The Hoax of Trudeau’s Environmental Vision

 

Balancing budgets while imbalancing the planet is not much of a vision — unless, of course, your vision only extends to the next election.
As the nation-wide smear of B.C. premier John Horgan continues, Canada’s own brand of Sean Hannity “journalism” rolls on.
Horgan has been accused of everything from dividing Canada, to undermining Confederation itself. I am waiting for him to be outed as the real person who paid off Stormy Daniels.
No matter how outlandish, ill-informed, or self-interested the opinions of business leaders and rabid politicians may be, much of the mainstream media has handed them a megaphone. Worse, media outlets then offered the supporting version of these rants on their editorial pages.
The Globe and Mail has called the Kinder Morgan situation a “catastrophe” and a “constitutional crisis” for Canada. That is a strange way to describe an elected provincial government opposing a project that presents what it sees as an unacceptable danger to its coastal environment from an admittedly hazardous substance.
This just in: A pipeline owned by Paramount Resources Ltd. has spilled 290,000 litres of crude oil emulsion in Northern Alberta. So much for the theoretical aspect of pipeline ruptures.
Yet the Globe calls Horgan a hypocrite because he blocks Trans Mountain while he has plans to develop his own rich fossil resources like LNG. Fair enough. But the newspaper is silent about Justin Trudeau’s hypocrisy.
This was the prime minister who, in Paris, committed to reducing Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions to 523 megatonnes a year by 2030. This is also the prime who has okayed projects that make that impossible.
In 2017, the auditor general reported that Canada is currently on track to exceed the Paris target by more than 200 megatonnes. The latest report to the United Nations found Canada’s 2016 emissions were down 1.4 per cent. But that’s negligible, as it still leaves the country 187 million tonnes short of its Paris obligations.
This is the prime minister who promised a grand reconciliation with First Nations and is now threatening to shove them out of Kinder Morgan’s way, even it takes the army.
Tellingly, in the Globe’s full-throated endorsement of Trans Mountain, there was not a word about climate change, global warming or First Nations’ constitutional and treaty rights.
Why do more Canadians now support Kinder Morgan than oppose it? Because the same propaganda machines that put out half-truths, distortions and lies south of the border are alive and well in Canada.
It all comes down to what those machines can make people believe, especially at a time when most citizens are adrift in the murky swirl of industrial scale spinning, trying to keep their noses above water. It is all about appealing to emotion, patriotism, party affiliation and self-interest — anything but the facts.
To some people, the Greenpeace protesters who scaled the pillars of the Canadian High Commission in London and unfurled their “Crudeau Oil HQ” banner, are silly subversives.
Others, will see them as planetary heroes out to save Canada and the world from the evils of dirty oil, which journalist Andrew Nikiforuk recently referred to as the “devil’s excrement.”
Most will only yawn, perhaps laugh a little at the loons who took time out of their day to embarrass our visiting prime minister and maybe get themselves arrested — or at least on television.
Eventually, everyone in this business learns a fundamental truth about life in the Trump Age: In an era of information overload and phoney stories on social media, people gladly believe what they want to believe. No matter how much truth Cassandra tells, she usually ends up losing her voice and the Trojan Horse gets dragged into the city anyway.
That people hear and believe mostly what they want to is a lesson I have been taught many times over, while trying to pick the lock of the truth with words.
A small example: Many years ago, I was in a cab in Pasadena, California, working on a story. The cabbie wanted to talk about President Bush’s invasion of Iraq, which was then lighting up the skies over Baghdad.
I questioned the assault, citing the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein’s arsenal. After all, that had been the original justification for the invasion offered by the Bush and Blair governments.
The cabbie turned around and flashed a 100-watt smile: “But they did find weapons of mass destruction. Didn’t you hear about it?”
He was wearing a George W. Bush baseball cap.
And so it was not much of a surprise when I got the emails after my last column about Kinder Morgan and its Trans Mountain pipeline expansion through British Columbia.
Included in the piece was a reference to tar sands oil being “dirty.” My correspondent set me straight: “It isn’t dirty oil.”
Though futile, stating the facts to a true believer of any stripe is still a staple of this business — though these days, a tradition more honoured in the breach than the observance.
Tar sands oil is indeed dirtier than light, sweet crude. Maybe that’s why it’s also called heavy/sour crude. If you look at the full fuel cycle, i.e. emissions from extracting, refining, and burning bitumen, it is estimated to produce 15 to 20 per cent more greenhouse gases than conventional oil.
There is more CO2 from bitumen per megajoule of energy because it is a heavier hydrocarbon. Carbon emissions per megajoule from conventional oil are in the range of 80 to 95. For tar sands oil, that number rises from a low of 105 to a high of 115.
If tar sands oil wasn’t dirty, why did the European Commission publish research in 2009 showing that the greenhouse gas intensity of Canada’s tar sands crude was 20 per cent higher than conventional oil?
Canada and the oil industry launched a massive lobbying effort to keep Europe from adopting carbon emission values for tar sands product which would have kept them out of Europe. Sadly, the commission caved.
Another correspondent took me to task for using the term “tar sands” to describe the product, albeit diluted, which is scheduled to flow at triple the rate through the expanded Trans Mountain pipeline. To my correspondent, my use of the “pejorative” term “tar sands” proved I had nothing of value to say on the subject, case closed.
In fact, the term “tar sands” has been used by geologists and engineers since 1939. According to Alberta oil historian David Finch, most everyone called that province’s massive bitumen resources “tar sands” well into the 1960s. After that, the nomenclature became hideously politicized, the way that guy with the great hair tried to use “personkind” to supplant the usual phrase.
From the 1990s onwards, the Alberta government and the oil patch conducted a concerted PR campaign to rebrand Alberta bitumen as “oil sands,” which admittedly conjures up a softer, less menacing substance. Sort of like the way the U.S. military measures nuclear contamination in “sunshine units.”
Anyone who persisted in using “tar sands” was the equivalent of a sexist and an enemy of the project of selling good old Canadian resources — with no refining and no value added.
People who prescribe the exclusive use of the term “oil sands” should bear in mind they are using the industry-approved euphemism expressly designed to market it. The “oil sand” people have actually swallowed the bait of industry and government lobbyists hook, line and sinker.
It is akin to the way business groups in Canada have fictionalized key facts about transporting diluted bitumen across Alberta and B.C. to foreign markets — with very few permanent jobs to show for it.
That well-known scientist, Perrin Beatty, otherwise employed as the chairman and CEO of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, said this in that well-known scientific journal, The Financial Post:
“Trans Mountain received federal approval after an extensive, rigorous, scientifically valid review with input from thousands of stakeholders.”
So what do the real scientists say, people like David Schindler, the Killam Memorial professor of ecology at the University of Alberta?
Schindler was the founding director of the Experimental Lakes Area in Ontario, which, among other landmark accomplishments, produced the science that drove the Acid Rain Treaty between Canada and the United States. Stephen Harper closed the installation down.
So was the science used to approve Trans Mountain “valid,” as Prof. Beatty claims?
Actually, it was non-existent in the most important sense. Prof. Schindler points out that no research — as in zero —has been done into what a bitumen spill would look like, because no one has ever done any open ocean research. No one knows whether it would sink, float or vanish up an ice-blocked salmon river on the B.C. coast.
Neither side of this debate can claim science is on its side.
Perhaps that is why an expert panel of the Royal Society of Canada reported in 2015 that a lengthy, high-priority research program had to be conducted before government could safely transport materials like bitumen. And just as important, know how to best mitigate damages from what Schindler calls an “inevitable” spill.
It is worth noting that the Trans Mountain pipeline is more likely to rupture because it will be carrying a much thicker and more acidic substance than pipelines carrying light, sweet crude.
“On the face of it,” Schindler wrote in the Edmonton Journal, “B.C. Premier John Horgan’s plan to do the necessary homework before allowing the pipeline and terminal to be built seems to be well supported by science.”
Supporters of Kinder Morgan and Trans Mountain like to talk about the huge Asian market that is panting for Alberta dilbit by the boatload. And now governments in Ottawa and Alberta are following that line, giving the nod to subsidizing the Trans Mountain project in the “national interest.”
However, if they are looking to China to buy Alberta bitumen over the long haul, they may be talking through their hats.
According to the New York Times, China plans to spend a minimum of $360 billion on renewable energy by 2020. The country is moving away from fossil fuels to reap two huge dividends — cleaning up the fouled air of the world’s largest CO2 emitter and taking the undisputed lead in the renewable energy industry.
The added bonus? The commitment to cleaner energy will also create an estimated 13 million jobs. Do the Chinese sound like a good bet for committing to long term contracts for Alberta bitumen? Does the country with the most electric cars in the world seem in sync with dirty oil?
As for the future of exporting crude oil, the smart money is throttling back on that business. Saudi Arabia, for example, is both refining more of its own crude before export and cutting back on direct burning of crude at home.
The Kingdom is also replacing oil-fired power generation with natural gas. As reported by Bloomberg News, Baker Hughes International data show more rigs drilling for gas in Saudi Arabia than for oil.
Premier Horgan may well be slapped down on the short term. And the combined power of the federal government, two western provinces and pro-business elements of the mainstream media may push through Trans Mountain, and even other pipelines.
Facing an $8.8 billion deficit in its most recent budget, Alberta is counting on pipelines and increases in the carbon tax to balance the books.
As for Trudeau, he is desperately trying to keep one election promise, getting a pipeline to tidewater, while hoping that Canadians will forget another — that any energy project would have to pass a better environmental assessment process than Stephen Harper’s.
But none of that sad realpolitik changes the fact that Canada, like the United States, with its abandonment of the Paris Accord and now the tariff on solar panels, has bet on the energy of the past.
We have chosen poor company for the near inevitable rise in temperatures on Earth of more than 2 degrees C by the end of the century. As environmentalist Bill McKibben put it on CNN after two damning studies on global warming hit the news:
“We’re a long way down the path to disastrous global warming, and the policy response, especially in the United States, has been pathetically underwhelming.”
Balancing budgets while imbalancing the planet is not much of a vision — unless, of course, your vision only extends to the next election.

Continental on India’s Political Menu

The US is in disarray, compelling its allies and partners, including India, to look at alternatives for their geo-political-economic interests. Europe, with its economic prowess and technological advancement, is moving fast to meet India’s requirements.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Europe four times since last summer. This included the first visit of an Indian PM to Portugal, and to Spain after three decades. While Germany — which Modi visited three times, including during the G20 Summit in Hamburg last year — is a primary economic partner in Europe, the decision to connect with French President Emmanuel Macron was pragmatic.
Macron followed it up with a visit this year, laying the roadmap for a partnership in the Indian Ocean Region.
The first Indo-Nordic Summit, held in Stockholm on Tuesday and attended by Modi, will be handy in safeguarding a rules-based world order amid China’s ambitions.
Nordic countries have the capabilities to meet New Delhi’s requirements across areas that range from innovation to investments and energy needs. The Netherlands, one of the top foreign investors in India, will reconnect with Delhi when Prime Minister Mark Rutte visits India in May. President Ram Nath Kovind and Vice-President Venkaiah Naidu are also scheduled to visit the continent later in the year.
This renewed focus on Europe must be seen in the context of changing geopolitics, India’s own priorities, Europe’s relevance in the post-Brexit period, and China’s expanding footprint in the continent. Britain’s decision to exit the EU has had little impact on Europe. GoI, in a timely move, decided to renew engagement with key players in the EU.
India-Germany dialogue, for instance, has gone beyond the need for a sustainable common strategy for globalisation and a commitment to the goals undertaken under the Paris Climate agreement. It suggests open framework-based trade relations and closer ties. India and Europe can play a leading role in G20, if the US under President Donald Trump reneges on that traditional role.
India is in search of state-of-the art technology, skills for its young workforce, and investments to fuel its economic growth. Europe, on its part, needs a dynamic market with growth prospects. A security partnership is no less important as terror attacks in Europe continue, and European capitals take the red flag that New Delhi had been raising for decades seriously.
Even as China has reached Europe via its mega connectivity initiative, and by being a key trading partner of the EU, there is increasing discomfort in European capitals over the way the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is being implemented. Yes, Europe needs Chinese funds. But it appears to be cautious about Beijing’s designs.
While expanding its European outreach, GoI must walk a fine balance amid its renewed partnership with Moscow. Europe, too, has huge stakes in trade, and hopes to navigate carefully through the choppy waters of today’s geopolitics.

The Reality of Indian Robust Job Growth

The best macroeconomic performance ever in India was obtained in 2014-18. Modi’s challenge remains the reining in of the enemies within. In a recent Financial Times article on the US elections, the author warns: “As midterms approach, election officials are learning to combat fake news, malware and troll farms”. 2018/19 is a national election year in India, and in an anything-goes manner, the political opposition has begun to hammer home the “fact” that because of demonetisation and other “bad” policies of the Modi government, job growth in India has been scarce in 2017. Hence, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP are vulnerable and “poised” to lose.
Politics is uncertain, and the Opposition’s claims, buttressed by an Opposition-friendly domestic (English) and foreign media, has taken on overtones of a prophecy. Every day brings about some news of scams, or slow economic growth, or even inflation.
My concern here is not to forecast the next election. Rather, my goal is to test the veracity of the claim that the Indian economy is in a terrible shape and that despite economic reforms like demonetisation and GST (or because of them), it is fighting to create jobs. The number most frequently touted is that the economy needs 8 to 12 million jobs a year, to keep unemployment and social tensions at bay. It is “clearly” producing very few jobs, and hence economic growth, and job creation is the faultline in the Indian economy.
At the time of the national elections in May 2014, India’s macro-economy was in a shambles. CPI inflation was running at 9.4 percent, and had averaged 7.8 percent over the previous 10 years of UPA rule. The previous five years, 2009-2013, had witnessed an average inflation rate of 9.7 percent per annum. GDP growth had also slowed down — from 7.7 percent in UPA-I to 7.1 percent in UPA-II. Not surprisingly, Modi’s election campaign centered around the macroeconomic malaise and corruption. The campaign emphasised growth, lower inflation, employment generation and the promise of “acche din”. Four years later, a legitimate question arises — how has the reality lived up to the promise (and expectations)?
Regarding the macro-economy, there is no question that the situation is considerably better today. In the last fiscal year (2017/18), CPI inflation is 6 percentage points (ppt) lower at 3.7 per cent; GDP growth is just 0.4 ppt lower at 6.7 per cent.
But what about jobs? Are we in a period of jobless growth, and if so, Modi’s popularity, and vote, is likely to be considerably dented. Going by reports in the media, this is exactly what the political opposition believes. They believe that jobless growth is a new Modi phenomenon. Is this the reality, or fake analysis?
I also believe that job growth is very important for votes, but am willing to take a historical perspective before passing judgement. However, there is a sense in which Modi is held to a higher standard than other politicians — he must deliver job growth, because he promised to do so. This higher expectation is flattering (to Modi). But how many of you know that during India’s peak growth period, UPA-1 and 2, job growth was at a very slow rate of 0.6 per cent per annum — so labour productivity was at a China-beating pace of over 7 per cent an annum for seven years. That is not the reality — hence, the only reasonable conclusion is that the NSSO data is understating job creation, that is employment growth, during the UPA years. By how much is a subject for research.
In order to properly assess what has happened to employment in 2017, we want to base our assessment on two separate age-groups — 15-24 and 25-64. The reason for this separation is that when you have increased enrolment in education by the young (and especially young women who are catching up with, and exceeding, the enrolment of men), then the employment (and labour force) definition should include the fact that you are attending school or college.
We employ two sources of data — the recent provident fund (EPFO) data (as first popularised by Soumya Ghosh and Pulak Ghosh) for the age-group 15-24, and the CMIE employment data for the 25-64 age group (see table). The EPFO data refers to the net additions of employees in the formal, provident fund payment sector; however, not all net additions are new employment. But for the young, given the difficulty, and attraction, of a formal sector job, it is unlikely that the 18-21 group will have any job-hoppers. For the six-month period, September 2017-February 2018, total net additions in the 18-21 age-group was 1.1 million; in the 22-25 group (college graduates?) net additions were lower at 0.8 million. Even after allowing a reasonable amount of job-hopping (20 per cent), the EPFO data suggests that in 2017, 3 million jobs were added in the 15-24 age group.
For the 25-64 age group, the CMIE data suggests that total employment creation in 2017 was a robust 12 million. Total job-creation in 2017, 15 million. While this estimate may not be the “truth”, it is unlikely to be far way from the truth. But as the FT quote suggests, beware of trolls.
The table also reports female labour-force participation (LFPRF) rates, an important ingredient in estimates of employment for India and selected countries in the world. This reveals that there are major problems with the CMIE data (and the problems are such as to bias the estimate of employment downwards). The CMIE data suggests that employment opportunities are so few in India that one half of the population, the women, have almost completely withdrawn from the labour market. For the 15-64 age group, CMIE’s estimate of LFPRF is 12.5 per cent — only one out of every eight women are offering themselves for work. And that the LFPRF is the lowest in the world — and declining! In 2015, the lowest LFPRF in the world was Iran, 14.4 per cent; the next lowest, Saudi Arabia, at 21.4 per cent. NSSO data (for 2011/12) had India’s LFPRF at 27.2 per cent. But CMIE has India’s LFPRF, circa 2017, at 12.5 per cent.
If you believe that, I have some snake oil to sell. Employment survey questions are the easiest to get answers to. Age, sex, and whether I was working yesterday or not. Contrast that with over 200 questions (including how much salt you bought) routinely asked in NSSO questions. A respondent can forget, lie, get confused, when you ask her questions about her consumption or income. But how can we forget our sex, age, and whether we worked yesterday? We can’t, and we don’t.
The CMIE survey is also a large sample survey (more than 5,00,000 respondents), and the survey is done every month. How can such a low LFPRF be obtained? The only manner in which such a large outsized anomaly can be obtained is via incorrect weights. (For the not so statistical, weights is the blow up factor to go from the sample to the population.)
It appears likely that 15 million jobs were created in 2017, not much different from the Vajpayee average of five years. Between 1999-2004, 11 million jobs were created each year (weekly status definition of employment, closest to the daily status CMIE definition; the usual status definition gives an increase of more than 12 million a year). For reasons unknown, but deserving investigation, the UPA-I and II era (2004 through 2011) reveal an employment gain of less than 4 million a year.
Any non-partisan interpretation of the data would suggest that in economic terms, the Modi period 2014-2018 has delivered the best macro-economic performance ever in India — several economic reforms, steady GDP growth (and growth that can, and should, accelerate to an 8 per cent+ potential), low inflation (shoo — don’t tell the MPC that!), and robust job-creation. But woman does not live by bread alone. While social tension in the form of riots has definitely declined post 2014, there has been a worrisome increase in “communal tensions”. Every political party in the world has its fringe — and the BJP has both a left fringe (with economic policies similar to the communists and the Congress left) and an ultra-nationalist and an ultra-religious “right” fringe — those who would kill a Muslim in the name of the cow. How to rein in the fringes is the biggest challenge for India, and PM Modi.

To Survive Greatest Challenges Civil Society Needs to Adapt

We live in a world of major geopolitical shifts and life-changing technological innovations. It’s fair to wonder, then, what our biggest hopes are for society in the coming decades.
It’s certain that the world has become a better place, according to nearly every measure of human well-being, and yet there is a need to acknowledge that new and looming challenges are looming. From the rise of nationalism, to increased demands for privacy, following widespread data leaks; from balancing growing human needs with planetary and environmental limits, to the impacts of sophisticated automation on people’s lives.
The list is long, and there is undoubtedly space for all stakeholders – policy-makers, civil society, corporations, media, academia – to take responsible action that brings about a stable, sustainable and peaceful world.
In this context, the work of civil society has become of even greater importance.
Problem solving
Civil society is a dedicated and committed problem-solver, but it seems clear that it needs to step up its efforts to adapt to a new reality of rapidly changing interconnected problems. When we look at the numbers, it appears the sector has the size and scale globally to be able to robustly adjust to change.
In the past, civil society organizations have found it difficult to statistically measure the economic impact of their work and the size of their sector; but data and new research has changed that. Recent figures provide evidence of a far larger force than previously predicted, amounting to $2.2 trillion in operating expenditures, and employing the equivalent of an estimated 54 million full-time workers globally, along with over 350 million volunteers.
But adapting is not enough. Innovation, creativity and transformation are imperatives in the sector if it’s to tackle the big challenges of our time.
So what’s next for civil society? Here are four key considerations:
High ambitions and high expectations
The workload of civil society organizations has increased in the past few years, and with more work comes more responsibility and the need to manage expectations.
For example, civil society groups are being counted on to realize the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and to work with other societal actors and decision-makers to transform the global development landscape over the next decade.
This is no small challenge. There are 17 goals covering a whole range of thorny societal issues to plan for, deliver and monitor – and new roles for the sector to operate in against a backdrop of blurring boundaries between civil society, governments and businesses.
This context of dramatically increasing demands is completed by larger-scale security, humanitarian, and climate-change-related challenges that are looming over the horizon. All this is forcing the civil society sector to find effective coping mechanisms by rethinking programmes, operations, mobilization strategies and partnership models.
Expectations on the sector to show its relevance and capabilities are high, but these expectations are accompanied by a generalized evaporation of trust in civil society institutions – as well as businesses, governments and media.
This collapse of trust means civil society needs to work harder, more effectively and more transparently, and to communicate better with current and prospective recipients, members and stakeholders.
The recent scandals that have hit some international NGOs, as well as the growth of right-wing, populist ideas, are further contributing to misperceptions and distrust in the sector, and damaging its credibility. This could create a potentially vicious cycle of decreased grassroots engagement and funding, ultimately threatening the whole sector.
Difficult legislative and operational environment
Across the globe, the general trend towards more restrictive regulatory measures, increased controls, and funding restrictions by governments is unquestionably making it more challenging for certain civil society institutions to carry out their activities.
While on the one hand this could be interpreted as an opportunity to introduce more transparency and rigour in the sector, on the other it is also contributing to a restrictive civic space, whereby civil society and citizens are limited in their civic freedoms and activities.
In some specific cases, government-promulgated anti-NGO regulations – mostly targeting non-governmental groups working in the human rights/corruption/governance spaces – create a narrative of repression and criminalization of the sector’s work. This can make it impossible for civil society organizations to function independently, and forces them to quit their operations despite a growing need for their services.
The current landscape of legislative frameworks is at best only creating a greater bureaucratic workload; but at worst it is putting at risk the safety of committed individuals in the sector, and raising many questions about the cost-opportunity of operating at all in certain contexts.
Reworking the relationship with the private sector
Meanwhile, businesses have become more visibly engaged with the social and environmental agenda.
Multinational companies, and those operating on a global scale in particular, have been increasingly proactive in the field of sustainability. With 10% of publicly owned companies accounting for 80% of profits, the market dominance of a growing concentration of multinational corporate power – while worrisome in some regards – provides leverage to positively influence public policy and accelerate societal investments.
On an engagement spectrum ranging from bland PR to corporate activism and forceful campaigns addressing sensitive social and political issues, the corporate sector has emerged as a partner for change on social and environmental issues.
From the implementation of the Paris Agreements to the United Nations development goals, the international community is expecting businesses to be as responsible as government and civil society for progressing the sustainable development agenda. It expects business to contribute private-sector competences, such as innovation and efficiency, as well as resources, like assets and financial support, in the process.
In this respect, civil society’s relationship with business has become more nuanced and sophisticated, with interesting examples of forward-looking collaborative partnerships and unlikely alliances emerging.
This relationship is helped by the increasingly online nature of political organizing and civic engagement. On the one hand, online tools make it easier for individuals and civil society actors to mobilize and join efforts; on the other hand, corporate ownership of these tools has implications for the ability to safeguard individuals’ privacy and internet access rights.
Technology matters
Civil society is facing a dramatic transition as it moves into the Fourth Industrial Revolution. This raises key operational concerns and questions about its ability to stay agile, to understand and respond to the impact of technology on the communities civil society organizations have traditionally served.
Some of these transformations mean an enhanced role for civil society; others challenge the sector to define its responsibilities and contributions in the context of a hyper-connected world. The sector has built at least a decade of knowledge on engaging with information and communication technologies (ICTs); but digitization and the emerging proliferation of artificial intelligence, biotechnologies, 3D printing, blockchain and other technologies warrant a new level of preparedness, investment and adaptation for most of today’s civil groups.
It is not simply a matter of integrating innovations and capacities in services, products and programmes. The widespread use of big data across sectors has ushered in new challenges associated with accountability, fairness, trust and transparency that could negatively affect societies by engendering discrimination, injustice and the exclusion of vulnerable populations.
The sector needs to develop a nuanced understanding of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, its implications for society and, consequently, its impact on how civil society champions human rights, delivers services for sustainable development, and fosters dialogue on society’s values.
Civil society leaders should develop a vision of their role in influencing the development and deployment of emerging technologies in the market to ensure these are harnessed for social good, and that beneficiaries – and humanity in general – are protected from harm.
Innovation is the new normal
Innovation has become even more critical in the non-profit sector in recent years. This applies in all contexts, whether it is devising new ways to deliver services, adapting to difficult legislation, creating new partnership models with the private sector, setting new benchmarks for workers’ rights in the digital revolution, or rethinking the relationship with technologies and their governance.
New responsibilities are falling on the shoulders of civil society leaders, and the sector needs to show its ability to remain agile and adaptive, and to pioneer new approaches and solutions to social development through responsible innovation and inclusive technology. It needs to do this the civil society way.

