Monday, July 31, 2006

Fair, though hardly lovely

[Just a quick post. Regular blogging will resume Wednesday. Though you can check out my views on Omkara here]

A friend sent me this link to a petition to Unilever criticising Fair & Lovely and asking (I think) that they stop equating fairness with beauty in their advertisements. The petition reads:

This is a petition to Unilever to recognize the socially detrimental impacts of obsession with physical fairness. Unilever currently markets a product called 'Fair and Lovely' which in its advertising and product information equates fairness with beauty. Even if the product reflects an already existing social belief among people that fairer skin is an indicator of better physical appearance, a company making a product supporting such a notion and making money out of it is socially irresponsible, and treading a racially discriminatory line. If the product should continue to be sold, it should desist from comparing fairness with goodlooks overtly in its title. In fact, a company of Unilever's international range of products and revenues should not be selling such a product at all.

You can go sign it here.

Personally, I have my reservations about the petition. The idea that fairness somehow equals beauty is one that I don't understand, and I recognise the quasi-racist attitude that underlies that assumption, but I'm not sure that this petition makes too much sense.

First, attacking Unilever for prevailing social attitudes is a little like attacking the cart because it led the horse down the wrong road. While it's probably true that Unilever's advertising contributes to the strengthening of the perceived importance of fairness, it's hardly the root cause of that attitude, and if we start attacking advertising that is 'socially irresponsible' because it uses social attitudes that we disapprove of to sell its products, then we'd pretty much have to shut down 80% of ads on TV. And do we really believe that if Unilever stopped advertising Fair and Lovely the way it currently does, the market for such products would die? It feels unfair to be penalising Levers for doing a good job with a sales campaign. [1]

Second, even if Unilever is contributing to the propagation of a socially harmful message, why shouldn't they? They're not forcing anyone to buy anything. They're not spreading pollution or destroying the environment. They're not selling a product that is toxic in any way. Ideas, however unattractive, are not crimes. Who, exactly, is being harmed by Unilever's campaign, and how? It's not Unilever's job to reform social values, it's their job to make as much money for their shareholders as they can, and that's what they're doing.

Third, I'm not sure why Fair and Lovely is so much worse than any other cosmetic product in the market. If we are protesting something, why wouldn't we protest the idea that physical appearance is a valid measure of human worth - that good looking people (women) are somehow better than those who are less beautiful. If it's okay to emphasise the importance of physical beauty, and create products that glorify stereotypical images of what 'beautiful' is, then I don't see why making fair skin a part of that description is such a bad thing. Why is it okay to argue that redder lips make you more beautiful, but not that fairer skin makes you lovely? How is Fair and Lovely any worse than eyeliner or lipstick?

Fourth, I don't know why we would want to control an individual's subjective opinion on physical attractiveness. If people choose to believe that fair is beautiful, that's their loss. I don't know why we, as a society would want to force a politically correct aesthetic judgement on them. The line between discrimination and opinion is a thin one, but there is a difference. I have the right to decide who or what I find beautiful and why; though I don't have the right to discriminate against people on the basis of this in a professional space. I'm welcome to think my fair-skinned co-worker is really ugly, as long as it doesn't affect how I deal with her at work.

Fifth, what is the petition actually asking for? It seems to demand that Unilever sell the product without equating fairness with beauty. I'm not sure how this is to be done. For one thing, the brand name itself connects fairness to beauty, and I can't imagine Unilever giving up a brand like Fair and Lovely just to send a more politically correct message. Also, even if they were to make the message less explicit, who would they be fooling? Suppose they said "use our cream and it'll make you fairer, not lovelier, necessarily, just fairer". Would that really help? What other reason is there for buying a bleaching cream, except to (supposedly) improve your appearance? If the argument is that fairness should not be considered a positive quality at all, and that we as a society should attack companies to make this attitude go away, then the logical way is to argue that bleaching creams themselves be made unavailable, not that their advertising not talk about beauty and fairness in the same breath.

Don't misunderstand me. I agree whole-heartedly that the preference for fair skin is shockingly bad aesthetics and that Unilever's participation in supporting that attitude is despicable. But there's a difference between having no respect for someone and accusing him of doing something wrong. Unilever's error is one of taste and 'decency', not one of ethics.

[1] It's rare enough that they do this. Take the Sunsilk Gang of Girls promotion. Can anyone think of a more clueless marketing strategy? Were these folks asleep in 2000 when all these 'Websites for Women' popped up and went bust in a matter of months? And even if the Sunsilk folks manage to create a community of giggly teenagers online, why would this lead to higher sales of Sunsilk products? How many people actually participate in online communities (is it really a significant portion of their target market)? What do consumers look for in picking a shampoo brand (is 'this brand has a cool lifestyle portal' really a key criteria)? Who in the household makes the purchase decision (is it really the teenager sitting on her computer chatting away about boyfriends)?

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

at fides et ingeni benigna vena est

Is it just me, or do other people like reading poems in languages they don't understand?

I know it sounds strange, but there's something fascinating about poetry in a foreign language - listening to the pure rhythm of the words, unalloyed with meaning, spotting a familiar word here or there and trying to imagine the rest. It's such fun, for instance, reading Neruda in the original. Or Paz. Or Rilke.

Or, for that matter, this:

Musis amicus tristitiam et metus
tradam protervis in mare Crecitum
portare ventis, quis sub Arcto
rex gelidae metuatur orae,

quid Tiridaten terreat, unice
securus. o quae fontibus integris
gaudes, apricos necte flores,
necte meo Lamiae coronam.

Piplei dulcis! nil sine te mei
prosunt honores: hunc fidibus novis,
hunc Lesbio sacrare plectro
teque tuasque decet sorores.
- Horace. Odes 1.XXVI
I'm giving the translation below, in case you're interested, but seriously - read it. Can't you just hear the rhythm of that first line? Or feel the richness of "apricos necte flores, necte meo Lamiae coronam"? Or the rousing call of "Piplei dulcis!"?

Translation (by Patrick Bronte):

To the wave and the wind, while the muses are kind,
My cares and my sorrows I'll fling;
Nor e'er with the question will trouble my mind
Of the snow-covered north, who is king:
Or what is the dread, o'er the Parthian's head -
That the shades of misfortune may bring.

O, Goddess divine, the first of the Nine,
Who lovest the fountain clear,
A garland of spring's sweetest offering twine
For the brows of my Lamia dear,
Since oh! without Thee honour to me
Nor pleasure nor profit can bear!

Thou and they sisters, his praises to sing,
Once more awaken the Lesbian string!

P.S. Am going to be travelling the next few days, so may not be updating my blog. See you next week.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006


The train was late. Again. The garbled voice on the public address system didn't say how long it would be, it just said it was 'delayed'. That sounded ominous. He cursed under his breath. Every minute spent stuck here on the platform would make it more difficult, he knew. That was the trouble with living out in the suburbs - all you got was one train every hour and even that never showed up on time. He wondered what the trouble was with this one. Probably the usual story. Some commuter shuttle being given priority over this regional line.

Maybe it was something more exotic though. Maybe there'd been an accident of some sort. Maybe some poor soul had thrown himself under the train. It happened every few weeks. They would all read about it in the paper the next morning.

He toyed with the idea of buying a paper to kill the time. No, what was the point? There would be nothing of interest, and besides he had very little money now - he'd set out with barely enough. He poked around in his pockets and found a half eaten packet of M&Ms. It was all he had eaten today. He just hadn't got around to it. He pulled out the packet and emptied the last few pieces into his palm. Popped them all into his mouth in one go, as though they were medicine. Something about the sweet taste of the chocolate in his mouth sickened him, set his teeth on edge. He crumpled the now empty packet in his fist, threw it angrily into the bin.

Almost ten minutes late now. He could feel the anxiety building up inside him, the restlessness like an itching between his shoulders, driving him forward. He walked to the end of the platform, peered down the track, as though hoping to conjure the train up. Still no sign. No fresh announcements either. Come on, come on, how long was this going to take? He walked up and down the platform, swearing under his breath. That wouldn't do. People were starting to stare. He mustn't draw attention to himself - not now - that was the worst thing he could do. He turned around and looked the old biddies who were watching him in the eye. He gave them a polite smile - half apologetic, half frustrated. The smile of a man who is ashamed to have lost his temper but hopes you understand why. Then he turned around and walked to the end of the platform again.

Sixteen minutes and counting. Suddenly, the loudspeaker crackled into action. The train was coming! It would be here soon. Right. One final check in his pockets to make sure the paper was still there. He could see the train now, the engine rounding the curve by the river, approaching the station with an air of barely concealed impatience. Behind him he could hear the other passengers stirring. Papers were being folded, bags were being lifted off the ground. There was a sense of anticipation in the air. He didn't look around though. His eyes were fixed on the train, willing it to come faster, willing it to arrive. It had to be this one, he knew. It had to be now.

