Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Slumdoggie style

It is only because our public culture has become defined by empathy, that is where one feels each other's emotions and is unafraid to speak out about them, that a film like Slumdog Millionaire could win so big at the Oscars.

Without an audience willing to ride the wave of passion crested by a foam of intuition and sentiment, the film would be little more than a very long advert for a game show that wilted long ago. Jai Ho!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Terror in India about the Taliban

New Delhi has reacted with unusual alarm about Asif Ali Zardari's peace deal with the Taliban. In Pakistan's Malakand area, three million people will be subject to the will of the Islamic movement under the leadership of Soofi Mohammad. To India this is supping with the devil. Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee today insisted the Taliban was nothing short of a "terrorist organisation." "Taliban believes in nothing but destruction and violence. In my assessment, Taliban is a danger to humanity and civilisation."

To make sure the message gets out there's been a blizzard of opinion. Here's the editorial in the Indian Express:

The deal struck in the valley is dangerous in its implications. It has virtually made the entire area over to the Taliban, where their hitherto illegal writ in the garb of Islamic Sharia laws is now being accepted as a fait accompli. Under the deal, those forced to seek justice from Sharia courts will now have no right of appeal in a higher civil court. How could you have two parallel justice systems running in the same country? And knowing justice, Taliban style, leaves one with cold feet. The intolerant and brutal tribal warlords know no mercy, and have no regard for human life and dignity. Summary executions of men and women who do not subscribe to their brand of Islam are the only justice they practise.

And equally trenchant view from the Business Standard

The question is who is controlling whom—are the Pak generals controlling the Taliban, or is the latter an independent Frankenstein that is beginning to gain the upper hand? After Swat, there is the very real possibility that it could be the latter, raising the prospect of a virtual obliteration of the Durand Line and the de facto formation of some kind of Pakhtoonistan. Those painting worst-case scenarios should do serious work on how the world will deal with the possibility of the Islamist elements getting control of nuclear weapons. It is no longer as remote a possibility as it might have seemed till the other day.

Unfortunately no one - not the US, EU, China, Russia or India - can do much to contain the crisis. Outsiders have no purchase on the Taliban, who bow to a different God. Is the Taliban a real threat to Pakistan? I am not so sure. The danger is that state institutions, essentially products of western thinking, are being infiltrated by the wider Islamist movement and their sympathisers. A dangerous tipping point comes when too many bits of the Pakistani state are ready to do deals with Islamists.

The Pakistani army is probably the country's key player. It has spent decades building up one group before knocking it down. It has armed militant outfits, such as the Lashkar and Jaish in the Punjab. It has come to the aid of political goons in Sindh. It is now securing a deal with the Taliban. The Rawalpindi command's aim is that no one group gets strong enough to challenge the military's hold over the state. It sets paramilitary organisations against each other while fuelling whatever particular prejudice - be it anti-Shia or anti-Pashtoon or anti-Indian feelings - drives the violence.

No doubt the army will attempt to snuff out a true threat to itself - witness the decapitation of the Baloch separatists. The question is whether the Islamists can put aside their differences and pull together to present a potent unified front. That would be trouble for everybody.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Abe and willing

"The Lincoln legend has come to have a hold on the American imagination that defies comparison with anything else in political mythology." - Richard Hofstader, The American Political Tradition: And the Men Who Made It.

Abraham Lincoln, the 16th US president, is a more mythical than historical figure for most Americans. True he towers over virtually all others. Days after celebrations honoring his bicentennial, a survey of 65 historians ranked Lincoln the greatest ever. George W. Bush came 36th out of 42 overall. So on President's day or Washington’s Birthday, as the federal holiday is officially known in the US a chance to ponder the soft power of Lincoln.

Over at the Huffington Post Mario Cuomo, former governor of New York, sees the success or failure of President Obama's presidency as having even "greater impact globally than did the Lincoln presidency". He is at least honest to say that Americans should not be "so awestruck by the towering figure that history and legend have made of him".

