Saturday, 26 August 2017

From Helter-Skelter To Heather Heyer - The Chilling Link Between Charles Manson, Charleston And Charlottesville

A horrific series of murders in August 1969, a mass shooting in June 2015, and a scary demonstration of white supremacist resurgence in August 2017 - what's the connection?

Charles Manson - An evil genius, prescient in his own way

On the nights of Aug 8-9 and 9-10, 1969, members of Charles Manson's cult (his "Family") committed 7 coldblooded and gruesome murders. To most of us even today, the murders were senseless. But they were not senseless to Manson!

The murders were intended to precipitate a race war, which Manson referred to as "Helter Skelter". He believed that in the coming war between whites and blacks, the blacks would win and would thereafter accept the leadership of "the Family". In pursuit of this goal, his gang left behind crude clues that attempted to implicate the Black Panther Party.

That race war never occurred.

Fast-forward 46 years.

In June 2015, a white supremacist called Dylann Roof opened fire on black parishioners at a church in Charleston, South Carolina. He later said he had hoped to ignite a race war.

Dylann Roof - the Charleston church shooter

Slow-forward 2 more years.

In August 2017, white supremacists converged on the liberal bastion of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, in the heart of the formerly Confederate South. There were repeated clashes between them and left-liberals who came out to confront them. There was violence, and one person (Heather Heyer) was killed when a car driven by a white supremacist deliberately plowed into a crowd.

The slogans raised by the white supremacists were "You will not replace us!", "Jews will not replace us!", "Blood and soil", and "Whose streets? Our streets!"

Angry white youth at Charlottesville

Very clearly, the Charlottesville demonstrations were about race. The documentary by VICE news captures these sentiments unequivocally.

The oft-shared VICE documentary provides viewers a rare opportunity to hear the views of white supremacists, in their own chillingly candid  words

No doubt, these will be analysed in depth in the weeks and months to come, but perhaps one of the best analyses of this phenomenon was provided by Phillymag much earlier in 2012, in a piece titled "The Sorry Lives And Confusing Times Of Today's Young Men".

The article is a fascinating read. It shows how a significant group in America, young white men, are gradually becoming disempowered, and the ways in which they are striking back.
"The world tells us that white American men are extremely powerful," says Harper. "Statistics show they are disproportionately advantaged in all sorts of ways. But individual white men don’t feel privileged or advantaged. People pay more attention to women, to minorities, and white men feel, 'Nobody is paying attention to me.'"
This story has not yet played itself out. 48 years after the horror unleashed by Charles Manson, the threat of a race war remains a frightening prospect for the United States. The melting pot seems to be boiling over.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

The Mystery Of The Missing Kettle Base

Bought a kettle to replace an old one. Got home and opened the sealed box, only to find that the kettle had no base! Much chagrined, went back to the shop to have it exchanged. Service counter girl listened, then called service guy. Service guy opened the box to check and was equally puzzled to find the base missing. He got another box off the shelf to replace the faulty one, then opened it to check that this one had a base. Astonished to find that the new piece didn't have a base either. I suggested that maybe the base for this model is sold separately. But no, the picture on the box shows the base also. We shake the box a bit, just to ensure that there's no hidden compartment that's housing the base. Finally it occurs to the guy to open the kettle itself. Sure enough, the base is sitting inside, innocent as.

Everyone had a good laugh and I returned home. Kettle works.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

How To Govern And Misgovern A Diverse Country - The Akbar And Aurangzeb Models

A recent news article reported that the BJP, which has had a comfortable majority in India's lower house of parliament, had just emerged as the single largest party in the upper house. In time, as the upper house numbers begin to reflect the strength of the party in newly elected state legislatures, the BJP could acquire an outright majority there too. With a weak and divided opposition, the BJP is expected to continue its winning spree into the indefinite future, leading many to conjecture that it will only be a matter of time before the party has the wherewithal to amend the constitution itself, and begin to institute fundamental changes to the nation's very charter.

Indeed, the party's vision, as enunciated by its president Amit Shah, is to dominate every elected body "from parliament to panchayat (village council)". It is a winner-takes-all, take-no-prisoners philosophy that seems to be spectacularly successful at present.

What will a future under such a powerful ideological dispensation look like?

