Sunday, August 16, 2009

Kurzweil's Horcrux

Ray Kurzweil is a noted innovator and futurist, who has been consistently making the right technological predictions for a couple of decades. Recently, he has started making certain predictions that many people considered outrageous and way beyond the mark.

His predictions are about what is called the technological singularity, the point in time where machines become so intelligent that they don't need any human intervention at all for the further advancement of technology. Kurzweil predicts that this will happen in a matter of a few decades. The reasons for his optimism have nothing to do with our scientific progress in cracking the hard questions of complexity theory or artificial intelligence, but with the explosive growth of processing power in computer chips.

He has written several books and essays on the internet, highlighting this point. But I'd like to quote his argument in a few lines below.

" By 2029, sufficient computation to simulate the entire human brain, which I estimate at about 1016 (10 million billion) calculations per second (cps), will cost about a dollar. By the mid-2040s, the non-biological portion of the intelligence of our human-machine civilization will be about a billion times greater than the biological portion (we have about 1026 cps among all human brains today; nonbiological intelligence in 2045 will provide about 1035 cps). "

Kurzweil believes that when it is possible to computationally simulate an entire human brain, it will also be possible to download and save the configuration of a brain onto such a computer. Brain imagery and sensing have been making some progress in recent years, and it might be even possible to download an entire human brain onto computer memory, making Kurzweil's prediction come true. Kurzweil believes that this will solve the hard problems of AI, because the computer then would be capable of solving any problem that a human brain could solve.

For want of a better word, I would like to term this computational copy of a brain as a horcrux - an example of dark magic mentioned in the Harry Potter books. I believe that this concept is a very instructional tool in musing about consciousness, immortality and other such philosophical issues. So I'd like to exploit this connection in today's post.

The question I would like to pose is "Would a person achieve immortality when his neurological state is copied into a horcrux ? "

Kurzweil answers this in the affirmative. But I think he's wrong about this. To explain this further, let me introduce another philosophical thought experiment.

Imagine that aliens attacked earth and they cut off your hand from your body and kept in a glass-jar. If you look at this hand, would you say that it is "you" or just "your hand" ? Most people would reply it's just a hand, and not "you". Imagine that the aliens got more aggressive and cut off your brain from your face, wired cameras to your brain and oriented the cameras towards your face. Would you say what you are looking at is "your face" or "you" ? This is a tougher case, but when you think deeply enough, you would say it is just "your face" and not "you.

The reason for your reply is that even if somebody destroys your face, "you" would still live. "You" would keep on getting your sensory input and you'd be processing your thoughts. So your face is not "you".

Now let's ditch the aliens and get back to the horcrux. Imagine that you got your brain copied into a super-computer. Where would be "you" ? Would "you" be sitting in the computer or in the human body of yours ? Or would you be sitting in both places at the same time ?

I say that "you" will be sitting in your human body. If your body is destroyed, "you" would die. If the super-computer is destroyed, it wouldn't harm "you". (A further clarification of my position comes later). Kurzweil thinks otherwise. He thinks that "you" would be sitting "both" in your human body and in the computer. Even if one of them is destroyed, the other will survive. So, "you" would still live, achieving immortality in this fashion.

Kurzweil says that, irrespective of our theories, it will be possible to conduct such an experiment at some point in the near future, and thus we'll get to know an answer backed up by experiments. This will be the first time in human civilization, that a scientific experiment is conducted to deal with the questions of consciousness. Until now, consciousness has been a subject that's investigated only "internally" by meditation conducted by an "internal" eye. Soon, it will be possible to conduct such experiments on an "external" scale.

This is fascinating, and I think that such experiments will lead to some deep breakthroughs in physics and biology, apart from computer science.

Personally, I subscribe to the ancient Indian theory of Advaita, which says that consciousness is singular and universal. It says that it has no birth and no death. My individual consciousness in this human body is like a wave in the ocean of the universal consciousness. My human body is just like a particle that is being moved by this wave. What is moving "the wave" is the ocean, which is eternal and omnipresent. It is this wave that creates the sensation of "I" in my human body. This is consciousness.

Advaita says that what is speaking inside me and what is listening inside you is one and the same thing.

So actually, my position with the horcrux stands as that "you" would be sitting neither in your human body nor in the horcrux. "You" are omnipresent, universal and eternal. But this "you" is fooled into thinking that it is just confined to your human body. So after your brain is copied into the horcrux, this consciousness & its associated illusion would be still sitting inside your human body. Your horcrux, if it could indeed be created as an intelligent agent through copying your brain, will be an independent agent, powered by the same universal consciousness but suffering from a similar illusion like how "you" in your human body would be suffering.

According to the theory of Advaita, consciousness cannot be copied. It exists only in the singular. A good analogy is with language : a "word" can be copied, but its "meaning" cannot be copied. A "meaning" can be copied only by copying the person who understands this meaning. Thus, a "meaning" doesn't exist beyond the very consciousness of a person.

There is a certain amount of scientific backing for such a theory of consciousness. This comes from Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, which says that for a quantum-particle (like an electron or a photon), only one of the variables of position and momentum (velocity) can be known. The very instant one property is measured, the other becomes indeterminate. Certain neuroscientists and physicists, such as Dr. Roger Penrose, believe that consciousness is a quantum mechanical phenomenon inside the human brain which operates through the so-called microtubules. If this is the case, then Kurzweil's dream might never come true. No cerebral photography can ever be able to copy the entire state of the human brain because such a thing is ruled out by the theory of quantum physics.

However, it might be still possible to build a horcrux, which will be a self-conscious entity which is capable of intelligent behavior. But that will just be a copy of "you" and not "you". It will be a copy of all your emotional and mental weaknesses.

Apart from the uncertainty principle, there is another phenomenon of quantum physics that is equally baffling, which is known as quantum entanglement. Several times, a pair of particles is entangled in the quantum world, at the very moment the particles are created. If you measure the quantum property of one particle (say the spin of an electron), the property of the other particle is automatically determined (the spin of its paired electron). This can be checked by another experimenter located several miles away at a much later point in time. This entanglement principle has been validated several times through experiment, and this is explained by various interpretations of what's happening, all of which are quite "weird" and counter-intuitive. Some of these interpretations (based on hidden variables) are less likely than the others, though they are not yet totally ruled due to statistical limitations in current measurements.

The entanglement principle says that either (a) reality is an illusion or (b) free-will is an illusion. Many physicists settle for the option (b), though it looks totally counter-intuitive from the perspective of a human being who can definitely sense a feeling of self-consciousness.

What Advaita says is that consciousness is real, but it is universal. So it is only one single person who is measuring the property of the first electron, and later that of the second electron. It is not two different experimenters even though the measurement is made from two different bodies. This way, Advaita dissolves the paradox by tying free-will to reality.

