fact that there is no German tradition of daily banter. In London you can hear a dozen wisecracks in a day — at work or on the bus or in the coffee shop. They may be lame, but at least they’re quick. In Germany, humour is stockaded, kept apart from everyday life. In the evenings Harald Schmidt, a genuinely funny talk-show host, will crack their sides. But only after dinner has been eaten, the plates rinsed and the yoghurt pots washed, ready for recycling. In the office next day people will repeat Schmidt’s gags and they will laugh again. However, they will fail to spot the inherent absurdities of their own office life.

Friday, December 15, 2006

heh! this is funny...

New Republic reporter Mike Crowley wrote a profile of Michael Crichton for an issue of TNR in March this year. Apparently, Crichton didn't like it -- and guess how he responded? Well, in his latest novel Next, Crichton has a character, "Mick Crowley", who -- well, I'll simply quote the passage:
Alex Burnet was in the middle of the most difficult trial of her career, a rape case involving the sexual assault of a two-year-old boy in Malibu. The defendant, thirty-year-old Mick Crowley, was a Washington-based political columnist who was visiting his sister-in-law when he experienced an overwhelming urge to have anal sex with her young son, still in diapers. Crowley was a wealthy, spoiled Yale graduate and heir to a pharmaceutical fortune. ...

It turned out Crowley's taste in love objects was well known in Washington, but [his lawyer]--as was his custom--tried the case vigorously in the press months before the trial, repeatedly characterizing Alex and the child's mother as "fantasizing feminist fundamentalists" who had made up the whole thing from "their sick, twisted imaginations." This, despite a well-documented hospital examination of the child. (Crowley's penis was small, but he had still caused significant tears to the toddler's rectum.)
LOL. So not only does Mick Crowley sodomize two-year old boys, he also has a small penis. Isn't that funny? Like a double-sledgehammer? You could imagine Crichton going, ok, what's the worst I can do to Crowley? A child-molester, aah, yes. Of a two-year old. Yessss. But surely, nothing could be more damaging to a man than the size of his penis?

Gawd, I've only read one Crichton novel in my life (Airframe, and it wasn't too bad) but I sure as hell feel like reading him after this. The guy is just awesome!

Janet Maslin's review of Next here.

UPDATE: I read the Crowley profile and I must say, it's not the most flattering. But I was surprised at how nakedly polemical Crichton's books have been. Rising Sun, I'm told, actually played into the paranoia in the US in the early 90s about Japan's evil intentions (I once saw the beginning of that movie, but couldn't watch beyond a few minutes). Airframe, which I have read has caustic comments on the media, Disclosure was a perverse take on feminism and sexual harassment and of course, everyone knows about State of Fear and global warming. Here's Crowley:

You can read these books in search of an ideology, but you won't find a distinct one. Clearly, Crichton is no liberal (although he argues that one of his earliest books, A Case of Need, did have a pro-abortion rights message). But a free-market conservative wouldn't write an essentially protectionist book like Rising Sun, either. What Crichton's worldview really amounts to is a kind of hectoring contrarianism that is increasingly targeted at America's know-it-alls, against the liberal elites, against the very type of expertise that had given him his professional cachet. And that worldview has reached its bitter, frothing apex with State of Fear.

Anti-expert, is what Crichton is. That does make a twisted kind of sense. But more on that, some other time.

Monday, December 11, 2006

grandidose thoughts...

I love the way Daniel Dennett patiently chides Marvin Minsky in this exchange:

Why is the idea of a thinking machine so compelling?
I think there is a worldwide survival problem. As the population grows and people live longer, there won't be anybody to do the work. So there is an urgent need to make inexpensive mechanical people that are able to do all the things that moderately unskilled people do now.
Dennett: I don't find that very convincing, Marvin. I think we're interested in it for purely curious, scientific reasons. We want to know how we work.

Monday, December 04, 2006

namesake alert!

Shit! -- after all these years of searching -- I have a namesake!!!!!!!!!

Sunday, December 03, 2006

specters of marx

Via Brad Delong's blog:

The Five Karl Marxes:

Communist revolution is necessary and inevitable because...

The Technology Marx: is not a complement to but a substitute for labor, and so technological progress and capital accumulation that raise average labor productivity also lower the working-class wage. Hence the market system cannot and will be seen to be unable to deliver the good society we all deserve, and it will be overthrown.

The Market Extent Marx: ...businessmen continually extend the domain of captalism, and competition from poor workers in newly-incorporated peripheral regions puts a lid on the wages of labor. Hence inequality grows in the core, and triggers revolution.

The Unveiling Marx: ...previous systems of hierarchy and domination maintained control by hypnotizing the poor into believing that the rich in some sense "deserved" their high seats in the temple of civilization. Capitalism unveils all--replaces masked exploitation by naked exploitation--and without its ideological legitimation, unequal class society cannot survive.

The Ideology Marx: ...although the ruling class could appease the working class by sharing the fruits of economic growth, they will not. They are trapped by their own ideological legitimation--they really do believe that it is in some sense "unjust" for a factor of production to earn more than its marginal product. Hence social democracy will inevitably collapse before an ideologically-based right-wing assault, income inequality will rise, and the system will be overthrown.

The Solidarity Marx: ...factory work--lots of people living in cities living alongside each other working alongside each other develop a sense of their common interest and of class solidarity, hence they will be able to organize, and revolt.

Who is the real Marx? Ah, grasshopper, not until you have learned not to ask that question will you be able to snatch the pebble from my hand...

That strikes me as a nice concise of summary of all the different aspects of Marx's work.

roald dahl is canonized!

The Everyman's Library has added another title: Roald Dahl's Collected Short Stories. (His stories for adults, his stories for children are justly famous).

The New York Times reviews it here.

The strange thing is, I never read Dahl as a child. (Dahl is not especially popular as a young adult writer in urban India; that would be Enid Blyton, yesh!). But his first book that I read was his collection of flying stories: Over to You. After the book had sat on my shelf for weeks, I took it out one day and started reading the first story in the collection. It was called "Death of an Old Old Man" and it starts with:

Oh God, how I am frightened.

From that beginning, Dahl constructs a furious, almost relentless, stream-of-consciousness monologue as a pilot on a dangerous flying mission It's giddy, vertiginous and very very real; it makes you feel breathless but it puts you right there in the cockpit with him, in him, as you worry about whether you yourself will ever make it through this flight.

But you don't have to take my word for it. has the whole monologue (it's about three pages) in its Excerpt of the book: go check it out.

After this, as they say, I was hooked. Well, a bunch of us were pretty fixated with Dahl in my undergrad years -- we analyzed his stories to death.

PS: for the funniest -- well, one is tragic -- stories about sex, check out Dahl's collection: Switch Bitch.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

parition again

In this New Yorker piece, George Packer quotes the Democrat John Murtha saying:
Also last week, on National Public Radio, Representative John Murtha, the Pennsylvania Democrat who was an early supporter of withdrawal, casually offered that, if Iraq were to fall apart in the wake of an American departure, “I don’t think it’ll be any worse” than the partition of the Indian subcontinent.
Hello, Partition claimed more than a million lives. And that's "worse" than what's going to happen in Iraq? If so, anything "better" than it would still be bad indeed. Representative Murtha has strange standards.

But then Packer himself makes another mistake:
A million people are estimated to have died in 1947 during the movement of Muslims and Hindus across the newly drawn India-Pakistan border. Sixty years and several wars later, the two countries confront each other in a nuclear standoff, trade charges of subversion, and periodically exchange fire in the Kashmiri Himalayas.
The deaths apart, this somehow seems to imply that had there not been a partition, we wouldn't be facing these problems. But then what exactly would we be facing? As history makes clear, Partition could only have been avoided by making Simla Agreement-style concessions. An earlier plan proposed by the Cripps Cabinet Mission was that India would remain united but the provinces would have something almost like complete autonomy. The central government would be weak and would only deal with issues of defence and foreign policy. More than that, it suggested that provinces in India be grouped closely on religious lines, particularly the Muslim-majority ones. The poisonous notion of separate electorates was also to stay. Narhar Kurundkar compares this arrangement to the Edict of Nantes : a pact that was so structurally crippled that it could never hold.

