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.