According to Advaita, free-will can only be defined upto a scale. An entity (whether that be an electron or a human being) is "free" only up to the scale of objects that it is "aware" of. Freedom comes from awareness. There is no meaning for one's freedom beyond one's knowledge.

Similarly, according to Advaita, reality doesn't exist beyond mutual agreement of the two particles. In other words, you are as real as I am. And both of us are real because we see each other. Take away this mutual awareness, and we shall cease to exist.

I like the theory of Advaita (and its parallel philosophical systems in Hindu religions) very much. But until now, they have only remained at the level of hearsay and speculation. But soon, it will be possible to conduct experiments and test the various theories behind this mysterious phenomenon called consciousness. Isn't it fascinating ?

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Functionality I would like to see in my iPod

  1. Rating : The iPod should have an easy button to adjust the rating for a song being played.
  2. Synchronization : When the iPod is connected to my computer, it should synchronize automatically with the iTunes database of how many times a song is played, and how well it is rated.
  3. Sharing : The iTunes (or the cool iLike application) should provide an easy way of sharing my favorite artists across to my friends on Facebook and on other social networking websites.
  4. Proactive Recommendations : I should be able to gift and recommend tunes to friends on my social network. I should be able to receive their recommendations when I plug in my computer. This should happen by podcasts.
  5. Remuneration : Based on my profile of likes and dislikes (and the frequency with which certain songs are played), iTunes should compute a pie chart which tells how a dollar of my money is distributed to several individual artists. If and when I decide to patronize artists (at the beginning of each month, for example) iTunes should compute the list of artists on my favorite list and transmit their share of patronizing money (how many cents out of the 10 dollars I give, for example). All the money should go directly to artists, not even a single penny should go to middlemen.
  6. Recognition : The fact that I have spent money patronizing artists should be visible as a certificate on my Facebook profile. Certain physical certificates (posters, buttons, mugs etc) should also be sent to my postal address as a reward for my patronizing.
  7. Concert Alerts : iTunes should automatically alert me to the concerts of my favorite artists when they are playing in a nearby town. iTunes should compile a list of gold members who patronized these artists, and if I am amongst them, I should get seats closer to the concert stage.
  8. Personal Communication : iTunes should provide an easy way of leaving comments, blog-posts, pictures, videos and emails to my favorite artists. If and when an artist or fellow-fan replies to my comments, iTunes should alert me in the corresponding artist's tab when I open it.
  9. Discovery (Passive Recommendations) : Based on my profile of likes and dislikes, iTunes (or the iLike application) should recommend me similar and upcoming artists. This way, I will be able to patronize new artists when they will be badly in need of financial support. The recommendation algorithm should employ both feature analysis of music and also statistical analysis of correlated correspondences like how Amazon does (if my friends on Facebook share musical tastes with me, their favorite artists should be recommended to me).
  10. Mixing of media : I should be able to mix media and publish this work online. iTunes should automatically prepare a copyleft document (such as the Creative Commons license) which provides pointers to the individual artists who have contributed to the pieces inside my work. If a user likes my work and decides to patronize it, he/she should automatically be alerted to the various artists who contributed to portions of my work. The user then is provided the choice of default patronizing chart (that prepared by me) or according to his/her own decision.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

The Art of Politics : 10 Methods to Obfuscate and Manipulate People

In an earlier post, I have mentioned a few techniques to win a debate against a worthy adversary. But in some cases, the objective is not to win the debate, but to just prevent the debate from happening. This is the case when one is very scared of losing.

This is when the art of obfuscation comes into play. I call this the art of politics because modern politics is based entirely on this art. Though I present several strategies below, I expect my readers to be ethical and respectful of other human beings. But it helps to know them as a means of defense.

As I argued in my previous post, the world today owes more to the actions of "artificial life" than to those of human beings. These artificial life forms are self replicating social programs with a mind and life of their own. To be short, I call these social programs "religions", but they don't have to deal with God. A "religion" relies on the blind faith of people in a certain theory, and there exists a "priesthood" which swindle the people based on this faith. The most dangerous religions in our times are economic and political theories, especially the Fractional Reserve Banking system.

The "priests" of these religions believe that they are successfully swindling and enslaving other human beings. But in reality, these priests are just limbs of a self-replicating beast that enslaves them, and the whole of humanity. Part of the techniques of obfuscation that I mention below might have thought out by the "priests", but part of them might also be thought out by the "Matrix" : the brain of the religion.

