January 31, 2007

Load of crap!

I like Bill Maher. He is a very good comedian and his heart and mind are in the right place. On most issues that is. One issue where I disagree with him (and frankly I think he is totally confused about it) is Israel. I heard him say on his show on HBO that George W Bush is the greatest president America had as far as Israel is concerned. (It was said as a concession in an argument with a Bush supporter.) And then I saw this interview with the former Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, which confirmed my view.

For fifteen minutes Netanyahu held forth on the "Second Lebanon War", Israel's "disproportionately restrained" responses, Iran as the new Reich, Muslims as evil, Jews as historically perfect victims. Maher quite obediently towed the line. He quoted a Jerusalem Post article which suggests that Israel needs a "local Bill Maher" to counter the world opinion, and Maher agrees that he "could roll that way".

It almost seems frivolous to opine on this trash. Netanyahu waxed eloquent on the evils of Iran, and more generally of Muslim fanaticism. The Hitler interlude makes the inevitable appearance with Netanyahu cautioning against a repeat of World War 2, now with the new Hitler (Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) armed with nuclear weapons. A close relative of this line of thinking is the view of Islamic militants as evil fanatics of an intensity never before seen by the world and eager to get to their "good heaven" after wrecking untold miseries on innocent people.

It is ironic that Maher, whose show usually resists such demented and paranoid crap, falls for it. When pulled up by British politicians for Israel's disproportionate response, Netanyahu points out that England was worse! He draws a parallel to Nazi air-bombing of London and the later Allied bombing of Dresden which Netanyahu claims probably killed 200,000 people. He accepts that Israel was disproportionate, disproportionately restrained. Thus we are to understand that Hezbollah's kidnapping of three Israeli soldiers amounts to German bombing of London during a world war.

Then it gets positively creepy with Netanyahu suggesting that Europe's often "critical view" toward Israel is a sort of defense mechanism in response to their guilt of not rescuing the Jews from the Holocaust. He also claims that for "about 2000 years Jew was the perfect victim" without any defense. World loved this as long as it lasted. But now the Jews can defend themselves and they "deviated from that perfection of powerlessness into power" and "there is a real historical adjustment that is yet to take place".

And he thinks Muslims are fanatics! This guy is the leader of the Likud and may very well become PM of Israel again. That is a scary thought!

January 30, 2007

Jimmy Carter's honest, if weak, assessment of Israel-Palestine conflict.

The nation of Israel was created in 1948 in historic Palestine. In the process at least 700,000 native inhabitants were driven away from their homes of centuries. The justification for this massive "collateral" damage was sought from two historical facts: the sacking of Jews from Palestine, hitherto their home, in the second century A.D; and the constant persecution of Jews in Europe, culminating in the horrors of holocaust. It was thought that the later stressed the need for a separate Jewish home land and the former provided one. Forgotten in this eloquent rationale was the plight of the 700,000 original refugees and their millions of descendants today. Any trace of moral outrage for this nakba (Arabic for disaster) has been successfully effaced from collective memory in the past half-decade. Today the respected disagreement is only over the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem which began only in 1967.

One school of thought has it that world has come to terms with the unfortunate, but necessary, events of 1948. There is also a debatable view that if only the later events did not take the ugly turns all would have been well now. This is the view taken by Jimmy Carter in his honest book Palestine Peace not Apartheid.

The Truman administration recognized (de facto) the state of Israel 11 minutes after its establishment. Since then America has been the strongest and most faithful ally of Israel. Ironically this support increased significantly since the inception of Israeli occupation. While it is not rare to come across voices highly critical of Israeli policies and American role in them, it is fair to say that American society remains largely supportive of Israel. Indeed it has been said that a much more serious debate on the conflict takes place in Israel. In this context it is a welcome change that a former president comes out with a suggestion of being critical of Israel.

Palestine is essentially a personal account which covers the history of the conflict, especially after Carter's presidency during 1977-80. It talks about his personal visits to the region, his personal chemistry with dramatis personae, and his perspective on what went wrong and how to fix it.

The book begins with Carter's first visit to Israel in 1973. The dominant belief at the time was that Israel's occupation (six years old) was temporary and will end, pending some agreements with the neighbors. The total number of Jewish settlers at the time was only 1500 (the number now is almost 450,000). However he also recalls encounters which suggest a deeper problem. Sure enough, four months after his visit the appearance of peace was shattered with the attack of Egypt and Syria on Israel. Israel recovered after early setbacks (thanks to timely American help) to register victory.

Carter then spends some time discussing the Camp David Accords of 1978 which produced a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. These Accords are widely seen as successful and remain models for future treaties. However Carter emphasizes the very important point that a crucial component of the Accords was Israel's commitment to implement UN Security Council (unanimous) resolutions 242 (1967) and 338 (1973) which declared that "Israel's acquisition of territory by force is illegal and that Israel must withdraw from occupied territories". The fact that Israel never really moved toward this commitment is conveniently forgotten today. Carter writes, "[f]or Menachem Begin, the peace treaty with Egypt was the significant act for Israel, while solemn promises regarding the West Bank and Palestinians would be finessed or deliberately violated."(italics mine)

This point is repeated again and again: Israel's failure to follow up on its promises. Carter is convinced that changing this attitude is key to any just solution.
The key to the future of Israel will not be found outside the country but within. It is not likely that any combination of Arab powers or even the powerful influence of the United States could force decisions on Israel concerning East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Palestinian rights, or the occupied territories of Syria.

