Sunday, November 09, 2008

The Way They Were

As I followed the 2008 presidential election campaign in America, I realized that the campaigns are in-part also a big battle of egos. Each candidate not only believes that his/her position on the issues is the right choice, the right direction for the country; but also that they are the right person to lead the country in that direction. In one way this is a highly egotistical claim which each presidential candidate is trying to convince everyone else of. Almost two years of constant campaigning to this end must inevitably be a transforming experience, changing the person completely.

Now that the campaign is over, the candidates have to face the results. In the case of John McCain, he has to face his defeat in a bitterly fought contest and its effect on his party and his own political career. In the case of Barack Obama, he now has to face the immense responsibility of leading this country in times of immense difficulties both at home and abroad. John McCain and Barack Obama are in a way completely different people from what they were a couple of years ago. In the backdrop of these facts, I thought it would be a good idea to take a look at these candidates as they were before they got wrapped up in their respective campaigns.

Starting with John McCain: I have said that I used to like John McCain. From what I recall, he really was kind of 'straight talking', right of the center guy who was not afraid to spar with people in his own party on important issues. Here are some clips of Jon Stewart interviewing John McCain. The first one is back in 2002 before the Iraq war started. The second one is just after the state of the union speech in January 2004. What I like about John McCain in these clips is his candidness. He speaks his mind and he doesn't try to spin much. This is the John McCain I would have liked to see more of on the campaign trail.

Like most other people, I had not heard much about Barack Obama until he gave the keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic convention. Back in August 2005, Barack Obama made an appearance as the guest who plays 'not my job' game on Wait Wait Don't Tell Me, the NPR news quiz - one of my favorite radio shows. He talked about his views on important issues such as 8th grade graduation ceremonies. As I listened to the show again today, I couldn't help but think that this guy has a great sense of humor and is very witty. You can listen to the clip here.

This other clip is of Barack Obama on Monday night football back in 2006 where it seems like he is about to announce that he is running for president:

I guess we won't get to see this lighter, funnier side of Barack Obama more often now.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Vignettes of Hope

America has voted. Barack Hussein Obama is the president elect of United States of America. I am happy that my cynicism about the American electorate, particularly in relation to the racial issue, has been defeated. I was following the results all night and here are some vignettes from a night full of hope.

Andrew Sullivan of The Atlantic posted a note from one of the readers of his blog. I felt it is very beautiful. Here it is:
Nothing in my life has actually changed in the 30 minutes since it was announced Obama will be our next president. I have the same bills, the same amount of money in the bank, my dishwasher is still broken, and my 5 month old beagle won't stop peeing on my carpet. Everything in my life is exactly the same as it was 30 minutes ago; and yet I feel as though everything is different.

I feel so much hope. I feel so much pride. I feel like my one vote was a single drop of water in a great Tsunami of change. I feel like I was one of a million voices screaming in the night, " I love my country and I'm taking it back!" I'm so proud of the country that I love and have so much hope in my heart that we can together heal the wounds that have been such a source of pain and anger to us all.

I know Obama isn't going to fix the economy overnight, I know he won't be able to provide healthcare to all Americans by February '09. I know Obama isn't a Messiah who four years from now will have turned this country into a fabled utopia. But I also know Obama will make moral decisions. I know Obama will try to unite where others try to divide. I know Obama will help to make America the beacon of hope it once was to others. I know that at 27 years of age, I witnessed one of the most important and hopefully glorious chapters in American history.

I know hope.
The immense sense of soaring hope and the firm anchor in reality are both vividly evident in this person's comment. Thank you for voicing a shared feeling with such clarity.

In last few weeks, I was anxiously following the race in Pennsylvania and Ohio. This American Life covered the Obama and McCain campaigns in Pennsylvania in one of their episodes - Ground Game. For anyone interested in grass-roots political campaigns, this is a must listen. It featured the town of State College, PA (where I lived and studied for six years) and how the students campaigning for Obama are conducting huge voter registration drives. It featured a student volunteer named Kaycee (hope I am spelling the name correctly) who was the most active and most successful in getting students registered. It featured the union leaders in Pennsylvania who are persuading their fellow workers and union members to look beyond race, get past the animosity and vote for Obama based on the issues that they care about. I am listening to this episode again tonight. As the networks called Pennsylvania for Obama tonight, I can only imagine the joy these volunteers must have feel at the end of a successful campaign. Their HOPE was vindicated tonight. Oh! and Centre county went for Obama by 11% margin tonight! Go Nittany Lions!

When I was in India, the image of an "American" in my mind was always that of a 'white' man or women. This image was reaffirmed in so many subtle ways - through the movies, the images of American Presidents and other American leaders. After coming to this country I met and got acquainted with many Americans who didn't fit the stereotypical image and were still very much 'American'. What excites me about the Obama presidency is the fact that it will change this image of the typical 'American' for so many people including many Americans themselves. As the world sees a man of color as the president of America, going about the business of governing and decision making just like any of the previous presidents, somewhere in the subconscious the prejudices will start to melt. Barack Obama's face on national television will do more to remove lingering doubts (often based on unfounded fear) and deep-rooted hatred of people based on race and color of skin, than many other overt programs and campaigns to fight racism everywhere. That alone in my opinion will be a great achievement.

This is my hope today.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Election Woes

I know it's a clique, but a picture is truly worth a thousand words. This presidential election is causing a lot of anxiety in my mind. It would take a lot of words to explain it all.. thankfully there is PhD comics.

