Tuesday, August 22, 2017

America's mistake in Afghanistan

The US invaded Afghanistan in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, and had pretty much routed the villains of the piece.  But instead of exterminating them, the US let them get away.  Remember the Kunduz airlift?  Ostensibly to let "most valuable non-NATO ally" Pakistan save face and rescue its army personnel who were fighting on the side of the Taliban, it allowed (Wiki) "the evacuation of thousands of top commanders and members of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, their Pakistani advisers including Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence agents and army personnel, and other Jihadi volunteers and sympathizers, from the city of Kunduz, Afghanistan, in November 2001".

Well, he who runs away today, lives to fight another day.   They lived on, and they have kept on fighting and the US is still in Afghanistan sixteen years later, with no end in sight.

Add to the Kunduz airlift the starting of another disastrous war in Iraq instead of finishing the war in Afghanistan first, and that is about all you need to know why the globe's sole superpower is bogged down in fight it can't win.

Well, there's more you should know, such as that NATO paid Taliban-owned trucking companies to ship supplies across Pakistan to Afghanistan; i.e., they were paying the people they were fighting.  Not a way to quickly end a fight.   Why couldn't NATO use some other route?  Well, that is a long story involving Iran. 

In my opinion, there should have been no evacuation.  The Taliban, al Qaeda and Pakistani army and intelligence supporters of those should have been captured or wiped out in Kunduz.   The US should have ended the war six months later.  This is not to say that Afghanistan would have remained stable in the longer term.   The effect on Pakistan on the elimination of a significant part of its jihad-loving military also might have been temporary if positive.   But it would not be America's war any more.


Monday, August 21, 2017

On the Guha interviewer

In the previously mentioned interview, with Indian historian Ramachandra Guha,  the interviewer, Isaac Chotiner, refers to: "Narendra Modi, a right-wing Hindu demagogue".

Let's settle this systematically.

1. Narendra Modi is certainly a Hindu.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Ramachandra Guha on Pakistan

Slate.com has an interview with historian Ramachandra Guha, on the occasion of India's seventieth independence day.

Among the many piles of rubbish spread out by Guha there, sprinkled perhaps with one or two gems of insight, one particular garbage heap to note is where Guha says:
Second is that partition made Pakistan, unlike India, a frontline state in the Cold War. History and geography have dealt Pakistan a bad deal because it became a frontline state in the Cold War. It had to choose sides against the Soviets, which from the 1950s led to the rise of the military in Pakistan, which undermined the democratic possibilities.
The first, and sometimes it seems like the last, native-born American who saw Pakistan for what it was and is, was Margaret Bourke-White.   (There are plenty of first-generation immigrants who understand Pakistan in all its grotesque horror.)  To her everlasting credit, she saw what Pakistan was and would be, right at its birth.  Seventy years of history and a lifetime as a historian haven't given Ramachandra Guha half as much insight. This passage from her is worth repeating (via here).  Pakistan didn't have to be a frontline state in the Cold War. It was a deliberate choice, right from the point of its founding. 

The Messiah and The Promised Land
Margaret Bourke-White was a correspondent and photographer for LIFE magazine during the WW II years. In September 1947, White went to Pakistan. She met Jinnah and wrote about what she found and heard in her book Halfway to Freedom: A Report on the New India,Simon and Schuster, New York, 1949. The following are the excerpts:

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

PM Modi's Independence Day Address


My dear fellow citizens,
Greetings from the ramparts of the Red Fort on the auspicious occasion of Independence Day.
The nation is celebrating the Independence Day with the festival of Janamashtmi today . I can see a number of Bal Kanaiyas here. We are fortunate to have in our cultural and historical heritage from a Sudarshan Chakradhari Mohan to Charkhadhari Mohan.
From the ramparts of Red Fort, on behalf of our 125 crore countrymen, I bow and pay respects to all those men and women who have sacrificed their lives, who have undergone immense sufferings and made sacrifices for the independence, glory and pride of the country.

Minhaz Merchant's advice to Indian authors

Minhaz Merchant has this advice for Indian authors who want to make it big in the West - three very simple rules:

If you want to get your book published abroad, there are three unwritten rules.
Rule one, slam India.
Rule two, slam India.
Rule three, slam India.
These rules apply to movies as well. Satyajit Ray showcased Indian poverty to Western audiences with his film Pather Panchali in 1955. He was lionised globally.
More contemporaneously, Slumdog Millionaire by British director Danny Boyle was a rage abroad. The one stomach-churning scene in the movie starring Frieda Pinto, Anil Kapoor and Dev Patel where a child falls into an excreta-filled sewer was played and replayed on foreign television networks with feigned horror. (The excreta was, in fact, a mixture of peanut butter and chocolate sauce.)

