Thursday, July 02, 2015

The "double-chinned Mona Lisa" of Tamil Nadu is the Tamil "Mutti"

Some writers are gifted and they string together words that are simply charming, like this one:
You know you’ve entered Tamil Nadu when you begin to see Jayalalithaa’s face everywhere: a double-chinned Mona Lisa, her long, dark hair pulled back in a demure chignon. 
I will never again think about the Mona Lisa without associating that portrait with Jayalalithaa ;)

It is to the NY Times' credit that they have run a lengthy piece on "The frenzied, fanatical politics of Tamil Nadu, India."  How many readers will be interested in the politics of some place called Tamil Nadu, right?  We might blog, tweet, and snapchat, but all those cannot take the place of a NY Times or the Economist or the, well, you know my favorites ;)

To an insider like me, there is nothing new in that essay.  To a complete outsider, there are many names--multi-syllables at that--of people and places and the complex inter-relationships.

Tamil Nadu, which is where I am from, is a fascinating setting for all kinds of reasons.  Tamil, the language of that area, is the oldest living language in the world with a rich literature past.  Most old-time politicians, including the 92-year old Karunanidhi who is discussed in that essay, are well-versed in that literature and can be masterful orators too.  Jayalalithaa is everything that Karunanidhi is not--a woman, a Brahmin, fluent in English and Hindi--but otherwise there is no difference in their politics.
The two of them rule as if in a melodrama, having each other arrested, dropping snide insults and wild accusations, destroying each other’s pet projects.
One of the fascinating things about the politics in Tamil Nadu is this: the state has prospered despite all the antics of these politicians.  Not merely these two, but--and definitely--including the third and the biggest of them: MGR, who is extensively discussed in that NY Times piece.
You would think that given all this emotional mayhem, Tamil Nadu would be a mess, but in fact it’s one of the best-run states in India. Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen, in their book ‘‘An Uncertain Glory,’’ an analysis of economic development in India, single out Tamil Nadu as a paragon of administrative innovation among Indian states, ranking it best in the country for the quality of its public services. Under Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi’s governance, Chennai has gained a reputation as the Detroit of India (in the car-manufacturing-hub sense, not in the bankrupt-and-abandoned sense). Her raw instinct for political survival was enough to put her in office. Once there, she revealed a surprising talent for administration. ‘‘She schooled herself, and to that extent one has to salute her,’’ the journalist Sadanand Menon told me. ‘‘She has worked to understand procedures, rules and regulations, policies.’’
If this cinematic and melodramatic politics with unprincipled and corrupt politicians makes for "one of the best-run states in India," one needs to worry about the worst of the states in India, right?

MGR and Jayalalithaa from an movie still, in the NY Times piece
To some extent, the presence of such a strong woman who is adored by mindless millions--men and women alike--has immensely strengthened women in Tamil Nadu.  Even the poor do not think twice about educating their girls or sending them to college.  Jayalalithaa is a good role model for female empowerment!
Sometimes I feel that the reason women in Tamil Nadu enjoy Jayalalithaa in power is that they see how she controls men, keeps them at a distance, falling at her feet.’’
Jayalalithaa was the "mother" well before Germany's Angela Merkel was nicknamed that.  The world is becoming ok, finally, with the idea that women too can be political leaders, and can be as good as, or as corrupt as, the men.  So much so that we are apparently ready to even have grandmothers as leaders, argues this essay in the Atlantic:
modern life seems to be suggesting another possibility for older women. Lately, a group of prominent 60-somethings—Janet Yellen, Elizabeth Warren, Hillary Clinton, and Angela Merkel among them—has begun forging an alternate path: whatever the reason older women were put on this Earth, their example suggests, maybe the time has come for them to run it.
A modern day Leonardo da Vinci will have quite a few political Mona Lisa portraits to paint--some with double chins too, just as the male leaders had and do ;)

The robots are coming, the robots are coming. Wait, they are already here!

"I just got this. You can read it first" the friend said.