These two strips explain my anxiety perfectly:

I am not a US citizen, so I can't vote in this country. However I work in this country legally and I pay taxes here. There are many ways in which the result of this election can affect me and my life directly. More importantly, for however long I stay in this country, I would prefer if the country is led by people who cherish the same ideals as I do. In this election, it means that I am hoping for a Obama victory.

I doubt it will happen. I still feel that a majority of this country will choose McCain and Palin. McCain would have been palatable but Palin is simply a disgrace. I used to like McCain before he made a U-turn on almost everything he claimed to believe in. Some of the U-turns too would have been OK with me. I come from a country full of flip-flopping politicians. However the most egregious one by McCain was the flip-flop on his views about the right wing God-nutters - the very people whom he called agents of intolerance a few years ago. To top it all, he went ahead and chose a God-nutter to be his running mate. And not just any odd God-nutter, a God-nutter who subscribes to one of the most extreme brands of Christianity that are out there. Her brand of Christianity believes in speaking in tongues, believes in witch-craft, believes in magic healing, does not believe in evolution by natural selection (although that's kind of par for the course for God-nutters), believes that rapture is imminent and will happen in her lifetime.

I don't believe that experience is the most important quality needed to be the President. No single person can have all the experience that will prepare him or her for the job of leading the USA. What is more important I believe is intellectual curiosity, the ability to seek and weigh different opinions on issues, the ability to make decisions by analyzing the implications of the various options. When I see Sarah Palin in the two interviews she gave, I see a lack of these very qualities. To me, it means that she will make judgments based on her ideology - which in her case happens to be extreme right wing religious ideology. It's not just her ignorance of issues, it's her pride in her ignorance of issues. It's not just her lack of intellect, it's her contempt for intellectuals. Elect McCain and Palin now and four years down the line, you will find Palin running for President.

The election still seems pretty close when you see the picture in the battle ground states. So the anxiety will continue for 8 more days. After that, I will either be glad that the country chose a reasonably intelligent guy over a pair of 'maverick' God-nutters or I will take solace in the fact that Jon Stewart and Bill Maher will have no lack of material for the next four years.

There are many who have said the things I have tried to say here with much more clarity and force. So I point you now to some of of my heroes:

Sam Harris: When Atheists Attack

Christopher Hitchens: Vote for Obama - McCain lacks the character and temperament to be president. And Palin is simply a disgrace.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Mavericks for Mediocrity

The more I watch the presidential election campaign the more depressed and afraid I become. Things have been going down-hill for a while now since John McCain selected Sarah Palin to be his running mate. Then came Sarah Palin's two interviews, first with Charlie Gibson and then with Katie Couric. Then there was the debate with Joe Biden. It seems to me that the politicians - especially the Republicans - have convinced themselves that most of the people in this country are dimwits who can be swayed by fluff.

Now, to be fair, the democrats are not a whole deal better, but predominantly the peddlers of mediocrity are Republicans. Consider for example the issue of off-shore drilling. John McCain and Sarah Palin have reduced it to a three word "mantra" - "drill baby drill". It is not "drill drill drill" by the way, as Sarah Palin promptly pointed out to Joe Biden in the debate, the right words are "drill BABY drill", as if it's a magic spell which looses it's effect if you don't say the right words. The oil-fairy won't give them any money if they don't get the mantra right. I think they believe that the voters in this country can be convinced about a lie if you convert it into a neat little sound-bite and repeat it over and over again. I don't blame them... it has worked for the last eight years. Consider the following examples from the not so distant past.

"Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction" (He didn't)
"Saddam Hussein caused 9-11" (He didn't)
"Tax-cuts will help the economy" (They didn't)
"We need less Government" (perhaps, but why are you running for a Government office then?)

If sound-bites like these, devoid of any analysis - any critical thinking - any logic - any substance at all is all that takes for the voters in this country to be swayed into voting for a candidate; remember it worked twice in last eight years; then I have no doubt that John McCain will be the next President of the USA.

I notice a strong anti-intellectual, pro-mediocrity streak in the McCain-Palin rhetoric. The "real enemies", we are told repeatedly, are "east-coast-elite" and "Washington insiders" (John McCain for example.) and " the liberal media". The best people in the country, the crème de la crème, live in a place called "small town America" and have names like "Joe Six-pack". All the women in small town America are either "hockey moms" or "soccer moms". Small town Americans are big on "family values". Perhaps it is because I have spent most of my time here in a liberal college town in the middle of Pennsylvania and the rest amidst "east-coast-elite" Bostonians, these caricatures seem a bit too distant and shallow to me. Furthermore we are told that small town Americans prefer candidates who they can "identify" with, someone who they can go hunting with (they love hunting), or have a beer with. It does not matter to small town Americans what these candidates think about important issues the country faces, they just want a "Joe six-pack" or "Hockey mom" like them in office. Apparently the last two times they elected a Joe Six-pack to the Oval office, things went spendidly. As far as I can tell, Sarah Palin does indeed believe in these crude generalizations of the American electorate which don't quite stand up to even the most simplistic analysis. I am not so sure whether John McCain himself truly believes in them, perhaps he doesn't, but he peddles them with equal glee and enthusiasm nevertheless.

