Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Harry-Kerry in the Senate

January 31, 2006

Doctor (Frist) Assisted Suicide


"We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately."

Benjamin Franklin, at the signing of the Declaration of Independence

"Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself. "

Mark Twain

An Englishman does everything on principle: he fights you on patriotic principles; he robs you on business principles; he enslaves you on imperial principles.

George Bernard Shaw

Jeeves: That jacket does not become you, sir.
Wooster: But it was made by the best tailor in London!
Jeeves: I'm not saying a word against his morals, sir.

PG Wodehouse (paraphrased)

That last quote came to mind as I saw that four Democrats had decided to vote for Alito because they thought him to be an 'honorable man'.

A similar impulse (so they say) led 19 Democrats who did not think a filibuster, on principle, was the way to stop Samuel Alito from being an arbiter of our lives for the next several decades, to vote for cloture on the Alito filibuster. Most of them would vote against him, again on principle, the following day,

It reminded me of the guy who invited his friend to breakfast one morning. When the friend showed up, he found his host sitting at the table, dressed in formal jacket and tie, awaiting him. "Wow", said the friend. "I didn't realize this was a formal affair...Is someone else coming?" "No, no", replied the host. "But I like to be prepared, because you never know when someone important might stop by..." The friend found this logic a little intricate for that early hour, but he sat down to breakfast. Meal over, the host got up, and the friend was shocked to see him wearing just a pair of shorts under his jacket. "How come you're wearing shorts with that jacket and tie?" he asked. The host replied, "Well, you see, sometimes no one important stops by..."

The Democrats are astonishing. This president stands before the country and says, "... the FISA law was written in 1978. We're having this discussion in 2006. It's a different world." If Bush feels laws from 1978 are antiquated (and therefore don't need to be obeyed), how do you think he views the Constitution, written in the 1780's? Dealing with such a cabal, which speaks openly of its contempt for the laws, the Democrats are overcome with notions of decorum. Trotsky summarized the attitudes of the contenders in the Russian Constituent Assembly in 1918, "Thus democracy entered upon the struggle with dictatorship heavily armed with sandwiches and candles." Trotsky's own side had come prepared with guns.

When Bush says, we're in a post-9-11 world, he is right in a way, but not in the way one might think. What he means is the politics, not the national situation. In terms of national emergencies, 9-11 is hardly a greater tragedy than the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, the Depression, Pearl Harbor and WWII, the Oklahoma bombing,.. After all, the country got along fine without a Patriot Act for forty years during the Cold War, when there was a superpower with missiles aimed at every major city in the US, whose spies were everywhere, all backed by a militarily impregnable state! What does Bush mean when he says 9-11 changed everything? It changed everything for Bush. He could use it as his Reichstag Fire (I use the analogy only for what was done with the incident, not its cause) to create an endless fear psychosis, a political ATM to be milked at will for expanding his powers.

The Democrats have played right along. What deference they have for decorum and politeness, what passion for examining each issue on its merits! As for the seven members of the group of 14 -- Peace in our Time! Robert Byrd has set all his magnificent speeches at nought by his Alito vote -- an honorable man is the judge, he says. Would Byrd's idol, George Washington, have disbanded his forces because the British deployed an honorable man as general?

Bush is correct. We are at war -- with a rampant executive and a rogue president determined to squander our wealth and steal our rights. This is nothing less than a struggle for the country's freedom, even if the Democrats still don't get it. Like old Mr. Micawber, they think a majority will 'turn up' in November. It will not matter. After all, it was when they had a majority that the Iraq resolution was passed!

