In The Armchair

Dog Haters

Posted in India by Armchair Guy on August 26, 2008

There have been some recent articles (here and here) about removing stray dogs from public spaces. The suggestion is that all dogs must have designated owners, who are then responsible for the dogs’ actions. This may or may not be implementable in Indian cities, but the articles do have some asymmetric blind spots.

First, they start with the hidden assumption that the well-being of those to whom dogs are a nuisance trumps the well-being of those to whom the dogs are a benefit. An analogy given in one of the articles is that of a car:

Would it be just to enjoy the thrill of racing your BMW, yet not pay damages for breaking a 10-year-old kid’s leg in an unfortunate accident? No, it wouldn’t. And this is why parents’ associations don’t demand removal of all cars. Private property ensures costs and benefits are borne by the same person, encouraging citizens to behave with caution and due care.

Suppose we approach this from a different angle. One could equally well start with the assumption that the natural state of affairs is the presence of stray dogs and the happiness that people derive from it, and that if dogs are removed, those who demand their removal should be required to compensate others for the loss of emotional satisfaction. Dog haters (not taxpayers in general) should be exclusively required to pay for all expenses involved in removing dogs. Further, they should be held liable for any thefts deemed preventable with the presence of dogs which might have given due warning.

You shouldn’t be able to divert a river or cut down a forest without compensating those who would be affected. In the same way, you shouldn’t be allowed to remove the benefits of having dogs — the natural state of affairs — without compensating those who want the dogs around.

But, what about “animal rights”? “Animal right” is a contradiction in terms. All rights derive from human beings’ right to own oneself, from which follows an individual’s right to own things non-human. Slavery is unjust, but rearing cattle is business. And dogs are no exception to this.

The author seems to have missed the point completely. The point that animal rights activists make is that all rights should not derive from human beings’ right to own animals as property because, for example, a BMW does not feel pain or anguish, while animals do. Moreover, the statement “Human beings have a right to own oneself” does not logically imply “an individual’s right to own things non-human”, in spite of the author’s blithe claim.

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Anita Jain

Posted in Books and Literature by Armchair Guy on August 25, 2008

So I just got done reading Anita Jain’s Marrying Anita.

I’d heard about Marrying Anita at the Ultrabrown blog. It’s an interesting book about the author’s attempts to find the right guy to marry in both New York and Delhi. It’s been described as chick lit, and after reading it, I agree — its main subject matter is the heroine/author’s dating/romance sentiments. It’s just that this book is a lot more than just chick-lit. Anita Jain does something I find very interesting: she writes about trends, patterns in society that she observes. While I don’t think all of the social patterns she puts forth in her book are 100% representative or factual (not all Indians omit articles from their English), many of them are a good succinct precis of what seems to actually be happening. I’d go so far as to describe this book as a sort of romantic Maximum City Lite. It does talk mostly about the author’s emotional ride through New York and Delhi, but you actually learn a but about Delhi during the reading of it.

I recently heard an interview of Anita Jain at NPR. It was interesting, but it was also quite amazing how the host, Jane Clayson, seemed to completely miss the point of what Anita kept saying. She also didn’t seem to have read the book. She seemed fixated on her opinion that Anita had been trying the arranged marriage route. Excerpts like this one dominated the mood of the interview:

The pressure on me to find a husband started very early. A few days after my 1st birthday, within months of my family’s arrival in the U.S., I fell out the window of a three-story building in Baltimore. My father recalls my mother’s greatest concern, after learning that I hadn’t been gravely injured: “What boy will marry her when he finds out?” she cried, begging my father to never mention my broken arm—from which I’ve enjoyed a full recovery—to prospective suitors out of fear my dowry would be prohibitively higher.

Though you’d never guess it from this interview, the book is really 95% about Anita’s love life, not so much about the high-shock-value nitty-gritties of arranged marriage.

To be fair to Jane Clayson, I get the feeling Anita herself provides these anecdotes as a publicity element to shock her American readers, who expect to hear precisely such things in connection with arranged marriage. They can conveniently gasp at the delicious backwardness of certain parts of the world, be reassured that their stereotypes about India hold good, and get on with life, safe in the notion that their worldview needs no adjusting. Anita’s dad’s hours spent on are probably no different than what thousands of Americans do on, but if you throw in the words “Arranged Marriage”, it suddenly becomes shocking.