  1. Sustaining the illusion of normalcy : The success of any religion depends on how effectively it can sustain the illusion of normalcy in the minds of people. For most of the time, a human brain is functionally equivalent to a copying machine. It springs into an "intelligent" state of questioning only when something drastic happens that shatters the impression of normalcy. Therefore, a religion has to work to provide the illusion of normalcy even amidst an extraordinary crisis. For example, in the current severe economic recession, people are constantly fooled on the media that life is going on normally. That a second and stronger Wall Street is rising from the ashes. And that all the loopholes in the financial sector are being fixed.
  2. Keeping an issue complicated by jargon : If the illusion of normalcy fails, and a person is intrigued to question, he can be immediately assaulted by stating that the subject at hand is too complicated for his mind to process. This is achieved by presenting the case in legal and economic jargon with which he might not be aware. Complicated graphs and mathematical equations will be produced to scare the person away. Imposing persons with strings of diplomas at the end of their names will appear on the television to explain the situation, or better, to express their helplessness that the situation is beyond even their smart brains. In fact, any complicated scientific theory (including quantum mechanics and string theory) can be explained to the layman without the use of jargon. It all depends on the willingness of the speaker to communicate.
  3. Keeping the opposition divided : Despite the above efforts, some opposition will coalesce socially against a religion. Then the success of a religion depends critically on how efficiently it can keep the opposition divided. The religion tries its best to emphasize the differences amongst the opponents, and provoke one party against the other. For example, one of the biggest heists of modern politics is to divide Libertarians from the Social Democrats. The former are told that the latter are opponents of freedom, while the latter are told that the former are opponents of equality. In fact, even if both of these accusations are partially true, they are usually not concerned to the topic at hand, which could be about monopolization of resources, to which both the parties are equally opposed.
  4. Infiltrating the opposition by stone-throwers : The survival of a religion depends on the majority acceptance of people in the society. Whenever an opposition germinates against a religion, it will have to work to gain acceptance amongst neutral and undecided people in the society. If such people are worried that the opposition is filled with extremists, the religion has a better chance of survival. Hence, a religion actually infiltrates the opposition with spies who project this image of extremism. A very simple demonstration of this is when the opposition holds a peaceful rally - a few spies can throw stones, sullying the name of the entire opposition. More often, this stone-throwing phenomenon happens metaphorically in the media. Several writers will be paid to write radical essays or make provocative statements in the name of the opposition. For example, (a) a spy might shout anti-semitic slogans in an anti-war rally to protest against Israeli aggression (b) a spy might argue for totalitarian state ownership of means of production, during a critique of the current banking fiasco.
  5. Exploiting false associations : In several cases, it will be possible to associate the opponent of a religion to evil actors, through similarity in name (for example, nuclear power to nuclear weapons), through evils of the past (for example, any mention of socialism to gulags in the Soviet Union), through a freak joint appearance (for example, anti-war activists with radical-Islamic activists), or through use by other evil actors (for example, Osama bin Laden sullying the name of Noam Chomsky). Human brain has an associative memory, and it has difficulties in differentiating correlation from causation, cause from effect, and the irrelevant from the relevant. If the false associations are repeated frequent enough, they will sink well in the minds of the population. It helps if the associations are phoenetically rhyming or have a sing-song about them.
  6. Shaping the identity of people with empty attributes : The biggest threat of a religion are people, and the biggest weapon of a religion are again people. The success of a religion lies in infiltrating the identity of people. When people think that their own identities are at threat, they become extremely defensive, and go to the extent of even laying their lives down for the sake of the religion. A religion shapes the identity of people in terms of empty attributes that it claims to have a monopoly on : honor, self-respect, love of freedom, democracy, respect for elders etc. In reality, none of these attributes are actually related to the religion concerned, but people will find it extremely difficult to disentangle the associations. Whenever a religion is questioned on specific issues : such as the murder of human beings, swindling of money, or blatant violation of freedoms, the religion responds by whipping the people into a frenzy saying that their own identities are being questioned (defined on empty attributes such as honor or respect, of course).
  7. Not overdoing the exploitation : The success of any slave-owner depends on how well the slave is fed. Nobody can be exploited till exhaustion. A human being will first rebel before he succumbs to death by exhaustion. And if people are famished, the rebellion will be exceedingly difficult to control. So a religion alternates between exploiting people and providing them with a small respite. This is especially true with democratic governments, which provide tax-breaks, or poverty-alleviation schemes just before elections. Human brain is extremely sensitive to alternating stimuli of pain and pleasure. Any pleasure felt in the aftermath of pain is exceedingly strong, and people will be very well-disposed towards a religion when they receive their shot of pleasure.
  8. Socially ostracizing the skeptics : The religion creates an aura of taboo on certain topics, forcing people not to discuss them. Anyone who starts a discussion on such topics has to fear that he/she will be socially ostracized. For example, the issue of race is a strong taboo in several societies. The religion inflicts strongly negative and unpleasant sensations in people whenever such topics are mentioned. In this way, a debate is terminated even before it could germinate. The history of human beings is replete with brilliant scientists and artists who produced masterpieces even during the worst periods of oppression and enslavement. Most likely, these great minds would have questioned the religion, if only they had less to fear that they would deeply offend their colleagues.
  9. Developing a symbiotic identity from diverse ideologies : This is the most subtle form a religion can take. In nature, animals and plants have symbiotic relationships. Predators are necessary to ensure that a prey species doesn't overpopulate, and thence suffer extinction. There exists a complex give and take relationship between different forms of life : an entire environment, known as a "biome", is created out of such relationships. For example : the sea-anemone and the hermit crab often occur together. The anemone protects the crab from enemies with its poisonous sting, and the crab carries the anemone around. We don't need such exotic examples, every plant and animal requires millions of other species for survival. Plants need bees for pollination, we human beings need thousands of bacteria for digesting our food. This type of symbiotic relationship is also the norm for artificial life, or religions. For example : the extreme right-wing sections of two religions need each other to reinforce each other. A right wing party needs to alternate the government with a center-left party in order to provide some respite for the people (point 7). In such cases of symbiotic existence of a religion, the agents of exploitation and enslavement are present in all the parties that participate. When there is no clear enemy that they can identify, people will be totally at a loss on who to blame and silently accept their fate.
  10. Anticipating the opposition, coalescing it, and then crushing it : A really smart religion actually has a functional wing to catch all the exceptions and skeptics. It might pay a spy to create an anti-religion organization and let all the opposition gravitate towards it. In that way, the religion knows clearly who its opponents are and what they are up to. When the numbers become too many, the religion implements the plan of destruction of opponent. This can be done by physically harming the opponents, or by spreading fear amongst the population that a major conspiracy is being hatched, or by sowing cynicism into the minds of opponents through spies. This strategy works well as long as the opponent group is not too large to be beyond control.
In fact, artificial life (religions) employ as many tactics and complex behavior as done by real life in order to survive. A naturalist or biologist will immediately understand the nature of this complexity. It is difficult for normal amateur human beings to stand against such forces. But ultimately, there will come a time when this illusion of religion will be shattered. Such is the law of life.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Petrodollar Slavery

This is 2009. It has been 320 years since Issac Newton published his Principiae Mathematicae. It has been 233 years since James Watt made his principal modifications to the steam engine. And it has been 104 years that Albert Einstein proposed his theory of relativity

But we still live in a world rife with poverty, disease and warfare. In Haiti, hardly a stone's throw from USA, human beings are forced to eating mud-biscuits to avoid the pangs of hunger. Around the world, every single day, 29000 children under the age of 5 die from completely preventable diseases.

Poverty may have been the natural state of mankind. But this was made obsolete by the advent of automation technology. Nevertheless, right in the 21st century, we still suffer from 16th century problems.

I request you to take a moment and contemplate. Why is this so ?

What is the most optimal way of utilizing technology to improve human well-being ? Are our current political and economic systems facilitating or hindering this process ?

Let it be known

At the current state of technology, it is possible to provide a supremely comfortable lifestyle for every single human being, something unmatched today by that of even the richest person on the planet. All forms of boring, mechanical or back-breaking work can be automated. We have enough resources of land, minerals and energy on this planet to do so for all the 8 billions of our population. If we see poverty, malnutrition or warfare on this planet, that is purely due to social and political reasons.

And the problem is not just limited to human beings. Vast numbers of plant and animal species are going extinct at unprecedented rates. The world's rivers, lakes and seas are suffering extraordinary amounts of pollution. The very air surrounding the planet has changed in nature. Our planet is on the brink of an environmental disaster due to climate change. Again, let it be known that we already have all the technological know-how needed to address these environmental problems.

What choices have we made to be against technology, against the planet, and against happiness ?

In this blog, I would like to convince you that we have not yet made that choice. In other words, a part of us is still enslaved and we have not exercised our freedom.

My discovery of the petrodollar

I am interested in sustainable energy sources for the future of humanity. Thus I discovered nuclear power and breeder reactors. In 1994, a very promising research program called the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) was terminated by the US senate. The official explanation was that this program increased the risk of nuclear proliferation. But nothing can be farther from truth. (I advise you to read the excellent book of Tom Blees to get the whole story). Several US senators across the political stripes have voted to terminate the program. In reality, the IFR project could produce vast quantities of energy from depleted Uranium (U238) that is currently treated as nuclear waste. It is far safer and proliferation resistant than the current light water reactors (LWR). More interestingly, it would have no fuel supply crunches that exist with LWRs. I was forced to think what could be the political opposition to the IFR.