This was not a model of India that anyone in the Congress could ever entertain. A weak central government, autonomous religion-based provinces, separate electorates: these would all lead to a state within a state and a sure recipe for a bloody civil war in India. A civil war, that perhaps, would make the humanitarian disaster of Partition seem like nothing. It might make our current conflicts with Pakistan seem like nothing. In 1947 a united India could only mean a country that was seriously crippled by an unworkable political arrangement with a very good possibility of succumbing to chaos. Darfur or Rwanda, anyone?

Partition was ultimately a pragmatic choice. The violence that erupted and the millions that died can't be forgotten but the kind of India that arose, with a strong central government, no separate electorates with no Muslim-majority provinces was something that allowed us to focus on the task at hand: India's development and a decent standard of life for its citizens.

signing off an email

The blogs have been chattering about this article in the Times -- on whether the sign-off at the end of an email ("Best", "Regards", etc) indicates something more. For instance, could "Best" be reasonably interpreted to mean "I'm though with you, go to hell" or something like it? Just for myself, I've always thought "Best" to be rather cold-hearted and stand-offish.

Interesting, no?

Here's my favorite part of the article:

When Kim Bondy, a former CNN executive, e-mailed a suitor after a dinner date, she used one of her preferred closings: “Chat soon.” It was her way of saying, “The date went well, let’s do it again,” she said.

She may have been the only one who thought that. The return message closed with the dreaded “Best.” It left her feeling as though she had misread the evening. “I felt like, ‘Oh, that’s kind of formal. I don’t think he liked me,’ ” she said, laughing. “A chill came with the ‘Best.’ ” They have not gone out since.

Now I've always used "Later" to indicate that I'd like to continue the acquaintance -- but maybe, just maybe, it indicates the opposite?

"Cheers" has always seemed to me to be a nice neutral little word. But it doesn't come up in the New York Times piece at all!

Anyway, more discussion here and here. [Via Cognitive Daily].

Friday, December 01, 2006

i reserve judgement

New York magazine says that Julianne Moore sucks in her Broadway debut Vertical Hour.

I dunno, I'll reserve judgement until I see the play. I'm a big admirer of Moore's performances -- Far from Heaven, The End of the Affair, Vanya on 42nd St, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, A Map of the World -- and I've never watched Far from Heaven or The End of the Affair without a lump in my throat (and I've watched them many times). So yeah, I'll just see the damn play and decide for myself.

The play, from all accounts, seems to be another David Hare screed on Iraq. Oh well.

Ben Brantley of the New York Times says pretty much the same thing.

Well, I still reserve judgement.

jude law

This quote about Jude Law strikes me as pretty accurate:
And Jude Law -- what in God's name has happened to Jude Law? When he burst into movies a decade ago, playing a crippled, furious genetic superman in Gattaca, and then Dickie Greenleaf, the murdered golden boy in The Talented Mr. Ripley, he seemed like a throwback to an earlier era, when Hollywood stardom required an actor to be dazzling and deadly all at once. But the hint of danger he brought to those early roles has evaporated, leaving a callow charm that might seduce a giddy woman, but not an audience.
I watched parts of Gattaca again a few weeks ago and Law and Uma Thurman, between them, manage to literally stamp poor Ethan Hawke out.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

discrimination: what it means...

There isn't a doubt in my mind that Muslims in India are under-represented in employment, in higher education, in the organized sector, everything really. Those are facts that cannot be denied. And one doesn't really need statistics to believe them. Simply reporting the situation on the ground helps. For instance, there was only one Muslim man in my graduating class of 2002 and the situation wasn't too different in other elite colleges. So yes, there's a lot of work still to be done.

But what bothers me about this New York Times piece isn't the content (which is true beyond any doubt and indeed may be the fodder for the next round of reservations in India), but the presentation. When Americans hear statistics presented that way, they will immediately compare the situation of Muslims in India to that of Blacks in the United States. And that comparison is false, on almost every level.

African-Americans came to this country as slaves, worked on plantations, were freed, only to encounter Jim Crow laws, and it's only now, in the last forty years that they are at least theoretically equal under the law. In contrast, Muslims came to India as conquerors, settled there, and lived uneasily side-by-side with Hindus. Even during British rule, it must be said, the English made sure that it was never disadvantageous to be a Muslim, in order to keep alive India's already-existing sectarian divisions.

Things changed when they left. Of course, when they left, the four Muslim-majority provinces of India split to form Pakistan which then further split up in 1971.

I suppose one could say, that now after Independence, Muslims who remained in India are discriminated against but I think even here discrimination is the wrong word, if what we mean by it is what African-Americans went through in the US or even what Dalits in India endured for millenia. Some subtle form of discrimination? Possibly. Systematic discrimination? No.

But finally in India it's the scales that matter. The sheer number of people in India -- 1 billion -- is mind-boggling. And even if every single Muslim in India lives in abject poverty, there are at least four times as many non-Muslims, whose condition is no better. When we in India do get down to addressing these issues -- poverty alleviation, a humane standard of living for everyone -- I think our problem will be the sheer scale of people we have to deal with. But if and when we do, and if we formulate some efficient coherent policy to do it, I have no doubt that this so-called Hindu-Muslim "gap" is easily bridgeable. (Indeed what might be harder to bridge would be the caste "gap" since the discrimination that Dalits have faced for more than a thousand years might not be easily alleviated. But then, that's another story, for another time).

UPDATE: You can find the Indian Express' series (based on leaks from the Sachar Committee's Report) here.

how to overcome the achievement gap

I just wanted to recommend this longish Times Magazine essay on how schools can eliminate the race/class gap between students and how much effort we really need to solve this problem. It's a fascinating piece!

But just to throw a couple of points:

1. Why don't we take this as seriously in India? Why is there no equivalent of the No Child Left Behind back home? It seems like the problems we face in this department are so much more in magnitude. And yet, I've hardly read any policy pieces about this in India (but then again, that might be my lack of reading...). Surely we have our own version of the achievement gap: between poor and rich kids for one, and more importantly between the forward and the backward castes. A massive investment in bridging this gap strikes me as more level-headed than the absurd quota system we have currently (my objection is not to the quota, but to the level at which we've put it)

2. Why don't we have some equivalent of Teach for America in India, which recruits students from the best campuses (and I mean engineering campuses too) in the country to teach needy areas? I have no doubt interested people would volunteer (I would). Of course there would be some logistical hurdles especially language since primary and middle-school education is best done in the native language but that shouldn't be a hard problem to surmount.

Anyway, now back to work. Also another factor that might influence the achievement gap: stress.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Dear Economist

I just love the Financial Times!!

Natasha asks:

Dear Economist,

I have been going out with a school friend for nearly a year and I think he’s “the one” - but we are heading off to university at opposite ends of the country. Will the relationship survive? Is there anything I can do to keep it going?

Yours sincerely,

Natasha, Co. Durham

The economist replies:

Dear Natasha,

I understand your concern, but your future looks bright. A long-distance relationship will always put pressure on both of you, but it’s a question of how you use that to your advantage.

Economist Tyler Cowen, a professor at George Mason University, has pointed out that the Alchian-Allen theorem applies to any long-distance relationship.

The theorem, briefly, implies that Australians drink higher-quality Californian wine than Californians, and vice-versa, because it is only worth the transportation costs for the most expensive wine. Similarly, there is no point in travelling to see your boyfriend for a take-away Indian meal and an evening in front of the telly. To justify the trip’s fixed costs, you will require champagne, sparkling conversation and energetic sex. Insist on it.

Meanwhile, optimal- experimentation theory suggests that at this tender stage of life you are highly likely to meet someone even better. Socialise a lot while your boyfriend is not around.

Finally, consider your bargaining strength with potential new boyfriends with regard to, for instance, who pays for dinner. Your best alternative to a negotiated agreement with the new boyfriend is. your old boyfriend, who by your admission is an excellent catch.

This puts you in a sound negotiating position - unless, of course, the boy is maintaining a long-distance relationship of his own.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

absurdity cannot...