And so my fellow Americans, ask not, "When will they learn?" They never will. They now regret voting for the Iraq resolution. Two years later, when Alito casts a couple of bombshell votes, I'm sure they'll regret voting for the cloture resolution. They remind me of a joke about a bumpkin who was trying to push his old car into the sea. Try as he might, was unable to. He ran off to a wise man of the village for advice. "Get some of your buddies to help you", said the wise man. "If all of you push together, it should be no problem". So the bumpkin took three others with him. An hour later, all of them returned, complaining that the car was still not moving. They had pushed and pushed, but the car wouldn't budge, they said. Upon closer inquiry, it turned out that each had been pushing from a different direction -- one from the front, one from the back, etc.

That is the story of the Senate Democrats -- twenty nine of them voted for the Iraq resolution. Many of them voted to confirm Alberto Gonzales and Condoleezza Rice. Yesterday, 19 of them voted to confirm Alito (effectively). The bumpkins did it unknowingly. The Senators did it knowingly. "This chamber reeks of blood", George McGovern said while moving the McGovern-Hatfield amendment in 1970 calling for an end to American engagement and withdrawal of troops from Vietnam. Yesterday's act smeared the 19 with the blood of their country's freedom.

As to the Republicans, where is the Hatfield for our times? Instead, there are only money changers, despicable nodders and handmaidens to an incipient fascism, all for no greater cause than to bolster an administration which happens to be rated 'R'.

You who were sent to defend the country's laws surrendered before a law-breaking president.

Shame on you all.

Niranjan Ramakrishnan is a writer living on the West Coast. He can be reached at njn_2003@yahoo.com. This article also appeared on today's Counterpunch.

Monday, January 30, 2006

The Second Childhood?
Development, Interrupted

Niranjan Ramakrishnan
Jan 30, 2006

After months of pointing out -- first the shortsightedness and then the criminality of the Bush Administration -- columnist Paul Craig Roberts has now begun to confront a deeper malaise, the idiocy of the populace. If true, this is a glacial problem and presages a catastrophe far worse than Bush's eight years. After all, leaders come and go, but the people remain. And Roberts has a point: there seems no bar to a coexistence between intelligence, education and knowledge on the one hand and complete idiocy on the other. But 'idiocy' is a rather harsh word. Perhaps childhood, or more properly, second childhood, is better.

Let me illustrate with an example.

The other evening I saw a movie, "Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang". It was about the how the US government had hidden information about low-level radiation arising from its nuclear tests in the Nevada desert, and the corresponding rise in cancer incidences among those living in the vincinity. There was a brief Q and A session after the talk. Saul Landau, the brilliant author and filmmaker whose gentle but perceptive answers were as educational as the film itself, was asked the following question: What are the rulers thinking when they engage in this kind of cover up? And why would anyone invest in a technology where the waste material is so hazaradous that it renders places unsafe for tens of thousands of years? [1]

Landau's answer (paraphrased) was that powerful people seldom admit mistakes. We tried to identify a few who did -- I mentioned Richard Clarke ("A Sorry Spectacle") and he mentioned Cy Vance. We did not waste time on the likes of Colin Powell and Robert McNamara, mute time servers when they could have done something, compulsive hand-wringers after their moment had passed. But the question goes deeper than that: Where do people who start wars, poison the environment for immediate gain and gratification, hock their country to keep interest rates low, plan to move? Mars? Unless that is their plan, their actions make no sense. American administrations may be beholden to Israel, but I don't think either nuclear radiation or global warming believes in the passover. Prophet and plebian are imperiled alike and with certainty.

Yet, we have Tony Blair proclaiming a fast push toward nuclear energy, and Iran insisting on its rights (to cancer?) Where does such idiocy spring from? Perhaps from an addiction to the mantra of growth, and development. "To scatter plenty o'er a smiling land, and read their history in a nation's eyes", has this not been the dream of every leader in history?

And in the last half-century, the nation's eyes have become key - "But it wasn't on TV, was it?" Hence the difficulty. Radiation, like global warming or disinformation, is a peril without a face. And in our image-driven times, something does not exist if it doesn't have pictures. Hence the insistence on Bush's photographs with Abramoff, as though that would somehow prove something that Abramoff's being on the transition team would not. This is perfect for a ruler. So, development. Make sure that everyone gets a TV.