Clearly, there were the environmentalist groups who were opposed to nuclear power. These people did not care to differentiate the IFR from the older LWRs. But Greens never had a vast political support in the US senate. So who were the real opponents and what were they against ?

There were the coal power plants and the giant oil corporations who could be worried about an alternative energy source. But the IFR was a research project which could not have made a difference in the market for at least another couple of decades. As any corporation, these energy giants would never plan for that far in the future. In all likelihood, when it gets ripe for the market, they would have purchased the rights to use IFR technology.

Whoever terminated the IFR project was worried about the scientific and technological dissemination of this knowledge. Nothing less. In fact, the IFR scientists were gagged, and asked not to speak about the project.

When you compare the IFR project with existing nuclear reactors, the key difference is that it doesn't have fuel supply crunches. Is there someone who desperately wanted to maintain a monopoly on nuclear fuel supply ? But the current nuclear industry is very tiny and doesn't have plans of growing much. The existing LWRs need a rare isotope of Uranium (U235), and there is not enough such fuel to run the entire world for more than a few decades. The IFRs would not eat into this market, but create a new market for themselves. And in any case, it would not be ripe for the market for another decade at least.

Now I enlarged the question and asked myself, is there someone who desperately wanted to maintain a monopoly on energy fuel supply ?

And I discovered the answer is yes.

Oil accounts for most of the energy consumption in today's world. And the interesting bit is there is a monopoly of US dollar in the crude oil market.

Fiat currencies & the extraordinary privilege of the US dollar

Until the major economic depression in 1929, most world-currencies were convertible to gold. The national reserve banks of countries maintained gold reserves in their vaults. But the gold standard was abandoned after the depression and the currencies were floated on the foreign exchange market. However, the national reserve banks still maintained gold in their vaults as a security against their currencies.

By the end of the second world war, 80% of the world's gold ended up in US vaults. This created an extraordinary prestige for the US dollar, with several countries treating "dollar safer than gold". Many countries started to buy dollar assets and storing US dollars in their vaults, as a security for their currencies. US dollar remained convertible to gold.

For some reason, in 1971, there was a serious lack of confidence around the world in the US dollar (my guess is that this is probably due to the US oil-peak in 1970). France was the first country to demand the USA to exchange the dollars it held for gold. USA has flatly refused, and announced that the dollar is no longer convertible to gold. Instead, it approached Saudi Arabia and reached to an agreement that OPEC prices crude oil entirely in US dollars.

When I spot a monopoly, my first reaction is that something would be wrong. This monopolistic privilege would surely be abused. So what are the ramifications of the monopoly of US dollar on the pricing of international petrol crude ?

The OPEC US dollar agreement (to be called petrodollar from now on) effectively means that the entire world's oil reserves serve as security for the US dollar. These are not gold reserves sitting in a vault, but mineral reserves deep underneath Arabia. These reserves are estimated to be far more in value than the entire quantity of gold ever mined since the dawn of humanity.

With such extraordinary privilege, the US Federal reserve can keep on printing paper dollars. And keep buying petrol. Effectively, the USA owns the world's petrol for free. Since every country needs petrol to run their industrialized economies ,there will always be a demand for dollars in the world market. Other countries have to worry about inflationary pressures when they over-print their currencies. But not USA. These inflationary pressures are propagated throughout the world.

USA buys the entire world's goods and services in exchange for these paper dollars. Thus, the entire world's economy is based on exports to the USA. Manufactured goods and services are sold to US consumers in return to paper dollars which are stored in the vaults across the world's nations.

The USA has the largest trade deficit in the world. For any other country, such huge budget deficit will spell death to its economy. But not to the USA. Any devaluation of the US dollar will hurt countries across the globe. China and Japan hold trillions of US dollars as assets in their national reserve banks : they will sink along with the dollar in case of a crash. In fact, it is not just countries, most global corporations have their assets in dollars.

With such special privileges, USA can afford to do several adventures across the globe. A large portion of US government expenditure is spent abroad, mostly in warfare. The Iraqi war costs several billions every week. This money is all borrowed from the US Federal Reserve, which just prints the dollar bills. But who exactly is working to pay for the Iraqi war ?

Shock propagation by oil & commodity prices

Everyone still remembers the recent increase of oil prices, when a barrel of crude shot up to 125 dollars and more. But we have seen that the dollar is immune to inflationary pressures. Well, almost ! The oil producing countries would not want to sell their crude to empty dollars. Moreover, when futures-trading was allowed in the oil market (there exist only two oil-bourses in the world, in London and New York, both owned by Americans), the oil price was artificially shot up.

In order to buy oil, every country had to spend 2 to 3 times more money than they would otherwise. This has given leverage for the US Fed to print the extra dollars that it needed to sponsor the Iraqi war.

Now, the oil prices are immediately linked to the retail prices of products in the supermarket (because most of the transportation is done by oil) and these have shot up correspondingly. Such inflationary pressures are experienced throughout the world, and consumer spending was reduced. The worst of these pressures were felt in the poorest countries, of course.

When the market goes to a downturn, all traders rush to buy commodity shares which are supposed to be more resistant to market fluctuations. Consequently, these prices have shot up (food, minerals, metals and raw materials) in the aftermath of the oil price hike.

Thus, the economic shocks of US budget deficit were propagated around the world by oil and commodity prices. The global market came to a slowdown.

The wiggle room for financial thieves

Anybody who has done a course of accounting knows the concept of the wiggle-room. The account books are checked periodically, and if the company is making profits, the guy who is keeping the accounts can hide a tiny share of the profits for himself.

At the end of the year, the company still registers a profit, but that would be slightly lower than what it would have naturally registered. If the stolen amount is small enough in comparison to the profits, nobody would ever notice.

The knowledge of this critical threshold on how much to steal is what makes a successful thief. The stolen amount can be used by the thief for several purposes (a) blow it away in luxury goods and holidays (b) invest in casino shares which are super risky (c) invest in properties with no production utility for the economic engine, such as real estate.

All will be fine in a normal scenario. But what happens in a stock-market slowdown is that several financial thieves will discover that their knowledge of wiggle-rooms is not good enough. What should have been a small profit for the company ends up in a major loss. What should have been a small loss for the company ends up in a major bankruptcy.

If small companies file for bankruptcy, it is okay. Not many people shed tears, life goes on. But if major economic giants file bankruptcy, that will spell serious trouble in today's interconnected financial world.

Thus we enter economic recession. All prices fall down in this scenario to reflect to the new scenario of lowered consumer spending. Even the oil and commodity prices fall down, and behind everybody's backs, the US dollar rises in value against every other currency.