Most of these caricatures are obviously code words to appeal to a very particular group - the mythical "base" of the Republican party. The "small town America" is composed mainly of evangelical Christian extreme right wing of the Republican party. The "family values" they cherish include among other - an opposition to a woman's right to choose abortion, opposition to equal rights for homosexual couples, opposition to "affirmative action", opposition to immigration and a wish to turn America into a Christian nation. Everyone is in on this game. Everyone knows this, I just wish that they were simply honest and open about it and stop speaking in code.

The more nefarious thing about the McCain - Palin campaign though is the deep anti-intellectualism. Their message to all the Joe Six-packs in America is, "Don't be like those college educated, east-coast-liberal-elites. They are the enemy. They are what is wrong with this country. They are the ones to blame for your woes and they want to take your guns (Joe Six-pack likes his guns more than anything in the world) and your God away from you." With this platform, any nuanced rhetoric is treated as "waffling" or "flip-flopping". Thinking with brains (like most normal people do) is for those elite liberals, Joe-six pack and his leaders think and make decisions based on their gut instincts. They make decisions in a swift second and pack it into a neat sound bite. Critical thinking is for sissies. Take off-shore drilling for example. Most experts (including those in George W. Bush's administration) have said that it would have no immediate impact on oil-prices or price of gasoline at the pump. Furthermore it would do nothing significant to make America less reliant on foreign sources of oil. But that doesn't matter, Joe Six-pack wants answers that he can easily memorize and anything more than "drill baby drill" is just too much to remember.

This tactic has worked before for George W. Bush and it may as well work for McCain - Palin. In four more years (irrespective of who wins the election this November) we may be seeing Sarah Palin again, this time running for President. If the portrayal of Americans in this crass way is what she really believes (which I think she does) then I think it represents a grave danger to the future of this country. The country is in further trouble if she actually believes that "east coast elite" are the source of all woes in this country. Another dangerous quality she reflected in the debate is the denial to look back and learn. "Say it ain't so, Joe, there you go again pointing backward," Palin said in the debate. "Now, doggone it, let's look ahead and tell Americans what we have to plan to do for them in the future.", she said before starting to ramble on about something else. Joe Six-packs of small town America, consider your selves warned. As George Santayana put it, "Those who refuse to learn from history are condemned to repeat it".

Critical thinking, a curiosity about how the world actually works, an openness to learn, receptiveness towards new ideas and imagination to think new solutions is what is required in future leaders of America (or any other country for that matter). Instead we are getting "gut instinct" which more often than not, turns out to be pre-cooked, ideological answers to every question. Instead of admiring education and intellectualism, we are told that it is the problem. Instead of receptiveness towards new ideas we get scorn and ridicule for the other views. I pity the Joe Six-pack who may get his "maverick" leaders elected to the highest office in the country only to find that his job has been shipped to someone in China, India or some other country in the world where learning, education, intellectualism are valued and admired, not scorned and ridiculed. If that happens (or perhaps when that happens) he may as well realize that the prosperity in this country is a result of the "ideas" which were a result of rational thinking, reason based discourse and profound intellect of the founding fathers of this country who were indeed the "east coast elite" at that time.

Most Americans think that terrorists driven by a hateful religious ideology are the greatest threat to the country. A greater threat to this society is a culture that has started to ignore the value knowledge, intellect and education. A culture that values sound-bites over reason based discourse. A culture that seeks quick answers rather than well-thought-out solutions that can actually make a difference. A culture that ignores history and fails to learn from it. The strength of this country lies in it's productivity and it's capability to innovate. The world is itching to take over America's lead in these domains. Where ever and when ever it is possible, this is already happening. The big corporations and companies know this and they are not going to stay here for the sake of some Joe Six-pack if Joe is unable or unwilling to learn long division.

The greatest threat to this country is not some Mullahs and their followers in some country in the middle-east or Persia following some bizzare bronze-age ideology. The greatest threat to this country are the home grown "Mavericks for Mediocrity" and their Joe Six-pack followers. They will continue to erode America's leadership in the world with their "shoot from the hip", "gut instinct" leadership.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Gustav Looms - Thoughts on the eve of a potential disaster

On August 29, 2005 hurricane Katrina slammed into the gulf coast a bit east of New Orleans and devastated the city along with several other communities in Louisiana, Mississippi and few other southern states. Almost exactly three years to the date, hurricane Gustav... a category 3 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of approximately 115 miles per hour (185 kilometers per hour) is taking aim at the coast of Louisiana, predicted to make landfall slightly to the east of New Orleans.This makes it even worse because this would bring New Orleans into the path of the westward sweeping arms of the hurricane and a predicted 10-14 feet storm surge.

Lets just think about the numbers here before I go into my thoughts about the impending disaster. The density of air (at standard conditions) is about 1.2 kg / cubic meter. Air slamming into 1 square meter of a surface at 185 km/hour will exert a sustained force of ~ 1.59 kN/m^2 which is about 0.23 psi. That sounds awfully small. Assuming that a normal person standing erect has a surface area of about 5 ft^2 facing the wind, it means that (s)he will be subject to a sustained force of 166 lb. (That's almost equal to my own weight slamming into me continuously). Make whatever you will of that small calculation.