Sunday Special: The Long Walk- Did the Aryans Migrate into India?

Co-authored by 92 leading scientists, a new study offers new insights into makeup of the Indian population. Will it settle or again trigger the contentious debate? The study which is yet to be peer-reviewed does not use the term ‘Aryan’. It says Steppe pastoralists around the Volga and Don rivers in Russia moved towards India encountering the Indus Valley population
The study
Titled ‘The Genomic Formation of South and Central Asia’, the study looks at “ancient DNA” from 357 individuals from Central and South Asia to say that there was indeed some kind of migration into India around the 2nd millennium BCE, towards the end of the Indus Valley Civilisation. Overall, the dataset included 612 ancient individuals that were then co-analysed with genome-wide data from present-day individuals. The study which is yet to be peer-reviewed does not use the term ‘Aryan’. It says Steppe pastoralists around the Volga and Don rivers in Russia moved towards India encountering the Indus Valley population. “[T]hey mixed with a more southern population that we document at multiple sites as outlier individuals exhibiting a distinctive mixture of ancestry related to Iranian agriculturalists and South Asian hunter-gatherers,” the study states.
Mixing of population groups
The study is based on the understanding that present-day South Asians have descended from a mixture of two highly divergent populations: Ancestral North Indians (ANI) and Ancestral South Indians (ASI). The research reveals a complex set of genetic sources that combine three potential groupings that mixed together in various ways to create the ANI and ASI. The first are the South Asian hunter-gatherers, who are described in the study as AASI or Ancient Ancestral South Indians. These were the Onge or the indigenous population of the Andaman Islands. Second, is the Iranian agriculturalists, represented by 8th millennium BCE pastoralists from the Zagros mountains, who were known to have come to the subcontinent.aryans-mapo
Then, there are the Steppe pastoralists, often loosely referred to as the ‘Aryans’, who inhabited the vast Central Asia grasslands. The study reveals that in the beginning, the Indus Valley population was a result of the mixing of first and second groups. Then the Steppe pastoralists moved Southwards and mixed with the Indus Valley population. Further, people from Indus Valley moved southwards to merge with the South Asian hunter-gatherers to form the ASI. In the meantime, a genome admixture took place in the north between the population from the Steppe and the Indus Valley to create the ANI population stock. Later, the ANI and ASI continued to mix with each other to create almost the entire ancestry of South Asian population. The study works with the Indus Valley Periphery data and uses data of individuals from Central Asian sites that they believe to be related to the Indus Valley people, even as genetic data from the Harappan sites are yet to be released.
Another finding is the connection between the Steppe pastoralists and the priestly castes, and cultures of North India. The research finds that 10 out of 140 Indian groups studied have a higher amount of Steppe ancestry than Indus Valley ancestry, the highest two were ‘Brahmin-Tiwari’ and ‘Brahmin-UP’. The study points out that “although the enrichment for Steppe ancestry is not found in southern Indian groups, the Steppe enrichment in the northern groups is striking as Brahmins and Bhumihars are among the traditional custodians of texts written in early Sanskrit”.
The map shows the plausible expansion of Near Eastern agriculture, human movements, and mixture, thereby spreading languages across the subcontinent.
Significance
According to author and former Businessworld editor Tony Joseph, who has written extensively on early Indians, the study is “pathbreaking” because DNA from 612 ancient individuals were co-analysed with DNA from present-day individuals and “this is what makes this study dramatically different from previous studies”. “In the last five years, the techniques for extracting and analysing ancient DNA has improved by leaps and bounds, and this is helping us understand our prehistory far better, not just in South Asia, but around the world. For example, in the last five years, we have learnt that Europe went through two major mass migrations that changed their demography, and in the same period, we have also learnt that the Americas, before European arrivals, were peopled by at least four migrations from Asia. So the findings about South Asia are just one part of the revolution that ancient DNA is bringing to prehistory across the world.”
Essentially, Joseph points out, the study shows that there are no “pure” people anywhere — except perhaps in some very isolated and remote places such as some of the Andaman and Nicobar islands. “We are all mixed. Almost all parts of the world have seen repeated mass migrations that have deeply impacted their demography and India is no exception. The genetic studies should be liberating in a way because it should make us aware that we are all interconnected.”
David Reich, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School and one of the authors of the study, too, points this out in his new book, Who We Are and How We Got Here. Writing in the context of a previous study that he worked on, in which he classified present-day Indians as the outcome of mixtures between ANI and ASI, he said, “The ANI are related to Europeans, central Asians, Near Easterners, and people of the Caucasus, but we made no claim about the location of their homeland or any migrations. The ASI descend from a population not related to any present-day populations outside India. We showed that the ANI and ASI had mixed dramatically in India. The result is that everyone in mainland India today is a mix, albeit in different proportions, of ancestry related to West Eurasians, and… more closely related to diverse East Asian and South Asian populations. No group in India can claim genetic purity.”
Criticism
However, the study has invited criticism from some. ICHR member and guest professor at IIT Gandhinagar, Michel Danino, said that the study is “steeped in circularity”. “It accepts the Indo-European migrations into Europe and into South Asia as a fact, then repeatedly fits the genetic evidence to this ‘fact’. This is faulty methodology…,” he said. He pointed out that “No ancient Harappan DNA has been analysed, which could have provided some secure comparison for contemporary samples in Central Asia and elsewhere.”
Danino also says that the study assumes that South Asia was more or less empty of population in the pre-Harappan era. “It sweeps aside the subcontinent’s Mesolithic and Neolithic populations which undoubtedly have substantial contributions to the South Asian genome. It considers such Mesolithic and Neolithic populations only in the context of Central Asia and Europe! This is one example [among others] of a strong Eurocentric bias in the study,” he says.

 

India on the Trans-Europe Express

The problem with summits is that they are mostly talking shops. Summits with the EU and Commonwealth, in particular, are worse since both organisations are so diverse that the prospect of any meaningful action is virtually non-existent. No one has made any tangible economic case for the Commonwealth.
The problem with EU is its members prefer bilateral dealings, with India playing good brother (read: allowing EU to walk away with the contracts) while EU itself plays bad brother (read: trotting out demarches to India on the death penalty, etc).
Even smaller groupings like the Nordic Summit, comprising Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland and Iceland, are rife with contradictions. Sweden and Denmark, for example, flatly refused to follow the EU boycott of Narendra Modi prior to 2014, while Norway, Finland and Iceland were particularly vocal supporters of the boycott.
Given all this, there was at least one tangible achievement in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Europe trip this week: the diplomatic cold shoulderof Denmark may be partially broken.
In early 2014, Modi had apparently wanted Denmark ‘reinstated’, but his bureaucrats had prevailed, given the Danish government had reneged the promise of returning Purulia arms drop case-accused and Danish national Kim Davy.
The problem there was that Denmark had even refused to exhaust legal options — thereby providing India a face-saver — all the while as its government was complicit in CIA’s extraordinary renditions to torture camps in Syria. Even after India’s diplomatic sanctions came into effect, Indian and Danish leaders have met, for example, during the 2009 Copenhagen Summit. But this did not involve bilateral meetings as in Stockholm earlier this week.
However, Stockholm was merely a meeting of the absolute top levels of government. At the middle levels — minister, secretary or below — things may not change. Perhaps the best indicator of gauging institutional change would be to see how EU free trade negotiators deal with Denmark, as they have repeatedly told their Danish counterparts to sit out on negotiations with India.
New-clear Policy
On the possibilities front, there were three clear avenues of cooperation: environment, nuclear energy and China. On the first issue, despite being a governance-deficit State, India’s progress has been nothing short of spectacular, by some metrics even better than Germany’s. Though it accounts for a mere 13.2% of installed capacity, the metric to be looked at is that peak demand in India stands at 150-plus GW, and installed renewable capacity at 60-plus GW in early 2017.
This means that even in India’s heavily distorted energy market, prone to massive losses and theft, almost 39% of demand can be met by renewable energy, compared to under-35% for Germany. In Europe, renewables are seen as an economic issue related to spending (cost per unit viability), as well as overall well-being.
In India, however, renewables are seen as economic empowerment, where despite high per-unit costs, the fact that setting up a rudimentary wind mill or solar collector in a village is much cheaper than putting up iron poles and wires across hundreds of kilometres to bring the grid to consumers, explains the near-fanatical push. What this means is that India should take up the natural leadership that accrues to it.
This normative leadership will be important in consolidating India’s manufacturing of renewable technology, currently heavily dependent on China. It is also an important bargaining tool to acquire energy storage technology, which given the vagaries of renewables (during low wind or night-time conditions), is key to the success of green power.
Which then brings us to nuclear power — specifically France, the superpower of the commercial nuclear world. France’s position on reactors to India has been roughly, ‘We respect your liability laws. But you must respect, that as per French law, we cannot sell you naval nuclear reactors. If you believe India deserves exclusion from French law, then show us how much you love us by excluding France from the liability law.’
Given President Emmanuel Macron’s push for green energy, and India’s strengths, the French ‘equivalence argument’ can be tilted in India’s favour and would find resonance in the Elysée. The question, however, is: given how silo-ised and timid Indian foreign policy tends to be, can the two issues be linked up and a concerted push be made by India for storage technology transfer, exclusive supply deals to the European green energy market, and a nuclear exception from France?
Belt and Road Less Taken
Finally, there’s China. Both Europe and India are vociferously opposed to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Militarily, it is Europe’s continuing refusal to sell cutting-edge equipment to China that ensures India has a fighting chance through a qualitative edge. The problem is India’s own indisciplined thinking on mattersmilitary. This makes access to western weapons both ruinously expensive and operationally ineffective.
Ultimately, the moral of Modi’s trip to Europe is that the ball lies in India’s court. Should India decide to synchronise its diplomacy and energy policies better and more vocally, have the courage to make exceptions and rationalise its fragmented defence, the cumulative message is that India will find a ready and willing partner in Europe.

Three Smart Cities- A Lesson for Others

In factories, labs, and of course science fiction, imaginary robots keep fuelling our imagination about artificial humans and autonomous machines.
Real-world robots remain surprisingly dysfunctional, although they are steadily infiltrating urban areas across the globe. This fourth industrial revolution driven by robots is shaping urban spaces and urban life in response to opportunities and challenges in economic, social, political and healthcare domains. Our cities are becoming too big for humans to manage.
Good city governance enables and maintains smooth flow of things, data, and people. These include public services, traffic, and delivery services. Long queues in hospitals and banks imply poor management. Traffic congestion demonstrates that roads and traffic systems are inadequate. Goods that we increasingly order online don’t arrive fast enough. And the wi-fi often fails our 24/7 digital needs. In sum, urban life, characterised by environmental pollution, speedy life, traffic congestion, connectivity and increased consumption, needs robotic solutions – or so we are lead to believe.
In the past five years, national governments have started to see automation as the key to (better) urban futures. Many cities are becoming test beds for national and local governments for experimenting with robots in social spaces, where robots have both practical purpose (to facilitate everyday life) and a very symbolic role (to demonstrate good city governance). Whether through autonomous cars, automated pharmacists, service robots in local stores, or autonomous drones delivering Amazon parcels, cities are being automated at a steady pace.
Many large cities (Seoul, Tokyo, Shenzhen, Singapore, Dubai, London, San Francisco) serve as test beds for autonomous vehicle trials in a competitive race to develop “self-driving” cars. Automated ports and warehouses are also increasingly automated and robotised. Testing of delivery robots and drones is gathering pace beyond the warehouse gates. Automated control systems are monitoring, regulating and optimising traffic flows. Automated vertical farms are innovating production of food in “non-agricultural” urban areas around the world. New mobile health technologies carry promise of healthcare “beyond the hospital”. Social robots in many guises – from police officers to restaurant waiters – are appearing in urban public and commercial spaces.
The components of a smart city.
smart cities
As these examples show, urban automation is taking place in fits and starts, ignoring some areas and racing ahead in others. But as yet, no one seems to be taking account of all of these various and interconnected developments. So how are we to forecast our cities of the future? Only a broad view allows us to do this. To give a sense, here are three examples: Tokyo, Dubai and Singapore.
Tokyo
Currently preparing to host the Olympics 2020, Japan’s government also plans to use the event to showcase many new robotic technologies. Tokyo is therefore becoming an urban living lab. The institution in charge is the Robot Revolution Realisation Council, established in 2014 by the government of Japan.
The main objectives of Japan’s robotisation are economic reinvigoration, cultural branding and international demonstration. In line with this, the Olympics will be used to introduce and influence global technology trajectories. In the government’s vision for the Olympics, robot taxis transport tourists across the city, smart wheelchairs greet Paralympians at the airport, ubiquitous service robots greet customers in 20-plus languages, and interactively augmented foreigners speak with the local population in Japanese.
Tokyo shows us what the process of state-controlled creation of a robotic city looks like.
Singapore
Singapore, on the other hand, is a “smart city”. Its government is experimenting with robots with a different objective: as physical extensions of existing systems to improve management and control of the city.
In Singapore, the techno-futuristic national narrative sees robots and automated systems as a “natural” extension of the existing smart urban ecosystem. This vision is unfolding through autonomous delivery robots (the Singapore Post’s delivery drone trials in partnership with AirBus helicopters) and driverless bus shuttles from Easymile, EZ10.
Meanwhile, Singapore hotels are employing state-subsidised service robots to clean rooms and deliver linen and supplies and robots for early childhood education have been piloted to understand how robots can be used in pre-schools in the future. Health and social care is one of the fastest growing industries for robots and automation in Singapore and globally.
Dubai
Dubai is another emerging prototype of a state-controlled smart city. But rather than seeing robotisation simply as a way to improve the running of systems, Dubai is intensively robotising public services with the aim of creating the “happiest city on Earth”. Urban robot experimentation in Dubai reveals that authoritarian state regimes are finding innovative ways to use robots in public services, transportation, policing and surveillance.
National governments are in competition to position themselves on the global politico-economic landscape through robotics, and they are also striving to position themselves as regional leaders. This was the thinking behind the city’s September 2017 test flight of a flying taxi developed by the German drone firm Volocopter – staged to “lead the Arab world in innovation”. Dubai’s objective is to automate 25% of its transport system by 2030.
It is currently also experimenting with Barcelona-based PAL Robotics’ humanoid police officer and Singapore-based vehicle OUTSAW. If the experiments are successful, the government has announced it will robotise 25% of the police force by 2030.
While imaginary robots keep fuelling our imagination more than ever – from Ghost in the Shell to Blade Runner 2049 – real-world robots make us rethink our urban lives.
These three urban robotic living labs – Tokyo, Singapore, Dubai – help us gauge what kind of future is being created, and by whom. From hyper-robotised Tokyo to smartest Singapore and happy, crime free Dubai, these three comparisons show that, no matter what the context, robots are perceived as means to achieve global futures based on a specific national imagination. Just like the films, they demonstrate the role of the state in envisioning and creating that future.

 

 

Saturday Special: The US Suffers The Rampant Pedophilia

A recent headline left many readers sickened: “Wisconsin Man Sentenced to 60 Years in Prison for Trying to Sell His 4-Year-Old Daughter for Sex.” ABC7Chicago.com reported that this father placed an ad on Craigslist under the heading “Play With Daddie’s Little Girl.” In e-mail exchanges, 30-year-old Andrew Turley told a customer that he would give his daughter “sleep meds” for an encounter.
The selling price for his daughter was $1,000 for two hours. The customer gave him the money, found the man’s 4-year-old daughter in a bed, drugged—then revealed that he was actually an undercover agent and arrested this monster.
“This case broke my heart,” said Harris County Assistant District Attorney Stewanna Miskell. “A father is supposed to be a protector, not a predator.” How true! In an increasingly dangerous world, truly God-fearing fathers are needed to protect their families.
There are other horror stories even worse than this one. This is what is happening to many children in America and elsewhere. God-fearing, loving fathers are disappearing from the home. And in their absence, pedophiles are coming in.
Widespread Problem
Pedophilia—the desire to have sex with children—is exploding in the United States. Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics show that child pornography is one of the fastest-growing crimes in the U.S. In the past decade, child pornography arrests have increased 2500 percent.
Two thirds of sex offenders in state prisons committed offenses against children. There are more than 747,000 registered sex offenders in the United States today. As many as 100,000 are noncompliant and missing.
The U.S. Justice Department estimates that close to 300,000 American youth are currently at risk for becoming victims of commercial sexual exploitation. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reports, “Best data suggests at least 100,000 American children a year are victimized through child sexual exploitation.” That is more children than the number of people who die from car accidents and illegal drugs combined (TheDemandProject.org).
The full extent of this perversion is even worse than these horrific numbers show. The National Center for Victims of Crime reports that “the prevalence of child sexual abuse … is often not reported.” rainn estimates that out of every 100 sexual assaults, only 31 are reported to police. rainn also offers these chilling numbers:
During a one-year period in the U.S., 16 percent of youth ages 14 to 17 had been sexually victimized.
Over the course of their lifetime, 28 percent of U.S. youth ages 14 to 17 had been sexually victimized.
One in 25 children between the ages of 10 and 17 have received an online sexual solicitation from someone who tried to make contact with them offline.
Pedophiles are targeting children by using information from their social media accounts. They are able to learn what the children like and dislike, where they live and go to school, and even where they are at a specific time. Then, in thousands of cases, they rape them.
Mental health experts have learned that when someone becomes addicted to child pornography, he usually progresses to younger and younger children and will seek out more sadistic, masochistic images, and even bestiality.
Once a pedophile begins to abuse children, he usually does not stop until he is caught and incarcerated. Statistics show that an average serial child molester will have as many as 400 victims!
Who They Victimize
Pedophiles look for certain characteristics in potential victims. According to the Children’s Assessment Center perpetrators look for children who are passive, quiet, troubled and lonely.
And they look for children from broken homes. “Family structure is the most important risk factor in child sexual abuse,” the Children’s Assessment Center states. “Children who live with two married biological parents are at low risk for abuse. The risk increases when children live with step-parents or a single parent. Children living without either parent (foster children) are 10 times more likely to be sexually abused than children that live with both biological parents. Children who live with a single parent that has a live-in partner are at the highest risk: They are 20 times more likely to be victims of child sexual abuse than children living with both biological parents (Sedlack, et. al., 2010).” Solid families protect children. Broken homes tend to expose them to terrible danger.
According to 2014 Pew Research statistics, more than half of American children today (54 percent) live in nontraditional families—broken families. Of those, 34 percent live with a single parent.
Pedophilia is rising, and fathers aren’t there to stop it. As more families fracture, the demand for sex with children is growing. And people are supplying that demand.
A ‘Horrific’ Japanese Factory
A recent Daily Mail report described the reactions of a journalist who had toured a factory that makes sex dolls: “Having traveled to Japan to learn more about the industry for the bbc Three documentary Sex Robots and Us, James Young visited a factory in an industrial suburb of Tokyo, where he was left shocked by the petite size of some of its ultra-realistic dolls.
“The visibly disturbed presenter grew tearful as he grilled manufacturer Hiro Okawa about one particularly small doll, who told him the ‘actual age setting’ was left to customers’ ‘imagination.’” “There may be some kind of sentiment to petite, kid-like size,” the boss at the factory explained. “Afterwards the shaken presenter said the sight of such a ‘young’ doll was ‘horrific.’” The journalist said, “I just had to get out of there.”
This factory is filling a demand: Customers want lifelike, child-sized sex dolls!
Our society continues to push the boundaries of sexual sins. Fornication isn’t enough. Adultery isn’t enough. Homosexuality isn’t enough. Now mainstream culture is growing more “tolerant” of pedophilia, discussing it openly in the media and even glamorizing it in some Hollywood movies. Acceptance of fornication, adultery and homosexuality started in much the same way. How long will it be before journalists, actors, politicians, movements, organizations, alliances and special-interest groups begin promoting
The Sodomites in Biblical era went about their lives like normal, just as our society does today. They ate and drank and bought and sold the way they wanted to, just as we do today. They felt sophisticated, smart, enlightened—just like us. And they dived deeper and deeper into sin, especially rampant sexual sin—just like our society today.
Then what happened? The cries and sins of this perverted place were heard by God (Genesis 19). He sent His angels, manifested as men, to investigate. The angels came to a man named Lot, who lived in that wicked city, and while they were at his home, a mob demanded that Lot turn over his guests so that they could rape them. The angels struck the Sodomites blind—and they still groped for the door! Even sudden, supernatural blindness didn’t stop them from trying to satisfy their sexual lust!
The angels then told Lot why they were there. God had sent them to burn that city to the ground. And God rained down literal fire and brimstone on that “sophisticated,” “enriched,” “beautiful” society and turned it into a wasteland that exists to this day.
Pedophiles today are willing to risk great punishment to gratify their wicked pleasures. Homosexuality, adultery, fornication are all widely accepted, even by “conservatives.” Is our society today so different from Sodom?
A wicked history is now repeating itself. When the fathers leave, the pedophiles emerge. And a society that indulges in sexual sins is about to be destroyed.

