Tuesday, April 28, 2009

India's election from across the border

After more than six decades of allowing institutions to develop to meet the demands of its citizenry, [India] has reached the stage where it appears that the political, legal and judicial systems have begun to work for the people. This cannot be said either for Bangladesh and Pakistan, countries that together with India constituted the British India empire.

Institutional and political progress in both Pakistan and Bangladesh has been patchy. Often the two countries have taken a step forward only to fall back by two steps.

... ...

Varun Gandhi, a grandson of Indira Gandhi, landed in jail after being caught on tape calling for the massacre of Muslims. The fact that he was punished by the aggressively independent Election Commission and sent to jail speaks volumes for the strength of India’s political institutions.

Outpourings of the usual Indian hack, self-indulgently congratulating himself (yes, it's mostly him) on India's 60 year old democracy? You would be surprised. These are extracts from an article by Shahid Javed Burki from the Dawn newspaper of Pakistan. In fact the Dawn has a regular running series on the Indian elections. Some of our news channels and newspapers would do well to take some tips on balanced reporting about the traditional 'enemy'. Of course even the Dawn occasionally cannot resist the slightly hysterical headline ' India votes in blood-stained election ' but overall the coverage is remarkable for its balance and non-partisan nature.

And I just love this report about an Advani speech which seems to have been overlooked by Indian newspapers..

‘Illicit monies are the dirty outcome of modern capitalism. But after the 9/11 terror (attacks), the US realised that, not just the buccaneers in business but even Obama Bin Laden could also hide his funds in secret havens and use them to bomb the world,’ he said.

But soon, an aide passed on a chit to the BJP leader, after which he corrected himself, saying ‘I have been told that I have just made a mistake’.

You bet your ... you did, man....

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Indus Valley Script

The Indus valley script -- is it a language or a bunch of pictograms. There is a school of thought which believes it's a bunch of pictograms -- typically of fish, rings, cows' heads, and men. It seems now that this is not true. For details, see here.

The Torture Tapes from the UAE

An ABC report and video show how a member of the royal family of the UAE tortured an alleged grain stealer with whips, electric cattle prods and a wooden plank with protruding nails while being held down by a man in a police uniform. The sheikh then pours salt over the wounds and repeatedly runs over him with his Mercedes SUV.

The UAE Government reviewed the tapes and said "all rules, policies and procedures were followed by the Police Department".

Warning: The video contains graphic and gruesome scenes of the torture.
via 3 quarks Daily

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The "unglamourous, unfashionable, unmarried, unkissed Miss Boyle"

She is the latest sensation on "Britain's Got Talent" -- the British version of American Idol (with smart aleck Simon Cowell as one of the judges). She has been watched more than 20 million times on YouTube. She is a far cry from the beautifully made-up faces and washboard flat stomachs of the American Idol contestants. And she sings like a dream! Read about her here and watch and hear her sing on YouTube. (Watch for the judges' faces as she takes off!!)

Friday, April 17, 2009

On the Move

The juggernaut is on the move! Any superlative you use is not enough to describe the 15th General Election of India, the largest exercise of democratic power in the world. 700 million registered voters - even assuming only 50% vote, that's still 350 million, larger than the total population of the next largest democracy, the United States. (And I believe, all of it electronically enabled). China's, if they would have such a system, would have been bigger, but right now in the next couple of centuries or so, we have no competition.

However, as the smallest cog in this gigantic wheel, the individual voter, I wish one could find a way to look up our names in the voters list. For some time I have been trying to see the voters' list which is supposedly on-line, here, which is impossible to read because of a problem with Tamil fonts. Only Internet Explorer with the appropriate Tamil fonts downloaded can read it and my machine on which I can indeed run IE (Mac --> Parallels --> Windows Vista --> IE) still cannot though I continue to try. Surely the largest exercise of its kind in the world involving a few hundred million people should not be made hostage to branded software? Unlike many of my colleagues, I have no ideological issues with Windows (to each her own is my view, I just don't want to use it) but surely this is a bit thick?

In the meantime, I continue to hope that when I go to the polling booth on May 13th, my name will not have been deleted.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Abel Prize 2009

The Abel Prize for this year 2009 has been awarded to Mikhail Gromov. Courtesy my mathematics colleague Kapil Paranjape, there is a short (and long) description of the work that got the prize on my 'Science' blog The Far Side.

Happy Reading..

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Caught in the censors' web

As visitors to this blog might have noticed, I have a little javascript running at the bottom with a map of the world showing all the connections made to this site from different cities. (There is even a site meter just below which gives more information, if you are interested).

