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Archive for January, 2009

I was at a birthday party today when some of my friends started talking about the economic crisis and the stimulus. This is, more or less, how the conversation went.

Person A : Well, once the stimulus is passed there should be more grants because the NSF is getting so much money.

Person B : Yes, and it seems they have to spend it immediately, so basically any proposal that was a borderline reject will pass this time.

Person C : But there is a lot of extra nonsense in this bill. They are spending a billion dollars to prevent STD’s. How will that help the economy?

Person B : But that is the basic idea — the whole point is to create jobs.

Person C : So how does this help create jobs? How many people are employed to fight these STD’s?

Person B : More than you have any idea.

There’s a bit of back and forth about the STD prevention industry and its capacity.

Person C : But some say the bill should be more streamlined. Build more infrastructure. Spending on STD prevention is not the answer. They are just printing money.

Person B: No, you have to understand. The point is to put money into everything. That’s the basis of the trickle-down effect. The more areas you spend it in, the more the economy gets stimulated. It trickles down. Now if you believe this theory, it makes sense to spend. That’s what they are doing.

Person A : Actually I heard Jon Stewart talking about the ‘trickle up’ effect too. Give the money to us and let’s all save and it will trickle up.

Everyone laughs.

I was quiet during the entire discussion of course. But it felt a bit like being in a parallel universe.

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In this excellent piece, security guru Bruce Schneier comments on efforts by the Indian government to ban Google Earth in the aftermath of the Mumbai terror attacks.

Let’s all stop and take a deep breath. By its very nature, communications infrastructure is general. It can be used to plan both legal and illegal activities, and it’s generally impossible to tell which is which. When I send and receive email, it looks exactly the same as a terrorist doing the same thing. To the mobile phone network, a call from one terrorist to another looks exactly the same as a mobile phone call from one victim to another. Any attempt to ban or limit infrastructure affects everybody. If India bans Google Earth, a future terrorist won’t be able to use it to plan; nor will anybody else. Open Wi-Fi networks are useful for many reasons, the large majority of them positive, and closing them down affects all those reasons. Terrorist attacks are very rare, and it is almost always a bad trade-off to deny society the benefits of a communications technology just because the bad guys might use it too.

Communications infrastructure is especially valuable during a terrorist attack. Twitter was the best way for people to get real-time information about the attacks in Mumbai. If the Indian government shut Twitter down – or London blocked mobile phone coverage – during a terrorist attack, the lack of communications for everyone, not just the terrorists, would increase the level of terror and could even increase the body count. Information lessens fear and makes people safer.

[…] Criminals have used telephones and mobile phones since they were invented. Drug smugglers use airplanes and boats, radios and satellite phones. Bank robbers have long used cars and motorcycles as getaway vehicles, and horses before then. I haven’t seen it talked about yet, but the Mumbai terrorists used boats as well. They also wore boots. They ate lunch at restaurants, drank bottled water, and breathed the air. Society survives all of this because the good uses of infrastructure far outweigh the bad uses, even though the good uses are – by and large – small and pedestrian and the bad uses are rare and spectacular. And while terrorism turns society’s very infrastructure against itself, we only harm ourselves by dismantling that infrastructure in response – just as we would if we banned cars because bank robbers used them too.

I made a related point last month in my reaction to the same news.

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Having a Wall Street boyfriend isn’t as attractive when there is a financial crisis.

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A few weeks ago, I linked to this story of a 22 year old female college student who took advantage of prostitution-friendly Nevada laws to auction her virginity online for $3.8 million. Her explanation?

Like most little girls, I was raised to believe that virginity is a sacred gift a woman should reserve for just the right man. But college taught me that this concept is just a tool to keep the status quo intact. Deflowering is historically oppressive—early European marriages began with a dowry, in which a father would sell his virginal daughter to the man whose family could offer the most agricultural wealth. Dads were basically their daughters’ pimps.

