Friday, December 26, 2008

Recipé for building strong politics

A strong leader does not make a strong nation. A strong people do.

What do we mean by strong people ? A society of citizens where every individual is strong and has his voice heard and respected. In other words, what we need are strong politics.

From Kashmir to Afghanistan and from Pakistan to India, I hope my message reaches every thinking person who is patriotic for his motherland.

When a random young person is asked about the biggest problem facing the country, he replies without blinking "corrupt politicians". And the solution to this problem is equally simplistic - "Good people should get into politics", "We need strong leaders". Unfortunately in real life, nothing is black and white. There are no absolute good people. Every person is a little bad. Depending on people, the badness ranges from moderate to extreme.

In such an unsure world, it is always better to postpone our judgement. We should trust that together, we will find a solution in the future. The art of doing this is called politics.

The word civilization comes from the Latin word civitas meaning a city. When you have a lot of people living together in a city, there are bound to be disputes and disagreements. But for the success of a civilization, the basic requirement is to avoid conflict - to ensure that these disagreements do not result in violence, and that they are settled in a civilized manner with the utmost respect to human dignity. This is the ultimate objective of politics (coming from the Greek word polis meaning a city) : to ensure that nobody resorts to violence on any grievance.

Thus having defined our objective, what can we do to bring in strong politics ?

There are two principal requirements, and the entire public needs to participate in both of them, as I will explain in detail.

1) We need to respect the facts :

We are all entitled to our opinions, but not to our own facts. The facts are the common meeting ground for any dispute, and they have to be investigated objectively and independently. This is usually the work of journalists, scientists and media watch-dogs. The facts also need to be transparent and open for the entire public. In today's world, the facts pertaining to any dispute can be displayed over the world-wide-web.

Sometimes, a complete inspection of facts is sufficient to resolve a dispute. For example, imagine that we want to construct a bridge that offers the best value for money. What we need to do is to select the best design amidst competing bidders. When all these records are public, independent investigators can validate whether the government has indeed done the right job.

As another example, consider the global warming problem. In science, we develop a theory that best explains the facts. For anything that has not been validated, we need to cultivate scepticism. The art of doubting (what is explained by facts and what isn't) is the main driving force of science. Today, there is a scientific consensus (with more than 90% scientists agreeing) that global warming is happening and that it is extremely dangerous for the future of the planet. In such an issue, the government should listen to people who are competent in reaching this judgement. Again, all the facts are transparent and open for the entire public.

2) We need a left, and we need a right :

But facts are not sufficient to resolve every kind of dispute. There are disputes which require finer levels of judgement and which appeal to the collective mores and ethics of the society. On such issues, most people don't have a fixed opinion and stand in the middle. This is where politics gets interesting.

A good example is the Indo-US nuclear deal. True, there were lots of half-facts and lies that were tossed about in the parliament. And these can be eliminated by a thorough fact-check as I have advocated earlier. But even after this, there are bound to be divided opinions on whether nuclear power is essential for the country or not, or whether a strategic partnership with USA is good for the country or not. If you read the other posts in my blog, you will know that I strongly support nuclear power. But this is a judgement that I do not want to impose on the society. On such a matter, I will agree to go with the collective mores and ethics of the society as represented by a majority vote.

Another very good example is the human rights of homosexual people. I think that no person should be discriminated based on his/her caste, religion or sexual preferences. But some people do not think exactly like me. Even though we cannot agree on this topic today, we should trust that we will reach a solution in the future. This comes from my belief in politics : we need to be patient and mutually respectful of each other. Barack Obama has mentioned a very good similar example in his historic speech on race : the US constitution was tainted with the original sin of slavery. But the very constitution had provisions to reach a mutual judgement to abolish slavery, as people did at a later time.

In reality, there are a huge number of similar political issues : Should we have a common civil law for every Indian citizen or have laws based on religion ? Should we have a strong central government or strong provincial governments ? Should the government control banks or leave them completely deregulated ? Should the defence budget be decreased for spending on education ? Should women have a right to abortion or not ?

A strong politics would ensure that every single individual has his voice heard and presented in these debates. This means that there has to be a political current that represents each of these positions, and which presents them with character. As Voltaire has said, "I do not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it". This is the responsibility that we owe to every fellow citizen.

Do we have strong politics in our country ? Absolutely not.

Opportunism has become the rule of politics. Communist parties rub shoulders with Islamist parties on opposing the US imperialism which they see as a joint evil. The right wing Hindutva parties rub shoulders with socialist Janata Dal to grab power. None of this makes any sense whatsoever.

So here I propose a clear distinction of left and right, which we need for bringing in strong politics. These are related to be innate human desires of "drawing together" (left) and "having an individual space" (right) - both of which are obvious in any human relationship. These left and right parties are expected to complement each other, and serve as the yin for the other's yang.

Needed - Right wing with a character :

  1. To support individual freedoms, including the right to possessions.
  2. To reduce the size of the government.
  3. To preserve the identity and ensure the authenticity of a race, religion or language. (Michel Serres argues that these loyalties are related to the oral, writing and printing eras of human society respectively. Thus, language-based loyalties ought to be more respected than other loyalties).
  4. To ensure that native populations have priorities over immigrants.
  5. To ensure proper defence of the society, and protection of its citizens.
  6. To ensure that the government is extremely federalized, with maximum control at provinces.
Needed - Left wing with a character :
  1. To ensure that all basic human rights are respected, as mentioned in the universal declaration of human rights.
  2. To ensure that there is a minimum wage for every person.
  3. To ensure that every person achieves basic requirements on education, health and nutrition.
  4. To ensure that the society permeates a spirit of tolerance for religious, cultural and sexual minorities.
  5. To prevent war and ensure that peaceful dialogue is attempted before drastic measures are taken.
  6. To increase the size of the federal government and provide it with the necessary funds to oversee these obligations.
From the very nature of these parties, it can be noticed that the objectives of the left are antagonistic to the objectives of the right (and vice-versa). Every political problem needs to be a trade-off between the two. As people, we need to explicitly recognize these contradictory requirements and evolve a collective societal judgement and ethic.

The right wing is a "local" party which targets the interests of each region and group of people. Such a party is difficult to be formed at a federal level. The left wing is a "global" party which speaks out on the common brotherhood of man. They are difficult to be formed at a provincial level. To ensure a strong politics, we need to have a thorough representation of both these political currents - both at the provincial and federal levels.

The practical way to achieve this : Make every political party list explicitly whether it stands for right-wing objectives or left-wing objectives. Let the party split if the members disagree on the nature of their work. When forming coalition parties either at the federal or at the provincial level, we need to ensure that it is either a left-wing coalition or a right-wing coalition. This kind of binary nature of coalitions also eliminates political opportunism and the uncertainites of having a hung parliament.

To ensure that a real debate is made and heard, a few members of the opposite-wing should be accomodated into the government as a good-will gesture. This is already a common practice in several western countries.

I would like to conclude with two finishing remarks. Firstly, being part of a federal union (such as the Indian Union or the European Union) has distinct advantages for the nurturing of a democracy, as it explicitly encourages the formation of a strong left-wing party devoid of any particular nationalism. However, the right wing parties tend to be very fragmented, and this could inhibit economic growth. Secondly, terrorism is often an unholy mixture of the right and left wing ideas into one single ideology (the left-wing idea of a prophet merged with the right-wing idea of a king, who has used the religion of the prophet as a conquering device).

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Anatomy of Terrorism

When somebody commits a rape, or a murder in cold blood, do we ponder about the reasons why he did that ? Do we worry about the socio-political reasons, or economic reasons behind the crime ? No.

Then, why is it that people break their heads over the reasons behind terrorist acts ? Several intelligent and well-meaning people are linking the Mumbai murders with the Kashmir issue, Muslim subjugation in India and so on.

This is all nonsense. The reason is simple and plain. A person who killed innocent civilians in cold blood did that because he found pleasure in doing that. There are some people like that twisted in the brain; we should accept this fact. There will always be paedophiles on this planet. Likewise, there will always be serial killers and rapists. And there will always be terrorists.

We can sure try to understand what motivated them for their crimes. At the core of their beliefs, all criminals feel they are victims. "Oh poor little me. The world is out against me.", is how any criminal thinks. This thinking is an elaborate ploy to erase their conscience - if it exists, before they proceed with the pleasure of murdering other people.

No, the question that we need to ask is not "What is the motivation behind a terrorist act ?", but "How come murderous people like these get the guns, money and political backing to carry their games ? ". Let me answer this question in this post.