Numbers do not always tell the whole story, and I believe the BJP will fail to hold the country in its grip if it ignores some fundamental governing principles that have nothing to do with raw power.

A diverse country is governed by a combination of hardware and software. The hardware is the physical apparatus of government -- the organisational bodies at the union, state and local levels, the office-holders, the machinery of reporting and communication, the means of enforcement, etc. The software is the set of protocols governing the functioning and interaction of these hardware components. The constitution and the set of laws on the statute books spell out these protocols.

The system of elections is the most critical element of software, because it bestows all-important legitimacy on every other element of software and hardware.

It is my contention that next to regular elections which constitute the fundamental protocol of representative democracy, the protocol governing centre-state relations is the most important element of the software of governance. The constitution of India divides the portfolios of government between the centre and the states by defining a Union List, a State List and a Concurrent List, and this is the basis of a federal system of government. My contention is that only a federal system of government will work in a diverse country like India, and any attempt at over-centralisation will backfire. Attempts at centralisation are a form of misgovernance, and will be punished by the electorate.

To illustrate that these contrasting models of federalism and centralised authoritarianism are not new, I will go back into history.

Indian history is ancient, and there are possible examples like the Maurya and Gupta empires. However, I will use a more recent pair of examples from the Mughal empire. Not only is a more recent example likely to be more relevant than an ancient one, but having two models from the same dynasty provides a more effective contrast. Besides, as we shall see, the two were in existence for an almost identical duration, which makes the comparison between them more meaningful.

The two governance models I will use are those of Akbar and Aurangzeb. Aurangzeb was the great-grandson of Akbar, and their reigns were almost exactly a century apart, aside from being of the same duration. Akbar ruled for 49 years from 1556 to 1605, and Aurangzeb ruled for 49 years from 1658 to 1707.

Here is my first exhibit - the extent of their respective empires when they died.

Akbar (top left) and Aurangzeb (top right), and the extent of their empires at the time of their deaths (click to expand). Aurangzeb's empire is nominally larger, but size doesn't tell the whole story.

A history of Akbar's reign reveals that the early years were characterised by tumult and challenges to his rule, but the latter half was remarkably stable and peaceful. A history of Aurangzeb's reign reveals that he was almost constantly at war throughout, not just conquering new territory but also putting down rebellions that seemed interminable. His empire was nominally larger than his great-grandfather's, but also far more fractious.

Perhaps the most striking difference between Akbar's empire and Aurangzeb's was in the area of durability. Akbar's empire lasted more than a century after his death. Aurangzeb's empire did not long survive his death. It broke into multiple parts a few years later.

It would appear that in spite of its smaller size, Akbar's empire was held together by much stronger software.

Much has been made of the difference in tolerance between Akbar and Aurangzeb. Akbar is widely believed to have been more tolerant of difference (especially religion), while Aurangzeb was believed to have been more hardline. However, the real difference between their regimes was the protocol that governed "centre-state relations", or in the language of the time, the relationship between the empire and its vassals.

Akbar instituted a remarkably far-sighted policy under which it was tremendously advantageous for rulers of smaller kingdoms to become his vassals. Not only did they continue to enjoy considerable autonomy in the running of their kingdoms, they were also protected from their external enemies by the formidable army of the empire. In return, all they had to contribute to the upkeep of that empire were monetary tributes and their own armies when the empire required them. It was a win-win system that kept all players vested in its success. No wonder Akbar's empire soon settled into a period of peace and stability after the initial wars he waged to establish his authority.

In contrast, Aurangzeb's need for centralised power alienated vassals and governors alike, and it is no wonder that he saw rebellions and revolts throughout his reign. The software of governance under Aurangzeb had become so flawed that it simply failed to function. It was the software of misgovernance. Sure enough, once his own forceful personality exited the stage, his successors were unable to keep his empire together, and it fell under the combined onslaught of its own internal schisms and external enemies.

The lesson is instructive, because it applies to this day. Only governments that respect federalism can govern a country of India's diversity effectively. Those that try to enforce centralised control will fail.

In the years since independence, India has seen many governments of different political hues. But remarkably, the Akbar and Aurangzeb models are not correlated with parties at all! They can both be discerned even within the same political party.

Consider these prime ministers from the Congress party.

(Click to expand.) Jawaharlal Nehru, Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh (left) are remembered as nation-builders because they respected federalism. Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv Gandhi (right) are widely considered institution wreckers because they had an authoritarian streak that did not respect independent institutions or opposition-ruled states.