Another surprise was in store when I read the comments on the interview webpage. There were a lot of listener complaints about her articulation or lack thereof. It’s true that Anita seems to punctuate every sentence with “Umms” and “Aahs”, but it didn’t annoy me nearly as much as it did some of the commenters. The predictable Harvard-envy type comments really bothered me though. You have all these people who would love to hate Harvard students simply because they went to Harvard, wait for any mistakes made by Harvard graduates, and then pounce. “What do the folks at Harvard teach their students,” one might hear them grouse, “Even my 5-th graders speak more articulately.” Harvard-bashing is pretty popular, even though Harvard is much more egalitarian these days.

The book is a very courageous one. I’m surprised all of Anita’s various, um, acquaintances in Delhi acquiesced to have their names in it. They might have had their names changed. Either that, or this brave new India is more daring than I imagined. It must also have taken something out of Anita herself; the first question that sprang to my (admittedly parochial) Indian mind is how her parents reacted to her exploits. It’s interesting that she lays her own thoughts out so openly; I’m not sure most people could do that!

So, I’m curious about two things: how did Anita’s parents react to the book? And how is her new love life after publication of her book?

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Amitav Ghosh

Posted in Books and Literature by Armchair Guy on August 25, 2008

Amitav Ghosh is an interesting author. So far I’ve read only two of his books: The Hungry Tide and The Glass Palace. I really like The Hungry Tide, but The Glass Palace was a huge disappointment. I’m about to read the recently released Sea of Poppies, maybe I’ll post my impressions.

Ghosh is supposed to be historically very authentic. Problem is, he’s also a master of insipid writing. He’s at the opposite end from Salman Rushdie or even Arundhati Ghosh. Prose in The Glass Palace is earnest, sincere, grammatically perfect — but not brilliant. The moments of brilliance in that book derive from the vivid detail, not from the prose itself.

Somehow, he managed to make The Hungry Tide a great book in spite of this. Perhaps it was the subject: the dark, dank, dangerous Sunderbans. The Glass Palace is unsatisfying, though. Ok, his ideas may have been good, but it really doesn’t feel like a finished product. While it starts very well, I got the impression Ghosh got tired of the book midway and just wrapped it up somehow. Parts of the book spend several pages on the description of events in a single day or hour. Other parts skip several decades in a paragraph. Parts are intensely detailed, other parts are totally textureless. Entire subplots are introduced and then fizzle out without any consequences in the book. I mean, who cares about an intimately detailed illicit encounter one of the female characters has if she hardly plays a role in the rest of the book? The book isn’t really meant to have a plot, it’s just a succession of events in the lives of some families. But it just didn’t work for me.

Having said that, it wasn’t a total loss either. I did get a good deal of interesting historical detail from it, and I think I understand conditions in those days better than I did before I read the book. It also has some interesting studies into the British army in India. Overall, I think it’s worth reading just for the historical perspective.

Hopefully Sea of Poppies will be a more coherent read.

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NYT on the Nuclear Deal

Posted in India by Armchair Guy on August 25, 2008

The New York Times has this hack of an opinion piece on the Indian nuclear deal. I felt like expressing my Indian viewpoint on some of the things it said, so here goes:

Article: IN the next day or so, an obscure organization will meet to decide the fate of an Indian nuclear deal that threatens to rapidly accelerate New Delhi’s arms race with Pakistan — a rivalry made all the more precarious by the resignation on Tuesday of the Pakistani president, Pervez Musharraf.

Response: The Pakistan angle is always used as a catch-all to explain why India shouldn’t have nukes. This is hypocritical and specious. Hypocritical, because rivalries between the USA and Russia have always been closer to nuclear flashpoint level than those between India and Pakistan. Specious, because India and Pakistan are actively taking steps towards reconciliation and there’s no clear reason to believe that nukes will play a role in any future conflict.

