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Archive for October, 2007

The Bandra magistrate’s court has awarded the custody of Faisal Khan to his father Tahir Hussain.

For those unfamiliar with the case, Faisal had approached the court a month ago accusing his brother Aamir Khan of forcible confinement. He had been made a prisoner, he said, and he would rather be alone or with his father than return to Aamir. Aamir had responded that Faisal suffers from schizophrenia-affected psychosis, a claim which was supported by the doctor’s reports, and had argued that he continue to have Faisal’s custody in the interest of the latter’s well-being. Today’s judgement by the court dismisses Aamir’s petition but directs that the father will now have custody.

I have mixed feelings about the judgement. On the one hand, I am glad that the court did not direct Faisal to be returned against his will to Aamir. However, from the news reports it appears that Faisal wanted to be a free man, and being put under the care of his father was his second-best option, perhaps something he put forth to escape being sent back to his former state. If that is the case, why should his freedom be denied?

My position is that involuntary custody in such an instance can be justified for only one reason- to prevent the person from harming others. The medical report says that Faisal’s illness “may affect mood” and make him prone to acting “irrationally”. Nowhere does it suggest that Faisal is dangerous or violent. He is just more likely than you or me to have unconventional thoughts and behaviour. Is it right for society to make a value judgement on his case and lock him up? A century ago, homosexuality was considered a mental disorder and “patients” were forcibly treated at psychiatric hospitals. Indeed, mental disorders, to paraphrase Thomas Szasz, are best viewed as a kind of social construction, created by society’s concept of what constitutes normality and abnormality. (To clarify, my argument is not that mental conditions are non-existent but rather that the set of conditions that are deemed ‘disorders’ are a function of social convention). As long as the person is not harming others, do we have a right to restrict his fundamental freedoms because his opinions, values or actions do not conform to our notions of correctness?

Newer posts on this topic:

(Dec 18, 2007) Who’s afraid of Faisal Khan?;    

(Feb 17, 2008) Faisal gets his freedom finally.

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This is an awesome site, one of the funniest I’ve ever come across.

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The soundtrack of Pan’s Labyrinth has an transcendent, almost eternal quality that I cannot adequately describe. Every time I hear it, I feel elevated. It makes me sad and happy at the same time. If Long, long time ago does not give you goose-bumps, I don’t know what will.

And the film itself is one for the ages – a haunting and beautiful masterpiece that stayed with me long after the viewing. If you haven’t watched it yet, do yourself a favour and grab the dvd. Or better still, watch it on a big screen.

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Clive Crook is an excellent essayist and this passage -from his sterling tribute to Milton Friedman– is particularly close to my heart.

There is no great mystery about the reason for this double standard. Freedoms that express themselves through market relations—the freedom to buy and sell—are widely regarded as ethically compromised. This is the freedom to gratify one’s greed, to exploit others, to con and be conned, where the market is a jungle, a war of all against all. There is a germ of truth in all that, of course, enough to lend it plausibility. But it misses the larger truth, of the market as an astoundingly productive system of voluntary cooperation, in which people of myriad beliefs, loyalties, and faiths can engage with others, freely, and to their enormous mutual benefit. If Friedman, with all his powers of persuasion, could not convince people of that larger truth, it is hard to say what will.

Milton Friedman was, if I may use a word worn from abuse for it is the only one that feels right, a giant. It is a cliche to say that some people will never die. In Friedman’s case it feels like the truth.

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The speed limits in this country are a joke.

Take for instance the 210, the main freeeway that serves the Pasadena area. Like most freeways, it is wide, well-maintained and has no sharp curves. The posted speed limit is 65 miles an hour.

On the 210 – for that matter on virtually every freeway I have taken – it is completely safe to drive about 15 miles faster than the posted limit. People realise this and they speed. Even the cops have stopped caring. They rarely pull over someone who is doing less than 80. Makes me wonder why we play out this charade.

