Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Toy Story 3

The term Reality Distortion Field was coined to describe the effect Steve Jobs had on workers at Apple; the phrase has come to be used for the slavish praise garnered in the media by Apple products. After watching Toy Story 3, I'm wondering if Pixar, Jobs' other brainchild, generates a distortion field of its own. What else could explain the adoring reviews received by what is a well-crafted but rather tedious sequel?
Here's the plot: Sheriff Woody, Buzz Lightyear and the rest of the cast are locked away now that their owner Andy is a teenager. Before leaving for college, he decides to put his beloved toys in the attic, but they end up being donated to a day care center. Now the toys have to escape and get back to Andy. The lost-and-found theme was done much better in Finding Nemo, which also had a far richer visual texture, as did Up and Wall-E. Pixar is now in sequelitis mode, with Cars 2 and Monsters Inc. 2 on the way. I think Toy Story 3 might be looked upon in the future as the moment when the studio lost its verve.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Museums, Mansions and Money

My latest Yahoo! India column, uploaded a few hours ago, can be read here.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Phantom Project

The world's tallest residential building is here! Or so billboards around the city claim. The tower is called World One, is 117 storeys high, and is owned by the Lodha Group. Look around Bombay's skyline, though, and you won't spot anything close to a 1500 foot high building. The Lodha Group's website doesn't so much as mention World One. What gives?
It seems the builder doesn't have necessary permissions to build the record breaking high rise, nor money enough to see it through. Those hoardings are meant to attract advance bookings and private equity interest to fund the project. The address of World One is said to be Upper Worli. But Upper Worli, as I recall, is the figment of the imagination of admen whose offices moved to Lower Parel a decade ago, and who claimed half-jokingly to have shifted to Upper Worli to shrug off Lower Parel's downmarket associations.
We have, then, a building that doesn't exist, in a neighbourhood that doesn't exist, funded by money that doesn't exist. If you possess a few extra crores, this phantom project might be where you want to sink them.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Swisscom uses Gandhi

Spreading goodness has never been so easy, the ad for Blackberry on Swisscom reads.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Back to chaos

I returned yesterday after a week spent in Zurich, which, for good reason, is regularly ranked as one of the world's best cities in quality of life surveys. I was rushing about from morning to night each day, but never felt as exhausted as I did within half an hour of stepping back in Bombay. That was partly because of the hometown's hot embrace, its noise and crowds. Mostly, though, it was because of its dysfunctional systems. In the past, obstacles to progress used to make themselves apparent right after one stepped out of the plane. Now, immigration and customs are painless, but the nasty stuff starts outside the airport.
To begin with, there's no public transport option. The taximen's union will ensure it stays that way. To prevent taxis from cheating customers, the administration has set up a system of pre-paying the fare, which means you end up shelling out in advance the amount the driver would have extracted from you on top of the meter fare.
There's a long line for booking a cab, after which you go out and hunt for the vehicle carrying the license plate number listed on your bill. Quite often, you don't find it, because the driver's left or the cab's hiding in some inaccessible corner, in which case you have to go back and stand in line again for another number.
Luckily I found my guy easily, but two minutes into the ride he stopped and crossed the road to stand in another line, some kind of police verification procedure. Beggars have found this an opportune spot to harry passengers. Soon after the driver returned, we encountered that other Bombay specialty, the 11pm traffic jam.
I can see the objections starting to form. Switzerland has fewer people than Bombay. Its banks use secrecy laws to make money from corrupt government officials in nations like India. Oh, and it gave women the vote after we did. None of this alters the shock of going from one of the world's most livable cities to one of its least habitable.