Carter is up front on many occasions (particularly toward the end of the book) criticizing Israel's actions. For instance he says:
Peace will come to Israel and the Middle East only when the Israeli government is willing to comply with international law, with the Roadmap for Peace, with official American policy, with the wishes of a majority of its own citizens - and honor its own previous commitments - by accepting its legal borders.

It does sound refreshingly honest. But it is hard to escape the feeling that Carter is walking a political tight rope here. For various reasons he does not want to appear genuinely critical of Israel. Nor does he wish to be dishonest with himself. This balancing act means there is not much chance of this book fulfilling the purpose Carter had in mind: produce a blueprint for "peace with justice in this small and unique portion of the world".

It is all very well to say that Israel must fulfill its promises. But this impotent call for peace does not take into account the ground realities. All of Carter's ideas require Israel to be nice without presenting a solid political case for why Israel will need to be nice. He fails to seriously analyze the record of Israeli actions of last 40 years.

Key leaders of Israel during the occupation era came from the "1948 generation", and Tanya Reinhart writes that they "were raised on the myth of 'redemption of land'". This is the idea that the land that once belonged (two thousand years ago) to the Jewish people should be "taken back". Unlikely as it may sound to an outsider, leaders from both poles of Israeli politics (Labor and Likud) were animated by this idea. They differed only tactically: with Labor (Rabin, Peres) supporting negotiations to annex as much of the West Bank as possible (usual figure is 35 - 40%) and Likud (Sharon) supporting more aggressive military moves. Israel also never pretended to aspire for a diverse society where Jews and Arabs might live peacefully together. This led them to create an apartheid system where the Palestinians live like second-class citizens in the occupied territories.

Without penetrative analysis going into such issues Palestine does not add a whole lot to the ongoing debate and doesn't produce any illuminating ideas. It does however provide a refreshing re-look at the conflict from a humane view point.

January 27, 2007

Power of Words.

What are words? In a sense, they are mere shortcuts to express elaborate feelings, phenomenon, concepts etc. Instead of saying "linguistic units with phonetic content and used in speech to convey certain meaning" we simply say "word". There must be a highly sophisticated layered structure to the development of words: with first words describing simple concepts and more complex words created out of old words as time went on. Studying this development is an enormously complex task and constitutes the object of various fields of study like linguistics and anthropology.

A particularly interesting aspect of this study is understanding how words enter into mass consciousness. Here I am not talking about common words like "good", "table", "run" etc. For these kind of words, the question is easy and/or uninteresting. It is lot more interesting and hard to understand how a word like "communism", for instance, caught on. The most intriguing question for me is how much does the very emergence of the word "communism" contribute to the effects of the ideology it represents. Though ill-equipped to even begin to answer that question, I am inclined to believe the answer is not a little.

Articulation is an extremely important part of any scientific endeavor. As we pursue long chains of thought and contemplation, effective articulation is necessary to organize those thoughts. In the realm of politics this role of articulation takes on added importance. Often the ability to find and popularize words to describe a political stand is key to its success. We all know how much politicians long for a "winning slogan".

This might sound a little cynical with the suggestion that the mere creation of clever phrases is enough to succeed. Of course that is not the case. To a large extent the inherent worth of an idea is what determines its success. But it must be noted that the availability of common words is very often a huge advantage.

One classic example is the word "anti-semitism". Historically various forms of racial and religious prejudices existed, but no other specific prejudice is as easily identifiable as anti-semitism. To be sure, to a large extent this is because this particular prejudice took on extreme forms for lengthy periods. But to a small extent, the recognizability of this prejudice has to do with the existence of a convenient word like "anti-semitism". In any case it accords a huge advantage to some people.

Let us look at an example. Alan Dershowitz immediately labels anyone criticizing Israeli policies anti-semite. Given the negative intonations of that word, this labeling gives Dershowitz a huge advantage before any discussion can take place. On the other hand, the target of Dershowitz's attack does not initially have the terminological facility to counter the accusations against him. What can you call someone who is apt to use the word anti-semite at the drop of a hat. Any criticism is bound to take a couple of sentences at least and thereby lose the terminological battle.

As an another example, it will be interesting to see the development of the word "Islamophobia" in the years to come. This word has caught on in the aftermath of 9/11 with many people prone to look suspiciously at Muslims. Obviously the inherent generalization was problematic and this word began to be used to denote this problem. However it has not yet attained the same level of guilt associated to anti-semitism. Still the existence of the word itself indicates some level of recognition of the problem.

One can't stress enough the importance of words in any aspect of human life, and particularly in political discourse.

January 25, 2007

Milton Friedman.