Jawaharlal Nehru could be said to have birthed several of the features of India's federal polity. The constituent assembly worked during his first term to write the constitution, which was adopted in 1950. It was during his time that the first of the linguistic states was created. And although he was initially loath to split the Bombay presidency into the linguistic states of Gujarat and Maharashtra, popular protests during his visit to Bombay convinced him otherwise. Both Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh were known as gentlemen and diplomats, who preferred negotiation and consensus to adversarial conduct.

In contrast, the mother-son duo of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi took the very existence of opposition parties as a personal affront. Opposition-ruled states received blatantly step-motherly treatment by their governments, violating key tenets of the federal protocol. They did a lot of damage and weakened India during their terms.

A very similar theme can be seen playing out with the BJP.

AB Vajpayee (left) was a consensus politician who gave and commanded respect across the aisle. Modi (right) is an authoritarian personality who centralises decision-making and brooks no opposition.

AB Vajpayee, who was India's first BJP prime minister, was in office for a five-year term between 1998 and 2004. Another gentleman and diplomat, he was well-respected even by the opposition parties, and he reciprocated that respect in his dealings with opposition-ruled states. He is widely remembered with respect and affection to this day.

Narendra Modi, India's current prime minister, is cast in the Aurangzeb mould. Federalism is not a virtue in his eyes. He and his party president Amit Shah are cut from the same ideological cloth, and they hate to share power. From parliament to panchayat, the duo aims to impose their party's writ on every elected body. Their attitude is redolent of Mike Maples, Microsoft's Executive VP of the Worldwide Products Group, who said, "My job is to get a fair share of the software applications market, and, to me, that's 100 percent."

It should be clear from these historical examples that Modi's is the software of misgovernance. There is no win-win system that gives other stakeholders an incentive to be vested in its success. Even within his own party, the Modi-Shah duo has emasculated everyone, including cabinet ministers and chief ministers. All decisions are taken by "two-and-a-half men" (with Arun Jaitley contributing the half). Modi's India increasingly resembles Aurangzeb's empire, crackling with a million mutinies waiting to erupt.

Much as Modi would hate to be compared to any Muslim ruler, let alone Aurangzeb, the cap fits, both literally and figuratively.

And so the raw numbers that seem to measure the BJP's strength in various legislative bodies may not indicate the true extent of the party's power. Under Modi, the software of India's governance has been tremendously weakened. The BJP itself will inevitably pay the price in electoral terms, but in the meantime, the country as a whole will pay a steep price too.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

The Most Attractive Women Of Star Trek TNG

I've blogged earlier about my favourite episodes of Star Trek - The Next Generation, and about Captain Picard's finest moments. My reminiscences wouldn't be complete without a listing of the women I found most attractive in this series.

[Don't ask me "Why haven't you listed so-and-so?" Go and create your own list!]

In no particular order, therefore:

1. Ishara Yar (played by Beth Toussaint)
Season 4 Episode 06 "Legacy"

Tasha Yar's younger sister Ishara makes an appearance in this episode, and everyone who was heartbroken at Tasha's unexpected death in "Skin of Evil" (which is just about everyone) feels an immediate kinship with her younger sibling, a feeling that is entirely misplaced. Nevertheless, Ishara is something.

With a hairstyle that is both boyish and feminine, Ishara ticks many boxes

That suit! Only an android could sit there unmoved.

2. Kamala (played by Famke Janssen)
Season 5 Episode 21 "The Perfect Mate"

Yet another sad love story for Captain Picard. The empathic metamorph Kamala isn't supposed to emerge from her cocoon until she's ready to be gifted to Alrik, the leader of one of two warring worlds, as a peace offering that will end their war. She is the perfect mate, because she "bonds" with a man when she emerges from the cocoon, and with her empathic abilities, can be everything he wants. And she too is irresistible to men when she is fresh out of the cocoon. Alas, she has emerged too early, and instead bonds with Captain Picard, and he falls for her too. But duty calls, and she has to be given away to Alrik. Picard stoically swallows his grief and lets her go, and she, having imbibed his sense of duty, goes with Alrik. 

More than her looks, it is her potential to be the perfect soul mate that makes Kamala attractive. Of course, her looks don't hurt at all.