Update, 22 June: Today, taxis are on strike. Will be fun for tourists flying in to Bombay late at night: no train, no bus, no cab, no rickshaw.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Where Three Dream Cross

I caught Where Three Dreams Cross, a show of 150 years of sub-continental photography, in Winterthur, Switzerland, where it has traveled after opening at London’s Whitechapel Gallery. The curatorial argument is that this is India / Pakistan / Bangladesh as seen by locals rather than westerners, and therefore, implicitly, a more authentic portrait of the place.
I find the argument patently false. There’s a picture, for instance, of three poor women standing on an incline, taken by an Indian or Bangladeshi (I failed to make notes, will annotate the post after I get back to Bombay) in 2003 which could easily have been captured by an Orientalist Brit in 1903. Conversely, Henri Cartier-Bresson, for all the baneful influence he had on future generations of Indian photogs, crafted revelatory images of India.
The most obvious difference between Indian and European uses of photography is found in the painted photographs of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The decorative aesthetic of the subcontinent is on full view here, but to say that is to step into Orientalist clichés.
The trick, then, is to avoid statement, because any statement is a trap. The Indian photographer who did this best was Raghubir Singh. He used every cliché about India -- crowds, colours, ambassador cars, monsoon rains -- but his images evade all stereotypes. Part of the reason why he manages this is the way he deploys figures across the frame, so there isn’t one centre that can harden into statement or symbol. India has interesting intrinsic qualities that are also crucial to the imperialist discourse of difference / otherness / exoticism critiqued by post-colonial theory. The subject matter from which both are extracted is identical. It doesn’t matter if the photographer is Indian or European, as soon as his or her images become statements, they can be interpreted as ‘problematic’ arguments about the subcontinent. Raghubir Singh managed consistently to produce pictures that are fascinating artifacts without being manifest propositions.
The fact that his work (he's represented in the show by four or five images), while invariably well regarded, has been virtually ignored by post-colonial theorists indicates to me that these theorists don’t really desire what the curators of Three Dreams Cross want to highlight, namely a different way of seeing, so much as an opposed way of seeing, though such an approach is doomed to fall into the same pattern of clichés as that which it contests.
I have got a bit side-tracked from Three Dreams Cross, and might say more about the show itself later. What disappointed me most was that I’d seen pretty much every image in the past five years. The show is arranged thematically rather than chronologically of geographically, which was a wise decision. The themes are: Portrait, Performance, Family, Body Politic and Street. In Winterthur, the first three of these are contained in the museum’s main building. They’re probably the most interesting bits for Europeans, but I found these sections tedious. The show picked up in the annex, where The Body Politic and The Street reside.
A quibble about the title, derived from Eliot’s Ash Wednesday: the dreams of the three nations are never shown to cross during the course of the show. There’s good reason for that, of course, because when the dreams have crossed it hasn’t been in a convivial fashion, and the last thing the curators want is to focus on political conflict (that would be giving in to western media perception). If the dreams have been prevented from crossing, though, why put anything about intersections in the title?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010


Zurich’s a far more interesting city than Geneva, the only Swiss town I’ve been to previously. It has steeply steepled churches and squares dominated by drinking water fountains emerging from carved stone pillars. There’s a lot of stone carving everywhere, sandstone, I think; seems to be a strong Swiss tradition. The typical plaque on buildings in the old town reads something like this: The original edifice dates from the 12th century, XYZ lived here between 1550 and 1580, the building was extensively modified in 1872, and has been on the heritage list since 1965. I suppose that’s the kind of history you get when you haven’t been at war for centuries.
The river around which the town is clumped is frighteningly clean: you can see the stones on the bed in water fifteen feet deep. Definitely fine for swimming, probably fine for drinking. I recall punting trips on the Cherwell at the end of which my entire arm, onto which a few drops splashed each time I raised the pole, would break out in a rash.
The weather’s been drippy, but the sun came out for five minutes while I was sitting outdoors in a café on Monday, and the trees took the opportunity to release a load of pollen into the air. Within an hour I was sniffing and sneezing and reaching for the anti-histamines. Luckily the stuff didn't turn me into a zombie for the day. I could pay attention to art around, and there was plenty that deserved careful attention.
I’m in Switzerland courtesy of Pro Helvetia, which has sponsored a week’s trip centred on Art Basel, the world’s most important art fair. I will blog about the fair when I have some free time, probably next week. Apart from two days spent in Basel, we're being taken to museums in Zurich, Glarus, Winterthur, Aaarau, Bern and Geneva. It's a packed schedule, but promises to be rewarding.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Column: Tryst with Blasphemy

My latest column for Yahoo! India can be read here.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Two Ashleys

Ashley Tellis is a South Asia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He looks like this.