As I saw the Katrina disaster unfold three years ago, my thoughts ranged from disbelief to anger to disgust. In my own country - India - which is far poorer than USA, natural disasters claim thousands of lives every year. Almost every monsoon there are disastrous floods along the Gangetic plains. There are occasional cyclones along the east coast. Even now, devastating floods in the state of Bihar are wreaking havoc in countless lives. As ashamed I am of the pathetic response of the governments (both state and central) to natural disasters in my own country, I was even more disappointed at the response to a natural disaster by the governments in THE RICHEST country in the world. I could not believe that all the warnings, studies and predictions were willfully ignored, evacuations were not planned and well executed, safe shelters were not provided to those left behind. None of this was impossible to a country which has landed people on the moon, it was simply not done. Looking back, one could not have expected more from the government of George W. Bush, which can hardly boast of sound planning and foresight as it's forte. To any one who would like to differ, I have a two word response... "Iraq War". On the same note, the response of the Louisiana state government as well was not very well coordinated and executed badly. There is much to be said about the response after the disaster - the search and rescue effort and the recovery efforts - but lets not go into that now.

This time around, things seem different. Mandatory evacuation of New Orleans seems to have worked well ahead of the storm. Residents in the coastal areas have learned their lesson. The levees and other defenses against flooding are probably strengthened too after Katrina. So this storm may not turn out to be such a disaster in terms of loss of human life (Let us all hope so), although disruption of normal life due to property damage may yet be severe and unavoidable.

Human reaction to natural disasters is always quite surprising to me. What makes us rebuild homes on land struck by a huge earthquake? What makes us rebuild houses and schools that were drowned and washed away by a hurricane three years ago? I guess in part, people do it because they don't have a choice. Where else would they go? It's their home, they have lived there their whole life, they have a natural bond with the place. Perhaps a hope too that lightening never strikes the same place twice - which as it turns out is not quite true. This to me is a sign that we as a species are very bad at estimating probabilities. The chance of an earthquake happening in the same place with same intensity in the life time of an average human being is very different that the probability of a hurricane striking a coastal are twice in the life time of an average human being. Yet human response to both disasters can be very similar. Even with full knowledge that disaster may strike them yet again, people go about rebuilding their lives in the same place.

This is OK I guess as long as we learn some lessons from past disasters and use the power of human creativity and imagination to prepare well for future disasters. Building communities in low-lying areas prone to severe flooding for example takes a large investment in building well designed coastal defense system. Such a system is a public good and can be provided most efficiently by government spending. Yet we do not see that kind of investment and planning going into rebuilding of New Orleans. All we have seen so far is more of the same. Natural disasters are unavoidable. Failure to learn from history and a failure of imagination while rebuilding in a disaster prone area is a human created "disaster" that is completely avoidable.

Anyway... I am rambling a bit now. For those who are under Gustav's gun... seek shelter, stay dry and stay safe.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Check It Out: The Science of Religion

In 2003 Richard Dawkins gave the Tanner Lectures at Harvard University. I spent most of the afternoon today listening to these lectures. Richard Dawkins is one of the many contemporary scientists I admire a lot. I have read many (if not all) of his books, including the most recent one - The God Delusion. I admire Dawkins primarily because of his knack of explaining complex ideas in a clear and logical fashion. I admire him even more for his polite yet forceful arguments against religious extremism, in fact religion itself and against irrational, non-scientific ideas like 'creation science' and 'intelligent design'.

In the first of the two lectures, Dawkins talks about the science of religion. The Darwinian framework of evolution through variation and natural selection is the most elaborate explanation we have to explain the evolution and diversity of life on earth. Any phenomena that have survived for millennia in human populations therefore beg an evolutionary explanation. Religious beliefs have appeared and continue to appear independently in human societies across ages in all parts of the world. The ubiquity of religious beliefs in human society makes it imperative to explore the evolutionary origins of such beliefs. Dawkins focuses exclusively on this topic in the first of the two lectures. Dawkins has devoted a full chapter of his latest book - The God Delusion - to this topic. I would urge anyone who is interested in this subject to listen to this lecture.

In my opinion this topic is of utmost importance today. Religious zealots are wrecking havoc in every part of the world. Islamic extremists in the middle east, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other parts of the world; fundamentalist evangelical Christians in the USA, fundamentalist Jews in Israel, fundamentalist Hindu groups in India all want to impose their particular religious world view and way of life upon the society at large. Many, if not all of them are using violence to terrorize people into submission. Only by understanding the evolutionary origins of religious beliefs can we begin to treat the virus of religious extremism and perhaps some day cure ourselves of all faith based propositions.

In the second lecture, Dawkins talks about the Religion of Science. A common retort of people of faith against science is that science itself is a form of religion. They point out that the core hypothesis of science, that the universe is governed by a set of laws which we can reveal through careful investigation, is a faith based proposition in itself. Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, "The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is at all comprehensible." There is profound mystery, wonder and awe in the universe. There are befuddling questions such as why are the laws of that govern the universe the way they are? Why do the fundamental constants of physics have the peculiar values they have? Dawkins draws out the stark contrasts between the scientific, - evidence based - world view and the religious - faith based - world view. He concedes that there may be questions which science in principle cannot answer but he lands firmly against the proposition that the scientific world view IS in itself some sort of religious world view.

The whole series is available in mp3 format on Dawkins's website which is a worthwhile place to visit for anyone interested in evolution, reason, atheism etc. There is also a seminar with Dawkins, Steven Pinker and Keith DeRose as a follow up to the lectures.

Happy listening!

