Sam Harris defends profiling. Poorly.

Should people be profiled according to race or religion at airports? This might be politically incorrect, but is it not effective? If Osama bin Laden showed up at the airport in his traditional garb with his wives in tow, should he not be screened thoroughly? Sam Harris thinks he has answers.

Airport scanners are notoriously useless, and it isn’t difficult at all to fool airport scanners. Sam Harris says as much and provides an instance where he got live ammunition past airport security while the security personnel were busy checking the nearest pre-schooler.

While we were inadvertently smuggling bullets, one TSA screener had the presence of mind to escort a terrified three-year-old away from her parents so that he could remove her sandals (sandals!). Presumably, a scanner that had just missed 2.5 pounds of ammunition would determine whether these objects were the most clever bombs ever wrought.

I have some experience of this myself, although what I carried had nothing to do with ammunition – not being American, I have neither the means nor the need to possess firearms. In fact, say experts, the only improvement in air-travel related security in recent years has been to reinforce cockpit doors such that nobody can gain control of the aeroplane. The rest is just the world reacting to something that happened last week.

Several other people have also made similar points about airport security and its ineffectiveness, most notably a former head of the Transportation Security Administration in America. This being the case, Harris argues, surely, letting the old and the infirm and children get through security without hassle isn’t the worst thing to do? I am tempted to agree; however, the former head of the TSA, Kip Hawley, makes the point that

the second that you create a population of travelers who are considered “trusted,” that category of fliers moves to the top of al Qaeda’s training list, whether they are old, young, white, Asian, military, civilian, male or female.

And then Harris’ article goes completely off the rails. He first argues that people who ‘look’ like terrorists should be screened more thoroughly. A simple search (for ‘domestic terrorism in the US‘, for example) will tell you that there have been several acts of terrorism committed by people who do not at all match Harris’ profile. And since any of these idiots could have decided to blow up a planeload of people, screening airports for people who ‘look like’ Muslims or have Muslim names is a fool’s errand. This is to say nothing of the possibility that Al Qaeda may simply recruit people who don’t ‘look’ like terrorists (from Kip Hawley again):

The men who bombed the London Underground in July 2005 would all have been eligible for the Registered Traveler cards we were developing at the time. No realistic amount of prescreening can alleviate this threat when al Qaeda is working to recruit “clean” agents. TSA dropped the idea on my watch—though new versions of it continue to pop up.

After this, in what I can only assume is an attempt to not seem racist, Harris states that he would be bound by the same rule because he vaguely looks like some known terrorist post a shave. Needless to say, this argument is a non-starter. Harris’ prescription of screening people based on possible resemblances they might bear to known absconders from the law would only lead to longer queues and a skyrocketing number of false-positives: we all look like somebody else. This is especially disappointing coming from a neuroscientist who should know about the cross-race effect.

To answer the questions I rhetorically posed at the beginning of this post: profiling isn’t simply politically incorrect. It is ineffective, and would be a needless addition to already useless airport security systems.

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Kashmir is happy, I say

Why, you ask, would I say Kashmir is happy? I’ll tell you why: Kashmir is happy because the test of whether or not people are happy is that they continue to exist and function. Well, I wouldn’t say that, of course. But Manu Joseph does. He asks:

Is it obscene to search for happiness in Kashmir, is it obscene for a writer from the south of India to wander around Kashmir interviewing people who will tell him that they want to get on with their lives despite the presence of the Indian Army?

It is an elementary finding of psychology that people get used to their lives. If I asked you now whether you would rather have a limb chopped off or win a million bucks in the lottery, you’d have no hesitation making, or any doubt about, your choice; but ask an amputee and a millionaire whether they are happy with their lives and you are likely to hear answers that aren’t that different. This isn’t that difficult to understand.

But let’s assume Manu Joseph isn’t into his pop-psychology. How about history, then?

India was a colony for two centuries under, one might add, the same country that also engendered the mess that has today become Kashmir. By the end, India had its own government with elected Indian representatives and a functional system of jurisprudence. We also had a Reserve Bank, the Railways, the Postal system and so forth. Manu Joseph would probably have commented that us Indians were a happy lot. Happy happy happy. Yes, there were those who were all charged up about not wanting to be somebody else’s colony, but the ordinary man or woman on the street was happy with their life. Sure, they rose up in agitation once in a while, but hey, they went about their lives most of the time.