Books receive the same treatment. Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity which retells her experiences living in a Mumbai slum for three years, sparing no gory detail, was published to international acclaim in 2012.

Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness received an equally rapturous welcome abroad as it wended its laborious way through India’s graveyard of troubles: Kashmir, Maoism, poverty, communalism, violence. Roy’s sense of bitter hopelessness about India enthrals foreign publishers.
Now a book by Sujatha Gidla, Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India, is the latest toast of the West. A Dalit Christian, Gidla tells the story of her uncle Satyamurthy, a Maoist leader who fought the Indian state from the jungles of central India.

In a gushing review, The Economist (July 29, 2017) described Gidla as heralding the “arrival of a formidable new writer.” The magazine added: “Ants among Elephants is an interesting, affecting and ultimately enlightening memoir. It is quite possibly the most striking work of non-fiction set in India since Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo.”

The names trip of the tongue nicely: Ray, Roy, Boo, Gidla.

Should all of this matter? Emphatically not. India has many flaws – violence, poverty, rape, corruption, casteism. It is right for journalists and authors, Indian and foreign, to write about them......Sunlight is a disinfectant. Shine it mercilessly on our imperfections. Only then will change take place. The problem though is balance.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Militant Mother Goddess

Friday, August 11, 2017

On the Perils of Remaining a Nerd - 3

The nerds have been coming out with "science".  Damore is stating "scientific truths" and is being mini-Galileo-ed, it would seem.

Note that Damore's firing is because how he pissed on people at work, not because of some taboo on "scientific truths".

The fun is that even Damore and his supporters' science and reasoning seems dubious, per an article on Quora. The whole thing is worth a read, but here are some significant quotes.

Do sex differences make women less suited to be software engineers?
I’m simply stating that the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and that these differences may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership. Many of these differences are small and there’s significant overlap between men and women, so you can’t say anything about an individual given these population level distributions.
At what point did we jump from talking about personalities to abilities? It’s a massive leap to conclude that a slight difference in average personality must undermine women’s professional abilities in software engineering.

Sex differences in cognitive abilities have been well-studied, so it’s intriguing that Damore chooses to ignore this vast literature to focus on personality. The reason, however, quickly becomes clear when we look at the evidence: namely, there’s zero evidence that suggests women should make worse programmers. On average, women score slightly worse on certain spatial reasoning problems and better on verbal tests. Their overall problem-solving abilities are equal. Women used to score worse on math, but inclusive environments negate that difference. Even the (relatively robust) difference in spatial reasoning can vanish when women are asked to picture themselves as male. The only published study of coding competency by sex found that women were more likely than men to have their GitHub contributions accepted — but if they were project outsiders, this was true only if their gender was hidden.

As Yonatan Zunger explained, empathy and collaboration are also central to competency, especially at senior levels. Published results confirm this: in a study that attempted to identify the factors that influence software engineers’ success, the most important attribute was being “team oriented”. Neuroticism might hold women back from promotions, but there’s no evidence it makes them worse at their jobs.

Thus, to say there’s “significant overlap” in male/female abilities is a massive understatement. There’s no evidence that any known sex differences make women worse at software engineering.

How about preferences? It’s worth remembering that many of the first programmers were women, and that they made enormous contributions to developing the field of computer science. Female participation only declined when programming became a lucrative, gender-stereotyped career.

But suppose women were innately less likely to want to be software engineers. That would, in itself, tend to create a gender-biased environment in which women are unlikely to choose to become software engineers (no matter how innately suited they are individually). In other words, women’s lower average interest would act as an additional filter on both talent and motivation for the pool of available female software engineers. The result, all else being equal, would be that the average female software engineer, who powered through in defiance of gender norms, would be more innately motivated and/or talented than the average male engineer who faced no such barriers.
All in all, we have no reason to think female software engineers should perform worse at software engineering based on female trait distributions. And there’s a huge amount of evidence that promoting diversity improves the performance of teams and companies.
It bears repeating:  "The result, all else being equal, would be that the average female software engineer, who powered through in defiance of gender norms, would be more innately motivated and/or talented than the average male engineer who faced no such barriers."


Wednesday, August 09, 2017

On the Perils of Remaining a Nerd - 2

In an attempt to give a clue to those who still don't understand the Google firing of Damore:

It would be perfectly OK for Damore to say that all employees should get the opportunity to be mentored.  It would have been perfectly OK for Damore to demand it.  It would have been perfectly OK for him to have organized a public demonstration at the public entrance to the Google headquarters.

It is not OK for Damore to say that the employees in Google who currently get mentors are biologically disadvantaged and that is why the mentorship program is in place, and why it is misguided, and so on.  Your colleagues who have been through the hiring process and who have worked in the corporation and have had satisfactory performance are your equals.