This is a pretty nice article by Paul Krugman on the Nobel prize winning economist Milton Friedman who died recently. Calling him the "best spokesman for the virtues of free markets since Adam Smith" Krugman looks at three aspects of Friedman's career: the theoretical economist, the policy entrepreneur and the ideologue.

Krugman has no hesitation in saying that as a theoretical economist Friedman was great, with seminal contributions to the theory of consumer behavior and the relation between inflation and unemployment. He particularly singles out for praise Friedman's bringing back of the "Economic Man" into economics after Keynes's recourse to "psychological theorizing". A major success story of this approach of Friedman was the discrediting of A.W. Phillips's theory on the trade-offs resulting from "historical correlation between unemployment and inflation, with high inflation associated with low unemployment and vice versa". Friedman argued that no valid trade-offs existed and his argument was borne out by the American experiences in the 1970s.

But while discussing the second two avatars of Friedman Krugman is lot more circumspect. There are questions raised about how effective his policy recommendations really were and suggestions that Friedman seemed "intellectually dishonest" in his role as a popularizer of free market doctrine.

The one major policy suggestion of Friedman is the theory of "monetarism". Friedman had grave doubts about the ability of a body of men (usually those in charge of monetary policy via the central banks) to correctly maintain the money supply in the system. According to him the worst effects of the Great Depression were due to the inability of Federal Reserve to maintain sufficient money supply. So he suggested that money supply be increased every year at a low rate (around 3%), irrespective of what really is happening in the economy. This policy was tried both in America and Britain briefly around 1980 with not so nice results. It was discarded soon after that and even many conservative economists in the Bush administration are openly against it.

In the post World War 2 era the dominant doctrine guiding economic policy was developed by Keynes. He went against the conventional wisdom by talking about the importance of fiscal policy as opposed to monetary policy in shaping economy. This naturally gave governments, with all their proclivities for follies, a far larger say in the matter than what many classical economists would have found comfortable. But such was the power and appeal of Keynes's revolutionary ideas that soon they became the conventional wisdom. It was in this context that Friedman took up the mantle to bring "laissez-faire" back into prominence. Krugman attributes this to Friedman's "intellectual courage".

However, Krugman chides Friedman for taking things too far: going from "markets can too work" to "markets always work and that only markets work". In his stubbornness to deliver the essentially political message expected by the audience, he forsake the very qualities of intellectual honesty and thoroughness which made him a great economist. So "the refreshing iconoclasm of his early career hardened into a rigid defense of what had become the new orthodoxy".

January 20, 2007

Democratic Race for Nomination in 2008.

The race for the Democratic presidential nomination for '08 heated up today with Hillary Clinton announcing her widely anticipated decision to run. Her main rival is expected to be the Illinois senator Barack Obama who is set to announce his own candidacy on February 10. Thus the two leading contenders for the Democratic nomination represent two electorates which had a long history of suppression and denial of voting rights. Indeed they had unimpeded voting rights for less than a century in America.

(Women were permitted vote only after the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. Though black males enjoyed complete voting rights briefly at the end of the civil war, they were soon subjected to various forms of restrictions. Blacks began to exercise unhindered voting rights only after the Voting Rights Act of 1965.)

It will be amiss to rule out 2004 vice-presidential nominee John Edwards who is said to be making serious efforts for his nomination. It makes for a highly interesting three-way campaign over the next 18 months or so, though it is fair to say at this point that Clinton and Obama hold the aces.

Hillary Clinton definitely starts ahead with her name recognition and long public career. Obama is a novice and does not have any experience in national campaigns. But he is highly charismatic and captured the imagination of Democratic base since he entered the Senate in 2004. The immediate task for Obama would be to lure many major donors away from Clinton. There are a number of people who are unable to decide between them or having second thoughts about Clinton. George Soros seems to be moving toward Obama, according to this article in New York Times. So are influential Hollywood producers such as Steven Spielberg, David Geffen, and Jeffrey Katzenberg.

It is debatable whether money wins elections. However the first clues as to who is leading will come when we know who is leading the money stakes. The donors are shrewd and their decisions are based on well-informed assessments on who is more likely to win. So if Obama or Clinton is receiving more money it must mean that he or she is perceived to be more likely to win. Whether money is a cause of winning or not, it surely is a fairly reliable indicator. Though Clinton has the edge (with already $14 million in bank), it is only because Obama started much later than her.

With the contest for nomination likely to be confined largely to Democrats (most of the primaries are closed, meaning open to registered Democrats only), it is not clear if there is much to choose between the two. Obama's freshness could be an advantage: he did not vote for Iraq war (he wasn't in the Senate then) and he has been consistently against the war. Clinton voted for the war and has a tortuous record on it. On the other hand, the same freshness could work against Obama: he is inexperienced and could fall behind Clinton in convincing the voters of his caliber. Quite possibly his freshness will have a mixed effect and it is not easy to predict how these things turn out.

A major factor on the minds of Democrats will be who is more electable. Democrats are fed up more than usual with the Republican White House of eight years and there is bound to be a passionate desire to have their man/woman back there. This will be the unifying theme for the next year or so. Most Democrats will be happy to throw their support behind anyone who can take the White House back. Behind all the rhetoric about who is better for the country will be calculations as to who is more likely to win. Consequently the candidate who more successfully prove his/her electability will win the nomination.