A few days ago, some boys had tampered with an electrical transformer and they were picked up by the police. The stone-pelting was in protest against the arrest.

We don’t turn back, we head towards the venue of the apparent protest. There are about thirty boys standing on the road, doing nothing but laughing. They were the stone-pelters. The fun was over, for the moment.

How’s that for due diligence? Manu Joseph has, without so much as blinking, reduced the massive protests the valley has seen over the years to a bunch of miscreants ‘doing nothing but laughing’. His stories of why Kashmiris are happy are just as – I don’t know what the right word is – misguided; far-fetched; blinkered; overly-optimistic, perhaps, is a kinder way of putting it.

His judgement of Kashmiris and what they think of India and Pakistan is just bizarre. He claims, in an off-hand way, to know that Kashmiris dislike Pakistan, that they like India but still can’t get over the whole independence thing, and know in their hearts that a sovereign state is just not feasible. He even has a source. A journalist, no less.

That there are differing opinions about Kashmir even among the people of Kashmir isn’t surprising. Kashmir has a long and complicated history, and any solution to the Kashmir problem will have to involve soul-searching by everybody concerned.

The one point Manu Joseph makes that may be worth the wasted ink is that Kashmiris want development regardless of when, or whether, the political issue of Kashmir gets resolved. These are stories of the human spirit that is willing to live – and live well – despite being put in a miserable place, and deserve proper telling.

To call this ‘peace’ is misleading.They make a desolation, and call it peace, says Agha Shahid Ali. (But he’s one of those Kashmiris who has gone away to a western country with its burgers and Armani clothes, so why listen to him?)

To call this ‘happy’ is to trivialise the yearning for Azadi either as miscreants doing their mischief or as misguided idealism which really should know better. Given this, I shudder to ask what Manu Joseph might consider simmering discontent.

A long dreary fight for responsibility

The interview with Nari has been surprisingly popular for a blogpost of its length. Thanks are due, I suppose, to people who shared the thing with their friends. I am done with the IITM thing for now, except to say that I’ve noticed that this has been a recurring theme in my writing, a fight I’ve picked more than once, only to lose every time.

Among my very first posts was a crib about why my parents had to sign a form that said I won’t rag juniors or drive a vehicle on campus. I made the point that parents weren’t in charge, or even in the know, of what their children are up to. In fact, if you read the post from July 2008 (!), the arguments we’re going through now are eerily similar.

I remember almost having a spat with a former Dean of Academics about why somebody had to get his father to sign a form for change of branch or conversion to dual degree. (Ravikanth was there, I remember.) He said something like “I don’t know what relationship you have with your father, but I am answerable to him if he asks me tomorrow why his son is no longer in Aerospace Engg.” I didn’t have the cheek then to ask him why it was any of the Institute’s business what relationship I had with my father, and there the matter was left.

I actually did pick the fight at JNCASR – my graduate institution. Why, I asked, did I have to get a parent to sign something that said they would be responsible for my conduct at the Centre, when several people who enter the Centre are themselves parents? It became enough of an issue here that I’m told a reasonably high-level meeting of people happened. And the only effect was that the JNC student guidelines were modified to say explicitly that students will not be allowed admission into the Centre without having their parents sign the form. It is quite silly to ask my parents to be responsible for my actions. Such a document isn’t even enforceable legally – if I kill somebody, will my father get put in jail?

It is an argument I attribute to Christopher Hitchens that this sort of thing is beyond silly. It is, plainly, immoral. It would be immoral of somebody to offer to take responsibility for my actions, and it would be immoral of me to accept. My responsibility is mine, and mine alone.

The worst part, surely, is that my professor doesn’t remember having to do any of this when she went to IIT or did her PhD.

Talking to the Devil. Or N.S. Narayanaswamy, Warden, Tapti Hostel

I hinted at the end of the previous post at the possible dangers of reading (and reading into) private conversations of other people without bothering about context. Like I added in the update to the post, however, I sent my blogpost to one of the people involved and asked him if I had got anything wrong, if there was context I was missing. I must have been the only one to do this, because in the hour between my sending him the email and returning from lunch, he had sent me two replies on email, and had then actually tracked down my phone number and called me. We talked for slightly longer than half an hour then and a few times after.