...exceed this. Nitin Pai is understandably horrified.

am i shallow? or what?

Yours truly isn't a big believer in the "blog-as-private-confessional" theory. So this post is as self-indulgent as I'll get (on the web, that is) -- about a certain tendency of mine that I've been worrying about.

First, though, a graphic, or rather, two graphics:

I was presented with this scenario (well, descriptively speaking) at the Strand, a gorgeous used-book store in New York, about a month ago. There were about four or five copies of A Beautiful Mind, all of which were priced at $2. As a book that I've always wanted to read I decided to buy it. But here was the difficulty: which of the two versions -- or editions -- should I pick? The original one with John Forbes Nash Jr on the cover? Or the one with Russell Crowe playing Nash on the cover?

Now this should hardly even be a problem. The book was the same, and all versions were in reasonably good shape. So I should have just grabbed one of them and gone on. Instead I spent more than ten minutes (well, I exaggerate) deciding which of the two editions to buy. The reason? I didn't want to be seen as someone who came to the book after seeing the movie (which I did, by the way). I vacillated. And finally -- yes, finally -- I chose the old version.

So, to re-iterate two points: (a) I hadn't heard of the book -- or indeed of John Forbes Nash Jr -- before I saw the movie, and (b) I haven't read the book yet.

Anyway, I wouldn't be writing this post if something similar hadn't happened yesterday. I was in the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop, browsing, and I chanced upon this:

Aha, same problem. An edition printed after the movie (which I haven't seen, by the way) vs the original paper-back edition. Which to choose? The film version of A Home at the End of the World is not I became aware of Michael Cunningham -- and the film isn't too good, by many accounts. I did however read The Hours sometime when its movie version was about to be released and I've read a few of Cunningham's (beautiful) short stories since then.

So anyway, no prizes for guessing what I bought. Which brings me to the point of this whole meandering post. Either, (a) I have a visceral aversion to buying books which have a picture of the movie on its cover (which I do, I guess) or (b) I am a snob and would rather have people think that I read the book before seeing the movie made out of it (even if I hadn't done anything of the sort). Which is it?.

PS: Oh, it needn't be either-or. And check out A. O. Scott's review of A Beautiful Mind.

oh, tom...

Daphne Merkin's profile of Tom Stoppard in this week's NYT magazine, along with this William Grimes article, convinces me, more than anything else, that A. O. Scott was right after all.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

when analogy is taken too far

I don't really have any philosophical objections to the "life is software, not hardware"-type of hypotheses but really, can there be any essay vaguer than this?

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

BAM has a sense of humor

Love this "student rush" graphic on BAM's web-page.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Daniel Craig, RIP

(No, no, he isn't dead but read on...)

Consider this. There's this obscure and, a not-so-popular one that you think makes great music. You are, in other words, a fan. And then suddenly, this band gets a hit, a chart-topping single and all of a sudden, is the toast of the world. Your friends, who, a day before, wouldn't even have heard of this band are now giddy fans. How would you feel? Happy for the band? Sad? Sad and happy? Bitter-sweet? All of the above?

When it was announced that Ang Lee would direct Brokeback Mountain, most of us who'd read Annie Proulx's short story felt a nice sensation inside: this would be good, we thought. It was better. Commercially, the film did better than anyone expected; best, it became a sensation and Lee won a well-deserved Oscar. Now of course it was everyone's, everyone appreciated it; and it was ours no longer. Overall, not a bad state of affairs too (although I have serious reservations about the way the film was marketed/perceived).

Its deja vu time today as Casino Royale comes out in theaters, with its star attraction, the new James Bond: Daniel Craig. I guess I am one of the few people who've seen many of Craig's films: the harrowing The Mother, the so-so Sylvia, and smashing-good-times Enduring Love and Layer Cake. Plus he was in Spielberg's Munich (proof that his star was rising, I'd say) and the more recent Truman Capote biopic Infamous (which I have yet to see).

What can I say? The man is a brilliant actor, who seems to internalize every character he plays. But more than that, he's an astonishingly feral presence in any movie. Craig is the kind of actor whose sheer physicality -- I was almost going to say animalness -- hits you in the face, even when he's behind the movie screen, enough to make a frission of excitement run down your spine. (The only other actor today who comes close in doing this is Clive Owen -- and to a much lesser extent, Russell Crowe). Craig is like a tightly coiled tiger and his vulnerability (when he shows it) only underscores his lethalness; even when he's down, you only feel sorry for the other guy, because you know that Craig can't be kept down.

If all this resembles how a giddy school-girl might sound, then that just proves how Craig's charms can get though even the most battle-hardened critics (for the record, I consider myself movie-hardened). Most female critics, revewing Casino Royale have outdone themselves -- and I'm not being pejorative -- in describing the Daniel Craig-effect. Here's the relatively restrained Manohla Dargis (who, being what she is, simply cannot take out that note of sweeping dismissal from her voice) talking about Craig in the Times:
attractive bit of blond rough named Daniel Craig ... You see Mr. Craig sweating (and very nice sweat it is too);...
Sarah Lyall's feature in the Times is even more giddy, it comes replete with admiring references to Craig's torso. One would have thought that this kind of reporting was beneath the Times (No, wait, I was joking, of course it isn't -- remember this article?) but that's Daniel Craig for you.

The crowning achievement is Dana Steven's piece in Slate -- it has a starting paragraph that made me gasp, even as I started to laugh, referring to a certain orifice in Craig's body and what it might be capable of holding. But no, read it for yourself; it's worth reading, with an inevitable paragraph or two on Craig's torso (again, what can I say? that's Daniel Craig for you), it also nicely summarizes his other work. You might want to check them out; for all the chemical reactions he seems to arouse in people, Craig really is a darn good actor.

Which finally brings me back to the epitaph I titled this post with. A year ago, Daniel Craig was the property of a few people, who'd seen and admired his other films, now he's ours no longer. As James Bond -- and now an acclaimed one, so more Bond roles will surely follow -- he's well on his way to being a movie star and god only knows, he deserves to be one.

Friday, November 17, 2006

milton friedman

From Brad DeLong's obituary for Milton Friedman (who died yesterday):
Gen. William Westmoreland, testifying before President Nixon's Commission on an All-Volunteer [Military] Force, denounced the idea of phasing out the draft and putting only volunteers in uniform, saying that he did not want to command "an army of mercenaries." Friedman, a member of the 15-person commission, interrupted him. "General," Friedman asked, "would you rather command an army of slaves?" Westmoreland got angry: "I don't like to hear our patriotic draftees referred to as slaves." And Friedman got rolling: "I don't like to hear our patriotic volunteers referred to as mercenaries." And he did not stop: " If they are mercenaries, then I, sir, am a mercenary professor, and you, sir, are a mercenary general. We are served by mercenary physicians, we use a mercenary lawyer, and we get our meat from a mercenary butcher." As George Shultz liked to say: "Everybody loves to argue with Milton, particularly when he isn't there."
Via Indian Economy Blog, two reports that Friedman wrote on India are here and here. The first is a memorandum to the Government of India recommending certain policies, the latter -- particularly prescient -- is Friedman's critique of India's Planning model. He makes, for me, two interesting points. The first is that Planning, especially the Soviet model that India followed, could only have worked in an authoritiarian top-down society, like Russia's or China's, not in a democracy-with-private-property like India. More than that:
Though Indian economic planning is cut to the Russian pattern, it operates in a different economic and political structure. Agricultural land is almost entirely privately owned and operated; so are most trading and industrial enterprises. However, the government does own and operate many important industrial undertakings in a wide variety of fields-from railroads and air transport to steel mils, coal mines, fertilizer factories, machine tool plants, and retail establishments; Parliament has explicitly adopted “the socialist pattern of society” as the objective of economic and social policy; a long list of industries have been explicitly reserved to
the “public sector” for future development, and the successive plans have allocated to public sector investment a wholly disproportionate part of total investment - in the third five-year plan, 60 percent although the public sector accounts at present for not much more that a tenth of total income generated. In addition, the government exercises important controls over the private sector: no substantial enterprise can be established without an “industrial” license from the government, existing firms must get government allocations of foreign exchange and also of domestic products in the public sector; and so on in endless variety.