Baggage of history: India & China need dump this

The two words that have driven India and China into an unusual summit in Wuhan are “fear” and “trust”. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is apprehensive that an uncontrolled event on the border could undermine a sure-shot reelection in 2019. President Xi Jinping fears that an increasingly confrontational US could disrupt his second term and undermine the Chinese economy at a critical transition point. New Delhi reached out and Beijing reciprocated and hence the summit.
Chinese and Indian leaders must ask themselves as to why they are locked into the kind of relationship they are in. History, of course, has played a big role. But if history alone were to decide foreign policy, the world would forever be a Dar-ul-Harb (House of War). More important, in the Sino-Indian context, the processes that kept peace between the two sides since the Rajiv-Deng meeting of 1988 have run out of steam.
The succession of confidence building measures on the border beginning 1993, failed to prevent the Depsang and Chumur incidents in 2013 and 2014 respectively. The high special representatives of the two sides finished the technical work of defining a mutually acceptable border. But their respective political leaderships have been unable, or unwilling, to make that final political push towards the final settlement.
Chinese activism in South Asia and the Indian Ocean Region, the 2017 Doklam crisis, India’s enthusiastic participation in the revived Quadrilateral Group, showed that the simultaneously rising Asian giants were rubbing against each other in dangerous ways. This negative drift could escalate to a larger confrontation shattering their respective dreams of national rejuvenation.
Both sides have lamented the lack of trust and the need to enhance “strategic communications”. Even so they have attributed the worst motives to the actions of the other and ridden roughshod over each other’s sensitivities. China has blocked our membership to the NSG and the designation of Masood Azhar as a terrorist in the UN, and India has feted Dalai Lama and campaigned against BRI.
They are not unaware of the opportunity costs they are paying. China is ideally suited to fulfill India’s pressing need for investment and infrastructure. Indian and Chinese companies do good business in each other’s territories, trade is booming, but the economic relationship remains well below its potential because of issues of trust.
Things began changing after the Xi-Modi meeting at the Brics summit in Xiamen last September. There has been a surge of “strategic communications” – high level meetings of top ministers and officials in New Delhi and Beijing. The most significant was the one between Ajit Doval and Yang Jiechi, the designated point men of the relationship. Their meeting was held after a gap of 20 months and they spoke of the need to resolve their differences “with due respect for each other’s sensitivities, concerns and aspirations.”
That phrase captures what the Modi-Xi summit is all about – the need to do all those things listed, so as to enhance that elusive thing called “trust” which would, in turn, allow the two rising Asian states to rub against each other without the friction that could touch off a fire. But to build that trust, they need to dump the baggage of history – the border dispute and 1962 war, China’s use of Pakistan to contain India, New Delhi’s own alliances, first with Russia, now with the US.
India has to accept that China has interests in “our” region but, in turn, Beijing should know that India has a heft and will stand its ground on its key interests. Latin phrases remain irreplaceable because of their precision. That’s why the phrase that comes to mind is ‘modus vivendi’. That’s what India and China need across the Indo-Pacific. This can’t be achieved overnight, but as the Chinese saying goes: A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

Missing on life’s precious moments

The best things in life are the people you love, the places you have seen, and the memories you have made along the way. But those precious moments, wonderful friends disappear so fast. Life takes its turns and twists. Our feelings, moments, emotions do change quite rapidly these days. Is it because we are too fast with our gadgets, cell phones, sometimes two and even four and their noises around?
With a phone or a personal stereo strapped on, people tend to miss the little things — the flower struggling for life through a crack in pavement, the song of spring, birds, or the beautiful curve straight ahead on the horizon.
In an era of email, text messages, Facebook and Twitter, we are all required to do several things at once. But this constant multitasking is taking its toll. We are doing the jobs of ten different people while still trying to keep up with our lives, our children and parents, our friends, our careers, our hobbies, and our favourite TV shows. In our over busy schedule, we have forgotten to respond to sweet little things. We just forget that life is short. It can come and go like a feather in the wind.
Was reading a report ‘Distraction is dangerous — on road, in air’ by Jay Evensen published in Deseret Morning News a few years back. The report says, I suppose it was just a matter of time. Late last month, a pilot crashed his small plane onto I-81 in Virginia while talking on a cell phone. No one knows the exact details. The pilot, tragically, died. But at the time of the accident he was talking to a friend who was driving a tractor-trailer. The pilot was trying to fly low to the ground right over him. His wing caught a power line, according to various news reports.
Sure, this story hints at recklessness that goes beyond a cell phone…
Distractions are the real enemy. It didn’t have to be a phone. It easily could have been an iPod, or some other entertainment device. In many of the US universities as also in India, only recently it is being noticed how only a few students can navigate from one class to the next without a concert in their ears. Silence is the enemy.
We allow busyness to drag us through the day, and we miss a lot of things. It’s not our fault. We are running too fast in this materialistic world. It smashes the happiness and peace of mind of those who succumb to it. It’s associated with anxiety, depression and broken relationship. We don’t really know what for we are running so fast. And the trouble goes much deeper than the cell phone. It’s cultural. Folks today like things quick. They need constant stimulation. They want quick scene changes. They fear boredom.
Our faith has been shaken. We have lost confidence in our institutions. Our beliefs gone. We have started feeling that the internet would change everything. Our expectations with sweet little things have been dashed.
Abraham Lincoln once wrote to his son’s teacher and that was meant for his son: “But also give him quiet time/to ponder the eternal mystery of birds in the sky/bees in the sun/and the flowers on a green hillside.” It was a universal command by a great man. But we hardly follow.
There are no easy answers in a world where scenes shift faster and faster and distractions come from all directions. Flying can be mundane and boring. So can driving. So can walking. But we shouldn’t be distracted. Moreover, we should understand that work shouldn’t be a 24-hour-a-day rush and that careers should not be a wild adventure. Yet we are still holding on.

Weekend Special: Death of The Traditional Office

Innovative companies have embraced the theory that playful features within an office can boost creativity.
The open-plan format that dominated office design for the past century is being consigned to the dustbin of architectural history.
Gone with it are many clerical, secretarial and accounting-type jobs. Today’s offices need to cater to 21st century roles: web designer; content maker; app producer; data scientist, to name but a few.
Unlike generations of white-collar workers before them, modern employees want – and often demand – flexible spaces that are conducive to thinking and that help them perform the tasks required of them. These might include soundproof booths, soft-seating areas or standing desks.
Additionally, many companies are complaining of difficulty hiring and retaining millennials; and a barn-like office with little daylight and row upon row of desks is unlikely to help. In a Forbes blog, Erika Andersen, author of Growing Great Employees: Turning Ordinary People Into Extraordinary Performers, wrote that for this new generation of workers “meaning, flexibility and challenge are key to engaging their hearts and minds”.
Some companies use their modern office layouts as a recruitment tool. Video tours of Microsoft’s offices led by interns sell the benefits of green spaces, free drinks machines and games rooms. “We have five cafes, a Starbucks and a Costa,” one intern enthused about Microsoft UK’s Reading campus.
Office redesigns, backed by science
Meanwhile, research shows that features of modern offices, such as natural daylight, windows with views of trees and plants and better air quality can all help employees think, remember, concentrate and perform better. Improvements such as better lighting and less carbon dioxide boost productivity and reduce staff sickness levels, the studies suggest.
Professor Stephen Heppell, an expert who advises schools, companies and other organizations on how to create flexible work and learning spaces, said many of the innovations of the past 20 years originated in education systems. “It’s interesting that when you walk into the Googles and Facebooks, everything looks like what you’d see in high-achieving schools.”
Ambient factors such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the air, the light levels, how warm offices are and their sound levels need to be better understood by companies, Heppell says.
He is running a project, Learnometer, which looks at how environmental factors may harm a child’s school performance, but has used it with other organizations, including the UK’s Hockey Squad.
Crucial to improving that space was the development of different “zones” for different purposes, better reflective paint on the walls to improve light levels, and improved air quality.
Innovative companies have embraced the theory that playful features within an office can boost creativity.
“The inventors of graphene [a material discovered in the UK that is 1mm thick and could transform sectors such as such as electronics, energy, health and construction] came across it in their play time,” Heppell says.
Google pioneered the trend for slides and ping-pong tables. And one of its London offices features beach huts and dodgem cars as well as slides.
Microsoft has just finished building two treehouses for workers to use as meeting rooms at its Washington HQ, with another due to be finished later this year. Microsoft has built treehouses for office meetings
An overlooked facet of office transformation may be how you describe it. Instead of “open plan”, which Heppell says conjures up images of poor 1960s design, bad acoustics and uninspiring paintwork, he prefers “agile”.
This word, too, he said, underlines what executives want to achieve as it is all conducive to improving workers’ “smart thinking”.
“After all,” he said, “we have computers to do the ‘dumb’ thinking for us. What else is left?”
The rise and fall of open-plan offices
1854: the idea was mooted in a UK civil service report: “For the intellectual work, separate rooms are necessary so that a person who works with his head may not be interrupted; but for the more mechanical work, the working in concert of a number of clerks in the same room under proper superintendence, is the proper mode of meeting it…”
1887: a civil service commission “strongly recommend . . . concentrating a number of clerks in large rooms. Supervision would thus be much better effected and by fewer hands.”
Late 1800s-early 1900s: US engineer Frederick Taylor, a leader of the Efficiency Movement that sought to eliminate economic waste, designed early open-plan offices.
1950s: Bürolandschaft, a type of office-planning (literally “office-landscape”) evolved in Germany. According to website Open Work Space Design, the concept “used organic groupings of desks in patterns designed to encourage conversation and create a happier workforce”.
1970s-1980s: companies moved to “cube”-style arrangements, which provided more privacy but which businesses used to cram as many workers into confined spaces as possible. This antagonized staff and didn’t foster cooperation as intended.
2000-today: offices moved to multipurpose spaces, comfy seating areas, and games rooms. Though associated with Silicon Valley’s tech scene, the idea can be found in corporate settings globally.

Korean Conundrums

Just a few months back, Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un appeared to be deriving considerable pleasure from exchanging taunts and playground insults. Threats of fire and brimstone were hurled in both directions. The risk of hostilities loomed large.
That risk has by no means disappeared, but it has certainly receded. ‘Dotard’ and ‘Little Rocket Man’ are expected to come face to face at a summit late next month or in early June. There is the possibility of a historic breakthrough, but also the danger of a decisive breakdown that could lead to catastrophic consequences.
Apart from their distinctively eccentric hairstyles, one thing Kim and Trump clearly have in common is their unpredictability. The North Korean leader changed his tune around the turn of the year and, beginning with the winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, launched an impressive charm offensive. It was facilitated by the fact that in the middle of last year power in Seoul had passed into the hands of the conciliatory Moon Jae-in. (His immediate predecessor, Park Geun-Hye — South Korea’s first female president, and the daughter of a long-time military dictator — was earlier this month sentenced to 24 years in prison on corruption charges.)
Once a prominent human rights lawyer, Moon, like previous presidents Kim Dae-Jung and Roh Moo-hyun (whom he served as a close aide), has long been a votary of the so-called sunshine policy, aimed at melting hearts and minds in Pyongyang instead of freezing out the North. His overtures and open-mindedness have paid off. It’s worth keeping in mind, though, that in the past similar initiatives proved inconclusive and ultimately futile.
But there is a Trump card this time around — even though it could also be seen as the joker in the pack. To be fair, during the 2016 presidential campaign in the United States, the Republican campaign did raise the prospect of befriending the North Korean leader. As a rather impressionable president, Trump initially opted for pure belligerence. However, there have been indications all along of a grudging admiration for Kim.
Trump is ever keen on going where no president has gone before. The chubby heir established himself at the helm at a tender age, outmaneuvered potential rivals, and has demonstrated an ability to peremptorily dispense with aides or even relatives suspected of disloyalty. It’s not hard to see why Trump might envy that level of power.
Last month, a pair of senior South Korean officials visiting Pyongyang found themselves being elaborately wined and dined by Kim, who apparently demonstrated an insightful grasp of international affairs as well as a sense of humour, even laughing at the way he is depicted in Western media. They returned to Seoul not just with a broadly positive impression but with an invitation for Trump, which Moon thought ought to be directly conveyed to the White House as soon as possible.
Somewhat to the surprise of the South Koreans, Trump not only immediately accepted without consulting any advisers, but got an official from Seoul to stand in the White House garden and share the news with the world.
Since then, US secretary of state-designate Mike Pompeo, in his capacity as CIA director, has visited Pyongyang for talks with Kim, who subsequently declared a moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests, and seemed to accept both the US military presence in South Korea and joint military exercises by the two nations. There has been talk of denuclearising the peninsula, and of a peace treaty that would formally conclude the 1950-53 Korean War.
North Korea has long aspired to be recognised by the US as a fellow sovereign state, worthy of direct negotiations. Trump is ever keen on going where no president has gone before. It does not necessarily follow, though, that the stars are aligned for a successful summit.
The US would like to think that North Korea has been driven to the negotiating table as a result of sharply strengthened economic sanctions, with China chipping in more seriously than in the past. Kim is suspected of believing that it’s his nation’s demonstrated nuclear capabilities that have compelled the US to play ball. Most Western analysts are of the opinion that the concept of ‘denuclearisation’ means very different things to the two sides, and that North Korea has no intention whatsoever of giving up its most potent weapons. China and Japan are both miffed at having been relegated to the sidelines.
The first summit this Friday between Kim and Moon may help to set the tone for what will follow, at least between the protagonists on the peninsula. But the possibility must be borne in mind that bonhomie between North and South won’t necessarily translate into reasonable attitudes across the table between Kim and Trump, who has threatened to walk out if he hears anything he doesn’t like.
Given the background, over-optimism is certainly unwarranted. On the other hand, there’s no harm in keeping one’s fingers tightly crossed.

US-led Order’ Led to the Integration of China into the Global Economy

With trade ties between the US and China becoming frosty, the power play between the two countries is impacting the international order. Inderjeet Parmar, professor of international politics at City, University of London, spoke with Rudroneel Ghosh about the forces of change and India’s current geopolitical position:
What about the current trade war between the US and China? It is not yet a trade war but US announcement of intended tariffs on steel, aluminium and intellectual property, and Chinese counter-announcements. But as with some tariffs initially aimed at the EU, Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Australia, for example, it is entirely possible that the US will moderate its positions as a way of winning concessions either in trade or in security spending. This appears to be a risky, transactional path taken by the Trump administration to ramp up tensions in Sino-US relations with a view to recalibrating the trade relationship, not to mention leveraging China in regard to North Korean denuclearisation. At its core, however, this position is a consensus position in the US – including the Democratic party’s ‘left’ such as Elizabeth Warren, for example – that China has and is engaged in unfair trade practices. The Obama administration had referred numerous alleged Chinese unfair trading practices to the WTO.
There is also an underlying unease at the ‘rise’ of China as a threat to US power in the region as well as, potentially, outside it, especially via the One Belt, One Road Initiative, as well as the insatiable Chinese search for energy sources in Africa and Latin America. But this is also not a Trump era move but a core position that has hardly changed since the 1970s – the dilemma of facilitating a rising power is that it becomes a challenger, which is what happened with western Europe and Japan too, especially by the 1970s. The difference under Trump is that the tariffs are being justified and authorised for national security reasons after the 2017 National Security Strategy and the January 2018 National Defense Strategy deemed China (and Russia) ‘revisionist’ powers bent on displacing US power. This suggests that US strategy has entered a potentially more hostile phase – to recalibrate the relationship to diminish Chinese power and self-confidence.
Trump’s course of action was made all the more likely due to US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership – the aim of which was to underpin US hegemony in the Asia-Pacific by re-ordering the region rather than via a series of bilateral agreements; the aim was to replace the ‘hub-and-spokes’ (bilateral) model of US relations with Asian states (that prevailed from the late 1940s) with a new order that includes trade agreements, security, and cultural and educational relations that binds together Asian states and improves their inter-relations – in terms of trade, security (joint military exercises) and cultural exchange. An order similar to that constructed between the US and Western Europe during the cold war.
On the likelihood of a full trade war: I don’t think it likely but we should not rule out tariff increases especially regarding China. Recall that the current American international trade negotiator, Robert Lighthizer, was also the one who placed tariffs on Japanese steel during the Reagan presidency in the 1980s, when Japan was feared to be a rising hegemonic challenger to the US.
An all-out trade war would also hit Trump’s political base in agricultural states, including Iowa, the home state of Trump-appointed US ambassador to Beijing, Terry Branstadt, a personal friend of President Xi’s; and well aware that Iowa exports beef, pork, soya beans, etc to China. As we approach the November 2018 mid-term elections, President Trump will be made very aware of the risks his trade war rhetoric poses to his Red state voters and their GOP representatives in both houses. I would strongly argue that Trump never forgets the optics regarding his political base – America First, Make America Great Again, etc. With China, he is in danger of exposing the weakness of that approach to global politics. The announcement that House Majority leader Paul Ryan will not run for election in 2018 suggests a probable challenge to Trump in 2020.
Was it a mistake to admit China to the WTO given how it has approached world trade?
No! The United States has a national interest in the development of a domestically prosperous and politically-stable China – that has been the case in practice since the 1970s but was particularly confirmed under the Clinton administration, continued under Bush and Obama. Hence, China’s membership of the WTO by 2000 was a logical extension of the Nixon visit of 1972, the desire to ‘open up’ to the world of China’s post-Mao pragmatist leadership, the facilitation of China’s re-emergence into the world community via US diplomatic recognition in 1979, its embrace by the World bank by the 1990s, the release of funds to assist the marketization process, and ultimately qualification for entry to WTO. The integration of China from a revolutionary power to one at the core of the global economy is actually a great success story of the US-led order.
The problem is, of course, that the US would prefer a China-in-the-world as a ‘responsible’ stakeholder subordinated to US interests and leadership. Under Xi, China appears to be a lot more nationalistic and assertive though this move appears much more driven by a dramatic slowing of domestic economic growth than with a bid for domination. However, to a hegemonic power like the US, China’s outward growth may be seen as a ‘march’ – with an eye to significantly increased Chinese military spending and operations in the South and East China seas.
Yet, it’s important to bear in mind that much of China’s security spending is on domestic policing and law enforcement – the process of urbanisation, industrialisation and mass migration is always turbulent everywhere – and normally leads to political volatility due to mass unrest. In China, we have an additional factor – the growth of inequality via rapid marketization and the withdrawal of state subsidies. This is a politically-incendiary process that the Chinese leadership is trying to manage partly via policing but also by OBOR. OBOR, however, while ambitious, is fraught with problems and may become an albatross around China’s neck rather than a basis of global domination.
Would China-led world with new international institutions oriented towards Chinese interests? Impossible to predict – too many variables. However, China is already building relationships and institutions that constitute potential bases of future alternative international institutions – the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, for example, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. But the scale thus far of these organisations is nowhere near the US-led architecture developed from Bretton Woods. In addition, China has welcomed western nations, including Britain, into the AIIB. It is likely that there will be rules within these organisations that are broadly ‘liberal’ – embedding China but not necessarily privileging China. The AIIB is also symbiotic with other development banks, and not part of an alternative international order.
OBOR appears open to participation in investment by other powers, including the US, but its internal organisational structure is opaque and still taking shape. But the very viability of OBOR remains an open question. It is more vast in scale than the Marshall Plan with which it is sometimes compared.
But we should keep an eye on China’s elites. They may well be entering a stage of development in their thinking similar to Cecil Rhodes in the 1890s: to feed the hungry and poor, Britain had to promote imperialism; it was a bread and butter question. Building empires today however is not possible in the colonial sense. It is more likely in the neo-colonial sense – via economic and financial levers. This is where OBOR, if successful, could constitute a threat to the positions of established western powers, cause nationalistic conflicts that require skilled diplomacy, bargaining and perhaps a new global settlement.
Overall, US commitment to Nato remains very strong, and the US has spent close to $1 billion on Nato commitments since Trump’s inauguration. Nato has also continued to deploy across the region, especially in the Baltic states, and continues operations globally including in Afghanistan. Trump’s “NATO is obsolete” campaign slogan has not led to any changes as underlined by secretary of defense James Mattis reassuring allies. But Trump has extracted something from allies – they are committing to spend more on defence and security; and are also looking to hedge against US unpredictability, especially on the Nato frontier with Russia. Germany is looking more to a unified European approach which it intends to lead, and is softening on Russia in certain respects due to dependence on Russian natural gas supplies, and worries about US power’s capabilities in the coming period. It is not strongly supportive of Anglo-American expulsions of Russian diplomats after the Skripal affair, and not supporting military intervention after the alleged Syria chemical attack matter. France under Emmanuel Macron appears to be building a special relationship with Trump while Britain appears in a quandary due to Trump’s unpopularity in the UK and the instabilities and anxieties around a post-Brexit trade deal. Though France and Britain are also allying their military and naval forces more closely now, and especially since 2010. Yet, May is in the forefront of the anti-Russian campaign. Trump has therefore had effects. But his impact on the security architecture itself, thus far, is minimal. Europe remains with the US/Canada/Australia/New Zealand core of the US-led global order (with Japan and South Korea bringing up the rear).
With recent strategic successes of countries like Russia, Turkey and Iran, and the general rise in protectionism, are we heading into a more authoritarian, inward-looking future?
There are stronger trends towards both populism, left and right, and authoritarianism. The latter is a response to the former. Right populist-authoritarianism is probably the more dangerous as it responds to mass unease at globalisation’s effects and tries to channel discontent towards aggressive nationalism, protectionism and other hostile measures for example on immigration. Hence overseas shows of national strength via border walls, trade tariffs, and via military shows of strength. At the same time, there is growing militancy among workers, youth, students that reaches across borders, challenging authoritarianism, narrow nationalism and promoting a progressive nationalism that is international in context and sensibility. At the core, there is a problem of inequality of wealth and income that bleeds into politics and government that will not go away but which lies at the bottom of most material discontents. The channelling of those discontents thus far is principally in right wing authoritarian directions. But this must be weighed against fundamental global interdependencies – economic, financial, commercial. Lots of tensions and no clear direction discernible – the struggle is over managing discontents. In Anglo-America the Right is in power but the Left is actually the stronger popular force – Jeremy Corbyn’s massive support, and the Bernie Sanders’ effect in the US (in which a recent YouGov survey showed 44% of millennials would prefer socialism to capitalism, with an additional 7% professing support for communism). The liberal centre-ground is eroding rapidly.
India’s geostrategic position is heavily impacted by anxieties of Chinese encirclement via its Indian Ocean Region naval and other deployments, OBOR, growing ties between China and Pakistan, and India’s strategic partnership with the United States. Like the US and so many of its allies in Asia, India is engaged in hedging, rather than containing, China. Hedging preserves room for manoeuvre amid uncertainties about a developing situation. India sees China’s rise as an economic opportunity as well as a strategic-military threat. On the other hand, parts of the Indian political establishment are wary of American intentions. India, then, is itself navigating numerous uncertainties. But the overall picture is one of closer strategic partnership with the US, starting with the George W Bush administration (the civil nuclear agreement in particular), and developing further under the Obama era Asia pivot or rebalance, and with the more recent designation of Indo-Pacific (rather than Asia-Pacific) in US foreign policy. Add to this the US sponsored India’s entry into elite international clubs, such as the Missile Technology Regime and the Wassenaar Group, preventing proliferation of weapons, including to terrorist groups. China, on the other hand, prevented India’s entry to the Nuclear Suppliers Group. While India was pleased by the Trump administration’s suspension of $2 billion aid to Pakistan, it was less pleased by the Obama administration’s failure to consult before announcing withdrawal from Afghanistan, especially given that India is the largest regional aid donor to Afghanistan. Finally, India has generally supported the Iran nuclear agreement as it preserves its energy source and its trade-transit links with Iran. Given the Trump administration’s attitude to the Iran nuclear agreement, and the recent appointment of John Bolton and Mike Pompeo, two outspoken supporters of military solutions, India is likely to be anxious about its own interests. Finally, India is likely to emerge on Trump’s radar as engaged in intellectual property violations but may not face so severe tariffs as threatened against China.

