Friday, October 23, 2009

Fall of Berlin Wall: An accident?

There is history and then there is arcana. Ask any American schoolboy who caused the fall of the Berlin Wall, he would say "Ronald Reagan", a well informed student might even cite, with justifiable pride, Reagan's exhortation to Gorbachev, "Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall". The same question is Europe would get various answers and various emotional coloring depending on personal political leanings and whether they gained or lost.

A recent Wall Street Journal highlighted a little known arcane information in its series of article leading up to the 20th anniversary of the fall of Berlin Wall on 9th November. I shall intersperse Wikipedia and WSJ article for a contiguous narrative. Wiki article is

"the politburo led by Krenz decided on November 9, to allow refugees to exit directly through crossing points between East Germany and West Germany, including West Berlin. On the same day, the ministerial administration modified the proposal to include private travel. The new regulations were to take effect on November 17, 1989.
Günter Schabowski, the Party Secretary for Propaganda, had the task of announcing this; however he had been on vacation prior to this decision and had not been fully updated. Shortly before a press conference on November 9, he was handed a note that said that East Berliners would be allowed to cross the border with proper permission but given no further instructions on how to handle the information. These regulations had only been completed a few hours earlier and were to take effect the following day, so as to allow time to inform the border guards. However, nobody had informed Schabowski. He read the note out loud at the end of the conference and when asked when the regulations would come into effect, he assumed it would be the same day based on the wording of the note and replied "As far as I know effective immediately, without delay". After further questions from journalists he confirmed that the regulations included the border crossings towards West Berlin, which he had not mentioned until then.

Tens of thousands of East Berliners heard Schabowski's statement live on East German television and flooded the checkpoints in the Wall demanding entry into West Berlin. The surprised and overwhelmed border guards made many hectic telephone calls to their superiors, but it became clear that there was no one among the East German authorities who would dare to take personal responsibility for issuing orders to use lethal force, so there was no way for the vastly outnumbered soldiers to hold back the huge crowd of East German citizens. In face of the growing crowd, the guards finally yielded, opening the checkpoints and allowing people through with little or no identity checking. Ecstatic East Berliners were soon greeted by West Berliners on the other side in a celebratory atmosphere. November 9 is thus considered the date the Wall fell. In the days and weeks that followed, people came to the wall with sledgehammers to chip off souvenirs, demolishing lengthy parts of it in the process. These people were nicknamed "Mauerspechte" (wall woodpeckers)."

The fateful slip was in the sentence "As far as I know effective immediately, without delay". That was in response to a reporters question as to when the new policy of allowing people to cross over would come into effect. The haughty or beleaguered bureaucrat replied off the cuff setting off an avalanche of events that drove the proverbial last nail into the coffin of communism.

Now controversy surrounds over the reporter who is said to have asked that fateful question. This is where WSJ steps in. "Riccardo Ehrman, a veteran Italian foreign correspondent, and Peter Brinkmann, a combative German tabloid reporter, both claim they asked the crucial questions at a news conference on Nov. 9, 1989, that led East German Politburo member Günter Schabowski to make one of the biggest fumbles in modern history....

As the anniversary of that tumultuous night nears, a dispute is heating up over who flummoxed Mr. Schabowski.
Among those who are aware of the incident, Mr. Ehrman generally gets credit. In 2008, Germany's president awarded Mr. Ehrman the country's highest honor, the Federal Cross of Merit. "His persistence at the press conference finally elicited the crucial statement" that brought down the Wall, the citation said: "His name stands for...German unity..."

What can one say but that the juggernaut of history was already rolling and all it needed was one fatal push. An evil empire that imprisoned and killed tens of millions across a continent finally tottered and plunged into a deserving abyss thanks to characteristic bureaucratic fumbling. What a fitting finale.