When treated on an individual by individual basis, human society will never accept the pleasure of murdering, raping and pillaging other human beings as the right of a person. However, these acts get a social acceptance when it is thought that

  1. There is a group that is entirely pure, virtuous and shining.
  2. This group is being oppressed and violently being subjugated.
A chillingly vast majority of people actually subscribe to these simplistic black-and-white combo of (1) and (2). Not all of them will do murders, obviously. The actual acts will only be commited by a special few - who actually take pleasure in the murder of other human beings. But by believing in (1) and (2), an enormous section of people are willing to turn a blind eye on their consciences. This mixture of (1) and (2) is a poisonous addictive drug that consumes the soul of a human being.

I will give you a few examples to justify my theory.
  • In Nazi germany, it was thought that (1) the Nordic race is pure and shining (2) this race is being humiliated in the world in various forms. This heady mixture of ideas soon consumed an entire country, and precipitated the second world war, and the holocaust of Jews. Not every German person did murder obviously, these acts were only commited by a select few individuals - which are present in all human societies. But the rest of the population gave power, guns and political backing to them.
  • In the Bolshevik revolution (or during the French revolution), people are led to believe that (1) only the working class is pure and honest, the rest are a bunch of thieves and cronies (2) the working class is being oppressed. This led people to actually murder the royals and feudal lords, including women and children. Again, the actual murders were commited by a select few people. The rest gave them power and guns.
  • In most of the independence movements (or separatist movements, depending on how you think) around the world, violent agitators subscribe that (1) their country is pure and virtuous, and that the occupiers are filthy and (2) their country is being oppressed.
Neither (1) or (2) are sufficient by themselves to provide social justification for murder, but taken together they do a very good job. For example,
  • During the civil rights movement, the Black people acknowledged that (2) they were oppressed. But they did not necessarily think that (1) they are pure and virtuous, to the exclusion of other people. This is the reason the civil rights movement maintained a dignity and proceded by non-violent means.
  • A lot of people still harbour racist feelings thinking (1) that their community is the best and most influential. But they don't necessarily think that (2) that community is being oppressed.
  • A lot of scientists think that they are (1) an elite class, at a level above the others. But they don't think (2) they are being oppressed as a community.
  • Indian independence movement was a hugely non-violent effort because even though (2) people thought they were being oppressed by the British, they did not think that (1) Indian culture was the best and the purest in the world. In fact, most of the freedom fighters were very open and welcoming to western culture. (A few groups did hate western influences, and these groups used violent means).
  • The Tibetan movement (atleast the majority headed under Dalai Lama) thinks that (2) they are being oppressed by the Chinese but they do not think that (1) their religion is the only truth or that their people are superior to the Chinese people.
Now coming down to specifics, I am quite terrified of two ideas that are increasingly gaining mainstream acceptance in India.
  • There is a large section of Muslims who believe that (1) Islam is the only path to God, and that every other religion is a falsehood (2) Muslims are being oppressed in the world. I don't find fault with either (1) or (2) - though both of these appear quite simplistic and silly to any intelligent person. But put together, they are as lethal as RDX.
  • There is a growing section of Hindus who think that (1) Hindu land is the fountain of all culture and civilization in the world - atom bombs, space ships etc were all invented by ancient Indians (2) Hindus were slaughtered throughout history by Muslims and continue to be oppressed. Either (1) or (2) is an intellectually shallow argument. But put together, they can result in the rape of Christian nuns, or in the murder of Muslim shopkeepers.
Of course, these are not the only set of dangerous ideas in India. Often, there are racist idealogues who think the Thakur-race/Kashmiri-race/Naga-race is superior to the Harijan-race/Hindu-race/Indian-race.

Whatever be the idealogy, there are huge media networks which publicize this type of information. Often, they put graphic images and videos to show how brutal the oppression is. They evoke images of young innocent girls getting raped, or pregnant mothers getting their bellies torn open. At the same vein, these people propagandize about how glorious and pure their religion/race is.

These media networks are not illegal. In fact, they are free to publicise in mosques, temples and even schools. In today's internet era, there are a huge number of blogs / youtube channels which do this propaganda. None of the people who do this propaganda are poor or uneducated. They are all talented and successful people, who are just addicted to a drug of black-and-white.

This type of propaganda is nothing short of an indictment to murder. So the next time I hear the dual propaganda of Muslims as a community being oppressed and Muslims being the purest religion, I will face the propagandist with my complaint. I will act similarly if I hear the same from a Hindutva propagandist.

Though rare, some of these rich and educated people who do propaganda might even be itching for some real blood. A high ranking professional working for Yahoo in Bangalore became a key planner for the Indian Mujahideen terrorist group. Ayman al Jawahari was working as a qualified doctor in Egypt, before he became an Al Qaeda chief. Any successful terrorist operation (the recent Mumbai carnage included) has several extremely intelligent , rich and qualified individuals behind the operations table.

However, the actual foot soldiers who murder people (and usually get killed by police) do not come from rich families. A rich person would never waste his precious life away for a minor thing - killing a dozen people that he hates. The actual terrorists come from poor families, with limited education opportunities. They usually have personal problems - like a failed love affair.

But most importantly, both rich and poor, these guys take pleasure in murder. Their brains are twisted.

Under normal circumstances, such a twisted brain is not dangerous. But under these special circumstances of propaganda drugs, such a person has no barriers of conscience to overcome. Such a person readily finds guns, money, political backing and social acceptance to carry out his secret games of pleasure.

And these games of pleasure will shatter families, will break the hearts of several loved ones, and will make us lose several caring, pious or creative human beings.

What can we do ?
  1. We can never eradicate such people. So it is always good to be prepared.
  2. We can reduce the pool of suicidal recruits, by removing poverty and illiteracy (though this is a huge task)
  3. We can actively look for hate speech of the (1)+(2) mixture that I talked about. We can try making this type of propaganda illegal. Or if we do not want to sacrifice free speech, make this hate speech conditional to continuous police surveillance of the person who makes this speech.
  4. We can try to have democratic governments - which act as a nice filter to eliminate these kind of twisted people from capturing political power.
  5. We make the army and police swear total alleigance to the people of the nation, and never should they think they are superior to the civilian citizens. We monitor for people of the "twisted brain" syndrome before we present them with any weapons.
Irrespective of our individual differences or ideologies (whether one is a fundamentalist Hindu or a fundamentalist Muslim, whether one is a patriotic Indian or a patriotic Pakistani, whether one is a Communist or a Libertarian), we should make a commitment to all these 5 steps. Otherwise there is no future for any ideology, because the future of our very humanity is at stake.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Deccan Mujahideen from Faridkot

So now we know where that bad Hyderabadi accent comes from. The Guardian Observer has identified the family and home town of the lone captured terrorist from the Mumbai attacks.

I hope the Pakistani government stops acting like a defence lawyer of the terrorists, and treats with attention whatever clues are provided by the Indian intelligence agencies. After all, closing down terrorist camps and those hate-breeding religious schools is for the own good of Pakistan.

A bomb has exploded in the Peshawar market and killed 27 people, clearly a result of the tribal warfare fueled by these kind of terrorist camps. Apparently, the locals at Peshawar are suspecting Indian involvement. I hope somebody reads my earlier post, to understand what India actually thinks of Pashtuns.

If all it takes is one prank call to let nuclear tensions run loose, then every single person in the subcontinent should be deeply worried. Let's all hope that sense and sanity prevails.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Long Live Pashtunistan

Earlier in my blog, I offered my respect to the Kashmiri people and to their right to unity and self-determination. In today's post, I would like to pay my respects to another brave people who also suffered a lot - the Pashtuns.

The history of Pashtuns is written in valor and heroism. Their fierce independence and love for freedom were mentioned in the most ancient texts, including the Rig Veda and the Mahabharata. Never surrendering to any empire or army, these people always maintained independent tribal republics. Even the mighty Alexander could not annex their lands. As chronicled by Megasthenes, his army fought a fierce battle with the Assakenoi (Ashvaganas / Afghans). Instead of accepting defeat, entire tribes (including women) took to arms and sacrificed their lives. Their feat is as stirring as that of the 300 Spartan warriors of Leonidas. One of the reasons why Alexander didn't cross the Indus river is because of the fear these warriors put into the hearts of the Greek soldiers.

Coming to modern times, even the greatest empire in history - the British empire could not succeed in occupying the Afghan lands. Afghanistan remained a sovereign state since the early 1700s, making it the most ancient sovereign state in this region of the world.

Pashtuns, with their love for freedom and their gratitude to loyalty and honesty, are an inspiration to people everywhere in the world. A few of these valiant people settled in India, called Pathans, always known for their big generous hearts.

Pashtuns love music, and a lot of famous singers and artists in the Indian subcontinent come from this region. Several ancient Indian / Iranian mathematicians and scientists originated from Gandhara (Kandahar) and Balkh.