For the last few weeks, I have noticed that the large number of orange dots that used to appear from China have all (and I mean all) disappeared. Since it is unlikely that all readers of this blog have simultaneously lost interest in it, there is clearly one explanation: this site has been caught by the Chinese censors, no doubt because of the large number of Chinese/Tibet/N Ram posts that have appeared.

One can but take some little pride in having succeeded in needling the Chinese authorities. Of course, it could well be just some automated censor which is responsible. There go my hopes of a visit to China....

Monday, April 13, 2009

A Reply to Dyson

This is a guest blog post by my colleague R. Shankar

Dyson starts of with a critique of climate scientists.

"But I have studied the climate models and I know what they can do. The models solve the equations of fluid dynamics, and they do a very good job of describing the fluid motions of the atmosphere and the oceans. They do a very poor job of describing the clouds, the dust, the chemistry and the biology of fields and farms and forests. They do not begin to describe the real world that we live in. The real world is muddy and messy and full of things that we do not yet understand. It is much easier for a scientist to sit in an air-conditioned building and run computer models, than to put on winter clothes and measure what is really happening outside in the swamps and the clouds. That is why the climate model experts end up believing their own models." -Dyson-

Somewhat unkind. All earth scientists I have talked to are acutely aware of the limitations of the models. The discussion in the IPCC report also reflects this. Eg to quote from their latest report (AR4, pp 113)

"A parallel evolution toward increased complexity and resolution has occurred in the domain of numerical weather prediction, and has resulted in a large and verifiable improvement in operational weather forecast quality. This example alone shows that present models are more realistic than were those of a decade ago. There is also, however, a continuing awareness that models do not provide a perfect simulation of reality, because resolving all important spatial or time scales remains far beyond current capabilities, and also because the behaviour of such a complex nonlinear system may in general be chaotic" -IPCC report-
Much of the effort in climate sciences is in observation and data collection. I would put the number who "sit in airconditioned offices and run computer models" as a very small fraction of the total. The IPCC report is based on a huge amount of field observations and data.

Next he makes a statement:

"There is no doubt that parts of the world are getting warmer, but the warming is not global. I am not saying that the warming does not cause problems. Obviously it does. Obviously we should be trying to understand it better." -Dyson-
When people say global warming, what is meant is that the average global temperature has increased by about 1 degree C in the past century. This is based on instrumental observations which have been taken by Met stations all over the world. Nobody says that it is uniform in all parts of the globe.

The reason to worry about this one degree per 100 years is that the "natural" rate of temperature change (due to the glacial cycles which Dyson also discusses) is about 10 degrees in 100,000 years i.e 1 degree in 10,000 years. This is concluded from the ice-core data which goes back to 800,000 years. Even during the sharp rises and falls the rate never exceeded about 1 degree per 1000 years. So the current rate of increase is abnormally high.

Coincident with this rise is the rise of C02 levels. It is 380 ppm today and has never exceeded 300 ppm in the past 800,000 years.

He then says:

" I am saying that the problems are grossly exaggerated. They take away money and attention from other problems that are more urgent and more important, such as poverty and infectious disease and public education and public health, and the preservation of living creatures on land and in the oceans, not to mention easy problems such as the timely construction of adequate dikes around the city of New Orleans."
While development and conservation efforts could definitely be much more, I don't think that the hype about climate change is a significant cause for them being less that what they should be.

He then talks about what are called "geo-engineering solutions" (there are many such in the market) but without mentioning if any serious research has been done to back his statements.

He then says:

"When I listen to the public debates about climate change, I am impressed by the enormous gaps in our knowledge, the sparseness of our observations and the superficiality of our theories. Many of the basic processes of planetary ecology are poorly understood. They must be better understood before we can reach an accurate diagnosis of the present condition of our planet. When we are trying to take care of a planet, just as when we are taking care of a human patient, diseases must be diagnosed before they can be cured. We need to observe and measure what is going on in the biosphere, rather than relying on computer models."
There are of course huge gaps in our knowledge (which is why one should be cautious about implementing geo-engineering solutions) but again he gives the impression that the the entire case of climate change is based on simulations. Even a cursory reading of the IPCC reports should convince anyone that this is not true.

The statements of the recent past (approx 100 years) are based on observation. The climate models do reproduce average quantities like global average temperature of the recent past (100 years) reasonably well. These models are then used to project for the immediate future (next 100) years. They predict temperature rises that are sensitive to the carbon emission levels with a worst case of about 4 degrees rise in the next century.

As Dyson points out, the carbon cycle is indeed not well understood and a lot of fudge factors must be going into the models to make them fit the past data. One has to therefore use one's judgment to decide how reliable they are. But rejecting them completely, in my opinion, is very bad judgment. A doctor has to make a diagnosis based on whatever observations and tests he/she has conducted and however incomplete his/her knowledge of the processes in the human body may be.