I was driving down from the bay area on Sunday along the 5 freeway, and everyone was doing 90, myself included. The speed limit on the 5 is 70. This kind of thing happens all the time in California. People know that a speed limit of 65 means you can usually go at 80 without getting a speeding ticket, a speed limit of 70 means 85. Unfortunately this is not true in some other states (where the cops have nothing to do and are bored). Last summer I and a couple of buddies drove across the country, all the way to Michigan. We also earned three expensive tickets on the way.

I am not advocating that all speed-limits be eliminated. They are necessary in the cities. As for freeways, I think the posted speeds should be raised by about 10 miles an hour for freeway stretches that pass through cities, and done away with for the rest. Speeding does not cause accidents, reckless or bad driving does. A person in a car with good tires driving at 100 miles on an empty freeway is safer than one who is cutting lanes at 40 when everyone around him is doing 70. Besides, it is abundantly clear that unrealistic speed limits do not ensure compliance. They only lead to people keeping an eye out for highway patrols when they should be watching the road.

Arbitrary and unrealistically low speed limits have created a socially acceptable disdain for them. Today most people drive significantly faster than the law allows them to. More pertinently, the converse statement is also true. Most people only drive as fast as they feel safe in doing. They would not go faster than is safe even if they were allowed to. There was a study a few years ago that monitored average speeds on a road where the speed limit used to be 50. Then they raised it to 60 and they observed the speeds again. The average speed only went up by .5 miles. For a much more detailed study that comes to similar conclusions, click here.

Ultimately, the speed at which one ought to drive (like most other things in life) is best left to the judgement of the individual. The Germans realised this long ago, so there are no blanket speed limits on the Autobahn. That does not lead to more accidents in Germany than in neighbouring countries like France, which do have speed limits. Unfortunately in the US – Montana had to abandon its no-speed-limit policy under federal pressure – things seem to be moving in the opposite direction.

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On a related note, Alex Roy and his co-driver recently broke the unofficial transcontinental driving record, racing from New York City to the Santa Monica Pier in 31 hours. While I am not endorsing his deed, it does give me some perverse pleasure to read about it. There will always be people who like to drive really fast and are good enough to do so safely. And some of them will not be thwarted by speed limits.

Update: For those interested, here is a more extensive report of Alex Roy’s feat.

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A Bobby trap

Bobby Jindal has been elected the governor of Louisiana. He is the first Indian American governor in US history.

He also supports the teaching of creationism in American schools, favours a blanket ban on abortion, opposes stem cell research and is one of the staunchest supporters of the Iraq war.

Sigh..

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It was inevitable, after all. No one really expected the peaceful demonstrations of unarmed monks- no matter how many- to overthrow a miltary dictatorship. Yet, in this age of false propaganda, it is rare to have a genuine public movement for democracy, and Myanmar was perhaps the most genuine of them all. When such a thing is crushed, as it was, swiftly and brutally, a deep sense of regret is perhaps not out of order.

What was shamefully out of order, however, was India’s response to the situation. For days, India dithered and hesitated. She issued statements that meant absolutely nothing, and when the junta emerged victorious, she -no doubt relieved at not having to deal with change –resumed business as usual.

I do not dispute that India – like any other country – should put its interests first. But is it really in India’s long term interests to have Myanmar ruled by a hated military dictatorship? Will our causes not be better served by a free, stable, democratic Myanmar, where the rightful position of Prime Minister will be finally occupied, eighteen years after legitimate elections were nullified by the military, by a lady who was once a college girl in Delhi, who India awarded the Jawaharlal Nehru award in 1993, and who is – despite being under house arrest for two decades- one of the greatest beacons for freedom the world has ever known?

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Chalmers Johnson says in an interview to Pasadena Weekly:

But in the macro, I would say above all the fact that we were so flummoxed by 9/11. We were so surprised by a non-state actor bringing such enormous damage to us that we reverted to old ways of thinking. We had to go back and find a state that was responsible. We were not any good at chasing down al-Qaeda … so we began to redefine the issue in a way that the office of the Secretary of Defense could deal with it, namely to say that a secular Arab dictator was a root cause of al-Qaeda. This was absurd on its surface. We had to invent an enemy we could easily crush and destroy, which is what we went after, and we were awfully naive about the consequences of doing something like that.