The difference between India and Russia in political structure is at the moment even sharper that in economic structure. The British left parliamentary democracy and respect for civil rights as a very real heritage to India. Though I very much fear that this heritage is being undermined and weakened, as of the moment it is still very strong indeed. There is tolerance of wide range of opinion, free discussion, open opposition by organized political parties, and judicial protection of individual civil rights-except for recent emergency actions under the Defence of India Act. The kind of centralized economic planning India has adopted can enable a strong authoritarian government to extract a high fraction of the aggregate output the people for governmental purposes - Russia is a prime current example and China, though we know much less about her, may be another; Egypt under the Pharaohs is a more ancient example. This is one way, and I believe almost the only way, in which such a system can foster economic growth-if the resources extracted are indeed used for productive capital investment rather than for arms or governments. But this advantage- if advantage it be - of centralized economic planning, India is not able to obtain precisely because of the difference between its economic and political structure and those of Russia or China.
And then, he hits on what exactly makes a strong state (without any checks and balances) dangerous: the contrast between what he calls (tweaking John Kenneth Galbraith's phrase) public affluence and private squalor.
Whether because of the adoption of the Russian model of economic planning or for other reasons. Russia and India have one feature in common that strongly impresses the casual visitor. In both, if I may pervert a phrase made famous by our present Ambassador to India, there is a striking contrast between public affluence and private squalor. In both countries, whenever one sees a magnificent structure, newly built or well maintained, the odds are heavy that it is governmental. If some activity is luxuriously financed and well provided for, the odds are that is governmentally sponsored. The city in India which showed the most striking improvement since my earlier visit was New Delhi, with impressive new governmental buildings, residence and luxury hotels. I should add that although the public affluence is not notably different in the two countries, the private squalor is much worse in India than in Russia.
This strikes me as true even today, as high-rises and shopping malls in Indian metropolises co-exist side by side with slums and all the combined miseries on this earth. Friedman's critique of India's "mixed" economic model makes a lot of sense, but I'm not sure that we had any alternative in those days after Independence. I interpret his point as one of efficiency: even as the State in India grew and grew and reached monstrous proportions (emplyoying, I believe, more than 50% of the working population), no effort was expended in making it more efficient. Regulation can work, and developing societies need regulation in order that they not make the same mistakes that today's industrialized economies made when they were in the throes of the industrial revolution and unfettered capitalism. But regulation also needs efficient institutions (and an efficient Government) in order to make it work and in order that it can encourage economic growth, which is what any free society needs.

I'll go on and quote Friedman's last sentence, almost eerily prescient, and without fifty years of hindsight:
It will, I fear, take a major political or economic crisis to produce a substantial change in the course on which India is no set in economic policy, and I am not at all optimistic that such a crisis if it occurs, will produce a shift toward greater freedom rather than toward greater authoritarianism.
There was indeed a major economic crisis and it did provoke change (reversal is a better word) in economic policy, but I'm happy to say that so far at least, we seem to have come out of it fine. What happens ahead is, of course, no one really knows.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

stephen holden made me laugh

The NYT's Stephen Holden is not normally a movie critic who makes you laugh (unlike, say David Edelstein) so I just wanted to quote this line from his review of "Flannel Pajamas" which had me giggling for about 10 seconds:
The personal issues bedeviling Stuart and Nicole may not be your issues or mine, but the couple’s mild-mannered approach to dealing with them may feel uncomfortably familiar if you belong to the college-educated class of New York professionals that believes in talking things out. You might call it the modern, pragmatic, couples-counseling approach to problem solving, as opposed to, say, primal scream therapy or (God forbid) domestic violence.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Calvin and Hobbes via Robot Chicken

This is amazing!

funny ha-ha

A father signs up on facebook to keep track of his son's online doings. He adds his son to his friends list. Big mistake. He gets friend-bombed. The best part? He is worried about
what parents will think if they discover that I am part of their teenagers’ network of friends. I worry that two terrifying words will come to mind: Mark Foley.
And speaking of inappropriate things, this article in the NYT begins like this:
Every space shuttle flight has its risks, as two catastrophes have made painfully clear, but the one announced last week by NASA to repair and upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope in 2008 is riskier than usual. If the shuttle runs into trouble, it won’t be able to rendezvous with the International Space Station for help. The best it could do is collide with it.
Interesting, ain't it? Makes you wonder about what's coming. Well, read the piece, it's entirely quotidian. But man, that that's what I call good writing.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

what's with the spelling, dude?

...Don't people realize that it's "indiscreet" not "indiscrete" (there's no such word!)? I mean, it's Newsweek, for God's sake.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

I don't get it.

I must be missing something here but what exactly does Dahlia Lithwick find objectionable?

How does it rival George Allen's macaca moments?

Monday, October 02, 2006

the foley affair

Wordsworth idealized children while Freud de-idealized them. Marx was the Wordsworth of the proleteriat. It's Freud is still to come. -- Bertrand Russell.

I have to admit that there's a certain gleeful irony that the party of moral posturing a.k.a. "family values" is now being forced to come to terms with a Representative who seems to have had a rather unseemly fondness for post-pubescent male teenagers. But it's also a symptom of our culture that a case, where no physical abuse was involved (no revelations as yet) and where the victims in question were all sexually active teenagers, still manages to create a furore about -- what exactly?. Oh yes, that teenagers are sexually active and yes, that they can be (un)remarkably mature about sex. (Well, did you expect a politico with a fondness for teenagers to not create a furore?-Ed. No, not really -- my point is that what Foley is doing is basically unremarkable. Let me explain.)

About a month ago, James Kincaid, writing about the JonBenet case, argued that our obsession with "child exploitation" is the result of our morbid fascination with children's sexuality. It allows us to sexualize children by proxy, while at the same time, indulge in a lot of hand-wringing about sexual predators. Mostly though, it lets us ignore the real problems children actually face: hunger, poverty, homelessness and just simple physical abuse -- abuse not necessarily perpetrated by dirty old men (or sinister homosexuals, that favorite trope of the Religious Right). Kincaid's piece is a little melodramatic (and it caused Lee Siegel to accuse him of paedophilia, igniting a series of events that led to Siegel's ouster from The New Republic) but I think it has a kernel of truth to it. All the hysteria about child abuse is because of our idealization of children as non-sexual beings, even hundred years after Freud.

About two years ago, I saw a documentary called Capturing the Friedmans, about a Long Island family, significant only because father Arnold and son Jesse spent time in jail for child abuse -- none of which was conclusively proved. The film's point -- though never explicit -- is that the prosecutors and the police allowed themselves to carried away by the hysteria that swept through the population of Long Island and relying only on hearsay, and the testimonies of young children -- who, in turn, were manipulated into saying things by adults -- , arrested the Friedmans. (To see what I wrote about the documentary, click here). Debbie Nathan, who appears in the film as a talking head, wrote an article about it in the Village Voice, detailing her involvement with the film and her dealings with Arnold Friedman. Paedophiles, she pointed out,

...seldom use overt threats and violence. It's far more common, say Jackson and Skadegaard, for pedophiles to seduce through their gentleness and sensitivity, and for their abuse to take the form of undressing, fondling, and oral sex.

If victims fail to report the crimes, it's often because they're ashamed that they enjoyed the abuser's attentions, or worried he'll go to jail. While molestation can of course leave kids with grievous psychic wounds, research by Philip Ney of the University of British Columbia and his colleagues (published in 1994 in the journal Child Abuse and Neglect) suggests that physical and verbal abuse and neglect tend to be far more emotionally damaging to children than molestation. Research by Bruce Rind and colleagues, published by the American Psychological Association in 1998, indicates that many children seem wholly unaffected by sexual contact with adults. This should not surprise. The Arnold Friedmans of the world are kinder to kids than many normal adults.
The real reason why sexual contact between adults and children is prohibited gets lost in this hysteria and our terror of paedophiles. Paedophiles are punished not because they fellate little boys but because they abuse their authority as adults, taking unfair advantage of kids, who, whether they like it or not, do not really know what they are getting into. The age of consent is not some spiritual frontier that separates innocence from experience. It is a heuristic -- a point when we let teenagers decide what they want for themselves. There is a possible case to be made for reducing the age of consent -- though I think eighteen is about right since it marks the end of high school -- but the hysteria has got to stop.