Narayanaswamy, or Nari as he prefers to be called, is the warden of Tapti hostel. He isn’t one to shirk away from debate – you may remember that the last time I asked him for an explanation about some rule he made at Tapti, he copied the emails to the student council at Tapti. I commented at the time that he seemed to me to be genuinely interested in the welfare of his students, if a bit paternalistic. I was surprised, therefore, that he seemed to be proposing the most stringent of regulations to be imposed on hostelers.

First, and this is apparently the complaint brought up most often in the meeting with the Director at CLT: ‘Why are you telling students when to wake up? Do you really think everybody has to wake up every day at 6 am?’

“It was a small thing to be done once a week – somebody would knock on your door and clean your room”, Nari laughs. “I am surprised that this is what students have the biggest problem with. I grew up in a lower-middle-class family where I had to wake up at 3 am on most days because that was when water was supplied in my locality. 6 am to me is like the middle of the day… In any case, this was discussed in the hostel. Most freshers were happy with it; about 75% of second years and about 50% of third years were fine with it. The final-years kicked me out of their wing when I tried explaining myself to them, which was fine too…”

“I have a nephew who asks me to buzz off if I try and tell him that waking up early is good”, he adds.

So does he agree that values change with time, that trying to impose one generation’s morality – falling at elders’ feet, let’s say – on the next one is silly?

“All the mails are exhorting ourselves to put a system in place where students can live in peace, and we can administer the hostels, in a reliable way.  Most arguments were headed in the moral direction, and I showed them an analogy in that mail that this is a generation whose value system is different compared to, for example, mine. Such a basic difference of what is inculcated to kids since childhood. I wasn’t judging or moralizing.”

What about privacy? The emails paint a sinister picture of what he would do to students’ right to privacy. Does he really want even the notion of privacy to be abolished? He did say ‘the demand for privacy is a shocker’.

“Of course not… privacy is shocker, because we discussed this with HAS etc. and people were ignoring this point”, he says. “Forget everything else. Isn’t this battle for privacy in a public space ‘How much privacy can students – adolescents, let’s say – be given while still letting the guardian – the parent, the warden – know enough to know if the student is in trouble and needs help?’ I am not recommending surveillance, just open windows with a curtain. I am surprised that the student community has not protested proxy authentication.”

Why the open windows? What could they possibly achieve?

“…my suggestion is not [to] see what you are doing, it is a definite deterrent against putting up a noose at 12noon.”

It is a wonderful metaphor, ‘an open window with curtains’, but how exactly will they prevent a suicide? At this point, I feel like he is grasping for straws:

“[You] can imagine rigging a noose with semi-open windows. You need to start by closing the windows”.

I don’t really think IITM is going to bulldoze every window from every hostel room at the suggestion of one warden. But it is an interesting thought.

What he wants to achieve, he says, and has been working at for two years is to help students live their lives outside their rooms instead of being cooped up in front of a computer. He sent me to his blog, where he isn’t bound by the same constraints of brevity that email forces upon one. The nicest thing about what he says about setting up an ideal hostel is the nuance. Yes, he ultimately has to take a concrete stand and propose a solution which you may or may not agree with, but that doesn’t stop him from recognising the issues involved.

Well, if the aim is to ensure that people live social lives, aren’t the rules the institute has made barring women from men’s hostels after 9pm counter-productive? If the aim is to ensure that men learn to treat women like people first, shouldn’t the administration try and ensure that there is as much as possible of men and women talking to each other, and not say things like ‘prevention is better than cure’? If men learn to treat women as people first, wouldn’t that automatically solve the problem of violence against, and harassment of, women?

“I agree that the rules about women not being allowed in men’s hostels after 9pm are silly. Nobody should be told who their friends can be, or who they should spend time with or when or where. I am still trying to learn more about this, but unfortunately, it seems to me like nobody bothered to bring this issue up when they had a chance to talk to the Diro. The students were all too hung up about having to wake up at 6 am…”

At this point, he tells me he has to take my leave because the Director of IITM has summoned him to ask him why he is making people wake up at 6am.

This is actually not all of what Nari and I talked about. Ask me what Nari thinks about the council of wardens. Ask me what he thinks has to happen for the system as a whole to become more liberal. Ask me why he thinks IIT Madras is in danger of becoming irrelevant. In fact, go ahead and ask him. I am sure he would welcome open minded criticism – which is more than I can say for the rest of IITM’s administration.