The incentives provided by petrodollar

The hegemony of the US dollar provides certain weird incentives for the market.
  1. Every country will be working day and night to export to the US consumer. In fact, even highly industrialized economies such as Germany and Japan are totally dependent on exports to the USA.
  2. US consumer is encouraged to waste energy (that he can get for free), food (that is subsidized by undervalued animal feed exports from across the globe) and consumer goods (that he gets for lower value, and that he trashes every other Christmas to buy new ones)
  3. The US government strives to maintain the petrodollar monopoly. That is, it has to work to (a) prevent alternative energy sources from spreading across the world, which eat into the oil-market (b) prevent any oil producing country from pricing their oil in euros, or any other world currency. If needed, the internal politics of that country may be altered by regime change or military invasion.
It might be interesting to reflect that Saddam Hussein started selling Iraqi oil in Euros in 2000. This was revoked back to the US dollar after the Iraqi invasion, when western oil giants gained their lost foothold in Iraq. Currently, Venezuela and Iran are openly rebelling against the US dollar.

Solution : Energy Dollar Equivalence

All the three incentives that I described earlier will disappear if there is an equivalence between the mechanical notion of work (measured in physical units such as Mega Joules) and economic notion of remuneration (measured in dollars). In an industrialized society, most mechanical work will be done by automated machines that run on energy resources.

In today's world which is run mostly on oil, the notion of energy dollar equivalence translates into a fixed price for oil, or an oil standard for all the countries' economies. Who will be up for it ?

Every oil producing country in the world wants to have a fixed demarcated price for oil. This will help them plan for future oil explorations carefully. Countries which have unconventional oil resources such as Venezuela or Canada (with its tar sands) would welcome such an initiative.

Every oil consuming country would also welcome a fixed oil price : because the consumers will be protected against inflationary pressures and oil spikes.

Alternative energy industries (solar / nuclear) would support a fixed oil price too, because that would provide stable economic incentives for their development (incentives which work for the long term, so that their usually high capital costs can be safely repaid).

If there is a democratic vote, there will be a unanimous yes for a fixed oil price, ranging from the leftmost end to the rightmost end of the political spectrum.

That will however shatter the petrodollar relationship, and institutions dependent on that will be affected, such as the US Federal Reserve (despite its name, the Fed is a private institution run by certain corporations).

Occam's Razor vs Conspiration Theory

Since I am a computer scientist, I subject every theory to the occam's razor. In layman's terms, this means when there are multiple theories explaining a situation, we ought to prefer the simplest one (the one which makes the least number of assumptions). Most conspiracy theories fail in this test because they usually create extra variables which do not have sufficient data to support them.

For example : (1) 9-11 was an inside job (2) Iraq was invaded to preserve the petrodollar (3) Afghanistan was invaded to preserve poppy crop cultivation (4) Omar Torrijos, Olof Palme or Yitzhak Rabin were assassinated by the CIA. The problem with these theories is that they equate correlation with causation, and they do not have sufficient data to support their hypotheses.

But what I have mentioned in this post is not a conspiracy theory. The relation between US budget deficit and oil prices is well known. The relation between oil prices and commodity prices is well known. And several influential economists have estimated the high costs of the Iraqi war.

The petrodollar hypothesis for our economic woes might still be wrong, but it has a nice property. It is falsifiable. That is, we can experimentally test it - revoke the special petrodollar privilege of USA and measure the state of the world's economy.

The twin aspects of slavery

Slavery has existed since ancient times. Iron chains were used to bound the slaves, and any rebellion amongst slaves was punished by horrific means.

Let's keep the ethical and moral arguments aside, and check if there is any social need for slavery today. And the answer is no. Due to our technological advances in automation, every single mechanical and tiresome work can be automated. There are three areas with applications for computers, automation and robotics : (a) work in hazardous or dehumanized conditions - radioactive zones, sanitation, waste disposal.. (b) repetitive and boring work - fruit picking, agricultural labor, repetitive industrial labor.. (c) work requiring excessive mechanical energy - transport, construction..

If we see such chores still being performed by human beings, that is purely due to a conscious choice of our society. We do not need slaves, but we choose to have them.

Slavery as we know, has two aspects (1) the theft of human labor (2) the lack of choice of labor.

Though iron chains no longer exist to bound our necks, these twin aspects of slavery exist in subtle forms even in modern times.

(1) According to leftwings, human labor is stolen by existing social structures. According to righwings, human labor is stolen in the form of handouts by the welfare state. But beyond these two simplistic views, the biggest theft of human labor happens unnoticed : by financial crime and stock market crashes, the causes of which we have observed earlier.

(2) Most people take the lack of choice of work for granted. We human beings had a long and painful cultural history, and the lack of choice of work is etched onto our subconscious. So, we can measure the gravity of this problem only by the opportunity cost. We have no need to have dreadful and mechanical chores, but we still have them. Even supposedly creative professions such as research or art have strong pressures from the market. Musicians are bound to the dictates of the recording industry and sacrifice their creative freedom to keep their contracts. Researchers prefer short-term targets and applications because they need to publish and keep the research grants coming. Both these pressures are especially high when the artist/researcher is young. However, the biggest lack of choice comes on the eve of financial earthquakes : when all the research money disappears and aspiring scientists have to look for ordinary worker posts.

In fact, what is being enslaved is the human creative spirit. And the culprit is not capitalism, not the petrodollar, and not large corporations. It is our own fear.

Politics : the art of obfuscation

I hope that by now you acknowledge the existence of modern slavery. And may be, you have a few hints on how to eradicate it. Since this is a global problem affecting the economy and the environment of the entire world, it can only be solved at the global level. Participating in elections etc. in individual countries will not lead us to a solution. And the bad news is that we have absolutely no functional political institutions at the global level.

Let us look for inspiration on how our ancestors have earlier eradicated different forms of slavery.

Jesus has taught to love the fellow man as one's own brother. Buddha has taught the same thing in India. Some people were moved by these ethical exhortations, but slavery or caste system still remained.

In fact, physical slavery was never completely eradicated until the success of automation. Slaves were toiling in American fields till the 1860s.

Mahatma Gandhi has rebelled against racial discrimination in South Africa. He has agitated by non-cooperation and non-violence. He might have stirred the Indian independence movement, but colonialism perished only after the second world war. And racial apartheid continued in South Africa until the 1990s.

The interesting thing is that in both scenarios, normal people have accepted slavery as something without escape. If somebody rebelled against bad working conditions, he was told that other slave owners treat their slaves much worse.

Today, if Indian laborers ask for better wages in Dubai, they will be asked to leave the country. If Mexican visa applicants are ill-treated at US consulates, they accept it as a part of their Karma. But when he was asked to leave the first class whites-only compartment in a train in Durban, . Mahatma Gandhi did not accept it as his Karma. He started to think why.