Ashley Tellis is also an academic who got his Ph.D. in English Literature from Cambridge and has had several run-ins with educational institutions in India because of his advocacy of gay rights. He looks like this.

The second Ashley was a classmate of mine in Elphinstone College. He has just been dismissed from his probation at IIT, Hyderabad. The Times of India, reporting the story, used a photograph of the first Ashley. It was a mistake that had to happen, something I was avidly awaiting. I was hoping it would take the form of a mash-up created by a reporter after googling the name. Something like, "Foreign affairs pundit and gay activist Ashley Tellis met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh yesterday"...
The photograph's been removed from the article to which I've linked, and the Times epaper has deleted the entire story. Is that allowed? Don't newspapers have an obligation to keep their digital archive intact, errors and all?
For those who happen to get the Bombay edition of the Times, the story's on page 15.

UPDATE: The Mirror repeats the Times of India's error in its Bloggers' Park column, and so far has not taken the pic off its website.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Thoughts on Bhopal

The TV channels have worked themselves into a lather about Warren Anderson, and I don't see why. The then Chairman of Union Carbide need never have stepped on Indian soil after the gas leak. He obviously came with some deal having been struck in advance. Even without such a deal, he'd have been bailed after a few days of custody.
It's always convenient to blame the foreigners. So what if the Bhopal plant was entirely under Indian management, as required by Indian law? So what if we don't yet know what triggered the leak? So what if we've put no measures in place to cope with another such accident?
We've never been too fussed about safety. I remember being part of a crew filming a corporate documentary a few years ago. The person assigned to help us was from the safety department. His primary job during the shoot was ensuring that everyone in the frame had hard hats on. As soon as the camera stopped rolling, the hats would come off.
What sense does it make to press charges of culpable homicide when what happened was clearly negligence? Criminal negligence, no doubt, but nonetheless negligence. Unless, of course, we accept the Union Carbide theory that it was sabotage.
Intention is central to culpability. Absent an intent to kill, it makes no sense to put people away for ten years, even if their negligence resulted in 10,000 deaths. The problem lies not with the sentence but the delay in getting to this point. It has made India an international laughing stock.
The other issue relates to the compensation of 470 million dollars. I don't believe it was such a trivial amount as is being made out. The government should've accepted the initial offer of 350 million dollars and used it to build health care centres, and disbursed it quickly to victims. Instead it demanded over 3 billion and finally had to accept the 350 million plus interest. And after it got the 470 million, it kept most of it in a bank account, like it would do any good there.
It's true Exxon paid more for the Exxon Valdez leak. But that was in the United States. It makes no sense to demand we be treated on par with the US in such matters. People earn more in the US, they will naturally be compensated in accordance with their earning power.
We deal with such disparities all the time. When I write for a foreign publication, I get paid significantly more than when I write for an Indian one. Time Out, London would pay me far more for an article than Time Out, Delhi. That's just the way it is. It would be stupid of me to ask for equity in payments here in India. Union Carbide's multinational status didn't oblige it to pay the same to Indians that it would to Americans. If such conditions were laid down, no foreign companies would come to India in the first place.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Poker in Goa

I’m back from a three day poker trip, and sort of rested, although the ground still moves under my feet every now and then. That’s to be expected after sitting through three straight nights in the bottom deck of a floating casino.
Along with about twenty of the players who travelled to Goa for the India Poker Championship, I opted to stay at the local Ginger, part of the Tata Group’s budget business hotel venture modelled on chains like Ibis and Holiday Inn Express. Ginger offers a good deal for single travellers, unlike other hotels in Goa that shave just 10 or 15 percent off their double occupancy rate. Rooms are clean and neatly designed, the aircon and plumbing work, and breakfast is included. On the downside, the Wi-Fi rate is extortionate, at over 100 rupees and hour, and coverage is pretty bad in the rooms. I took my laptop along, but preferred to stroll across to a cybercafe to blog and check my email.
I was surprised to see a number of holidaying families staying at the hotel, a sterile building within the most sterile precinct in all Goa. Last time I was there, during the previous IPC in March, I even noticed a honeymooning couple at breakfast. Makes me wonder what experience such people are looking for when they come to Goa. It isn’t the beaches, booze and nightlife; it isn’t the atmospheric lanes of Fontainhas and the architecture of Old Goa; it isn’t the lush landscape of palms, cashews and paddy fields. What, then, draws them to the state?
The draw for me this time was poker and nothing but poker. The rest of this post will concentrate on that, and will sound like Greek to those unfamiliar with the game. You have been warned.