Postscript: I also asked him what on Earth he has against bunjee-jumping. Well, he went and wrote about it after I asked him. Go read. He’s also written about privacy.

Disclaimer: Large chunks of the conversation above were written down from memory of phone conversations. I may have ended up putting words in Nari’s mouth, for better or worse. Everything here is only my impression of what Nari is like. I will obviously stick by my impression of him until proven wrong, but that’s no reason for you not to talk to him yourself and make up your own mind.

IIT Madras

UPDATE(18/04/2012): I had a long chat with Prof. Narayanaswamy in the afternoon today, and asked him if what the emails suggest is accurate. In particular, I asked him if there is context to the emails, the absence of which might lead to a misreading. I am convinced that Nari did not suggest, for example, that the only place where students should get their privacy is in the bathroom. In fact, he was pointing out that this is the absurdity that would result if the council of wardens wanted to impose their morality on students. It is astounding to me that none of the other wardens seem to have understood what he was saying (some of them go so far in the opposite direction as to say ‘yes, Nari is right; we should make rules stricter’). More about this, and Nari himself, in the next post. Do keep this in mind as you read the following.


The Hindu report about IIT Madras and the administration’s seeming penchant for what threatens to snowball into moral policing mentions one heartening fact (emphasis mine):

… an e-mail exchange between senior faculty members that The Hindu sourced from one of the recipients.

In spite of myself, I want to see this as the silver lining in an otherwise dark and depressing cloud that is the story of the email exchange that has now all but gone public. I know one of the people sending the emails from an earlier exchange that some of you might remember. It is surprising to me that the people with the most strident opinions about what may be imposed on students are people otherwise considered student-friendly.

IITM’s mandate is more than to simply run classes and do research. IITM’s vision is “to be an academic institution in dynamic equilibrium with its social, ecological and economic environment striving continuously for excellence in education, research and technological service to the nation”

It pains me to see that the administration plans to create a responsible citizenry for this country by treating enfranchised adults like children. How is this going to work? If you micromanage every part of somebody’s life until that person turns 25, how will she ever learn to think for herself? How’s this, for example, from Narayanaswamy:

So we need to put in a framework which is reasonably self-regulatory
a. open door and windows.
b. ideally no LAN.
c. morning wake-up, and yoga and mess, night lights out.
d. expenditure on establishment B is closed, they collect and spend.

What shocked me was the demand for privacy.  We need to root out the feeling that the room is theirs for anything and everything.  I hope no one says “it is [sic] in the warden’s power.” Let us make the administration easy, and help the students get better.

I am trying to get aayahs to clean rooms from 6-7.15 in the morning.

Now, I know from the last time that Nari means well. However, not only does he want to dictate when students are to wake up (6am), but also what they should do once they do (‘yoga and mess’). And even the notion of privacy is to be frowned upon.

More importantly, there seems to be no interest in actually engaging students in a discussion. ‘In the next open forum, if at all there is one…’, starts the email by the Chairman, Council of Wardens. This was because, apparently, somebody asked why it concerned the administration what students were up to in their rooms (‘If I have sex with my girlfriend…’).

Several professors – check that – several wardens in charge of student well-being at IITM’s hostels seem alarmed that somebody said ‘sex’ in an open forum. One of them, Dr. Sivakumar Srinivasan, claims to have been ‘visibly upset’ (I suppose it is possible he had a mirror handy) at what he is sure is a lack of values and not just a sign of changing times.

If you start with the assumption that the people you are talking to are value-devoid hedonists, the only logical thing to do is to try and set them right by whatever means necessary. It is more disappointing than surprising to me, therefore, that what would strike you or me as micromanagement taken a bit too far seems like the right thing to do to the wardens.

However, I would, if I could, urge them to consider the possibility that times change, and that value-systems evolve. The assumption that the value system one grew up with is somehow universal is small-minded. Moreover, the notion that you can change values in self-respecting adults by imposing ever harsher discipline goes against elementary psychology.

In the internet-age, the single most effective thing you can do to ensure that something ‘goes viral’ is to aggressively try and erase it from the public record (this is called the Streisand effect, if you want to read more about it). Unfortunately, I doubt an internet-based anecdote is the best way of convincing this group of people to accept the mutability of value-systems.