Which leads me back to where I began, with Representative Foley. Take a look, if you will, at the transcripts of Foley's emails to his "pages" and worse -- his IMs. It shows a middle-aged man, who's a little too interested in 16 year old boys. But what's remarkable about those IMs is also how unremarkable they are. Anyone who has chatted in an online gay chat-room --hell, any chatroom -- on the internet has had these conversations and sometimes has had a hard time telling people that their attentions aren't wanted. What is even more interesting is how amused the boy himself seems. He doesn't really want to have this conversation but can't really say so -- not to Representative Foley. He also finds Foley attentions wierd and funny and embarassing -- but also seems to like Foley enough to keep humoring him. The boy clearly thinks Foley is making an ass of himself, is a little flattered by the attention but somehow can't bring himself to tell Foley so. (See how many embarassed lol"s appear in that "Sick sick ......" email).

My first reaction on reading those IMs was: what on earth was Foley thinking exchanging IMs like that with a teenager? Did he think it would not come out (no pun intended)? Did he not think that even if the pages found his attentions funny, their parents, if they discovered it, would most definitely not? Most of all, did he not understand that IMs can be stored very easily and reproduced at the drop of a hat? As the New York Times says, what was he thinking? How could a seasoned politician be so indiscreet, so stupid, even? Andrew Sullivan, makes the best (and most sympathetic case) for Foley: the closet makes gay men "act out" and this was Foley's way of doing it. I think it did.

All of which is not to say that Foley shouldn't be taken to task. He should be -- and has been. But he should be taken to task for abusing his authority -- like Bill Clinton -- and not because he exchanged "communication harmful to minors over the Internet", whatever that means.

UPDATE: In Counterpunch, Gary Leupp has the same take, but expresses it so much better than I did. [Via 3QuarksDaily].

UPDATE 2: Uh oh. More Foley IMs at Slate. The man wasn't quite a predator but he was definitely a nuisance. Also from Slate: Forget legally, Foley isn't even medically a paedophile. And finally, Matt Yglesias argues for the same with a great analogy.

And oh, oh, Foley now says he was molested as a child. Excuse me if I don't believe a word of it.

UPDATE 3: Read Andrew Sullivan's longer take here.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

overheard in new york

One old gentleman to another [discussing electric circuitry]:

You need two penises coming out of the amplifier and two vaginas in the receiver to be able to connect them.

Bill Clinton...

... scares me.

Friday, September 29, 2006

water, water

I've been in the US for so long now -- four years -- that I almost forget what it's like back home: problems with the sewage, the water supply, the food. To remind anyone else who's also forgotten, here is Somini Sengupta's exceptionally well-written piece in the Times today.

UPDATE: Second and third parts of the series here and here.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

oh, so many movies

The New York Film Festival opens tomorrow, with a screening of Stephen Frears The Queen, starring the great Helen Mirren. It continues till the 15th of October. Among the many other films are Todd Field's Little Children, Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, and Pedro Alomodvar's Volver. The complete list of films and schedule is here.

I feel like going every day and watching a movie but I have some issues:

a) I'm worried about spending too much. Student discount tickets cost $10, which is the standard price for watching a movie in the city. But student discounts aren't guaranteed, they depend on availability of tickets.

b) Some of the movies will definitely be released theatrically, especially the ones I mentioned above. Should I try for the more "commercial" ones which will get released commercially anyway? Or should I try for the experimental/foreign films which I may not get a chance to see again (although they could turn out to be awful, but then again, that's the whole point of going to a film festival -- you go through duds to experience revelation)?

To top everything, today's New York Times has not one, not two but three raves. For The Queen, for Little Children and A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints. So many movies!

Existential dilemma of my day: To go for the opening night tomorrow or not?

Aside: Of course, I heartily dislike most of Manohla Dargis' reviews. Even when she praises the film, as she does here, the sneering tone and the all-round condescension just don't go well with me. (Dargis can write lovely pieces of criticism: see her review of Old Joy here and my favorite, her review of Far from Heaven for the Los Angeles Times here).

how to do a hatchet-job...

...on your ex-boyfriend.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

wrapping up my day.

Today was a good day, work-wise.

So here I am wrapping it up.

First some links:

The Tanner lectures are freely available online! [via Crooked Timber]. Awesome! Here's Thomas Nagel, John Rawls Kwame Anthony-Appiah and Michael Walzer. Plus many more.

Extracts from Pervez Musharraf's new book. Doesn't the man know that political figures are supposed to write memoirs when they're at least twenty years out of office?

Also a great piece on copyright. It's a great primer, and more. And a piece on income inequality that I really liked. [via Ross Douthat]

Now some movies:

I saw "The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros" yesterday, and while the frank attitude towards pre-teen sexuality is quite unsettling -- essentially this is a coming-of-age movie about an effeminate boy who is infatuated with an older, handsome police officer -- I found the movie way too mawkish. The portrayal of a Filippino slum, where the movie takes place, is remarkably authentic. I am not so sure about the dialogue although I really cann't say much since the film was subtitled. But this -- the authenticity of the spoken language in foreign-language films -- is something that has intrigued me since I saw Syriana, where the Urdu/Hindi melange that its Pakistani characters spoke in, was completely unrealistic -- in fact the subtitles sounded way better than what those guys said (and the way they said it).

Ps: For those of you who haven't watched Syriana -- left-wing agitprop but nevertheless interesting -- but plan to, stay till the end of this infuriating movie: the dramatic ending almost makes up for the (purposefully) sloppy story-telling.

And it's probably best to avoid "Eating Out" (as also, I guess, the coming sequel.)

Monday, September 25, 2006

God! what next?

This is the silliest article I've read in a while but it's also pretty funny.

The Case of Cory Maye

This is fascinating.

the pope's remarks

I was planning to write a post about why I thought the Times' demand that the Pope apologize for his remarks was misguided but instead I'll just recommend this Jacob T. Levy post at Open University.

bias in political science journals

Check out this Kevin Drum post and another commentary by Kieran Healy on Crooked Timber on publication bias in PolSci journals.

The original paper is here.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Science of Sleep

Go, go, go, see the Science of Sleep. It's both funny and sad, and very very quirky.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

chavez and chomsky

Apparently Hugo Chavez, the flamboyant President of Venezuela, held up Noam Chomsky's "Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance" and recommended that everyone read it. He also called President Bush the "devil". And then:

As an aside to the General Assembly address in which Chavez pronounced the U.N. "worthless" and referred to President Bush as "the devil," the Venezuelan president mentioned his regret at never having met Chomsky before he died.

Hmmm. Chavez is a prolific reader but has he really read Chomsky? Still the Los Angeles Times clears up the matter anyway:

An icon of the American left, Chomsky is, in fact, alive and well and living in Lexington, Mass. "I continue to work and write," Chomsky told the New York Times
on Thursday.

He he.

Friday, September 22, 2006


I found this really amusing.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Governor McGreevey confesses.

Two years ago, you remember, James McGreevey resigned as the governor of New Jersey because of his affair with an Israeli citizen, Golan Cipel. The Governor's decision was less over his affair and the fact that Cipel had threatened to sue for sexual harassment than about the fact that he had appointed Cipel to a post he was not qualified for. So McGreevey came out in front of the cameras and it was a pretty interesting moment. The Governor, of course, made his resignation about his homosexuality but, as the New York Times was quick to point out, it was more about his abuse of public power.

I remember remarking to a friend at a party sometime after his resignation that the Governor seemed to be a man who liked having his cake and eating it too. At that point another acquaintance interjected that this was natural for a man his age -- McGreevey is in his forties -- and that his predicament merited more sympathy, especially from twenty-something types like me, who had much to be thankful for. I had to admit that was true.