Friday, June 20, 2008

Hinduism: An Open Source religion

Hinduism stands apart from the three organized, monotheistic religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam and other major religions - Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism etc, as a weird sort of religion. All these other religions have a central defining entity. Judaism, Christianity and Islam have their prophets and their sacred books. Sikhism and Jainism have a line of sacred religious teachers but one or a few among them are considered most sacred. Buddhism has its founder - Gautama Buddha. Hinduism is a bit quirky. There are many books which can be considered sacred texts, the Vedas, Upanishads and the Bhagavad Geeta being the main ones. There are many Gods and Goddesses to worship. There are many schools of thought and traditions to follow. In fact, variety seems to be the single and most important defining quality of Hinduism. Hinduism is adaptable, versatile and most importantly it is an 'open source' religion. You can choose a flavor of Hinduism that suits your taste.

Let me just elaborate on the 'open source' bit. The Linux operating system is an open source operating system. The 'kernel' or the central component of the operating system is an open source component released under GNU-GPL for any developer to modify and re-distribute. Similarly the 'kernel' of the Hindu spiritual thought, the central idea of Hinduism, in my opinion, is a state of consciousness which can be experienced and freely interpreted by any human being. It is a spiritual experience. I am using the word spiritual a bit casually here. By spiritual, I do not mean to hint at something supernatural; although most traditional interpretations have a supernatural component. By spiritual I mean something relating to one's subjective consciousness, an experience that is available to oneself alone. This state of consciousness may correlate with a certain state or states of the human brain. This spiritual experience is termed variously as samadhi, awakening, enlightenment, nirvana etc. For brevity, I will here forth address this state as the 'samadhi'.

We know this for sure - in ancient India there were many people who followed a variety of contemplative traditions. Many people must have experienced samadhi in the course of the numerous mental and physical regimens they undertook as a part of their meditative practice and probably even under the influence of hallucinogenic substances (such as the mythical Soma) . Even though they experienced it, they were not in a position to know the neurological basis of it. All of the information we have about the nature of samadhi is from the descriptions of it, by people who at one time or another experienced it. Since samadhi is a state of consciousness accessible only to the individual experiencing it, we have no way of verifying that the experience indeed took place. But many, if not all, of the people claiming to experience samadhi seem like stand-up guys and gals. So we can safely say that some of them were indeed telling the truth. The numerous descriptions of samadhi have some common and recurring themes such as:
  1. The experience of a complete dissolution of the 'ego' (an 'I' separate from the external world),
  2. A perception of oneness with the external world
  3. A sense of profound bliss.
Most people who claim to have experienced samadhi describe it as a life changing experience, something that arouses the feelings of love, empathy and compassion in them changing their world-view in a radical way. I believe that it's this unique state of consciousness that is the kernel - the central concept - of the religion that was later on termed as Hinduism.

Like Linux, there are many distributions built around this kernel. By different 'distributions', I mean the different interpretations by different people, applying a combination of logic and metaphysical conceptions, to explain the various aspects of the samadhi experience. I think there were two important reasons for the emergence of such a variety of interpretations. In ancient India there was no single religious authority or single dominant school of religious thought. Differing ideas and debate between different schools of thought was often welcomed and promoted by rulers and elite in the society. Secondly, samadhi is a purely subjective experience. Even today we can only image and record in some detail the state of the brain of a person who is undergoing a meditative experience. As of yet there is no way to externally induce such an experience reliably. So the people who experience samadhi lacked the tools for understanding the physical and neurological basis of the experience. That combined with intense and profound nature of the experience, as judged from the lofty descriptions, must have evoked the idea that there must be something mystical behind it. The Hindu interpretations are not the only one which try to explain samadhi. Both Jainism and Buddhism arose as a result of prolonged contemplative practice and the experience of samadhi by their teachers. The distributions which broadly fall under the label Hinduism interpret the samadhi state in one particular way.These 'distributions' form the various schools of thought in Hindu philosophy.

The people who composed the Vedas believed that there is a soul (the Atman) that animates our bodies and that survives the death of our bodies. They also believed that natural phenomena were imbibed with souls as well. Hence a plethora of naturalistic gods and goddesses such as Agni (the god of fire), Varuna (the god of rain), Usha (the goddess of dawn) etc. When some of the Vedic philosophers experienced samadhi, they interpreted it thus - they ascribed the feeling of oneness experienced in the samadhi to the merging of their personal soul with the soul that pervades all of nature. They termed this soul that pervades all of nature as the 'Brahman'. This metaphysical idea of a Brahman is an important part of the 'Vedantic' interpretation of samadhi.

Contemporary Hinduism is a giddy mixture of this particular interpretation of that unique state of consciousness, along with a bunch of other baggage such as:
  • Other metaphysical hypotheses such as the laws of karma, rebirth of the soul etc.
  • A number of creation myths.
  • Belief in an amazingly large number of of gods and goddesses, each with their own rich and colorful mythology.
  • An equally huge number of rituals, rites and superstitions.
The reason I call Hinduism an 'open source' religion is because its central idea, the interpretation of the samadhi, is not controlled by any central authority. One is free to re-interpret to one's own liking. One is free to promote one's own interpretation. One is free to label one's interpretation as the most authoritative, most logical, most perfect interpretation. The history of Hindu philosophy reveals a number of such individuals and groups who chose to interpret the samadhi state in their own peculiar way. They squabbled, they argued, they constructed complicated logical arguments to refute the interpretations of the 'other' groups and establish the authority of their own interpretation. The Samkhya, Dvait (dualist), Advait (non-dualist), Vishistha-Advait (qualified non-dualist)... all these different schools are nothing but elaborate logical and metaphysical expositions of the samadhi state. Adi Shankaracharya's treatise on the Brahmasutras for example provides refutation of many different schools of thought and promotes Shankaracharya's own interpretation of Samadhi, the nature of Brahman, Atman, etc. All the schools of thought that are broadly termed 'Hindu' agree on the point that samadhi is the 'joining' of the Atman with the Brahman. Their disagreements stem from their ideas about the nature of Brahman and Atman.