All this history stands in stark contrast to the way media portrays Pashtuns today - as medieval tribal warriors. This portrayal comes in handy for two souces - the NATO forces fighting them in Kandahar and the Pakistani forces fighting them in Waziristan. Why did Pashtuns get dragged into this warfare is a sad story.

It begins with a betrayal. And it is we Indians (precisely Nehru) who have to suffer the blame of backstabbing Pashtuns.

Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan (fondly known as Bacha Khan) was the most inspiring freedom fighter from the Pashtun region. A devout Muslim, and also a staunch Gandhian who abrogated violence, he inspired the entire Pashtun community to stand up to the British. He said, "I am going to give you such a weapon that the police and the army will not be able to stand against it. It is the weapon of the Prophet, but you are not aware of it. That weapon is patience and righteousness. No power on earth can stand against it." He was known as the frontier Gandhi and his followers were known as the Khudai-khidmatgars (servants of God).

As the idea of partitioning India was picking up steam, Bacha Khan firmly opposed it and remained staunchly secular. He didn't want Pashtun provinces to become part of an Islamic Pakistan. At the urgency of independence, and at the threat of religious violence between Hindus and Muslims, Gandhi and Nehru have forced Bacha Khan to agree to the merger with Pakistan. Bacha Khan moaned to Gandhi, "You have thrown us to the wolves". After the merger, Bacha Khan was labeled an enemy of Islam and imprisoned several times. His followers were carefully decimated by the opponents with support from Islamabad. Military generals such as Zia-ul-Haq have taken advantage of the illiteracy and backwardness of the region, and appointed religious fundamentalists as leaders.

The second part of the story began with the attack of Afghanistan by the Soviet troops. Seeing their brothers dying across the border, many Pashtuns took to arms. Taking advantage of the situation, USA and Pakistan funded this war and supplied them with weapons and missiles. As the superpowers played their colonial chess games, ordinary Pashtuns died in large numbers. War and violence have further eroded the spirit of Pashtuns. Illiteracy and economic backwardness became rife.

The third and final part of the story was the infiltration of the Pashtun lands with Arab fighters. First arrived to fight the Soviets, these militants then started to use the lands of their hosts against new enemies - the USA. The stationing of US troops on Saudi soil, became the reason of hatred for one Osama bin Laden. He abused the hospitality of his hosts by using Afghanistan to hatch terrorist plots, which serve the purpose of no Afghan citizen. After the 9-11, the USA started bombing the Afghan lands killing Pashtuns in large numbers, but still unable to locate the main culprit.

The spirit of Bacha Khan seems so far away, and we are left to wonder what happened to the Khudai-khidmatgars ! The brave Pashtun people are left with no strong leader and are being made to fight foreign wars - against India and against USA, by cowardly people behind the scenes. This has to stop. Indians have to reaffirm their love and respect for the Pashtun people. The Americans should attempt to understand their fierce love for freedom, and stop a war which they can never win.

When will Pashtuns stop fighting foreign wars, funded by cowardly people from the back ? When will Pashtuns see a return to peace and prosperity ?

I wish the Pashtuns the same thing I wished for the Kashmiris - an affirmation of their self-respect and dignity, an end to the murder of their race, and a tearing down of the artificial walls which seperate brothers.

Friday, November 28, 2008

How to live with urban terrorism

India is at war. And the enemy is inside.

The notion of warfare in modern times has changed rapidly. Large scale battles between neighboring countries will happen much less, because these might degenerate into the use of nuclear weapons.

More collateral damage can be inflicted by terrorist attacks, and this can be targeted to specific high-profile locations and personalities. We will continue to see an upswing of these form of attacks.

The defence spending of the country should be changed to suit this reality. We should allocate a lot more portion of our funds to anti-terrorist squads, and they should explicitly be made part of the army.

It is easy to say can root out terrorism and flush out all the terrorists, but it is much more difficult to do that. This is a sensitive issue, and has to be done without any specific community feeling victimized. Increased espionage and a very efficient intelligence mechanism will help. But they are not foolproof.

In this post, I would like to mention a few measures that we need to adopt, to prevent the kind of attacks that we have seen in Mumbai (and in Ahmedabad, Hyderabad, Delhi and Bangalore).

  1. The Mumbai coastline was quite vulnerable. There has to be an increase of naval check-points, particularly around our harbors. Each ship / boat should be made to pass through at least two such checkpoints.
  2. All major road and railways coming to the city should be subjected to such checkpoints.
  3. Major traffic cross-roads should have automatic alarm systems : these junctions should be sealed off in the case of an emergency. The response latency to alerts should be brought down to the bare minimum possible.
  4. There should be an increase of numbers in the reserve civilian police, which can react to such situations.
  5. The water supply system should be subject to severe monitoring and double-checks.
  6. The public transport infrastructure (particularly commuter trains) should have more intensive checks and inspections.
  7. Periodic inspections need to be done by dedicated squad members for the detection and disposal of bombs in public markets and crossroads.
These measures are necessary to prevent large scale collateral damage in urban terrorist attacks.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

The Case for God

Does God exist ?

A very loaded question. People have very strong opinions on this subject, and they will not like you for being lectured. However, I will take this risk and write on this topic today. Please treat me kindly.

Till very recently, my position on the question of God's existence could be termed "nihilistic". A nihilist is a person who doesn't care. God doesn't exist ? Okay. What matters is that there is a reason behind everything. And life and nature are so lovely, we don't have to care about God. God exists ? Cool. But then, he has some explanation to do.

I have been quite happy with my position. I was raised in a family which encouraged me to question everything and have a rationalistic and scientific view of life. We were not religious, and we were definitely not into religious custom.

I was never an atheist - a person who strongly believes that God doesn't exist. To prove that something doesn't exist, you should first know what it is. The concept of God seemed so unimportant to me that I didn't want to spend time disproving all its attributes.

I did agree with several atheistic points : such as that God doesn't have anything to do with the origin of man (I go with the theory of evolution), the creation of earth and the elements (I go with the big bang theory) etc. In general, I have suspected (and do suspect now) God as a hypothetical being which is created as a ready-made answer for all the questions by lazy people who don't want to think. For this reason, I have been hostile to the idea of God, even though I wouldn't want to call myself an atheist.

There were times in my life, when I experimented with alternate positions.

In my childhood, I once actively engaged myself with believing in God : God is this guy who is playing a game with you, something like blindman's buff. It was my task to discover who it was, by tricking him to have a conversation with me. For example, I did something nice, and checked what God gives me in return. It was a nice game, but I was soon tired of this.

Then , sometime in my adolescence, I have been fascinated by Mathematics. I thought that if God exists, this should be proven. Not by some strange or weird thing that happens occasionally, such as you magically getting saved from an accidant (I was, once), or a statue starting drinking milk (it did). No, God should be proved as a theorem. Not hypothesized as an exception. I was amazed to learn that there were several branches of philosophy which specialize in this. But they all seemed very esoteric and insipid, so I decided to look into them when I get old.

But there was one strand of philosophy which fascinated me. It was called logicism, that everything comes down to logic. This is the idea of Leibniz, and at that time I was a big fan of Leibniz as I was starting to learn calculus. I called myself a logicist, to the utter incomprehension of my friends. They thought I was just showing off (which was partly true). The thing with logicism is that if everything gets down to logic, then God is logic.

But this quaint world was shattered during my engineering days, when I learned Godel's incompleteness theorem. Damn, logicism was not cool anymore.

If God exists, God cannot be logic. It should be something else. What is it ?

Well, I decided I don't care. I became a nihilist. And started quoting Nietzsche, again annoying my friends.

A couple of weeks ago, I realized there exists something which can be called God.

I will try to explain with a few examples.

1) You are watching a soccer match on television. You are cheering for your team, "Come on guys, you can do it.. I know you can make the goal. Yes, move on like that".. Deep down in your mind, you are thinking that these whispers of yours are being heard by the players and motivating them. But, let's take an objective viewpoint and check if these thoughts of yours make any difference to the performance of the team. There is no known law in physics which can prove this for you.

2) You hear that a family member of a close friend of yours is in hospital over a severe illness. You tell your friend, "Don't worry my friend. Everything will be alright. She will survive." Your friend smiles a little on hearing your words. How can your thoughts make any difference to the chances of survival of a remote patient ? There is nothing in physics that can prove this.

3) The person that you love deeply is going to live faraway. You don't know whether she will lead a happy life, or if she finds herself in the midst of troubles. You wish deep inside you that she is happy, and you believe that it is true. How can your love make someone else happy at another location, if you are not even communicating it ?