The second is to keep them shopping, so their minds quit working. How else do you explain the poll in which, asked if domestic spying without a warrant was ok, there was such an equivocal response? Freedom to shop is all we care about (see Open your Wallets, not your Mouths).

The third is perhaps the result of the first two, the blithe unawareness of the addict to the immediately unobvious: Let me buy at Wal Mart, even if it is means my own job going to China tomorrow.

These are signs of regression into childhood. It takes children a few years before they learn the connection between cause and effect when the two are not in close proximity. It takes them some time to understand non-visual cues. And they need instant gratification. What Roberts sees is the fact that all three components seem present in large measure in America.

Fifty years of growth, development, unimaginable technological progress, all have led to a state where people are willing to surrender their rights.

Gandhi (whose death anniversary falls today) alone, among the leaders of the 20th century, saw the perils of mad devotion to economic progress.

"...Hinduism, Islam, Zorastrianism, Christianity and all other religions teach that we should remain passive about worldly pursuits, that we should set a limit to our worldly ambitions and that our religious ambition should be illimitable. Our activity should be directed into the latter channel..." (Hind Swaraj, 1909).

"...We notice that the mind is a restless bird; the more it gets the more it wants, and still remains unsatisfied. The more we indulge our passions, the more unbridled they become. Our ancestors, therefore, set a limit to our indulgences. They saw that happiness was largely a mental condition. A man is not necessarily happy because he is rich, or unhappy because he is poor. The rich are often seen to be unhappy, the poor to be happy. Millions will always remain poor. Observing all this, our ancestors dissuaded us from luxuries and pleasures..." (Hind Swaraj, 1909)

"...We have retained the same kind of cottages that we had in former times and our indigenous education remains the same. We have had no system of life-corroding competition. Each followed his own occupation or trade and charged a regulation wage. It was not that we did not know how to invent machinery, but our forefathers knew that, if we set our hearts after such things, we would become slaves and lose our moral fiber..." (Hind Swaraj, 1909)

Thus did Gandhi see the plunge into consumer comfort as the first step towards the loss of freedom.

Yatha Raja, Tatha Praja (as the king goes, so go the subjects), went the old Sanskrit saying. Since this was before the Age of Democracy, we should modify it : "as the people go, so goes the leader". Hence the trend -- whether it is Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush (or even Gore or Kerry, although the former may now be revising his opinions) in America, or whether it is Narasimha Rao, Vajpayee or Manmohan Singh in India, the mantra of growth and development has us -- and them -- in its thrall.

"I can promise you nothing but blood, toil, sweat and tears" said another wartime leader, a real one. Ours promises low interest rates and personal savings accounts. What happened in between? We don't know. We were watching television.

Niranjan Ramakrishnan is a writer living on the West Coast. He can be reached at njn_2003@yahoo.com. His blog is at http://njn-blogogram.blogspot.com. A shorter version of this article appeared on Counterpunch.

[1] "The radiological half life of plutonium is about 24,000 years and the biological half life is about 20 years for liver and 50 years for skeleton. Plutonium deposited in the gonadal tissue is assumed to be permanently retained. See full essay "Plutonium" by Gary Masters (http://www.physics.isu.edu/radinf/pluto.htm).

[2] More quotations of Gandhi are available here.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Who Benefits from Technology?

A Passage to Palani
Information Superhighway or Information-Scuppered-Highway?
Niranjan Ramakrishnan

On a visit to Madras/Chennai, eyes glazed over with ads for computer courses, cellphones and broadband connections at every turn, I was further floored by the quick installation of a fast internet link within a couple of days of reaching Madras. Thus it was that I waved aside my mother's anxious enquiries about getting tickets for our forthcoming trip. We were planning to go to Palani, home of the ancestral deity, and to visit our village and a couple of other places, all within the same area.

