Friday, October 30, 2009

An article that TIFR student magazine "Imagine" did not publish

I am shocked.
I am saddened.
I am disillusioned.

{Mistakenly some readers of this blog thought that I am perturbed about my article not being accepted to the magazine. I was definitely surprised and saddened at that but that is a much minor reason compared to my central point of protest being that the editors did not inform me of the rejection. I came to know of their decision only when I saw the finished product when all the while over about 2 months I was under the reverse impression! Among many other expected abilities missing from the editors they definitely seemed to lack an understanding of the sensitivities of authors.}

These are those times when I really feel the importance of open-access movement and the great need for blogs in this society when I am faced with the extreme ghetoism that the entire idea of trying to get something published might entail. Like the turmoil and heart-burn I faced during this recent attempt on my part to get an article on open-access published in the magazine called "Imagine" that some noble TIFR students decided to come out with as a part of Homi Bhaba's birth centenary celebrations.

I was naive enough to have put my faith in the professionalism of the editorial team of that magazine. Probably I should have backed out on the entire idea when very early on I received a load of statements from the people higher up when I questioned them on the copyright issues of the magazine. People didn't seem to be thinking enough. The magazine is supposed to come out today and even yesterday when I met some of the members of the editorial board they did not seem to have the basic minimum sense of decency to inform me that my article has been rejected.

And as Mark Antony said on the death of Julius Caesar 'But they are honourable men"

I definitely acknowledge that no matter how stupid their reasons for rejections might be, the editorial team does have the right to reject articles they get. I definitely acknowledge this right they have. What hurt me deeply was the fact that I got to know of the rejection only when I looked at the contents page of the finished magazine which landed on my hands on the day of publication.

The article was not just my own work but it involved extensive painstaking editorial efforts over days by two other people namely Vipul from the Mathematics Department of UChicago and Shreevatsa from the Operations Research Department of MIT. I deeply acknowledge the help and research support that I got from them during the writing of the article.

I definitely have an awkward scenario to face with them as I tell them that the article in which they also put in quite a lot of effort has been dropped by the "Imagine"'s editorial board of TIFR students without any notice.

Hence I make public the article that the esteemed editorial board of "Imagine" neither perceived worthy of publishing not considered worth their stature to inform of rejection:

The article

I feel very sure that Homi Bhaba would have found great satisfaction to see such editorial etiquette being followed by students of his institute.

Or probably there are deeper issues involved here with the publishing of the magazine which I seem to be ignorant of. One of the many pertinent questions that one can raise here is about the ability of the editorial team to read and comprehend articles of size more than 1.5 pages (written in double spacing?) I do realize that not all people have the concentration to read something long especially if it has references and research backing.

I would not want to delineate the issue here but would definitely like to mention here some more associated pertinent questions here regarding the seeming narcissism on the part of the editorial team when they decided to put up a half-page photograph of themselves in the magazine. (Anyone ever heard of it? I have definitely seen magazines like "Scientific American" or "Resonance" where a stamp-sized photograph of the editor comes out but they also put up same sized photographs of every author of the articles which "Imagine" didn't bother to do). One can obviously go on here questioning various other things about the magazine like the pedestrian sense of aesthetics as apparent from the out of context cover page photographs and other such associated cheap publicity techniques. Also one can question the process of selection that the articles written by the editors themselves were subjected to? Or were they given a wild-card entry?

Oh! And before I forget let me thank the noble editors for publishing two of my poems in their magazine. I shall be forever filled with gratitude to the brim of my heart for them doing me this favour.

At least the fact that they did publish two of my poems, lets me claim boldly that this blog post is not just an issue of sour-grapes. Its a question of sustainable transparent policies and honesty.

{Actually this makes me wonder if space was a constraint for the editors then couldn't they have actually asked me to make a choice between publishing those 2 long poems of mine and the article? Somehow characteristically again they seemed to have chosen to play God here and not bothered to give me that option. Given this option I would have any day forsaken my poems and would have opted for this article which took much greater effort for me to write.}

Wishing for a freer world tomorrow.

Wishing in the eternal words of Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore,

``Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit.."

PS: To keep the slate clean I should also formally apologize for screaming at one of the editors when I realized this unfortunate state of affairs on the eve of the function. But definitely this apology doesn't mean that I concede even an inch of ground to them.

Monday, October 12, 2009

A brief critique of the movie "War and Peace" by Anand Patwardhan

Film Director Anand Patwardhan came to TIFR to screen his film ``War and Peace" I watched the film and the panel discussions before and after it and also watched the tape of the discussion on a Pakistani channel about the film with the director and some guests.

Sometimes it becomes necessary to prevent naivety from leading the pursuit of otherwise correct paths and this movie provoked me to reflect on that.