Here is WSJ's excerpt from that fateful interview:

Excerpt: Asking the Hard Questions
Gunter Schabowski was supposed to announce eased travel restrictions for East Germans. Instead, his answers left reporters with the impression the Berlin Wall had fallen. Here's an excerpt from the Nov. 9, 1989, news conference:
Riccardo Ehrman (reporter, ANSA): Don't you think it was a big mistake, this draft law on travel that you presented a few days ago?
Gunter Schabowski (East German Politburo official): No, I don't think so. Ah... [talks for three minutes] And therefore, ah, we have decided on a new regulation today that makes it possible for every citizen of the GDR, ah, to exit via border crossing points of the, ah, GDR.
Ehrman: Without a passport?
Krzysztof Janowski (reporter, Voice of America): From when does that apply?
Schabowski: What?
Peter Brinkmann (reporter, Bild): At once? At...?
Schabowski: [Scratches head] Well, comrades, I was informed today …[puts on his glasses, reads out press release on visa authorization procedure]
Ehrman: With a passport?
Schabowski: [Reads out rest of press release, says he doesn't know the answer on passports]
Second East German official: The substance of the announcement is the important thing...
Schabowski: the...
Fourth reporter: When does that go into effect?
Schabowski: [Rustles through his papers] That goes, to my knowledge, that is...immediately. Without delay.
Sources: DDR1 archive footage, WSJ research

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Nobel, Nationality and Venky Ramakrishnan

A very interesting news appeared in "The Hindu" . Given that Venky was born in Chidambaram every Tamilian now wants to say hello, in the internet age its easy and Venky's email id is listed too. Apparently Venky is not amused, "All sorts of people from India have been writing to me, clogging up my email box. It takes me an hour or two to just remove their mails. Do these people have no consideration? It is OK to take pride in the event, but why bother me....There are also people who have never bothered to be in touch with me for decades who suddenly feel the urge to connect. I find this strange..People I don’t know, for example a Mr. Govindrajan, claim that they were my teachers at Annamalai University which I never attended".

The cream goes to his remark, "I, personally, am not important. The fact that I am of Indian origin is even less important. We are all human beings, and our nationality is simply an accident of birth".

The enthusiasm of Indians is understandable given that only two Indians have won Nobel as Indian citizens for work done in India (Tagore and C.V.Raman). Amartya Sen got it as Indian citizen but his work was mainly outside India, Theresa's work was in Indian but she was only a naturalized citizen. In a nation starved for global achievers Venky, Rahman, Tendulkar etc are being loaded with expectations and good will.

Was Venky being churlish in his reaction? Not in the least bit. Other than his official biography listing where he studied or where he works we know little of the man, why he left India etc. For a scientist who forsook his adopted homeland, USA, to go to Cambridge for the sake of academic climate, that too with a pay cut, nationalities matter little. National pride, linguistic pride, chaunistic pride in ones own ethnic culture are all very important only for those who have little else to be proud about.

What does Venky owe India, intellectually? I guess nothing and thats the most important aspect. I've often been asked about my lack of pride in my mother-tongue and ethnicity. What can I say except that much of what I respect and love is not in Tamil or in Tamil Nadu. Like Johnson said, patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.

I appreciate Venky's honesty. S.Chandrasekhar, nobel in astrophysics for defining the death of a star (Chandrasekhar limit), was hypocritical on this score. Chandra was sent to UK, to study under none other than Eddington, on Indian tax payer money. The scholarship stipulated that he return back and work in India. Chandra returned back and was asked to work in some lowly position in some government observatory. Chandra petitioned Nehru that he should be released from the obligation as India could not offer him anything commensurate to his abilities. Being Nehru he was obliged. Chandra, promptly left for US and did his research on the death of stars. Much later in an interview with his biographer he objected to brain drain.

Commenting on the rumor that he was offered the top most job in India's premier lab, Venky replied, "Nobody has approached me about an offer to work in India. However, I can categorically state that if they did so, I would refuse immediately".