How, one may ask, can one achieve this state? How can one achieve samadhi? There are many ways of doing this as well. One may follow any one of the many paths towards experiencing the samadhi state. Since samadhi is the joining or the yoking of the Atman to the Brahman, the Sanskrit word 'yoga' which means yoking is used to describe the various paths. One may follow the path of devotion (Bhakti Yoga), the path of asceticism (Raj Yoga), the path of knowledge (Jnana Yoga), the path of action (Karma Yoga) - each with it's own prescription for achieving the supreme union of the Atman and the Brahman. There is never a dearth of mystics, sages, god-men and god-women in India, each claiming to have experienced the samadhi and giving their own for achieving it. New age paths like Siddha Samadhi Yoga, Art of Living etc. mostly comprise of traditional ideas repackaged and distributed through modern marketing mechanisms.

The choice of gods and goddesses to worship is my favorite aspect of Hinduism. If you are the nerdy type, you might like Ganesh - the elephant headed god of wisdom. If you are a gym loving health freak, you might want to worship Hanuman - the monkey god endowed with amazing strength and the ability to fly (like Superman but better because Hanuman is supposedly Chiranjeevi - one endowed with eternal life). Then there are a number of goddesses. Laxmi (the goddess of wealth) may be worshiped by one and all. Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge and Durga (or Shakti), the goddess of energy are equally venerable. Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva... the trinity... the foundations of Hindu mythology are eternal favorites among devotees. So are the many incarnations of Vishnu, Krishna and Rama being the most preferred of them all. There are of course many rituals and rites you might choose to observe to please or placate your preferred god/goddess. You may choose to enjoy the beauty of many of the devotional songs (the Bhajans and Abhangas) or devotional dances. You may indulge in meditation and chanting. If you so prefer, you may also choose the almost sadomasochistic acts of worship like sleeping on a bed of nails or standing for days on one leg.

In many respects, Hinduism is like and operating system for your life. It is a way of life. You may choose your own favorite 'distro' of the Hindu operating system, your own favorite path, your own favorite deity and still call yourself a Hindu as long as you subscribe to the central idea - the concept of the supreme Brahman. The gods and goddesses are all manifestations of the Brahman. The various paths all lead to the union of the Atman with the Brahman. The Brahman itself is something beyond all concepts. According to the "Advait" school, everything after all IS the Brahman, including you.

Thou Art That!

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Hara-Kiri by Democracy

I'm emerging from a long break in blogging. So if any of you have still kept my blog in your feed reader... kudos to you for your patience and many thanks!

This is the first time around that I have followed the presidential nomination process in this country closely. Last time around, I paid attention only after the general election campaign had started. My political views are more on the liberal-Democratic side and even more so on the 'cynical of all politicians' side. Last time around the Democrats in this country picked John Kerry as their presidential nominee. Initially I felt that Kerry had a good chance to beat George W. Bush. But he fumbled a lot in the campaign. He failed to make a logical case about his opposition to the Iraq war after having voted for the resolution to authorize the use of force. The Republicans picked on this and portrayed him as a flip-flopper. Apparently, changing one's opinion in the face of new evidence is a character flaw in this country. Then he failed to respond aggressively to the swift-boat veterans for truth campaign. Compared to George W. Bush, Kerry's military record looked unbeatable. But Kerry failed to aggressively hit back at the swift-boat campaign 'shmear' and this, in my opinion, created enough doubts about his record in the minds of many independent voters. The rest is history. Bush/Cheney won by a 2.3% margin. The funniest thing I remember after that election was Jon Stewart's comments on The Daily Show about Bush's swearing in ceremony, which for your delight is embedded below:
(The punch-line, if you care, is around 2.00 min. into the clip. I am not ashamed to say that I was among the people who 'solemnly swore')

This time around, I have been following the Democratic and Republican nomination contests closely. The Republicans, because of the way they choose nominees (winner takes all delegates in most states), have ended up with a clear result very early. The competition for John McCain was not all that great. There were many candidates in the Republican race who were touted by the media as 'clear' front-runners but who were kicked out in the first few rounds, leaving Republicans to ultimately choose between war-hero and long serving US senator John McCain and the utterly ridiculous, Mr. 'I don't believe in evolution by natural selection', god-nutter, Mike Huckabee.

But this post is not about the Republican race. It's about the race for the Democratic party nomination. As I write this, the results of the last two Democratic primaries are coming in. Hillary Clinton finished her speech some time ago thanking all her supporters but saying that she will not be making any decisions about the future of her campaign tonight. As I am typing these words I am listening to Barack Obama's victory speech in which he claimed the democratic nomination. As I listen to the dizzy chants of "Yes we can!" I am filled with a feeling of both hope and fear.