When I learned this, it became apparent to me that idealized virginity is just a tool to keep women in their place. But then I realized something else: if virginity is considered that valuable, what’s to stop me from benefiting from that? It is mine, after all. And the value of my chastity is one level on which men cannot compete with me. I decided to flip the equation, and turn my virginity into something that allows me to gain power and opportunity from men. I took the ancient notion that a woman’s virginity is priceless and used it as a vehicle for capitalism.

Read her whole post.

A chick that loves capitalism and has no moral qualms about selling sex. We need more people like her.

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(See updates below)

(This post, for legal reasons that will be obvious, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 License.)

Gaurav Sabnis writes about the unfortunate case of blogger Chetan Kunte, whose views about Barkha Dutt’s “unethical reporting” apparently caused NDTV to browbeat him into deleting the post and replacing it with an apology.

It does not take a PhD in reading between the lines to guess what happened. NDTV probably sent Kunte a legal notice, asking him to pull the post down, apologize, never write about them again, and pay an absurdly massive amount of money. Remember this legal notice from a few years back? Seems like NDTV might have used the same basic wording.

I don’t know if that is true. I do strongly suspect, however, that someone acted like a bully. Gaurav notes that Chetan’s post is available through Google Cache. Since I do not know how long it will stay there, I am going to cross-post the entire thing here. I am not violating Kunte’s copyright because his license terms (the same as this particular post) allow me to republish his writing with attribution. [Update: see below] I also believe that his entire post was basically a collection of opinions and not literal statements of fact; hence Kunte did not defame Barkha Dutt/NDTV by writing this post and I am not doing so by posting it here.

I urge all bloggers who feel similarly to do the same.

Appalling journalism. Absolute blasphemy! As I watch the news from home, I am dumbfounded to see Barkha Dutt of NDTV break every rule of ethical journalism in reporting the Mumbai mayhem. Take a couple of instances for example:

In one instance she asks a husband about his wife being stuck, or held as a hostage. The poor guy adds in the end about where she was last hiding. Aired! My dear friends with AK-47s, our national news is helping you. Go get those still in. And be sure to thank NDTV for not censoring this bit of information.

In another instance, a General sort of suggests that there were no hostages in Oberoi Trident. (Clever.) Then, our herione of revelations calls the head of Oberoi, and the idiot confirms a possibility of 100 or more people still in the building. Hello! Guys with guns, you’ve got more goats to slay. But before you do, you’ve got to love NDTV and more precisely Ms. Dutt. She’s your official intelligence from Ground zero.

You do not need to be a journalist to understand the basic premise of ethics, which starts with protecting victims first; and that is done by avoiding key information from being aired publicly—such as but not limited to revealing the number of possible people still in, the hideouts of hostages and people stuck in buildings.

Imagine you’re one of those sorry souls holed-up in one of those bathrooms, or kitchens. A journalist pulls your kin outside and asks about your last contact on national television, and other prying details. In a bout of emotion, if they happen to reveal more details, you are sure going to hell. Remember these are hotels, where in all likelihood, every room has a television. All a terrorist needs to do is listen to Ms. Barkha Dutt’s latest achievement of extracting information from your relative, based on your last phone-call or SMS. And you’re shafted—courtesy NDTV.1

If the terrorists don’t manage to shove you in to your private hell, the journalists on national television will certainly help you get there. One of the criticisms about Barkha Dutt on Wikipedia reads thus:

During the Kargil conflict, Indian Army sources repeatedly complained to her channel that she was giving away locations in her broadcasts, thus causing Indian casualties.

Looks like the idiot journalist has not learnt anything since then. I join a number of bloggers pleading her to shut the f⋅⋅⋅ up.

Update: In fact, I am willing to believe that Hemant Karkare died because these channels showed him prepare (wear helmet, wear bullet-proof vest.) in excruciating detail live on television. And they in turn targeted him where he was unprotected. The brave officer succumbed to bullets in the neck.

Update 2 [28.Nov.2300hrs]: Better sense appears to have prevailed in the latter half of today—either willfully, or by Government coercion2, and Live broadcasts are now being limited to non-action zones. Telecast of action troops and strategy is now not being aired live. Thank goodness for that.

