Saturday, May 23, 2015

Math for Poets and Drummers

Rachel Wells Hall of St. Joseph's University, Philadelphia has a paper (PDF)  about the mathematical discoveries made by ancient Indians when studying the meters of poetry and musical rhythms.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Online degrees

A new twist on online degrees - from Pakistan, where else?

Declan Walsh in the NYT:

Seen from the Internet, it is a vast education empire: hundreds of universities and high schools, with elegant names and smiling professors at sun-dappled American campuses.

In fact, very little in this virtual academic realm, appearing to span at least 370 websites, is real — except for the tens of millions of dollars in estimated revenue it gleans each year from many thousands of people around the world, all paid to a secretive Pakistani software company.

That company, Axact, operates from the port city of Karachi, where it employs over 2,000 people and calls itself Pakistan’s largest software exporter, with Silicon Valley-style employee perks like a swimming pool and yacht.
Hands down, this is probably the largest operation we’ve ever seen,” said Allen Ezell, a retired F.B.I. agent and author of a book on diploma mills who has been investigating Axact. “It’s a breathtaking scam.”
Lots of detail in the NYT here.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Exceptionalism at risk

In response to a presentation made by the United States at the UN, India has welcomed the “openness of the US delegation in accepting areas of continuing concern such as racial bias in the criminal justice system; incidents of bias-motivated crimes including ‘those committed against Hindus and Sikhs'; and need for improved safety and living conditions at confinement facilities.”
Addressing the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on Tuesday during the Universal Periodic Review in which the human rights record of all countries is discussed, India’s ambassador, Ajit Kumar, also said the disproportionate use of force by law enforcement agencies in the US and deficiencies in their procedures “are areas of concern”.

Among the suggestions India made was that the US consider establishing a national human rights commission, though Kumar did not elaborate on what the structure and mandate of such a commission would be.

The US in the past has found fault with the mandate of the Indian NHRC, with the State Department noting, for example, in its periodic report on the human rights situation in India, that the commission had no enforcement powers and “is not empowered to address allegations against military and paramilitary personnel.”

In his intervention at the US, the Indian ambassador also urged Washington to quickly ratify international conventions on the rights of the child (CRC), the elimination of discrimination against women (CEDAW) and on economic, cultural and social rights (CESCR).

India encouraged the US government to “take adequate steps towards gender parity at workplace, protect women from all forms of violence and enhance opportunities in education and health for children from ethnic minorities.”

The Indian ambassador also noted US “efforts towards maintaining respect for privacy and civil liberties while addressing dangers to national security” and requested the American delegation to share more information about this.

Monday, May 11, 2015

USCIRF hypocrisy

Professor Jakob de Roover writes:
The annual reports of the US Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) have long irked politicians and citizens from countries placed on its ‘watch list’. This is no different in India. In the 2015 report released about a fortnight ago, the country again occupies an unenviable spot in Tier 2, which includes countries where the religious freedom violations engaged in or tolerated by the government are serious.

Striking about this year’s report, however, is its claim that incidents of religiously-motivated and communal violence have ‘reportedly’ increased for three consecutive years in India. “According to Muslim and Christian NGOs that track communal incidents,” it adds, “2014 statistics, yet to be released by the ministry, will be likely higher” than the 823 incidents recorded in 2013.

What is so remarkable about this? Well, the Indian home ministry’s official data about communal incidents for 2014 give a very different picture. The number of incidents saw a significant decrease to 644 in 2014. The USCIRF report also includes Andhra Pradesh, “Chattisgarhi” [sic], and Odisha among states that “tend to have the greatest number of religiously-motivated attacks and communal violence incidents.” Yet the home ministry’s information recorded no incident in Chhattisgarh, just three in Odisha, and five in Andhra Pradesh.

How reliable then are the international religious freedom reports of the US government? The obvious retort to this question is that the home ministry’s data for 2014 must be very biased. But which other unbiased data could establish this bias? When asked this question, an American academic responded as follows: “I don’t have any data, but given who is in charge, it can’t help but be biased.” That, of course, is a knockdown argument.