Contrary to India, USA recognizes that most Nobels this year, though awarded to Americans, went mostly to immigrants. While it is comforting that US is still a magnet for scientific talent America is deeply concerned at the disproportionate number of immigrants as PhD's and the fact that Americans themselves are not pursuing higher education seriously. In fact America has to do more on the green card and visa front to attract talent more vigorously. In a globalised world America cannot afford to "assume" that talent will flock here. Venky himself now works in Cambridge UK than here in US. He prefers Cambridge, for many academic reasons despite the fact that he had to take pay cut.

Einstein lived for many years with no nationality. The entire world is home to genius.Let us celebrate achievements, let us celebrate genius and not get into parochial claims of nationalities.

Friday, October 9, 2009

A nobel for utopia and empty speeches.

The Nobel Peace prize has shamed itself into ignominy today by awarding a fatuous speaker who belts out rhetoric blather. The prize for Barack Obama evoked worldwide surprise and shock depending on who heard it. Surprise for his flock of devotees, shock for his detractors. Anyway the world dropped a collective jaw. We hear that the press hearing the committee announcement gasped. Barack took office on Jan 21st 2009, the nominations for the prize ended on Feb 1st 2009. He surely now ranks as an outlandish case of winning Nobel for 15 days of work.

Barack is the third sitting president to win the peace prize. Woodrow Wilson won it for creating the League of Nations, Teddy Roosevelt won for negotiating the end of Russo-Japanese war and Barack won for.....ah well nobody knows. Carter won it in more as a slap for Bush, Al Gore won for some scaremongering on Climate. Even with dubious merits both Carter and Gore had done some work.

Then there is Gorbachev who tore down an empire, AAng San Suu Kyi living a life of imprisonment, Anwar Sadat & Menachem Begin won for an audacious peace making, Shimon Peres And Arafat too got for peacemaking, Theresa got for a lifetime of service, Martin Luther King for lifetime service...

The Nobel citation says the award was for reaching out and proving negotiations help solve problem. Americans are scratching their heads to find out which problem got solved. The Cairo speech was wonderful rhetoric. Many muslims who listened inside the hall where happy to see a non-white male US president talk to them but many underscored that they would wait and judge based on what further actions Obama took. Apparently the Nobel committee felt no need to wait. He reached out yes and what did US get in return. Pakistan is in flames over US aid. Iran is still gesticulating. Iraqis want America to get out. Afhganistan is imploding.

On national security issue for fear of being seen as a weakling Obama actually has toed the Bush line much to the chagrin of his beloved left wing supporters. Guantanomo will be shut down but nobody knows when. CIA interrogation tapes are to be a secret. FISA bill, authorizing wire taps was voted with then Senator Obama's vote.

On Iran and negotiation its an abysmal record. Today US is threatening Iran with more stringent sanctions. Ah yes in that process US president was lectured by, of all people, a French President on the need to be resolute.

The Nobel prize is usually a capstone, a recognition of a lifetime achievement not an encuragement bromide for utopian lotus eaters.

Today the Nobel Prize has become like a "Kalaimamani" award in Tamil Nadu. Thankfully I wrote my blog on Nobel's before this and the reason I outlined, politicisation of the Peace andLiterature awards, has been proven to be valid.

Given that many a deserving soul lives outside media glare I cannot judge who else is suitable. But how about Bill Gates. The man has not only donated his entire, hard earned fortune, he has completely redesigned how philanthropy is done. How about Bill Clinton whose stellar work in Africa, getting AIDS medicines cheaper by negotiating with drug companies, has saved thousands of lives? How about Garry Kasparov who is waging a struggle against a repressive regime?

Thanks to Bush, hatred of Bush I mean, Obama won the presidency. Now Carter, Gore and Obama all need to collectively thank Bush for their Nobels.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

2009 Nobel Prizes: Stellar year for Women and Diversity

The 2009 Nobel Prizes for Physics, Chemistry and Medicine were announced this week. We still await the prizes for literature, Peace and Economics. Of those the prize on Economics is not really a Nobel. The literature and peace prizes, especially the latter, are politicized. Hence this is a suitable juncture to blog on something wonderful this year. 3 women have won the prize this year. The other winners are an Indian (Tamilian), an Israeli (a woman), British, Canadian etc. Most of the prizes have been awarded to US citizens as most winners hold a US passport. Several, though hold dual citizenship. As a country US has garnered the most but its mostly thanks to immigrants.