Piece of cake, I told myself and her. We'll plan out the whole thing in no time via the internet. With that, and with my newly-acquired cell phone.

Famous last words, unfortunately, and spoken far too soon.

After spending a whole day hunched over my computer riding my broadband connection, I have come to the conclusion that when it comes to Information Technology (IT), India itself (Tamilnadu, anyway, and I suspect the story is not too different elsewhere) is rather like the poor laborers from Rajasthan I used to see growing up in Delhi, building palatial homes for the rich while living in hovels themselves.

But the facts first.

I want to chart out a schedule for a one day visit to Palani and some places nearby. I start out by seeking a map of Tamilnadu on the internet, one that would show the various places we intend to visit. I discover that there are none that combine information, quality and detail. I finally settle for a passable version, but it has taken me two hours already.

A spanking new Mofussil bus terminus at Koyambedu was opened a few years back, not far from where we live in Madras. Everyone I've met has waxed lyrical about the merits of the bus service, so I ask the scooterwallah to swing by the Terminal so I can pick up a bus time table for Tamilnadu.

The people at the reservation counter outside look at me like I was Oliver Twist. There's no such thing, they tell me. Finally they give their standard answer: "Ask inside", they say, vaguely, pointing to the cavernous structure of the terminal. I go in. There is an Enquiry Counter, vacant in the middle of the day. There is a cop sitting opposite at another counter. He assures me a bus time table for Tamilnadu does not exist. I notice that there's a website listed outside the Reservation Counter. This I quickly jot down on my PDA, convinced that they must have all the timings and routes listed there.

I come home and visit the site (http://www.setctn.com), the web presence of the State Express Transport Corporation. The initial impression is good. But there is no mention of "Schedule" or "Bus Timings", which is the first thing one would expect of such a site. I plough on and discover a philosophical-sounding link: "Availability of Buses". Sure enough, the page asks you to select a destination and brings up a list of buses to the city you select. I rub my hands in glee. I now know what bus to take to Palani. From there to our village? Instinctively I try selecting Palani for the origin, but discover I can't -- the only place of origin available on the website is Chennai!

So the site tells me all the buses from Chennai, but from nowhere else! Forget going to other places, how do I even figure out getting back from Palani to Chennai? The website offers no clue. I have also noted down, from the reservation counter, the Tamilnadu Government's transport department site (www.tn.gov.in/transport). I go there. It lists a number of other websites, one for each district, the few I check are all equally silent about schedules. They list the names and phone numbers (including residence) of sundry officials, and proclaim that they carry so many lakh passengers each day, all doubtless of frightful interest to bus travelers. But on the matter of schedules, to recall Wodehouse, they are vague and evasive.

I call the Koyambedu terminal, using the number listed on the State Express website. A few tries later, I get through, and ask them about buses from Palani to Chennai. The question strikes them as idiotic. "Please ask them when you get to Palani", is the answer. "Do you have a phone number for the Palani bus station?", I venture. You've got to be joking, the tone says, as the official at the other end disavows all knowledge.

I reach a random official in Coimbatore or Palani (number obtained from the Tamilnadu Transport Department website). A helpful soul, he suggests I try the private bus service, suggesting KPN Travels of T. Nagar. Visions of the glories of private enterprise in India float around in my head as I google for KPN Travels. They have a website (http://www.kpntravel.in). I go there, and Hey Presto, a sophisticated flash website! Except it is impregnable. The animated first page has no links, you can't proceed beyond it, and it has no information, not even a phone number. I dig up the phone number elsewhere on Google, and give the fellows a call. "Palani", barks the official, "There is one at 9:15 from Koyambedu". About buses back from Palani? "No idea", he says and slams the phone down.

I have long given up on my grandiose scheme for mapping out a travel plan for doing the entire journey by bus, resigned to hiring a taxi once we get to Palani. But I do want to make sure there's a late enough bus from Palani to Madras, giving us sufficient time for our local peregrinations.