He waited until the front of the engine had almost reached the platform. Then, with a quick rush forward, he threw himself in its path.

[Hat-tip to Shoe-fiend, whose post two weeks ago vaguely inspired this]

Monday, July 24, 2006

A spammer in the works

Okay, now I know that I've moved to China.

First the government goes around blocking websites and wants me to show id at cybercafes. Now I'm getting Chinese spam.

No, seriously, for the last three days, all the mail in my Gmail spam folder has been in Chinese. Is this happening to anyone else? I'm starting to get a little worried here. There's something about the idea that one billion people out there might want me to buy cheaper prescription medication that makes me very afraid.

Not that I know what the mails say, of course. (For a script based on symbols, it's suprisingly hard to figure out the words for 'penis enlargement' in Mandarin) For all I know there is some desperate political dissident out there sending me top-secret military information at the risk of his / her life, and I just keep deleting it. Or, even more critically, it could be the recipe for the perfect egg salad.


As I've grown older, the spam I get has matured with me. At first, all I would get were mails promising to restore my virility. Then at some point those stopped coming and I started getting offers for mortgages and credit instead. Now all I seem to get are offers for cheaper prescription medication.

Do these spammers know something that I don't? Does the fact that I never get ads for viagra substitutes any more mean that even the spam community has figured out that I'm never going to get a date again?

I don't know what I resent most - the implication that I'm a sex-crazed maniac with really tiny equipment, the insinuation that I'm a financial deadbeat with a two digit credit rating and no conceivable hope of ever finding employment, or the suggestion that I'm a geriatric old man who's way past the point where he has to worry about either of the other two. [1]


And speaking of spam in Gmail, have you ever noticed how when you go to the spam folder you always get these links to food products made out of spam (my folder currently shows a link to a recipe for Spam Primavera)? Shouldn't someone have figured out by now that when people click on this folder they're talking about a different kind of spam[2]? Somewhere in outer Elbonia there are a bunch of marketing executives trying to figure out why nobody will buy their spam burgers, despite the fact that their ad gets 156,230,492 views a day.


[1] Needless to say, none of those are true.

[2] Alternatively, of course, there may be people who actually are so fond of eating spam that they have a seperate folder for it. I'm sure they must be wondering why people keep sending them all these messages for penile implants. We don't want a bigger c*ck, they probably reply, we like our meat canned and pre-cooked, thanks.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Maximum Silly

Of all the intensely silly things said and written about the Mumbai blasts, Suketu Mehta's essay in last week's issue of TIME (which I just got around to reading) has to be about the silliest.

Mehta starts with an anecdote about a stockbroker wounded in the bombing who receives a visit from Manmohan Singh in hospital and takes the opportunity to praise the prime minister for economic reforms. Huh? Okay, let's say this actually happened, and isn't a story someone made up because it sounds good. Is it anything like a mainstream reaction? Were the majority of Mumbai's citizens sitting around their homes on Tuesday night thinking, sure we got bombed, sure the economic reforms process seems to have come to a complete standstill, but because Manmohan Singh helped liberalise India's economy 15 years ago, we should all feel grateful? Come on. Mehta writes:

"In any other city, if the leader of the nation were to come to the sickbed of a person grievously wounded by a terrorist bombing, the first thought in the victim's head would probably not be to praise the leader's economic policy. But for the young broker—and for most of those wounded in the Bombay blasts...the admiration arises from the main reason why they live in Bombay: to make money."

Maybe I just talk to the wrong people, but I sincerely doubt that the first thought in most victim's heads was to praise their leader's economic policy. We weren't all sitting around Tuesday night thinking - but at least we're making a lot of money. And that, on the whole, is something I'm thankful for.

But it gets worse. Having talked about how Mumbai is the 'golden songbird' (who says these things?[1]) Mehta goes on to gripe about the Reader's Digest survey which says that Mumbai is one of the rudest cities in the world. So important a point does he think this, that he dedicates a good quarter of his essay to cribbing about how people don't understand the civic spirit of Mumbai.

For God's sake - two hundred people just died. Is how rude the Reader's Digest thinks the city is really our top concern right now? Who reads the Readers Digest anyway? Who cares what they think? Are we really so desperate for external affirmation that the most critical thing we see coming out of the bombings is that it refutes the Reader's Digest survey [2]? Personally, I can't think of anything more trivial. Mehta writes:

"Readers Digest's editors should now eat the July issue of their magazine, page by page"

Get over it already.

Mehta then goes on to give us the usual cliches about India's democratic, tolerant heritage - Sikh Prime Minister, Muslim President, Italian Catholic head of the ruling coalition - the standard shorthand. But all this wonderful communal harmony is not the reason that Bombay didn't break into riots. No sir. According to Mehta, it's because the city recognises that rioting is bad for business. Does anyone else think this is being overly cynical? Is the reason we're all tolerant and civic-minded really because we all want to make more money? And if that's true, is it really reason to celebrate? Maybe I'm naive, but I'd like to think that a good part of the reason people behave decently is because they are fundamentally decent, not because they've done the math and figured out the exact loss, in basis points, that starting a riot will cause.

Finally, just so that you don't think that he's being too self-congratulatory - Mehta comes up with a litany of Bombay's problems - condition of roads, lack of sanitation and water supply, which he concludes with the observation:

"Perhaps this horrific tragedy will powerfully focus the government on the problems of the country's galloping urbanization, and the dire need to invest in infrastructure."

Huh? So because some terrorists bombed a local train, the government's suddenly going to wake up to the fact that millions of Mumbai's people live in inhuman slum conditions? Would someone care to explain the logic of this to me? Does anyone else happen to believe this?

There's a scene in Asterix and the Cauldron, where Asterix and Obelix are taking part in an 'experimental' play, and the director tells Obelix that when called upon he should just walk forward and say the first thing that comes into his head (Obelix's statement - "These Romans are crazy" - lands the director in prison, waiting to be fed to the lions). Someone should tell Mr. Mehta that such random free association is not a good technique to use while writing an article for the international press about Mumbai's reactions to the blast. His piece is meandering, irrelevant, petty and at least from what I've heard or read, a gross misrepresentation of the general public reaction to the blasts. I've been trying to get my hands on Mehta's book - Maximum City - for a while now, but if this is what it reads like then I'm going to stop looking.


[1] Well, Mehta for one. He's so fond of calling Bombay the 'songbird' that he does it four times in a one page article. Once was bad enough, but four times? Shudder!

[2] Which it doesn't actually - there's no contradiction between people being generally rude and coming together to help in a genuine crisis. I don't think that Bombay is a particularly rude city - I think it's largely a function of what patterns of behaviour you see as being standard etiquette - but the fact that people helped others after a bombing doesn't mean that they aren't generally rude to each other.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Two unfinished thoughts

According to legend, so swift and skilful a swordsman was mighty Achilles that when he brought his sword down upon the head of his enemy, the skull clave instantly and the victim never had the chance to know that he had been killed, the very thought of death in his brain being split into two.

(55 words)

Friday, July 21, 2006

Paying the Piper

I never did finish the series about my career in theatre did I? (No, NOT my career in theatrics - that's far from over).

My first ever performance was in a school Annual Day production of The Pied Piper. The play itself went something like this (you all know the story):

Scene 1: Townspeople (children dressed up in 'grown up' clothes) enter stage right. Mill about pretending to have conversations with each other. Rats (children dressed up in oversize brown overalls with black whiskers painted on them) enter stage left. Charge at townspeople. Townspeople run away in fright.

Scene 2: Scene opens to find Mayor and his cronies sitting on a table stage centre. Pied Piper enters stage left and is begged to help with the rat problem. Pied Piper agrees and goes off to fight cri...errr..rodents. Mayor sits at table and thinks about what he wants for dinner. (okay, okay, I made that last bit up - but I was trying to add a touch of realism)

Scene 3: Flute music plays. Enter Pied Piper stage right, holding pipe to lips and skipping. Enter rats from various corners of the stage, and begin skipping behind Piper. Skipping continues until end of track.

Scene 4: As in Scene 2. Pied Piper enters and demands to be paid. Mayor scoffs at him. Pied Piper exits in anger and forgets to look back.

Scene 5: As in Scene 3. Different flute music. Pied Piper enters, pipes, skips. Children (children) enter and begin skipping after him. After Piper and children exit stage right, Townspeople come on and mime crying.