Article: If the president gets his way, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty — for 50 years, the bulwark against the spread of nuclear weapons — would be shredded and India’s yearly nuclear weapons production capability would likely increase from 7 bombs to 40 or 50.

Response: The NPT is no bulwark; all it does is allow for a veil of secrecy for certain nations to secretly proliferate with impunity. China has been giving nuke tech away to Pakistan for decades. The USA gave nuke tech to Israel. And Pakistan proliferated to Iran even as the US mollycoddled it and gave it military funds.

Article: India’s nuclear history is checkered at best

Response: Er, no. Now you’re just lying. India has a perfect nonproliferation record.

Article: … exploits foreign nuclear energy assistance to make a bomb, as India did. [India] misused civilian nuclear technology to produce its first nuclear weapon in 1974

Response: How was it better or more ethical to use Nazi war tech to create nuclear weapons, and then use those weapons to kill hundreds of thousands of people, than to use civilian nuke tech to explode a handful of proof-of-concept weapons? Does the former not count as misuse?

Article: Just last month, the Pakistani government darkly announced that waiving the nuclear rules for India “threatens to increase the chances of a nuclear arms race in the subcontinent.”

Response: Perhaps this is just a pressure tactic from a nation which had also demanded the same concessions that India did but never got them? That ever cross your mind?

Article: India must sign the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, a step already taken by 178 other countries and every member state of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. After all, why should the group’s members grant India a huge exemption from the rules that they themselves are supposed to follow?

Response: Perhaps this can wait until India achieves nuclear parity with the exclusive nuclear club and stockpiles a few thousand nukes. Why not ask why the nuclear weapon states aren’t required to reduce their arsenal to the 5 or 6 bombs that India has? After all, the USA has thousands of nukes, enough to destroy the entire world. Why should a treaty designed specifically to protect the USA and other nuke countries’ nuclear stockpiles be allowed to stand? Finally, this demand is ridiculously unrealistic in the face of the fact that India has consistently refused it for 5 decades and domestic public opinion is perhaps 90% opposed to it.

Article: India must agree to halt production of nuclear material for weapons.

Response: First, is India continuing to produce nuclear material for weapons? Then why aren’t there any more than 5-7 nukes in India? Second, India should halt production when the existing nuke powers reduce their stockpiles to Indian levels, and not before that.

The world will be a better place when 60 year old, old-world, Nixon-era-educated India-haters like the authors of this article are all gone.

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Costly Indian Books!

Posted in Books and Literature by Armchair Guy on August 24, 2008

I just bought a few books in Delhi, and some of their prices made my eyes bug out. Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies was Rs. 600 — about $15! This is just 25% less than the $20 or so that you pay for typical hardcover books in the USA. Anita Jain’s Marrying Anita was Rs. 500 — in paperback!! Assuming a purchasing power parity of 5:1, that is the equivalent of an American mass market paperback costing about $100!

Surely books in India should be much cheaper for people to be able to buy and read them? Publishing costs in India should be much lower, and Indian publishing houses (including Penguin) seem to have very little publicity compared to Western publishing houses; this should drive down price even further. What is the reason for the high cost? I tried to think of some:

  1. Low Volumes Sales might be much lower, so publishers have to increase margins. But then why not change things around and do things like release paperbacks right at the beginning, so people can buy them?
  2. High Publishing Cost Maybe my assumption is wrong and publishing costs are almost as high in India as in the West.
  3. Inefficiency? Maybe the publishing houses spend a lot on marketing but still don’t realize enough sales increases?
  4. Apathy It’s also possible it’s a “because we can” attitude; in other words, greed prevailing over good sense. But isn’t that shooting themselves in the foot?

Or could it be some other reason?

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Emacs Word Wrap

Posted in Computers by Armchair Guy on August 9, 2008

Real word wrapping in emacs isn’t automatic, but here’s how it can be done. I found these instructions at It’s not perfect; despite the comments on that website, I don’t yet know how to make word-wrap work after vertical splitting. First, get longlines.el and put it somewhere. Then, add the following lines to your .emacs:

(load "/path/to/longlines.el" t t)(autoload 'longlines-mode "longlines.el" "Minor mode for editing long lines." t);; Uncomment the next line to wrap by default in text mode;;(add-hook 'text-mode-hook 'longlines-mode)

To activate manually, do M-x longlines. More info at

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Adding An Emacs Menu

Posted in Computers by Armchair Guy on August 9, 2008

Here’s some template code for adding a menu item to the main emacs menu bar. I don’t know hos this works; I just use it as a template!