Barack Obama has great oratorical talent and equally good speech writers. He has successfully inspired a lot young first time voters to root for him in the primaries and caucuses. His campaign carried out amazing grass-roots activism that finally resulted in his winning the democratic nomination. My cynicism of politicians forbids me from making any predictions about the kind of president Barack Obama would be if he indeed wins the general election, but I can safely say either of candidates this time around would be better than George W. Bush and 'Dick' Cheney combined. My hope is that Barack Obama goes on to win the general election in November.

My fear is that the Democratic party has committed 'hara-kiri' by democracy. Democratic party has this "everyone gets a trophy" type nomination process which proportionately allocates the delegates in each state to any candidate who wins more than 15% of the votes. This led to a lengthy and divisive nomination race. The nomination process chosen by the Democratic party is not like the general election, where the candidate who wins popular vote in a state carries the entire state in the electoral college. The Democratic party system is further complicated by an utterly undemocratic concoction called the 'super-delegates' who get to make up their mind irrespective of the popular opinion.

The candidates vying for the nomination in the democratic race were historical. Hillary Clinton if nominated would have been the first woman to lead the ticket. Barack Obama is the first man of color to be the presidential candidate of a major party in this country. The race between these two has left the democratic party deeply divided. Democrats further complicated things by first stripping the states of Michigan and Florida of all the delegates just because these states decided to have early primaries. Then, few days ago they divided the delegates among Clinton and Obama but gave each delegate from these states only 1/2 vote in the convention. The whole thing was ironic given that it was the "Democratic" party going though all this drama. Now that Obama has won the nomination, there is talk about unity in the party. I am afraid that it is a bit too late to achieve any unity after such a long and bitter infighting.

The thing I am even more fearful of is the fact that in the frenzy and enthusiasm created by Obama's charisma, people are not looking at the bigger picture. Sure he has run a great grass-roots campaign... sure has has been able to raise huge amounts of money from a record number of donors... but he has a long way to go to win the general election. Every time I hear talk about the enthusiasm and energy created by Obama's campaign, I remind myself that just four years ago 51% of the people who voted in this country thought George W. Bush is the right choice to run the country. This was in the light of a preemptive war that was turning out to be increasingly disastrous and dangerous for this country AND the world at large. It was also in the light of the amply evident incompetence, stupidity and arrogance of the Bush administration. I am not convinced that suddenly a majority of this country will wake up and vote for a black man with no military background, very little experience in the Senate and almost no experience in an executive position. Perhaps I am being too cynical. Perhaps, not unlike the swing of a pendulum, public opinion in this country too swings from the delusion of electing Bush/Cheney in 2004 to the giddiness of voting for 'hope and change' 2008.

I am afraid that this country is still not ready for a black man to become the President. I am afraid that racism will rear its ugly head in this campaign. In many places it will be utterly blatant. However I am afraid more of the subtle racism...that some people will cloak under the guise of "leadership experience", "military experience" or any other reason they can find to vote against Obama. I am not alleging that everyone who votes for McCain is a racist. Most of the people who voted for McCain (and will vote for him in the general election) in my opinion will truly believe him to be the right choice and for the right reasons. But I am afraid that there are just enough people in this country who won't vote for Obama simply because of his matter what his stance is on the real issues such as the economy, health care and national security. They may be a minority... but remember... 2% of the voting population is enough to tilt the scales towards the McCain camp.

I think Barack Obama's association with Jeremiah Wright is also going to hurt him. It is one of the things that annoys me about Barack Obama. What was he thinking associating with such a lunatic pastor for 20 years? I am guessing there are going to be many people who will be thinking likewise. I am sure many people will conveniently ignore all the crazy things uttered by some lunatic evangelical Christian leaders in this country. I am sure many will also forget that John McCain, who once called these god-nutters 'agents of intolerance' is now wooing them to secure the religious right-wing vote.

For Barack Obama to win the general election, the Democratic party needs to stand united behind him. Barack Obama needs to successfully convince enough independents and "white working class" voters to vote for him to win crucial states in the general election. The sum of all my fears about this election is that the divisions in the democratic party will not be healed soon enough, and this combined with the subtle racism and other factors will result in Barack Obama losing the general election and John McCain becoming the next President.. and that will be a tragedy.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Right to Information Act: A Primer

On October 13, 2005, the Right to Information (RTI) act came into full effect in India. In the two years since its implementation, the act is undoubtedly helping to bring a measure of accountability to the hopelessly inefficient and irresponsible Indian bureaucracy and bring to light the corruption and mismanagement of public resources by the government agencies at all levels. The main reason behind writing this post is to educate myself about the act and its implications. This is an ongoing learning exercise and I will keep adding information to the post. Tons of information about the act, its provisions, history is available on the WWW. My effort is primarily to collect scattered pieces, summarize and put it in perspective.

Contents:Brief History of the RTI campaign: India is a democracy. The government is supposed to be "of the people, for the people and by the people". The people then should have the right to access information about the functioning of the government. This "right to information" had been recognized by the Indian Supreme Court as a fundamental right by noting in a 1975 judgement[1] that "[the people] ... are entitled to know the particulars of every public transaction in all its bearing". However without the RTI act, there was no mechanism through which the people could meaningfully exercise this right. Access to information was governed by laws based the archaic Official Secrets Act of 1923 passed during the British Raj. The demand for an RTI act started coming largely from activists and citizen's groups involved in rural development activities. The implementation of public schemes in India is riddled with huge amount of corruption. However the people affected by this corruption had no means through which they could get information regarding how public resources are utilized. Even in day-to-day governance people have to face indomitable wall of bureaucratic ineptitude and corruption to achieve simple things like getting a passport, an electricity connection or a ration card. In most cases an expectation of a bribe is behind the delays, dodges and disinformation regarding progress of applications. The passing of the RTI act gave a simple but powerful channel to get information and use it expose corruption and improve governance.