I was the Mayor. It was a demanding role. I had to wear a bow-tie. I had to wear about 4 kgs of make-up. In Scene 2 I had to look all haggard and humbly implore the Piper to take on the rats, quiet desperation bleeding from my voice. In Scene 4 I had to do my officious 'have your people call my people' act and say "No, we shall not pay you your money. Now Go!" and then join with my yes-men (I had yes-men - everyone in class had to have a role, you see) in an evil laugh.

It's a heavy responsibility being Mayor. Especially when you're 7. It's not just the tangled affairs of the State, it's also that you're trying to kick the guy sitting next to you under the table without having any of the 2,000 people watching you (or, more importantly, your teacher) notice. Or the knowledge that half your citizenry is wearing their elder sibling's clothes. Uneasy lies the head that wears the silly top hat.

The play was a success. Oh, there was the usual healthy name-calling between us and the other acts, and some of the more fastidious members of the cast complained about the oversize rats running amok in the green room, but on the whole a good time was had by all. And audience reaction, of course, was spectacular. None of this business of people getting up when the thing was over, putting on their coats and slinking off to try and remember where they'd parked their cars. When was the last time you went to a Broadway performance where after the show the audience came backstage, picked up the performers in their arms, hugged them, took pictures of them in their costumes and promised them double, even triple scoops of icecream on their way home? See what I mean?

Needless to say, my own performance was exceptionally well received. The critics (consisting of my parents and two pairs of random aunty and uncles) were unanimous in their praise. Particular mention was made of the realistic way in which I angrily dismissed the Piper when he insisted on payment - somebody said they could almost hear my teeth chattering in outrage. I didn't bother to point out to them that my teeth were chattering because it was November, were were on an outdoor stage, I was in my shirtsleeves and there was a wind blowing.


Thinking back on it now, the whole story seems wildly improbable. I mean the parts where the rats scamper out and follow the piper is fine. You have only to look at Britney Spears fans to know that even subhuman intelligences can be attracted to some sorts of sounds. But who in their right minds would think that being stuck with the task of permanently babysitting a whole town's worth of kids could be seen as a victory?! Obviously whoever wrote this tale had never met a real child in his or her life.

There's this whole business of having the children follow the Piper, for starters. Children don't just meekly follow you. Think about the number of bags full of toys you would have to carry with you. Think about the first aid. Try to picture the Piper and his entourage trying to cross a street. Some kid at the back wanders off or stands still in the middle of the road. The Piper goes back to get him. When he turns around having collected this kid, he realises that the other kids have followed him into the street because he was still playing his damn pipe. So now he has to get them turned around again (not an easy thing to do if all you can do is play your pipe and lead). This could take hours.

And think about the number of toilet breaks on the way. Think about the time it would take to order a meal at the wayside inn. Think about hundreds of shrill little voices asking you "Are we there yet?"

I've always wondered if there was a Mrs. Piper. You can imagine the scene. Pied Piper walks into his house. Stands about in the corridor looking sheepish. Mrs. Piper asks him how the job went. He says, "Oh fine! fine! Well, almost. The thing is, honey, they wouldn't pay me any actual money, but don't worry, I've managed to get along all their children instead. Don't look at me like that. They won't be any bother. They'll just sleep on every available surface and swiftly eat us out of hearth and home."

Ah, you say, but the whole point is that he was trying to teach the townspeople a lesson, get back at them for their meanness, as it were. Oh he was, was he? Some lesson. Here's a townload of people all of whom have magically got someone else to take care of their kids, and now have legitimate reason to procreate on overdrive. What do you want to bet that there were some serious orgies in Hamelin that month?

Frankly, the whole thing strikes me as extremely unlikely. Let's face it, the Piper was either a) a kind of medieval Michael Jackson b) a slave trader c) a cannibal or d) short-sighted and couldn't tell the difference between rats and children.

On a separate note, isn't it a good thing that we don't know what tune the Piper was actually playing? Some idiot would almost certainly have made it into a ringtone, and before you know it you'd have people wandering about city with their cellphones ringing, being followed by other people's children. And you thought Himesh What's-his-name was a menace.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

A few requests

Everyday I tell myself that I'm going to stop blogging about this censorship issue and move on to other stuff. And then everyday I read stuff on the Net or in the MSM that makes me indignant enough so I have to blog about.

So. A final set of requests to everyone discussing / debating the ban (and tomorrow, I really, truly will move on):

1) It's not a blog ban:

Can we all please stop saying that the government is banning blogs? If there's one thing this whole incident has made abundantly clear it's that the GoI can't tell a blog from bloodwurst. The GoI is banning websites. If you're reading this, you probably a blogger yourself and don't see much difference, but to most people, who haven't heard of blogs, they're not the same thing. And we need to emphasise that we're trying to protect the freedom of the Internet, not of blogs:

a) I'm tired of hearing the 'how does it matter - blogs never say anything worthwhile anyway' argument. Aside from the fact that we don't make laws that distinguish between people on the basis of their intrinsic worth (can you imagine, for example, a legislation that said it was okay to murder someone as long as they weren't really contributing that much to society), it's useful to remember that the GoI doesn't think / know that it's blocking a bunch of 'trivial' blogs that no one reads. They think (apparently) that they're blocking radical websites that have the power to influence millions. There is nothing in the censorship system of the government that says they're going to make trade-offs between the perceived importance of a site and its harmful content. They'll block anything. They'll block the entire Internet if they feel it's necessary. The way things stand today they have the right to do that. So we're not fighting to protect our right to blog. We're fighting for our right to have free access to the Internet.

b) If there's any hope of winning this battle at all, it's if we can make a community larger than just bloggers understand what government censorship means. And saying the government is banning blogs is entirely counterproductive to that end. Most Internet subscribers don't know what blogs are. Saying the government is banning blogs rather than websites is like saying the government is banning voodoo rather than saying the government is banning religion. The fact that the popular perception of this action is that it's about banning blogs is, frankly, largely our own fault, but let's at least try and communicate to a wider audience what's really at stake here.

As far as I'm concerned, the 'best' thing that could happen at this point is if we could somehow get the CERT-IN to ban Or Google. Then people might begin to realise what we're fighting about.

2) Free speech is not about sufferance:

I'm tired of everyone, including those who support free speech, acting as though free speech means you just let people have their say and spread whatever message they like without doing anything about it. Of course not. Free speech simply means that you don't stop them from having their say. It certainly doesn't mean that you sit around and do nothing about it. If you don't agree with them, you attack them mercilessly for what they're saying. You tell them why you think they're mistaken. You expose, assuming you can, the flaws in their logic, the inaccuracy of their facts. You prove them wrong. Nobody's saying you have to let them get away with it. Nobody's saying you need to like them or accept them or even be polite to them. All we're saying is that you don't suppress them from saying what they want.

I don't understand why we're so afraid of propaganda. If we were afraid of the truth, and wanted to stop that from spreading, I could understand that. Not accept it, but understand it. But why does propaganda frighten us so much that we feel we have to stop it? If the messages we want to block are so self-evidently wrong, shouldn't we be able to publicly demonstrate that? And if we can't demonstrate it, then what right do we have to ban them? [1]

3) Exit Sandman:

Can we please stop making up hypothetical terrorist websites to combat? I'm not a five year old child. I refuse to be scared by some mysterious bogeyman that no one's ever actually seen but is so horrific and frightening that the whole nation could be destabilised by it. So far, all I've seen is a list of 17 websites, none of which seem to me to pose any threat to national security. From now on, I refuse to deal in abstractions of 'dangerous sites' - if you think censorship is needed, show me an actual site that you think should be banned, tell me what it actually says and explain to me why you feel not banning it will put the security of the nation at risk. Quasi-mystical discussions of all the horrifying propaganda spewing sites that must be out there don't interest me.

4) No, you DON'T support free speech:

Can we please stop saying things like "I support free speech, but...". No, I'm sorry, you don't. If you believe that it's okay for the government to have the power to block any website they choose without providing information about what sites were banned and why, and without having to prove the need for those sites to be banned before they ban them, then you DO NOT support free speech. At least have the courage / conviction to accept that.

5) It's NOT just 17 sites:

Finally, I'm sick of people saying "We know the sites the government has blocked - it's that list of 17". No, actually we don't. We know (finally) some small subset of the sites the government has blocked. But by the government's own admission, they've been issuing orders like this one for a long time now. For all we know they may have issued a second notice on the 13th of July. For all we know they may have issued a dozen notices since. For all we know there might be thousands of websites that they've blocked before this that we don't know about. No, I'm not being paranoid (for a change!). I'm simply saying that as long as we don't have a complete list of all the sites that the government has ever blocked, we have no way of assessing the extent of censorship that the government is practising. So please, stop shooting off your mouth about 'how does it matter if the government blocks a few harmful sites' because you don't know (any more than I do) how many sites the government has blocked or what they contained.