Postscript: The email exchange was supposed to be private, and a debate between colleagues about what to do to correct what they think is a problem. It is likely to contain things that are more ‘out-there’ than what the same people might say or do more publicly. Given this, I flip-flopped on whether I should write about the emails at all. I hope I’ve made the right call.

Indian rationalist to get arrested for busting the Church’s chops

Slashdot.org report that Sanal Edamaruku, an Indian rationalist who might be familiar to people for subjecting himself to a Tantrik’s ultimate-death spell on live TV — the operational (and funniest) part of the ‘spell’ was admirably reproduced in PZ Myers’ Om lingalingalingalinga, kilikili. Sanal Edamaruku must’ve been tickled, because he simply laughed — may get arrested.

Sanal Edamaruku went to Bombay recently after he was invited by TV9 to try and find why a statue was dripping water. The statue has apparently become a pilgrimage of sorts.

But Sanal Edamaruku spoilt this prospect. Within minutes, he clearly identified the source of the water (a drainage near a washing room) and the mechanism how it reached Jesus feet (capillary action). The local church leaders, present during his investigation, were far from pleased. See the investigation in detail on YouTube.

And then he went on TV and argued that the Church should stop this sort of miracle-mongering.

There’s apparently going to be police action against Sanal Edamaruku for ‘causing hurt to the religious sentiments of a particular community’. The Indian Penal Code is arcane and outdated at its best (think of adultery: if a married man cheats on his wife with an unmarried woman, it isn’t a crime; but if a man sleeps with a married woman, that is. The reasoning is obvious: married women are their husbands’ property, and adultery is a crime against the husbands).

But when it comes to religion, the IPC is downright reactionary. Basically, anybody who does anything at all to discomfort religious people and question their belief may be subject to legally sanctioned harassment by the thin-skinned idiots. That there are such laws is bad enough, but that they are applied in the 21st century really is appalling.

How I wish we would simply grow the fuck up, and leave the 19th century behind (the IPC was written in 1860 – not a typo – and most parts haven’t been revised since).

Satire is not slander

Mamata Banerjee has gone nuts.

What do you think the chances are that I get into trouble for saying the above? A professor of Chemistry at Jadavpur university has been arrested for sending an email with a cartoon depicting Mamata Banerjee and her heavy-handed way of dealing with ideas she doesn’t like.

You may remember that she banned English (and even some high-circulation Bengali) newspapers from state-aided libraries in Bengal. The official reasoning was that reading the eight periodicals mentioned in a circular would “significantly contribute to the development and spread of free thinking among the library users.” Free thinking. Except about which newspaper to read.

The cartoon in this case is the following (reproduced from the Hindustan Times page. Click through to go to the page):

The 'cartoon' that led to JU professor's arrest. From top to bottom: 1. Mamata Banerjee points to Indian Railways' logo and tells Mukul Roy: See Mukul, the Golden Fortress; 2. Mukul Roy points to former railway minister Dinesh Trivedi and exclaims: That's an evil man!!!; 3. Mamata says: Evil man, vanish!

The cartoon isn’t even all that funny. The cartoon apparently uses dialogue from a Satyajit Ray movie, so perhaps it is to somebody who is Bengali and knows about the connection. The biggest thing the cartoon has going for it is that Mamata Banerjee apparently has all the sense of humour of a groundnut, and simply can’t stop herself from banning things and getting people arrested.

And her lackeys ministers will obviously fall in line. ‘Both labour minister Purnendu Bose and transport minister Madan Mitra defended the police action, saying the e-mail was in bad taste.’ They must think the cartoon is accurate. Some TMC members of the legislature did say the action of the police was over-reaching, though. Does anybody wonder why they are only MLAs?

And this on the same day that an author has to leave the country because he’s written a biography of Aurobindo that somebody somewhere has a problem with. And on the same day that Raj Thackeray tells the sitting Chief Minister of Bihar that he had better not visit Bombay. (Nitish Kumar apparently retorted that he doesn’t need a visa to visit Bombay.)

As a society, we seem to be collectively going in entirely the wrong direction on the right to free speech.

Update(15/04/2012, 12:45am): Sheila Dixit, the CM of Delhi, has apparently said that Narendra Modi would not dare campaign in Delhi, for fear of getting stoned (not getting stoned, you know, but having stones thrown at him).