Firstly let me make a basic thing clear that I am strongly against all uses of nuclear energy. I oppose making of nuclear reactors even if it is for "peaceful" uses like generation of electricity or for nuclear weapons. Elementary undergraduate physics education and passing level knowledge of school history books would be sufficient to convince people of why nuclear energy is one of the greatest mistakes of mankind. Let there be no doubt that there is nothing called "peaceful" use of nuclear energy. The entire process of generation of nuclear power whether in controlled or in an uncontrolled way, in many steps causes some harm to the humankind. It is sad that in Nuclear Physics courses this most important thing is not taught!

But then I suppose whatever I said till now was obvious and it will take truthful professional scientists in that field to explain the nitty-gritties of the issue and to be able to frame a convincing document which can stop all pursuits of nuclear energy. And I am not knowledgeable enough to do that.

But this writing is not about nuclear energy but about the interesting movie "War and Peace" by Anand Patwardhan and how he missed the point.

The "discussion" post the movie was equally forgettable for Anand's ability of sarcasm that came to the forefront. I would refrain from debating with people who would quickly resort to such "Smart Alex" kind of attitude that Anand was prompt to adopt whenever questions got tricky. (experience with public debating has taught me to judge a forum for its ability to sustain debates and then deciding whether to join!) His answers to most questions were more of street-smart thinking coupled with a sharp tongue than answer full of insightful thinking or research. After a first few questions it was probably clear that this discussion is going nowhere and asking questions can only lead to that person getting laughed at by Anand.

Not a great way to lead such a complicated movement like nuclear disarmament!

Hence I decided to keep shut during the entire show.
And I also know my inability to engage well in verbal debates but I am more comfortable through the writing.

The essential difficulty with all nuclear debates is the lack of knowledgeable and intelligent debaters on either side of the line. It doesn't take much intelligence to fence-sit in most of such discussions and have fun poking both the sides. The people who really understand what is going on have either bequeathed their freedom of expression to some regulatory body or have taken a laid back style of life. Hence the debate left to the limited imagination of the common man can only at most hope to produce movies like "War and Peace" by Anand.

On the other end of the scale I would like to refer the reader to the article on nuclear disarmament by Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen in his book "The Argumentative Indian". He definitely gives a better example of leading such discussions. Not that Amartya Sen's approach is fool-proof either.

The 6 basic pit-falls of this attempt of Anand are the following,

1. Completely de-focused.

Had there not been that tiny little almost apologetic mention of the Bofors scandal at the end of the movie, I was beginning to believe that this movie has nothing to do with nuclear power but is an anti-BJP propaganda. Atleast the director was capable of main ting a semblance of political neutrality by his trump card of Bofors Scandal at the end. Although I am not affiliated to any party and have little sense of belongingness to any party, but I have strong objections to movies going around in the public which talk of every other thing in the world except for what they claim to talk about. Like the movie spent so much time on the Tehelka issue that again the audience was dragged into memories of India's sad narrow political imbroglio far away from the bigger issues of possible nuclear annihilation and need for disarmament. But then yes freedom of speech and expression is essential. How else would people get to learn how not to make a movie like "War and Peace" and how else would I get the chance of writing this blog about it! :P

2. The complete lack of research!

I was left hunting after sometime in the movie waiting for it to say at least one new fact about the issue or even at least one interview with a nuclear physicists or an international affairs experts who will explain the details! Not a single one! The movie seemed to too focused on lambasting the politicians and bureaucrats that it completely forgot to give at least a few minutes on the technicalities of nuclear energy and about all the million laws and conferences held around the world to understand the consequences of nuclear power.

The movie seemed to have no place for the many deep thinkers and experts and researchers around the world in the issue of nuclear power. It seemed to have more place for stupid statements by politicians than for research backed analysis of experts.

3. Naive look at deterrence.

The entire complicated issue of nuclear deterrence was thoroughly mishandled by the movie. The movie or the director's explanations after the movie completely failed to move even an inch beyond the common-sense understanding of nuclear deterrence that every lay man on the street seems to have. Nuclear deterrence is much more than just the idea of each country having nuclear stock-piles with a "no first strike" policy or M.A.D (Mutually Assured Destruction). Understanding of nuclear deterrence and whether or not it works requires quite a deep understanding of game theory which is a very sophisticated branch of mathematics.

The movie or the director seemed to have no clue about all the heaps of research available on understanding of nuclear deterrence and the subtle mathematics behind it. Like the documentary could have say interviewed experts in this field for analysis like Robin Powell of Harvard University or Martin Shubik at Yale University.

The movie briefly went to the US but again got lost filming the mass rather than getting hold of experts to add insight to the film.

4. Tremendous focus on mass hysteria.

The movie seemed to spend frames after frames on displaying all sorts of hype that gets pursued by the people about nuclear energy and its consequences. It spent inordinate amount of time filming the multitude of stupid comments by people in both India and Pakistan about how they feel they have become the "superpower" after their country testing an atom bomb. I was left pulling my hair as to when is Anand going to show some non-trivial stuff focusing away from the uninformed comments by lay men on the street each more hilarious than the other. If good movies have a sense of purpose about leading the society in a better direction then why spend so much time showing all the useless things that we anyway know the religious nuts on either side of the border have to say?