P.S. To clarify - I'm not saying that it would be okay if the GoI were only banning blogs or had only banned 17 sites. Banning anything in this way is unacceptable. But it's important to recognise that the situation is much worse than that.


[1] I'll go a step further - if we want to fight these 'anti-social' elements (and believe that it's okay to make concessions on principles for that, as those who support banning clearly do) why not use propaganda ourselves? If 'they' can spread lies that will get people to hate decent fellow citizens, despite the fact that they're underground, despite the fact that they have little or no broad-based support, why can't 'we' spread lies that will make all these impressionable people hate them, when we're in a majority and control all of mass media? You'd think it would be easier. (You'll say - but that's lying! Sure. But how come you're willing to sacrifice the rights of ordinary citizens to fight terror, but won't tell a few lies of your own about these alleged hate-mongers?)

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Monkey Business

So the government finally came up with the list of sites that it asked the ISPs to block. You can find the list, as well as a scanned version of the original fax here.

Many people have commented on the complete idiocy of the sites blocked (see Shivam Vij's rediff article here, and the Curious Gawker's take here), and wondered what the government was thinking - some have even questioned the authenticity of the document. [1] The document itself provides no clue as to why these sites are to be blocked - saying simply that it has been decided to block them. Is the government telling us the full story?

Certainly not. Here, in a Falstaff exclusive [2] is the account of what really happened:

In the aftermath of the blasts in Bombay, the Centre for Random Excursions into Territories on the INternet (CRET-IN) came under heavy pressure from the government to find and block websites that were spreading communal hatred and anti-India propaganda. That these websites existed was self-evident - after all, no one had ever heard of communal violence before the Internet came along. But how to find these sites? After days of assidious searching, CRET-IN officials were forced to admit that they couldn't find a single site with objectionable content. What were they to do now? A crisis of this dimension hadn't hit CRET-IN since the time, six months after their formation, that someone had pointed out to them that running about with long brushes and getting rid of the spiders that lurked in the corners of government offices was not what 'cleaning up the web' meant. (Apparently they needed some new fangled device called a com-pu-ter.)

Faced with this new dilemma, the head of CRET-IN, Gulshan Wry, was suddenly struck by a brain wave. These anti-social elements were inhuman, weren't they? Perhaps they communicated on some frequency invisible to ordinary, well-meaning citizens. Perhaps what looked like a perfectly innocent and fairly boring blog to the patriotic employees of CRET-IN was actually a hotbed of malicious propaganda [3]. Yes, that must be it.

But how to identify such sites? Mr. Wry's first thought was that they should get in some terrorists and have them search for these blogs. When he proposed this to the government, it was pointed out to him that a) the government wasn't capable of catching terrorists, which is why they needed Mr. Wry to block websites in the first place and b) the whole point of the ban was to keep terrorists from seeing these sites, not give them a convenient terminal to look for them.

But Mr. Wry was not to be daunted by so minor a setback. His brain churning away like a washing machine on 'spin', Mr. Wry came up with his next innovative proposal. If we are looking for SIMI-an intelligence, he said, why not use monkeys? They're certainly subhuman enough. Where Mr. Wry got this idea is unclear. Perhaps his ten year old daughter told him how, in Elizabethan England, they employed thousands of monkeys to come up with something called Shakespeare. Perhaps he happened to pass by the blog of the dangerous subversive Peter Griffin and saw a quote about the Internet and monkeys. Perhaps the HR manager of CRET-IN pointed out the outsourcing opportunity presented by the large number of langurs who hang around outside government offices. At any rate, the idea was warmly greeted by the upper echelons, and a troop of 22 monkeys was swiftly recruited for this task.

Once it had been established that the monkeys could touch type (a feat that astonished the employees of CRET-IN), each monkey was given the task of generating more or less random strings of letters. The strings that each monkey typed were consolidated on a page creating, eventually, a 22 page report of suspect configurations. From this, CRET-IN researchers painstakingly culled out the strings that could possibly be part of the URL of a website. For example, suppose the monkey had typed prncskmbly - CRET-IN researchers instantly realised that the prncs was a phonetic reference to the word princess. The kmbly bit proved harder, but eventually, through concentrated semantic analysis and a high-end data mining process called GOOGLE-ing, CRET-IN codebreakers were able to decipher this as kimberly. A search for princess + kimberly pointed the analysts to - which was clearly a site devoted to attacking the Indian people, cleverly disguised to look like the blog of a bored american teenager (oh! the fiendishness of these antisocial elements).

Similar analysis on all strings yielded a total of 17 such sites. Of course, many of the strings were found to be pure gibberish. In fact, many of the monkeys weren't able to come up with even a single subversive site. One of them however, managed to come up with as many as three. This monkey is now being paid top bananas and is rumoured to be the next head of DoT.

At any rate, it was through this highly advanced and sophisticated process that the list finally sent to the ISPs for blockage was arrived at.

Citizens of India, don't you feel much safer, knowing that your government is fast becoming so technology savvy? Gone are the days when important government decisions were taken by deferring them to the judgement of the eminent philosopher, political theorist and parrot, Mithu, who could be found outside the government's offices picking out cards with key decisions on them and chewing on mustard seeds. Clearly our government has moved on to higher forms of 'intelligence'. Let's all commemorate the incredible work done by these dedicated watchdogs, without whose tireless efforts the Internet would almost certainly have gone ape by now.

Disclaimer: This story, like all stories about the Government, is a work of fiction. Any similarity to people living or dead from the neck up is purely coincidental, though, you have to admit, fairly scary.

P.S. As Peter says, it's time to give ourselves a teeny-tiny pat on the back. And to thank all the people who've worked really hard over the past week to bring and keep this issue in the public eye. A big thank you to the folks behind the google group and the wiki as well as to all the other bloggers who've helped make a big noise about this.

P.P.S. It's not like the government always makes things worse, you know. The ToI reports that the government AIDS cell has put in a petition to legalise homosexuality in India. What was it T.S. Eliot said about doing the right thing for the wrong reason?


[1] Though that, of course, is not the real issue - even if these sites had been truly subversive, it's not clear that we should be censoring them.

[2] Rajdeep Sardesai, eat my dust.

[3] Needless to say, when I look at these sites I see only the same boring things that the CRET-IN employees see - thus proving that I too am a good, patriotic citizen. What do you see?

On Censorship

(Okay, this is my last post on this whole blog ban thing, I promise):

Now that the government has finally acknowledged (or has it?) that it 'didn't mean' to block all of blogspot and is busy trying to shift the blame onto ISPs, we've inevitably arrived at the question of whether censorship of any sites whatsoever is justified.

From what I've seen on the blogosphere, there are two broad camps here - those who believe that all censorship is wrong, and those who feel that some things may genuinely have to be censored, in 'national interest'.

On the whole, I'm with the first camp. I remain unconvinced that the expression of opinion, any opinion, constitutes grounds for punitive action. Efforts to police opinion, have in my view, only two effects, both inimical. First, they drive differences of opinion underground, isolating those with deviant opinions from the larger stream of social thought and reducing the chances of dealing with them in an effective manner. Second, they lead to the stifling of innovation and creativity and negatively impact the richness of social dialogue. Notice also, as I argue in my earlier post, that it's a short step from policing expressed opinion to policing thought, and from there to the complete cessation of all rights and liberties.

But there is a second and less extreme point to be made against those who feel that censorship may, in some cases, be justified. The key thing to remember, I think, is that saying that some sites may need to be censored is not the same thing as saying that some officious bureaucrat sitting in his office should have the blanket power to block any site he likes without having to provide any explanation or be held accountable in any meaningful way. Censorship per se need not be inconsistent with democracy, censorship based on Gulshan Rai's personal whims certainly is.

Living in a free state does not mean that you can do or say anything you like. It does mean, however, that the onus is on the government to prove that what you're doing is harmful to society and against the nation's laws, that that contention needs to be ratified by the judiciary before action can be taken against you, and that it must be possible for citizens to hold the government accountable for their actions - which is only possible if information on censorship decisions is provided in a transparent and timely manner.

For the sake of the argument, let's assume that there are websites that are genuinely detrimental to national security / interest (though for my part I can't imagine what these would be) and that it is, in fact, feasible to ban access to them (which I'm unconvinced of). Should the DoT be able to send a confidential notice to ISPs asking them to ban the site? Absolutely not. If there is any banning to be done, the process should, at the very least:

a) Need to be approved by the judiciary
b) Involve giving the owner of the accused site the right to defend himself / herself
c) Have the provision for site owners to sue the government for wrongful censorship if it is shown that their sites were unfairly blocked
d) Have proceedings that are made freely available to the public - including public documentation of exactly what sites are to be blocked, why, who is going to block them and whether such blockage is feasible.