Ethics and Robots

Today, it is difficult to imagine a technology that is as enthralling and terrifying as machine learning. While media coverage and research papers consistently tout the potential of machine learning to become the biggest driver of positive change in business and society, the lingering question on everyone’s mind is: “Well, what if it all goes terribly wrong?”
For years, experts have warned against the unanticipated effects of general artificial intelligence (AI) on society. Ray Kurzweil predicts that by 2029 intelligent machines will be able to outsmart human beings. Stephen Hawking argues that “once humans develop full AI, it will take off on its own and redesign itself at an ever-increasing rate”. Elon Musk warns that AI may constitute a “fundamental risk to the existence of human civilization”. Alarmist views on the terrifying potential of general AI abound in the media.
More often than not, these dystopian prophecies have been met with calls for a more ethical implementation of AI systems; that somehow engineers should imbue autonomous systems with a sense of ethics. According to some AI experts, we can teach our future robot overlords to tell right from wrong, akin to a “good Samaritan AI” that will always act justly on its own and help humans in distress.
Although this future is still decades away, today there is much uncertainty as to how, if at all, we will reach this level of general machine intelligence. But what is more crucial, at the moment, is that even the narrow AI applications that exist today require our urgent attention in the ways in which they are making moral decisions in practical day-to-day situations. For example, this is relevant when algorithms make decisions about who gets access to loans or when self-driving cars have to calculate the value of a human life in hazardous situations.
Teaching morality to machines is hard because humans can’t objectively convey morality in measurable metrics that make it easy for a computer to process. In fact, it is even questionable whether we, as humans have a sound understanding of morality at all that we can all agree on. In moral dilemmas, humans tend to rely on gut feeling instead of elaborate cost-benefit calculations. Machines, on the other hand, need explicit and objective metrics that can be clearly measured and optimized. For example, an AI player can excel in games with clear rules and boundaries by learning how to optimize the score through repeated playthroughs.
After its experiments with deep reinforcement learning on Atari video games, Alphabet’s DeepMind was able to beat the best human players of Go. Meanwhile, OpenAI amassed “lifetimes” of experiences to beat the best human players at the Valve Dota 2 tournament, one of the most popular e-sports competitions globally.
But in real-life situations, optimization problems are vastly more complex. For example, how do you teach a machine to algorithmically maximise fairness or to overcome racial and gender biases in its training data? A machine cannot be taught what is fair unless the engineers designing the AI system have a precise conception of what fairness is.
This has led some authors to worry that a naive application of algorithms to everyday problems could amplify structural discrimination and reproduce biases in the data they are based on. In the worst case, algorithms could deny services to minorities, impede people’s employment opportunities or get the wrong political candidate elected.
Based on our experiences in machine learning, we believe there are three ways to begin designing more ethically aligned machines:
1. Define ethical behaviour
AI researchers and ethicists need to formulate ethical values as quantifiable parameters. In other words, they need to provide machines with explicit answers and decision rules to any potential ethical dilemmas it might encounter. This would require that humans agree among themselves on the most ethical course of action in any given situation – a challenging but not impossible task. For example, Germany’s Ethics Commission on Automated and Connected Driving has recommended to specifically programme ethical values into self-driving cars to prioritize the protection of human life above all else. In the event of an unavoidable accident, the car should be “prohibited to offset victims against one another”. In other words, a car shouldn’t be able to choose whether to kill one person based on individual features, such as age, gender or physical/mental constitution when a crash is inescapable.
2. Crowdsource our morality
Engineers need to collect enough data on explicit ethical measures to appropriately train AI algorithms. Even after we have defined specific metrics for our ethical values, an AI system might still struggle to pick it up if there is not enough unbiased data to train the models. Getting appropriate data is challenging, because ethical norms cannot be always clearly standardized. Different situations require different ethical approaches, and in some situations there may not be a single ethical course of action at all – just think about lethal autonomous weapons that are currently being developed for military applications. One way of solving this would be to crowdsource potential solutions to moral dilemmas from millions of humans. For instance, MIT’s Moral Machine project shows how crowdsourced data can be used to effectively train machines to make better moral decisions in the context of self-driving cars.
3. Make AI transparent
Policymakers need to implement guidelines that make AI decisions with respect to ethics more transparent, especially with regard to ethical metrics and outcomes. If AI systems make mistakes or have undesired consequences, we cannot accept “the algorithm did it” as an adequate excuse. But we also know that demanding full algorithmic transparency is technically untenable (and, quite frankly, not very useful). Neural networks are simply too complex to be scrutinized by human inspectors. Instead, there should be more transparency on how engineers quantified ethical values before programming them, as well as the outcomes that the AI has produced as a result of these choices. For self-driving cars, for instance, this could imply that detailed logs of all automated decisions are kept at all times to ensure their ethical accountability.
We believe that these three recommendations should be seen as a starting point for developing ethically aligned AI systems. Failing to imbue ethics into AI systems, we may be placing ourselves in the dangerous situation of allowing algorithms to decide what’s best for us. For example, in an unavoidable accident situation, self-driving cars will need to make some decision for better or worse. But if the car’s designers fail to specify a set of ethical values that could act as decision guides, the AI system may come up with a solution that causes more harm. This means that we cannot simply refuse to quantify our values. By walking away from this critical ethical discussion, we are making an implicit moral choice. And as machine intelligence becomes increasingly pervasive in society, the price of inaction could be enormous – it could negatively affect the lives of billions of people.
Machines cannot be assumed to be inherently capable of behaving morally. Humans must teach them what morality is, how it can be measured and optimised. For AI engineers, this may seem like a daunting task. After all, defining moral values is a challenge mankind has struggled with throughout its history. Nevertheless, the state of AI research requires us to finally define morality and to quantify it in explicit terms. Engineers cannot build a “good samaritan AI”, as long as they lack a formula for the good samaritan human.

Asia on a Diplomatic Overdrive

Asia is on a diplomatic overdrive and in the current environment of uncertainty that may be a good thing. Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi visited Japan this week, restarting one-on-one bilateral talks at that level on foreign policy and trade after nine years. Taro Kono, Japanese foreign minister saw it as a “a major step toward improving ties”. But Wang, an old Japan hand, saw it slightly differently – as he said, a result of “the forward-looking policy toward China by Japan.”
China, Japan and South Korea prime ministers are meeting in May for the first time in years, to be part of the North Korea “solution”, while Japan has indicated it could join the BRI.
A few days prior, Wang Yi was in Vietnam, being friendly with the Vietnamese foreign minister Pham Binh Minh, promising to “jointly” exploit its waters, a promise made to Philippines as well. Vietnam, the only voluble opponent to China’s depredations in the South China Sea, told the Spanish exploration firm, Repsol, to pack up and go home and swallow a $200 million loss, clearly under Chinese pressure.
Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong used the Boao Forum to do his own summit with a more eager Chinese leadership and rework a bilateral relationship which went sour in 2016 after the UNCLOS verdict, which Lee endorsed. This time, Lee, a staunch US ally, said China would be within its rights to retaliate against a US-imposed trade war.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be heading out to China in the next few weeks, for a hug summit with President Xi Jinping, the first after he crowned himself emperor for life. Last year was annus horribilis for the India-China relationship – Dalai Lama visited Tawang, India read the riot act on OBOR which became a global refrain, and stood up to Chinese aggression in Doklam. A Modi-Xi meeting in Xiamen did little to calm frayed ties, and it took two visits by Wang Yi and Yang Jieche to begin the process of lowering temperatures.
The forthcoming Modi-Xi summit will not be an easy one. In the words of a candid Chinese commentator, “If Sino-Indian ties remain intense or unfriendly like last year, it would be embarrassing for its leader to visit Qingdao, and the bilateral meeting with the Chinese leader will not materialise, so New Delhi has to repair ties with China and show its sincerity.”
True, at one level. China, however, has equal number of reasons to do a tactical reset. But India’s recent missteps means that no matter how the government tries to spin this, it will appear to many as India climbing down from a well-earned position of moral strength vis a vis China. India looked craven when it told Dalai Lama to buzz off from Delhi and is apparently allowing China to walk all over it in Maldives and Nepal. towards a modicum of civility, even if they don’t call it a “reset”, which has a longer term connotation. There is little chance that on the big issues – NSG, terror listing, CPEC, market access for Indian goods and services etc – China would be anything but implacable. Conversely, to believe India will acquiesce to BRI if China merely renames CPEC is a gross misunderstanding of India’s opposition, just as believing that a ‘deal’ on the margins of FATF could be the wedge between China and Pakistan.
India and China could do with a quiet year for more reasons than one – first, a quiet periphery is a wonderful thing. Second, China is a strategic challenge which India has to manage or counter, without turning a complex relationship into enmity. Third, a rapprochement lowers the “cost” of India’s interactions with other countries. Fourth, it’s instructive to remember 1962 – as Bertil Lintner points out in his engaging book, China’s aggression came in the backdrop of huge unrelated internal pressures. India has no reason to add to China’s considerable problems at present.
But step back for a moment. The truth is everybody’s playing everybody else in a classic balance of power game. Because two things have changed – Donald Trump is the new joker in the pack and China no longer looks unassailable. For non status quoist countries like India, this global fluidity opens doors of both opportunities and challenges.
Trump is venturing into areas which were veritable off-limits. On North Korea, Trump could show the art of the deal or crash world order, both of which will scar China. China has to contend with open hostility in Washington with Trump quite happy to raise the stakes. Hell, China can’t even dump those trillions of dollars of US securities without causing massive self-harm.
China has just given itself an Africa-style president for life, and is surprised that the country is not in whoops of joy. It has successfully angered almost all its neighbours. It needs to fast-track its modernisation so it can achieve its goal of becoming a lead power by 2049 – certainly before it grows old.
Trump’s calling card, his unpredictability, unsettles ordered systems like China’s (Japan too, but it has no choice but to hew to the US line). But India, completely at home with this attribute, can make it work with a nimble foreign policy. Why, then, are we surprised that an India-China reset is under way? It’s not only India that wants some space. China needs world peace more than ever.

B2B, B2C in Action: Modi Makes It Posible

“A country that desires moral perfection in its foreign policy, will achieve neither perfection nor security”. – Henry Kissinger
There can hardly be a contrary opinion to the fact that PM Modi is the most travelled, parleyed, treaty-ied, orated, head of state today. He has a one to one interaction with all major head of states, beginning with Don Trump, whom he readily took on his side by opening up Harley Davidsons for India, Putin by exposing that the meditative part of all martial arts came from Yoga and China by an agreement on trade, keeping his nation’s defence interests intact. The first Indian head to have visited Israel for its innovation, desalination technology, pharmaceutical research, and medical gadgetry.a signal of continuing understanding. Chances are, he might find a peaceful bond for the world by interacting with the North Korean head, but I presume the American President deserves credit to sort out this game of “buttons and zips”!
The trip to Sweden and Nordic countries, was the first by an Indian PM in 60 years. There is much technology and clean energy expertise to be learnt. Close to 50 CEOs who attended the meet included those from Saab (the first biodegradable car), Volvo, AstraZeneca, Erickson, and majors in natural gas and oil. The other Nordic country heads he met were from Denmark, Finland, Iceland and Norway (one of the largest as reserves in the North sea). It’s a B2B form of business model, for an India with great business traditions, including those amalgamated from migrant Iranians, Parsees, Bohras, and certainly the wile from the Imperial Empire!
The flurry of commercial contracts each country is running into, somewhere has at the back of activities, the nudge from the “Belt and Road” bugle of China. The achievement is to be hailed, but business has to run on balances, and ability to pay. That does not take away anything from China’s achievement, but buffer tactics, in creating other roads and belts may be given a chance!
The sudden revival of CHOGM, perhaps is an attempt to revive an old trading club the Imperial Empire had established. It served well for the Empire that had shrunk back to its islands, but could exercise diplomatic deals, trade, sale of military hardware, tariff adjustments even UN representation of its will, with the 50 plus members it continued to keep on its rolls.
It is no co-incidence, that politicians or industrialists “wanted” in the two neighbouring countries, find lavish villas in the UK, whether that be Vijay Mallya, ex-LTTE bosses, Gen Musharraf, ex- Pak PM Nawaz Sharief, not to mention others.
I must confess to a thought I had been churning in my mind. The Delhi CWG, with so many blunders, appeared more like an intended, engineered fiasco. One cannot have so many blunders in an international show. Perhaps other trading nations, principally the US and western European countries (relevance of the Scandinavian, Bofors), were feeling cheated, by a government and bureaucracy that was already biased to a particular club! It was somewhat not going as per protocol and procedures of a level market field.
You may notice, that interim CWGs, and CHOGMs were low key affairs. The present one being well attended, including similar remarks by PM Modi, and PM May, on mutual trade, co-operation, defence, innovation, environment and peace, appears to be some legitimate counter business, from what may become an overwhelming Chinese presence.
The question is less as to the belt and road, which are Chinese achievements. The larger question is, what are alternative defined business rules, that may be brought in use, for those who fear a change in world order may begin to implement.
But if you are with me in the micro-dissection of PM Modi’s speech and aftermath, he subtly mentioned his humble beginnings as a tea seller at railway platforms, but the Royal family as the actual subservient (sevak) to the 120bn population, setting the tone to the type of business he would like to do. His remarks that all those who tore the Indian flag should be brought to the book, did show his displeasure on the unwanted behaviour allowed, considering the broad agenda of CHOGM. India may have its infirmities, but India has earned its hierarchy in the world order.
I believe, India welcomes trade with China with or without a road. The essential corollary is that the defences and understanding should be sound enough that each country gets what it seeks in business, as that is business.
Business leading to semi-colonization, is widely practiced, like the village lender who always keeps the farmer in debt with exorbitant interests.
Repetitive lessons in history tell us that it does not go far enough! On the external front, PM Modi has been an astute businessman. He’s brought policies, and reforms, that would make India compatible in transactions and manufacture in today’s rapid digi-robo metamorphosis.
Amongst the multiple hurdles faced at home, I share the general conscience about which so much has been written, but presently feel competent to comment on healthcare. Funding and resources accepted, a good healthcare system depends on the quality of training. Ethics too depend on the same. A competent practitioner is less likely to take short cuts. He takes a longer route, which also means a better turnover, lower costs, and enough for the financiers to keep the hospital running for newer programs and procedures!
An economically astute and diplomatic PM, is almost practicing business to business(B2B), and business to a much larger business (B2C), is scheduled to visit China soon), policy in eco-politics, or so may be a lighter remark!

China’s Call

By June of this year, PM Modi would have visited China five times since assuming power. That’s a lot of visits, numbers of the kind Indian leaders used to log up traipsing to the Soviet Union in foregone days.Leader-led engagement may not have come a day too soon for India and China. Few major bilateral relations in the world have been as bureaucratised as the one between Delhi and Beijing. A handful of professionals on both sides now speak in a code that few of their own foreign office colleagues can understand. Such a terribly narrow interface between the two large nations might have been alright if it had helped address long-standing bilateral problems, small and big. The sad fact is it has not. To make matters worse, diplomats wrap the public articulation of the relationship in such high-minded goals as heralding an “Asian century” or constructing a “multipolar world”.
Such soaring rhetoric has become vacuous given the scale of differences. Consider the simple fact that the two establishments don’t even agree on the length of their disputed border. Delhi puts it at 4,000 km. Beijing says it may be about 2,000 km. A prolonged failure to address differences on such essential issues has long given a surreal character to the India-China relationship.
While the format of an informal summit meeting might be new between India and China, both of them have experimented it with other nations. Xi has held such meetings with Obama (at Sunnylands in California) and Donald Trump (at the Mar-a-Lago in Florida). Modi too has sought to inject an informal dimension to his engagement with key international interlocutors. But the two-day encounter with Xi in Wuhan is probably Modi’s first full blown informal summit.
It is also no surprise that the decision to have such a summit comes after one of the worst years in bilateral relations. The 72-day standoff in the summer of 2017 between the two countries in Doklam could have easily escalated into a full blown war between the nuclear-armed Asian giants. Last year also saw the sharpening of differences on the question of Pakistan’s support for cross-border terrorism and on India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. A new explicit area of divergence has also emerged on the question of connectivity in Asia. India became the strongest critic of Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative.
Even before the summit has taken place, we have the familiar surge of hyperbole. The adjective, “historic” is already being appended to the Wuhan summit. High-level engagement is often useful to fix specific problems. Recall that informal talks on the margins of a multilateral conference last year helped the two leaders to push their bureaucracies to defuse the Doklam confrontation. But in 2016, the direct conversation between the two leaders could do nothing to resolve the differences on India’s membership of the NSG.
Given the depth and breadth of the problems between India and China, it will be unwise to expect dramatic breakthroughs at the Wuhan summit. Consider, for example, the current state of the relationship. Talks have long stalled on resolving the boundary dispute even as the structure of the frontier has become more prone to standoffs between the two armed forces.
Tibet and Kashmir continue to complicate the resolution of territorial dispute between the two countries. The difficulties on the frontier are not just bilateral; they involve third countries — Pakistan, Nepal and Bhutan — on the northern frontier. The friction has confined to the great Himalayas — it is mounting by the day across the Indo-Pacific. On the economic front, trade deficit with China is continuing to balloon and forms more than a third of India’s total deficit with the world.
These issues are not amenable to resolution in a single meeting between the two leaders. Nor can Modi and Xi alter the nature of their relationship with third parties to please each other. Delhi should have little reason to bet that Wuhan will lead to chinks in China’s all-weather partnership with Pakistan. Nor can Beijing expect that India will hold back from strengthening its ties with the United States and the West.
The nature of the issues bedeviling the ties between the two nations has certainly not changed between 2017 and 2018. What has changed though is the international context. President Trump’s willingness to confront China on trade issues and his bold effort to alter the status quo in Beijing’s Korean frontyard has cast a shadow over the sense of China’s inevitable and indisputable primacy over Asia. After a few years of signaling that major powers and neighbours have no option but to adapt to China’s rise, Beijing is now hinting at a measure of flexibility to cover the massive geopolitical risks engendered by Trump. As it explores potential compromises with the United States, China is also reaching out to its Asian neighbours, including Japan, Vietnam and India
That, in turn, has opened up some room for Delhi. Informal summits are not about negotiations between leaders. At Wuhan, Modi and Xi have an opportunity to better appreciate each other’s concerns and interests, reflect on the multiple problems between the two nations, imagine a redirection of the relationship, set practical goals and mandate the bureaucracies to produce those outcomes.
Many intelligent observers also credit Xi Jinping for using his good offices to make Kim Jong-un see Donald Trump. And the China Pakistan Economic Initiative has started blossoming.
All over the world it seems that China is on the ascent. If not yet the sole superpower, it seems to be almost there. 9/11 seems to have dealt a stunning blow to the US in the instant. In the aftermath, it has only proven worse.
The first Iraq was in the offing. I found myself alone in the lab with Dave, and to curry favour with him, asked if the US was going to war. He said, of course, we are a very warlike people.
The first Iraq war instilled overconfidence in America, which directly led to the second Iraq war. America has so many fine universities and think tanks. What it lacks is a diplomatic corps known for its preeminence. So you have someone like Nikki Haley, currently the US ambassador to the UN, who was a complete diplomatic neophyte when she was given the job but is hailed today as a master of world affairs in slightly more than a year into the job.
Haley is no professional diplomat. She is a politician. Her sights reportedly are firmly set on higher political ambitions such as secretaryship of state or even the presidency. A professional diplomat in her stead would have little such leanings.
In any case, the second Iraq war has proven disastrous for America. It has handed a Shiite Iraq firmly to a Shiite Iran, a sworn enemy of the US, and allowed Iran to hoist a Shiite crescent all the way from Iran and Iraq through Syria and Lebanon.
Post 9/11, China has been building itself up, while the US has careened off the cliff of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. China has displaced France from much of Africa, giving to itself access to vital natural resources. In Asia of course today not a leaf moves without China’s approval.
For long China insisted that it had no control over Kim, but it is not the fire and fury of Donald Trump, nor his rocket man heckling, nor his bigger button that has brought Kim to the negotiating table but China’s influence over Kim. Trump comes to the table aware that Kim can hit pretty much any part of the continental US with a nuclear bomb.
Trump’s national security team with a new national security advisor in John Bolton, a new secretary of state, and Nikki Haley of course, has become more belligerent than ever before. Trump is now ready to tear up the Iran deal, which has made Emannuel Macron of France scurry to Washington DC to convince Trump otherwise.
All the while China waits and watches. It has not engaged in warfare for the last half-century. It bullies and blusters, Japan and India and others alike, but leaves it at that. Even in Afghanistan, where it has not lost a soul to fighting, it has more influence over the outcome because of its dominance over Pakistan than the US, which has spilled trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of liters of its blood there.
Modi visited China as Gujarat chief minister, when the West treated him as a pariah. He is not one to forget a favour, just as he refuses to let go of a grudge. Doklam was scary: two vast nuclear-armed neighbours fist-cuffing it out. Nehru gave succor to the Dalai Lama, but it seems that his and subsequent Indian governments seem to have lost their way when it came to the Dalai and China.
Modi seems to have recognized that the Dalai should not come in between him and Xi. The Chinese seem to have recognized his belated recognition. Also, Modi realizes that much as he may want to woo Trump, India does not seem to carry much importance in Trump’s scheme of things. Think H-1B visas, for instance. And that a power potentially greater than the US lies in his own backyard.
So Modi heads off to Beijing for a frank tete-a-tete with Xi. Nothing is off the table: Pakistan, Afghanistan, Arunachal, the Dalai, everything. It is a most unusual visit, devoid of most protocol. It’s not clear who initiated it, but it is clear who is summoning and who is being summoned. India seems to have finally reconciled itself to the new world order. Running after the man with momentum will perhaps do it much good than after a force expending itself like nobody’s business.

The Mythical Echo Chamber

“Information warfare” may be a top concern in the next Canadian election cycle, as a report on a workshop by CSIS suggests, but some fears about how people get their political information and the impact of social media are overstated.
In a recently published study, we show that fears about an “echo chamber” in which people encounter only information that confirms their existing political views are blown out of proportion. In fact, most people already have media habits that help them avoid echo chambers.
There is a common fear that people are using social media to access only specific types of political information and news. The echo chamber theory says people select information that conforms to their preferences.
A related theory about “filter bubbles” claims social media companies are incentivized to prioritize likeable and shareable content in an individual’s feed, which in turn puts people in an algorithmically constructed bubble.
The democratic problem with these supposed echo chambers and filter bubbles is that people are empowered to avoid politics if they want. This means they will be less aware of their political system, less informed and in turn less likely to vote — all bad signs for a healthy democracy.
People who like politics aren’t immune either. They might become increasingly polarized in their views since all they see are people confirming their own beliefs. While a lot of the current work is theoretical, a few studies have shown that echo chambers and filter bubbles could exist on Twitter or Facebook, for example.
People get information from many sources
But people don’t consume political information and news from only one source or channel.
Individuals have access to a wide range of media, from traditional news outlets on television, radio and newspapers (and their digital versions) to a wide range of social media sites and blogs. This means studies that focus on any one single platform simply cannot speak to the actual experiences of individuals.
We wanted to solve this problem by conducting a study examining the media habits of individuals. We wanted to understand what social media they use on a daily basis, what political information and news sources they incorporate in their daily lives, and whether they do things that might help them avoid echo chambers.
To do this we conducted a nationally representative online survey of 2,000 British adults. This is part of the larger Quello Search Project that examines the formation of political opinions and the digital media habits of adults in seven different countries. Unfortunately no similar Canadian data set exists at present.
Our analysis suggests that people are rarely caught in echo chambers. Only about eight per cent of the online adults in Great Britain are at risk of being trapped in an echo chamber.
Individuals actively check additional sources, change their minds based on information they find using search engines and seek out differing views. All of these are ways individuals can avoid that echo chamber effect.
Importantly, political interest and media diversity — how many sources of information and how many social media a person uses — both help people avoid the threats of echo chambers.
People who have more than one source of political information are far more likely to act to avoid echo chambers.
They encounter different perspectives, they verify information and they sometimes change their minds. Even people who are not interested in politics are likely to do things that help them avoid echo chambers as long as they have a diverse media diet.
Fact-checking is crucial
Worries about political polarization are also dampened based on these results.
We fret about polarization, but in fact those who are politically interested are more likely to have encountered different opinions, checked facts and changed their minds about a political issue after searching for more information.
This means that most people are already on the right track for avoiding echo chambers. It also means that media literacy programs that emphasize incorporating multiple sources into your daily routines, and fact-checking, are crucial.
Social media platforms also have an important role to play.
Facebook and Twitter could still be home to communities that exchange information in a way that confirms existing beliefs and opinions. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s important to remember that people rarely get all their political information from just one place.
That said, social media companies can help promote media literacy in the very design of their platforms, for example by making sources of news content visible, explaining how their personalization algorithms work and offering suggested content that helps users find new perspectives.
Happily, some of this experimentation is going on within social media companies already. Facebook has experimented by tinkering with what shows up in news feeds and how content is flagged as false. Twitter recently announced a program to examine the health of conversations. So far there have been varying levels of success and criticism.
While we do not have access to data about the Canadian population, preliminary results from our U.S. data set, and from work others have been doing in different national contexts and with different samples from the U.K., suggests we should expect the same trends in Canada.
Most people have media habits that help them avoid echo chambers. When it comes to our elections, our democracy or information warfare, the threat of social media-enabled echo chambers is not a major concern.