The campaign for the right to access information was initiated by an organization, Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghatan (MKSS), in Rajasthan since 1990. This campaign arose from their efforts to access government records while investigating wrongdoings in wages paid to laborers working on publicly funded schemes and malpractices in the implementation of Public Distribution Scheme (PDS) through which essential food grains are available to people at subsidized rates. An article by Rob Jenkins and Anne Marie Goetz [2] summarizes MKSS's role and motivation as follows:
...This led to greater awareness of other malpractices which local workers had observed first-hand, but had no method of documenting. These included inflated estimates for public-works projects, the use of poor-quality materials, and over-billing by suppliers. To combat these forms of fraud, it became clear that access was required not only to balance sheets, but also to supporting documentation which could be cross-checked by workers organised through the MKSS – for instance, employment registers and bills submitted for the purchase of materials.
MKSS invented a novel way of enforcing accountability through "Jan Sunwais" (Public Hearings) where records of wage payments and detailed accounts of public works were read out in public in front of the concerned citizens. After a prolonged campaign and lot of resistance from bureaucracy initial success came in form of order from government of Rajasthan in 1997 to allow photocopying of records related to development work conducted under public schemes. By 1996 NGOs and groups in other parts of India involved facing similar issues had come together and formed the umbrella organization - National Campaign For People's Right To Information (NCPRI), and started a nationwide campaign to pass the RTI act. Some of these organizations are Samarthan in Chattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, Parivartan in Delhi, Bhrashtachar Virodhi Jana Andolan (Peoples Campaign against Corruption) led by Anna Hazare in Maharashtra. On the state level RTI acts came into effect in 9 states starting with Tamil Nadu and Goa in 1997 to Jammu and Kashmir in 2004. In the meanwhile the freedom of information act was passed in the parliament and became a law in 2002. This act was severly criticized to be extremely dilute and for having no effective power due to numerous exemptions to the disclosure of information. The right to information bill was tabled in the parliament in December 2004. The culmination of the struggle by NCPRI and associated organizations was the passing of the national RTI act of 2005.

Provisions of the act: I will no go into the detailed scope and provisions of the act in this section. The Wikipedia article and many other sources explain this in great detail. I will on the other hand try to summarize what I think is important in the scope and provisions of the act. First of all the act is quite broad in its definition of "information" that can be sought by citizens. For example, citizens can demand "samples of materials of work" under the RTI act. The act covers all constitutional authorities including the executive, legislature and judiciary. It also applies to any institution or authority created by an act of the parliament and any private institution that receives substantial financing from the government. This makes the act very broad in its scope as well. Certain types of information, such as information pertaining to national security etc. is of course deemed outside the scope of the act and may not be available

How to file applications?: Here too I will avoid going into details of the process as it is explained clearly in the Wikipedia article. If interested you can also watch one of the videos below by Arvind Kejriwal to understand the process clearly. The thing I liked the most about the process of filing RTI applications is its simplicity. Anyone who has tried to obtain a passport or a driving license etc. in India knows that simple things require a lot of tedious paperwork. In comparison an RTI application can be filed on a single piece of paper, it can be handwritten or in some places can be filed electronically. Another salient feature is that the citizens do not have to explain why they are requesting the information. The act also has a clear time-line defined in which a response can be expected and redress sought. The simplicity of the procedure is important to bring the act within the reach of the illiterate and poor citizens.

External Links:

Government Websites
[1]Right to Information act.

NGOs and Organizations
[1] Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghatan (MKSS)

[2] National Campaign For People's Right To Information (NCPRI), India

[3] Parivartan

[4] Samarthan

[5] Association for India's Development (AID)

[1] MKSS video(41 min.) about the RTI campaign [A shorter version (16 min.) of the video]

[2] Arvind Kejriwal of Parivartan talks at AID - Bay Area chapter. [Talk: part1, part2; Q&A: part1, part2, part3]

[3] A video (59 min.) introduction to Maharashtra RTI act (in Marathi). Includes a talk by Anna Hazare of the Brashtachar Virodhi Jan Andolan.

[4] Arvind Kejriwal of Parivartan talks at Asha - Univ. of Florida chapter. [Talk, Q&A].

[5] Talk by Arvind Kejriwal - Provisions of the Act (12 min.), How to draft an RTI application? (3 min.)

[6] Common Man's Empowerment (45 min.) - Introduction to Maharashtra RTI act (In English).

[1] Wikipedia article about Right to Information act.

[2] India Together: RTI section. (There are many interesting articles on India Together about the campaign as well as the implementation of RTI)

[3] Writings by Aruna Roy and others on MKSS website.

[1] Supreme Court of India Judgement on 01/24/1975 [link]

[2] Accounts and Accountability: Theoretical Implications of the Right-to-Information Movement in India, Rob Jenkins and Anne Marie Goetz, Third World Quarterly, vol. 20, no. 3 (1999), pp. 603-622. [link available through MKSS website]