It may be a stretch to read too much into this emergence of woman and black candidates for Democratic nomination. Surely this represents a sea change from the electoral scene of only 40 years ago when blacks suffered discrimination via literacy tests and gerrymandering to minimize effects of black voting. And election of Nancy Pelosi as the first female speaker of the House of Representatives confirms that Clinton's rise is not an isolated event. However, I am more inclined to attribute this to instances of individual charisma and favorable circumstances than to any deep-rooted transformations in the electoral scene. That's what makes me pessimistic about the ultimate odds of success of either of these candidates against charismatic and mainstream candidates like John McCain or Rudolph Giuliani.

Of course there is still a long long way to go, and nothing is more fraught with danger and uncertainty than guessing which way elections can go, particularly elections which are almost two years away! Let us wait and see.

January 17, 2007

America, the Rogue State.

The following is a very nice article by John Judis. It offers a surprisingly (for a mainstream magazine like The New Republic) lucid and honest assessment on American assistance to Ethiopia in Somalian invasion. It is a must-read, and I am quoting it to fully here.

What exactly are we doing in the Horn of Africa, where we have encouraged the Christian government of Ethiopia to invade Somalia and replace its Islamic government? As far as I can tell, we have violated international law, committed war crimes, helped Al Qaeda recruit new members, and involved ourselves in a guerrilla war that could last decades. It's Iraq writ small. And it can't be blamed on Donald Rumsfeld.

There's an old principle of international law, going back to the seventeenth century, against one nation violating the sovereignty of another. It was often breached, but, after two world wars, it was enshrined in the United Nations charter. We criticized the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia and justified the first Gulf war on these grounds. The purpose of this principle has been to prevent wars that could arise if more powerful countries simply took it into their hands to dominate smaller, less powerful ones.

Of course, when one nation attacks another, the other can respond. The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, and the overthrow of the Taliban regime, was justified on those grounds. The Taliban weren't simply sheltering Al Qaeda; they were in league with them and had become dependent upon them. To justify its invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration invented an imminent threat from Saddam Hussein's regime. It was pure artifice--remember the drones bearing nuclear weapons headed for our shores--but the very fact that the Bush administration felt it had to resort to deception meant that it understood that a certain principle of international relations was at stake.

But, last month, the Bush administration actively supported Ethiopia's invasion of Somalia. It provided money, advisers, and, finally, U.S. warplanes. And there was no justification for Ethiopia's invasion. It was a clear violation of the U.N. charter. The neighboring people have been feuding for centuries, but Ethiopia's Christian government could not cite a significant provocation for its attack on the Muslim country and its Islamic government. If anything, Ethiopia's invasion closely resembled Iraq's invasion in August 1990 of Kuwait. But, instead of criticizing the Ethiopians, the United States applauded and aided them.

The administration claimed that, in supporting Ethiopia, it was fighting the ubiquitous "war on terrorism." According to The New York Times, administration officials even held out the Ethiopia invasion as a model of how it would prosecute the war on terrorism by proxy. By this account, Somalia was Afghanistan, and its Islamic Courts Union government was the Taliban. But the analogy does not hold up. The United States claimed that the Islamic Courts government, which took power last summer, was harboring three Al Qaeda fugitives. But the Al Qaeda members had been in Somalia well before the Islamic Courts took power. They were not part of the government. And Al Qaeda itself did not have training camps in Somalia. Somalia was less like Afghanistan than Pakistan, which, according to outgoing National Intelligence Director John Negroponte, is also home to Al Qaeda members..

In the wake of the Ethiopian invasion, the administration made a stronger claim. On December 14, Jendayi Frazer, the State Department official for Africa, said, "The Council of Islamic Courts is now controlled by Al Qaeda cell individuals--East Africa Al Qaeda cell individuals." But Frazer didn't name any individuals. And intelligence analysts have questioned her claim, which, according to The Washington Post, was "[b]ased in part on intelligence out of Ethiopia." As Matthew Yglesias put it, "In other words, we're backing Ethiopia's war against Somalia because intelligence provided by the Ethiopian government suggests we should back Ethiopia."

The Bush administration often claims that it is encouraging democracy, but the invasion itself probably represents a net loss of freedom--and that's a hard calculation to make among these governments. The U.S.-backed Ethiopian government of Meles Zenawi has been widely accused of human rights violations. After the Ethiopian opposition protested that the 2005 election was rigged, the Meles government killed 193 demonstrators and arrested about 80,000 others to quell the protests. Teshale Aberra, the president of the Supreme Court in Ethiopia's largest province who defected to Great Britain last fall, said, "There is massive killing all over. There is a systematic massacre." Meanwhile, in Somalia, the Islamic Courts replaced a weak transitional regime that was unable to control the warlords, who, since 1991, have turned the countryside into a Hobbesian jungle. The new government had brought a harsh Islamic justice and order to Somalia, which, for all its own injustice, was preferable to the chaos that had prevailed.