And if you can't/don't get this, then I can't explain it any further.

PS: similarly the "truth" of whether women are the same or different than men in the general population is irrelevant.  The issue is whether the women working at Google are qualified to do their jobs.  I'm quite certain the answer is yes - Google isn't operating a charity.   Then if Google finds that women aren't getting their progressions and promotions and so on that their performance record says that they have earned, they are going to find that they need a diversity program. And they do.  This happens, not because Google as a corporation has some intrinsic fault, but because Google employees are hired from a culture which often finds offensive women being something more than just decorative (e.g., think of the scorn heaped on "pant-suit". Or that the country elected Trump).   A corporation can't rectify that in the culture as a whole, they do what they can within their boundaries.

PPS: Also see this:

PPPS: and this:

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

On the Perils of Remaining a Nerd

A Google engineer, let's call him X, wrote a now infamous memo on the diversity programs in Google, and was fired for it.  Yonathan Zunger wrote a good analysis of this memo, and what he recommended happened - X was fired.  So most of my commentary ought to be superfluous.

Let's note that Google is a business, not a university, think-tank, research institute or public forum.   It is incumbent on every employee not to embarrass their employer, and that too, on the employer's dime, if the employer is not doing anything illegitimate.   X violated this rule in spades, and no matter what the content of his memo, that alone justifies his being fired.

When I first read X's memo, the thing that was important that I latched on to is something Zunger latched on to as well (I read Zunger much later) and that is maybe why I like Zunger's analysis.
One very important true statement which this manifesto makes is that male gender roles remain highly inflexible.
A second thing to note is that as a business, Google would want to keep a good work environment for all its employees.   A senior engineer mouthing off that an entire section of the Google workforce - the women employees - are where they are because of Google's affirmative actions, does not contribute to that work environment.   That too is a good cause for being fired.

A third thing to note is that if you think that X was saying something original, or speaking truth to power or some such, about the nature of men and women, is that no, he wasn't.  It isn't original; it isn't the truth If you think that the scientific literature supports what X says, do remember, most of the research that is relevant is on WEIRD people (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic, acronym via Jonathan Haidt),  i.e., a peculiar and biased sample of the human race.  Taking these to be the way things are is unscientific.

Another issue causing debate, this not from X, but from Zunger is this:
Essentially, engineering is all about cooperation, collaboration, and empathy for both your colleagues and your customers. 
If you doubt it, think GNU & Linux,  and all the open source that's out there; the collaborations that produce standards, the engineering and scientific collaborations that produce things like the CERN collider, and so on.  Or cities, and power grids and such.  Google is into producing things of this scale.
If you’re a professional, especially one working on systems that can use terms like “planet-scale” and “carrier-class” without the slightest exaggeration, then you’ll quickly find that the large bulk of your job is about coordinating and cooperating with other groups.
Also note that Zunger does explicitly state that one's technical competence comes first, and is a given for his analysis.  

What about an abrasive personality like Steve Jobs?  Well, first, he had an uncanny ability to get into the mind of the customer and figure out what would appeal to them; and second, if you read about Apple culture, abrasive though Jobs was, he built effective collaborations.  Third, Jobs didn't build a lot that was "planet-scale" or "carrier-class".  The brilliant loner engineer certainly can have something to offer - but probably in a different sort of business than Google.


Tuesday, August 01, 2017

About Dunkirk

Sunny Singh writes in the Guardian:

What a surprise that Nigel Farage has endorsed the new fantasy-disguised-as-historical war film, Dunkirk. Christopher Nolan’s movie is an inadvertently timely, thinly veiled Brexiteer fantasy in which plucky Britons heroically retreat from the dangerous shores of Europe. Most importantly, it pushes the narrative that it was Britain as it exists today – and not the one with a global empire – that stood alone against the “European peril”.
To do so, it erases the Royal Indian Army Services Corp companies, which were not only on the beach, but tasked with transporting supplies over terrain that was inaccessible for the British Expeditionary Force’s motorised transport companies. It also ignores the fact that by 1938, lascars – mostly from South Asia and East Africa – counted for one of four crewmen on British merchant vessels, and thus participated in large numbers in the evacuation.
Perhaps Nolan chose to follow the example of the original allies in the second world war who staged a white-only liberation of Paris even though 65% of the Free French Army troops were from West Africa. 

All storytellers – and novelists, poets, journalists, and filmmakers are, ultimately, just that – know the power we hold. Stories can dehumanise, demonise and erase. Such stories are essential to pave the way for physical and material violence against those we learn to hate. But stories are also the only means of humanising those deemed inhuman; to create pity, compassion, sympathy, even love for those who are strange and strangers. Stories decide the difference between life and death. And that is why Dunkirk – and indeed any story – is never just a story.