 

Read Dream of the Red Chamber to Understand China

When asked to explain the significance and pleasure of the Chinese novel Dream of the Red Chamber, by Cao Xueqin, I’m afraid I usually flounder. How to put it to friends, or colleagues that the tiffs, the leisurely intrigues and frustrated aspirations of a fractious bunch of adolescents constitute one of the great efforts at plumbing human experience?
Yet Dream of the Red Chamber, written in the mid-18th century, is the fullest immersion one could hope for into late imperial China, the best access to the minds, hearts and habits of that period, complete in everything from cosmology to cosmetics.
The episodic plot, sprawling over 2,500 pages in the standard Penguin translation, follows the infatuations and travails of a pubescent boy, Jia Baoyu. Baoyu is the unstudious and distracted son of a great, albeit troubled, house in Beijing. He is surrounded by a bevy of erudite and beautiful girls (relatives and maidservants), doted upon by his elderly grandmother, and terrified by his strict, pedantic father — a paragon or parody of the Confucian gentleman. In the pavilions, halls and gardens of this grand estate, allegory of and escape from the world, Baoyu struggles reluctantly towards adulthood.
The interlocking pieces of the plot are revealing vignettes and character studies, many of which have reached iconic status in Chinese culture, and proved fertile ground for theatre and the visual arts.
They function also as a mirror of a reader’s personality, status, age and values. Do you tend towards the maiden who moderates with steady counsel or to the volatile but brilliant orphan girl? Do you deplore or delight in the fiery, funny administrating aunt’s shady outlay of expenses and sometimes malicious (or even murderous) feistiness? As with Proust, the perspective changes with age: re-reading the novel this year, I noticed how my sympathies were shifting upward a generation.
What’s it all about?
The deceptively immaterial occupations of the characters’ daily rounds of visits and chats provide material as much for metaphysics as for psychology. Drama can be constructed one moment around whether Baoyu will have his tea (his nanny sometimes appropriates it), and the next moment around the boundaries of reality, or the purpose of human striving.
Somehow, almost deviously, through the spats, crushes and rivalries of a handful of teenagers, the great questions of the human condition are broached: what is a good life, faced with the inevitability and omnipresence of death? What are one’s obligations? How real is this life and what is it for?
Take the famous little scene in Chapter 22 when Baoyu is inspired to throw fallen flower petals into the stream, but is chided by his sensitive cousin, Daiyu, who remarks:
“It isn’t a good idea to tip them into the water … The water you see here is clean, but farther on beyond the weir, where it flows on beyond people’s houses, there are all sorts of muck and impurity, and in the end they get spoiled just the same. In that corner over there I’ve got a grave for the flowers, and what I am doing now is sweeping them up and putting them in this silk bag to bury them there, so that they can gradually turn back into earth.”
Contained in this image is, depending on how you see it, a poignant image of grief, an allegory of love or its inadequacy, or a Buddhist exhortation to accept impermanence. The work’s ability to imbue petty incident and trifling games with philosophical resonance is peerless.
But while you are distracted by the intricate web of their relations, and, we hope, by Baoyu’s marriage and/or enlightenment, the reader realises that this is a family, an estate, a dynasty, a universe, in decay.
Cao Xueqin, the author, was himself the scion of a family in slow collapse, and the work (left unfinished and completed after his death) is often read as an elegy to his own vanished childhood. From our historical vantage point, it is hard not also to recall that within 50 years of the novel’s publication, China was in the throes of the Opium War, its sense of self-sufficiency and centrality forever fractured (until, perhaps, now).
Scholars of the novel, whose field of study has expanded so far that it is known as “Redology”, have used the text to look into everything from the era’s medical practices, the prevalent tastes in theatre, its queer desire, ethnic power relations and reading habits.
An antidote to facile stereotyping
Dream of the Red Chamber has Balzac’s panoramic view of society, the satire of arrogance and fashion of Vanity Fair, the funny, meandering mischief of Decameron. But these comparisons are inadequate to a work so monumental and so vehemently itself, the epitome of the great tradition of Chinese family fiction.
The novel has spawned innumerable adaptations for the stage and screen, as well as dozens of sequels attempting to rescue or resolve its characters’ dilemmas and narrative arcs. It has influenced everything from the witty, cruel short stories of Eileen Chang, to the claustrophobic film, Raise the Red Lantern, and the opulent concubine-poisoners’ dramas of popular TV serials such as Empresses in the Palace.
Above all, reading (or prescribing) the novel feels like the antidote to facile stereotyping of Chinese culture. All the core topics are present: family dynamics; Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism; face and status; strategy and emotion. But all of these are played out for a readership which still regarded the world outside China as a curiosity, and was under no pressure to defend or justify its culture. It is a work of the Qing Dynasty, by a Qing author, for Qing readers; and it is the modern reader’s good fortune just to be allowed in.
Whether you read it straight through or dip in from time to time, this work affords entry to one of the great fictional universes.

Shadow Boxing, Not a Trade War

The fear that recent trade clashes between the US and China would severely slow down the world economy is grossly exaggerated. Other threats such as asset bubbles, risk of slow down in major economies, high oil price and interest rate hikes are far more potent.
This is not to deny that US President Donald Trump’s tweets, postures and policies are vitiating the enormous contribution international trade has made to economic growth. Over the past century, trade has been the single most important vehicle of economic growth, globally.
The Great Wall of America.
Trump is protectionist by instinct and believes that the US has received a bad deal from its trading partners. And that his predecessors negotiated poor trade agreements hurting US interests.
Trump is an egomaniac, quite capable of souring US relations with China. But so far on trade, his bark has been worse than his bite. Import duty increases on solar panels, washing machines, aluminium and steel will not trigger a global recession.
Both China and the US have made several threats to escalate the ongoing conflict. First, China retaliated with the announcement that it is considering imposing import duties on sundry items worth $3 billion. Trump hit back by proposing to increase tariffs on a list of 1,300 Chinese items worth$ 50 billion. To that, China threatened to impose a 25% duty on US goods worth $50 billion.
Trump was not going to let China have the last threat. He threatened to impose tariffs on another $100 billion of Chinese exports. China, exhausted, then simply threatened to take further measures.
Most of these retaliatory tricks are face-saving devices primarily meant for domestic audiences. It is likely that both countries will follow through on some of these threats. But that, too, will not cause a global economic decline.
Import duties by the US on China will not necessarily reduce imports. Chinese exporters will likely dent the impact of the proposed tariff increases by lowering prices. Further, even if Chinese producers pass some of the increase in duty to consumers, US retailers may choose to buy the same items from another country that is not subject to the tariff increase. If so, the US import bill may actually increase, as will its trade deficit.
Note that Trump and his officials are also making repeated assurances to the US public via Twitter and media interviews that they are engaged in negotiations with Chinese officials.
Trump is often praising Chinese premier Xi Jinping via tweets. So, claims that both countries are moving towards a full-scale trade war have weak foundations.
In fact, the implication of recent sanctions imposed by the US Treasury on seven Russian businessmen, 17 government officials and 12 related companies are far more severe than the likely impact of Trump’s proposed import duties on Chinese goods. The sanctions are imposed to penalise Russia for non-economic offences, including its occupation of Crimea, violence in Ukraine and alleged interference in US presidential elections.
These sanctions enjoy bipartisan support in Congress, in contrast to the lack of consensus in Congress, or even in the White House, on hitting China. Gary Cohn, Trump’s chief economic adviser, resigned protesting Trump’s protectionist trade policies on China.
Mount Rushmore of China
The sanctions on Russians bar any business in US dollars with the sanctioned entities. US citizens are specifically barred from doing business with the sanctioned companies. Underthe Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (Caatsa), secondary sanctions apply to those dealing with sanctioned Russian entities. The Russian stock market has tumbled in fear. So did the Russian rouble.
The shares of Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska’s companies Rusal and EN+ have fallen 50%. By contrast, Chinese shares fell only modestly in response to the announcement of increases in import duties.
The London Metal Exchange has temporarily suspended the use of its warehouses to stock Rusal’s aluminium for fear that this would attract US action. The banking industry is extremely cautious. In the past, HSBC, Standard Chartered, BNP Paribas and others that breached US sanctions had to pay huge fines.
Earlier this year, Congress asked the US Treasury to publish a list of over 200 Russian political figures and businessmen. While they have not been sanctioned, the Treasury is collecting additional information on these people. There is fear that they too may be subject to sanctions. If that happens, the Russian economy will be severely crippled and the impact may spread to other countries.
Russia is considering imposing sanctions on US products, in retaliation. But it will have only a modest economic impact on the US economy, not enough to force the US to reverse its policy. Clearly, sanctions are a much more potent tool to attack enemies. In contrast, the trade squabbles with China appear business as usual.

A New Opportunity- Insourcing Likely to Replace Outsourcing

Deteriorating trade ties between the US and China are bad for the world economy. But they also present India with opportunities to integrate more tightly into the high end dimension of cross-border economic activities. These opportunities stem from two important global trends. One, digitisation is disrupting traditional business models and making it easier for companies to split services across continents. Two, services by itself is becoming an increasingly important part of manufacturing, a phenomenon known as “servicification”. Put together, these trends present India with an opportunity to boost both economic growth and high value job creation, while compensating for the steady loss of ground of traditional outsourcing.
Over the last decade, an increasing number of transnational corporations have begun to locate global tech operations in India. This has led to the growing importance of global in-sourcing companies, or GICs, in the economic landscape. A significant number of GICs are using India’s information technology and managerial talent to set up operations in India. But other areas requiring skills are also in demand and it is showing up in terms of more R&D papers being generated from Indian operations of global corporations. Therefore, the availability of skilled talent, managerial personnel with wide exposure to international businesses and growing comfort with India have all helped.
The advent of GICs has been driven by US businesses, which presents India with an opportunity in the current global economic context. China is a manufacturing and now even a tech powerhouse, but with an increasingly fractious relationship with the US and Europe. The use of non-tariff barriers and dubious methods to get foreign firms to part with technology have made the outside world wary of it. India presents an attractive alternative. This trend should be strengthened through a judicious use of policy and executive action.
Bengaluru accounts for a little over a third of GICs. India needs to quickly upgrade its infrastructure to allow other cities to compete and also ensure that the country ranks high in global tech operations. Government must act to enhance India’s attraction to global businesses. Ongoing deliberations to reform the direct tax code need to focus on overcoming the country’s unfortunate reputation of complicated laws that often result in litigation. Simultaneously, India must focus on improving the quality of education. The rise of analytics and artificial intelligence certainly requires a workforce with higher order skills.

Zuckerberg & Asimov’s Mule

I was reading a Facebook post by a twenty-something young girl concluding that we are at the zenith of oppression, and a young gentleman proclaiming under a photograph of a massive mob of about four people waving flags that during the inevitable civil war he shall be a proud killer of the above four.
It is not that I find these posts indicative of an impending crisis for India. As a seasoned social media campaigner, I know that these are absolutely benign conversations, and as they are sans expletives, they are almost polite for a typical political discussion on Facebook.
If you are worried, let me assure you that if at all these kids manage to start a revolution, in all probability, internet will be down on second day, and free Wi-Fi café lounges will shut down in a week. So, it will be a short-lived revolution of about a week, inconvenience of which would not bother any fifty-plus Indian.
While I am not at all worried about the conclusion of zenith-of-oppression reached by the young lady, I am petrified by the process that it has arrived from.
If I try and understand the empirical evidence available to a twenty-something Indian about zenith of oppression, the person would be born more than a decade after 42nd constitutional amendment, the last substantial attempt of oppression that India saw.
If we look globally, she is born a couple of decades after the Chinese “revolution” where communism liberated 5-6 crore people from oppression of life, and nearly fifty years after Stalin and Hitler liberated even more. If we throw in great central Asian talents like Genghis Khan to figure out the zenith of oppression faced by humanity, her zenith seems to have arrived at a level where humanity has lived without even registering oppression through-out most of our recorded history.
While I admit it to be a hyper-generalization based on one random statement written under heightened emotions by a young lady, I don’t think I am far from the mark. The next-gen, possibly across the world, is looking at the world to be a bad place than good. They are faster than a Ferrari in reaching negative conclusions like humanity-is-dead or India-is-full-of-rapists.
And, as they are humans armed with a logical machine we call brain, it clearly indicates that they see evidence of all the evil that we may have missed.
So, where is all the evidence of our evils pouring in from? To answer this question, I need to go down the sci-fi path. If you are a sci-fi reader familiar with Foundation series by Asimov, it depicts a character known as Mule who manages to create the greatest ever empire in history of universe due to a special mutant talent. Mule rules the universe because he can sense emotional trends in human minds and strengthen or weaken them as per his desire.
Asimov recognised this talent as a super-power that can be used to control humanity, because he realised that human decisions can be altered by even mildest tweaking of emotional bias. The entire Foundation series is built around this idea, where future of humanity is seen to be controlled by harnessing this trait of human brain.
Though the idea made Foundation series a sci-fi legend, it sounded very far-fetched to be scared of when the books were written. Humanity was safe from Mule and his mind-control as there was no mechanism available to tap into human brains across the globe to change their biases, and in turn alter collective decisions.
Unfortunately, it is no longer true today. Mule has risen, and he has already become too powerful to control.
If you are a Facebook user, you must be aware that kind and benevolent Mr. Zuckerberg is constantly endeavouring to improve your social media experience. As he is committed to help you enjoy every minute you spend on social media, he needs to know you well. He needs to know your likes and dislikes, so he can ensure that he can route the right kind of information to you.
So, if you like a cat meme, his little bots immediately rise to your service and regurgitate more and even cuter cats on your Facebook page. If you like them, very soon you realise that the whole world was actually ruled by cats. Same could be true for anything you show preference for.
So, if one rape news grabs your attention and you look closely at it, the servile bots rise again. If you dig deeper, aided by incredible power of bots, Facebook will help you realise that world is actually full of rapists and perverts.
Armed with an access to your eye-balls and rudimentary understanding of primordial buttons hidden in your old brain, Mr. Zuckerberg can do wonders in terms of offering you a world that will look tailor-made to your choices because he has the power to guide your reality down to a narrow tunnel.
From where we stand today, power available to Mr. Zuckerberg has an uncanny resemblance to that of the Mule. He has already reached a point where he can consolidate an emotional streak across the humanity by just aligning Facebook bots that control the data feed. This innocuous looking technology is actually the greatest force possible because it can power to control human emotions.
While Mr. Zuckerberg stands in a position of power to control humanity, I am tempted to remind him that Asimov conceived Mule to be a kind despot who wielded his power carefully for what he felt was for the greater good because he understood that humanity is helpless against a force that can control emotions.
Facebook, or any other social media that will rise in the future must understand that it will always have a choice to decide the world that people will live in.
Right now, mostly due to political agenda rife across the planet capitalising on this new found tool, it has tunnelled our next-gen into a world full of evil; but, I hope that people like Zuckerberg also understand that the same tool can always be used to turn it into a world full of good.
The answer to the Mule offered by Asimov was the Second Foundation, a collective moral force put together to harness mind-control to guide humanity to a better future.
Till we have our Second Foundation in place, let us hope that the Mules that will rise are kind and considerate!

Artificial Intelligence & the New Atheism

Elon Musk, the driving force behind Tesla, the world’s first driverless motor vehicle, is among the growing number of people who are warning us about the increasing dominance which artificial intelligence (AI), is exercising over our lives in the form of computers, robots and other devices.
Musk has said that in AI we have created more than a mere Frankenstein’s monster: we have created an entity which will become an “immortal dictator” and enslave all humankind in perpetuity.
Human dictators are mortal and eventually die, liberating their subjects from oppression. But AI will be a deathless dictator from whom we can never hope to free ourselves.
In its various forms, AI already runs much of our daily lives. Time-controlled electronic appliances automatically turn our climate-control systems on and off, similarly programmed kitchen ranges cook our meals for us.
Computers can beat grandmasters at chess, can compose poetry and music and conduct conversations with us which are indistinguishable from those we would have with another human being.
In his book, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, which was turned into a film, Arthur C Clarke wrote about HAL, a supercomputer which is programmed to operate a manned space mission and which turns ‘rogue’, endangering the lives of the spaceship’s crew.
HAL had to have its memory banks disabled one by one by a computer engineer to prevent it from further mischief. But HAL’s descendants have gone far beyond such human intervention.
The real watershed in the realm of AI came when computers learnt to devise new programmes for themselves without human input: they learnt to think for themselves – they gained ‘self-consciousness’.
Self-consciousness implies self-determination. Our thinking machines no longer need us to tell them what to do; they will tell us what to do, or so people like Musk argue.
Such fears of our creating an “immortal dictator” have a ring of deja vu; we have been here before. The earliest humans, observing the forces of nature at work, created an AI which was responsible for all phenomena. In time, this AI came to be known by the generic name of God.
Humans created gods in their own image. In all mythologies, the early gods are like us: vengeful, covetous and jealous. Often, they cohabit with humans, and produce demigods, beings half divine and half human, like the androids being developed today.
In time, all these gods consolidated into a centralised power centre we call God, though by different names.
This God, however called, rules our lives like a not-always-benevolent, immortal dictator. In the name of God, we continue to fight wars and kill each other, as though commanded to do so by a Creator who is nothing but our creation, just as AI is.
Having created our first immortal dictator, some humans who call themselves atheists, rebelled against God and, like Milton’s Lucifer, arraigned themselves in ‘dubious battle’ against Heaven.
Today, as religious fundamentalism of all shades gains ground, so does a counter movement of radical atheism and rationalism as represented by scientists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris.
Humankind, it seems, is condemned to create its Creators – be it God or AI – and then seek to challenge and refute their own creation. If this indeed is so, Elon Musk and others like him could represent the face of the new atheism. (Read tomorrow: ‘Is God A Spiritual Liability?’)

 

A customised barometer for measuring success

 

“What you think of me is none of my business – Dr Wayne Dyre.”
One of the critical components of being successful is the art of calibrating success. For many, success means monetising an opportunity to the maximum extent as if extracting syrup by squeezing the sugarcane within the rollers of the juice machine! On the contrary, for me, it matters if I have been able to make my best efforts, contribute to the society and then achieved a goal. Even when the desired results are not accomplished, but if I come out stronger and wiser after an experience – it gets defined as ‘success’.
It is a success for me when I can go to bed without stress and get up every morning with a replenished sense of joy. I win, not only when I make profits but also when I hit the zero-loss buzzer!
I had opportunities to meet a number of super-rich persons. From all what he said, I could make out that they could afford to buy a plot on the moon. All my appreciation for the riches vanished as soon I see their paradoxical state of mental peace. In public appearances and business presentations, such a person compels the audience to be convinced that he is the best architect of success.
Strangely enough, what lies beneath the covers, and shielded by his smiles is a different story. I got information that the fellow has not been able to sleep without a sedation pill for years. Over and above, he has not maintained a harmonious relationship with his wife. His children have grown up and settled abroad. In the midst of all his wealth – he leads a solitary life!
It is not just about the person in this story, but there are many such individuals in our neighbourhood. People who may have been able to build a healthy balance sheet for their enterprise or might have proved their worth by achieving that ball-park promotion but the real ‘bottom line’, when it comes to ‘satisfaction’, gets sketched in red. What the news magazines tell us about such personalities is just the tip of the iceberg; what transpires in their life — behind the screen of commercial success — is much horrifying.
Any amount of bank balance can never justify the loss of peace and happiness. While plotting the graph of life — wealth gets marked on the horizontal axis and joy on the vertical. Invariably for cash-rich personalities, the result is a ‘bell curve’, which happens to be the most unpleasant achievement. The tipping point in the curve of success usually gets ignored & the insatiable lust for wealth, name and fame leads from the front. As a result, such people add up a significant net-worth but develop leaking self-worth! That is when all the money that they make loses its meaning. Their access to private jets does not enable them to land in the state of joy and peace!
Friends, I am of the opinion that it is no fun to lead the life of a super wealthy with zero fun! When I meet participants in my training sessions, I realise that people go crazy for success. In most of the cases their definition of ‘being successful’ includes two primary components: accumulating wealth and getting it acknowledged by their near and dear ones in the society! In the broader canvas of life, these are misplaced suppositions because, in such situations, people strive to measure their success on the yardstick designed on mass centric parameters!
I have learned that it is pernicious to get mislead by public reactions. It is so because the world that applauds can also strip you of all such glory, one day! What’s important is to be able to build a scale to measure one’s success sensibly. We all are born under unique circumstances, and each one of us grows up with a specific set of situations. As such, we know our needs, opportunities and constraints better than anyone else.
Even when the world may say that you are a failure, but when you, as per your benchmarks, know that you are growing, then it is a victory.”
Even if the people around may not recognise your achievements, but when you, as per your barometer, know that you have done better than the previous attempt, then it is a victory.
Even when the society might look down upon you for your not being able to flaunt wealth, but when you, as an individual feel satisfied, joyous and live life with much fun, then it is a victory.”
It is a great idea to have a customised barometer for measuring success.