With the ouster of the Islamic Courts, the warlords are likely to return to power. Somalia will probably be plunged into another guerrilla war, as the Islamists try to retake power. And the United States will once again ally with these warlords and with a weak, corrupt regime. (According to Jonathan S. Landay and Shashank Bengali, the United States was actually paying off the aide to the militia leader responsible for killing 18 Americans in 1993 in the famous Black Hawk Down incident.) And who will benefit from American intervention? Al Qaeda, which will be able to draw up another recruiting poster from the American-sponsored invasion of a Muslim country. Al Qaeda will be able to point, in particular, to U.S. airstrikes that claimed to target Al Qaeda but instead killed scores of innocent civilians.

That's what happened on January 7 and 8 in Somali border towns; the United States claimed its bombs were intended to kill an Al Qaeda operative supposedly connected to the U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. But he was not among the victims; nor were other Al Qaeda members. Then reports began trickling in of civilian deaths from the AC-130 gunships that the United States supposedly sent to hunt down the single terrorist. According to Oxfam, the dead included 70 nomads who were searching for water sources. The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, estimated that 100 were wounded in an attack on Ras Kamboni, a fishing village near the Kenyan border. The Economist, which is not an outspoken critic of the Bush administration, wrote, "The Americans used the AC-130, a behemoth designed to shred large areas instantly, in the knowledge that the killing fields would be cleared before journalists and aid workers could reach them." It's a war crime to kill civilians indiscriminately.

In the 1990s, foreign policy experts, eager to identify a new enemy, hit upon the concept of a "rogue state." A rogue state operated outside the bounds of international norms and had to be restrained. The obvious candidates at the time were Libya, Iraq, and North Korea. But the Bush administration has turned the United States itself into a rogue state. Tough-minded conservatives, flexing their "muscular" inclinations from comfortable sinecures in Washington, may dismiss concerns about international law and war crimes as inventions of silly panty-waist liberals. But these inventions, which, in the modern era, were championed by Theodore Roosevelt, were meant to protect Americans as well as other peoples from the wars and the inhumanity that prevailed for thousands of years. We ignore them at their peril, whether in Haditha or Ras Kamboni.

January 15, 2007

Freakonomics. A Review.

People usually believe things that they best understand. As John Galbraith wrote, "economic and social behaviour are complex, and to comprehend their character is mentally tiring". So we "adhere, as though to a raft,to those ideas which represent our understanding." This engenders "conventional wisdom". "The hallmark of the conventional wisdom", wrote Galbraith, "is acceptability." Conventional wisdom then is widely accepted. It does not follow however that it is correct too.

Any attempt to sift through conventional wisdom and establish truth is "mentally tiring", and its result is likely to be unpopular. Undaunted, the authors of the interesting little book Freakonomics, set about examining conventional wisdom in a chosen set of issues. More often than not, they find that conventional wisdom is wrong, or in the very least, irrelevant. Sure enough, their conclusions are provocative, dismaying, disturbing and provide lot of food for thought.

Steven Levitt, a brilliant young economist and Stephen Dubner, an enterprising journalist met when the later was working on an article about the former for New York Times Magazine in 2003. Levitt's work (empirical research in microeconomics) is of a nature which could appeal to lay readers. Dubner's background had given him a great ability to write beautifully and persuasively. Together, they began to work on the book.

The choice of topics was determined by Levitt's earlier research. All the topics are widely discussed and are loaded with conflicting opinions and mindsets. Some of the topics are the role of parents, the reasons behind the dramatic fall in crime in America during the 90s, the drug dealers, and the possibility of cheating by school teachers, etc. Any position on these topics is bound to annoy someone. But this book is particularly provocative because of its haughty dismissal of "experts" and its explicit mission to trash conventional wisdom.

The crime rose alarmingly in America during the 80s and there were not a few experts predicting apocalypse. Indeed, as 90s began everyone agreed that worse was yet to come. But quite strangely, and for a while inexplicably, crime began to fall. And drastically. Soon the same experts who were predicting apocalypse began to explain the reasons for this unexpected fall. All the standard theories were offered: strong economy, increased and stricter prison terms, innovative police measures and more police, restrictions on guns, decreased supply of crack cocaine, increased use of capital punishment etc. Levitt and Dubner even mention the number of articles in major newspapers that cite each of these reasons from 1991 to 2001. It serves to dramatize their own explanation for crime-drop. After dismissing many of the above as highly unlikely or marginal (strong economy, gun control, death sentence, innovative police measures) and admitting a moderate impact of others (more police personnel, decreased supply of cocaine, stricter prison terms), they claim that one of the major reasons for the crime-drop of 90s was the lack of criminals. In 1973 US Supreme Court legalized abortion and this meant hundreds of thousands of unwanted children were not born (around 1.6 million annually). The authors cite numerous studies to the effect that children of teenage, poor, unmarried women are highly likely to have criminal lives. So the fact that millions of people who would have reached their peak criminal phase (late teens) around early 90s were simply not born was a huge factor in the crime-drop. Surely this is a highly controversial claim with its intrusion onto lots of touchy areas. Still, as the authors claim, this is what the data reveal.