What I am trying to argue is that there are several things such as hope, love and wishes which are not quite logical. They cannot be proved by science (atleast, they are not yet proven). But we believe in them anyways. This is what I say is God.

When you look objectively at the meaning of God, it has always been this. It is a sincere wish of a human for the wellbeing of another human. This is called hope. In all our culture, God was a synonym for this hope.

I wish upon Athena to look kindly upon me when I debate with someone. I wish upon Neptune to let my ship pass peacefully through his seas. I wish upon Lakshmi to bless you with wealth in your endeavour. And so on.. When you leave from my place, I say good-bye - a shortening of "god be with you".

If you understand God as hope, I will vouch for you that God exists. It you understand God as love, I will vouch for you that it is true.

Let me elaborate. I suspect that there is a hidden ether which connects all human minds (and even plants and animals) and their wishes. When you wish for something deeply for someone, this wish propagates through this ether and reaches the other person. It will make it nicer for that person by modifying the parameters of the physics around. This concept is not yet discovered in science, but I am sure that it is true. We will discover it one day, as we all discover it every day in our lives.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Sacrifice Delhi , Save India

There is a nice verse in my language which says, "A nation does not mean land. A nation means people". This is what I meant when I said Save India.

Let's abolish theologies, let's abolish nationalism. Let's give respect to the human spirit. Nothing is more sacred before that, not even the constitution.

Before you get your passions inflamed, try asking yourself a simple question : Do you like India or do you like Indians ? If you choose the later, then you are a true patriot.

India does not mean the empire of Ashoka. It does not mean the pillars of learning of Shankaracharya. It does not mean the kingdoms of Ramayana. It does not mean a mega utopia which was supposedly destroyed by some invading Muslims. It does not mean the glories of the Mughal empire. It does not mean the eastern bulwark of Islam. It does not mean anything in the past. India is a living notion. It exists in the "now". And it exists in its people.

These people might have had a past, but they live in the present. We should accept what they are right now.

In our journey as an independent country, we Indians are at a crucial juncture : we have to choose between territorial integrity and human integrity. Should we continue our abnormal military presence in Kashmir ? Should we subject every person to getting frisked seven times a day before he reaches to work ? Should we subject our own citizens there to continuous curfews ? Should we continue to impose the rule of the army in one of the states ? Should we give no regard to the democratic aspirations of our own citizens ? Is this what we want to achieve as a nation ? Is this our idea of India ? How many of our own brothers do we have to kill, torture and make disappear for preserving this idea ?

If we continue to tighten our fists, we risk to alienate our own citizens. This is not nation building.

India is an amazing land of diversity. In its richness or heritage, it is no way inferior to the continent of Europe. In what way is Telugu inferior to Spanish ? Then why is it that nobody outside India is even aware of Telugu ? In what way is Kashmiri culture inferior to Polish culture ? Then why does Poland deserve a flag but not Kashmir ?

These questions can be suppressed for years when the population is poor or uneducated, but they are bound to prop up in the minds of the people. What prevents the rest of the Indian citizens from the fear of a cultural subjugation from the Hindi heartland ?

You can shove these fears under the carpet, but they will keep multiplying and keep surfacing with increased ferocity. We will see ethnic strife against minorities in Mumbai. We will see the kidnap and murder of Bengalis in Tripura. We will see Naga rebels fighting in the hills. And we will see a minor issue of 40 acres rise into a full blown freedom struggle and eventually demand the lives of 30 Kashmiris.

No, we cannot shove our fears under the carpet. We have to look at them straight in the eye, and solve the problem. If we do not do that, our country will suffer the fate of Yugoslavia. When it happens, the break up will be rapid, and it will be bloody. Horrors such as genocide will be commited. Hindus and Muslims will massacre each other. India and Pakistan will face outright war, and heaven knows if nuclear weapons will be used.

Before you jump onto the pseudo nationalistic bandwagon of Hindutva, trying to build a glorious Ram Rajya or avenge for the historical wrongs of Islamic invasions etc, please think about where this will lead you. The same is true for people who jump onto the pseudo bandwagon of Islamic glory.

Under the horrors of genocide and nuclear war, can we preserve even a portion of our civilization ? Will we be able to preserve the temple of Madhura ? Will we be able to preserve the Taj Mahal ?

What can we do to avert these dangers ? This is where comes the other part of the title of this blog - Sacrifice Delhi. We have to sacrifice our union government. We have to sacrifice some of our symbols. We need to provide more autonomy to the states. I don't know what this autonomy means : does it mean different flags ? does it mean different constitutions ? does it mean different passports ? I don't know : we need to innovate and we need to do it quickly. It is inevitable, the faster we do it, the more bloodshed we will save.

I have just visited Strassburg, a lovely city of a thousand years of history. This city had a bloody past with periodic occupations from France and Germany. Now it houses the European parliament. Why can't Srinagar be given a similar status, serving as a bridge between India and Pakistan, instead of as a dispute ?

When we think about it, the issue of autonomy is exactly where differences creeped in between Nehru and Jinnah. Let's go where our freedom fighters dared not tread. Let's try to create a union of equals. Let's redefine democracy in the internet age. Let's redefine the notion of a constitution.

Let's take our subcontinent to the true place it deserves. Can Punjab be united ? Can Bengal be united ? Can Kashmir be united ? Yes, let's break the Berlin walls of the east.

Let's forget the horrors of partition. Let's rediscover our true heritage of 5000 years together. Let's model the union of SAARC countries in the fashion of the European Union. Let's have our parliament in Srinagar. Let's have our court of human rights in Jaffna. As we sacrifice Delhi, we will save our India. We will save the spirit of brotherhood between Indians.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

James Hansen on Charlie Rose : Nuclear Now

Humanity should look forward to using 4th generation nuclear reactors. Breeder reactors are essential for a sustainable energy future.

Solving global warming requires us a moratorium on using coal. If we wish to leave an inhabitable planet for our future generations, we should stop using coal right now.

Dr James Hansen, one of the first scientists to alert us on global warming is here on an interview with Charlie Rose. I highly recommend everyone to read the book of Tom Blees, which details all the technologies that will make a huge difference in our future (about to come out). The introduction chapter is free. (I am glad to have met Tom on grist).

Another technology of breeder reactors that have a lot of promise are the Liquid Flouride Thorium Reactors. This model is different from the Fast Breeder Reactor that India is developing. India should invest a lot more money for the development of breeder reactors in general, because we have huge reserves of Thorium.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Eco-Dollar : Future Global Currency

What is money ?

It is the index of the capacity at which you can consume different resources - food, clothing, housing, ornaments, entertainment etc. What determines your capacity to access these resources is the amount of energy that you possess. For most of the history of mankind, these resources have been in very short supply. Most of the population remained poor, illiterate and lacking health opportunities. In an era of scarce resources (until 17th century - not so long ago), the only energy that could be tapped was that of human beings and that of beasts of burden. Money represented your societal influence and how you could manipulate other human beings.

Then, something extraordinary has happened (in England) during the 18th century : man started automating the modes of production. Slowly but steadily, several amazing changes have come by. Food became plenty and hunger was banished. Health care become available to all and death rates plummeted. For the first time ever, the entire population became educated. As resources became more accessible to every person, the meaning of money started to change. What determined your capacity to access resources is no longer your societal influence, but (a) the amount of fuels that you possessed and (b) the degree of automation available to you. This became the new meaning of money. Historically, the fuels-(a) have been fossil fuels such as coal and gasolene. The amount of automation-(b) that can be achieved is determined by the initial capital that you possessed. This marked the begining of capitalism.

The process of automation was not painless. Man had to start at step zero, with very little energy / capital available to his disposal. To make the first machines, this available capital was not even sufficient. So more capital was obtained by robbing other people. This robbery took several forms : colonization (asia), slavery (africa), ethnic cleansing (americas), pathetic working conditions and open wars (europe). This is the reason industrialization proceeded very slowly. But every single step of automation brought further amounts of energy to the disposal of man, making this a chain reaction. With the progress of industrialization , the economic product of the society grew exponentially. You can visualize this process as a rapid increase of the size of the tappable energy and resources pool.

In the two factors that determined money (a) energy available and (b) initial capital, (a) became so high that (b) started to become negligible. In other words, the world economic product became so high that capital no longer presented a constraint for further industrialization. This was first demonstrated during the Marshall plan when USA pumped in significant amounts of capital to the industrialization of war-torn economies of Europe and Japan. This marked the first signs of maturity for the process of industrialization, and the beginning of an age of plenty, when capital is no longer a constraint and it no longer need be robbed from other people. (At the end of the second world war, USA was very rich, accounting for one half of the world 's economic product).