This is what I would like all you people to think (especially immigrant workers in developed countries). Thoughts lead to ideas, and ideas lead to action. This is when we should be prepared for politics - the art of obfuscation.

In a democratic society, an existing social institution can prevent a threat not by actually destroying the opponent, but (1) by sustaining the illusion of normalcy amongst the populace (2) by creating sufficient confusion amongst the populace about the opponent (3) by keeping the opponent sufficiently divided.

A politician is a person who perfects this art of sowing confusion. For example, we are led to believe that there is an inherent dichotomy between liberty (as exemplified by libertarians) and equality (as exemplified by socialists). We are led to believe that there is an inherent dichotomy between our environment (as exemplified by Greens) and human well-being (as exemplified by free-market idealogues). Our first task should be to destroy such dichotomies.

There will be G20 discussions starting 2nd April, and there will be thousands marching in the streets of London demanding to end world's poverty, to save the environment, to cancel off the debt to poor nations etc.. There will be also be thousands who disdain these marchers, but at the same time complain about the financial crisis and handouts. What we need is an open dialogue between both people, and find common evils. We start from an issue that we agree on, and proceed from there.

If only every single marcher in London shouts "fixed price for oil", that would bring in faster change than anything else.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Bon Appetit, Indian Democracy

Hello my friend and compatriot,

Come April and May, our country will be witnessing elections. 714 million voters will have to cast their votes out of a total population of 1 billion and 150 millions. This will make this the greatest democratic exercise in the history of mankind, ever.

We human beings have absolutely no mental conception for numbers of the order of one billion. I will help you visualize. How many are 1.15 billion people ? Well, let's say that I would like to shake hands with every Indian. Assuming that I line up all the Indians in a queue and shake their hands one by one, and assuming that a handshake takes 3 seconds, I will need 109.398 years to complete my job.

The thing is I don't have that much time.

So let's do something drastic. Let's stack Indians one on top of the other in a pipe. And then I send a radio signal from one end. Assuming that the average height of an Indian is 160 cm, and that we stack the Indians up in vacuum (because that is where light travels the fastest), I would need 6 seconds for my radio signal to reach the other end of the pipe.

That's more reasonable.

So what is my message ? Okay, I want you to remember this.

"Take it easy !"

Elections are overrated. Casting a vote is not the same as tying the knot in a wedding, so don't get too tensed up, alright ? Life goes on.

Well, now that we are past that important message, let me elaborate.

Imagine that you go to a restaurant to get your meal served, you expect basic courtesy and service from the waiter, right ? You expect him to lay down the table, give you the menu and look at you deferentially with a polite smile. And when you make up your mind, you expect him to take the order carefully in his notebook, answering any of your questions carefully if you didn't understand the items on the menu. Then, you expect the food to be prepared well in time, and be served to you in the most appetizing manner. Well, then you pay for the meal. And if you are happy with your meal, you appreciate the waiter and leave him a tip. Simple ? Precisely.

So, where were we ? Yes, elections. In a democracy, we have the honor of selecting the waiters for picking up our orders. We do it once every five years. So my advice is simple : just pick the most polite person, one that actually listens to you, and not one that treats you like you are a worm. Don't get too worried this step, or you will never get to eat anything.

It is the job of the waiter to note your orders. Do check if the waiter you picked is doing his job correctly. So here comes my first demand : (1) Every Member of the Indian Parliament (MP) has to hold a public internet forum where the demands of their constituents can be edited and displayed. To cater to constituents without internet access, every MP hires a team of journalists who interview the constituents and list their demands in the above website.

After the orders are noted down, the waiter should go to the kitchen and convey the information to the chef. In a democracy, this step is done by parliamentary debates. You want to be sure if the waiter is doing his job properly. Thus comes my second demand : (2) Every MP displays his attendance of the parliamentary sessions on his website, summarizes the proceedings of the sessions from his viewpoint, via text and video. At the end of every parliamentary season, each MP produces a thesis document, for evaluation on the progress of his tasks.

Then the chef actually starts to cook your meal, and you would be happy to know if he understood the waiter properly. In a democracy, the chef is called the executive. Here comes my third demand : (3) Every executive committee of India displays the plan and proceedings of its undertakings in an open and user-friendly format, with all geographical data superimposed on Google earth for better navigation. Such websites should be welcoming comments from the users. And whenever needed, each such website has a resident team of journalists who interview the users and note their comments on the plan.

Finally, the meal is cooked and arrives on your table. You expect the waiter to lay down the table, and serve you the meal with the utmost decorum. (4) Every MP should interact with the constituents and help them utilize the projects after completion. The opinion of the constituents should be noted down and published in a concise summary over the MP's website.

Then you happily finish your meal and proceed to pay. In politics, this process is called paying taxes, and is the least comfortable part of the whole experience. (5) The tax receipts of every single citizen should be put up for display, and the accounting of how every single paisa of that money is spent should be furnished with detail. It is the obligation of the MP to do this for the constituents.

Finally, if you are happy with the meal, you cast a benevolent gaze at the waiter and leave him a tip. (6) There will be a public voting held at the end of every year on the efficiency of MPs. This is done similar to the Indian Idol program with votes cast by cellphones. The best MPs are selected in various departments and they are given job perks.

See, digesting a democracy is not that difficult. I hope you are as convinced as I am. Here in India, we are living in a free country. So let's celebrate this. The way of doing that is by shouting. Just make sure that you are heard by as many people as possible. Stack the people up in a tube of vacuum if that's necessary (-:

I don't care what you have to say. You want your wife to get a free manicure every week ? Go for it. Shout it out ! You want the coconut tree be recognized as the official tree of India ? Good. Shout it out. You want mosquitoes to be exterminated from the face of earth ? Very good. You want to exterminate human beings ? Sure, oh wait, there is a problem. You don't exterminate human beings, that's outside the rule-book. (But please go ahead and shout so, if that makes you feel any better).

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Why should Indians care about Afghans ?

  1. Because the Sarod originated from the Afghan Rubab.
  2. Because Kabuliwala is one of the best stories penned by Tagore.
  3. Because Shahrukh Khan, Aamir Khan, Dileep Kumar, Sanjay Khan and Fardeen Khan are all born in Afghan immigrant families. 
  4. Because stalwart musician families such as those of Ustad Amjad Ali Khan have come from Afghanistan.
  5. Because Afghans have helped Netaji Subash Chandra Bose in his escape from the British, and in raising the Indian National Army.
  6. Because sculptures in Hindu temples owe to the Gandhara tradition of Afghans.
  7. Because Sher Shah Suri, the great reformer of India's administration, was an Afghan.
  8. Because Maulana Abul Kalaam Azad, who ended communal electorates and shaped India's  secularism, was born in an Afghan immigrant family.
  9. Because the Pathan brothers are the pride of India's cricket team.
  10. Because Bacha Khan  was a most loyal friend, and a brother in spirit, of Mahatma Gandhi.
There is a large amount of apathy amongst educated Indians about what's going on in Afghanistan and in the Pashtun provinces of Pakistan. Many people look upon this conflict in communal terms, as a problem of Islamists, which is very unfortunate. Innocent people are being murdered here by the fundamentalist Taliban, or by the Pakistani or American armies. Journalists, secular politicians and educated people are specifically being targeted. Afghan people are trapped in a nefarious network of religious extremists, drug mafia and geopolitical actors. 