Other academics point out that many incidents of communal violence remain unreported in India. But surely this is not the issue at stake. The real question is about the number of communal incidents in 2014 relative to the number of such incidents in the two preceding years. The data provided by the home ministry show that this number is lower. Now, are there facts (or well-founded reasons) that prove that in 2014 suddenly a much higher number of communal incidents were not reported than in previous years? If this is not the case, then we can only assume that the average number of unreported incidents has not changed significantly. And if that is the case, then the claims of the USCIRF must be false.

What evidence did the American commission draw upon to come to its conclusions? Its website claims the following: “USCIRF obtains information about violations of religious freedom abroad in multiple ways, including visiting selected countries in order to observe facts on the ground, meeting regularly with foreign officials, religious leaders and groups, victims of religious intolerance, and representatives of civil society, non-governmental organisations, government agencies, and national and international organisations, and keeping abreast of credible news reports.”

Indeed, the 2015 report shows the results of this type of deep research. It mentions conversations with minority religious leaders and NGO representatives. Its repetitive use of the words ‘reportedly’ and ‘report’ is striking: “Incidents of religiously-motivated and communal violence reportedly have increased”; “Christian NGOs and leaders report that their community is particularly at risk…”; “… Muslim communities have reported facing undue scrutiny and arbitrary arrests and detentions”; Indian Christians, converts and missionaries “have reported more frequent harassment and violence …”.

The evidence then seems to amount to impressions of particular people, hearsay, anecdotes and newspaper articles. Clearly, it gives a privileged status to the observations of certain NGOs, religious leaders, and the dominant media, which can hardly count as reliable and ‘unbiased’ sources in these matters. Moreover, the report depends on dubious concepts such as ‘religiously-motivated violence’, but forgets to mention what criteria it used to find out whether violent incidents are ‘religiously-motivated’ or otherwise.

Naturally, the fact that some religious groups feel threatened in their basic freedoms is important. Some Hindu nationalist organisations do commit unacceptable acts of violence against Christians and Muslims. Such crimes need to be addressed by the government. Some Hindutva supporters are also becoming increasingly aggressive online and elsewhere. This problem has to be examined and tackled. But can all of this serve as evidence for grand claims about the disquieting rise of religious freedom violations in India? Does it suffice to make recommendations to the US government about Tier 2 ‘watch lists’ and the like? No, it does not. It appears that forces other than evidence give shape to the claims of the American campaign for international religious freedom.

Which forces might those be?
To answer this question, you'll have to read the article. The title is a giveaway: "USCIRF hypocrisy: It's about the Protestant worldview, not religious freedom".

Seymour Hersh Fail

Seymour Hersh has a poorly constructed article on the killing of Osama bin Laden.

Consider this paragraph: (emphasis added) -

The most blatant lie was that Pakistan’s two most senior military leaders – General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, chief of the army staff, and General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, director general of the ISI – were never informed of the US mission. This remains the White House position despite an array of reports that have raised questions, including one by Carlotta Gall in the New York Times Magazine of 19 March 2014. Gall, who spent 12 years as the Times correspondent in Afghanistan, wrote that she’d been told by a ‘Pakistani official’ that Pasha had known before the raid that bin Laden was in Abbottabad. The story was denied by US and Pakistani officials, and went no further. In his book Pakistan: Before and after Osama (2012), Imtiaz Gul, executive director of the Centre for Research and Security Studies, a think tank in Islamabad, wrote that he’d spoken to four undercover intelligence officers who – reflecting a widely held local view – asserted that the Pakistani military must have had knowledge of the operation. The issue was raised again in February, when a retired general, Asad Durrani, who was head of the ISI in the early 1990s, told an al-Jazeera interviewer that it was ‘quite possible’ that the senior officers of the ISI did not know where bin Laden had been hiding, ‘but it was more probable that they did [know]. And the idea was that, at the right time, his location would be revealed. And the right time would have been when you can get the necessary quid pro quo – if you have someone like Osama bin Laden, you are not going to simply hand him over to the United States.’
Those are two different things - knowing about OBL's whereabouts before the US raid and knowing of the US mission to capture/kill him.   Hersh raises questions about the second, but two of his three quotes deal with the first.