Update 3 [30.Nov.1900hrs]: DNA India reports about a UK couple ask media to report carefully:

The terrorists were watching CNN and they came down from where they were in a lift after hearing about us on TV.
— Lynne Shaw in an interview.

Oh, they have a lame excuse pronouncing that the television connections in the hotel has been cut, and therefore it is okay to broadcast. Like hell! [←]

I’m thinking coercion, since Government has just denied renewing CNN’s rights to air video today; must’ve have surely worked as a rude warning to the Indian domestic channels. [←]

I should probably add that I do not agree with Kunte’s opinions. However that is hardly relevant in this context.

[Update: It appears I was mistaken in reading the license; the Creative Commons license governs the Google Cache blog, not Kunte’s blog. (I thought they were the same blog). So it is possible that my republishing Kunte’s post above  violates his copyright. On the other hand, since the original post is no longer available on the author’s blog, my posting it here has news reporting value; so it may well come under ‘fair use’. Anyway, for now, this post stays.]

[Update 2: In a Facebook group, Barkha Dutt (or someone impersonating her) confirms that NDTV did send Kunte a legal notice.

you may want to know that the author of this email- a certain Mr. Kunte who lives in Holland.. has been sent a legal notice by NDTV for the rubbish and lies peddled in this email.

Best Regards

Barkha Dutt.

This whole case has been a PR nightmare for NDTV. If they have any sense whatsoever, they will issue a dignified statement about free speech, retract the threat to Kunte and shut up on this topic henceforth.]

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“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has” — Margaret Mead.

As we all know, governments do one thing really well — telling us how to run our lives. Thus, most places in the world (for instance every US state except New Hampshire) makes it mandatory that you wear seatbelts while driving. Surprisingly though, most US states do not require motorcycle riders to wear helmets. How did this strange situation come about?

The answer is fairly simple; motorcyclists, against all odds, fought for their freedom and won it. That stirring story is recounted with delicious pleasure by Jacob Sullum in this old Reason article.

In 2003 there were 5.4 million registered motorcycles in the U.S., compared to about 136 million registered cars. Despite their relatively small numbers, motorcyclists have been far more effective than drivers at resisting traffic safety paternalism. After some initial grumbling, most motorists got used to buckling up and are now unlikely to put up much resistance as states move toward primary enforcement, allowing police to pull people over for not wearing seat belts (as opposed to issuing citations after stopping them for other reasons). By contrast, going back to the 1971 founding of the American Brotherhood Against Totalitarian Enactments (ABATE) by the staff of Easyriders magazine, motorcyclists have been willing to invest the time, effort, and money required to fight helmet laws.

And this happened because motorcyclists, with a fierce passion, think that people ought to be able to lead their lives the way they deem fit. They believe they should have the freedom to make their own choices, including ones that are risky or potentially lethal. And they are prepared to protect this freedom by every means at their disposal.

“Motorcyclists believe in freedom, and we attack anything that is attacking our freedom,” explains Robert Fletcher, coordinator of the Texas ABATE Confederation. “Helmet laws go against the grain of everything this country stands for,” says New York Myke, ABATE of California’s state director and owner of San Diego Harley Davidson. Just as abortion rights groups insist they do not favor abortion, motorcyclist groups are at pains to make it clear they do not oppose helmets. Jeff Hennie, vice president for government relations at the D.C.-based Motorcycle Riders Foundation, says, “What we’re advocating is freedom of choice….It should be the decision of the rider whether to put on extra safety equipment.” He describes the attitude of helmet law opponents this way: “Let me decide what is right for me, instead of the government jamming regulations down my throat.”

[…]

The view of helmets as confining and stifling meshes with the sentiment that forcing people to wear them ruins what is for many riders a visceral experience of freedom. “We’re passionate about our motorcycles,” says ABATE of California’s Myke. “This is something that’s more of a way of life than a hobby or a sport. It really goes to the core of our being….Riding a motorcycle is my celebration of freedom.” Few motorists feel the same way about driving, which for most of us is a workaday means of getting around, not an important part of our identities.