I didn’t suffer any huge bad beats like I had last time round. In fact, during one cash game, I hit a set of queens to crack pocket aces. It’s just that I didn’t win coin flips when I most needed to. During the 10K tourney I had pocket 5s against my friend Sam Rattonsey’s AK offsuit; we both had medium stacks, but the blinds were getting uncomfortable. I pushed from the button and of course he called from the small blind. He hit a king and went on to place first, which made me glad he’d won that hand and not I.
I played a few interesting hands in the late stages of the 20K tourney.
Hand 1:
I’d built my stack to 15000 when the blinds were 300 / 600. Under the gun, I was dealt pocket queens and raised to 1800. A guy in middle position reraised to 5000. He was on tilt a bit because he’d split a pot holding aces against pocket tens, all chips in pre-flop, when the board showed a spade flush and neither player held a spade. Still, I felt I was probably beat, putting him on kings, with a small chance I was racing against AK. If he had kings, all his money was almost certain to go in on the flop. If I hit a set of queens, I would definitely double up. I was getting about 6 to 1 implied odds, which didn’t justify a call when the odds were 7.5 to 1 against hitting that set. I called mainly because I had to factor in the possibility that he had AK. A queen did show up on the flop, and I did double up, and was in a pretty strong position at that point with 30K chips.

Hand 2:
I was in the big blind, still at 30,000 odd, with the blinds at 1000 / 2000 and about fifteen players left. Chap in early position limped, as did the short stacked small blind. My hand was A 10. The limper, whose name was also Girish, had about 11,000 left over. I’d been at the same cash table with him the previous night, and knew his style well. He was, basically, the biggest calling station I have seen in my life. He paid me off a number of times, but his most remarkable calls were against other players. One time, he called a preflop raise, a bet on the flop, and an all-in bet on the turn with K Q, having hit neither card, and having no draw. Another time, he called someone down to the river and called a huge river bet with just ace high. So basically I knew I was getting a call from him. I figured A 10 was good and pushed. He called with K Q and rivered a queen. I lost about half my stack in that hand.

Hand 3:
The very next hand, a player from my Bombay group, Masood, shoved with about 15,000 from middle position. I was in the small blind and again had A 10. I felt Masood was weak, and was hoping he had A 9 or A 8, which would make me a 7 : 3 favourite; in any case I was sure I was ahead and called. He showed K Q, which meant I was a 6 : 4 favourite like in the previous hand. Unfortunately, he turned a queen, and left me with just one small blind worth of chips, which lasted four more hands before I was eliminated.

It’s been six IPC events without a cash, which is a bit frustrating. Luckily my success at the cash game tables allowed me to more than cover my buy-ins for all those events, plus travel and accommodation expenses.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Quote, Unquote, Misquote redux

My Yahoo! article on homoeopathy was taken up by Amit Varma, who is responsible for editing the new suite of columns on the website. Amit starts his own column by writing, "I was delighted this Monday when my fellow Yahoo! columnist Girish Shahane took on homeopathy in his column 'Sugar Pills and Skepticism'. It needed to be done, but while I found myself agreeing with much of his piece, I was disappointed by the last paragraph, in which Girish said that he uses homeopathy occasionally, and that it sometimes seemed "to have an effect, particularly with respect to allergies.""
What I actually wrote was: "Like most Indians, I have family members who regularly take homoeopathic medication, and I’ve consulted homoeopaths myself. In my experience, the system sometimes appears to have an effect, particularly with respect to allergies."
There's a massive difference between me saying "I've consulted homoeopaths myself", and Amit's version of me using homoeopathy occasionally. As a matter of fact, the last time I entered any homoeopath's clinic was over fifteen years ago. Amit misconstrues my account of something that happened in the past in order to portray me as a soft supporter of homoeopathy.
The second quote he takes issue with is my statement that "the system sometimes appears to have an effect". I stand by this, it's the equivalent of saying the sun appears to go around the earth. It doesn't indicate the sun actually goes around the earth, all it suggests is, I kind of understand why everybody believed for millenia that it does. People I trust deeply have provided stories of how doses of homoeopathy alleviated symptoms where conventional medicine did not. Of course this could be the placebo effect at work, or a result of the fact that homoeopathy often 'cures' ailments which tend to cure themselves. By taking the 'appeared' outside my quote, so "the system sometimes appeared to have an effect", becomes "seemed 'to have an effect'", he changed the meaning of what I wrote without technically misquoting me.
Both Amit and I are in Goa right now, on a poker marathon, and, if we end up on the same table this evening, I intend to harangue him to induce a bad play.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Another incumbent bows out