The whole book is liberally filled with equally controversial conclusions (what parents do doesn't really matter to the child's future, real-estate agents do not necessarily ensure that their clients get the best deal, many schoolteachers and Sumo wrestlers cheat, money does not win elections, drug dealing is not such a lucrative business for most of its practitioners).

The most serious shortcoming the book, in my view, is that it is essentially an elaborate and slightly repetitive plug for all the relevant research papers of Levitt. It only cites various studies, and does not offer many critical arguments or incisive analysis. All the conclusions are derived using a black box (various studies they cite) and the reader is required to simply trust that black box. Or, one can go and look into the box by studying the relevant research papers.

Most of the arguments in the book follow this pattern:

Let us study event X. The conventional wisdom has it that the reasons/consequences of X are A,B,C,D,.....But in fact the study S1 and/or S2 and/or S3 has confirmed that the real reason/consequences are only A,C,... and more importantly 1,2,...

Except for some incidentally logical passages and very little serious argument, the book has nothing more to offer in the form of scientific thought.

The authors admit right at the beginning that the book has no "unifying theme" and that it follows a "sort of treasure-hunt approach". This absence of unifying theme jars the reader throughout the book. It becomes particularly troubling toward the end when the reader is bombarded with pages after pages of useless data (which one forgets as soon as the page is turned) but in the end retains very little substance.

Aside from a few pointers to the correct way of thinking (need for a more critical study of data, importance of the difference between causality and correlation) the book is just an ad hoc collection of interesting information.

January 12, 2007


This month Wikipedia celebrates its sixth birthday. Earlier this month the number of articles in English on Wikipedia crossed 1.5 million (the number stands at 1,578,633 as of this writing). This number grows by almost 2000 every single day. Compared to this the number of articles in Encyclopedia Britannica (over 122,264) is a far cry. More than a million people visit Wikipedia every day (more than half of whom visit the English language pages). 5 out of every 100 internet users visit Wikipedia daily. Only 11 other sites are visited by more people. Wikipedia is very often at the top of Google search results (almost always in the top 10 results) for things ranging from ideologies (communism - 1, capitalism - 1); sports (cricket - 2, football - 3); sciences (economics - 1, literature - 3); places (India - 1, France - 1, Budapest - 2); people (Sachin Tendulkar - 1, Einstein - 2); objects (water - 2, chair - 1).

Many things are taking place here. On the one hand, articles are being created at a rate, depth, and detail, which are utterly unprecedented. For instance, Wikipedia has detailed and easily accessible articles about "Triskaidekaphobia" and "Perfidious Albion" while a careful search did not reveal any relevant articles in Britannica. On the other hand, more and more people are consulting, quoting, referring to Wikipedia on any number of issues. It is rare to see a blog post these days which does not link to Wikipedia for the background info on some topic. This is the reason for the high Google page rank for the Wikipedia entries on any issue under the sun.

We notice then a couple of reasons for this mammoth phenomenon: extensiveness of the topics covered and the easy accessibility. Needless to say, an enormous amount of technical expertise went into achieving these qualities. Whether in allowing thousands of users to easily create and edit articles, or in enabling effective interlinking among articles, or in "redirecting", this expertise is clearly noticeable. But the real point of Wikipedia is this: its success is truly as much a matter of its millions of faceless users as of its creators. Perhaps more importantly, so are its drawbacks.

Wikipedia's more than six million articles in all languages are created by registered users and they are edited by any user, not necessarily registered. To register, one simply needs to pick a login name and password. An email address is not necessary. More than three million "Wikipedians", or registered users, edited articles at least 10 times since the time they registered. 80,000 of these edit at least 5 times every month and 10,000 edit at least 100 times a month.

It is not often the case that one single person has all (or even most) of the information on a topic. The success of Wikipedia lies in bringing together thousands of people (who think they have something to contribute on a particular topic) and enabling them to easily add their knowledge to the common pool. For instance, a look at the history page for the article on England informs us that it was created on 23 November 2001 by a user called Derek Ross with a tiny amount of information. Since then it has gone through 6398 edits, as of this writing, to become what it is today. For the last six months, every month there are roughly 500 edits on this article. So all these thousands of people are persuaded to spend their valuable time on adding to/refining/correcting/vandalising this article and without their contribution there would be no Wikipedia.

The last verb above, vandalising, is important. A glance at the history page again tells us that a number of the 6398 edits of the article on England have merely "reverted vandalism". Vandalism may or may not be intentional. But its effect is to make an article erroneous. However, tt is an enormously difficult task to define errors. Except in the case of a few easy factual errors, it is not at all clear how to define an error. This is where the most crucial problem with Wikipedia for me arises. It completely sidesteps the issue of authenticity.

I did a little experiment on this. On the morning of 8th January, 2007 I made the following two changes on Wikipedia:

1. On its page for existentialism, I changed the first sentence from "Existentialism is a philosophical movement that deals with human freedom" to "Existentialism is a philosophical movement that deals with human existence".