Whatever aspirations that Afghans have about peace, democracy or prosperity are being crushed under the weight of this misfortune.  Indians need to be aware of this problem, and should stand in solidarity with the Afghan people. 

Monday, February 02, 2009

Shattered over the Internet

I hate buffet dinners. I get frantically confused when I am presented with an empty plate and a dozen dishes to pick from. I make the trivial choice - that is, I choose them all.

I put a tiny bit of each dish onto my plate. Quite usually, the plate is too small to hold all of them. Nevertheless, I manage to make room. The sauce of each dish slowly seeps into the rest, and the boundaries between the dishes become fuzzy.

When I start eating, I have no idea on what order to follow. I apply the round-robin algorithm - which is to say, I pick each dish by turns. After the first round is completed, I have a vague idea of what each dish is. But by now, all the sauces will have mixed up and formed a composite mixture : which is at the same time, sweet and sour, creamy and tangy, and bitter and salty.

I gobble this primordial soup in big gulps, and feel full in the stomach. But there remains the nasty feeling that I haven't eaten anything at all.

I made a very annoying observation today : that I am living an entire life which is equivalent to eating a buffet dinner. The culprit, since we always want to push the blame onto something else, is the internet.

Let me explain. The easiest example I can provide is that of browsing. Here comes the first confession. I am addicted to news websites. I keep checking them every minute and a half, just to keep myself abreast of the happenings in the world. It is almost as if the world would not function without me being aware of it. When I don't check the news for a long time (that is to say ten minutes), I feel as positively guilty as Atlas would have felt when he gave up his burden of carrying the world to Hercules.

Then comes my annoying habit of leaving comments on blogs. When I don't leave a comment, I get as restless as a dog which hasn't relieved itself.

Third comes my commitment to checking emails. Depending on the time of the day, I can survive from between five minutes to half an hour, without looking at my inbox. And I suffer from an odd feeling of loneliness when I find my inbox empty. To avoid this, I subscribe to several mailing lists (each of which I despise from the bottom of my heart) so that they can fill up my inbox as flowers (or cactuses) in a garden. However, these are not sufficient to fill up my inbox as rapidly as I need . So I also spend considerable amount of time looking at the spam folder.

Fortunately, I am not addicted to the curse of chatting with friends online. But if I were, I think this would have come fourth in the list.

Instead, the fourth addiction happens to be the browsing of wikipedia. Over the years, I have diligently swollen my head with several mega-bytes of wikipedia text. Usually, the wikipedia browsing occurs in tandem with checking for news. No person, place or activity mentioned on a news website will escape my referring to wikipedia to complement that information.

All these activities have transformed me into a new cyber-being which should be called me 2.0

If one might imagine the length of the day as an empty plate, me 2.0 fills it up with several hundreds of thousands of dishes : sweet and sour, creamy and tangy, and bitter and salty. In the end, me 2.0 feels full in the stomach. But there remains a nasty feeling, that me 2.0 has done nothing at all during the day.

In fact, this nasty feeling is very much the reality. The productivity of my work has drastically went down over the years.

However, the story is not just about work. My friends have transformed into their new cyber-version called friends 2.0. These days, most of my communication to friends happens via status messages on Facebook or via commenting on the status messages of others. My 2D circle of friends has evolved into a rapidly morphing 3D sphere where new objects dash in and fade away at lightning speeds. Nowhere is it more obvious than with the opposite sex. The amount of time that I stay interested in a girl (without actually beginning a relationship) has diminished exponentially.

Even with old friends who existed before web 2.0, I find myself communicating in odd packets of messages. I might chat utter junk for hours with someone, but serious issues such as wishing a dear friend on his wedding get condensed into one-liner emails ending with a smiley.

The same odd feeling permeates my communication with my parents and loved ones. If there exists a part of the brain which specializes in the prioritization of affairs, that little part of my brain is seriously in need of help (or more likely, in need of total replacement).

What is happening to me can only be described as an assault on my senses. I am bedazzled and boondangled by the amount of information that is thrust onto me. I have absolutely no clue on how to divide my finite attention span amongst the infinite. What worries me to the bone is that this is only going to get worse in the future. The technologies of the internet and virtual reality are growing at an exponential pace, and the processing power of the human brain has remained static.

In the good old days, which I can still recollect from my childhood (and that was barely ten to fifteen years ago), news is read in the morning in the papers, mail arrived by the post once a day (or once a month in the form of comic books, for the kid that I was), and knowledge is accumulated by reading books. Oh, how much I long for those days ! The duration of a day was divided as a nicely prepared meal of several courses.

But this is true no longer. Welcome to Buffet Lifestyle 2.0

We are desperately in need of a new thinking to channel our energies and to realize our potentials : in a new world that offers infinite possibilities for each one of us.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Lest anybody forgets

61 years ago, a Hindutva nationalist fired his bullets on Mahatma Gandhi.

Gandhiji undertook a fast unto death demanding that Rs. 55 crore be rightfully given to Pakistan, that were withheld by the Indian government. 

Pakistan was at that time under armed confrontation with India, sending its troops to occupy Kashmir. 

Indian leaders tried to plead Gandhiji, saying that Pakistan will put that money to bad use, and intensify its warfare against India. Gandhiji didn't budge. He didn't stop his fast until the Indian government released the money to Pakistan, and until the leaders of both the Hindutva and Islamist movements personally promised him to lay down their arms. 

Gandhiji didn't undertake his fast for the sake of Pakistan, whose creation he vehemently opposed. He undertook it to preserve the very soul of India. 

Gandhiji didn't die on his fast, and he didn't die on the day Nathuram pulled his trigger. 

Gandhiji will die on the day when Indians forget the very principles that drove this loin-clothed man from Gujarat onwards his idealistic journey towards freedom and brotherhood of man. 

As Tagore has immortalized in "Ekla Chalo Re", the journey that the Mahatma began will not finish as long as there are people who are not afraid to walk alone. 

Monday, January 26, 2009

Fresh water crisis - The forgotten battle of environmentalists

Karen Street has encouraged me to write on the fresh water crisis, and has kindly hosted the post on her blog. 