What was it?  This magazine:

The OCD behavior of this professional academic manifests via reading and then blogging, so here I am ;)

I scanned through the content for this special on robots.  Familiar names in plenty and familiar ideas. I have already bombarded you with those names and ideas.  And will continue to do so unless and until the evidence convinces me that my understanding is incorrect.

What fascinated me the most was an essay about "the coming robot dystopia" by, get this, a "Professor of Robotics at The Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon University."  One of them robotics experts worrying about the coming dystopia!  I will not go into details of the essay, primarily because I want you read all that.  Instead, I want to focus on a bottom-line:
Robotic technologies that collect, interpret, and respond to massive amounts of real-world data on behalf of governments, corporations, and ordinary people will unquestionably advance human life. But they also have the potential to produce dystopian outcomes. We are hardly on the brink of the nightmarish futures conjured by Hollywood movies such as The Matrix or The Terminator, in which intelligent machines attempt to enslave or exterminate humans. But those dark fantasies contain a seed of truth: the robotic future will involve dramatic tradeoffs, some so significant that they could lead to a collective identity crisis over what it means to be human.
You see, that professor with immensely valued credentials delivers the same bottom-line that I harp on all the time: we need to understand what it means to be human, what it means to belong to humankind.  Unfortunately,
How robots interact with people depends to a great deal on how much their creators know or care about such issues, and robot creators tend to be engineers, programmers, and designers with little training in ethics, human rights, privacy, or security. In the United States, hardly any of the academic engineering programs that grant degrees in robotics require the in-depth study of such fields.
Again, no different from what I have been yelling about for years.  For decades, ever since it became clear to me that humans were not made for machines.  If only people listened to me!

Anyway, back to the expert:
A clear set of decisions about robot design and regulation stand between today’s world of human agency and tomorrow’s world of robot autonomy. Inventors must begin to combine technological ingenuity with sociological awareness, and governments need to design institutions and processes that will help integrate new, artificial agents into society. Today, all civil engineers are required to study ethics because an incorrectly designed bridge can cause great public harm. Roboticists face this same kind of responsibility today, because their creations are no longer mere academic pursuits.
Even at the small little university where I teach, computer science students are not advised to take courses in the humanities and the social sciences.  In fact, the advise students get makes them think that these courses are unnecessary hurdles that keep them from focusing on, well, computer science!  One brave computer science student is working on a thesis with me as her adviser.  Because, she is worried about some of the issues in society.  During one of our conversations a few weeks ago, I asked her if the computer science curriculum included any mandatory course on ethics.  Of course not. But, we faculty are good at shenanigans.  So, the catalog lists a course on ethical aspects of computer science but she has no idea when, if at all, that course is ever offered!

Read all the essays in the magazine, if the website grants you the access.

And then come back and tell me whether there was any argument in any one of those essays that contradicts anything that I have authored here in this blog--I want to feel good because the future is dystopian ;)

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength

As I get older, I am forgetting the details.  As a good chunk of life fades in the rear-view mirror--I know, I shouldn't be looking there--I am glad that I am able to recall whatever it is that I am able to.

The principal of the wonderful school--where I always longed to look at that girl--had plenty of laudable goals that were always badly executed.  We students had many mean jokes about him, and continue to do that even now whenever we get together.  One of his goals was that students ought to be interested in local and global current affairs.  Thus, during the weekly assembly under the morning hot sun, we students stood there as one of his hand-picked favorites read a few news stories for a couple of minutes.  (No, I have never been any teacher's favorite..Not anybody's.  Not even my parents' favorite. The story of my life!!!)

One day, the guy who read it out uttered "Mr. Ayatollah" while referring to the then-new leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini.  The news junkie that I was even back then, I thought it was bizarre that he said "Mr. Ayatollah."  Those were beginnings of the Iran-Iraq war and not a day passed without the The Hindu providing reports on the war, and that war was a big reason why "Mr. Ayatollah" was often mentioned at the news reports during the weekly assembly.

