Emerging trend: I too am entitled to a million dollars

The last few years of ridiculously over-paid CEOs and hedge-fund bozos have produced a sickness where everyone seems to think that they need to make a few million dollars too.

Two Pennsylvania judges decide that they too are entitled to a million a year, so this is what they did:
Judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan received a commission for every day they sent a child to private juvenile detention centres run by Pennsylvania Child Care and a sister company. The pay-offs came to $2.6m over seven years ... Hillary Transue, who is 15 and faced Mr Ciavarella without a lawyer, was sentenced to three months because she constructed a fake MySpace page ridiculing the assistant principal at her high school.
Meanwhile, a Florida professor took it upon himself to find a way to earn a million dollars:
Federal authorities raided the office of a University of Florida professor on Wednesday who, along with his wife, is suspected of defrauding NASA. ... investigators from the FBI and NASA said that since 1999, the government has awarded 13 contracts to the couple's company, New Era Technology Inc. (NETECH), and deposited $3.4 million into the company's corporate account. Investigators allege they diverted much of the money from the corporate account into personal accounts to buy cars and property.

I'm still looking for the third instance so that this can officially become a trend.

Taking out the competition: volcano monitoring, Jindal and Palin

What does Bobby Jindal have against volcano monitoring? The stimulus bill funds the USGS for "repair, construction and restoration of facilities; equipment replacement and upgrades including stream gages, and seismic and volcano monitoring systems; national map activities; and other critical deferred maintenance and improvement projects."

Since Jindal doesn't take objection to seismic (earthquake) monitoring, he's presumably okay with money being spent in California. So, what's up with volcano monitoring.? Well ... Sarah Palin's state of Alaska relies on volcano monitoring:
Recent research shows that Alaska has more than 130 volcanoes that have been active in the last two million years -- and more than 50 that have been active since 1760, about 10 more than scientists were aware of two decades ago. About two of them erupt each year.

Now Redoubt is at center stage, and every breath it takes is carefully monitored. Nine seismographic stations have been positioned around its flanks and the surrounding terrain. Data from three of them can be observed 24 hours a day by anyone with computer access to the Internet.

So, perhaps Jindal's trying take out his main 2012 competition in more ways than one!

This ageing house

Three events make a trend, and on that basis our house is falling apart. The build quality on the stuff I'm having to replace is driving me crazy -- it's almost like these things have been built without any consideration for durability or maintenance.

First thing in the trio: the light in a ceiling fan blows out. How hard can it be to replace a bulb, right? Well, I can not get the fixture open. There's a nice, friendly "Open" sticker right on the metal housing with an arrow pointing counterclockwise. I grip and turn. The whole fan unscrews from the ceiling. I try the glass dish. Nothing doing. The stuff's been factory tightened and it's not going to come loose. Worse, I don't know which thing to pry loose -- the metal housing (which has the sticker) or the glass (which is how most light fixtures work). It takes a visit to Lowe's and a chat with my builder before I get the idea of using a rubber mallet to tap the glass fixture open.

Next to go: a part of the fence in our backyard. There's often standing water on the other side of the fence, and it's rotted the post out. A little wind (a wisp by Oklahoma standards) and the fence blows down. Digging it out, I realize that the post has been set in concrete, but there is no gravel or anything to drain the water away. No wonder it rotted out so quickly.

This morning, the wife woke me up, declaiming "no hot water. Do something." "The pilot light must have gone out," I mumbled out of bed. I get to the hot water tank and find that the screws that cover the pilot assembly have been nearly welded to the metal, but I figure that if I hold the propane lighter in just the right angle, I can reach and light the pilot flame. But the pilot flame doesn't stay up. So, I twist and angle the thermocouple out. Not looking forward to angling the whole assembly back in.

New profile picture

Apparently, keeping a profile picture unchanged is just not done. For the record, this is my current profile picture:
Here are couple of choices. This is my self-image:
while this is probably the image that colleagues have of me:

What are your thoughts?

A 466-year backlog

What can I say about this? Words fail me:
The High Court in New Delhi is so behind in its work that it could take up to 466 years to clear the enormous backlog, the court's chief justice said in a damning report that illustrates the decrepitude of India's judicial system.
It's not that the court is inefficient:

The Delhi High Court races through each case in an average of four minutes and 55 seconds but still has tens of thousands of cases pending, including upward of 600 that are more than 20 years old, according to the report.