Well, anyway, now McGreevey is publishing his memoir -- confessional, rather. An excerpt has been published in the latest New York magazine and while I'm not about to run out and buy his book -- it's called The Confession; sutble, huh? -- it's on the whole not bad, it probably even has some grains of truth in it. The New York excerpt pretty much tells the whole story, what else is he going to talk about in his book?

Back to the excerpt though. Some parts, of course, are cringe-worthy: I mean who talks like this?
“Gole,” I said. “You’ve got to learn to be part of the team.”

“My only team is you,” he said.

Gole indeed!

Here's his (over-dramatized) account of his first meeting with Cipel:

One afternoon, we took a bus trip to a local arts center in Rishon Lezion, a rather featureless city just outside Tel Aviv. We were greeted there by the mayor, but it was his 32-year-old communications director, a former Israeli naval officer, who caught my eye. That’s too casual a way to put it. My attraction to him was immediate and intense, and apparently reciprocated. Our eyes met over and over before we were introduced. “This is Golan Cipel,” said the mayor. “He is familiar with New Jersey—for a number of years he worked at the Israeli Embassy in Manhattan.”

We shook hands for a long time. “I followed your campaign very closely,” Golan said. “Twenty-seven thousand votes is a very narrow margin.” He went on to describe my strengths among various constituencies. I was startled by his knowledge of my campaign.

At lunch I made sure to sit next to him. “Democrats take Jews for granted. It’s a powerful constituency. You have to develop relationships with them,” he said. “You got a good percentage of the overall Jewish vote. But if you’d gotten even a small number of Orthodox votes, and all of the Reform Jews, you would be governor today.”

He had smart ideas about my campaign, but I was only half-listening. Watching this handsome man talk—and show an interest in my political standing—totally mesmerized me. Nobody commits to memory the demographic standings of a politician halfway around the world as an academic exercise. I was flattered beyond anything I’d ever experienced before.

I assumed he was straight, but what was happening at this lunch if not flirting? I flirted back, a bit shamelessly. I can’t say I ever had a more electrifying first meeting—so dangerously carried out in a room full of politicians who could ruin us both.

I don't know about you but it sure rings true to me.

The other well-written part of the extract is, of course, the Big Fall, when things start to go wrong. I'm not sure if McGreevey is a genuinely tragic figure, or even deserves to be, but there are some tragic elements, nevertheless. An ambitious man, with his own secrets, a passion that turns out to be a mistake and then of course, the Fall -- oh yes, that's a tragedy all right.

Finally, even if everything else is a piece of balderdash, this has got to be true:
My father’s first response was, “You make a choice, Jim—Coke or Pepsi. You were married twice, you have two wonderful daughters. Why don’t you try to make that work? Why don’t you make the regular choice?”

“Dad, I’ve known my whole life. This is who I am.”

“You will always be my son,” he said, shaking my hand stiffly.

My mother, whose love for me has proved tremendously resilient, mostly kept her thoughts to herself. But when we parted, she took me into her arms and gave me a long and tender hug. “We will always love you, no matter what you do,” she said.

I could have done without the descriptions of his love-making with Cipel, it seems straight out of a not-too-good novel. And I'm inclined to completely distrust his posturings about campaign finance, the man protests far too much. He is also wrong to make his resignation into a triumph. For him, maybe but isn't he forgetting that he was a public servant?

And speaking of public servants, I'm intensely curious about the young and handsome Mr Golan Cipel, who to this day denies that there was an affair at all. Here's his story -- I'm more inclined to believe McGreevey's though, maybe it isn't true but it's far more interesting.
Michel Gondry's latest is releasing on Friday. Lynn Hirschberg profiled him in last Sunday's Times Magazine. I was surprised to know that it was Gondry who came up with the idea of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind -- to my mind, the best movie of the last few years -- and pitched it to Charlie Kauffmann. He must have been galled when everyone treated the movie as a Charlie Kauffmann creation.

Update: David Edelstein says the same thing here. And he gives the movie a thumbs up. Must see it this week.

On an aside, did anyone read the Hirschberg's essay two weeks ago on Vera Farmiga? Now Farmiga may be as talented as Hirschberg says she is -- I haven't seen her movies but I'd like to now, after reading the piece, just to decide how good she is -- but really, comparing her to Meryl Streep -- who I saw last month as Brecht's Mother Courage, "burning energy like a supernova", as Ben Brantley put it in his review -- is a bit much, no? Streep has been acting for decades, Farmiga for barely a decade. And if Farmiga seems to be losing parts -- mainstream parts -- to the likes of Rachel Weisz and Cate Blanchett (who strikes me as a good candidate for being the next Meryl Streep), then surely, she can't be that good, can she?

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Apparently it takes a Pope to get Christopher Hitchens into rollicking form again. Hitchens is a rivetting polemicist: at his best, he mixes his no-holds-barred style, with humor and self-irony, all in just the right amounts. I even took his book from the library, Letters to a Young Contrarian, but couldn't read more than a few pages because I didn't understand what the hell he was talking about; my fault, not his. His book on Mother Teresa, however, I read with relish, all the way from its wink-wink title -- The Missionary Position -- to its last page. Lately though Hitchens seems to have stopped being provocative and merely become tiresome. I've no quarrel over Hitchens' support for the Iraq war but I do have a quarrel over how boring his latest essays have become. Here he is reiterating his stand against Joseph Wilson (and here too, and probably in a hundred other places, here on Juan Cole and here on George Galloway -- yesh, I wish he wouldn't bring his quarrels into the pages of Slate). Last week he made this startling assertion in a review of a biography of I. F. Stone (3quarksdaily, which simply quotes a small extract from essays, was startled enough to quote his "remarkable claim"):
MacPherson [the writer of the biography] makes the slightly glib assumption—as do the editors of the excellent companion volume, The Best of I. F. Stone—that, if he were around today, Izzy would be as staunchly anti-war and anti-Bush as she is. Having known him a bit, I am not so absolutely sure. That he would have found the president excruciating is a certainty. But he had a real horror of sadistic dictators, and would not have confused Slobodan Milosevic or Saddam Hussein with the Vietcong...Finally, I think he would have waited for some more documents to surface, and helped unearth them himself, before making any conclusive judgments about weapons programs or terror connections in Iraq.
I wonder how much more one needs to wait before making conclusive judgements.

I wonder also how long I'll have to wait before another enjoyable Hitchens essay comes along.

ps: The last Hitchens essay I really really enjoyed was his furious rant against Michael Moore, on the eve of the theatrical release of Fahrenheit 911. Here it is again, just in case anyone wants to read it -- it's good, I promise.

pps: That said, I wish Ratzinger had simply stuck to his guns and refused to apologize. As a Catholic, he's entitled to his opinion of Islam and the Prophet -- and he's entitled to express it as well. Since when did we require believers to say that all faiths are the same and that theirs is not the one true faith? And the Pope's a believer, isn't he? Speaking of the Pope, here's Hitchens funniest line in his essay:
It is often said—and was said by Ratzinger when he was an underling of the last Roman prelate—that Islam is not capable of a Reformation. We would not even have this word in our language if the Roman Catholic Church had been able to have its own way.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

I recommend reading the cover-story of the latest New York Times magazine, on Guantanamo Bay by Tim Golden, for the reason I generally recommend things: it's very well-written. That said, the essay is very coy on what really happens at Guantanamo: who does the interrogation, for example. Clearly it isn't Col. Mike Bumgarner, the star of the piece. His mandate, as he recounts, was to administer Guantanamo, and bring it, as far as possible, under the Geneva Conventions. But what is missing from the account is how. Bumgarner doesn't seem to have been in charge of interrogations, which presumably were handled by the CIA, but only with the day-to-day administration of the prison. The inmates demanded -- and got -- from him better food, water, more Korans and more prayer-time. At no point does he seem to have been involved in the actual interrogations. Only later did the issue of trials and habeus corpus -- the most important issues at the heart of Guantanamo -- come up.

I remain unimpressed by some of the demands: the demands for more Korans and more prayer-time, and -- astoundingly -- less disturbance during prayer time almost seem like luxuries. I am wondering: do civil prisioners in the US get this right? And yet, I believe these demands did lead to the ones the detainees -- all of us, actually -- care about the most: the right to a trial and the right not to be imprisioned without reason on someone's whim.