It's been a rough year for incumbents. Pretty much every major election since the Indian poll of 2009 has led to a change at the centre, the most notable shift being Labour's loss in Britain after 13 years in power. Yukio Hatayoma, who took over in a landslide win against Japan's political establishment eight months ago, has just resigned, unable to deliver on election pledges and facing an approval rating below 25%.
The popularity of Angela Merkel and Barack Obama has been pummeled by crises not of their own making. Merkel was faced with two dreadful choices after the Greek fiasco: either underwrite a massive bailout, or stay on the sidelines and watch the Euro contagion spread. It's hardly surprising she didn't stick to one firm line through the difficult weeks of negotiations. Obama faces a schizophrenic electorate, which hates government interference in business, but wants the federal authorities to solve an environmental disaster created by a private company, requiring technology that only private firms possess as a result of the electorate's small-government bias. If oil keeps leaking in the Gulf till August, his ratings will slide to new lows. Meanwhile, his multilateral agenda keeps getting sidetracked by the actions of Israel, a rogue nation that flouts international law casually, secure in the belief that the US will always bail it out. Obama would like to change the US-Israel equation, but that's almost impossible to achieve, given entrenched loyalties within the American political establishment.
Until the world's economy improves perceptibly, leaders will keep paying the price at the polls.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Which is witch?

My Yahoo! column from yesterday.