2. On its page for Sigrid Undset, in the first sentence I changed the year when she got Nobel prize in literature from 1928 (correct) to 1927 (incorrect).

As of this writing (12th January) both changes remain.

The first change is certainly more involved. As far as I know, it is misleading to say that existentialism deals with human freedom. It deals with human freedom also. But this is not the first sentence one writes on the topic. (Indeed, the whole article in wikipedia is unsatisfactory. I would definitely prefer this article on Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.) Of course, what I wrote is more misleading. But surely, thousands of people since 8th January have read the first sentence and retained only that confusing piece of information.

The second is more straightforward. It alarms me that no one has corrected it yet. A Google search on Sigrid Undet returns the Wikipedia page as the third result. Many people would click on this ahead of the first two results. It is conceivable that lots of people have looked at this page in the last five days and went away with the wrong information. A little bit of checking (indeed, even reading the Wikipedia page till the end) would correct them. But of course few people would actually check.

It will be interesting to see how long it will be before these changes are reverted.

This is the crux of the Wikipedia phenomenon: it pays no attention to the matter of expertise. A teenager sitting in her home in a remote village in China with an internet connection has as much weight and scope to expound on the causes and effects of the Great Depression as the renowned expert at Harvard who has spent a life time thinking about the subject. This is in itself neither disturbing nor comforting. There are contexts where it may be either.

Personally, I would not look at (or at least be very suspicious of) Wikipedia on many topics (like existentialism). On factual issues (like the dates, numbers etc) I would definitely confirm them if I am making serious use of those facts. In spite of these reservations, I am convinced that Wikipedia is a great tool with unlimited scope.

Wikipedia is an amazing possibility let loose on the world wide web, for anyone connected to explore. It is a curious entity: full of wonderful things, but never really able to deny the threat of a fatal flaw somewhere. The ironical thing about Wikipedia is that its greatness can not exist without the possibility that that greatness is flawed. If you try to remove one the other goes too.

January 11, 2007

Latest Attempt to Make a Movie out of Atlas Shrugged.

According to this article in IHT, there seems to be renewed interest in adapting Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged for Hollywood. The writer of Braveheart and producers of Ray are coming together in this latest attempt.

January 7, 2007

Imperial Presidency.

President Bush has not really changed any of his ways after the November election debacle. That is what this NYTimes editorial concludes.

In spite of a seemingly conciliatory tone he is using, in substance, there is not much difference in any of his policies. The administration continues to resist and impede investigations of its "inhumane and unconstitutional treatment of prisoners taken in anti-terrorist campaigns". Bush continues to use "presidential signing statements" to nullify the purpose of many of the bills passed by the Congress. (Read my post of a few months ago on this issue.) The administration continues to conduct its "rogue intelligence operations".

The Democratic majority needs to look into these issues with conviction.

January 6, 2007

India Lose Test Series in South Africa.

India lost the 3-test series against South Africa after losing the third test in Cape Town today. After some very tense moments and several twists, South Africa won quite convincingly in the end by 5 wickets.

This is only the ninth instance in test cricket history when a team won a 3-test series after losing the first test. Previous occasions are:

England: Vs Australia - 1882/83 (in Australia)
                  Vs Australia - 1888 (in England);
                  Vs Sri Lanka - 2000/01 (in Sri Lanka)
Pakistan: Vs Zimbabwe - 1994/95 (in Pakistan)
South Africa: Vs New Zealand - 1994/95 (in South Africa)
Sri Lanka: Vs Pakistan - 1995/96 (in Pakistan)
                    Vs New Zealand - 1998 (in Sri Lanka)
India: Vs Australia - 2000/01 (in India).

This series was a golden opportunity for India to win its first test series in the Southern hemisphere since its first away series win New Zealand in 1967/68. Or at least, to not lose a test series in South Africa for the first time. There might not be another such great opportunity in many years to come for India. There are several reasons why Indians would be kicking themselves for losing this series.

First important reason is that South Africa presently is a pretty ordinary team. South Africa traditionally has been a strong team since its readmission, but lately its record, particularly in test cricket, has been mediocre. Of the 28 tests prior to the current series South Africa lost 12 and won only 8. Further, Graeme Smith has the worst win percentage among 3 captains who led the team for considerable periods. Smith has won 16 tests of 41 (39.02%), while Shaun Pollock won 14 of 26 (53.84%) and Hansie Cronje won 27 of 53 (50.94%).

Beginning with Sourav Ganguly's captaincy India has been playing well abroad, relative to its overall record. India's record abroad traditionally has been quite poor: of the 195 tests played up to the Durban test of last week India lost 83 and won only 27, for a win percentage of 13.84%. With stark contrast, India won 14 and lost 14 of the 40 tests played abroad since 2000. That is a much more respectable winning percentage of 35%. In the process, India registered memorable victories in England 2002, West Indies 2001/02, 2006, Australia 2003/04, Pakistan 2003/04. Though these victories led to series wins only in West Indies 2006 and Pakistan, India achieved satisfactory draws in England and Australia.