For those who often question the practical applicability of the prize winning researches this year's topics are a resounding answer. The Chemistry winners research in RNA had spawned many a life saving antibiotic, the Physics winners in fiber optics made todays communication technologies a reality and for a device (CCD-Charge Couple Device) that is found on every digital camera or camcorder today, the Medicine winners have tapped into an area that can change how we treat cancer. The Medicine Prize and the Chemistry prizes have interesting angles to them.

The Medicine prize was awarded to three researchers, two wome, for their theories concerning "telomerase" an enzyme that is essential to protect 'telomeres' (the tips of DNA strands). NYT helpully served an analogy for telomeres. Telomeres are like the ends of shoe laces that are 'holding the strands together'. But for the telomeres when a chromosome divides the DNA strand would become unravelled. The enzyme 'telomerase' governs the function of telomeres. As we age the 'telomeres', the tip of a chromosome, becomes thinner and thinner during divisions and at one point the cell stops dividing. On the other hand cancer cells multiply because their telomeres are strong. Controlling telomeres could help medical researchers in their holy grail, defeating cancer.

How did 2 women, Elizabeth H. Blackburn of the University of California, San Francisco; Carol W. Greider of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, come about in the same field and win in the same year. "Dr. Greider said she ascribed this to a “founder effect,” the founder being Joseph Gall of Yale University. Dr. Gall trained Dr. Blackburn and other women, and they recruited others to the field “because there is a slight tendency for women to work with other women,” Dr. Greider said. She herself trained with Dr. Blackburn."

Also it is now noted that the paucity of women laureates has less to do with relative merits of the intelligence of women but more to do with the fact that researches are often awarded a prize decades after. The researches in telomeres dates back to early eighties just when women started breaking many a glass barrier. In the coming years we will hope to see more and I fondly hope my daughter would join their ranks too.

The Chemistry prize winner Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, other than his humble origin, is interesting for the fact that he is a PHYSICIST. HIs undergrad, postgrad, PhD were all in Physics. Right after that he started work in the Chemistry department of Yale. Yet again we are reminded of how Chemistry skates close to Physics ( . The Nobel citation also noted another fact, the three chemists who are sharing the prize did not collaborate but were more like competitors unusual for a shared citation. Often the preponderance of Jews is cited in unfavorable light. The Israeli chemist to win,Ada E. Yonath, is a woman.

When I was reading Marie Curie's biography I was struck by her upbringing. While she is rare genius (won both the Physics and Chemistry prize) her childhood had all the marks of a very scientifically literate upbringing thanks to her dad. NYT article on the medicine winners notes "All three of the prize winners seem to have had science in their genes, and certainly in their home environment. Dr. Greider is the daughter of two scientists with doctorates from the University of California, Berkeley, and she, too, has a Ph.D. from there. Dr. Szostak’s father was an engineer. Both of Dr. Blackburn’s parents were physicians". Malcolm Gladwell would play havoc with this info.

"Though Americans have again made a clean sweep of the Nobel medicine prize, two of the three winners are immigrants. Dr. Blackburn was born in Tasmania, Australia, and has dual citizenship; Dr. Szostak was born in London" (NYT). Amongst the Physics winners "All three of the winning scientists hold American citizenship. Dr. Kao, 75, was born in Shanghai and is also a British citizen, and Dr. Boyle, 85, is also a Canadian citizen". The Chemistry team is diverse with an American (of Indian origin) currently working in Cambridge-UK, an Israeli and an American.

One parting thought though. This is the second year in a row where the Physics prize is awared to theories that have had direct consumer impact. Last years prize went to the theories behind what made Ipods and other electronic devices possible. Is the Nobel committee straying from its adherence of awarding mostly to "theoretical physicists". Experimental physicists, most notably Edison, are usually given the cold shoulder by Nobel committees.