Sullum goes into details about how the motorcyclists argued, demonstrated and lobbied. There were defeats and there were victories. But they never gave up.

What makes their achievement all the more astounding is that they never had either the numbers or the support of the public.

To block or repeal helmet laws, activists must convince legislators to defy public opinion. While a 1978 Louis Harris poll found that 57 percent of Americans thought motorcyclists should be free to ride without helmets, a 2001 survey by the same organization found that 81 percent thought helmets should be required. Add to that the fact that the fatality rate per mile traveled is more than 25 times as high for motorcycles as it is for cars, and the success of helmet law opponents is even more impressive.

But my favourite part of Sullum’s article is the last paragraph, where he is at his eloquent best.

In the final analysis, not enough people took seat belt laws personally. For the most part, whatever objections they harbored were overcome by force of law and force of habit. By contrast, substantial numbers of motorcyclists have complained loudly, conspicuously, and persistently about helmet laws for more than three decades. “Apparently,” says the National Safety Council’s Ulczycki, “legislators are easily convinced that the perceived rights of motorcyclists to injure themselves are more important than the public good.” Aside from the tendentious definition of “the public good,” this gloss is misleading on two counts: Resistance to helmet laws hasn’t been easy, and it hasn’t necessarily involved convincing legislators of anything but the motorcyclists’ determination. Politicians didn’t have to understand their passion to respect it. And therein lies a lesson for the world’s busybodies and petty tyrants.

Sullum is right. If a small group of people care strongly enough for liberty, there are ways to make legislators fall in line. For that you do not have to make them understand you, merely make them understand your resoluteness . How I wish car-owners shared some of this passion that motorcyclists have!

However my short review does no justice to Sullum’s long, well-researched and wonderfully narrated article. Read the whole thing.

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Of late I have enrolled at a gym for Crossfit and Krav Maga. I will write a detailed post a month or two later, but for now, watch this video of the amazing (and beautiful) Nicole Carroll of Crossfit fame attempting 15 overhead squats of her bodyweight (125 lb). 

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Eric Posner’s article on Cass Sunstein is an excellent profile of the man’s views and positions and it also accurately summarises why I am happy about the Sunstein appointment.

Sunstein has strong liberal instincts—his work is animated by his concern for the rights and well-being of poor and vulnerable people and oppressed groups—and he believes that government is there to help. But what makes his work so interesting and influential is that he has a hard-headed appreciation of the problems of government, and has explored, with extraordinary imagination, approaches to regulation that harness the power of government without unduly infringing on people’s freedom or in other ways producing bad outcomes.

The approach that has received the most attention recently is Sunstein’s argument (with Dick Thaler) in support of what they call “libertarian paternalism,” government policies that help prevent errors that people predictably make because of cognitive biases (Sunstein is a prominent critic of the rational actor model used by economists) without interfering with the choices of sophisticated people who know their interests better than the government does. This book is a perfect example of how Sunstein thinks. He shares the liberal-friendly view that people do not always act in their rational self-interest and therefore benefit from government regulation, but he rejects the strongly paternalistic policies that have done more harm than good and are in any event politically unpopular and have led to backlash. His middle way is a sophisticated attempt to support a kind of regulation that might do some good and enjoy political support from both sides of the spectrum, and hence actually have a chance to persist across administrations and vicissitudes in public opinion.

[…]

Sunstein is one of the most talented academics around. With his deep knowledge of government regulation, he would be the perfect head of OIRA. Among the many people I have met in academia and government, he is one of the least ideologically rigid, one of the most open to argument and evidence. His critics should at least admit that he will give a fair hearing to their concerns. He would be an extraordinary asset for the Obama administration.

To read all Sunstein-tagged posts on this blog, click here.

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[Post edited]

From his latest column:

[W]rite off anyone who asserts that it’s always better to cut taxes than to increase government spending because taxpayers, not bureaucrats, are the best judges of how to spend their money.