;;;;;;; Add items to menu bar(modify-frame-parameters (selected-frame) '((menu-bar-lines . 2)));; Make a menu keymap (with a prompt string);; and make it the menu bar item's definition.(define-key global-map [menu-bar MyMenu] (cons "MyMenu" (make-sparse-keymap "MyMenu")));; Define specific subcommands in this menu.(defun MyMenu-linkify() (interactive) (replace-regexp "^\\(.*\\)$" "\\1"))(define-key global-map  [menu-bar MyMenu linkify]  '("Linkify" . MyMenu-linkify))(define-key global-map  [menu-bar MyMenu truncate]  '("Truncate em" . toggle-truncate-lines))
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Rajiv Gandhi: Enhanced by Publicity and Imagination

Posted in India by Armchair Guy on August 4, 2008

Of India’s Prime Ministers so far, Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi stand out as clear giants in the line-up. In terms of contributions to the Indian nation and popularity no one but Mahatma Gandhi can match Jawaharlal Nehru. Indira Gandhi was a great leader as well, immensely popular and able to take tough decisions that shaped the history of the subcontinent.

After Nehru and Indira, no one stands out quite as much in the line-up of Prime Ministers. Three significant leaders are Rajiv Gandhi, P. V. Narasimha Rao and Atal Behari Vajpayee. Lal Bahadur Shastri didn’t have enough years in office and Morarji Desai was too stymied by politics. The others are small by comparison.

Among the three, the tallest leader is P. V. Narasimha Rao, who was the real architect of the economic reforms of 1991. The real challenge at that time was political and Rao provided Manmohan Singh with a shield that allowed him to complete the reforms unhindered.

However, Rajiv Gandhi’s public image has been raised much higher than that of Rao and Vajpayee. This has been done by his family members and Family sycophants in the Congress party. He has a samadhi. An international airport, national medals and various institutions have been named after him. The Family jealously guards such “naming assets”, ensuring that to the extent possible no assets are named after non-family members.

Rajiv Gandhi has a samadhi near that of Mahatma Gandhi. It is interesting to see what other samadhis are in the vicinity. Mahatma Gandhi (Raj Ghat), Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Sanjay Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Lal Bahadur Shastri have samadhis in the same location. Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri have obvious claim to samadhis here. Indira Gandhi is borderline: although she was a great prime minister, one wonders whether she should be placed in the same category as these three stalwarts. The others are completely out of place; this area is not the Family’s personal space. Sanjay Gandhi was the nation’s prime thug; his samadhi has no business there. Rajiv Gandhi did some good but is nowhere near worthy enough to merit a samadhi here.

In Hyderabad, the Family made certain through its extraordinary hold on the central government that N. T. Rama Rao’s name was not applied to Begumpet airport. Instead, it was named the Rajiv Gandhi airport.

Now Rajiv Gandhi was a great prime minister and diplomat in his own right. However, the homage the nation paid to him is simply not commensurate with his standing. The Family’s tendency to hijack the naming of national institutions for themselves must stop.

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Linux Brain Games

Posted in Computers by Armchair Guy on August 3, 2008

These involve the mind in some way… I like to do Blinken and Gnomine.

Chess. These engines are way too hard for me.

  1. Gnuchess
  2. Crafty


  1. Blinken

Quick Thinking

  1. Gnomine
  2. KSirtet
  3. Tetravex
  4. Gnome Sudoku


  1. gtans (Tangrams)
  2. Code Breaker / Gnomermind (Mastermind clones)
  3. Klotski/Gnome Klotski

Free Online

  1. Happy Neuron free games
  2. MyBrainTrainer has a test and one free puzzle every month


  1. The Amazing Brain Train (has a demo)