A wonderful year for diversity and science. Three cheers.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Thunai Yezhuthu - Vignettes of life by a literary wayfarer.

I always wanted to write book reviews but never imagined I'd start with a Tamil book. I've had my share of Tamil literature as part of school work and later readings of Mu.Vaa, T.Janakiraman, Sujatha and the biggest draw was Jeyakanthan. My reading habit is heavily stilted towards non-fiction so even in English I am not a big follower of literary trends or fiction reader. Since I complain once too often about lack of good writing in Tamil as reason for being alienated from Tamil my cousin lent me a book by S.Ramakrishnan."Thunai Yezhuthu" (a bad transliteration of a wonderful tamil word) actually denotes an accompanying letter that extends a consonant. SR wrote a series of anecdotes laced with reflections in Ananda Vikatan. Reading the anecdotes the cliche "Life is stranger than fiction" rings very true. The collection of anecdotes is very interesting because SR, with a keen literary sense, meets various people and has made a narrative out of many a commonplace occurence. Some observations made in the passing are very cutting. In places where he tries to state the obvious the literary merit suffers. I guess he was conscious about writing for a public not very literary minded.

Apart from the anecdote on Puthumaipithan everything else is about ordinary people their struggles and disappointments. Some anecdotes, by virtue of the sadness involved become very gripping. The story about a girl who borrows from her neighbors on behalf of her father, promising to repay, portrays a vivid picture of a strata of society that lives by middle class codes but could ill afford that. They are in purgatory neither too poor to bother about niceties nor rich enough to keep up. When the home owner suspects the famil had comitted suicide the father remarks "I've no money to buy poison". When they vacate the home SR goes inside and sees that the girl had made meticulous notes of who lent how much money on the walls.

A simple trader in Tanjore (!!!) had spent almost 50% of his income on books. Each book is marked with date, a slip with notes. His son is angry that his father squandered money and wants to sell of the books. SR felt it would be an injustice to buy those books. Later he sees them strewn on the street with a used book vendor.

Having read SR's book "Uba Paandavan" based on Mahabharatha a simple cook at a local eatery sends him a letter asking if SR knew about "Krishna's cook". Intrigued, SR pays him a visit. This is SR's strength, he reaches out to ordinary people. No he does not reach out to all and sundry just to those who interest him. SR goes and spends an evening with the cook, as he is about to leave the cook changes his dress and SR sees a lengthy scar on his body. The cook nonchalantly says "my employer felt I did not add enough salt in the sambar and poured the boiling sambar on me". SR mentions it as just recollection of a diologue but it is a telling comment on socio-economic exploitation that is common in India. Another hotel owner refuses to charge for children, "how much can they eat, let them eat free".

One man writes an angry letter in response to Ubapaandavam and SR feels he should visit that guy. The angry letter writer turns out to be a cycle shop owner taken aback by SR visit. SR and his angry writer spend the day together at the end of which the guy confesses that his father used to beat him up as a boy for reading books and he developed an aversion to books.

A very little known drama troupe lives around Tanjore. They put up plays on Narasimha avatar. Each character is uniquely portrayed with 2 players. The artist who played the demon king "Hiranyan" was famous. Out of two players who played Hiranyan, SR took fancy for one. He narrates how his family was not doing well etc. His wife and daughter come to watch the play and it affects Hiranyan. On the last day the climax takes place, seeing her dad being torn asunder falls sick. Hiranyan later narrates this to SR. SR visits the hospital, government hospital. He sees this actor, who held in thrall a village with his voice and performance, is worried about his daughter and in a very humble manner, with folded hands, asks the doctor "will my daughter be ok". The doctor ignores him and passes by without replying.

SR takes a train ride one day and the compartment is beseiged by buzzing girls thrilled with their win in a hockey game. Suddenly SR sees that their coach is a girl he knew. That girl wanted to excel in hockey in her school days. Her father hates her ambition and breaks her hockey stick. The girl eventually walks out of the home. SR avoids seeing her lest she feels humiliated.