Still some of the quotes in the essay astonished me. This one, for instance.
“If people’s basic human rights were respected, I don’t think they would have had any of these problems,” said Abdul Salam Zaeef, a former Taliban cabinet minister and ambassador to Pakistan who was the pre-eminent leader of Afghan prisoners at Guantánamo before his release in the late summer of 2005. “There were no rules and no law. Any guard could do whatever they wanted to do.”
A Taliban cabinet minister talking about basic human rights. It's a bit rich, no? Oh well, better late than never.

Readers might want to read the Times magazine piece along with this New York Review of Books piece. Here's something from the piece, admittedly trivial, that I was curious about:

Enemy Combatant has been praised in Britain for Begg's outstanding liberality of mind and evenhandedness toward his captors, some of whom are described as unfeeling brutes, others as decent human beings who become his "friends." Unfortunately, these relationships are rendered in long passages of direct speech, and Begg and/or his coauthor are notably talentless at writing dialogue. So one has to plow through exchanges like this one, with a Republican-voting soldier from Alabama named Jennifer:
Once, she confided, "When we were briefed about this place we weren't relishing the idea of spending a long time here. Gitmo was home to the 'worst of the worst,' they said. Then a handful of us were chosen for this mission in Echo, maximum-security isolation block, where the most dangerous terrorists in the whole island were kept. I was expecting a Hannibal Lecter/Agent Starling type situation, with you guys trying to terrify us using perverse mind games...."

"So how does it feel, discussing Les Misérables with one of the most dangerous men on earth?"

"I can see now how we all bought the hype. I don't know if they've even accused you of anything, but I know y'all can't be guilty. The government would have displayed their strongest evidence in a sensational show trial by now... I expected you to hate all Americans after all you've been through, especially us soldiers. But you're wonderfully complex, Moazzam. All the things I'd expect you to be, you're not."

Perhaps Begg really did strike up a warm relationship with soldier Jennifer, but all one can say of the words on the page is that they are resoundingly phony. Only in bad fiction do people speak this way, and true though Begg's story may well be in its essential facts, it is very poorly served by line after line of rankly implausible writing.

What do you think, guys? Do the words sound phony to you too? They do to me -- although my point would be that they sound like fiction, but not necessarily bad fiction. No?

Also in the Review, a lucid Timothy Garton-Ash piece, on Europe, that I find myself whole-heartedly agreeing with.

Finally, Michiko Kakutani is not one of my favorite critics, but for a classic example of how not to write a book-review, see here -- this is a hysterical piece of writing, filled with outrage but very little analysis. To compare, click here and here.

Monday, September 18, 2006

more movies

Some movies I saw this week:

Le Petit Lieutenant: Almost unbearably poignant.

Half Nelson: Pretentiously Marxist in its outlook but Ryan Gosling proves he's the real thing: an authentic movie star.


Alexander Nehamas, Nietzsche: Life as Literature.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Oriana Fallaci

This line, from a New York Times obituary for Oriana Fallaci, made me laugh:

“How do you swim in a chador?” she asked Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979, not long after he came to power in Iran. His reply, she wrote in The New York Times, was that she was not obliged to wear one, because it was a garment for proper Islamic women. She tore off her chador, and Ayatollah Khomeini stalked off.

Also, the New York Times reports on California's efforts to reduce energy consumption and carbon-dioxide emissions.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

new resolutions

Blogging hasn't been that good in the past few months. And I don't know why. There are tons of things I read or think everyday that I think will make a good blog-post and somehow I don't end up writing them at all or I just leave them unfinished, in fragments. So here's a decision I made. Beginning today, I will write "capsule reviews" -- small paragraphs on anything notable that I've watched, or viewed, or seen, or read. So without any further ado, here goes:

The Illusionist is the best movie I've seen this year -- the moviest, the most vivid, a movie about magic and illusions that is so magical that it reminds one how magical movies really are (or can be). Based on a short story by Steven Millhauser -- someone I intend to read soon -- it's finally about a little boy and a girl, who've been separated since childhood because, well, she's rich and he's not. The boy leaves, and returns as a famed illusionist, Eisenheim, a magician like no one Vienna has seen before and they reunite even though the girl is engaged to a cad, a rich cad. What happens then is fairly straightforward, a struggle between two lovers and the world around them, a struggle which the two lovers either win or lose, see the movie to decide for yourself. There is a moment late into the film -- stop reading now if you want to see it -- when something happens, when Eisenheim, who seems to be producing wraith-like figures, probably from beyond life, becomes a wraith himself and dissapears that is magical, probably one of the most transcendent moments on cinema. I gasped when it happened, though I'm saturated with movies. You will too.

If The Illusionist is the best movie of this year, then Hollywoodland could qualify for one of the worst, except that it is too boring to qualify for anything. The movie is based on the life of George Reeves, a man who played bit-roles in movies (in Gone with the Wind and From Here to Eternity, no less) and who became famous for playing Superman on TV in the fifties, and who later committed suicide although the movie flirts -- badly -- with the idea that he was murdered. Ben Affleck's performance is sympathetic and made me wonder whether he was drawing on his inner sense that "There for the grace of Matt Damon...". Diane Lane, who in Unfaithful, as David Edelstein memorably wrote, allowed us to gaze at the soul of her character through her eyes, gives her most stylistic performance, as a rich older woman who's infatuated with Reeves. Unfortunately Affleck and Lane and Bob Hoskins, who plays Lane's husband, are barely on scree, most of the movie involves a most boring subplot about a detective (played by Adrien Brody) trying to reconcile with his son and solving the Reeves case. Avoid Hollywoodland, just get some sleep instead.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006


A nice-sounding (??is there a better word??) sentence from Tony Judt's review of Leszek Kolakowski's massive three-volume history Main Currents of Marxism: The Founders, the Golden Age, the Breakdown:
The attraction of Marxism thus understood is obvious. It offered an explanation of how the world works—the economic analysis of capitalism and of social class relations. It proposed a way in which the world ought to work—an ethics of human
relations as suggested in Marx's youthful, idealistic speculations (and in György Lukács's interpretation of him, with which Kolakowski, for all his disdain for Lukács's own compromised career, largely concurs[6] ). And it announced incontrovertible grounds for believing that things will work that way in the future, thanks to a set of assertions about historical necessity derived by Marx's Russian disciples from his (and Engels's) own writings. This combination of economic description, moral prescription, and political prediction proved intensely seductive—and serviceable.

Friday, August 25, 2006


An article in the New Republic on the relationship between British Pakistani radicals and Kashmir that mentions India just once. Hmmmm.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006


I don't know why I'm so shocked -- not to be blase or anything, but after all, in a profession that is about sex, these things are bound to happen -- but this profile of Joe Francis, the man who created Girls Gone Wild, in the Los Angeles Times, is a must-read. Not only there is enough reporting there to fill a at least a small book but the reporter, Claire Hoffmann, has crafted her story brilliantly -- I could barely stop reading. And, there has to be some truth there, although Hoffmann and Francis seem to have hated each other on sight. Still, read it, it's fascinating.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

what's movielink thinking?

So I went along to Movielink as I often do, idly looking for movies that I could watch and clicked on their "All Genres" link. Among the genres listed were "Paramount", "Twentieth Century Fox" or "Warner Brothers". Hmmm. Since when? Only in the studio-centric world of a studio-run portal, I'd say.

But here's the best part. The same page, under a heading called "Award Winners" (yes, this is now a genre) includes Cannes, Oscar Winners, Oscar Nominees and then astonishingly further down the list: the Razzies! Huh? A movie rental advertising bad films? What was Movielink thinking? (For the uninitiated, the Razzies or the Golden Raspberries are awards that "complement the Academy Awards by dishonoring the worst acting, screenwriting, songwriting, directing, and films that the film industry has to offer" (via Wikipedia)).

Memo to Movielink: Surely it is too much to expect paying customers to rent Razzie-nominated movies? No? Or is there a hidden agenda here?