This is sound advice. Abe is becoming a totemic figure for left-of-centre Indians looking post-Obama to validate their rediscovery of the United States as a country to be admired. Abe saved the US by defeating the southern secessionist states. He sought to wipe out slavery. Here's the Hindu editorial on the "Moral giant of modernity" .

Sorting the wheat from the chaff is supposed to be what newspapers do. True the Hindu does say that Lincoln " was a highly political man, ambitious, and even calculating". The paper even remembers his letter to Horace Greeley, Editor of the New York Tribune: “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery.”

A better take comes from Hofstader. "To become President, Lincoln had had to talk more radically on occasion than he actually felt; to be an effective President he was compelled to act more conservatively than he wanted."

Hofstader's analysis was that Lincoln was a complex, flawed man and politician. The academic, writing in the forties when race was a much more visceral blot on US claims of equality of opportunity, does not fall for the Lincoln myth. He points out that that Lincoln thought democracy, in nineteenth century America, was not "broad enough to transcend colour lines". A creature of his times, Abe Lincoln's story of a boy born in a log cabin who became president still stirs. He was no saint, just another politician with some of the right ideas, some of the time. The same will be true, no doubt, for Obama.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Frieda's Old News in the Screws

A few years ago one of the Dirty Digger's finest quipped about environmentalists that they "turn red faster than Kermit in a blender". Now it seems the Aussie Bruiser's publications have taken up recycling in a big way. Except it's not the paper that's being reused but the news.

Yesterday the News of the Screws caused a million hearts to sing with the headline that "Movie beauty Freida Pinto splits with fiance".

Unfortunately the Indian media beat them to it. Midday had it here two weeks ago - telling the world that "(She) did break off her engagement to her fiance... a marketing professional from Mumbai and her one-time PR agent, Rohan Antao, got the kick."

It seems O Pinto's been doing her own media relations in Britain. In the press it has appeared that she's not only dumped her man, but Bollywood too after being chased by lusty Indian directors. Could she be looking for a Hollywood agent perhaps? Certainly these pictures (above) from GQ would suggest that the diminutive one is ready to shed her slumdog role for something, ahem, more lusty...

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

India's laptop hoax

Oh dear. After the hype, the truth. Indian officials came clean about the world's cheapest computer. It is in fact the world's cheapest storage block. Instead the real story appears here.

What pictures of the machine showed was that the "computer" was nothing more than an external storage brick, the sort of thing you'd plug into a real laptop to hold your MP3 files.

PC Magazine Editor Lance Ulanoff chipped in to say that you can do a lot with ten bucks. "Buy 10 cups of coffee. ... Get a cheap T-shirt or two. What you can't do, however, is build a PC."

"A place to put your stuff does not add up to a PC," explained Ulanoff. "A cheap motherboard, 2 GB of super-cheap RAM, integrated graphics and an external power supply would cost more than $10. Maybe you could build all that for under $100, but then you still need a keyboard and display."

Wired at least considered the possible merits

We wonder if this is a proof of concept, a way for the government to create an open standard for cheap computers. The actual making of things could be done by private companies. That way, the little box starts to make sense -- a single, core system sat inside anything from a cheap OLPC-stlyle notebook to a low-powered desktop.

For the tech press it was a classic example of "vaporware" — promised technology that never materializes.For India a case of perceptions overtaking reality. What did the government civil servants think they were doing?

PS i was suckered too: http://tinyurl.com/rrlaptop although with health warnings

Experts doubt that a laptop at $20 or $10 is commercially sustainable. Rajesh Jain, managing director of Netcore Solutions and a pioneer of low-cost computing in India, said: "You cannot even [make] a computer screen for $20. And India does not build much computer hardware. So where will the savings come from?"

Some bloggers today saw the new laptop as nothing more than a "souped up calculator". The scepticism was summed up by Atanu Dey, whose blog read: "If the government could pull-off a near-impossible technological miracle, does it not imply that the entire global computer industry is either totally incompetent or else it is a huge scam which produces stuff at very little cost and sells them at exorbitant prices."