The lack of capital, however, delayed the industrialization in countries which adopted closed economies. There was not a lot of initial capital available in the Soviet Union, so its industrialization suffered a lot of hiccups. These constraints on capital became further apparent when the Soviet budget was stretched during the space and weapon programs. Iran to this day has a lot of oil and gas, but it still cannot exploit them completely due to lack of sufficient capital. This makes it apparent for developing countries to adopt the strategy of inviting foreign capital for industrializing their societies. In our globalized world, the surplus capital is being exchanged for profits. As demonstrated by China and India, developing countries are industrializing rapidly at rates unseen before. This is a direct result of the increased magnitude of the current global economic product. When African countries industrialize in the future, their growth rates will be higher.

As the initial capital that one possesses is becoming less important, the world is entering a state where energy becomes the true currency. All global currencies of today are tied to energy prices. In our fossil fuel economy driven by gasolene, countries with huge oil reserves automatically became rich.

But fossil fuels are not sustainable. Further, they are dangerous for the environment (increased CO2 levels cause global warming). This makes it imperative that we shift to a new economy where we depend on alternative sources of energy. There are two possible sources : solar power and nuclear power. Solar power has the advantage of being completely renewable, but has the disadvantage of being very diffuse. Nuclear power, if driven by breeder reactors, can sustain us for a very long time. Our future economy will be driven by a combination of solar and nuclear energies.

Developing these two technologies will require capital input. But as we have seen already, capital is no longer a constraint in the current world. What poses a challenge is an established pecking order in business which has deep ties to the fossil fuel establishment. This needs to be overhauled.

Economic growth of a country can be reformulated as increase in the degree of automation in that country. If you want to ensure economic growth, use the money (energy) you possess to do two things (1) to create an infrastructure of automation to consume resources (2) to create an infrastructure of producing new energy. When (2) is completed, redirect the energy to (1).

This is a failsafe method of economic growth, with no stagflations or busts. Our current markets periodically suffer from busts because they lose track of these basic principles. The money is squandered as direct waste (such as waste of food, waste of fuel, stuff purchased but never used) or as investments in non-productive sectors such as real estate.

With solar and nuclear technologies, we will soon enter a world of abundant energy. In this world, neither capital nor energy will pose a constraint for further industrialization.

Instead, what will become increasingly important are the effects on the environment due to extensive consumption of resources. These effects will be visible as deforestation, depletion of soil due to intensive agriculture, loss of biodiversity, air pollution, large scale mining etc. These ecological constraints will be added as costs in the make up of money.

Let's call this new money the eco-dollar. We can define 1 eco-dollar as 1 kilo-watt-hour of energy, as produced from environmentally friendly sources. This will be the future global currency. The price of different commodities in eco-dollars will be calculated as a mixture of (1) the energy that is needed in their production and (2) their environmental side effects. For a comfortable life of an industrialized economy, Dr David Mackay estimates that each person needs 125 kwh of energy per day. In our future economy, this is equal to 125 eco-dollars per day. This will be ensured as the guarenteed minimum wage of everyone.

Imagine a world where each human being is given a robot and that the robot is powered by solar or nuclear energy. Imagine that the robot does all the work for the human. What does the human do ? Have fun.

In reality, there will be no single robot for each human but a huge automation network will be working for the entire human society. But human beings will work less and less, catering more time to finer things in life such as art, science and philosophy. This should be goal of our economic activity.

(In this post, I tried to compress several of my ideas spawned out of discussions on the grist environmentalist community. As I started to think deeper about sustainable energy, I became more and more convinced about the inevitability of human progress, industrialization and eradication of poverty. This is in some contrast to my earlier opinions as expressed in these posts).

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

H u m a n i t y . V s . E a r t h

My old roommates were a very intelligent and environmentally conscious people. We used to chat a lot. After a furious debate one day, I remember having this conversation with them.

"Imagine this hypothetical scenario. A large explosion is going to destroy our planet. You have two choices - save all the mankind and destroy the earth, or save the earth but destroy mankind. What would you do ? "

"But what will become of mankind if earth is destroyed ?"

"Imagine that we can ship us all in a spaceship, which has enough resources to keep us floating in space for a few centuries."

"But why will the earth be destroyed ? "

"Yeah. If you choose this option, earth will be destroyed with all the plants and animal life."

"And if you want to save the earth ? "

"Then not a single man will survive. That will be the end of mankind. The earth will remain intact though, along with all the plants and animals."

"But we don't understand. What are you talking about ? Why would it be like this ? "

"I told you it is a hypothetical scenario. Something like science fiction. I presented it just to know your judgement. Well, imagine that an asteroid is going to hit the earth, and that it contains a poisonous chemical. Contamination with this chemical in the atmosphere will kill all mankind, but it harms no other life form. To save mankind, imagine we can build a huge spaceship which is driven by some nuclear fusion energy. And to obtain this energy, a huge particle accelerator has to be built, which is known to create a black hole and destroy the earth. Now you have this choice - save the earth or save mankind. What will you do ?"

Then, my roommates gave me an answer which I did not expect.

"Save the earth, ofcourse. This whole spaceship plan for mankind is very silly. What about you ?"

"I think I will destroy the earth, and save mankind in this spaceship."

Instead of resolving the debate, this hypothetical scenario exposed the crux of our differences.

"Kiran, I didn't know you can be so cruel and insensitive. What is so great about mankind ? This planet is like our mother. How can you be so selfish as to destroy it for your own sake ? Infact, throughout history, we did nothing but damage to this planet. "

"But look at what is at stake. We human beings have discovered science, we have discovered art. All this will die along with mankind."

"What is so great about the things we have discovered ? Nature is a thousand times more beautiful than all the art that man can produce. Is there anything as pretty as nature .. with its waterfalls, forests and oceans ?"

"Yeah, I agree. Nature is amazingly beautiful. But I think you are underestimating the value of mankind. Imagine the great masters of art - Van Gogh, Beethoven, Kalidas. And all the great mathematicians and scientists that have come about."

"But this is nothing compared to the earth. If not for man, earth will produce another life form. We are no better than dolphins, or peacocks, or tigers. It is the earth that has the genius. Can man ever engineer something more amazing than an animal which occurs in nature ?"

"I think human beings are different from the rest of the animals. We do abstract thinking, which no other animal can do. Also, compassion is the sole propriety of human beings. The rest of the animal world is full of violence."

"This is crap. Human beings are the most selfish creatures to have ever evolved. To top it all, would be people like you, who want to destroy the earth to save themselves. You call this compassion ?"

"No, aren't you human beings as well ? You are even considering to kill yourselves to save the planet. This kind of thinking would not exist in other life forms. As for my decision, it has nothing to do with selfishness. I am arguing objectively for the sake of humanity, which I think deserves a lot of respect for its genius."

"Okay, we agree that human beings have some good qualities. But a good human being is an exception, and not the norm. There are only a few human beings that are intelligent, creative or compassionate. Most of the rest are selfish idiots that are better dead than alive."

"I think it is the opposite. I think the vast majority of human beings are creative and compassionate. There are only a few selfish persons who are evil."

"What kind of a world are you living in ? You have no commonsense. You will go about trusting every random person that comes across you ? "

"No, I don't completely trust a random person. But I give him a huge probability that he is good natured. I will confirm this opinion in a few interactions. More importantly, in a huge crowd of randomly sampled individuals, I trust that the majority will always make a good decision, provided they are all well informed."

My roommates laughed at this. "Look at our grand democracy, here in France. You think the majority makes a good decision ?". My roommates were referring to the president Sarkozy, quite unpopular in the student community, and always the butt's end for a lot of jokes. "No, the vast majority of them are selfish and stupid."

"I agree that the majority makes a bad decision, but only because they are uneducated or malinformed. I trust in the general goodness of mankind."

"That makes you a very stupid person. I agree that there are a few people who make all mankind proud. I will trust such a person and will do anything for him. But to destroy the earth for a handful of these people is stupid and also selfish."

"I think each single human being is capable of a genius, either in creativity or in compassion. This is what makes us different from animals, and why we are so precious. Each person is a candle waiting to be lit, an inspiration waiting to happen. It is unfortunate that most of us die without ever coming close to realizing our potential. Earth is our home, and ofcourse I love it. But would you like more the house or the people who live in it ?"

"Earth is not just an appartment, she is our mother. Even if you are so self centered as to think earth is your house, what will happen to you if there is no earth."

"It will be a sad day, but the genius of mankind will find a solution. May be we will colonize another planet. Also, you see, human beings live on multiple abstract planes, not just on the physical plane of this world. Imagine we might create a world of virtual reality as in Matrix, and float in the spaceship".

"There you go, you are degenerating from stupid to insane."