Here’s how to think about this argument: it implies that we should shut down the air traffic control system. After all, that system is paid for with fees on air tickets — and surely it would be better to let the flying public keep its money rather than hand it over to government bureaucrats. If that would mean lots of midair collisions, hey, stuff happens.

I cannot make any sense of this purported analogy. Even ignoring the ridiculous comparison that glosses over distinctions between regulating commons and regulating private property, it seems that Krugman believes that if the government did not provide something, then it simply would not exist.

Here’s Nick Gillespie’s post on Krugman’s stimulus arguments.

Krugman is right about one thing though; there are both good and bad faith arguments going on about the economic crisis. I will let the reader decide which category Krugman’s column falls in.

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The Mumbai terror attacks were remarkable, not just for their audacity and horrifying elements, but also for the spontaneous reaction it elicited from the public. Citizens across India demonstrated in massive numbers and expressed their outrage against terrorists and politicians. There were posters and sloguns and an atmosphere of common purpose. The numbers were massive, the intensity electrifying, the cause just.

However I wonder.

I wonder what those protesters, proud Indians all, who presumably are outraged at Pakistani terrorists killing our people and overjoyed about our economic growth and rapid urbanization, feel about Raj Thackeray’s dictats to out-staters, the culture of entitled offendedness that pervades our society and makes people force their beliefs on others, the recent incident where a Pakistani girl studying in Mumbai was assaulted  for having an Urdu tattoo on her body or this other incident where Ram Sena activists beat up pub goers for behaving ‘immorally’.

I wonder if they think twice when they read about Sania Mirza getting harrassed for keeping her feet too close to our flag, Taslima Nasreen being told what she cannot write, M F Hussain’s paintings being vandalized, Tamil movies being ‘banned’ in Karnataka, arrests made for writing derogatory stuff about politicians or Harbhajan Singh being dragged to court for dressing up as Ravana in a TV show. If they do, they certainly do not show it.

So, while I am happy that my country has been recording good economic growth and all that, I fail to muster up enough enthusiasm about the grassroot protests that took place after the Mumbai attacks. There is little to argue about a terrorist attack; we all agree it is horrifying and wrong and that the perpetrators should be punished. Protests and all are fine and good, but there is hardly much moral ambiguity at stake there. On the other hand, the incidents I mention are commonplace and related in that they all involve a complete disregard for individual liberty. There are principles at stake there, principles worth fighting for. So, when I see that my countrymen, who proved their amazing ability to gather together  and protest less than two months ago, display little or no outrage at all these incidents I have mentioned above, it tells me something — their values are not really pro-liberty, their conception of morality not necessarily mine.

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Ashutosh points me to this fine article by Atul Gawande on healthcare reform in the US. While the overall viewpoint of the author is pragmatic liberal, the emphasis is definitely on the pragmatic — indeed, his insistence on the value of building upon existing institutions rather than attempting a drastic overhaul gives the piece a slightly Burkean conservative flavor. In any case, it is an article worth checking out, even if you, like me, don’t agree with much of what he says.

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TOI is a haven for extraordinary writing but today they have surpassed themselves. Have a look at this piece, titled “Have a heart.” It begins:

Manmohan Singh’s sternest critics will not deny that the prime minister is, if nothing else, all heart. And, regrettably, that heart is in trouble.

What eloquence, what depth of feeling. I wish I could write with half as much heart.

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I am a long time reader of Radley Balko’s outstanding blog, The Agitator, and I have seldom seen him this jubilant.

From yesterday’s post:

Credit where it’s due: Well done, Mr. Obama. I’m sure we’ll have our differences, but afer your first 40+ hours on the job, this libertarian couldn’t be happier.