A system where the executive arm of the government arbitrarily decides what sites it wants to block and simply goes ahead and blocks them, without informing the general public of what they're banning and why, is unacceptable.

The point is this - if you believe (as I do not) that the government action in blocking even a handful of websites is justified, you need to do better than say - some websites may be dangerous. The mere fact that their might be websites inimical to national interest does not imply that we should blindly take everything the government tells us on trust, any more than the existence of criminals implies that the police should have the right to throw anyone they want in jail. Even if websites are to be banned, we need evidence that so drastic a step was taken only after the websites in question were given a fair trial and after due democratic process was followed.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Let's not give the government the benefit of the doubt

I've said this elsewhere, (see comments) but:

Why are we assuming that this block is inadvertent? We don't actually know that. All we know is that the government gave some instructions to ISP providers and as a result we can no longer access any blogspot blogs. We don't know exactly what those instructions were or why they were given. We've received no official statement from the government telling us that they meant to block only one or two particular blogs. Why are we then buying into this fiction about how the government only wanted to block a few blogs and the ISPs went ahead and blocked the entire domain because they were lazy / clueless? Because the MSM says so? Come on. We know better than to believe them.

I'm not saying that the inadvertent story couldn't be true or isn't true necessarily. I'm just saying that we have no reason to believe that it's true. Maybe the government did mean to block all blogs. Maybe they don't want their citizens to have access to blogs at all. Maybe they do know what they're doing and actually want to block a million sites, not 12 or 17 or whatever.

Look, I know we're all used to the idea that the government is well-meaning but incompetent. But I think we need to be careful about not carrying that assumption too far. One, it leaves us vulnerable to being taken advantage of by the government - as long as we continue to assume that they mean well, they can get away with all sorts of violations without having to answer for them. Two, accepting that the government inadvertently blocked all blogs is letting them off the hook easy. Even if it's true, why should we, the victims of this ban, apologise for them? From a negotiation standpoint, that's just weakening our own side. If the ban is a mistake, let the government come out and admit it. Better yet, let them fix it so we can get access to our blogs again (well, okay, we have access, but I mean access without having to remember to go through pkblogs or starting Tor or whatever). Where the hell did this "forgive them, they know not what they do" story come from?

Frankly, I'm sick to death of seeing unsubstantiated speculation published as fact in the mainstream media. As far as I'm concerned, I'm assuming that the ban is deliberate and well thought out - that the government of India has willingly and knowingly and without any official explanation banned its citizens from accessing millions of websites. And that's what I'm going to believe until the government tells me any different.

(Okay, okay, I'm going to stop ranting about this and move on. Soon.)

Update 1:

Just saw this in the Hindustan Times.

Dr Gulshan Rai, director of the Computer Emergency Response Team, the apex organisation under the IT Ministry responsible for the nation's cyber-security, told HT: "There's no attempt to block from our side. The order issued by the DoT has four blogs hosted on The order didn't ask the whole site to be banned."
Two things. First, this is the same Gulshan Rai who, two days ago, was telling us how "somebody must have blocked some sites" and he couldn't say anything about it. Who's to say what he might 'remember' when his memory comes back further. Maybe he'll finally be able to recall blocking blogspot as a whole.

Second, it is not okay for the government to say - oh, this is not what we intended so it's not our problem. Whether they meant it or not, it's the government directive that has caused Blogspot and other blogs to be blocked, so it's their job to fix what they've screwed up.

Frankly, I don't blame the ISPs. With a government this illogical and this incoherent, there's just no point in taking risks. Who's to say that people like Rai won't turn around tomorrow and accuse them of not carrying out orders and shut them down? This is exactly why we need to have all censorship orders made public - so that everyone, including the ISPs, can be clear on just what the government has ordered and why.

Update 2:

In an interview to AFP, our the indomitable Gulshan Rai had this to say:

"I have seen the government order. Only two webblogs -- and have been been blocked," Gulshan Rai, head of cyber security agency Computer Emergency Response Team, told AFP.
Quite amazing, when you consider that he just told Hindustan Times that there were four blogspot sites. You'd think if the man was going to lie he'd at least be smart enough to get his story straight first.


"there can be no doubt that behind all the actions of this court of justice, that is to say in my case, behind my arrest and today's interrogation, there is a great organization at work. An organization which not only employs corrupt warders, oafish Inspectors, and Examining Magistrates of whom the best that can be said is that they recognize their own limitations, but also has at its disposal a judicial hierarchy of high, indeed of the highest rank, with an indispensable and numerous retinue of servants, clerks, police, and other assistants, perhaps even hangmen, I do not shrink from that word. And the significance of this great organization, gentlemen? It consists in this, that innocent persons are accused of guilt, and senseless proceedings are put in motion against them..."
- Franz Kafka, The Trial

In my previous post on the blog ban I said that books may be irrelevant to the folks at DoT, implying that they were a bunch of illiterate morons.

I take that back.

Thinking about it, it suddenly occured to me why this scenario with the ban seems so familiar. The government takes action against you. You don't know what you're accused of, who is accusing you, what you can do to defend / clear yourself, whether you're even the person accused or there's been some horrible bureaucratic mistake. You run around desperately trying to get some information but you can't get a clear picture of what's happening. Your entire existence is on the line, but you have no clue what is expected of you or what you can do about it. Your only contact is with a bunch of shady agents who seem to know as little about it as you.

Sound familiar? Of course it does. It's the plot to the Trial.

Now I wonder. Is it possible, just possible, that someone in the DoT has read their Kafka?

Monday, July 17, 2006

"Block!" go the weasels

"We would like those people to come forward who access these (the 12) radical websites and please explain to us what are they missing from their lives in the absence of these sites."

from this morning's Hindustan Times news report on the banning of blogspot and other sites

(for more coverage of the issue in the mainstream press, see here)

Okay. You asked for it.

First of all, notice that it's not citizens who are supposed to have to defend their right to free expression, it's the government that needs to justify any steps taken to curb those freedoms. There are many, many things one could argue that we don't 'need' - books for example, or music, or theatre, or art, or museums, or malls, or television, or restaurants - many if not most of these may well be irrelevant to the cretins sitting in the DoT. That's precisely why they don't get to decide what's meaningful or not meaningful for us. The government has no role policing lifestyle or opinion or deciding what is or is not valuable for its citizens.

Second, let's be clear about why this ban is unacceptable [1] :

It doesn't work (part 1): Blocking a few sites doesn't in any meaningful way hamper communication over the Internet. Even someone as technically illiterate as I, can, with a little determination and some help from my friends, find a way to access any site I want, bans from the government notwithstanding. All a ban means, in practice, is a lot of harrassment of perfectly well-meaning people who are now forced to find ways around this meaningless ban [2].

It doesn't work (part 2): Even if, by some extreme means (such as shutting down ISPs all together) the GoI could effectively block all Internet access, is that really going to stop people from communicating with each other? Can we assume that in the days before the Internet / blogs no one was ever able to send messages to his fellow terrorist or express anti-national sentiments? Or is the government planning to take down all forms of communication? Ban newspapers, take down phone lines, stop postal services, perhaps even call out the Army to shoot down flying pigeons because some of them might be carrying anti-national messages tied to their legs?

It shouldn't work: The government's role is to attack crime, not opinion. In a free, democratic society people have a right to their point of view. We may disagree with them, but we don't censor them. If it's valid to shut down blogs because they express anti-national sentiments, can we assume that it's also valid to throw people in jail because they protest against or criticise the government? And if expressing an opinion is a crime, then why isn't holding that opinion a crime also? Why don't we start bugging people's houses to see if they are saying things against the country or the government? Why don't we drag random people off the streets and interrogate them to see if they hold anti-nationalistic sentiments. Welcome to the Orwellian world of the thought police.

It hurts everyone, not just the intended targets: Along the lines of my previous post - it is not okay to harm or punish thousands of innocent people [3] in order to attack a few miscreants. That's exactly the kind of thinking that we're trying to fight against. The whole point of terrorism is to make people afraid enough so that they can no longer go on living their normal life, no longer enjoy the freedoms that they're accustomed to. It is to force upon others the lack of liberty that you face yourself, to make them live the way you do. Taking away citizen's rights is not fighting terrorism, it's perpetuating it.

Do blogs really make a difference?: Do we really believe that seeing a post on a blog, or hearing a speech someone makes can change a perfectly well-meaning, innocent person into a terrorist? If I happen to come upon a post that expresses anti-India sentiments am I suddenly going to turn around and start planting bombs in trains or attacking other people in their houses? Of course not. The only people who are 'inspired' to action by a blog post are people who already believed or thought what the post was saying. Certainly, blogs and other means of communication may serve as effective means of coordinating / communicating between them, but unless we're willing to take out all forms of public communication entirely, there's no way to stop that.