Sunday Special: The Return of the Suit

Suits and power follow each other. The reason lies in the name which comes from the French word suite, meaning ‘following’ (like en-suite rooms). Trousers follow jacket in being made from the same material, giving the impression of a unified whole, covering and protecting the wearer.
Suits of armour did that literally, metal plates shielding the body. Chinese Han dynasty nobles were buried in jade suits to protect them in the afterlife. Such suits were meant to awe as much as protect and in Stitches in Time, Lucy Adlington’s history of clothing, she quotes a legend that when Alexander the Great invaded India he buried suits of giant armour, “to give posterity an extraordinary idea of him.”
Mark Zuckerberg also seemed to be wearing an extra-large size of suit when he faced the US Congress over Facebook’s privacy practices, or lack of them. Rather than attempt to awe like Alexander, some observers felt it might have been meant to do the opposite – create the idea of a lost, slightly helpless boy trying to do his best. The “I’m sorry” suit, is how one publication called it.
As Adlington writes, suits are “a kind of carapace, designed to present the wearer and their body in a specific way.” Less noticed this week, another powerful man used a suit to make a point. As part of his global charm offensive Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia showed up in Silicon Valley not in his customary thawb, the robes that Saudi nobles always wear, but in a suit, just worn without a tie.
Suits are having a moment again. Donald Trump’s presidency is dominated by men who are almost never seen without a standard suit. France’s president Emanuel Macron only wears sharply cut suits – he would never be seen in the complete clothes collapse that overtook Canada’s Justin Trudeau recently in India. Across the world, from Chile to Turkey to Russia to Japan, a new generation of assertive, mostly male leaders is suiting up to assert themselves.
This is quite a change from a decade back. The reason Zuckerberg’s suit drew such attention was because for years he was used as an example of its imminent demise. He was known for wearing a fixed combination of jeans and grey T-shirt, with at most a hooded sweatshirt on top.
Similar clothes became the staple of start-up entrepreneurs everywhere, positioned as both practical (for the long hours they worked) and also a conscious challenge to the suits of the older business world.
It wasn’t just in the West that suits faced flak. In 2005 Japan’s prime minister Junichiro Koizumi promoted alternatives to the business suit in a country which had built itself as an economic power on the backs of suit-clad ‘salarymen’.
Koizumi’s concern was environmental, to encourage less use of air-conditioning, but it also felt like a generational challenge. ‘Cool biz’, as the campaign was called showed office workers in plain dress shirts and even patterned ‘Okinawan’ shirts.
Suits seemed to be out then for businessmen and politicians in the new millennium. And it would be easy to read their return as the right-wing, old-school capitalist backlash to the over optimism of that era.
But that would underestimate the efficiencies of the suit, and its ability to use technology and adapt to changing times. Perhaps Zuckerberg’s embrace of the suit was not just temporary camouflage, but acknowledgement of the protean powers of this form of personal packaging.
The roots of the suit lie in simplicity. Before the 18th century in the West men’s clothes were divided into the sumptuous variety of aristocratic clothing and the basic fabrics, mostly wool and linen, worn by everyone else.
A growing middle-class, and wider availability of fabrics, including cottons from India, created a demand for styles of clothing with some of the style of expensive costumes, but more functional in use and easier to maintain.
Adlington explains that by the mid-19th century men’s formal wear took forms like morning coats and frock coats, which were quite elaborate and closely fitted, which meant special tailoring.
And then there was the sack coat, “a shorter, looser jacket that hung from padded shoulders, rather than fitting close to the chest and the waist.” It still looked formal, but was easier to make, required less fabric, and was easier to wear whatever one’s body shape – or changes in body shape.
The sack coat, with matching trousers, was a practical option for young and working class men who didn’t have the time or money to spend on close fitting clothes. Tailors figured out ways to make them on a large scale, in workshops with many workers, rather than the individual skill of master tailors.
Another new technology, photography, quickly disseminated the visual look of this style, making it increasingly accepted for the rapidly expanding world of professional work.
The sack coat, or lounge suit as the full ensemble was called, was still seen as a casual option. British financiers, for example, persisted in the contrasting style of pin-striped trousers and morning coats well into the mid-20th century. Slowly such styles started seeming old-fashioned or too ‘dressy’, suitable perhaps for special occasions like marriages, but not everyday.
The real death knell for the older suits came when they were adopted by the new range of luxury hotels as snobbish uniforms for their staff. Adlington quotes the Duke of Windsor’s memoirs about an embarrassing occasion in Australia, when the prime minister ‘waved a hand towards the end of the room and said to me: ‘That is my son.’ Seeing two men standing there, I signalled out the one in evening dress, and shook hands with him. He turned out to be the waiter.”
It probably wasn’t an accident that this happened in Australia. The more tropical parts of the British Empire were more willing to find solutions that balanced the demands of protocol and the imperatives of climate.
One solution was to blend jacket and shirt into one, with a thicker fabric and jacket style pockets. These were called bush shirts or safari jackets, and safari suits when matched with the pants. In India we associate this with older bureaucrats, but Australian politicians also popularised the style.
In India the solution was simply to discard the suit jacket, but to keep it close at hand. In Office Chai, Planters Brew, a fascinating oral history of working in private companies compiled by S.Muthiah and Ranjitha Ashok, several accounts explain how formal suits were required for occasions like board meetings, but more flexibility was allowed for everyday wear.
Writing on Shaw Wallace, they record: “In the late 1960s and early ‘70s, a tie was a must and jackets were always kept on hand. Meeting a client, auditor, or legal adviser, meant wearing a jacket. But the system changed over a period of time. The jacket was not really required, but the tie remained a must.”
If this was simple enough for Indian businessmen and bureaucrats, politicians had a far more complex task. The legacy of the independence movement, with its emphasis on khadi and Gandhi’s personal example of wearing only Indian clothes, meant that wearing Western clothes was taboo. Other third world countries had similar symbols, like Mao’s jackets or the robes of African and Arabian countries, but India it hardened into orthodoxy.
This is why Western wear remains a problem with the current BJP government, despite its business friendliness and willingness to woo the West. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s neat solution has been to use increasingly formal jackets, with a handkerchief puff performing the formalising role that a tie creates in the business suit. Occasionally the trousers match the pants, to create the suit effect, but nothing further is likely – not least because of the ‘suit-boot Sarkar’ jibe from the Congress.
Despite the impact of Zuckerberg’s suit, we probably haven’t gone all the way to its glory days. The suit has survived by selectively dropping parts of the full formal ensemble – waistcoats, hats, cufflinks, suspenders have all become increasingly optional, and perhaps that time has come for the tie. The option that is increasingly being seen now is the suit with open shirt collar, as worn by the Saudi prince.
One reason for this might be that, apart from giving a flourish, ties really have no function left, but jackets still do. The reason is the same that Japan’s Koizumi tried discouraging them – the widespread, and often quite intense, use of air-conditioning. In pre air-conditioned offices jackets could be dropped, but today they are comfortably, sometimes necessarily worn. And even for those trips to the warm world outside, jackets are better at covering sweat stains.
Of course, there’s Zuckerberg’s old option of the hoodie, or the other variants of sweaters or multiple sweatshirt layers commonly found in start-up offices. But this is where the secret camouflaging power of the suit could be reasserting itself. As the new business crowd grows older they are discovering what long, sedentary hours and fast food do their bodies – and how good the tailored padding and stiff fabric panels of suits are at protecting the evidence!

Reschooling Society

In the present system, there is only rote book knowledge with the objective to get marks in examinations. There is no focus on practical knowledge. Reform of the system should ensure all-round creative learning.
Free education as ensured in the Constitution is only in name — parents have to pay a huge burden of fees from the primary to the high-school level. (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)
The Indian education system is caught in a vicious circle and is in a shambles now. On the one hand, free education is in the mother tongue but is of very poor standard. On the other, the “good” schools, which follow some norms, are only for the rich. These are being established in competition with each other, with fees ranging in lakhs of rupees. Neither the state nor the central governments have any control over these. In the free schools, where poor and lower middle class children study, there is no one to ask about the poor standards.
In this situation, middle class parents are sending their children to small “convent” schools, paying high fees at heavy cost to themselves and harassing their children at home. We cannot even begin to comprehend the levels of mental stress children are undergoing today. When I was in primary school in the 1950s, there were 100-120 children studying in my school. Today, there are only 30-40 children in this school and a similar situation prevails in all villages. This is not because students are not going to schools. On the contrary, all parents send their children to schools. They send their children to these small “convent” schools in autos or school vans as they feel that their children will be better educated there.
This situation has arisen because of privatisation. Free education as ensured in the Constitution is only in name — parents have to pay a huge burden of fees from the primary to the high-school level. In those schools which are free, only children of poor people study even if the teachers are good. The Muddanur Zilla Parishad high school where I studied had many students who later on got good jobs. Recently, when I went there with some alumni, I found that the strength in that school had fallen drastically. If this continues, all free schools will close down. The 2009 amendment to the Constitution in the form of The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, or the Right to Education Act (RTE) as it is commonly known, will prove completely useless.
Children at the tender age of three years are sent to school for nursery or LKG classes, carrying a heavy burden of books, and forced to sit from 8 am to 5 pm. They are subjected to rote learning and forced after school hours to study/write homework for two-three hours. Children are thus subjected to physical and mental stress. A childhood that should be full of song and dance is now debased. How then can we see healthy and capable citizens develop tomorrow from these children?
The education system is also riddled with inequality from the start. Parents of some children insist that their wards try for IAS, IPS jobs, some others want for their children highly paid jobs in the medicine and engineering sectors. Most poor and middle class people wait for Group 3 and 4 jobs.
In this fashion, the free compulsory education envisaged by the Constitution has broken down and become a vicious circle. To add to children’s woes, there are no facilities like playgrounds and toilets in most schools. There is no one to ask why the government has given licences to such schools. Children have no time to sing and dance, they have to concentrate on their studies and later on, on searching for jobs. Parents force their children into this artificial system, injuring their tender minds. In this fashion, children who should have a bright future have mental issues, face depression and often know that their futures are bleak.
The government is silent and pretends that these issues do not concern it. It watches silently. Where will this end? The country which does not have a good education system faces destruction. Our intellectuals should reflect and pressure the government to bring in reforms in education. Varying standards of education too are not good for any country. Our country should have only one type of education system and this should be compulsory and free education. We can overcome our issues, like other countries did, with compulsory free education for all children. We can become a powerful India when there is change in the education system.
In the present system, there is only rote book knowledge with the objective to get marks in examinations. There is no focus on practical knowledge. Reform of the system should ensure all-round creative learning.
As part of reform, training of teachers should also be modified. Lakhs of teachers are necessary for the education system, but only those with a passion for teaching should be taken.

The Littel Talked About Obama-Russia Collusion

Since Donald Trump won his remarkable victory in the November 2016 presidential elections, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been working hard to investigate him. It is looking for collusion between his campaign and the Russians. For nearly a year, it has found nothing to prove that the Russians helped Trump defeat Hillary Clinton. But Russia did meddle in the United States election—and the Obama administration chose not to stop it.
Recently, CNN interviewed Brett Bruen, a former Obama administration official and former director of Global Engagement on the U.S. National Security Council. Two years before the election, Bruen was sounding the alarm about Russia meddling in U.S. elections. He warned that Russia was likely to use the same fake news and social media tactics in America’s elections that it used when interfering in the 2014 Ukraine elections. This is exactly what happened.
In 2014, Bruen urged the State Department to keep up its task force in order to push back against Russia, saying, “This is not the moment for us to stand down.”
“I was sitting in the situation room saying, this is something that is going to march across Western Europe, it’s something that is going to march over to our shores, and we need to be ready!” Bruen said. Bruen was addressing the Obama administration in the White House saying, We need to be ready for an attack!
He even proposed a command center to monitor and counter Russian misinformation, but the State Department rejected the advice coming from its own National Security Council! The Obama administration didn’t just allow Russians to interfere with the elections—IT ENABLED THEM TO DO SO!
In Bizpac Review, Kyle Becker wrote: “It was in the heat of the 2016 presidential campaign that Susan Rice proved to be a pivotal figure preventing the United States from countering Russian attempts at election meddling” (March 9). Becker continued: “At one pivotal point during the presidential campaign, Susan Rice directly told the White House director of cybersecurity Michael Daniel to cease and desist from developing further technological options to thwart apparent Russian attempts to create havoc in the digital elections infrastructure.”
Why did the American national security adviser tell American cybersecurity experts to stand down and stop protecting American elections from Russian interference? The article explains that the American cybersecurity agents were told to cease developing technology to thwart the Russians “BECAUSE THEY HAD NOT BEEN APPROVED BY PRESIDENT OBAMA.”
The information in Becker’s article all comes from Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump, coauthored by David Corn and Michael Isikoff. The book explains why the Obama administration didn’t aggressively resist Russian attempts to meddle in the U.S. election.
Even some of President Obama’s former security officials asked him why he wasn’t more aggressive in counteracting Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential elections. But this is the man who in the 2012 elections bashed candidate Mitt Romney by telling him, “[A] few months ago, when you were asked what’s the biggest geopolitical threat facing America, you said Russia. … The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War has been over for 20 years.”
According to CNN, by the time the July 2016 party conventions rolled around, there were “more than 80 people at the Kremlin-backed Internet research agency already assigned to meddling in American life.” Multiple sources involved in national security told CNN that they didn’t realize the extent of Russia’s meddling at that time. But they shouldn’t have been caught off guard, because Bruen and others had been warning them all along!
For “whatever reason,” CNN said, “the warning of the looming Russian threat was not shared across the Obama administration.”
What was that reason? Why wasn’t the Obama administration concerned about this looming threat? Why didn’t they do anything to stop Russia? It’s because they saw no need to counter Russian interference in the elections, because Hillary Clinton was going to become the next president of the United States! When candidate Trump commented that he might not accept the election results if he thought they were rigged, Democrats in politics and the media heaped scorn on the idea that election results could be tainted.
Politicians and media confidently and consistently pushed the message that Hillary Clinton was going to win. In their minds, there was no need to aggressively go after Russia when Hillary was in the lead. But now that President Trump has won the election, the FBI can use accusations of Russian collusion to surveil and probe people and organizations tied to Mr. Trump. Now, the Russian threat is no longer a 1980s relic but suddenly an ever-so-serious matter. Suddenly federal agents and everyday liberals are very concerned about the ins and outs of lawful election proceedings—although from the other side of their mouths they simultaneously scorn President Trump and others for saying that people should not be able to vote illegally. Why this change of heart? Because it’s an excuse to continue investigating Mr. Trump in an attempt to find something that will cripple or end his presidency.
The entire Trump-Russia investigation is based on a hoax. Robert Mueller’s team has been searching for evidence of collusion for nearly a year and has found nothing. But what has been revealed is a tremendous amount of lawbreaking by bureaucrats in intelligence and law enforcement! The previous president filled America’s law enforcement agencies with treasonous agents.
It is important that you understand the drama unfolding in Washington today. America has never seen a government come under as much attack from its own people as the current administration. Our nation is on the verge of collapse.

Align Energy Transition With Economic Growth

Coordinated public sector support once kickstarted the technologies, business practices and markets needed for a clean, prosperous and secure low-carbon energy future.
Over time, the increasing profitability of clean energy activity has come to drive exponential growth in global annual investment – amounting to more than $333 billion in 2017 – and local jobs to support the deployment of products and services. Households, businesses and governments are now increasingly seeking these new energy solutions due to the real economic value they can provide.
But the energy transition is still not moving fast enough. And therefore the ball is back in policymakers’ court to accelerate the shift to the clean energy solutions of the future. Countries looking to tap into these solutions’ proven economic and environmental advantages face the new challenge of how to employ the right mix of policies to drive the transition locally, faster and at the lowest cost. As countries like China, India and Mexico demonstrate, the motivation is not just to avoid the costs of global climate change, but increasingly to capture their share of the transition’s economic opportunity for domestic voters and taxpayers – estimated to exceed $1 trillion per year worldwide.
Consensus policies for an economical transition
The World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Energy reviewed the existing policy recommendations from leading thinktanks, industry groups and research institutes. Six core policies emerged as consensus across these sources.
1) Integrated policy frameworks. Traditionally segmented energy sectors will in the future need to be deeply integrated, highly electrified energy systems. As a result, governments should frame the long-term direction for the energy sector as a whole and involve key stakeholders at each stage. The result should provide a clear vision for society at large, a firm direction for emerging technologies and a solid incentive for commercial innovation, while also ensuring investor certainty.
2) Carbon pricing. At national and/or subnational levels, pricing carbon through a broad tax or cap-and-trade allowance system will help markets over time find the cheapest ways to reduce emissions by providing a single stable price signal. Sub-state, provincial alignment has proven effective in preventing cross-border “leakages”; the same should be facilitated at regional and global levels.
3) Smart subsidies. Governments should look first to eliminate inefficient and regressive fossil fuels subsidies, which far outweigh those given to clean technologies. Taxpayer-funded subsidies for the energy technologies of the future need careful targeting and should be responsibly allocated through market-based mechanisms, in-kind public private partnerships and transparent public planning processes.
4) Supportive innovation. Governments can remedy historically lacklustre energy research and development funding through in-kind funding programmes and coordinating platforms. “Governments participating in Mission Innovation have pledged to double their clean energy R&D budgets, leading the way in boosting investment in much-needed breakthrough technologies and applications,” says Leonardo Beltrán Rodríguez, the Mexican government’s deputy secretary for planning and energy transition. Governments can also use public tenders to leverage downstream private sector innovation in manufacturing, supply chain and delivery models.
5) Energy efficiency. The least expensive energy is energy that is not used. Across all major energy sectors, from power generation and distribution to industry, transport and buildings, immense opportunities exist for efficiency. Besides incentivising direct investment in efficiency – once estimated to offer 100% return on $500 billion in the US alone – the most effective policies institute clear mandates and standards for appliance, building and vehicle efficiency.
6) Electricity market design. The attributes of increasingly cost-effective electricity generation, storage and use technologies, as well as the rise of IT-enabled rapid interactivity between supply- and demand-side resources, pose new challenges for electricity markets. “As an independent market operator, we believe that optimal approaches are needed for an efficient system that allows the greatest practical level of competition and innovation to ultimately deliver the best results for consumers,” says Audrey Zibelman, CEO of the Australian Energy Market Operator.
Underlying each of these recommendations is evidence of how policies supporting the transition have fared: first, that businesses will mobilize quickly and efficiently in response to smart, supportive and stable policies designed for scale. In developed markets, this entails replacing dirty and inefficient assets with clean, resilient and low-cost ones. In developing countries, those policies can support rapid economic growth that avoids the traps of past industrial models by using new energy technologies and market designs of the future.
Second, where the winds of proven technologies and market designs are at your back as in the energy transition, policy changes that can quickly result in economic growth and commercial competitiveness are less controversial.
Enabling policy to close the emissions gap to 2 degrees
These consensus policies, in addition to others just shy of unanimity, amount to a toolbox for policymakers. They will need it: UN Environment’s 2017 Emissions Gap Report notes that “missing the 2020 options of revising the [nationally determined contributions] would make closing the 2030 emissions gap practically impossible”.
The good news: the policy solutions that have broad consensus can in fact frame and unleash the market activity necessary to reduce annual emissions by 2030 by more than double what is needed to maintain a pathway consistent with 2 degrees
These estimates are remarkable for showing that existing technologies and business models, coupled with proven policies from leading country contexts, can bring the world in line with the 2 degrees Celsius goal by 2030.
Clear, consistent and detailed national and subnational policies – beyond goals and commitments – can help bring these solutions to scale. Already, global markets have reduced average wind and solar prices by 47% and 72% respectively over the past eight years. What could we expect if policies opened the gates not only to global but also to local, component manufacturing, supply chains and delivery models?
Policy to unlock and sustain the transition
The few ceilings that do exist on the rapid growth of these solutions are due not to natural resources or lack of ingenuity but to a shortage of political imagination: forward-looking policy can structure market incentives to efficiently continue their growth.
For example, the rise of high-penetration wind and solar without storage or demand flexibility can cause traditional wholesale power markets pricing mechanisms to fail during peak generation hours.
Policy for growing domestic economies – and de-risking the global glide path
The success of policies such as these, validated by expert consensus, should leave international leaders and regulators with little cause for hesitation. These policies can tap market forces to increase local income, make energy clean and more cost-effective, improve self-sufficiency and strengthen energy security. At the same time, they can create a collective glide path to a lower-risk, low-carbon future.
⦁ The trade-off is simple: act now with integrated long-term policies to smooth that path, or necessitate sharp and sudden regulatory shifts in 10-15 years that pose the same threat to economic growth as the climate disaster they hope to address.
“Significant investment from the private sector will continue to be required to support the energy transition,” says Teresa O’Flynn, managing director at BlackRock. “Clean energy policy initiatives will be more successful if they acknowledge the needs of private capital and build the appropriate environment to encourage investment, which includes developing a stable, consistent, transparent long-term policy and regulatory environment.”
The World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Energy suggests that countries apply this policy toolbox to their own unique contexts, considering both the challenges and opportunities it might create. They may also speed the pace of engagement and learning between their contiguous and regional neighbours, as a cooperative approach can speed domestic progress faster than a go-it-alone attitude.
As a result, countries can arrive at this year’s Facilitative Dialogues and COP26 in 2020 confident in their ability to take near-term climate mitigation to speed economic growth – rather than threaten it.

Weekend Special: Terms of Unfreedom

How do ideas of metaphysical and political freedom align themselves? Is dissent the essence of freedom?
“Man is born free…” The first words of Rousseau’s oft quoted declaration are usually glossed over in favour of those that follow: “…but is everywhere in chains.” A little reflection will reveal that the contrast, though vividly cast, is really a contradiction: If man is everywhere in chains then he cannot have been born free. Tied umbilically to his past and present, the newborn leaping naked into the world needs both fortune and wit to cast off those chains, though others will hold him fast no matter which way he turns. Bonds both visible and invisible put a spike in the glorious self image of heroic man, struggling against forces greater than himself. Naming them as gods, fate or chance, he tried to make sense of the inexplicable ups and downs of human existence, working out complex strategies to placate, avoid or manipulate them. While belief in the efficacy of such magic still thrives, the problem of whether and to what extent humans are free, remains intractable.
The Greeks, always the perfect gentlemen, restricted freedom to those who could afford to be outspoken, knowing that poverty keeps men dependent, robbing them even of the ability to speak, let alone freely. Freedom, even political freedom, meant not being dependent on another: This immediately ruled out women, children and slaves. Though short-lived, these ideas remained influential and even served to emphasise the economic basis of all freedoms. We understand the wage-slave, burdened both by his job and his obligations.
Unable to devise a cogent case for political freedom, classical thinkers spirited the idea away from the public sphere, relocating it in metaphysical space: Man is free not in the physical dimension where he, like everything else is subject to laws completely independent of him, but in a world of his own making where he can dream at will. Across different cultures, freedom was removed from the physical world and therefore from the sphere of everyday life.
This was not merely the problem of reconciling causality with morality (or religion): If science shows that all events are causally determined, and if human actions are (as they seem to be) events, they too must be determined (antecedently) then whence freedom? The problem becomes acute if you introduce a powerful and loving creator, god. An idea that triggered the protest: “O thou who didst with pitfall and with gin/beset the road I was to wander in…/ and then impute my fall to sin?” What chance do our choices have when the dice of necessity are loaded and the table set? Older ghosts of destiny and fate still loom over these anxieties. As do new ones of genetic determinism.
Some thinkers no less astute but lacking perhaps the authority of church and state, developed their own determinations: The three gunas are like strands of a rope and these bind the bewildered but otherwise omniscient Self who is really free (of them); if he only knew it. Knowledge alone can set your free. This remarkable theory, like all remarkable theories, enabled one to eat one’s cake over again. In such an outlook, freedom can only be the loosening of social and material bonds, the root sense of moksha. Freedom not in the world but from it.
By locating freedom in a realm accessible only to high thought and very pure living, these models kept thought itself manacled to another world; ensuring that no time was wasted in worrying about the shackles of this one. Nor is this surprising as political conditions usually frame intellectual explorations. It was no accident that in monarchies and dictatorships intellectuals often looked intently into the distance. The phenomenal world, bound by either god or science, was abandoned in favour of a noumenal one where the will at last was free, if only to follow its own diktat.
With the advent of democracy, a somewhat late arrival in many parts of the world, the problem of individual freedom got a lift, but was soon reduced to questions of movement and choice of profession (work or faith). Even these are not always or everywhere absolutely guaranteed. Freedom of speech, taught as a central pillar of liberal democratic ideals, has been overwhelmed by the sheer range and rage of digital discourse, much of it in the raw. One response has been to transform citizens into those who can see, hear and speak no evil.
Many claim that the freedoms of its people are no longer even the primary concern of the state, if they ever were. Is not our need for security greater, threatened as we are by enemies within and without? The state must restrict individual freedom in every sphere and harness new technologies “the better to see you with my dear”. Be content, we are told, with negative freedom (Berlin) rather than the active freedom to that ancient democracies expected from the political animal. We moderns, scarcely sovereign in our own homes “now know only what we are not, what we do not want”.
If disobedience is the hallmark of freedom (Adam’s defining act of dissent), the ability to say no, not yes, then real freedom these days belongs to the functionaries of the state, who can refuse, without reason, often without response, what supplicants may beg (quick justice, due process, the rites of knowledge, relief from even one of the three kinds of suffering). This is the absolute freedom which authority everywhere wields without either fear or compassion and whose grimace we must smile back at even as we genuflect before it.