In this context, even after being routed in the one-day series by South Africa, India had a great chance to do well in the test series. What they got going for them was the presence of two great young bowlers in Sreesanth and Munaf Patel, a rejuvenated Zahir Khan and of course, the always reliable Kumble. For the first time in recent memory Indian pace bowling appeared equal to its task. The real problem was always going to be our inconsistent and inept batting, as it proved in the end.

The first test in Johannesburg confirmed all this potential. On a pretty friendly bowling pitch, Indian batting rose to occasion and bowling led by Sreesanth did the trick. In Durban, on a better batting pitch the batsmen failed quite shockingly, especially in the second innings. Then came Cape Town.

What greeted them there makes this series defeat particularly disappointing. A slow and dry pitch, devoid of grass looked very much like a typical Indian one. Dravid won a good toss and India asserted themselves on the first day ending at 254/3. What followed was the age-old sorry Indian failure to take the bull by the horns.

First they failed to cash-in on the great start and petered out to a 414. The second innings batting performance is what really stands out as the real image of Indian ineptitude. With a vital 41-run lead and two days to play on a wearing pitch, it was a game India had to lose. And lose they did! The batsmen have to bear the full responsibility for this debacle. Sure, bowling could have been a little better in the second innings. Kumble was not really up to his mark. However, to be fair, they never had enough runs to bowl.

What makes this defeat painful is how tantalizingly close India was to save both tests. In Durban, they needed to play for maximum another hour (about 15-20 balls more each for the top 6 batsmen who together lasted only for 28 overs). The story repeated again in Cape Town. The way Dravid and Tendular crawled on the fourth afternoon for 24 runs in 15 overs was quite appalling. As Sambit Bal wrote on Cricinfo, the way Tendulkar "pottered and scratched, padded and swiveled, nudged and groped" was embarrassing, though it has be to admitted he was not totally fit and was rather unfortunate to be given out lbw. In any case, that 15-over standstill led to the collapse that followed. With only a slightly more application (as was shown by a brilliant Karthik), India could have posted at least another 75 runs. Given that SA eventually won with less than 15 minutes reamining that would have made all the difference.

Another aspect that must be mentioned is the poor umpiring throughout the series, almost always going against India. Dravid was unlucky in both innings of Durban, Tendulakar was unlucky in second innings of Durban and Cape Town. Very importantly, Munaf got out on the seventh ball of an over while Karthik was stranded. Karthik could easily have scored some more vital runs. On the other hand, SA batsmen have been very lucky on a number of occasions. Boucher in Durban was given not out when he was plumb in front, and he went onto play a crucial innings. Kallis clearly edged the fitsy ball he faced in the second innings in Cape Town. If he was given out, as he should have been, the story could have been different.

Notwithstanding the defeat, there are definitely a few positives for India to come out of this series. Sreesanth has been a great revelation. We knew he had potential, but it was enhanced a great deal. His temperament has been amazing, and surely he has a lot more to contribute. Ganguly has made an emphatic return with some very important innings at tense situations. With 214 runs from the series, he led the Indian batting aggregates for the series. Dinesh Karthik was also a great find. He batted quite well and his keeping was top notch. Zahir Khan and Kumble bowled quite well. Jaffer scored a good hundred to cement his place as the opener.

The big disappointment of the tour was Sehwag. He completely failed to take off, except for a nice and rapid 40 in the first innings of Cape Town. Dravid too had an uncharacteristically quiet series and surely that was a big factor in the defeat. A total of 125 runs in 6 innings for an average of 20.83 is quite poor, even taking into account a couple of ordinary umpiring decisions. Sachin Tendulkar also was a relative disappointment for this series. With 199 runs he was only behind Ganguly, but there were occasions when he could have taken the game away from SA (first innings Durban and both innings in Cape Town).

India have a very interesting year coming up with world cup and important away tours to England and Australia. They will have to sort of their one-day issues in the eight matches they play before world cup (four each against West Indies and Sri Lanka). Though they lost the series in SA they should look at the positive side: winning their first test in SA, out-bowling SA in helpful conditions.

India has been consistently winning at least one test on every tour in the last five years or so. That is definitely a great improvement. Now they should look to take another stride forward.

January 2, 2007

What's in a Year?

A year is a man-made measure which has no deep significance. This is a thought which I was going to expand on. But then I came across this article in the New Republic. It is a reprint of an article in TNR in 1983 which talked about how 1982 was the year of money. It discussed some interesting issues, but what caught my attention was the first paragraph. I can not put my thoughts better. So I will just quote it here.

A year is an artificial thing, a measure of experience that experience does not obey. The end of a year brings nothing to an end. It is, rather, a convention for the ordering of all that is accumulating in all the spheres of life, a ceremony of self consciousness. The ceremony has to do less with knowledge than with sentiment; we do not so much understand our situation, which is never easy to do, as we claim it. The end of a year confers a feeling of meaning. It imparts significance, a rare thing in a society in which significance seems to slip by so many individual lives. There comes a wintry moment when all these lives take on the aspect of stories; they appear to have a plot, to have begun somewhere and to be heading somewhere. The calendar brings coherence to chaos--no small gift, in times like these.

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