If blogs make a difference, what about the positives: No, no, you say, reacting to that last point. You're a devoted blogger. You believe that your words are changing the world. Blog posts matter. Fair enough. But notice that for every post I've seen in the past week expressing violent or anti-India sentiments I've seen a dozen calling for peace and compassion, a dozen expressing support, solidarity or sympathy. If blogs affect how people think (and we'd certainly like to believe they do) then blocking all blogs means that we're poorer as a society because all the positive affirmation that blogs gave us is no longer possible.

Divided we fall: We're not just poorer as a society, we're also weaker. Human beings survive crisis and deal with fear through contact with other people. Isolate us and we're more vulnerable. Much has been said about the great work done right after the Bombay blasts by the folks over at Mumbai Help. That's just one example of how communication makes us stronger. If the government takes down lines of communication between people on the grounds that terrorists might use them, the only people not likely to be affected by that in a crisis are the terrorists, who, knowing that the crisis is coming will have planned for it in advance. What it will do is make it harder for us to reach out to each other in times of tragedy. What it will do is increase panic, make it easier to spread rumours, cause more fear. And that's exactly what the government should be trying to avoid.

You might say I'm exaggerating - that the ban as it stands today doesn't hamper our ability to communicate that much. Yes. But the thinking behind it is pernicious, and I'd rather make the point against it now, rather than wait till it spreads so far that it's impossible to make the point at all

It's bad for our international reputation: If there's one thing India has going for it internationally it's our reputation as a democracy, as a free society. That's not just central to our claim as a preferred economic destination, it's also our key bargaining chip in international geo-politics. Any Western power that claims to champion democracy and be against military dictatorships and other oppresive regimes, cannot run away from the fact that we are, in every sense of the word, a state that protects individual liberty and democratic principle. The bureaucrats sitting in DoT may not see the significance of blocking access to blogs, the Western media will. At a time when we need to try and push for greater Western pressure to stop political support for terrorism, the last thing we need is to be seen as a repressive state that, like China, denies its citizens free access to information and public expression

Transparency: Finally, there's the issue of transparency. It's not just that the government has blocked / banned websites, it's that they've concealed this from the public. It's been five days since the letters went out to the ISPs and I'm yet to see a clear statement from the government as to what sites are to be blocked, how long that block will last or why exactly it is deemed necessary to block them. Even if the government in its extremely finite wisdom feels that allowing blogspot access is somehow inimical to national interest, surely we, as citizens, have a right to know about it. Why should we have to piece the story together by calling our ISPs and weaving our way through a web of evasion and lies from government officials? It's obviously convenient for the government not to give us a clear decision to attack, but that's precisely what democracy is about - being transparent about government actions and answerable to the people for them.

Don't get me wrong. God forbid that I should be anti-India or say anything against our wonderful, enlightened leaders. If anything, I think the government is reacting too mildly. Think about it. We know that there are some anti-India radicals living in Bombay. The government of India has nuclear weapons. Why don't they use them to nuke the city? That way we're not just sure to kill the terrorists, we'll also be stealing a march on Pakistan. Of course a few million innocent people may die as well, but hey, if they don't like it, let them come forward afterwards and explain to us what they are missing from their lives now that they've been turned into radioactive dust.


I, of course, am delighted with this ban thing. After 27 years of living as a lily-livered coward, I'm finally dangerous, an anti-India radical, a public enemy. Look at me, everyone, I'm BAD!! No more being shoved aside in supermarket queues by little old ladies, no more stammering in panic when a cop pulls me over for speeding. Watch out people - I may not look like much, but I'll have you know that the world's largest democracy is scared of me. That's right, hot shot, 1 billion plus people and they all quake in fear because of what I write on my blog. So you can just stop waving that fist in my face, if you know what's good for you.

This is really exciting. I've never been dangerous before. Even babies who usually scream in fright when handed to a stranger have no compunction in pulling my hair or punching me in the nose. But no longer. Now I can finally stand up to that night club bouncer and tell him where he gets off. Now I can finally go out walking through the shadier parts of town at two am, secure in the knowledge that no one's going to mug a dangerous terrorist like me. This is what Don Corleone must have felt like. No wonder his cheeks swelled up so. The possibilities are endless. Just think about all the women who've turned me down because I was too vanilla, too harmless. Hah! I bet they're kicking themselves right about now.

As for the people who think that all this blogging of mine is a waste of time - are you reading this? I'm big, see. I can destabilise an entire country, see. That spectacled wimp Clark Kent has got nothing on me.

So there.


[1] MSM meanwhile continues to be its usual incoherent self. The Economic Times carries the story on its front page. Awfully nice of them, and I'm genuinely grateful. But would it have killed them to write, just this once, a clear story? If you didn't know anything about the ban and read the story I swear you'd come away with the impression that DoT had banned some 17-18 sites, one of which happened to be, by mistake, MumbaiHelp, and that anyway the ban didn't matter because it was easy to get around. Except it does matter and it's not just 17 sites, it's all blogspot blogs. They do kind of make the point in the text, but for something that's the main issue here, it's kind of hidden away.

Oh, and what's with the irony of pkblogs bit. If there's an irony at all it's not that a blog to help the victims of a possibly Pakistan sponsored attack is being accessed through Pakistan, it's that even as we condemn the Pakistan government we're happily adopting their practises, forcing our citizens to take exactly the same measures that Pakistani bloggers were forced to take. If we're so opposed to the Pakistani government, you'd think we'd want to be less like them, not more.

[2] It's not just that the way to fight technology is not through this kind of half-baked banning but through something more sophisticated. It's also that, almost by definition, it's always going to be more difficult for the innocent to get around a blanket ban like this one, than for anyone (such as a terrorist) for whom this may truly be crucial / critical to their plans.

[3] Okay, so 'innocent' is probably a stretch applied to some of us, but you know what I mean.

The specific vs the general

In my article in Hafta today, I discuss Camus' The Just, and argue that it is important, as we think about how to respond to terrorist violence, that we preserve our own humanity, that we recognise that we are dealing with other human beings and not with abstractions or symbols.

It is tempting, when faced with an invisible enemy, to generalise - to see the actions of specific people as being representative of their religion, their nationality, their race or caste. This is violence by proxy - the usual argument is that putting 'pressure', often through violence or the threat of violence, on those we perceive to be associated with the crimes will somehow cause the crimes to stop. Over the last week I have seen variants of this argument repeated numerous times on the blogosphere (see for instance, the comments to Amit Varma's post on Comment is Free last week), many of them championing 'action' against Pakistan or against Muslims.

The argument usually made against such points of view is a practical one - violence by proxy doesn't help. Most people are quick to point to the example of Israel - as good a demonstration as any of the inability of violent measures to stem the tide of terrorism. In fact, as has often been argued, such violence only helps to fan the flames of vengeance and makes it easier for terrorist organisations to find fresh recruits. And that I think, is not just true of violent acts against particular communities. Attempts to target and marginalise particular communities in any way are always self-fulfilling - if you treat a group of people as terrorists or criminals, you increase the probability that some of them will prove you right.

What surprises me is that we would need to look beyond our borders or to historical examples to see the truth of this. After all, we ourselves have been subject to repeated violence (both from the terrorists and from Pakistan) over Kashmir. Has any of that violence made us more amenable to the idea of withdrawing from Kashmir and acknowledging it as an independent state? I think not. If violence or the threat of violence doesn't work on us, why do we think it will work on anyone else?

But as we try and argue against such violence by proxy, there is, I think a second argument to be made - a moral one. If we believe that it is justified to attack individuals based on their affiliation to a particular nation or religion as a means of putting political or social pressure on them, if we believe that it is valid, when faced with a threat to our own existence, to punish individuals without giving them due legal process or the right to defend themselves, then what exactly is our problem with the terrorists? Those are, after all, exactly the beliefs that they're operating on. In making an argument that justifies violence against those not proven to be criminals we commit ourselves to a barbaric Hobbesian world, a fight to the death, where morality and principle no longer hold any meaning and the one who 'wins' (and it will be a Pyrrhic victory) is the one who happens to have the most strength / luck.

There is no 'rational' reason why we cannot make that choice. But it is important to recognise what that choice entails - it entails choosing a world where happiness and safety become impossible, where human life as we know it loses most of its meaning. The point is not simply that attacks on innocent Muslims will achieve nothing and will only strengthen the cause of Islamic terrorists; the point is not simply that is inhuman to attack people who have no connection to these terrorist attacks, who are just as much victims as the rest of us and who have, in effect, just as much ability to stop the terrorists as anyone else (although all of those are valid points). The point is also that once we accept as a principle the idea of violence against abstract categories of people being justified, there will always be those we see as others to attack (or those who see us as others to be attacked by) - there is no end to us vs. them.