At this point, we agreed to disagree. My roommates were visibly angry with me, for what they thought is a selfish attitude. Myself, I was dumbstruck that such nice people as my roommates would devalue humanity over something so mundane.

This difference of opinion was vital in the way we thought about the world's problems.

I believed that global warming will be solved, by something very creative, such as carbon sequestration through sea algae, or by genetically modified bacteria which eat C02. My roommates will want to reduce the speed of the economy and stop pollution.

I contested that we can revert to nuclear power, and emit no greenhouse gases at all. They believed that nuclear waste would be an artificial damage which we human beings cannot consciously impose on this planet.

I argued that reducing the speed of the economy will push some people towards perennial poverty. They believed that reducing global poverty is important, but only secondary to saving the planet.

According to me, the biggest criminal thing in the world is extreme poverty, how several children die of hunger and diseases, or get pushed to perennial poverty without ever coming close to realizing their potentials and genius. According to them, the biggest criminal thing is the way we human beings mistreat the planet by our obscene consumption.

It is true that they and I often support the same issues. But we differ on a few points.

Not to disparage the environmentalist cause, but one should remember that Nazis were environmentalists too. For all my readers who haven't made their minds yet, I echo the Russell-Einstein manifesto. "Remember your humanity, and forget the rest."

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

F a t M e n R u n n i n g

Imagine a fat man running with a certain velocity. You watch him from aside, and notice that there is a sharp drop ahead of him. If he keeps running, the fat man will fall off into an abyss. You shout at him , asking him to change direction.

He replies, "I cannot do it now. According to Newton's first law of motion, I have to keep moving ahead with a constant velocity".

You say, "But you should change direction. You will die otherwise".

He replies, "You see. I am a body with a large mass, so I contain a lot of inertia."

You exclaim, "You have enough control in your muscles. Please force yourself to turn a bit. If you keep running forward, you will fall off the cliff in a couple of minutes."

He replies, " My eyes are clogged due to exertion. I cannot see anything beyond the next few metres. Since I don't believe in what I don't see, I will not listen to you."

You tell him. "You are getting tired. May be you should slow down."

He huffs and puffs, looks at you in anger, and retorts "You tell me I cannot keep running. I have enough energy within me to keep running for atleast 10 minutes".

You tell him, "But you are right about to fall off the.. "

There we end the story. The fat man dies.

It is immaterial if he fell off the cliff or if he suffered a heart attack due to over-exertion. What matters is that he has experimentally validated Newton's first law of motion, and that he prove himself to be a large object with a respectable mass and a strong inertia. May his soul rest in peace.

Let me tell you a frightening peace of information. The economic levers of the world are held by such fat men running (FMR). When they kill themselves, these FMRs take you down as well.

Most problems in the world have already their solutions discovered. If the problem persists, it is because of an FMR.

For example, we can solve the world's energy crisis by switching to nuclear power run on molten salt reactors. Some of the several FMRs behind the problem : oil industry, motor car industry, environmental protest for the sake of protest industry, nuclear fuel fabrication industry, strategic nuclear deterrent aka nuclear bomb industry.. All these FMRs have a mixed bag of joint investments ranging from media to retail, and from politics to toilet paper fabrication.

In fact, the FMRs care about nothing but their own momentum (momentum = mass * velocity). To keep their momentum going, these FMRs engage in noble duties such as looting, murder and the tough job of throwing bullshit around.

I present a few morsels of such bullshit for your examination

a) There is no energy crisis. You don't have to change your habits. We will increase oil production. Please stop entertaining silly ideas such as renewable energy.

b) We don't have enough resources in the world. Some population should necessarily starve or die from preventable diseases. We can't keep worrying about all and sundry. After all, what is the value of a human life ?

c) There are all kinds of bad guys out to get you. These include aliens, mutant cockroaches, ninja turtles, komodo dragons, chinese people and religious fundamentalists. So believe in us, and we will keep fighting a noble war against all these miscellaneous bad people.

I implore all you nice and goodlooking people to stop believing things as they come by.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Food, Daily Needs & Nuclear Power

What is the stupidest thing ever conceived and consistently executed by mankind ? Arguably, it is burning fossil fuels for getting energy. Oil, coal or natural gas release paltry amounts of energy as they burn with Oxygen in the atmosphere. These minerals are otherwise useful for making fertilizers, plastics and several valuable things. But as they get burned for energy, these mineral reserves get depleted at an enormous pace, and will vanish completely within 200 years ! The costs of energy rise exponentially, and so do the costs of everything (everything uses energy for production and for transport). As oil and coal reserves go downhill, so does the purchasing power of people. People will starve and governments will tumble.

The only people that get richer are those who control access to the tap. There are 23 countries in the world that derive at least 60 percent of their exports from oil and gas and not a single one is a real democracy !

But above all, fossil fuels are one of the dirtiest ways to derive our energy. Combustion of oil or coal releases thousands of waste products directly into our fragile atmosphere. Most of them are poisonous and a few of them are even radioactive. They are tremendously affecting the thin layer of atmosphere that sorrounds us - these effects range from global warming to acid rain. As a result, millions of people are dying and millions of plant and animal species are going extinct.

Why do we continue with this insanity ?

A green world run on nuclear energy

Let me present you an alternative scenario. We use solar energy to cater to about 30% of our energy needs, that is as much as it makes economical and ecological sense. For the rest of our energy needs, we construct nuclear power reactors which utilize Uranium and Thorium reserves. A new design called the breeder reactor, though slightly more costly to build, makes 100 times more efficient use of the nuclear fuel. Energy equivalent to a gallon of petrol will be produced as cheaply as 0.5 cents (6 paise for a litre of petrol in Indian terms). The electricity production will be entirely clean; the radioactive waste of the entire world for one year will fit into a small room. We convert this waste into glass, seal it in multiple layers and store it deeply in the rocks. We construct an elaborate railway network, and heavily discourage road transport. We replace gas-guzzling cars in the cities with noiseless electric vehicles. We run those indispensable road vehicles of the countryside using biofuels, and later shift to Hydrogen. In terms of safety and cleanliness, this economy will be million times more efficient.

In principle, this nuclear-fission based economy will be sustainable for several million years. But within a few hundred years, science will inevitably discover newer, more efficient ways of producing energy.

In this series of posts (tagged nuclear), my objective is to untangle a few strands from the cobweb of doubt and fear which sorround nuclear energy. Many people have legitimate concerns about nuclear, and I treat them with respect. My intention is to add some more information and perspective into this debate.

" What's at stake ? "

Opposition to nuclear energy is costing us the battle with coal and oil. This opposition is fuelled discretely by oil and coal company bosses, who might infiltrate green environmental groups with their spies ! Solar energy cannot fight coal and oil by itself, and it is not just good people who are aware of this. A shift away from oil based economy will hurt certain people, and they will do their best to prevent this shift from happening.

The US dollar is tied to the oil prices, and a falling dollar is accentuated by an immediate rise in oil prices. These oil prices drive the prices of food and daily needs everywhere around the world, as is happening right now. Whenever there is talk of investing in clean energy options, the oil prices are strategically reduced. The very next moment, they are rised again. A lot of FUD is spread over all kinds of alternative energies, including nuclear. Unconsciously, several environmental groups become party to this strategy. Breaking from the vicious oil economy through nuclear power is vital to ensuring the security of food and daily needs in poor countries.

If the primary concern with oil is inflation, that with coal is pollution. The statistics are alarming. China is building 10 times more coal plants than nuclear plants. A similar story repeats throughout the world. The filth dumped by coal into the atmosphere affects the world in entirety. This is why it is important to encourage clean energy production, particularly in developing countries such as India.

"Breeder reactors can never be built, so nuclear energy is a lost hope"

Answer : Without breeder reactors, the nuclear resources in earth will not last for more than 600 years. And without breeder reactors, there will be enormous amounts of nuclear waste awaiting disposal. But breeder reactors lie at the heart of nuclear hope. This is because these reactors use 60% of the Uranium fuel instead of the 0.3% used in the current light water reactors(LWR). With breeders, nuclear resources will last for several millions of years ! There have been several efforts in the world to construct breeder reactors, but most of these reactors have been abandoned now. Sly anti-nuclear activists look upon this fact as a proof that breeders can never be constructed.

The truth is more intriguing. Firstly, breeder reactors have been successfully demonstrated, and we have 300 reactor-years of experience in operating them worldwide. India has been operating an experimental breeder reactor since 1985 ! Indian nuclear scientists have demonstrated a revolutionary design in 2005 of 'A Thorium Breeder Reactor' that can produce 600 MW of electricity for two years 'with no refuelling and practically no control manoeuvres.' This has been dubbed as the world's safest nuclear reactor. With such highly efficient designs available, why do we not construct breeder reactors ?