The tally:

  • Obama rescinded Bush’s 2001 executive order allowing former presidents, vice presidents, and their heirs to claim executive privilege in determining which of their records get released to the public. Even better, he’s requiring the signature of both his White House counsel and the attorney general before he can classify a document under executive privilege.
  • Issued a memorandum to all executive agencies asking them to come up with a new plan for open government and complying with FOIA requests. […]
  • Put a freeze on the salaries of top White House aides.
  • Suspended the military trials at Gitmo, and is expected to issue an order closing Gitmo as soon as today.
  • Said this:

    “For a long time now there has been too much secrecy in this city.  […] The mere fact that you have the legal power to keep something secret does not mean you should use it. The Freedom of Information Act is perhaps the most powerful instrument we have for making our government honest and transparent and holding it accountable. I expect my administration not only to live up to the letter but the spirit of this law.”

  • Yes, it’s only been one day. But this is mighty impressive. Obama’s top priority upon taking office was to sign orders rolling back his predecessor’s expansion of executive power. Put another way, Obama’s top priority upon taking office was to institute limits on his own power.

    That’s something even a cynic like me can celebrate.

    And today:

    Rock ‘n’ Roll:

    President Obama yesterday eliminated the most controversial tools employed by his predecessor against terrorism suspects. […]Key components of the secret structure developed under Bush are being swept away: The military’s Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, facility, where the rights of habeas corpus and due process had been denied detainees, will close, and the CIA is now prohibited from maintaining its own overseas prisons. And in a broad swipe at the Bush administration’s lawyers, Obama nullified every legal order and opinion on interrogations issued by any lawyer in the executive branch after Sept. 11, 2001.

    It’s worth emphasizing again here these steps Obama’s taking effectively limit his own power. That’s extraordinary.

    […]

    In that regard, if I may borrow a phrase: mission accomplished.

    I wouldn’t go so far as to say mission accomplished. But these are certainly very important steps and ones that libertarians ought to applaud the president for. 

    I have criticized Obama on several occasions on this blog. Undoubtedly I’ll do so on many more. His basic economic philosophy is some kind of pragmatic statism, his ideology stresses on sacrifices and obligations rather than liberty and he displayed some disturbing tendencies towards censorship during the campaign. But he is also a sensible and highly intelligent person and his actions so far have been far more friendly towards freedom than his rhetoric has been (that’s a trade-off I’ll happily take).

    So credit where credit’s due. Well done.

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    Freedom has taken a battering in Netherlands lately and this latest news is a sad day for those of us who believe in free speech.

    On a related note, it might be interesting to try and figure out what’s the best place for free speech today.

    USA? Perhaps has the broadest protections for speech anywhere (thanks to the greatest piece of law ever written) with one sad exception: the obscenity statute. A culture of political correctness that is stronger than continental Europe does, however act as a social deterrent against certain types of speech.

    Denmark? You will certainly not be prosecuted for obscenity, but hate speech laws exist — though they are rarely enforced.

    Switzerland? Similar to Denmark, but also has laws against holocaust denial.

    Netherlands? Till recently this would have been my answer, since their hate speech laws are not as broad and they will certainly not censor porn. Unfortunately they do have laws against discriminatory speech, which is what Wilders is (presumably) being charged under.

    Ireland? I don’t know too much, but seems to be a good place. Technically laws against speech that ‘undermine public morality’ exist, but they are never enforced. They do not appear to have hate speech laws or holocaust denial laws.

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    [Post edited] I discovered this video today. It is a recording of a speech Obama made more than an year ago. The familiar themes of collectivist altruism (this is Obama after all!) have their place but the speech is mainly about religion in a political context. Having heard many good and not so good Obama speeches, I think the one ranks among his best. It is extremely substantive and gives a lot of insight into Obama’s thinking on these matters. As an atheist, I find 26:50 to 31:30 particularly relevant.

    Another very significant section is 21:50 to 22:39 where Obama talks of personal morality and its effect on political philosophy. This should be heard in conjunction with 28:25 to 29:44. Of course, Obama is talking in a religious context here but I think it is interesting to reinterpret these passages as applied to ideologies, particularly those with a moral  component. I hope to expand on this theme in one of my long planned essays.

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