3. Salia (played by Jaime Hubbard)
Season 2 Episode 10 "The Dauphin"

Wesley Crusher's crush is the sweetly innocent Dauphin of Daled IV, whose presence is required on her home planet to bring about peace after a generations-long civil war. Of course, this isn't what she really looks like, which should be some consolation to Wesley when they inevitably have to part.

You wouldn't want to know what she really looks like when not in human form...

4. Ardra (played by Marta Dubois)
Season 4 Episode 13 "Devil's Due"

A planet is being terrorised by the demoness Ardra, who claims the planet as hers. Since Star Trek is not a serial that entertains notions of ghosts and spirits, the Enterprise crew manages to show up Ardra as nothing more than a con-woman. But man, what a con-woman!

A saucy she-devil

5. Brenna Odell (played by Rosalyn Landor)
Season 2 Episode 18 "Up The Long Ladder"

What is this woman even doing in this collection?

One word - hips

6. BG Robinson (played by Teri Hatcher)
Season 2 Episode 04 "The Outrageous Okona"

Teri Hatcher is an interesting woman. Her face has changed a great deal over the years, no doubt due to cosmetic surgery. This is how she looked when she played Lt Bronwyn Gail Robinson.

The Transporter Chief whose face could transport a thousand ships

Teri Hatcher as the cute, silly and scatterbrained Penny Parker in MacGyver

Teri Hatcher as the cool and professional-looking Lois Lane in Lois and Clark

Teri Hatcher as the sophisticated New Yorker Sidra Holland in Seinfeld

7a. Dr Selar (played by Suzie Plakson)
Season 2 Episode 6 "The Schizoid Man"

Suzie Plakson got to play two different aliens in the series. The first was an all-too-brief appearance as the Vulcan doctor, Dr Selar.

Vulcans have no business to be preaching logic and control of emotion to other people while looking so sultry

Maybe it was for the best that Dr Selar didn't stick around beyond one episode. Patients probably weren't leaving sickbay.

7b. K'Ehleyr (played by Suzie Plakson)
Season 2 Episode 20 "The Emissary"
Season 4 Episode 07 "Reunion"

Suzie Plakson may have made only one appearance as Dr Selar, but she shortly reappeared as the half-Klingon K'Ehleyr.

Attitude. Bold women do something to me.

In full Klingon battle dress

Her human side gave K'Ehleyr a sense of humour that Klingons are generally incapable of

8. Ro Laren (played by Michelle Forbes)
Season 5 Episode 03 "Ensign Ro"
Season 5 Episode 05 "Disaster"
Season 5 Episode 14 "Conundrum"
Season 5 Episode 24 "The Next Phase"
Season 6 Episode 07 "Rascals"
Season 7 Episode 24 "Preemptive Strike"

Ro Laren was a most interesting character, and I wish she had starred in more episodes. She was a free-spirited maverick who didn't think twice about talking to her captain on equal terms. And Picard, being Picard, wasn't affronted but indulged her.

The sass is strong with this one. Oops, sorry, wrong franchise.

It's not hard to tell that I really like Ro Laren.

9. Dr Beverly Crusher (played by Gates McFadden)
Series regular (except for Season 2)

As the mother of a teenager, Dr Beverly Crusher played an older woman, but she had a definite appeal of her own.

She was strong and smart, and rarely lost her head, except when it came to her son Wesley

Nothing really happens between her and Picard throughout the series, but in the last episode "All Good Things", the future Picard and Crusher are shown to be already divorced.

The natural air of command with which she sat in the captain's chair in "Remember Me" and said "Engage!" was a sight worth seeing.

10. Counselor Deanna Troi (played by Marina Sirtis)
Series regular

Last, but not the least. The empath with the exotic accent is a favourite with Trekkies, and who am I to argue?

Captain Jellico was an unquestionable jerk in "Chain of Command", but the one good thing he did was order Troi to stop wearing that silly pajama suit and start wearing a regular uniform.

That was an excellent decision. She's looked smart ever since.

The many outfits of Deanna Troi (click to expand). My opinion, from left to right: glamorous, silly, silly, silly, smart, impossible-to-take-seriously.

And one for the record books. Deanna Troi in disguise as a Romulan agent of the Tal Shiar secret service, in the episode "Face of the Enemy"