As it currently stands, reprocessing spent Uranium in breeder reactors is more expensive than mining fresh Uranium from earth. As long as shallow reserves of Uranium are available (for the next 60 years), breeder reactors will be economically unfavorable.

An MIT interdisciplinary panel has discouraged breeder reactors for not making economical sense currently, but this anti-nuclear activist has quoted this to say that the breeder design itself has been termed infeasible. This type of reporting is extremely dishonest.

Even though breeder reactors are currently uneconomical, we do well to construct them because they are essential for securing our energy's future.

Breeder reactors have also drawn a lot of political ire due to the fact that they produce high grade plutonium, which can potentially be used for bombs. The India-US nuclear deal had been in hot water for a few months due to the perceived US objections against breeder reactors. These objections have later been resolved in the current version of the deal.

The most visible example of a discontinued breeder reactor is the Superphénix reactor in France. The reason it stopped working was because of a missile attack by a radical environment group !

Technically speaking, ther are absolutely no hindrances for constructing breeder reactors. However, there are several political hurdles that need be overcome.

"Reduce consumption and use solar energy. Don't go nuclear."

Answer : No doctor will prescribe the same medicine for obesity and malnutrition. There is a humongous disparity in the consumption levels of the world today. It is true that most of the consumption in Western societies is wasteful and directly harmful to the environment. But nuclear energy is a valuable aide in lifting up the living standards of the developing world. The energy-consumption levels of the third world will have to inevitably rise to obtain decent living standards.

Apart from producing greenhouse gases, we are rapidly depleting mineral and water reserves (Consumerist societies are meat eating. Production of meat consumes 12 times more water than the production of vegetable protein). Some of the clean energy options such as bio-fuels, wind power and hydel power compete with food production for these resources, so they have to be used with care. The depletion of these resources will cause famine and war all over the world. As I have mentioned earlier in my blog, bio-fuels could be a valuable tool in making land profitable in the developed world, thus ending the food subsidies that are enjoyed by big farmers there. Developing countries should look upon bio-fuels more carefully, because they are more pressed for land and water.

Both nuclear and solar energy are valuable towards desalinating water, and averting famine. Along with attempts at reducing consumption, these novel sources of energy will prove priceless in improving the well being of the world.

"Nuclear reactors are unsafe. Nuclear waste is very dangerous."

Answer : The Chernobyl disaster clouds the vision of most nuclear opponents. But what many fail to note is that this faulty Soviet design is no longer currently used in any reactor in the world. We have several thousands of reactor-years of experience in running safe nuclear reactors worldwide. The safety record for this industry has been outstanding. Unlike coal plants, nuclear plants release no harmful products into the atmosphere and all the bi-products are carefully accounted for. Most people are unaware of the fact that coal energy releases far more radioactive substances than nuclear energy, and that all this radioactive waste is dumped directly into the atmosphere. Coal mining remains one of the most hazardous occupations of the world, and claims hundreds of lives every year.

Nuclear waste is carefully monitored and stored in a confined environment. The risk of contamination of this radioactive waste with air or water is miniscule. The levels of radioactivity fall drastically with time, and after 600 years, this waste will be no more radioactive than naturally occuring Uranium in the earth's crust !

Politics is all about taking calculated risks. The risks of not using Nuclear (reverting to coal and oil, ruining the environment, letting millions of people starve) far outweigh the risks of running nuclear reactors or storing nuclear waste.

"Nuclear reactors are expensive to build. Nuclear Power is very expensive."

Answer : It is true that nuclear reactors are more expensive to build than coal plants. But, if environmental costs are taken into account, nuclear plants quickly rise to be much cheaper. In the USA, there have been several re-legislations for improving nuclear safety, which required the removal and reconstruction of nuclear reactors. These made the costs of construction to spiral out of control. Thus, nuclear power industry had a political death in the US. In other countries, several nuclear power reactors have been built to operate on profit. France currently obtains 80% of its electricity needs through nuclear power. The produced electricity is the cheapest in Europe. Now that we have designs of very safe reactors available to us, scale-economics come to play in the construction process. Nuclear plants of today are already cost-competitive with coal plants.

Clean energy is expensive in the first stage of construction - whether it be nuclear or solar power. But we cannot afford to build coal plants for the reason of meagre short term profits. The long-term costs far outweigh any such benifits.

"Let's encourage solar energy, because nuclear can be evil"

Answer : The energy in sun's rays is so dilute that we need to have a really large receptacle to capture a reasonable amount. We cannot cover up the surface of earth with solar panels to derive all the energy that we need. We would need land for agriculture, forests, housing and so on. Solar energy is renewable and clean. But alas, the current technology cannot provide us sufficient solar energy for completely replacing oil and coal. We can nourish warm hopes for a future based on solar energy, just as we can nourish warm hopes for a future based on nuclear fusion. But failure to act in the current moment has enormous costs due to continued dependency on oil and coal.

Being a tropical country, India should use solar energy for all the potential that it has to offer. It can be used for water purification, and for airconditioning during the summer time. Nice pocket applications such as these are easier to be conceived and deployed. We need real efforts in this direction.

Wind, tidal and hydel power are basically solar energy in disguise. Each of these energies have their costs and limitations. For example, hydel power projects inundate large swathes of forests and agricultural land. Each of these media need to be used in moderation, and energy production should be diversified. But there is only one hope for putting an end to the evil fossil fuel monster, and that is nuclear energy. In this epic battle, all the other modes of energy production will serve as sidekicks to nuclear.

"Nuclear energy means nuclear bombs"

Answer : A knife can be used for making dinner.

Nuclear power generation has one of the least established links for making nuclear bombs. All the bombs that have been made till now, have been made without a nuclear reactor being built for power generation. The very first nuclear bomb had been made in the Los Alamos laboratory of USA during the 2nd world war, before a nuclear power reactor was even ever conceived. It is true that a power reactor can be used for producing fissile material, but this method remains the most expensive and ineffective way of building a nuclear bomb. There are cheaper and quicker ways of making bombs, which are easier to conceal. No sane person would choose to build a power reactor for making bombs.

The only country to have used Plutonium from a (research) power reactor to build an explosive device was India, in the Smiling Buddha test of 1974. But this has to be looked upon as a wary reaction of India towards official recognition of China as a nuclear power in 1968 after the bitter war which happened in 1962.

Nuclear proliferation and bombs are scary, so we expect the international law to place proper safeguards against them. But there exist practically none today. The IAEA inspects the longwinding procedure of nuclear power generation in each country, for possible loopholes. It leaves all the other channels of building nuclear bombs royally open. We desperately need methods for preventing nuclear proliferation, and for rapidly diminishing the bombs already existing in the world. Carping against nuclear power is an idiocy that we can hardly entertain in the current moment.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Q u e s t i o n s O f O u r T i m e

I would like to summarize an amazing lecture by Michel Serres, which I had the fortune of listening to in person.

A society undergoes a complete upheaval when there is a transformation in the way information is organized. Most thinkers have assumed in the past that major societal changes will be brought forward by advances in hard technology - such as the steam engine, wind mills, electric bulb etc. This textbook version of history is not true. Infact, all the major changes are brought in by soft technology - the technology that deals with information and messages.

The history of human civilization so far, can be distinctly divided into 4 eras :

  • Oral Era : All communication was done through speech
  • Writing Era : After the discovery of a written script for language
  • Printing Era : After the discovery of the printing press
  • Computing Era : After the discovery of a machine to process and communicate information
Each of these advances brings a significant change in the way information, in the most general sense of the term, is handled by humans. These soft advances literally tear the world down, and a completely new order emerges in terms of politics, commerce, science, law, religion and culture. These six spheres crudely summarize the entire human activity. So let us understand what has happened.

Oral Era

Politics : The society is organized as tribal units, each governed by a collection of clan elders. The individual owes his loyalty to the tribe, as exemplified by race relations coded through genes.
Commerce : Commerce is done through barter. Gold and other precious metals serve as useful benchmarks for barter.
Science : Primitive theories try to explan natural phenomena. Making tools and weapons is considered an art. Education is provided purely within the family.
Law : Law is loosely conceptualized as the honour of the tribe and the family. Each person is required to defend this honour.
Religion : Animistic and polytheistic worship function as ways of attaining harmony with the world, and of explaining away troubling natural calamities.
Culture : Epics are weaved together by bards travelling across the land.