But that the legal process is inefficient (i.e. there are more cases than there should be):

Critics say other problems include the strict formalities that slow down every step of the legal process and are common across India's vast bureaucracy.

and there are not enough judges:

India - a country of 1.1 billion people - has approximately 11 judges for every million people compared with roughly 110 per million in the United States.

But ... a 466-year backlog?

Mashing up the old world and the new

Remember the family-heirloom toys that I was talking about last year? The wife's grandmother used to play with them when she was a little girl, and now they are S2's.

I was doing spring cleaning over the weekend when I found them again. She'd put them away rather neatly in a hand-me-down plastic kitchen set.

Forecasting lightning

Some real-time images from an algorithm we've developed for predicting cloud-to-ground lightning activity over the next 30 minutes:

The current lightning density:
The current reflectivity composite:
Lightning Probability at a location over the next 30 minutes:

Thin-skinned religious zealots

Johann Hari wrote an article that said that many western institutions are knuckling under assault from religious fundamentalists. He pointed to the defacement of the United Nations' universal declaration of human rights as an example:

The UN's Rapporteur on Human Rights has always been tasked with exposing and shaming those who prevent free speech – including the religious. But the Pakistani delegate recently demanded that his job description be changed so he can seek out and condemn "abuses of free expression" including "defamation of religions and prophets". The council agreed – so the job has been turned on its head. Instead of condemning the people who wanted to murder Salman Rushdie, they will be condemning Salman Rushdie himself.

The Statesman, an Indian newspaper, reprinted his article (Indian newspapers often reprint American and British columns that the editors find to be of relevance to their readers: and this one's negative reference to a Pakistani probably qualified).

Incredibly enough, a bunch of Islamic hoodlums brought Calcutta to a standstill, and incredibly enough managed to get the editor and publisher arrested! What seems to have raised their pique is the end of the "offensive" article:
All people deserve respect, but not all ideas do. I don't respect the idea that a man was born of a virgin, walked on water and rose from the dead. I don't respect the idea that we should follow a "Prophet" who at the age of 53 had sex with a nine-year old girl, and ordered the murder of whole villages of Jews because they wouldn't follow him.

I don't respect the idea that the West Bank was handed to Jews by God and the Palestinians should be bombed or bullied into surrendering it. I don't respect the idea that we may have lived before as goats, and could live again as woodlice. This is not because of "prejudice" or "ignorance", but because there is no evidence for these claims. They belong to the childhood of our species, and will in time look as preposterous as believing in Zeus or Thor or Baal.


But a free society cannot be structured to soothe the hardcore faithful. It is based on a deal. You have an absolute right to voice your beliefs – but the price is that I too have a right to respond as I wish. Neither of us can set aside the rules and demand to be protected from offence.

Yet this idea – at the heart of the Universal Declaration – is being lost. To the right, it thwacks into apologists for religious censorship; to the left, it dissolves in multiculturalism. The hijacking of the UN Special Rapporteur by religious fanatics should jolt us into rescuing the simple, battered idea disintegrating in the middle: the equal, indivisible human right to speak freely.

If you followed it, he's insulted (in order): Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, conservatives and liberals -- it's a spirited argument, but not a prejudiced one. And of course it is offensive in the right sense of the word -- offended parties should feel welcome to make an equally spirited argument against know-it-all atheists.

It's a sad day for Indian freedom of expression that thin-skinned zealots could scrape away long-established rights and cause the arrest of editors and newspapermen for printing one side of a legitimate argument. Like the zealots rioting against a set of Danish cartoons, their rioting against this article just serves to prove Hari's point -- that we need to rescue the simple, battered idea that there is an equal, indivisible human right to speak freely.

A Middle Class Surge

An amazingly lucid graph in the Economist explains why the middle class has surged in China and is about to surge in India:

At a certain stage it [the middle-class share of the population] starts to boom. That stage was reached in China some time between 1990 and 2005, during which period the middle-class share of the population soared from 15% to 62%. It is just being reached in India now. In 2005, says the reputable National Council for Applied Economic Research, the middle-class share of the population was only about 5%. By 2015, it forecasts, it will have risen to 20%; by 2025, to over 40%.

And in case you were wondering, the article quotes an expert defining a middle class as someone that has at least 33% of income left over for discretionary spending i.e. after paying for food and shelter.