None of this, of course, applies to the morons who are blocking my access to blogspot. All through the weekend I kept reading about how a few ISPs had blocked blogspot blogs and despite what seemed like pretty convincing evidence I managed to believe that is was all some sort of minor glitch and that conspiracy theories involving government bans were largely overreactions. It will all blow over by Monday, I thought.

My apologies to everyone I doubted.

Now that pretty much every ISP in India seems to be blocking blogspot (which means if you're in India and reading this - thanks - I appreciate your making the effort), I don't think there's any doubt that this is some sort of government initiative (though possibly magnified out of proportion). And that makes me extremely pissed off.

At any rate, in case you haven't seen this already, do check out the Bloggers Collective Google Group. 2x3x7 will continue on blogspot for now - access through Bloglines and via pkblogs should still work. I'm still hoping this thing will blow over soon. If it doesn't, then I may decide to switch to Wordpress after all.

P.S. I don't want to push the parallel too far, but I can't help noticing that this blocking of blogs is precisely the kind of generalised action that I'm arguing against in this post. A few blogs might have objectionable content. But we don't have a means to target them. So let's go ahead and shut down all blogs, rather than trying to go after the few we want to hit. It's easier doing it this way. And who cares if thousands of other bloggers suffer? Or that this sort of incoherent action won't actually stop any really determined person from carrying on with whatever he or she was up to?

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Nearer my tabloid to thee

[Inspired by this (hat-tip: Uma)]

Geeks can be gods too

He can play the stolid professor to perfection, manage to solve vector equations in five dimensions, and have a body as sleek as a whippet. He's so difficult on the mind that you can almost be forgiven for not noticing his pretty face...almost.

Men use their brains to get ahead, as has been evident from the time that Donald Trump managed to hold prime time television viewers painfully tightly to ransom with his hairstyle. But which woman (cold-blooded and all that) was smart enough not to look beyond that mop of silly hair? Apparently not many.

Female Speak

Concurs Felicity Slacker, math major at the Ivy League University of North Dakota, "Obviously flighty undergraduates don't find their brilliant professors sexy because they have too many other things on their mind. If they just started looking below his neck for a moment, instead of concentrating on the equations he was writing in chalk on the board, they would realise that their calculus professor had washboard abs. The reason most women never get there is that they're too busy trying to figure out how to get from Lemma 6 to Proposition 8", she guffaws with a come-hither look.

Though her outlook is profound, how do academics see this lack of objectification?

Just a laughing matter

Says former Professor at MIT and Physics Red Giant Maxwell Housman, "I enjoy the fact that my women students sometimes think I don't have a body. It amuses me because they don't know how much I weigh. Plus it means they don't recognise me on the beach and so aren't always asking me stupid questions about cosmic radiation in the middle of my sun tan". On a more serious note, he adds "Your answer to Question 4 is wrong, by the way. You're getting a C for the course."

Not a laughing matter

Frustrated TA Navarre Hiton has an opposing view, "It's very unfair to judge someone on their capabilities and not on their looks. I work twice as hard as most women in my class at brushing my hair to give it that soft, natural look, and to only get asked out by students who want better grades is insulting. Of course, it's nice to have that kind of petty power, but there comes a point when it should be ignored. Men need to base their sex life on their dashing good looks and not on their academic achievements."

Just anti-matter

Particle physicist Conrad Phelps, whose work on neutrons had good friend C V Bose walking the Planck is quite unperturbed by the idea of women. "I haven't really been faced with the problem of dating, the only thing I'm ever turned on by are the results from my particle accelerator. If you are brainy and obssessive, you aren't likely to be seeing anyone. Plus, if you're good at what you do, the money you make will be more important than your brains."

Psycho speak

Certified psychopath Hannibal Lecher says it's ultimately about how much flesh you can get off your victim. "Most averagely intelligent people are threatened by too much analysis and go to the gym to work out instead. Hence the real geniuses who never emerge from their labs tend to get less exercise and it can hamper the development of their triceps. Liposuction can help rid them of their puppy fat."

Geeks with greek god looks

Richard Feynman: author, physicist and former genius was once approached by Playgirl to pose nude for their centrefold. (His reply: "surely you're joking?")

Albert Einstein: Probably the world's most famous genius, was voted prom king in junior high.

Stephen Hawking: He may look like crap now, but this legendary thinker was incredibly cute as a baby.


In yet another demonstration of its sublime journalistic quality, The Times of India on Sunday features a review of Philip Roth's Everyman. It's a harmless enough review, pleasantly vapid, that tells you almost nothing about the book except that it's not, according to the reviewer, misogynistic (phew! what a relief - that's what I really wanted to know about the book).

The reviewer, however, makes one fatal mistake. Before he gets to the title of the book he's reviewing (Everyman) he happens to mention another Philip Roth book - The Dying Animal. Worse, he actually ends a paragraph on it.

This, of course, is enough to convince the folks at ToI that the review is actually a review of the Dying Animal, so that's what they print it as. Some kind soul even goes to the trouble of fishing out an image of the cover of The Dying Animal and putting it into the print edition of the paper. No one notices that that isn't actually the book being reviewed.

Oh, and this for a review which starts with the lines:

" At a time when so much English fiction from India is bloated and sloppy, with book editors leaving their blue pencils unsharpened, ... "

Ah, the irony.

P.S. This should be abundantly clear, but just in case - all 'facts' and people presented in the 'Geeks can be Gods too' article are entirely fictional. As I said, I was inspired by the DNA article.

Yes, but who will be the first LADY?

I think I've finally figured out why Paris Hilton exists.

Think about it - she's rich, she's clueless, she has a surname everyone recognises, she'll do or say anything to stay in the public eye.

It's obvious, isn't it? Paris Hilton is going to be President of the United States of America.

Remember, you heard it here first [1]

Guilty Secret # 29:

It took me almost a year of seeing headlines with Paris Hilton in them before I realised that she was a person. I'd always assumed that Paris Hilton was a hotel. I'd keep seeing these banners saying Paris Hilton One Night Stand / Paris Hilton Sex [2] and I'd think to myself - damn! if I ever get to Paris I know where I'm staying.

[1] Sure, you laugh now, but remember Ronald Reagan?

[2] If you just came to this site by running a google search for Paris Hilton Sex, all I can say is: your life is even sadder than mine.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

I hate Wordpress (well, not any more)

No, really.

So in a fit of late night / early morning paranoia I decided to back-up 2x3x7 on Wordpress.

Big mistake. First the damn thing timed me out. Then it kept retrying. Finally, it worked, but it turns out that in the process Wordpress managed to get rid of all paragraph breaks from this blog. Which, when you consider the average length of my posts is pretty darn serious.

The good news is that all of 2x3x7 is still available in legible format here. I will now spend tomorrow (today) morning trying to get this blog back into shape. Any suggestions on how to do that would be welcome. (Apparently wordpress let's you export from it as well - anyone ever tried that?). Failing that, I might be forced to switch to Wordpress. Or continue blogging here but keep archives in Wordpress. I don't know. Right now I need sleep.

Why me?

UPDATE: Joy truly cometh in the morning. The trouble turned out to be one niggling little setting about line breaks that WP had changed and not set back. Who knew? So things have got sorted out now. My thanks to those who offered to help.

Having said that, 2x3x7 is also available on WP for now - at - so I'm back to dithering about whether I should make the switch. Comments are welcome, as usual.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Of Geeks, Nerds and Terrorists

Just a few links from my Inbox:

"What I tell you three times is true"

- Lewis Carroll

Now that I've been told three times that I should read the Writers Against Terrorism blog, I figured I'd do what one always does with good advice - pass it on.

Go read. Some exquisite writing. Some excellent points. And a LOT of incoherent ranting. I'm told that people deal with trauma / grief in three stages - first they experience numbness and shock. Then they undergo emotional upheaval - including feelings of anger, loneliness, disbelief or denial. Finally they reach acceptance. Writers Against Terrorism is fascinating because it offers you a superb opportunity to observe all three phases in play - all at the same time.

It's also a wonderful demonstration of just why terrorism is so difficult to respond to. Everyone has a different idea about what the appropriate response should be (ranging from hawkish bluster to saintly resignation), everyone tries to apply analogies from completely different contexts - wars, natural disasters, etc. [1] and the end result is that we end up fighting each other more than anyone else. And that, surprisingly enough, is probably a good thing. Because it means we're still opinionated, stubborn and pedantic - in other words human - and haven't turned into the kind of brainwashed zombies that we're trying to fight.