Secret to Groundbreaking Science

 

Only by crossing cultures and collaborating beyond disciplines can we solve the great challenges of our time.  If you look at any major company today, it’s impossible to miss the positive impact of collaboration. Technological advances and international travel have enabled companies to benefit from access to new ideas and perspectives. Bringing people together from diverse backgrounds, often across borders, has led to new ways of thinking, better solutions and faster progress.
The same is true in science. When we think about some of the greatest achievements in the last century, these were often the result of hundreds of people working together across the globe. Initiatives like the International Space Station, one of the most ambitious political and scientific collaborations ever, or the Human Genome Project, the combined effort of thousands of scientists and 18 countries to sequence the DNA of the human genome. A group of Nobel Prize winners recently highlighted that without collaboration they may never have won their individual accolades.
Collaboration and international mobility make science stronger. Countries with mobile scientific workforces produce more highly cited papers. Researchers who work in more than one country have 40% higher average citation rates, while internationally collaborative papers have greater impact than domestic papers.
Business can help create a more collaborative and inclusive society, but first this needs to change
Science is increasingly global. In 1981, only 5% of research publications had overseas co-authors, compared with almost half today. Researchers also build strong links between nations as they travel, with scientists retaining ties in the countries they leave.
It’s this type of collaboration that is needed to tackle the biggest problems facing society, such as developing clean and sustainable energy, combatting epidemics or providing sufficient food for a growing population. It’s only by crossing cultures and collaborating beyond disciplines that we’ll be able to solve the great challenges of our time.
But world events are threatening the environments within which collaboration thrives, creating an unclear future for researchers around the world. Occurrences such as Brexit, the US’s proposed travel ban on eight countries and a rise in nationalism in many countries has created a fragile and uncertain environment for science.
The attitudes and actions of governments shape research culture. If countries turn inwards and lose sight of the vital importance of international collaboration, this will have damaging consequences for science and the world around us.
That’s why Wellcome, with other organizations across the world, has started Together Science Can, a global campaign to unite researchers and institutes in order to protect vital international collaboration. We’ve joined together with some of the greatest scientific institutions in the world, from the Max Planck Society to the African Academy of Sciences to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to support building these bridges.
The world is changing at an unprecedented rate. We’re facing huge challenges – climate change, demographic shifts and the spread of drug-resistant infections, to name a few – but they are not insurmountable. Together, we can make discoveries that will further our knowledge and improve our lives in ways we cannot imagine today.
In these volatile times, it’s vital that the case is made for the policies and principles that make international collaboration possible – by scientists, researchers and the public. We hope that Together Science Can provides a way for them to tell their stories and ensure they have a voice when decisions are made about how they should work together.

Humanity’s History in Space Indicates Our Future in the Stars

So far we have only ventured as far as the international space station, but that might be about to change. Humans became a spacefaring species 60 years ago this month, when Russia launched Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite. We’re the only species to achieve this milestone in the 4.5 billion-year history of Earth, and to date we’ve seen no evidence that any other species in our own galaxy or outside it has the same capability.
That’s a lot of responsibility to put on the collective shoulders of a few billion sentient apes huddled on a pale blue dot in a nondescript suburb of the Milky Way.
After Sputnik, the Space Age ramped up into high gear, driven in large part by competition between the United States and Russia. Orbital launches peaked in 1967, when humans sent 143 rockets into orbit containing satellites, lunar orbiters, and precursors to the first moon landing.
Launch activity remained high through the 1970s and 1980s. But it began to decline in the 1990s. The Challenger explosion in 1986 took some of the shine off manned spaceflight, and after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Congress began appropriating ever-smaller chunks of the federal budget for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
Launches hit a nadir in 2004 when humans made 55 attempts at orbital flight — a little more than one-third of the peak hit in 1967. Since then the numbers have rebounded but remain well under those in the heyday of the 1960s and 1970s.
In 2016, for instance, there were 85 space launches, three of which failed. We’re on track to hit about the same number this year, depending on how the year’s remaining launches pan out.
What happened? It wasn’t supposed to be this way. In the 1960s humanity dreamed of moon bases, space tourism and putting astronauts on Mars. So far, none of that has panned out. The future gave us “smart” toasters, suicidal robots and dank memes but no jet packs or flying cars.
Meanwhile, American space ambition — at least of the official, government-led variety — might appear to be rudderless. Since the last human left the lunar surface 45 years ago, administrations have vacillated between sending people back to the moon or on to Mars or someplace in between.
The result has been that nobody has been sent anywhere beyond the International Space Station, which orbits 250 miles above the surface — about the distance between D.C. and Pittsburgh.
But there’s another way to look at these numbers, focusing on the roughly 50 percent increase in launch activity since 2004. Much of that has been driven not by governments but by private companies such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which has completed 15 successful launches in 2017 alone. That accounts for more than one-quarter of all orbital launches so far this year — nearly as many as Russia.
Orbital launches may be rarer than they once were, but they remain, in many respects, routine — humans have attempted to shoot something into space about once every four days this year, with a success rate greater than 93 percent. After decades of satellite launches there are more than 1,000 operational satellites orbiting Earth at this moment, facilitating even mundane tasks like directing you to the grocery store and delivering the Kardashians to your television.
Governments and private companies, meanwhile, have big plans for the coming years. The Trump administration wants to send people back to the moon. SpaceX hopes to send a crewed mission to Mars in seven years. Jeffrey P. Bezos’s Blue Origin plans to send tourists into suborbital flight by the end of 2018 (Bezos owns The Washington Post).
But when it comes to space, nothing is guaranteed. Space is hard, the saying goes. And there’s plenty of reason to be pessimistic: According to Princeton astrophysicist J. Richard Gott, there’s a 50 percent chance that we’re currently living in the last half of the Space Age, with less than 50 years of space travel ahead of us. It’s easy to see how a small number of setbacks, like budget cuts or the loss of a crew, could derail our ambitions and make many of us decide that space travel isn’t worth the cost or risks.
But that might end up being a big mistake. If there’s anything we know about life on Earth, it’s that it’s fragile — all it would take is an errant comet or a nuclear war to render much of the planet uninhabitable. Setting up permanent outposts on the moon or Mars would be like taking out a species-level insurance policy against such events — to say nothing of the ancillary economic benefits of space exploration.
Such an effort could very well be worth the cost and risk. One possible reason we don’t currently see evidence of aliens whizzing about the galaxy in high-tech spacecraft: Wherever it evolves, intelligent life may simply tend to get wiped out by natural disasters or internal strife before it develops the capacity to escape its planet of origin.
If that’s the case those are daunting odds, to be sure. But every orbital launch brings us one step closer to beating them.

Vanuatu – Next Military Base of China

China’s expanding military power in the Pacific could soon approach Australia. Media reports over the last week suggest that China is planning to establish its second foreign military base. Australia’s Fairfax Media, via the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age, reported April 9 on “preliminary discussions” between China and Vanuatu about “building a permanent military presence in the South Pacific in a globally significant move that could see the rising superpower sail warships on Australia’s doorstep.” Vanuatu is a South Pacific island, located northeast of Australia.
It seems that while nearly everyone is talking about these reports, everyone is also denying them. “No one in the Vanuatu government has ever talked about a Chinese military base in Vanuatu of any sort,” Vanuatu Foreign Minister Ralph Regenvanu told abc radio program. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang described Fairfax Media reports as “fake news.” Even Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop downplayed the reports, saying, “We have very good relations with Vanuatu and I remain confident that Australia is Vanuatu’s strategic partner of choice.”
Perhaps only time will tell the full truth. Fake news or not, why did these reports gain so much traction in the first place? Why would Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull say that he viewed “with great concern the establishment of any foreign military bases in those Pacific Island countries and neighbors of ours,” even after he accepted China’s denial? Why is Vanuatu’s foreign minister concerned that “the upsurge in the paranoia about China in Australia” could “destroy or denigrate the good relationship Vanuatu has with Australia”? Why is China “more engaged in the Pacific,” as Australia’s foreign minister acknowledged?
China is a major power to be reckoned with. It established its first foreign military base in the East African nation of Djibouti. Beijing benignly calls this facility a logistics “support base,” primarily, even though its Xinhua News Agency calls it a facility for “military cooperation, joint exercises, evacuating and protecting overseas Chinese and emergency rescue, as well as jointly maintaining security of international strategic seaways.” The Telegraph wrote that “observers see it as a key part of Beijing’s plans to expand its global reach through military might. … China’s base in Djibouti was established after Beijing nurtured deep investment links with the tiny nation.”
The same could be said for Vanuatu. China already owns more than half of the tiny island nation’s debt. Vanuatu’s opposition leader, Ishmael Kalsakau, told Fairfax Media that there’s a lack of transparency in some of China’s infrastructure loans and donations to the nation and some of its leaders. “No one’s questioning what the Chinese are getting out of this,” he said. He acknowledged that no Vanuatu government official would “in their right mind” allow China to establish a military base in their country, but he warned that its loan agreements for some of Vanuatu’s maritime facilities could contain debt-equity swap clauses that would allow China to possess the facilities if Vanuatu defaulted. Australia’s International Development Minister Concetta Fierravanti-Wells similarly cautioned, “We don’t know what the consequences are when [Pacific nations] have to pay back some of these Chinese loans.”
“There are several plausible reasons for China to want access or presence for its armed forces in the South Pacific,” wrote Prof. Rory Medcalf, the head of the National Security College at the Australian National University. Australia and its allies, he wrote, would need to be “deeply mindful that China has used ‘transnational’ security challenges—such as piracy in the Gulf of Aden or bad weather in the South China Sea—as cover for strategic presence.”
China might want to establish a military presence in the region to increase its security cooperation with South Pacific island nations and thereby compete directly with Australia and New Zealand—the bigger powers in the region. It also might want a foothold in the sparsely populated South Pacific for testing and tracking spacecraft or even testing missiles. China has tested nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles in this region before.
“[T]he most troubling implication for Australian interests is that a future naval or air base in Vanuatu would give China a foothold for operations to coerce Australia, outflank the U.S. and its base on U.S. territory at Guam, and collect intelligence in a regional security crisis,” wrote Professor Medcalf.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union established economic ties with South Pacific islands such as Kiribati and Vanuatu. Those same ties allowed the Soviets vital intelligence gathering opportunities. During World War ii, the imperial army of Japan invaded the South Pacific island nations of New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. Vanuatu, New Zealand and Australia would have been next if Allied forces hadn’t fought back the Japanese—from Vanuatu.
Professor Medcalf concluded: [H]owever small the initial footprint, the establishment of a Chinese naval or air force presence in Vanuatu would be a negative turning point in Australian defense policy. … A Chinese military base in Vanuatu would mark an accumulative and long-term failure of bipartisan Australian policy, in terms consistently defined in every single Australian defense white paper as well as strategic guidance documents going back at least three decades ….
Whether or not the reports about China’s military ambitions in Vanuatu are true, Medcalf wrote, they are not groundless or paranoid. That’s because China is an aggressive superpower in the making. Australia and its chief ally, America, are declining world powers losing the geopolitical chess game. And as the Sydney Morning Herald wrote, Australia “needs to get very serious, very quickly, to counter this move by a master strategist.”
What China is doing, or allegedly doing, in Vanuatu shows how much of a superpower it’s becoming. China is aggressively taking control of the sea gates in its region. As Trumpet editor in chief Gerald Flurry wrote in his article “China Is Steering the World Toward War”:
Ever since Xi Jinping took over as general secretary of the Communist Party of China, his administration has been militarizing the South China Sea and working to push the United States out of East Asia. In two island chains, the Paracels and the Spratlys, China is building a series of man-made islands, 800 miles from China’s shore. These islands are being installed with antiaircraft batteries and fighter jets are stationed on them.
The Spratly Islands are claimed by the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam. China is ignoring these nations’ territorial claims. China is being aggressive and provocative.
These militarized islands now function as forward bases for Beijing to challenge seven decades of American naval dominance in the Pacific Rim. This should alarm the world! China’s deep ties to Vanuatu—even without a naval base—show that it is progressively reaching out further.

Fake News: Neither News Nor Fake

In today’s atmosphere of righteous indignation, it is sometimes easy to forget that all the wrongs confronting the world didn’t begin either with social media or Donald Trump.
Take the case of fake news, the newest discovery that democracies are neither able to swallow nor spit out. Last week witnessed convulsions in the media — both mainstream and social — over a ham-fisted attempt by the ministry of information and broadcasting to punish wrongdoers with the equivalent of court-martial and dishonourable discharge. It required the Prime Minister’s personal intervention to nullify the proposed changes and pass the buck to the Press Council, a body unsure of its contemporary relevance. More than the tentativeness over what constitutes fake news, the 36-hour drama showed yet again that the media is probably India’s most formidable trade union that no one wants to confront headlong.
Public memory being short, it is convenient to forget that the fake news didn’t exist in the public imagination until November 2016 when, defying all punditry, Donald Trump scored a surprise election victory. Predictably, this outcome threw the entire liberal and media establishment into a tizzy. Trump hardly had the backing of any ‘respectable’ notable and there was barely a media organisation of any consequence that endorsed his candidature. He was not only an outsider but an outlander.
The American media’s inability to assess the groundswell in favour of a candidate who seemed to defy all rules of campaigning was an enormous collective failure. The failure to gauge the mood of the proverbial other half was undoubtedly a consequence of existing in a cosy echo chamber and succumbing to groupthink. However, instead of admitting its own lapses, the liberal temptation was to point an accusing finger at an alternative world. It was smugly suggested that a parallel world had been built on different social assumptions and ‘alternative’ facts. In short, fake news.
It was a mischievous overstatement. People’s perceptions are built on a multiplicity of inputs. These include not merely what individuals consume in the media but what their own experience tells them. If there is a sharp mismatch between the two, there is a temptation to retreat into separate echo chambers, untroubled by doubts. The worldviews of those who saw redemption in Trump and those who perceived him as an incarnation of evil were vastly different. What one lot instinctively believed was considered fake news by the other.
This polarisation was replicated in the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum. And again, the sharp schism between what has been called the ‘nowhere’ people and the ‘somewhere’ people was sought to be explained in terms of the triumph of fake news.
India is accustomed to alternative universes. Historians have studied the preponderance of rumours — what in today’s parlance would be dubbed fake news — in mass mobilisations. The uprising of 1857 was triggered by perceptions of travelling chapatis that foretold imminent collapse and greased cartridges that suggested an alien assault on faiths. Mahatma Gandhi on his part was accorded superhuman qualities by communities that existed outside the ecosystem of the ‘educated’ Indians. The British rulers, having internalised the virtues of paternalism, could sometimes never quite understand why self-government was preferred by Indians to good government. They could also never comprehend how the same man who was docile and even obsequious could, in a different context, attach such importance to self-respect.
In the 21st century, the idea of a negotiable truth has been grafted on to technology. India is replete with rumours, half-truths and blatant lies. Some of these inevitably worm their way into the media and social media platforms where they often become ‘viral’ and acquire a life of their own. The real issue is not that fake news — embellished in recent days by the crafty use of technology — exists. More telling is why some fake news gets to be readily believed. And by whom? Why is a fracas after a local altercation viewed by some as evidence of everyday irritability and by others as an instance of inter-communal tensions? Why do people believe what they want to believe, regardless of authenticity?
There is one type of fake news — doctored photographs or videos, outright lies, etc — that is deserving of outright condemnation and even legal action. The problem is that the definition of fake news has been stretched. What used to be called ‘spin’ in the sphere of politics has been conferred more sinister connotations by a media that finds its control over information questioned and challenged. This is a battle in which the state need not get involved.

 

Indo-UK Relationship Can Steer Commonwealth for Prosperity

History has a curious habit of repeating itself. In 1949, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru arrived in Britain for the fourth Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, hosted by his British counterpart Clement Attlee. Nehru was a known sceptic of the Commonwealth, keen to shed the last vestiges of imperial rule. Severing all colonial ties would also allow him to pursue a distinctive foreign policy of non-alignment and build relations with countries like Russia and China.
As India made plans to become a republic, events came to a head. Following an intense campaign led by Louis Mountbatten, Nehru opened the door to some form of ongoing association. He had also started to re-evaluate the political and economic advantages for India of being conciliatory in its formative years of freedom. Mahatma’s Gandhi’s philosophy of ‘forget and forgive’ is likely to have played on Nehru’s mind.
So statesmanship and draftsmanship came together in the text of the London Declaration, which “affirmed India’s desire to continue her full membership of the Commonwealth of Nations and her acceptance of the King as the symbol of the free association of its independent member nations and as such the Head of the Commonwealth.” George VI is reported to have quipped: “Mr Nehru you have reduced me to an ‘as such’”. And so the modern Commonwealth was born.
Each successive country to gain independence from Britain, or become a republic, could comfortably follow India’s lead and remain in the club. Now, almost seven decades later, as leaders of the much enlarged Commonwealth family of 53 nations gather in London for their twenty-fifth meeting, all eyes are once again on the Indian prime minister.
Neither Narendra Modi, nor his predecessor Manmohan Singh, have attended the last three summits in Malta, Colombo or Perth. And like Nehru, Modi has struggled with the relevance of the Commonwealth looking instead to US, Japan, Asean, and increasingly Israel, as his innermost circle of allies.
This matters to the group. Without India’s active engagement, the Commonwealth would be a shadow of its potential. It is by far the biggest member, representing more than half of its 2.4 billion combined population and, alongside Britain, the biggest economy. India personifies the youth, growth, scale and diversity which defines the modern Commonwealth – and brings the added legitimacy of being the world’s largest democracy.
So with the Commonwealth at another inflection point, Indians are asking the fundamental question: what is the Commonwealth for? This is a point which the British House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee has also made in its latest report calling for: “clear aims for what the UK wants to achieve… with a credible strategy, specific objectives and metrics for success” as it prepares for a two year term as Chair-in-Office.
In moving towards greater engagement with the Commonwealth, Delhi must, however, steer clear of four pitfalls.
The first is the fallacy of a reformed Commonwealth as “Empire 2.0”. Many British intellectuals are deriding London’s new enthusiasm for the Commonwealth as mere nostalgia for the colonial era. They warn against the illusion that the Commonwealth can be a substitute for the European Union. There is no reason for India to be drawn into that internal argument in Britain. What Delhi does know is that Britain is repositioning itself in the world after Brexit.
What matters for India is not London’s motivation, but the terms of engagement that are on offer for a new British relationship with India and the Commonwealth in the changed domestic and international context. Negotiating favourable terms is far more important for Delhi than proclaiming that the Commonwealth is a colonial relic. The debate on the Commonwealth can’t be about its past. It must be about its future, especially the value of the 53-nation forum for India’s international relations.
In the present, India is poised to overtake Britain’s aggregate GDP in the next year or two. The International Monetary Fund puts Britain’s GDP in 2017 at $2.56 trillion and India’s at $2.43 trillion. It’s about time India got over the defensive mindset in relation to a former colonial power. Here, the contrast between India and China is sharp. Beijing is not arguing with London about the opium wars or Britain’s leading role in China’s “hundred year humiliation”. Instead, they are trying to seduce Britain, especially the city of London, into China’s commercial and financial orbit.
The second pitfall is the pretence that reform and renewal of the Commonwealth are only about tinkering with the status quo. With London barely acquiescing in its existence, the Commonwealth has settled on roles that are of little strategic consequence today. One role is that of a tutor of moral science. After the end of the Cold War, the Commonwealth jumped on the bandwagon of good governance and humanitarianism.
But the heyday of the attempts at external engineering of internal social and political order in the developing world is now well past us. The Commonwealth can offer advice and assistance when asked. It should avoid pushing democracy and human rights down the throats of other states. Thanks to a newly rich China, the regimes in many developing states have alternatives that did not exist earlier.
What the Commonwealth needs today is not a “prescriptive approach” on rights, but a focus on bringing greater economic prosperity for the peoples of the forum through an enhanced trade and investment relationship. The Commonwealth could devote considerable energies towards the promotion of sustainable development and maritime security, which pose existential challenges to the many small and island states in the forum. The Commonwealth can become more valuable to its member states if it directs its aid and assistance to a few major priority areas rather than spreading its resources on a range of issues.
The third pitfall is the allure of leadership. India can and must do a lot of things in re-energising the Commonwealth, but claiming leadership should be the last thing. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s emphasis, instead, must be on strengthening India’s contribution to the Commonwealth. As the soon-to-be largest economy in the forum, India can significantly increase its levels of economic assistance, give more to the maintenance of the Secretariat, boost the current efforts on capacity building, and above all, open its economy to facilitate trade liberalisation across the Commonwealth.
Fourth, reviving the Commonwealth is not about India taking over from Britain. It is about reordering the relationship between Delhi and London. Although the relations between India and Britain have significantly improved, Britain is yet to do what most other Western powers have done. It is to recognise that India’s rise is in their own national interests. Britain has remained somewhat hesitant to align with India on the regional issues in the Subcontinent and beyond. A significant change in that direction could help transform the bilateral relationship as well as the Commonwealth.
It is clear that the Commonwealth cannot be a fully fledged political block given the widely diverging interests between 53 nations and longstanding bilateral issues amongst members – the Kashmir dispute being one obvious example. But the UK could, for example, build a caucus in the UN bridging its role as the sole Commonwealth member of the Security Council with the General Assembly.
Economic collaboration is the only significant alternative. A greater focus on prosperity – one of the four key themes of the London summit – would certainly suit the British agenda as it prepares to leave EU. The Commonwealth’s combined GDP is over $10 trillion and includes some of the fastest growing countries and regions in the world. Intra-Commonwealth trade and investment is projected to surpass $1.5 trillion by 2020. It is also a conduit for the fast growing corridor of south-south activity which now represents over a quarter of world trade.
An effort has been made to quantify the Commonwealth advantage which comes from sharing a common language and having similar legal and regulatory systems, institutions, and standards. The findings show that Commonwealth members tend to trade 20% more, save around 19% in costs and generate 10% more foreign direct investment. So the Commonwealth enjoys a higher return from expanding trade and investment flows but, equally, has the most to lose from rising protectionism.
So the prosperity agenda is plausible but it cannot stand alone. Britain must show the other 52 members that its renewed focus on the Commonwealth is not just an opportunistic antidote to Brexit but a real change of heart from the British government.
A greater focus on trade and investment should certainly be welcomed by Modi as he enters a critical pre-election year. Delivering tangible results from his economic reforms will be a top priority, particularly if it can secure jobs for young Indians. Aspirational India is increasingly becoming impatient India.
There is also a wider geopolitical prize. There are few international fora where India doesn’t face head on competition from other emerging superpowers. This might be relevant, especially in Africa, with 19 members of the Commonwealth, and where India could bring some counterbalance to the region. More broadly, the global rules-based order is in desperate need of new champions, particularly those like India.
India could take a lead on trade and investment and shift the centre of gravity of the Commonwealth away from London. As for future leadership, Indians understand families and the need for a “family arrangement” and ‘as such’ might graciously repeat Nehru’s words of almost 70 years ago and accept Prince Charles as the next Head of the Commonwealth.