Oh Canada

Canada is thriving in the current global recession. As Fareed Zakaria explains:

Home prices are down 25 percent in the United States, but only half as much in Canada. Why? Well, the Canadian tax code does not provide the massive incentive for overconsumption that the U.S. code does: interest on your mortgage isn't deductible up north. In addition, home loans in the United States are "non-recourse," which basically means that if you go belly up on a bad mortgage, it's mostly the bank's problem. In Canada, it's yours. Ah, but you've heard American politicians wax eloquent on the need for these expensive programs—interest deductibility alone costs the federal government $100 billion a year—because they allow the average Joe to fulfill the American Dream of owning a home. Sixty-eight percent of Americans own their own homes. And the rate of Canadian homeownership? It's 68.4 percent.

The mortgage-interest deduction is a totally misguided incentive -- it makes people buy larger, more expensive houses (why would you not if Uncle Sam picks up a third of the cost?) and is the cause of labor immobility. The labor markets work much better if people can pull up and move, yet home ownership makes it more difficult (you lose about 6% of the value of your home every time you sell).

But the lack of a mortgage interest deduction is not the only thing that Canada got right. They kept on regulating their banks; they of course have universal health care and an enlightened immigration policy:

In 2007 Microsoft, frustrated by its inability to hire foreign graduate students in the United States, decided to open a research center in Vancouver. The company's announcement noted that it would staff the center with "highly skilled people affected by immigration issues in the U.S." So the brightest Chinese and Indian software engineers are attracted to the United States, trained by American universities, then thrown out of the country and picked up by Canada—where most of them will work, innovate and pay taxes for the rest of their lives.

Back in the early 2000s, when I was trying to apply for a green card, I had to prove to the INS that I had an international research profile. One of the people I contacted was a high-level honcho at Environment Canada. He wrote a letter attesting to my ability, but also had a friendly piece of advice. "Forget all this," he told me, "and move to Ottawa. Immigration is much easier into Canada, and we are in need a lot of algorithm-type work -- you'll see your ideas in operation a lot faster if you join us." When, three years later, we found that the INS had lost our application, I was sorely tempted to take him up on his offer. But Ottawa was going to be way too cold. Had it been Vancouver (and the University of British Columbia), we may very well have up and moved.

Emma Darwin

I made a throw-away joke about Darwin's reason for marrying -- that he did it only because he needed a recipe even to boil rice. Now, Deborah Heiligman who's written a book about Charles and Emma Darwin's marriage commented on my post:
In fact Darwin had a loving and very happy marriage. See my piece http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-heiligman29-2009jan29,0,1470714.story
Two things:

(1) Real writers are not supposed to respond to blogs. What's the world coming to?

(2) The piece in the L.A.Times is quite interesting -- so the rift over religion is probably why Charles expected to quarrel quite a bit with Emma. But it is also an interesting narrative of how a strong woman could find a place for herself within a traditional marriage.
But in a letter she sent him soon after their engagement, she told him that she was sad that "our opinions on the most important subject should differ widely." ... This was the first of several letters about religion that Emma wrote to Charles during their lives. She urged him not to close the door on faith. And she shared her fears that they would be separated for eternity. Charles always listened to what she had to say, and they talked about the problem.
The historical person that Emma Darwin most reminds me of is Abigail Adams. Time to read "Charles and Emma", perhaps.

p.s. I went to the Norman public library to search for the book. They have a book on Charles & Diana, but not Charles and Emma

'Tis the Season

Today is one of those days where it feels surreal to work where I do. There was a tornado just north of Oklahoma City this afternoon; some people lost their homes, but no one was killed.

Starting this morning, you could feel the anticipation in the air. Lunch-time meetings were scheduled on contingency -- if the severe weather situation panned out, there would be no meeting. People were double-checking all their research instruments. "Why's it not showing up in AWIPS?," wails someone who'll later claim guidance algorithms are all a crock.

Once the storms started sweeping into the metro area, you could see the thrilled look on people's faces -- the ones who were not out chasing that is. "Too bad," mopes a CASA guy, "that the storms didn't put down a tornado when they were in range." The PAR guys had a spring in their step -- the line was a bit too long for a 90-degree sector scan, but good data were being collected all the same. "You can see the Zdr column," said the dual-pol guys to anyone who'd listen.

Towards evening, when the storms died down, the fishing stories started. "I bagged a tornado," someone claims.

Tornado season's started in Oklahoma.

UPDATE: The tornadoes in the Oklahoma City area caused some injuries, but no deaths. However, the ones south of us (which touched down after I wrote his post) killed three. So, the thrill of getting good data has been replaced by a funereal awe.