An interesting anecdote is about a pair of lovers. The lovers used to meet in SR's room. They would talk for hours and while talking exchange notes. This went on for a while. One fine day they broke up. The girl gives SR a bag full of corresondence asking him to hand it over to her lover. The guy does it vice versa. Eventually they both get married to different spouses. The bags remain with SR.

A family squabble brings an ornate home to destruction. The home is very ornate and decorous with expensive woodwork. The owner has a strange habit of collecting the keys of the home. The family goes for a out of court settlement and the home is torn down. The owner tracks down SR and requests SR to come and see his dying father. The father wants SR to take a key from his collection. SR has the key till today.

The preponderance of violence in daily life agonises SR. A distraught wife with her son comes to her husband's work place to plead with her husband's manager to give her a portion of her husband's salary. The husband had left the family destitute. The irritated man, feels humiliated and slaps the woman in front of the entire office. Nobody intervenes on her behalf. SR wonders if we as parents sow the seeds for such violence when seemingly innocent violence like killing insects is committed in front of children.

The most poignant story with philosophical overtones is about a Gujarati woman with children. One night a destitute woman with children tagging behind begs for food. Her life and family were torn asunder in the Gujarat earthquake. AT SR's home the woman and children appear to curiously look at a child Krishna picture. Apparently her home in Gujarat had a similar picture, probably a torrent of memory presses on her. An inquisitive SR finds out the details and gifts her the picture. He wonders about the love the woman has for Krishna after living through hell and with her life in shambles.

What can one make of the author and society at large from this collection of essays. SR, as per his blog and an autobiographical essay, was born in a family of deep literary roots. He is a student of English literature, very widely read too. His anecdotes portray a vivid sense of the travails in what passes for 'ordinary' day to day life. His interest in people is evident and his literary sense provides a sensitivity that enriches his perspective. The real author remains elusive though. We understand his concerns and agonies but we know little of his own philosophical predilections. Coming from a deeply political family that considers modern Dravidian politics as the harbinger of equality he shows no analysis of any political ideologies. Probably he considers, somewhat rightfully, that many of these problems cross patry ideologies. On another branch of his family is a devotional streak and we know very little of the author's own religious ideas. Given that these are all autobiographical essays that’s a little disappointing. Though very erudite and a voracious reader himself he does not names drop willy nilly unlike his other compatriots Charu Nivedita or Jeyamohan. I was surprised to read that he had to struggle to get a copy of Tolstoy's 'War and Peace' every book store in US carries a cheap edition of it. This shows how difficult it is to be a well read man in India. As I write this review it also occurs to me that he does not talk much of his college days, professors, mentors, intellectual godfathers.

On a side note it is a curious fact that a student of English literature should become a Tamil literary author. I surmise that the richness of his writings owes a lot to his English literature coursework and his knowledge of English itself opened many a literary door. A student of Dostoyevsky, Borges, Foucoult, Tolstoy, Thomas Mann etc certainly has a wider vision of the world than an English illiterate Tamil medium only student on Tamil literature would. For SR his English knowledge brings the world to his doorstep, no civilisation is beyond reach, be it Greek Tragedy or Franch drama or Russian stories or Latin American novels everything fertilises his world and takes his own understanding of Tamil literature to levels beyond a normal academic student of Tamil literature.

This is a book to be read and re-read. The best way to read it would be story by story with pauses in between. Do not race through them for this is not a Dan Brown puzzle to be solved in the climactic few pages. These are lives. Do not look for any capsule of wisdom or any overarching philosophy that can circumscribe all the stories. There is no single philosophy in the world that can answer adequately all the myriad problems thrown up. Also it would do well to remember that SR wrote this is in a Tamil weekly as nuggets buried in news about film stars, gossips and other pedestrian stuff. He remembers that and we would do well to remember too.