Look Beyond Transactionalism: India & the US Need Redefine Their Ties

US President Donald Trump has expressed anger at India for its high trade tariffs. His administration has complained to the WTO about it. Not that Trump is angry with India alone. He is angry with China too. And the trade clash between the two countries has acquired serious proportions. Several others too have faced Trump’s anger at bilateral or multilateral trade regimes that he sees as unfavourable to the US.
I had written, after Trump’s election, that India now has to learn to deal with a ‘transactional’ president. It is this transactional nature of Trump’s dealings that has brought our two countries face-to-face at WTO today.
But is the US-India relationship about trade alone? This question needs to be addressed by both countries seriously. Trade plays an important role in our relationship. India’s fast growing capabilities in IT, e-commerce and cyber security and massive infrastructure programmes like HIRA – Highways, I-ways, Railways and Airways – offer huge opportunities to US companies. India enjoys distinct advantages, like its massive English-speaking and young population and large scale skilling campaigns. India is looking to the US for investments and technology transfers as part of its trade relations.
However, both countries must realise that a certain mutual indispensability binds us together. India is an indispensable partner for the US primarily because of its geo-strategic significance. It sits in between two most important regions of the world today. The violent Middle East ending at Af-Pak on its west and the rising Indian Ocean region on the east make India a geo-strategic lynchpin for the US. Former US defence secretary Ash Carter described India as the ‘anchor of global stability’.
The Indian Ocean is the most happening region in the 21st century. The global power axis is shifting towards this region. 50% of container trade and 70% of oil shipments flow through this region. The top two of the world’s fastest growing major economies are situated in this region. Massive populations with impressive middle class purchasing power make it the most sought after market in the new century.
On the other hand, Af-Pak and beyond, the Arab region, is the most challenging region for the US and the world. Despite military defeats the ideological spread of al-Qaida and Islamic State continues to pose a challenge to the civilised world.
While this offers India as a huge opportunity to the US, India too needs US as a strategic partner because of its ambition to grow as an influential and responsible global power. The US is an important stabilising power in the Indo-Pacific region militarily and through diplomatic influence.
India has the world’s third largest army, fourth largest air force and fifth largest navy. All three arms are being modernised fast. With its frontier technological superiority, the US becomes indispensable for India too.
That is why this relationship is described as ‘natural alliance’. It is viewed as a ‘strategic handshake’, representing a broad convergence of geopolitical interests like India’s ‘Act East’ and America’s ‘Asian rebalance’. Many have called it the ‘defining relationship of the 21st century’.
The US has focussed on overcoming the Eurasian challenge of Soviet communism in the 20th century by befriending and promoting countries like China. In the 21st century, when the challenge to global peace and stability, and rule-based world order comes from the Indo-Pacific region, it is India that can be the most reliable partner for the US.
As a fast-growing and influential power in the region, India can take the lead in a stable and prospering Indo-Pacific region and also help the US in achieving its counterterrorism objectives in the Middle East.
The 21st century belongs to the Indian Ocean and Indo-Pacific regions. This new century is witnessing the rise of new power alliances, most of them located in the Indo-Pacific region. Tackling this region needs a different approach. So-called ‘American exceptionalism’, however successful it might have been in the past in the Americas and Europe, may not work in this region.
In this context it is interesting to note President Trump’s unequivocal statement in his Afghan policy address last year. “We will no longer use American military might to construct democracies in faraway lands, or try to rebuild other countries in our image. Those days are over now. We are not asking others to change their ways of life, but to pursue common goals that allow our children to live better and safer lives. This principled realism will guide our decisions moving forward,” he said. ‘Principled realism’ is the keyword in that statement.
India is zealously committed to protecting its sovereign interests while working towards expanding its influence in the Indian Ocean region. It is developing and partnering in a number of regional multilateral networks on the principle of ‘multi-stakeholderism’. The US, having scuttled the Trans-Pacific Partnership initiative, must look at supporting and strengthening the India-led and India-partnered initiatives in the region.
India is not averse to building new partnerships with regional powers that help promote India’s sovereign interests as well as global interests like climate change, maritime rule-based governance and so on. It is time India and the US redefined their relationship in the light of the new realities and power shifts of the 21st century.

Sino-Indo Rapprochement

Post Sumdorong Chu confrontation in 1986-87, India had adopted a policy of “strategic restraint” with China, focusing on diplomacy and economic relations. This policy was sustained despite border incidents at Depsang and Chumar in 2013. The NDA government continued with the policy but with a tougher stance on border incidents. The Tibetan card was more overtly played, much to the chagrin of China.
Lobsang Sangay, head of the Tibetan government in exile, was formally invited for the swearing in of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. At Chumar in September 2014, during President Xi Jinping’s visit, India took aggressive military action to confront the PLA intrusion. China hardened its approach by blocking the declaration of Azhar Masood as a global terrorist and also opposing India’s membership of the NSG.
The year 2017 saw India-China relations touch a new low. India opposed the Belt and Road Initiative in general and the China Pak Economic Corridor in particular. Dalai Lama visited Arunachal Pradesh in April 2017. Unlike the 2009 visit, this visit was accorded “semi-official” status with the minister of state for home Kiren Rijiju and the chief minister formally welcoming him. China responded by cancelling the visit of its foreign minister. The Doklam incident saw the most serious military “standoff” since 1986-87. While China is economically and militarily far superior, the politico-military conflict over the last four years has been evenly matched.
Apart from the primordial border dispute, Tibet has been a major factor in the Sino-Indian competitive conflict. Our stand on Tibet to date has been ambiguous, despite the 2003 and 2006 declarations formally recognising Tibet Autonomous Region to be part of China. The asylum to Dalai Lama in 1959 and the training of Tibetans in conjunction with the CIA was one of main causes of the 1962 war.
The presence in India of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan government in exile and 10,000 to 15,000 Tibetan soldiers trained as Special Forces, is considered by China to be the most serious potential threat to its sovereignty. India is seen as the principal instigator of the Tibetan struggle for freedom.
In my view, apart from the traditional power struggle among nations, the Sino-India conflict is less about territory and more about the potential threat to the security of Tibet emanating from India. The Tibetan issue has now become the driver for the rapprochement India and China are seeking. There has been a flurry of diplomatic activities post the Modi-Xi meeting on the sidelines of the BRICS summit in September 2017. India distanced itself from “Thank you India” celebrations being organised by the Tibetan Government in exile through a formal advisory issued by the cabinet secretary on the eve of the visit of the foreign secretary to China. China “responded” by withdrawing its objection to the grey-listing of Pakistan with the Financial Action Task Force.
On March 8, the Chinese foreign minister said, “The Chinese Dragon and the Indian Elephant must not fight each other but dance with each other.” Next day the MEA responded, “We are willing to work with the Chinese side to develop our relations based on commonalities while dealing with differences on the basis of mutual respect and sensitivity to each other’s interests, concerns and aspirations.” Earlier this week, joint secretary-level talks were held in Beijing to resolve the deadlock progress over India’s membership of the NSG. On Friday, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval held talks with Yang Jiechi, director of Foreign Affairs Commission and a politburo member of the Communist Party of China, in Shanghai.
During the “Thank You India” event at Dharamsala, Lobsang Sangay talked about the three dreams of the Dalai Lama on the eve of his escape in 1959. The first two of “bloodshed” (a million Tibetans were killed) and “meeting people in white clothes” (the Indians who received him at Bomdila and later Rajendar Prasad and Nehru wore white clothes) have come true. The third dream was of him returning to the Potala palace filled with light and reunited with the Tibetan people. “This third dream will also come true by karmic design. We must all make efforts for His Holiness’ dream to return to the Potala palace come true,” Sangay added.
Will these efforts for rapprochement end with the next “standoff” on the LAC, or is the framework being laid for a settlement of the Tibet problem and the border issue? In my view, history is in the making in the next five years. The Dalai Lama is on board and we may see the successful culmination of the ongoing secret talks to settle the contours of the Tibetan autonomy and his return to Potala. The Line of Actual Control with marginal adjustments is likely to become a peaceful and demarcated border if not the International Boundary.

 

The War by Consensus

Syria and the opaque geopolitical contestation of the last few years point to an ontological dilemma of the current times. What is the truth and what is fact ? It appears that the 21st century has uneasily and perhaps unwittingly transmuted from the certitudes of the previous century (Cold War, bi-polarity) into post-fact world disorder. And even more bewildering is the dissolution of institutional integrity, values and normative principles.
Orchestration appears to be the more visible leitmotif of the attack on Syria. Moscow has alleged that a British NGO, White Helmets, had staged a fake chemical weapon attack in the Syrian town of Douma on April 7 and that this was used as a pretext for the coordinated US-UK-France action. It is believed, in many quarters, that the intervention in Syria is a diversionary tactic by the leaders of these three nations to divert attention from domestic political discord and citizen dissatisfaction and a loyal TV campaign would shape national sentiment accordingly. The script has been followed, by and large. For a brief period, Russian TV warned of an impending third World War and provided a quick tutorial on how to access bomb shelters, in the event of the military escalation that was being hinted at — but not explicitly stated by Moscow.
US President Donald Trump declared victory on Twitter after raining a hundred missiles on Syria for crossing the red line on chemical weapons. His trusted UN ambassador Nikki Haley announced that the US is “locked and loaded” should Damascus repeat the mistake.
Russian President Vladimir Putin called the strikes “an act of aggression against a sovereign State that is at the forefront of the fight against terrorism”. For good measure, he reminded the world of past US interventions, including Iraq and Libya. His ambassador to the US, Anatoly Antonov, warned of “consequences”.
Was it just a ‘psychodrama’ staged to satisfy the agendas of various countries competing for influence in Syria? Or was there some military value to the strikes? For all the public bluster before the strikes, the US and Russia carefully skirted each other in Syria as planned, President Bashar al-Assad stayed safe and the mini wars on the ground carried on.
Trump had already told Putin via Twitter three days before to “get ready” because missiles “will be coming”. After all, it’s the Russians who control the air space over Syria — nothing flies in or out without some embedded Russian officer knowing its direction.
The Pentagon confirmed it had used the “normal deconfliction” line in place to let Moscow know the channels it would be using for the missiles. The French military had also warned Russian officials who, in turn, passed on the message to Syrian forces who let Assad know who, on his part, probably ordered the targeted facilities be emptied of men and material.
It was war by consensus. No one really wanted to hurt anyone by mistake. There are just too many actors swarming the battlefields of Syria. You stray a bit, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards are working to secure a land passage from Tehran to the Lebanese coast. Next door to them are Hezbollah fighters, who have been helping Assad’s forces since 2013.
Moving north, Turkey occupies Afrin, which it invaded in January with an eye to expanding its buffer zone and evicting the Kurds from the area. Turkey is determined to kill any moves to create an autonomous Kurdish zone in Syria. But the Kurds and US forces are allies in the fight against the Islamic State (IS), which had operated from Raqqa in Syria until last year.
Not to forget Israel, which watches everything and occasionally takes a swipe at the Iranians running about in Syria but generally after letting the Russians know. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pleaded with the Russians to curb Iran since Trump will only go so far.
Russia has become the arbiter in the many mini-conflicts and battle lines in Syria. With Moscow’s finger on the balance, Assad is winning the war, using all means necessary, including chemical weapons.
Western capitals are keenly aware of the Syrian reality but don’t want to dislodge Assad. Painful lessons from Libya still resonate in the Pentagon. The 2011 US-French intervention was based on a false premise that Muammar Gaddafi was about to slaughter tens of thousands of civilians.
He wasn’t. By the time the allies were done, Libya was in chaos, IS had gaineda foothold and a migrant crisis developed in Europe.
The Pentagon was very clear that missile strikes had a limited purpose —to send a message that the use of chemical weapons can’t be normalised. But it may be too late even for that. The use of chemicals on civilians already is ‘normal’ in Syria. The UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria found at least 34 incidents of use of chemical weapons by different parties since 2011.
Sadly, the latest attack in Douma has become political football with Russia hinting that Britain was behind it and Washington suggesting that Moscow is trying to tamper with evidence. The inspectors haven’t got to the site yet.
Also worrying is all the talk about another Cold War. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said it’s worse today because channels of communication are barely working and Russophobia in the West is at an all time high.
UN Secretary General António Guterres had similar thoughts ahead of the missile strikes, “The Cold War is back with a vengeance but with a difference.” Safeguards to prevent escalation are weak and UN mechanisms are jammed by dangerous rhetoric.
With no real understanding between Trump and Putin about Syria or the larger West Asia, smaller powers are in a dangerous game of acquiring Syrian real estate.

The true spirit of science is not parochial

Being a true scientist, Charles Darwin wouldn’t have been at all miffed by human resources development minister Satyapal Singh claiming that Darwin’s theory of evolution was incorrect and that humans had not, in fact, evolved from apes.
Similarly, Isaac Newton wouldn’t have taken exception to the same minister’s pronouncement, that much before the English scientist explained how gravity kept in motion the celestial mechanics of the cosmos, ancient India had advanced similar theories regarding the workings of ‘great forces’ in the universe.
As practising scientists, both Darwin and Newton would have subscribed to the view of the philosopher Karl Popper, that in science, there is no perennial truth engraved in everlasting stone; there are only working hypotheses which, inevitably, have to be modified, or even totally rejected, when another, more workable hypothesis comes along.
As in the case with spirituality, with which it is often compared, science is not a terminal destination but a perpetual quest.
The other aspect that science and spirituality have in common, is that both have a universal perspective, and not one which is parochial.
We can’t patent, by nationality or geographical boundary, a scientific discovery or a spiritual revelation, like we do for such products as basmati rice, Darjeeling tea, or champagne.
Nationalities and geographical boundaries have to do with the world of politics, a realm which science and spirituality transcend.
Perhaps the best illustration of such transcendence was the first photographic image of our blue planet taken from outer space by an astronaut. It brought home, in the true sense of the term, the blinkered vision which makes us see our common Earth as divided into different, and often mutually antagonistic, nationalities, races and religions.
That unforgettable image also established a link between science and spirituality. It was science which produced the technology which made it possible to capture that image. It was spirituality which interpreted the image as a symbol of a shared humankind above and beyond manmade borders and barriers of political and cultural chauvinism, and the mental and emotional parochialism which they breed.
Regrettably, all too often, such politically and ideologically inspired parochialism tries, frequently with success, to hijack the parallel quests of science and spirituality.
To claim on the grounds of ultra-nationalism, as has been done, that ancient India had devised organ transplant surgery as evidenced by the elephant-headed god, Ganesh, is to make a mockery both of true science – to which age-old India made significant genuine contributions in fields as diverse as astronomy and metallurgy – and the spiritual allegory of mythology.
We don’t have to make up legends of a mythic past, lost in pre-history, to legitimise the role that what today we call India has played in advancing the ever-expanding frontiers of both science and spirituality, to the uncopyrighted benefit of all humankind.
Like bargain-hunters at an auction, we don’t have to make competitive bids against others to claim proprietorship of a scientific or spiritual milestone.
At the conclusion of his international bestseller, ‘A Brief History of Time’, physicist Stephen Hawking says that the ultimate goal of human knowledge, which he acknowledges may remain unrealisable, is for us to come to “know the mind of God”.
As a postscript, he might have added: And not ask what passport that mind holds.

Indian Attraction to The Nordic Cool A Welcome Phenomenon

PM Modi’s meeting with the region’s leaders could end India’s neglect of a part of the world that has punched above its weight in diplomacy.
When he travels to Sweden this week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be confirming a new trend in Indian diplomacy — collective engagement with key regional groups. Earlier this year, at the annual Republic Day celebrations, the PM hosted all the 10 leaders of the Association of South East Asian Nations.
In 2016, the PM had invited colleagues from the Bay of Bengal littoral to join the BRICS summit in Goa. And in 2015, he hosted all leaders from Africa in Delhi. Many major powers like the US and China to take advantage of the possibilities for joint engagement with regional leaders. In the past, Indian diplomacy was excessively focused on the bilateral. Today, it is breaking that mould.
In Stockholm, Modi will meet the leaders of the Nordic group — Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden — both collectively and individually. This marks an end to the prolonged Indian neglect of a very important sub-region that has always punched way above its weight in the world.
The focus on great power relations and on the neighbourhood since the end of the Cold War has meant that Delhi did not have much bandwidth left for nurturing inherited good relations with small but influential countries like Sweden or build new ones. India can reap significant long-term rewards if Modi’s visit can lay the foundation for a sustained engagement with a part of the world that is often called the “Norden” — or simply the north.
The Nordics do not see themselves as a mere sub-region of Europe. They value their own unique international identity. Two of the five Nordic countries, Finland and Norway, have stayed out of the European Union. Copenhagen’s attitude has, for long, been regarded as a barometer of Euro-scepticism and Greenland, an autonomous part of Denmark, had walked out of the EU.
The special significance of the Norden was underlined by former US President Barack Obama, when he hosted the leaders of the group at the White House at the end of 2016. The world might be a better place, Obama said, if the Nordic leaders were left in charge for a while. The Nordics are widely admired for their instinct for promoting peace, strengthening universal human values and more broadly for doing good.
The Nordics were not always peace-mongers. They have the awesome warrior legacy of the Vikings. But over the last century, they have tended to reject Europe’s martial tradition and colonial legacies. The Nordic enthusiasm for moral politik inevitably found great affinity with Nehruvian India.
If India was non-aligned, Sweden was neutral. Both championed decolonisation and a more just global order. From the 1950s to the mid 1980s, as leaders of the neutral and non-aligned nations, India and Sweden led the campaign for nuclear arms control and disarmament.
The shared commitment to moralpolitik, of course, ran into some difficulties when India wanted to become a recognised nuclear weapon power after Pokhran-2, in the summer of1998. Some of the Nordic countries found it very hard to endorse the US campaign for a nuclear exception for India. That obstacle is now largely behind us, thanks to the political engagement in recent years.
The idea of mediating conflicts, which is very much part of the India’s internal and international experience, is quite dear to the Nordics. Recall Norway’s successful role in launching the Middle East peace process in 1993. Oslo’s interest was not limited to the Middle East. India was initially wary as Norway sought to promote peace between Tamils and Colombo during the 2000s. Although the effort was unsuccessful, it opened up paths to peace that remain relevant for Sri Lanka and India.
The Nordics are not all about utopian idealism. They also have a strong pragmatic streak that is quite evident in their current strategic outreach to emerging Asian powers. Nor do all of them have the same international orientation. If Sweden and Finland stayed out of NATO, Denmark, Iceland and Norway are active members of the NATO. But they have managed, through strong sub-regional cooperation, to insulate the Norden from the negative impact of great power rivalries.
Sweden might be neutral but it always had strong defence industry. If the Bofors purchase was not trapped in the kind of political controversies that followed, it could have the laid the foundation for a strong defence industrial cooperation with Sweden, which has been eager to restore that possibility with an aerospace partnership around the sale of Gripen fighter aircraft to India.
Beyond defence, there is a deep engineering talent in the Norden and the region is an impressive champion of technological innovation. That fits in well with Delhi’s current hopes for igniting the innovation revolution in India. At the dawn of Independence, India was deeply attracted to the Nordic claims of finding a “third way” between capitalism and socialism. As a region that helped advance the idea of an efficient welfare state, the Norden can be important partner for India’s own experiments to strengthen its social sector through technological and policy innovation.
An India that is less inhibited about trade liberalisation and more open to commercial, technological and civil society partnerships will find the Norden ready to accelerate its internal modernisation and international rise. India’s political discovery of the Norden this week should also be the first step towards a more substantive outreach to different sub-regions of a very diverse continent —- from the Baltics to the Balkans to Iberia to Mitteleuropa

SOS! We Are on Brink of the Abyss

It’s imperative to also focus on how to prevent the health of our planet from failing. This is not “doom and gloom” – the risk is real.
The main theme this year’s World Economic Forum Annual Meeting was the role of technology in solving the world’s biggest problems. We are already embarking on a new phase of the technological revolution that will fundamentally change the way we live, work, relate to one another and interact with the external world. The speed, breadth, and depth of current breakthroughs has no historical precedent and is disrupting almost every sector in every country.
The challenge and opportunity before us today is to begin to think of development through the lens of environmental health. The environment as a primary concern, not an afterthought. The science has never been clearer. We know the impact, the consequences and the unsustainability of our development model. As we continue to connect in new ways, we must also reconnect to Earth. The undeniable truth is that we continue to do great damage to the planet, and that we haven’t learned how to grow our economy without harming nature. More than technology, doing so will take a fundamental shift in mindset – one that will redefine our relationship with the planet and its natural systems.
No human technology can fully replace “nature’s technology”, perfected over hundreds of millions of years in delivering key services to sustain life on Earth. A productive, diverse natural world and a stable climate have been the basic assets at the foundation of the success of our civilisation, and will continue to be so in future. A fundamental issue in the previous technological revolutions has been the lightness with which we have taken for granted the natural environment rather than valuing it as a condition necessary to development.
If we continue to produce, consume and power our lives the way we do right now, forests, oceans and weather systems will be overwhelmed and collapse. Unsustainable agriculture, fisheries, infrastructure projects, mining and energy are leading to unprecedented biodiversity loss and habitat degradation, overexploitation, pollution and climate change. While their impacts are increasingly evident in the natural world, the consequences on people and businesses are real too.
From food and water scarcity to the declining quality of the air we breathe, the evidence has never been clearer. We are, however, in many instances failing to make the link. We act as Homo technologicus, with the mindset of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Alongside the technological revolution, we need an equally unprecedented cultural revolution in the way we connect with the planet.
The failing health of our planet
Every day, new evidence of our unsustainable impact on the environment is emerging. A destabilized climate generates more frequent and deadly extreme weather. The last five years have been the warmest five-year period on record, while the Arctic warmed much faster than predicted and the UN estimates that, in the last 10 years, climate-related disasters have caused $1.4 trillion of damage worldwide.
In just over 40 years, the world has witnessed 60% decline in wildlife populations across land, sea and freshwater and is heading towards a shocking fall of two-thirds by 2020. This has happened in less than two generations.
Forests are under pressure like never before, through unabated deforestation. 170 million hectares of additional deforestation will occur by 2030 – the size of Mongolia – driven by large- and small-scale livestock farming and soy and palm oil production.
Our oceans are under great stress. We dump plastic and toxic chemicals into the sea, poisoning our own food. We catch fish wastefully and unsustainably, with 90% of the world’s fish stocks overfished. We’ve lost 50% of the world’s coral reefs in the last 30 years. In a generation, the world has lost nearly half of its marine species populations.
Why does this matter?
The unaccounted value of nature
It matters because we can’t have a prosperous future on a depleted planet, and all signs are pointing to human activity driving the Earth to the edge.
Biodiversity – the complex web of life made by millions of species, plants, bacteria and fungi – underpins the natural systems that we take for granted; systems that provide us with the air we breathe, the food we eat and the water we drink. It maintains the ecosystems that society needs to thrive, ensuring access to essential raw materials, commodities and services. The unprecedented loss of biodiversity we are seeing today is an existential threat to human life and economic development. If the biodiversity index were considered akin to the stock market, our planet would be heading for a spectacular crash.
There’s also an economic value to biodiversity loss. WWF assesses the value of key ocean assets at $24 trillion, and that’s a conservative estimate. If compared to the largest national economies, the ocean would rank seventh, with an annual value of goods and services of $2.5 trillion. Too big to fail, you could say. Regular access to quality freshwater is also vital for most businesses and industries – in manufacturing, heating, cooling, cleaning or as an ingredient. Having too little or too much, or water that’s too dirty or too expensive, will have an impact on bottom lines.
Conserving forests, the ocean and wildlife is in everyone’s interest for sustainability and our own prosperity. That’s why now is the time for businesses, governments, institutions and civil society to work together to halt climate change and the devastation of nature.
Our civilisation finds itself at a crossroads. The equation is a simple one: we will not build a stable, prosperous and equitable future for humanity on a degraded planet.
Together, we must halt nature loss
Technology will no doubt change our lives and we are already seeing breakthroughs in conservation. The renewable energy revolution is probably the most impressive example of the positive impact of new technologies. Remote sensing technologies allow to monitor the state of the planet like never before. Blockchain is being used to establish systems of certification and traceability for agricultural commodities and fish so that consumers can be assured of their origin, legality and sustainability.
Financial institutions have a huge role to play. The banking sector at large is failing to redirect financial flows away from environmentally and socially destructive business practices, and importantly not yet tapping into growth opportunities needed to finance the transition to a sustainable economy, whether they are renewable energy or sustainable water projects.
Business must also be at the forefront in halting climate change and biodiversity loss. The latest World Economic Forum Global Risks report lists climate instability, extreme weather events and water scarcity as major challenges faced by business today. As the effects of climate change worsen and our planet’s resources come under increasing strain, sustainability issues will increasingly hit companies’ bottom lines as well as their social license to operate. Protecting land, oceans, rivers, forests and communities not only helps mitigate risks in the supply chain, but makes perfect business sense.
The UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Agreement, if fully and urgently implemented, are an opportunity to fundamentally shift the way we produce, consume and safeguard our natural wealth. We can still bring the planet back from the brink. We have made commitments, signed declarations, and started to make progress with implementation. But what we are doing is not enough. Business as usual has the planet at breaking point. We must see a quantum leap in the speed and depth of change. Companies can be both profitable and socially and environmentally sustainable by delivering triple bottom lines: planet, people and profit. The time to achieve this is now.