I suddenly have a brain wave: Why not call up some hotel or lodge in Palani to find out? I now look for websites with information on lodges in Palani. Several of them list some lodges lackadaisically, but with no phone numbers. Finally I reach a good website (http://www.palanicity.com) which has a nice list of not only lodges but other institutions (except there is no mention of transportation). The first three or four numbers I call elicit a "this number does not exist" response before I realize that the website has not been updated and does not have the '2' in front of each number.

Mystery solved, I call up one of the lodges and, knowing we would need a room to rest and freshen up after the night journey, ask for the room rates. "Where are you calling from?" comes the response. Perhaps I have spent too long in America. "Why does that have anything to do with your room rates?" I find myself asking. "Unless you tell me where you are calling from how can I give you an answer? You may be an anonymous caller also...". If I had not had four hours of frustration leading up to this, I should have chuckled. "Are your room rates different for people from different places?" I still manage. "First learn how to speak", this denizen of the Mother of all Call Centers snaps. "I'll take lessons from you when I come there", I counter. That breaks the ice, and we are as brothers thereafter. Mr. A tells me there are buses, but doesn't know the time, nor does he have a phone number for the bus station.

The train to Dindigul (an hour-and-a-half bus journey from Palani) is growing in attraction. The mere fact that the Indian Railways have a printed timetable (have had one forever) shines in contrast to a bus service which has not even heard of one, and I turn my hand at their vaunted online reservation system. It is far better than the bus website, but it is still punishing on the user. For example, there is no way I can give my origin and destination, date of travel and number of passengers, and sit back to get a summary of all my options, including the the "Buy" link. Instead, I have to plod through a list of possible trains, trying each one, with each quota (General, Tatkal, etc.) to see whether there are seats available. There aren't, so I am back to the bus option!

By the time I am done with all this, night has fallen. I call the Koyambedu stand just as they are closing, and the gentleman advises me to show up at the ticket counter first thing in the morning. I do, and am first in line, a half hour before opening time. When the counter opens and I am talking to the clerk, a guy pokes his head around me. When I point out to him that I am ahead in the queue, he gives me a pained look, saying, "It was only a question". On his heels is another individual who has, meanwhile, reached around me and handed the clerk a one-rupee coin. She gives him a form in return. When I ask him to wait in line, he says to me, "I have to get this form. Do you think I should wait just to get a form?" He shouldn't have to, but that's the way the system is set up. The same counter dispenses forms (which you need to fill to buy a ticket) and issues tickets too. There is only one counter. First you fill the form by hand, and hand it to the clerk, who then enters the form into her computer. Why not have her enter the information directly?

Which leads back to my original point. Information technology, to paraphrase Edgser Dijkstra, is not the art and science of diddling bits in a computer, any more than astronomy is swinging telescopes about. Information technology is about having information available in a convenient and usable form, in friendly and timely fashion. Nothing I have described here requires a customer to have a computer or an internet connection. A simple phone would do just fine.

My greatest amazement is that in a milieu where almost everyone is convinced that India is the information superpower-in-waiting, with the remainder in no doubt that we are already there, no one seems to think anything amiss when a clerk tells you, Abhimanyu-like, that she knows the timings for the bus from Chennai to Palani but not that from Palani to Chennai. Or that no one is surprised when an official says he can't tell you something over the phone, you'll have to come over to get the same information. Or that there is no outrage when a state transport website has information for one city and not for any others.

Long before computers were common, the Ma Bell phrase, "let your fingers do the walking" was taken to heart in America. We have copied the symbol quickly enough, but forgotten its import. People travel from place to place for things that could -- and should, in a country deficient in petroleum and casting about for energy supplies in every part of the world -- be done over the phone and the computer. Making useful information available easily to the people -- now that would be a goal worthy of a true IT superpower and information innovator.

The author is a software professional living in the United States. This article also appeared in Countercurrents.org.