I think that is an excellent summary of the mess in Iraq.

Also at the beginning of the interview:

PW: How do you go from being a Cold Warrior working for the CIA to writing a trilogy on American imperialism, as you’ve called it?

Chalmers Johnson: As John Maynard Keynes, the great English economist, once put it: “When I get new information, I change my position.”

How I wish the Indian Left politicians had a similar outlook!

Read the whole thing, it is worth it.

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Morning colours

I entered my kitchen lethargically and lit the stove. The flame flickered uncertainly, then became a strong bluish-white as I turned up the gas. I poured some water in a steel saucepan and put it on to boil.

It was early and my housemate wasn’t yet up. I walked over to the veranda and stood there for a few minutes, taking in the delicious morning air. The grass below was still wet from the night dew and smelt fresh and earthy. There was no one in the street except an old lady walking her dog at a measured pace. I followed her with my eyes as she drifted across my field of view, and then tiptoed  back to the kitchen.

For a while I gazed dully at my collection of knives, feeling nothing but the strange lethargy in my limbs and brain- then breaking free with a mild effort, I picked one up. It was a medium sized wood-handle stainless steel knife which I had used- despite its unsuitability for the task- to cut chicken thighs the previous morning. I dipped the steel blade in the hot water and the same instant Jo, my housemate, announced her arrival into the living room with a yawn.

“Geez, you are up early, aren’t you!” she exclaimed and walked into the bathroom.

She hadn’t seen the knife.

“Hi Jo, you look like you just had a beautiful dream,” I shouted back. Our conversations were always like this. But I liked her. She was sweet, though not sexy. This was the first time I had had a female housemate and I was enjoying the experience. We got along as well as housemates should.

Trying not to concentrate on the soft trickling sound of her peeing, I stared at the boiling water, the knife hidden between my legs. Eventually Jo came out of the bathroom and skipped towards me.

“What are you doing?” she demanded.

“What do you think I am doing?”

“I can see you are boiling water. Why?”

“Oatmeal”, I lied.

She seemed contented with my answer and went back to her room to presumably resume her dream. I dipped the knife in the boiling water again.

I continued in my dull task for about ten minutes before I was satisfied and took the knife out. Once again I could feel the lethargy gripping me, again I broke free. I selected a spot high on my arm, and pressed the tip of the knife into it. I was nervous, it was the first time I was doing this. My skin felt soft and plastic, and didn’t break. Changing tactics, I pressed the sharp edge of the knife against my arm and pushed upwards. This time it felt like attempting to cut through a particularly resilent chicken tendon. I hadn’t realized till now how tough human skin really is.

“Don’t give up!” I told my unwilling brain, and pressed some more. Something gave and my knife went in a couple of milimetres. I pulled it out almost instantly and stared at the spot on my arm that I had mutilated. For a couple of interminable seconds it looked almost normal, then a bright red blob of liquid started forming which grew larger and larger, until it was too big to stay together and dribbled down in a thin red line along my arm.

I wiped the wound clean, put some band-aid over it, and then returned to the kitchen to cook some oatmeal for breakfast.

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DJ in Delhi makes an innocuous joke about Gorkhas, feelings in Darjeeling and Siliguri are duly offended, violence erupts. The government, instead of prosecuting those who caused the violence in North Bengal, bans the radio channel for a week.

I don’t know what to say. Each time such a thing happens it makes me so angry. When will freedom ever be a real issue in India, something that neither a troublemaker will dare breach nor the government dare curtail, something that would actually matter in the elections?

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Mathiness

This term looks rather busy. I am taking two (possibly three) classes and teaching one. Blogging is likely to suffer as a result.

I am excited about the class I am teaching. It’s called “How to solve it” and teaches techniques for solving mathematical problems. It also doubles up as a training program for the Putnam competition. The Putnam, for those who don’t know, is an annual math competition for undergrads studying in the US. Compared to the IMO, the problems are similar (though somewhat easier) – however it offers significant monetary rewards (unlike the IMO). This last fact is exploited by our math department to fund our annual banquet, which is why I need to do a good job.

I am off to tea. Happy problem solving! 

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