... Water conservation and prevention of water pollution were one of the earliest battles of environmentalists - much before climate change was ever heard of. Though they have become the green equivalents of 80s fashion, these battles are as relevant today as they were ever. In fact, fresh water is the most important battle in the war against global warming. 

Fresh water is the elixir of life. The entire bio eco-system is based on this. Any minor disturbances to the supply of fresh water will have catastrophic impacts on biodiversity. The scariest effects of climate change are not rising sea levels or massive tornadoes, as exemplified by films such as The Day after Tomorrow. Scary though they might be, there are scarier problems : desertification of rainforests, severe droughts, drying river beds due to melting glaciers...

Karen has helped me a lot in the writing, in proof reading the essay, and in searching for the right images to explain the story. Thanks a bunch, Karen, for all the motivation you gave me. 

Karen is a committed environmentalist, and writes very informative essays on the climate change problem. I hope you people visit her blog to learn more about these pressing issues.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Skills of debating

I don't know if there is a text on the art of debating. This is a very interesting discipline. Let me list a few strategies that can be used in a debate. Please remember that any weapon can be used for the good or for the bad, depending on the wielder.

I am not talking of the list of logical fallacies, which are a primer for any debater, and should be quickly identified if the opponent resorts to any of them. I am also not talking of the arts of sophistry, rhetoric, evading information and the diversion of attention (also known as politician-speak).

In this post, I will write on some sublime strategies for winning a debate against worthy adversaries.

1) The principle of least information revelation :

This is probably the most important tactic in debating. One should not reveal more information than is necessary for the debate in question. Any unnecessary information can be contested and important time will be lost. One should never give the opponent a chance to stereotype oneself. Revealing more information than necessary will permit the opponent to brand one as an extremist, or to divert the attention on unrelated issues.

2) The battle for the middleground :

The debater should make an attempt to rephrase the opponent's views. This will convince the audience that the opponent is being listened to. The primary battle in any debate is to capture the middleground. Any attack from the middleground will be more vicious than usual.

3) The art of providing examples :

The debater who can provide a right example to elucidate or summarize the scenario gets a huge bonus in the fight. This technique is an art, and gets better with practice.

4) Accession to a wrong strongpoint :

To weaken the opponent's argument, the debater should concede to a faulty strongpoint in it. This would project a false win for the opponent, and divert the attention from the more vicious strongpoint.

The debater would essentially set the language in which the debate is conducted.

5) Invitation of attack on a wrong weakpoint :

It is important to waste the opponent's energy in the battle. And more time spent on a wrong weakpoint of a debater, means less time spent on a real weakpoint. So the opponent should be lured into attacking a wrong weakpoint.

6) Identification of the unpreventable :

If there is an issue that the opponent opposes, but which happens as an inevitable consequence of a host of other issues unrelated to the debate, it has to be identified at the earliest. Such an issue will make the opponent lose credibility. Even though the debate is not actually won, such a pseudo-win will make the debater look good.

7) Juicy trail for the opponent's escape :

The debater should actively lay down a trail for the opponent to escape from the debate. No opponent will succumb to a painful death in a debate. Most debates are won when the opponent escapes, as in "I will have to read on this and get back to you", "This looks very interesting, I am not aware of this" or "I know you are wrong, but cannot tell you why". Such escapes should be accepted graciously, and the opponent should be thanked for escaping ('Thank you. We can discuss more on that later'). In fact, the debater should lay down juicy morcels all along the escape route, so as to lure the opponent.

8) Identification of inconsistency :

When the opponent makes mutually inconsistent claims, this should be identified immediately. Such an exposé would be deadly to the opponent, more so than a revelation that an opponent's claim is false.

9) Projection of the image of cool :

One need not always keep one's cool in a debate, but one should definitely project one's cool to the audience. Voice should be raised only most sparingly, only to stress certain phrases amidst a monologue.

The personality of the opponent should be held distinct from his viewpoint, and the former should always be shown the utmost respect. Never should the audience be given the impression that the opponent is shouted down.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Nightmare in Swat

I wish to draw people's attention to the plight of innocent villagers in Swat. This beautiful place has been facing an unending nightmare for several months. After Mumbai, I hope everybody realizes that terror holds no borders : the horror of one innocent human being is the horror of entire humanity.

Letter from Swat

The main town of Swat, Mingora, has now virtually fallen to the militants. The police are escorted by army officials and come out from their ‘hide-outs’ only for a couple of hours. One of the busiest squares, Grain chowk, was renamed by the shopkeepers as ‘Khooni chowk’ because when they come to their shops in the morning on each day they find four or five dead bodies hung over the poles or the trees. They see dead bodies scattered along the foot path in the morning. The bodies are usually headless. The practice goes thus with an average of four deaths daily in the square. Similarly on each morning there are found bodies with their throats slit in Qambar, Kabal, Matta, Khawza Khela and Charbagh. This practice has been going on for weeks; and unfortunately does not seem to stop.

Jan 15 is the deadline set by the militants to close all schools, especially those of girls. As the deadline approaches people are getting more and more terrified. The government’s writ is all but absent. Nazims have been killed, women are not allowed to visit bazaars (which are deserted), NGOs have stopped working and children play a ‘Fauji Taliban’ game. The people live a miserable life in the cold. Most bridges have been damaged and beyond the main town phones have been dead for months. Most people live in darkness at night because the fighting has badly affected the power infrastructure as well.

Curfew is imposed constraining the people inside for days on end. And security forces personnel sometimes fire indiscriminately. The residents can do nothing – they cannot protest against the high-handedness of the military or stand up to the militants. The Taliban gain from strength to strength, partly aided by the use of FM radio. Various checkposts set up by the security forces seem to be no little use. Scores of militants entered Kalam last week in spite of six checkposts set up from from Bagh Dahri to Bahrain. It is quite clear that for now the victors in the war are the Taliban – and the losers the people of Swat.

But who cares about that in the rest of the country. The government seems too busy dealing with the aftermath of the Mumbai carnage. That said, the predicament of the people of Swat is worse than even of the people of Gaza. In Gaza the enemy is well known but in Swat the people know not who the enemy is and whom to hold responsible.

The civil society of any country is regarded as a great force to mobilize the general public against the violation of civil rights and liberty. It is considered as a bulwark against the violation of human rights. It is deemed as the upholder of people’s rights where the state fails to deliver. Its mettle was tested in the lawyers’ movement but we in Swat wonder why it is silent now? We hear no voice raise against the atrocities committed in Swat. No civil society organization has its voice against the plight of the women and children in Swat. We have not seen a single demonstration in the big cities against the monster of militancy in Swat, or in FATA for that matter. The media also seems apathetic about the plight. The print media does well to some extent but their scope is limited.

The people of Swat ask you to come out on their behalf and mobilize the general public against the war tearing the valley. We implore you to come out of your drawing rooms and stage protests so that the government does something about our plight.

The author is Zubair Torwali, from KhyberWatch.