Solid reasoning from a press conference

Who would have thought a press conference would provide actual answers to hard questions?  From the transcript of Obama's first press conference:

What is your strategy for engaging Iran, and when will you start to implement it?
I think that if you look at how we've approached the Middle East, my designation of George Mitchell as a special envoy to help deal with the Arab-Israeli situation, some of the interviews that I've given, it indicates the degree to which we want to do things differently in the region. Now it's time for Iran to send some signals that it wants to act differently as well, and recognize that even as it has some rights as a member of the international community, with those rights come responsibilities.
[ i.e.  ball's now in Iran's court ]

when we ask your advisers about the lack of bipartisanship so far — zero votes in the House, three in the Senate — they say, well, it's not the number of votes that matters, it's the number of jobs that will be created. Is that a sign that you are moving away, your White House is moving away from this emphasis on bipartisanship?
That doesn't negate the continuing efforts that I'm going to make to listen and engage with my Republican colleagues, and hopefully the tone that I've taken, which has been consistently civil and respectful, will pay some dividends over the long term. There are going to be areas where we disagree, and there are going to be areas where we agree.
[ i..e. I hope to get agreement on other matters, but on budget issues I'm resigned to party-line votes ]

if your plan works the way you want it to work, it's going to increase consumer spending. But isn't consumer spending or overspending how we got into this mess? And if people get money back into their pockets, do you not want them saving it or paying down debt first before they start spending money into the economy?
I don't think it's accurate to say that consumer spending got us into this mess. What got us into this mess initially were banks taking exorbitant, wild risks with other people's monies based on shaky assets. And because of the enormous leverage where they had $1 worth of assets and they were betting $30 on that $1, what we had was a crisis in the financial system. That led to a contraction of credit, which in turn meant businesses couldn't make payroll or make inventories, which meant that everybody became uncertain about the future of the economy, so people started making decisions accordingly — reducing investment, initiated layoffs — which in turn made things worse.
[ i..e it's a liquidity crisis, not a moral failing ]

Won't the government need far more than the $350 billion that's remaining in the financial rescue funds to really solve the credit crisis?
Ultimately, the government cannot substitute for all the private capital that has been withdrawn from the system. We've got to restore confidence so that private capital goes back in.   [Else where, he explained that the main problem was the lack of clear set of rules about which banks would be rescued and which wouldn't, so come hear Tim Geithner explain the rules so that banks are confident enough to start lending again ]

how can the American people gauge whether or not your programs are working?
1. job creation. [ 4 million jobs ]
2. credit markets operate effectively? [ can people and companies with good credit get loans? ]
3. Housing [stem the rate of foreclosure and start stabilizing housing values over time]

It's good to know that the administration knows what the problem is, has a plan to address the problem, can explain why it chose that plan and how to evaluate it.   For example, at some other point, Obama explains why he chose $800b for the stimulus plan.  It's because economists estimate that there will be $1000b of demand contraction this year; so he's trying to replace that with government stimulus.

Scientific reasoning behind policy decisions ... about time!

Chettinad recipes

I got pointed to an excellent source of Chettinad recipes recently. One problem with a lot of Indian recipes (whether in books or out on the Internet) is that they are written by people who never ever cook from recipes -- they cook by sight and smell, and so, the amounts and times are often just a wag. If you've never tasted the dish before or seen it being made, it's quite hard to just follow the recipe.

To see if this blog was any different, I looked at the recipes for Chettinad chicken and for mandi -- the quantity of spices are rather robust but they will work provided that you realize the differences between Indian and American vegetables. But the blog does give you a handy way to make this translation.

I don't think that she intended it that way, but one of the nicest things about her recipes is that she shows a picture of the ingredients, so you can adjust the amounts to American sizes. For the uninitiated: vegetables and dry spices sold in American markets are typically larger and sweeter than the corresponding Indian ones. For example, a "large" Indian onion is about an inch in diameter and quite sharp. A typical American Vidalia is a couple of inches in diameter and rather sweet (Imagine what adding 8 times the quantity of something sweet instead of sharp would do a recipe!). It's not just vegetables -- a "cinnamon stick" in India is actually cassia bark and is never more than an inch long and 1/8" wide. The corresponding spice in America would be 3-4 times the size. So, her pictures will help you cook by sight.

