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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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