In my opinion, the model predictions should be reasonably reliable for the immediate future where the validity of the fudge factors may not breakdown. What will happen over time scales of thousands of years is indeed unpredictable and the IPCC report says nothing about it. The worry is more about the immediate future (2000-2100). So even if the rise in CO2 levels and temperature is a transient phenomenon of a few hundred years, we have to worry about it and think about corrective action. Controlling emissions seems to be the most reliable way.

The details of how the average temperature rise will affect details of climate is still open (again for the immediate future). eg. I feel that the questions most relevent to India are how it will affect (i) Agriculture (ii) Monsoon (iii) Disease. All of them seem to be very open questions.

The next part of his article talks about time scales of thousands of years where it is really anybody's guess.

The final part is philosophical and I do not think classifying all the opinion on this issue into 2 classes is correct (smells of the attitude "you are either with us or against us"). People have all types of permutations and combinations of extreme opinions. Nevertheless, apart from a few fringe elements nobody would deny that ideally we should aim for a pattern of sustainable development. Of course the devil is in the details of what is meant by sustainable development but I do not see any major ethical conflict here.

Even without the climate models, the data (given in the graph)

along with the basic physics of the greenhouse effect is enough to convince me that the problem is genuine. (the url of the ice core data graph is given in the picture, the other 3 graphs are from the IPCC report AR4, comments below the graphs are mine).

Roddam Narasimhan has pointed out recently that Arrhenius had estimated a rise of 5 degrees C if the CO2 levels in the atmosphere doubled (from what it was in his time). All the complicated climate models also predict roughly the same. So as he put it, the number has not changed only our confidence in it. Roddam Narasimhan is working on clouds and he motivated it by saying that this is one of the poorly modelled things.

With this in mind and looking at the graphs, I feel it is really unlikely that the downturn in CO2 levels and temperature will come due to natural processes alone (if emissions are not controlled) within a few hundred years (if at all).

Friday, April 10, 2009

Are you a humanist or a naturalist?

Naturalists believe that nature knows best. For them the highest value is to respect the natural order of things. Any gross human disruption of the natural environment is evil. Thus, excessive burning of fossil fuels is evil.

The humanist ethic begins with the belief that humans are an essential part of nature. Through human minds the biosphere has acquired the capacity to steer its own evolution, and now we are in charge. Humans have the right and the duty to reconstruct nature so that humans and biosphere can both survive and prosper. For humanists, the highest value is harmonious coexistence between humans and nature.

Thus speaks the great theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson in one of his most thought-provoking and 'heretical' essays. It is possible to disagree with him and yet appreciate the caution he is advocating. Dyson's views on (non) global warming are by now legion, but here he also discusses other matters.

Via Karela Fry

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Whites only please, we are Indian

Recently we held a short meeting in one of the numerous beach resorts that dot the East Coast Road between Chennai and Mamallapuram. The resort is very green and aesthetically laid out and landscaped, the rooms are well furnished, the staff polite and attentive without being obtrusive and the beach is 'just in front'. Over all a nice place to relax or hold a meeting (if you have the moolah!)

However I was very amused by the staff starting with the manager. We were told that they were very 'exclusive' and any arbitrary person asking for a room would probably not get it. In particular, IT 'types' and some corporate people were also discouraged because they were rich but not too cultured, and after a few drinks, tended to get rowdy. It was not quite clear to us who exactly they 'accepted' into their exclusive fold. At some point I asked the manager about the large number of (white) foreigners on the premises, and the almost total absence of Indian guests and whether it was just some local fluctuation since it was already getting hot and few Indians would want to spend their holidays in a hot humid place. He looked at me conspiratorially, shook his head and again stressed that they were very exclusive, and that their guest list was 99% 'foreign'.

And so the penny dropped. In other words, this was a resort almost exclusively meant for foreign (and, let me stress again, white) tourists. Surprisingly, and probably because we 'looked' respectable I suppose and belonged to a unit of the Atomic Energy Establishment, (and that this was anyway off-season with low occupancy) he immediately agreed to host our meeting.

Our interaction with the staff, as I already said, was uniformly positive. A couple of interactions though, showed how the ethos of the place was indeed what I have described above. We asked that our dining tables be moved closer to the fans. This was attended to promptly and the catering manager added in passing that our 'foreign guests' anyway don't usually like to sit close to a fan which is why the tables were placed the way they were. We asked them to reduce the spice level, which they did indeed try to do, with the comment that their 'usual guests' really don't mind the spice level.

In all the time we were there, we saw no Indians except those in our meeting and the staff. The 99% boast was indeed no idle one! An interesting commentary on post independence India, more than 60 years after independence. Some of us still feel foreigners (from anywhere, as long as they are white) are more 'respectable' than the local 'darkies' !