As of now, at least, you need to choose between 2 or 3 Chettinad recipes by people who know how to write recipes (such as Chandra Padmanabhan or Camellia Panjabi) or know how to adjust authentic recipes. Solai's Kitchen helps you do the latter at least with respect to amounts; her times, as far as I can tell, are still approximations. But ... the food is awesome, so the effort will be worth it.

Dilip Veeraraghavan

Today morning, I got word that Dilip Veeraraghavan, a faculty member in the Department of Humanities at IITM, died after suffering through colon cancer and its treatment.

He was a humanities professor in a school that almost exclusively focused on hard sciences; a blind academic in a country where the disabled never make it past high school; a friend to every student who walked into his office in a culture where students and faculty would never meet socially.

Many of us students at IITM had lived rather sheltered lives; we knew that India was poor and that other people didn't have our advantages growing up. But it was Dilip who showed us how we, too, could make a difference. He was responsible, behind the scenes, for the dozens of volunteer organizations that have started by IITM alumni. For example, Balaji Sampath who founded the Association for India's Development (AID) recalls:
I should mention in all this the silent role that Dilip Veeraraghavan (a professor at IIT) played. Apart from getting us access to IIT facilities - CLT, rooms, etc - he also tried to rope in volunteers and gave the whole effort a degree of legitimacy that helped it grow. He also kept pushing us on to newer ideas, particularly sensitisation of students to various social issues.
He continued over the years to impact the lives of everyone he came across -- as kadambarid notes:
Dilip is one of the few people I held/hold in awe, who inspire, who defined to me the meaning of the word "awe-inspiring"- for no matter what his pains, no matter what his problems, I have never seen him without a smile playing on his lips or without atleast a few students or professors around him, deep in discussion...
I was one of that pack of the students; I would go by his office to read to him and throw my laissez faire free market ideas at him. He would patiently ask me questions and get me to recognize their limits.

After I came to the US, contact with him was very sporadic -- he would have emails and letters read to him, but the thought of a strange, young 17-year old reading letters naturally put a crimp on what you could write about. I visited him pretty much every time I went back to Madras and was always shocked by how he would immediately recognize my voice. My last trip to India, though, I was in Madras only for a few hours and didn't get to see him. And now it appears I won't see him any more.

His was one of the biggest impacts on my life. I will miss him.

UPDATE: Wiki of other folks' remembrance of Dilip.

Stimulus car rebate a bad idea

The Senate stimulus bill includes up to $1500 in excise tax refund. Just when I was thinking that it might be time to replace the wife's clunker, I saw the fine print: it would apply only if you bought a new car. Also, Congress will let you deduct interest if you took out a car loan.

Why is the rebate limited to new cars? And why should we have to take out a car loan? It seems that Congress will give you a break if do what no smart consumer should do when buying a car: buy new or buy what you can't afford. These are just inducements to consumers to make poor financial decisions.

Also, the tax complexity! No, I have to wonder: is it worth the steep depreciation and warranty-related dealer scams just to get the stimulus? Is the interest-rate deduction worth not paying cash? I wish Congress wouldn't try to make tax accountants out of all of us.

Encouraging news on renewable energy

Reuters is running a story that says that:

The United States overtook Germany as the biggest producer of wind power last year ... and will likely take the lead in solar power this year ... U.S. wind power capacity surged 50 percent last year to 25 gigwatts (GW) -- enough to power more than five million homes.

Of course, the US is several times bigger than Germany and if you add in Spain, the Europeans are still far ahead in their adoption of renewable energy.  But this is still encouraging.  Now, if people would get more reasonable about nuclear power, we might lose our dependence on oil much sooner.

Yuck! The ethics of Obama's cabinet

You know what I thought about Geithner's risible claim to have overlooked the need to pay self-employment taxes.  It was, I wrote, no different from Obama not paying his traffic tickets --- their attitude reeks of "laws are for the little people".

But Tom Daschle's corruption is on a wholly different scale.  Daschle didn't pay taxes on the car and driver given to him by a company interested in legislation coming out of Congress. The amount itself ($128,000) is not the issue -- the real scandal is what's legal (read the whole thing):
If Tom or Linda Daschle had secretly taken a free pair of Superbowl tickets from Northwest Airlines and then pushed the airline bailout plan, that would be a big story. But the fact that Tom Daschle takes thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Northwest and his wife's firm collects $200,000 a year to lobby for them is no problem at all.
You can see what's going to happen a couple of years from now. Daschle will be out of government then and collecting from all the health firms that he will do favor for while he is Secretary of Health.  Can Obama do no better than these corrupt people?