On Hinduism and Xenophobia

I remember reading something set in ancient Persia and noting that the name of the chief god, Azura Mazda, was quite similar to the names of the demons ("asura") in Hindu myths.  Reading Wendy Doniger's latest book, On Hinduism, brought the aha moment:
The great god in the Avesta ... is called Ahura Mazda, the great asura, a benevolent spirit. Even in the Rig Veda, several gods are still called asuras (Varuna in particular). And just as benevolent asuras became malevolent demons in later India, so too, benevolent Greek daemons (another sort of god) became malevolent demons in Christianity, and the devas of ancient India and Persia (gods, cognate with deus in Latin) became the devils of Christianity.
The change had, in other words, something to do with xenophobia.  This habit of identifying other peoples' gods with devils has been happening a long, long time.

On Hinduism is a collection of the essays that Doniger wrote over her lifetime.  The essays are great -- the one on the representation of Shiva ("lingam") alone is worth the price of admission, but she tops even it in her essay on Saranyu (the Hindu equivalent of Eve). Even her throwaway asides are gems of insight.  The essay on Saranyu, for example, ties the obscure tale of the the Ur-mother of Hindu myth that dates to the Rig Veda to the well-known story of Kunti and Karna. Once she points it out, it is amazing how many of the remnants of the Saranyu story -- an abandoning mother, a brilliant father, mortals and immortals, mutilation -- all make their way in slightly modified ways into the Karna myth. The essays are wonderful and I have been savoring the read, going back and rereading some of them (I can't think of a book that's ever made me do that).

Doniger says that she has changed the essays to account for changes in her views over time.  She also changed words, like dharma and Shiva, whose italicization and spelling conventions have changed since the time when she first wrote the essays. Finally, she says, she had an Indian reader read the text to point out areas where she might have inadvertently caused offense.  She needn't have bothered.  The right-wing blowhards who succeeded in getting Penguin to drop the book in India would have taken offense anything more real than a bowdlerized Amar Chitra Katha comic.

Considering that it's precisely her droll, outsider's voice that I find refreshing, it is ironic how many of the criticisms of her work come down to her "otherness": she's a woman, a Jew, a non-Indian; who is she to write this stuff?

Is Delhi really more polluted than Beijing?

The WHO recently released a report where Delhi was fingered as the most polluted city in the world.

Having been to both Delhi and Beijing, this seems odd.  Delhi is polluted, but Beijing seemed to be in a class all by itself. In Beijing, visibility was in the tens of meters. Delhi is bad, but it never seemed that bad -- you can always see what's on the other side of the street.

Contrast these two pictures, both taken in summer in the city centers of the two cities:

Two possibilities that I can think of:
(1) Perhaps the Beijing numbers reported to the WHO are "cooked"?
(2) Perhaps the pollutant mix is different, and the Beijing pollutants are more visible and more likely to remain suspended in the atmosphere?

And just to provide some contrast in terms of the distance one can see on a summer day in the center of the city: Kathmandu, Paris and New York:

Of the three cities above, Kathmandu was the dirtiest.  I found it dirtier than Delhi.  Once you get out of the city, though, the Nepali countryside is gorgeous.  But we are talking only about cities here.

Net Neutrality is a terrible idea

My view on net neutrality changed after reading this article.
You may think that walled-garden access to Facebook or Google is inferior to neutral Internet access—and you’d be right. But if the neutralistas got their way, people in developing countries wouldn’t have better Internet access; many of them would have nothing. Wikimedia notes that in Kenya, mobile service costs can exceed 25 percent of monthly income. “Additionally, nearly 1 in 5 have reported that they will forgo a usual expenditure (such as food) in order to reload phone credit.” Low-quality (free) Internet access, therefore, is part of the optimal stock of Internet access.
As if it weren’t enough to connect the world’s poorest for the first time, non-neutrality can also help to fund necessary network buildouts on an ongoing basis. By giving access to Facebook, Google, and Wikipedia away as a loss-leader, carriers are serving with their basic tier of service those who can’t afford more, and habituating those who can afford to click beyond the walled garden to using the mobile web. This price discrimination not only increases access but also raises more revenue than a neutral strategy would. Developing-world carriers need that revenue if they ever intend to build the kinds of networks that will support widespread Internet use. Net neutrality, in other words, would not only keep the poorest offline, it would keep investment in poor-country telecom infrastructure down for longer.

Read the whole thing. It is not often that a well-honed argument can change minds, but this one probably might.

Turns out that when we argue for net neutrality, we are arguing from a position of privilege.  And we need to check that privilege -- getting rid of net neutrality can be very beneficial to the poor everywhere and to everyone in developing countries.