Much of the movie looked like a comedy show when they filmed people in Pakistan showing maps of the world where each country is coloured in green demarcating complete conversion to Islam under the title of "United States of Islam" (or something like that) or in India VHP selling maps of the world where each country is coloured orange and a VHP flag posted on each of them.

Such unintended humour content of movie completely distracted from the core debate about pros and cons of nuclear power.

5. Emotional arguments!

This is one of the biggest problems I see with many of the attempts that try to address such deep social issues. Very soon after some shabby attempt at scientific thought the movie moved fast into showing pictures of devastation at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and nightmarish footage of heavily injured people of Hiroshima getting treated at the make-shift hospitals post the atomic bomb-blast. No doubt such footage is painful to watch the first time and can give night mares for days afterwards. But then why show them when they actually serve no purpose to any side of the debate!

Showing a horrifying picture is not a substitute for a reasoned argument.

Time and again the director seemed to have lost his train of logical thoughts and seemed to use such emotional crutches of horrifying pictures to move the audience. The same happened when he showed pictures of brutally handicapped children being born to families of mine workers in Jaduguda near the uranium refineries of the Uranium Corporation of India Limited. I agree it is a horrifying story and one of the many reasons why I don't sanction even use of nuclear energy for power generation.

But then again showing these pictures is not an argument for the cause but only makes the director look logically weak who is trying to use such crutches to further his cause as if he has run out of points. The pictures would me meaningful if they were backed by research on their background correlation.

I would very much like to see a movie which promotes nuclear disarmament though research and various other means and doesn't step into the conventional trap of showing gruesome footage of Hiroshima victims.

The use of such cheap methods of furthering a cause send out wrong signals about the director as if he is trying to cut-short reasoned debates by using painful photographs as a short-cut to impose his view on the audience. There is very little room for thinking with the audience once it is so emotionally overwhelmed by horrifyingly painful pictures.

Emotions are not the way to argue a point and can only lead to further quagmires.

Let me illustrate my point by playing the devil's advocate here.

Especially with the Jaduguda photographs one could have easily picked holes saying that he never shows an evidence that the children being born handicapped are due to the radiation damage from the UCIL plant. (except of him showing the Geiger counter readings in the houses and roads but that is far from enough) That children are being born handicapped is a fact and that the UCIL plant is nearby is another fact and just from the statement of the two facts one CANNOT conclude that one is the reason for the other. How do you know that this very child born elsewhere to the same parents wouldn't have contracted the same disease? This cause-effect relationship has to be established through research to be convincing. (keeping up with his tradition at various other fronts in the movie Anand here too missed the necessary element of research!) And only such kinds of arguments can be used to present a case with the authorities when asking for closure of nuclear power plants.

6. Knee-jerk anti-Americanism

This was one more disturbing feature of the movie which blatantly failed to understand the natural diversion that can happen between the opinions of a government and the feelings of the people. It would be a great injustice to the large plethora of people who inhabit USA if they are collectively blamed for war-mongering and weapon-selling that American government is very often perceived to be doing. It is just so wrong! We have so many times heard of mass protests in the US itself against the government's foreign military policies. Now it is just so stupid on the part of the film to keep portraying USA as the devilish nuclear threat on the world as if there is some essentially unifying theme that binds and identifies each and every American!

We all know of the one million stupid things that the US government has been doing over the past decade but to think of them as the identity of the US would be a narrowly reductionist view of US (or for that matter of any country). As a science student I benefit so much from the scientific literature and products produced in the US universities and these are the first things that come to my mind when I think of the US. And I am sure many people have interactions with many other facets of US and it is an injustice to all of them if US is portrayed only as source of nuclear threat.

There are so many different some deeply fruitful ways of Indo-American interaction (like the recent example of Prof.Venkatraman getting Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his research done in the US where he went after completing his undergraduate education in India) but the movie bent upon driving its own dogmas set out to video tape some stupid party by some stupid Indo-American ``Club" in Delhi which seemed to understand the only version of Indo-American interaction to be some Indian people doing stupid dances on the stage. I have definitely seen much more elegant and beautiful dance shows from both the Indians and the Americans!

Such reductionist view of any country is dangerous to the world. Like many times I have seen in European literature India being always associated to issues of poverty and malnutrition. That is again another example of narrow perception of a country.

With such non-intelligently made films the cause of nuclear disarmament seems only further weakened. When one has such a daunting task ahead of getting nuclear weapons and establishments removed from all countries one cannot risk even a single weak step or an attempt in which even school children can pick holes.

Nuclear disarmament is the need of the hour and it needs far more intelligent and thoughtful attempts than what one finds in "War and Peace" by Anand Patwardhan. We need more thoughtful people to lead this march who come backed up with more critical research. Thankfully probably not many a looking up to "War and Peace" for leadership!