The war, coming on the heels of the revolution that forced the Shah of Iran to flee the country, continues to haunt the world's affairs, especially the ongoing negotiations over the nuclear deal, writes Robin Wright:
Iran suffered more than a hundred and fifty thousand dead between 1980 and 1988. In Tehran, it’s called the Sacred Defense. In the final stages, U.S. aid to Iraq contributed to Iran’s decision to pursue nuclear capability—the very program that six world powers are now negotiating to contain.
Keep in mind that this was not a war that Iran launched.  It was Saddam Hussein's war.  And, in the realpolitik of American "diplomacy," Saddam was "our son of a bitch."  Ah, yes, the twisted and tangled webs that we have woven and into which we are now trapped!
Back in the eighties, Western intelligence agencies questioned whether Iran’s eighteen-month-old revolution could survive for even a few weeks after Saddam Hussein’s surprise invasion. Tehran scrambled to mobilize remnants of the Shah’s army, the new Revolutionary Guards, and almost anyone, of any age, for a volunteer paramilitary. Tehran’s Holy Defense Museum has pictures of thirteen-year-old kids and eighty-year-old men who signed up. (Three per cent of the dead were fourteen or younger.)
Instead, the war dragged on for eight years.
 The CIA got rid of a democratically elected government in Iran so that the US and its allies could install in power the Shah of Iran who would serve as "our son of a bitch."  When the Shah was thrown out two decades later, we looked across the border and encouraged the madman Saddam.  Robin Wright narrates how that messed up things:
In 1988, for the final big Iraqi offensive, the Reagan Administration spent months advising Baghdad on how to retake the strategic Faw Peninsula, where the Shatt al Arab waterway flows into the Persian Gulf.
I was curious about the location of the Faw Peninsula.  Unlike the final year of my high school, I now have Google at my disposal, which easily informs me where this peninsula is:

Wright says this battle got worse, thanks to the madman Saddam.
Iraq also used U.S. intelligence to unleash chemical weapons against the Iranians in Faw. U.N. weapons inspectors documented Iraq’s repeated use of both mustard gas and nerve agents between 1983 and 1988. Washington opted to ignore it. At Faw, thousands of Iranians died. Syringes were littered next to bodies, a U.S. intelligence source told me; Iranian forces had tried to inject themselves with antidotes. The battle lasted only thirty-six hours; it was Iraq’s biggest gain in more than seven years. The war ended four months later, when Iran agreed to a cease-fire.
The apologies that the US owes to people all around the world! :(
Iranian officials told me that the theocracy debated countering Iraq with chemical weapons, but opted against it. However, aware that Baghdad had a nuclear-weapons program, Iran decided to resume the nuclear research-and-development program initiated by the Shah. After the war, Tehran decided to keep it.
I think it is remarkable that Iran didn't unleash its chemical weapons against the Iraqi forces.  
The Iraq war still haunts Iran—and shapes the theocracy’s positions at the negotiating table—partly because tens of thousands are still dying from chemical weapons, according to the Society for Chemical Weapons Victims Support. Years after the war ended, Iranian doctors noticed a pattern of patients reporting chronic pulmonary, skin, and corneal conditions associated with mustard gas. They were diagnosed with what is now known as low-dose exposure.
Wright notes this:
During my recent visit, Iran was gripped by news that the bodies of a hundred and seventy-five military divers had been recovered in Iraq—three decades after their capture by Saddam Hussein’s forces. The men had reportedly been buried alive after their wrists were tied together with wire. Tehran released gruesome pictures of the recovery, and of the decayed and bound corpses still dressed in diving gear.
The country was consumed with mourning yet again—even young people, born after the war ended, were deeply moved.
 To think that the US encouraged Saddam all those years that he was in power!  For what?
 As the country’s diplomats prepared to return to Vienna for the nuclear talks, [Mohsen Rezai, who commanded the Revolutionary Guards during the war] declared, “Iran’s enemies stood by Saddam for the whole eight years of the Sacred Defense.” It was clear that he included the United States among them.
Soon after the war ended, Saddam was no longer "our son of a bitch." 

It is unfortunate that we have never truly given peace a chance.  Oceania will always be at war, ably helped by its Ministry of Peace, wrote George Orwell in that memorable 1984

Perhaps it is time to start another war. Maybe against Eurasia; after all, Putin is not "our son of a bitch."