Carlotta Gall did not raise any question about whether Pakistani officials knew of the US mission.  Her question was about knowing OBL's whereabouts before the US raid:
Soon after the Navy SEAL raid on Bin Laden’s house, a Pakistani official told me that the United States had direct evidence that the ISI chief, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, knew of Bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad. The information came from a senior United States official, and I guessed that the Americans had intercepted a phone call of Pasha’s or one about him in the days after the raid. “He knew of Osama’s whereabouts, yes,” the Pakistani official told me. The official was surprised to learn this and said the Americans were even more so. Pasha had been an energetic opponent of the Taliban and an open and cooperative counterpart for the Americans at the ISI. “Pasha was always their blue-eyed boy,” the official said. But in the weeks and months after the raid, Pasha and the ISI press office strenuously denied that they had any knowledge of Bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad.
In trying to prove that the ISI knew of Bin Laden’s whereabouts and protected him, I struggled for more than two years to piece together something other than circumstantial evidence and suppositions from sources with no direct knowledge.
Durrani's interview with al Jazeera is available online though officially blocked in the US, and all that comes from there that this is a person who has no morals in the pursuit of his goals.  Why one would trust any information from him, I don't know.  In any case, he does not deal with the issue of whether Pakistani officials knew beforehand of the US raid.

That leaves Imtiaz Gul, whose sources just assert "the Pakistani military must have had knowledge of the operation" -- it is obvious that this is a conclusion driven by reasoning from some assumptions, and not from direct knowledge.

PS: Vox has a complete takedown.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Curiouser and curiouser

Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) released a statement in which they claim credit for the murder of several Bangladeshis and Pakistanis.
Asim Umar, the Indian-born head of al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, has claimed responsibility for a string of attacks that killed several secular writers and intellectuals in Bangladesh and Pakistan, including Avijit Roy who was hacked to death on a Dhaka street in February.

“Like the companions of the Prophet who defended him with their lives,” Umar said in a statement that was released online over the weekend, “the mujahideen of al-Qaeda have despatched to hell many who blasphemed against God, and insulted the Prophet.”

In addition to Roy, Umar named slain Bangladeshi intellectual Ahmad Rajib Haidar and Rajshahi University scholar AKM Shaiful Islam as victims of al-Qaeda hit squads. His statement also claimed the killing of Karachi University Islamic Studies scholar Shakeel Auj, assassinated last year while on his way to a meeting with Iranian diplomats. Auj had been condemned by Islamist clerics in Karachi for is purportedly blasphemous views.

The statement also mentioned an Urdu blogger Aneeka Naz as a victim. Naz, an academic, was reported killed in a 2012 car traffic accident, in which her husband was injured. Naz is not known to have held contentious political views.

“From Waziristan to Charlie Hebdo, this war is one,” Umar said, “whether it is waged upon us with drones or with Charlie Hebdo’s pen, with the International Monetary Fund or World Bank’s policies, or with the satanic conspiracy of Kerry-Lugar bill, which sought to humiliate the believers, or whether it is waged with the hate-filled words of Narendra Modi, which call for Muslims to be burned live.”
What on earth is the Kerry-Lugar bill doing in this list of grievances?  The people who were most staunchly against the bill and felt "humiliated" by it was the Pakistani Army.  Why would al Qaeda care about it in the least?

As SSridhar wrote on BRF:
The reference to Kerry-Lugar bill by AQIS and claiming it to have 'humiliated the Believers' is a dead giveaway that AQIS and the Pakistani Army have coalesced.
Despite stiff competition from ISIS in Iraq, Pakistan remains the epicenter of global terrorism.

Saturday, May 02, 2015


Some neuron fired for some reason and this song that I had forgotten for aeons came to mind.
Asha Bhosle, Hare Kaanch Ki Chooriyan, 1967.   I don't think I've seen the movie.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

About the Wall Street Journal editorial page

Prof. Brad DeLong writes:
The point of the Wall Street Journal editorial page is to pander to the prejudices of its core readers. It is not as malevolent and destructive as Fox News, which takes its mission to be to scare its core readers so that they keep their eyeballs glued to the screen so that those eyeballs can be sold to advertisers. But its mission of reinforcing evidence-free right-wing epistemic closure against any incursion of empirical reality is a malevolent and destructive one.
As to why he writes the above, you'll have to read the article.