Examples : Vedic India (till 600 BC), ancient Greece before Pythagoras (till 580 BC), Europe before Rome (till 100-200 AD), societies of uneducated people who cannot read or write (40% of current India, 64% of current Afghanistan)

One word which defines state : Race

Writing Era :

Politics : State is invented, with a legal code written on stone (Ashoka's stone proclaimings, Hammurabi's code) The state has a physical boundary that has to be protected by an army. The government quickly develops into a monarchy with a hierarchical control of feudalism.
Commerce : Money is invented (a value written down on metal). A new mercantile class emerges which deals with money and commerce.
Science : Geometry is invented. Mathematics emerges and engineering is no longer an art. Natural phenomena are explained through observation and measurement. Education is provided by monasteries, and the notion of a teacher is born. Libraries are few and far in between. A teacher has to remember a lot.
Law : It is no longer unwritten family honour, but the written law of a state. A special class of policemen emerges to defend and enforce the law.
Religion : Monotheistic religions of a book emerge. Now written down into a strict set of rules, the belief system becomes static and resilient to change.
Culture : The artists are sponsored by the court of the king. A language emerges for writing down music. Art and sculpture are carefully studied with the exactness of measurements.

Examples : Pre-colonial India categorized by caste (till 1600 AD: Mauryas, Guptas, Chalukyas, Moghals), Pre-renaissance Europe categorized by class (till 1500 AD : Greece after Pythagoras, Rome), Tibet till 1950, Arabia till 1900, sections of contemporary India where caste is still strong.

One word which defines state : Religion

Printing Era :

Politics : Books spread knowledge, and the idea that "all men are equal". This gives birth to democracy - a representative government elected by the people. The world is divided into nations.
Commerce : Banking is invented. The notion of solvability and economic trustworthiness are born. Cheque and printed money give rise to the capitalist system of commerce.
Science : With printed books at hand, a teacher is no longer required to remember all the topics of instruction. Education begins in earnest, and the entire population gets educated. The scientific method is born, with the notions of experimental validation and support. Science explodes into a thousand new branches.
Law : The notion of a constitution is born. Religion gets separated from law.
Religion : "Every man is equal to the Pope, with the Bible at his hand", proclaims Luther and begins the Protestant reform in Europe. Religion becomes a private affair with no intermediate person. Church loses its power and monastic orders slowly disappear.
Culture : Art is viewed as a product in the market. The entire population gets to sponsor artists, through direct purchase of their art. A new class of middlemen emerges to control these means of distribution of art.

Examples : Modern Europe after renaissance, USA, Modern Japan, the educated middle class of developing countries (India, Brazil, China..)

One word which defines state : Market

Computing Era :

For the first time in human history, the entire world is connected at the distance of a mouse click. We are only entering this era. Just like the revolutions before, the entire world is about to be torn down. A new political and economic system is going to emerge, of a world without borders.

We can already trace some changes. In commerce, ATM and e-commerce have redefined the way of doing business. Globalization is changing the economic levers of the world. New economic frauds are surfacing, which will demand investigation towards new ways of doing business. In science and education, internet is begining to redefine the role of a teacher. Scientific exploration is at an exponential growth, through computational simulation and global collaboration. In law and politics, we need investigation into new ways of governing.

Here, I finish summarizing Serre's lecture. What follows are my own comments about the computing era. We need to ask bold questions : Can we get rid of representative government and usher in a new internet democracy? Can an individual be completely free ? Can the security of an individual be assured without violating privacy ? Can everybody be an artist ? Can an artist be assured of intellectual freedom without worrying about the economics of his business ?

These are the questions of our time.

Different parts of the world currently adhere to each of the above 3 eras. But ultimately, they all need to progress towards the 4th era. As we see clearly, each of these eras is antagonistic to the others. There will be a lot of resistance to change. As the era tries to fight back against its child, its uses the wisdom of its own battles with its father.

A society living in a religious writing-era conjures images of violence and lawlessness of its father, the oral-era. But the battle will be finally won, and it has to succumb to the capitalist printing-era.
Example : In 16th century Europe, the church has fought quite hard against democracy and secularism. It employed scare tactics, by frightening people that without monarchy and a strong church, there will be utter anarchy. In contemporary world, radical Islam frightens the believers that liberal democracy is kafir, equivalent to idolatry.

A society living in a capitalist printing-era conjures images of religious fundamentalism and monarchy of the writing-era, during its own battle with the computing-era.
Example : In fact, Europe, USA and Japan are fighting this very battle now. The right wing tries to poison the minds of the population about the battle against fundamentalist Islam. A scheming recording industry scares the people of internet piracy. The existing order tries its best to divert attention away from the questions of our time.

Before Michel Serres, another philosopher Karl Marx has attempted to a similar diagnosis of human society. But his theory of Marxism is as away from a correct diagnosis, as Lamarckism is away from Darwinism. Lamarck indeed had a revolutionary idea - that animals could change their form over the course of time. He theorized that the giraffe has just protruded its neck to catch the tall juicy leaves, and the neck just got longer and longer. But this is just not true. The unit of evolution is not the animal (phenotype) but the underlying gene (genotype).

Inspite of his courage in thinking of human society in a scientific manner, Marx had a wrong theory. He theorized that hard technology (phenotype) brings about societal changes instead of soft technology (genotype). Indeed, the communist philosophers of the Soviet Union just hoped that Lamarck had been true. Russia had been no capitalist country when the Bolsheviks imposed the socialist pattern. Neither had been China or Cuba, or any other communist country. The Russian communists aspired that, if only they pushed their necks long enough, they might catch the tall juicy leaves. But this is disastrously wrong. Each of these revolutions had been a retrograde step : killing a capitalist printing-era in favor of a monarchical writing-era. It is for this reason that communist countries exercise a severe censorship and thought control. It is unfortunate that Indian communists are still flaunting the same rubbish which has been tested by time to be utterly wrong.

The job of the progressives is to help the world get in terms with the technology, as quickly as possible. This would mean favoring a writing era over an oral era (religion over race), favoring a printing era over a writing era (market over religion) and favoring a computing era over a printing era (internet over market) - in the above order.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

S n o w g r a p h

I have always been facinated by snow. The shape of a snowflake, its size, and the path it takes as it falls on the ground - each of this is the output of a complex mathematical equation that has thousands of variables. What would take a supercomputer a couple of hours to simulate is done by nature in a couple of seconds. And what more, there are billions of them snowflakes in one single day of snowfall. Each of them is uniquely beautiful.

After a long hiatus of 3 years, I resume to muse on this blog over the philosophy of snow. The topic of today's musings is what I call the snowgraph - the particular pattern describing which parts of the earth are covered by snow and which are not. Given a terrain with some variation of texture, windwardness and overboard traffic, nature solves a binary labeling problem - which parts of the terrain to cover with snow and which not.

The problem is interesting if the temperature of the earth is a little higher than freezing point, that is, so sufficiently high that a single isolated snowflake would melt away immediately after touching the ground. But when a crowd of snowflakes fall on the ground, a pattern will still emerge. The snowflakes will be floating islands of lower temperatures, sorrounded by a warmer ocean of atmosphere.

This accumulation of snow into a pattern will happen, if and only if the average frequency of a random snowflake hitting a portion of the terrain is higher than the time it takes on that terrain-portion for an averagely sized snowflake to melt away. Both the above variables depend on a complex assortium of factors such as the thermal conductivity of the terrain-portion, the windwardness of the terrain-portion and the thermal energy generated over the terrain-portion by traffic passing overboard (people/cars/water/..). Nonetheless, all these factors integrate with each other to produce the snowgraph. The snowgraph captures all the complex dynamics of this integration. This is nature's way of compressing information.

Now the interesting question is, can we discover the hidden forces that gave rise to the snowgraph (for example, by observing and analyzing an aerial photograph of the terrain) ? This is a fascinating piece of detective work. Given a photograph of a terrain in summer and in winter - one bare and one covered with snow, can we detect if either of them is fake ?

Most of the interesting questions of nature are of this kind. We have the snowgraph standing before us. But we have no idea why it is like that - why only parts of the terrain are covered with snow and why not the rest.

Why do we have five fingers on each limb ? Why do we have hair on top of the head but not on top of our palms ? Why are our palms soft and sinewy instead of hard and metallic ? Why do we have eyes on the top of the face, instead of having them over a prehensile object like our hands ? These are questions interesting not only to biologists, but also to roboticists who want to simulate these phenomena. Each of us is a snowgraph. Each custom in our society and culture is a snowgraph. Each object and each phenomenon in nature is a snowgraph - uniquely mysterious and uniquely beautiful.

The laymen amongst us abandon these mysteries and proceed with the daily routine. The believers amongst us give a ready answer - saying that it is God or whoever they believe in that did it all. But those few men amongst us who are bit by the curiosity bug, they dig deep and wide, and they unravel the mysteries of each snowgraph.