“Homoeopathy is witchcraft”. Those words, spoken by Tom Dolphin of the British Medical Association, garnered a few headlines in the UK, and many more in India. We rarely favour ‘less is more’ ideas, but make an exception for homoeopathy which, though born in Germany two centuries ago, has been conferred a kind of honorary Indian citizenship,.
Reactions to Tom Dolphin’s statement were predictably apoplectic. The Delhi Board of Homoeopathic System of Medicine discerned a "sinister design to malign homoeopathy". Thankfully, apoplexy is treatable through preparations of opium, mercury and belladonna.
Dolphin’s denunciation had come at a conference of junior doctors, which concluded with the resolution:
"This Meeting believes that, given the complete lack of valid scientific evidence of benefit:
(i) homoeopathy should no longer be funded by the NHS; and
(ii) no UK training post should include a placement in homoeopathy."
The Press Trust of India gave it a different spin: “Describing homoeopathy as "witchcraft", BMA, a body of junior doctors in Britain early this week voted overwhelmingly to seek a blanket ban on the practice of the alternative medicine.” (the link was here, but has been taken down for some reason).
Blanket ban on the practice? Where did the writer get that from? All the BMA had demanded was that homoeopathic treatment cease being funded by taxpayers’ money. Private treatment was left entirely outside the resolution’s ambit. Moreover, BMA is not an association of junior doctors and said nothing, as an organisation, about witchcraft. In PTI’s defence, it describes itself as ‘India’s premier news agency’, not ‘India’s most accurate news agency’. The Times of India, criticising the ‘ban’, also picked up on the witchcraft theme: “Now, these medical practitioners are certainly entitled to their views. But their associating homeopathy with "witchcraft" is rather unfortunate. That's not the kind of language expected of men of science. More so, since it amounts to insulting the intelligence of countless people who opt for homeopathic treatment.” It might be argued, using the same logic, that the Times of India has insulted the intelligence of countless people who opt for witchcraft. But that is apparently allowable.
Such controversies relating to homoeopathy aren’t new. In 2005, The Lancet published results of a meta-analysis (a study of studies) which found no strong evidence of homoeopathic treatment being more effective than a placebo. India’s then Health Minister, Anbumani Ramadoss expressed dismay at the findings. “This is a serious issue”, he said, “because India is the largest user of homeopathy. We will counter this with scientific data.” Five years later, there’s no sign of any such data emerging from government research institutes.
Unlike Dr. Ramadoss, there are those who feel homoeopathy requires no scientific validation at all. Pratik Kanjilal, in a Hindustan Times column, argues that the discipline’s nature leaves it impervious to analysis: “Homoeopathy’s benefits are unproven because they can’t be tested by the method of science. Even the most diligently designed double-blind experiment must fail on one significant count. Science requires a valid experiment to be replicable. If Aconite 30 cures the sinusitis of Andy West of Tintagel, it must identically cure Judy North of Inverness. However, homoeopaths go by clusters of symptoms rather than the names of diseases. And, rejecting the egalitarianism of mainstream medicine, they believe that Andy and Judy are different people and should be treated differently. How do you design an experiment to accommodate that difference?”
Kanjilal’s proposition is, I’m afraid, misguided. A double-blind trial is perfectly capable of accommodating individualised treatment. All the trial does is create two groups of people, one that receives medication, and another that is given a ‘placebo’, a formulation that looks exactly like the medication, but has no effect besides the psychological. Neither doctors nor subjects know who is getting the treatment and who the placebo. That key is held by a third party. At the end of the trial, the progress of the two groups is compared. While the framework of such experiments must be replicable, there’s no need for details to be identical across trials, or across patients within each trial.
Kanjilal’s second mistake is to confuse scientific skepticism with philosophical skepticism. Upholding the word ‘maybe’ as an antidote to dogma, Kanjilal writes, “… witch-hunts against unexplained phenomena like homoeopathy look positively medieval. I look forward to the day when a healthy agnosticism replaces our scientific fundamentalisms.” Science, though, is not about agnosticism. It is not satisfied with ‘maybe’. Science comes tied with the idea that there is a definable difference between rationality and irrationality; that there exist universally applicable laws; that certain things are truer than others; that, while we may not have a standard for absolute truth, there are statements which are demonstrably false. “The sun revolves around the earth”, is one such statement. Scientific skepticism resides in the desire to investigate unexplained phenomena in order to find natural elucidations through rigorous observation, deduction and experiment.
Philosophical skepticism, on the other hand, questions the grounds for the validity of all knowledge, including scientific knowledge. For many philosophical skeptics, the sentence, ‘A solar eclipse is caused by the moon partially or fully covering the sun’, possesses no greater truth value than the sentence, ‘A solar eclipse is caused by Rahu swallowing the sun.’ By mixing up scientific and philosophical skepticism, those holding positions contravening scientific consensus often portray themselves as fighters against an entrenched, dogmatic establishment. Science takes the place of the Church, and science deniers adopt the role of Galileo. I’ve found this tendency common in debates over issues like evolution and global warming, where large sections of the public disagree with the conclusions of scientists.
Returning to the narrower subject of this column, namely the issue of homoeopathy, I use for myself a term Pratik Kanjilal would applaud: agnostic. Like most Indians, I have family members who regularly take homoeopathic medication, and I’ve consulted homoeopaths myself. In my experience, the system sometimes appears to have an effect, particularly with respect to allergies. It’s certainly preferrable to witchcraft: no homoeopath has recommended the sacrifice of a first-born or anything along those lines. It’s just been sweet pills and powders, hopefully non-steroidal. But I also know of people who’ve suffered by choosing homoeopathy (usually because it is painless and cheap), though conventional medicine offered a cure. A horrible example of this was the case of an Indian couple convicted of manslaughter in Australia for failing properly to treat their baby daughter’s eczema. The father, a homoeopath himself, handled the case while the daughter’s skin began to crack and ooze. When he felt he couldn’t do any more, he flew her to India for further homoeopathic evaluation. After she died in great pain, he told police: "Conventional medicine would have prolonged her life ... with more misery. It's not going to cure her and that's what I strongly believe."
That is what true dogma sounds like.

The column can be found here on Yahoo!