Come to think of it, do you think people would pay to watch bad movies? More specifically, would people pay to watch movies that are advertised as terrible films? Or do they watch it in the so-bad-that-its funny spirit? Is the so-bad-that-its-funny a new movie genre? One of the thousands of niches in the long tail of the movie-rental world? How many people really admired the knowing, sniggering virtuosity of The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra?

Finally, is Movielink just a lame and clueless movie portal or a postmodern pioneer in advertising?

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

a little rant on facial hair

Here's a diversion (for my non-existent readers) from the news-dominating Israel-Hezbollah fracas: a list of the Most Beautiful People from Capitol Hill, Washington D.C. (and no, its the first time I've encountered it too).

There are some unusual looking women there (for instance see #s 1 and 8, and skip all the beautiful blonde women in suits who look as if they stepped right off a conveyor belt) but really, what's with the men? I mean, yeah, they're all good-looking and pretty in that cute-looking-yuppie kind of way (What were you expecting? They work at Capitol Hill, for God's sake - ed) but they all have

a) short cropped (or Hugh-Grant-foppy) smooth hair
b) gelled, of course, all of it well in place, or deliberately mussed
c) infuriatingly clean-shaven faces(with some carefully calibrated stubbles)

Where are the guys with

a) beards
b) long hair, hell, different hair
c) interesting clothes

And why oh why do most of the men seem to work for Republicans? (Face it, Republicans are just better-looking than Democrats! - ed. No, they're not! It's just media bias!)

ps: another little trifle. A Vatican calendar with good-looking priests. Really!

pps: the Editor tic is shamelessly stolen from blogger Mickey Kaus.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Ross Douthat on the Religious Right

Here's a passage from Ross Douthat's review of some books on the rise of the Religious Right in America that I found thought-provoking:

As for why the Religious Right has become so tightly bound to the GOP, rather than becoming as Democratic as the Populists once were, or as bipartisan as the civil rights movement was (albeit ever so briefly)—well, that’s a question that the anti-theocrats rarely address in any detail, beyond dark references to the nefarious activities of Karl Rove. Only Phillips has the honesty to analyze the political trends that have brought about this supposedly theocratic moment—and he does so with almost charming obliviousness, quoting experts such as John Green, Geoffrey Layman, and Louis Bolce, as if unaware that their arguments vitiate his thesis.

What all these observers point out, and what the anti-theocrats ignore, is that the religious polarization of American politics runs in both directions. The Republican party has become more religious because the Democrats became self-consciously secular, and the turning point wasn’t the 1992 or the 2000 elections but the putsch of 1972, when secularist delegates—to quote Phillips, quoting Layman—suddenly “constituted the largest ‘religious’ bloc among Democratic delegates.” Yet having noted this rather significant fact, Phillips sets it aside and returns blithely to his preferred narrative, which is the transformation of the GOP into America’s first "religious party.” But that’s not what happened at all—or rather, it’s the second half of the story, the Republican reaction against the Democrats’ decision to become the first major party in American history to pander to a sizable bloc of aggressively secular voters.

This was very much a strategic electoral move on their part. As Mark Stricherz pointed out last year in a Commonweal essay titled “Goodbye Catholics,” Democrats in the McGovern era were faced with the crack-up of the old New Deal coalition and made a conscious decision to jettison blue-collar voters in favor of what a 1969 memo called “a different political and social group with rising educational levels, affluence, and . . . greater cultural sophistication.” At the time, pursuing a coalition of younger voters, minorities, and affluent suburbanites seemed a better bet than trying to hang on to socially conservative voters, especially given that all the energy in the party seemed to be coming from the Left. But it required the Democrats to identify with a segment of the population—self-identified secularists and nonbelievers—that has grown rapidly over the past three decades and grown more assertive along the way. Which in turn has alienated the devout plurality of Americans and left the democratic party stuck just shy of majority status for the better part of a generation.

So the rise of the Religious Right, and the growing “religion gap” that Phillips describes but fails to understand, aren’t new things in American history but a reaction to a new thing: to an old political party newly dependent on a bloc of voters who reject the role that religion has traditionally played in American political life. The hysteria over theocracy, in turn, represents an attempt to rewrite the history of the United States to suit these voters’ prejudices, by setting a year zero somewhere around 1970 and casting everything that’s happened since as a battle between progress and atavism, reason and fundamentalism, the Enlightenment and the medieval dark.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

food for thought

Here's a quote to chew over, from Chief Supreme Court Justice John Roberts Jr., no less, on Neil Armstrong's first words from the moon.
''It is my recollection,'' Mr. Roberts wrote, ''that he actually said 'one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,' but the 'a' was somewhat garbled in transmission. Without the 'a,' the phrase makes no sense."
What do you think?

[Reported by Linda 'the Dramatic' Greenhouse in the New York Times.]

Sunday, July 02, 2006

india and the free market

Does the free market work? Here's an interesting incident from Clive Crook's Atlantic essay on capitalism:

In the late 1980s, as Mikhail Gorbachev embarked on his perestroika program of economic reform, Soviet officials were sent abroad to see how things were done in the West. One visited London’s main vegetable market. He asked how the market was organized, and how prices were set. He was told that the individual traders bought whatever quantities they wished, and set their own prices, and that these fluctuated throughout the day as the balance of supply and demand changed. At this, the Soviet visitor laughed. He said he understood that this was the official line—but, please, how did the market really set prices?
It is one thing to believe that effective governance consists in being able to balance the demands of social justice (and I mean "social equality" as opposed to just "income equality") with the demands of the free market. But sometimes in mindlessly trumpeting the free market, it seems to me that the folks at TCS haven't done their fact-checking that well.

First there is this statement:

For 70 years, Mohandas Gandhi's myopic vision of backward-looking socialism as a template for national advancement was accepted as revealed wisdom by a string of Indian prime ministers, starting with his acolyte, Nehru.
And then this:

Despite a plenitude of cotton, Gandhi didn't think India should create a cotton industry, believing instead that every family should own a spinning wheel and spin its own. He didn't believe India should develop a manufacturing base, which not only caused the dead hand of "import substitution" to smother native initiative, but the failure to develop factories meant there was also a failure to develop infrastructure like roads and ports to take goods to market.
I should admit that, more or less, the last statement captures Gandhiji's vision correctly. And yet, while the vision of a small self-sufficient village, where everyone lived simply, might have made sense to "authentic" Gandhians like Acharya Vinoba Bhave, it was never the Congress's idea of an independent India at all. As far back as the Nehru Report of 1930, the Congress was clear where it wanted India to go: India would be a secular democracy while paying particular attention to equality, social justice and the rule of law. Above all, the Congress (led by Pandit Nehru, "Gandhiji's acolyte") recognized that a modern India would have to be industrial and compete with the rest of the world. Perhaps, inspired by the success of the Soviet five-year plans, industrialization was to be driven (initially at least) by planned government initiatives a.k.a Planning.

The alliance between the INC and Gandhiji arose from a mixture of idealism and pragmatism. The Congress recognized that Gandhiji's methods his unique moral force were unique, a foundation on which a new India could be built. But at no point did the Congress ever adopt Gandhiji's own economic vision. On his side, Gandhiji recognized this implicit bargain. He was the undisputed leader of the movement for India's independence and the Congress' foremost representative but never its architect for India's future. Think about it, at no point in all his negotiations with the British, did Gandhiji ask for simple self-sufficient villages. When Gandhiji negotiated with the British, the essential vision of India in these negotiations was always the same: a free India, with an industrialised economy, driven by a strong public sector, with an emphasis on social justice.

Whether this vision, with its emphasis on a strong public sector, is still the best one for India, is arguable -- planning and the public sector, led to the development of an entrenched and utterly inefficient burreaucracy which choked any kind of growth. But the fact remains, India-- with its surplus of engineers and the easy availabilty of English-speaking persons -- was in a unique position to take advantage of the turn in the post-industrial global economy, particularly the service-sector, because of the decisions made during our "socialist" days.

Of course, the question really is: what next? How do we negotiate the demands of capitalism with the requirements of social justice? Where does the public sector figure in this? Or does it?