So - a noble effort. Though I'm curious to see how long the enthusiasm lasts.


In other news, meanwhile, a reader writes in to ask me what the 'm++++' in my Geek Code stands for, seeing as it's not standard Geek Syntax. Finally, someone who noticed.

m is my own addition to the Geek Code. It stands for music. The categories are (roughly):


I've stopped talking to people because surgically removing my iPod from my ears is too painful


I spent more money on my stereo system than I did on my car / I don't own a car because with all that music in the house who wants to go anywhere?


I have a CD collection that's colour coded by genre / Sometimes I just sit around running my fingers along the spines of my CDs and feel happy.


I listen to music all the time in the car on my way to work / I have a subscription to Yahoo Music


I don't listen to music much, though sometimes I'll leave the radio playing in the background


The only kind of music I listen to is the kind they play in elevators


I am a Britney Spears fan


I am a doorknob


I am Yanni


And finally, the Falstaff Award for best book title of the month goes to:

Far From the Madding Gerund

The new book from the folks over at Language Log (Go UPenn!) that argues, if Slate is to be believed (I haven't read the book, though I have read the blog) that 'correct' language is language as it's generally used. We yam what we yam, and why bother with all this grammar-shammer.


[1] Let's get one thing straight people - 'War against terror' is just a catch phrase. Terrorism is not war, any more than it's a flood or an earthquake or a riot or cancer. You can't apply the same methods of engagement to terrorism as you would to a war. That's how you end up bombing innocent civilians in Baghdad, or invading Lebanon.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

The Key

He was clearing out the desk in the study one Sunday afternoon when he found it. A small, silver key with an oval base and the letters JF8421 etched on it. It was lying in the middle drawer, hidden under the brown paper he'd used to line the bottom. He held it in the palm of his hand and stared at it. He couldn't think what it was a key to.

Was it the key to the drawer itself? No, it didn't fit. He tried the other drawers, then the bookshelf, then the closet in the study. No. He went around the house trying it in all the other cupboards that he never locked. It didn't belong to any of them. He took out all the keys in the house and compared it to them, thinking it might be a duplicate of something. It wasn't. He remembered that the refrigerator had a lock too and tried that. No. He pulled out his old bicycle lock from the back of his supply cupboard. No luck there.

What could it be the key to? Could someone else have left it there? Some visitor? He remembered how his friend Rajeev had come over and spent the night in his study once because his wife had thrown him out of the house. Had it really been six months ago? Could it be his? But surely he would have said something by now. They hadn't spoken in a while though. No harm checking.

Rajeev and his wife, it seemed, had settled their differences. Their son had been really ill. No, he was fine now. Quite recovered. Was spending the summer vacations with his grandparents. Rajeev and his wife were organising a picnic next weekend. Would he like to come? Great, they looked forward to seeing him. It had been a long time. What's that - a key? No, no, he hadn't left any keys behind. The whole point of that night was that his wife had taken even the keys to his own house away from him. Ha ha.

So it wasn't Rajeev's. Where did it come from then? He stared at the key again. It wasn't big enough to be the key to something important. It looked more like the key to a locker. Yes, that's what it was, a locker key. But the lockers in his gym didn't have keys. And he didn't have a locker at work. But wait, what about his old office? He used to have a locker there. Could this be the key to that locker? Had he simply forgotten to hand it in when he quit? He never used that locker anyway. He tried to remember what the key looked like.

Next day he took off early for lunch and went down to his old office (it was just a block away, after all). The receptionist was new and didn't know him. He was just trying to explain to her who he was and what he wanted there when his old boss showed up. He was even balder than he remembered, and still had that irritating accent. But he seemed less intimidating somehow. Pretty soon all his old colleagues had gathered around, telling him how he hadn't changed a bit, how he looked completely different, how he'd lost weight. It felt good. His friend Gautam, the one who'd been swearing he was going to quit for as long as he could remember, was still there. They decided to go out for lunch. Gautam updated him on all the office gossip. It seemed strange, like peering through a window into another world.

The key didn't fit though. Once he actually got there he remembered that the keys to the lockers looked completely different. He didn't know how he could have forgotten. Now what? He spent an hour in his cubicle thinking over where else that key could have come from. It was beginning to annoy him now, not knowing what the key was for. Could it be from his earlier apartment? No, he'd given all the keys to that back to the landlord, even the spares. But maybe a duplicate to the mailbox? Yes, yes, it could be.

That night he stopped by his old apartment. Or rather, where his old apartment used to be. They had torn the building down. They were building some new high rise. The entire site was surrounded by a high asbestos fence. He was shocked to see it. All his fondness for the old house came flooding back. His first apartment. All the good times he'd had there, all the memories.

He stopped by the paan walla at the corner to get a cigarette. The old man recognised him, welcomed him back with the kind of eagerness one reserves for a favourite customer. Wanted to know how he was, what he was doing these days, why he never came by the shop anymore. He told him that he'd moved out, that he lived far away now, that he'd only stopped by to see his old place - he didn't know it had been torn down. Yes, the old man nodded sagely, three months ago they started. Such a nuisance, sir, all these trucks with their dust and cement going up and down all the time. Constant traffic jams. Ruining the place, really. All the best people (like yourself, sir) moving out. Which reminds me sir, what happened to that friend of yours, the one who was always coming here with you, woh chashme walleh? Nikhil. He's in the States now, he told him. He's working there. In the i-shtates? Wah, wah, must be making lots of money no? Yes, he nodded, he was. How long since he had had contact with Nikhil? He must e-mail him once he got home.

But what to do about the key though? Could it have been the key to tha mailbox that had now been destroyed? A key without a lock, then, of no use to anyone. Somehow, the more he thought about it that night, the more he doubted it. No, this was the key to something else. He just knew it.

Finally, reluctantly, he decided to call her. They hadn't spoken since the break-up. A part of him said it was a stupid reason to call - some unidentified key - she would think he was making an excuse, that he was checking up on her, or maybe even that he wanted to get back together with her.There was bound to be misunderstanding. Better not to call. But the riddle of the key just wouldn't go away. He'd tried putting it back in the drawer where it came from and forgetting about it, he'd tried watching TV, reading the new Roth, listening to music. But he couldn't get it out of his mind.

He called her. She recognised his voice instantly. Some things hadn't changed. There were the awkward 'how are you's' to begin with. The innocuous little 'so, what's new?' like a bridge thrown over a seething river of questions, all desperate to be asked. She was fine. She was seeing someone new. He was a banker too, it seemed - some habits die hard. He told her how he'd been travelling. Slowly, the conversation thawed. Yes, she'd been to see the new play too. Alyque Padamsee HAD seriously lost it. Had he heard about the poetry reading at the British Council? She was thinking about going for it. Did she remember the last reading they'd been for, the one where the poet described the countryside as being the place where cows moo? She laughed. Of course she did. And how about that interminable poem of hers, the one about making mango pickle as a metaphor for memory. Like that hadn't been done before. What was she reading? Yes, Carver was amazing, wasn't he?....

It felt like old times, talking to her this way. He had that warm, singing sensation inside him again. Not that he was still in love with her or anything. No, no, that was all over. Still, that didn't mean they couldn't be friends. He wondered why he'd been hesitating to call her.

Towards the end of the conversation he brought up the key. Explained how he'd found it, how he couldn't figure out where it belonged, how he thought maybe it was hers, something she'd left behind when she moved out. She said she didn't think so. It wasn't likely was it - she'd never kept any of her stuff in that drawer. Still, maybe a duplicate. She'd check. Would call him back later in the week to let him know.

So that was that. Somehow he didn't think the key would turn out to be hers after all. He suspected she'd just said she'd check to give her an excuse to call back. Where did that leave him? He couldn't think of anyone elsethe key could belong to. Could it have been the previous occupant's? Maybe they'd just left it in the drawer and he'd put the brown paper over it without noticing? No, he remembered going through the house opening every drawer to make sure there was nothing in them. He would have found it then. This key was definitely his.

Staring at it long after midnight, it began to seem to him that this was no ordinary key, but something supernatural - an apparition, a metaphor. Perhaps the secret of the key was that there was no lock to it, perhaps in every universe there was a key that was just a key, in and for itself, that would open nothing. The opposite of a skeleton key - a key that would fit no lock. But why should it magically appear to him? And why now?

He was being silly. This was just an everyday key with a lock of its own. He was actually fairly sure he knew what it was a key to, he just couldn't seem to remember. Was there a reason he couldn't remember? Was he repressing the memory of what that key opened? Was he afraid of what lay behind what the key kept locked? Somewhere out there was a lock that this key fit into and he had to find it. What had he forgotten? What was he missing?