Read the coolest word in the paper today here in Pune:
Dacoity Attempt foiled
“The Khadak police on Sunday night foiled an attempt of dacoity at a petrol pump at Ghorpade Peth following the arrest of a gang of six suspects. The police have recovered sharp weapons from the possession of the suspects …”
How cool is that? I was sure that dacoit — a staple-word from pulp thrillers of the distant past — would be an antique usage over here, but not so. There still are dacoits, and with sharp weapons to boot.
Bearing this in mind, I’m on the alert for thuggees today.
I arrived in India last night, a bit after 9 pm local time. My ultimate destination is Pune, but since there are few direct flights, I came into Mumbai where I’ll stay overnight; next morning I’ll drive to Pune. The Mumbai airport was in reasonable shape, overall equal in amenities to any US airport. A driver was arranged in advance, and leaving customs I see a long line of sign-bearing men – some signs indicate travel groups, others names of businesses, others just names. I quickly spot a sign saying “IBM Fernando Salazar” and off we go to the hotel.
It is dark and I can’t see that much, but I can see that the airport is embedded right in the city of Mumbai. We are instantly on an urban street full of activity. One sign proclaims “Happy Joy Restaurant”. We pass several cell phone stores. People are idling about small shops and stands, many just lean-tos of corrugated steel. There is a lot of construction, and we pass a file of construction workers, all wearing identical reflective vests and carrying hard hats, maybe 30 men in all; I can’t tell if they are marching to or from. 3 wheel cabs are abundant. The traffic is very heavy and horn beeping is constant – but not the irritated “move yourself out of my way” beeping of a city like New York. The beeps here are short and targeted, a kind of communication, like “Here I am” or “I am moving forward”.
Anyway, now it’s morning and waiting outside the hotel one of the first things I see is a chicken truck – of four levels, constructed of mesh, full of chickens. As the truck jostles over 1 speed bump, then another, all the chickens flap their wings up in unison.
At 8 am my driver arrives – the same one from last night — and we set off for Pune. The traffic doesn’t seem that heavy to me, but I don’t know what’s customary for Mumbai on a Sunday morning. Here and there we can get up to a good speed, say 60 kph. Only a few minutes after leaving the hotel we pass a family of four on a two-wheeler: Father, wearing a motorcycle helmet, driving; Mother wearing a sari sits an imperturbable side-saddle behind him; in front of Father is younger Daughter, maybe three years old; and in front of her is older Daughter, I guess seven years old, black haired and wearing racy black sunglasses, she smiles as she grips the inside of the handlebars, wind blowing back her hair like she was an action heroine.
A bit further on we passed this car. This was a part of the Lavasa Women’s Drive – an event to raise awareness of cervical cancer. We passed cars that were part of this all the way to Pune.
The air in Mumbai was somewhat hazy with smog, but an hour out from the city the air became clearer. Most of the way was uphill – Pune is over 1,800 feet above sea level. Here’s one of the switchbacks we passed; there were several more like this as we climbed higher and higher. We also went through hills as well as over — the road went through 3 mountain tunnels. The walls of these were just stone – no masonry or reinforcement, it’s like the tunnels were bored through solid granite.
Reaching Pune the traffic became heavy. I began to see that in India lane markers on roadways are really just suggestions – traffic flows to fill all available space, with trucks marking out big spaces, small cars filling the spaces between trucks, and two-wheelers filling the spaces between everything. Once again all the vehicles use short, sharp beeps to indicate position and intent – its seems you need sonar to be able to drive in India.
Almost to the hotel in Pune, we passed an open air market, selling luggage,clothes, shoes, CDs, bicycle wheels, brass ornaments, jewelry – or at least those were the things I could see from the car. I’ll be meeting my friend Bhavuk in a few hours, I’ll have to ask him about this.
That’s all I have for now. Tomorrow starts the work week, but I expect I’ll do one more post before I head back on Thursday.
Despite wikiPedia’s paltering on the subject, there is only one subcontinent as far as I’m concerned: India. I depart tomorrow for a 1 week trip, flying to Mumbai, and from there by car to Pune, and later back to Mumbai. This is a work trip, culminating in a visit to Lotusphere Mumbai – but I do expect I’ll spend some off-work time with my India-lab colleagues.
Blogging and pictures when I return.
Last week’s New York Times carried a rather chilling op-ed, entitled Why China’s Political Model is Superior, by Eric X. Li. Mr. Li is the chairman of Chengwei Capital. Chengwei is an investor in firms such as Youku.com, a Chinese Youtube-like service, AntonOil, the largest oil drilling and services company in China, and AAGI, China’s leading producer of coal-bed methane. This is not Mr. Li’s first op-ed in the Times; last year they published Counterpoint: Debunking Myths about China.
So, why is China’s political model superior, exactly? In Mr. Li’s view, America and other like-minded nations assume democracy is an end in itself, causing us to waste time and energy in pointless politicking. Meanwhile, Mr. Li tells us “China sees its current form of government, or any political system for that matter, merely as a means to achieving larger national ends”. And what are those ends"? Again, in Mr. Li’s words, “economic development” and the “national interest”. As to who decides what those things are – for example, whether tainted formula is or is not in the national interest – Mr. Li says only it should be left up to the “leaders”. He clearly feels China’s leaders are wise and resolute, citing the example of Tiananmen Square, an event for which the nation paid a “heavy price”, but nonetheless “ … ushered in a generation of growth and prosperity that propelled China’s economy to its position as the second largest in the world.”
Chilling stuff. But this grim utilitarianism faces outwards as well as inwards, as detailed in Stefan Halper’s The Beijing Consensus. Dr. Halper is a distinguished academic and long-time republican who served in both the Reagan and Bush I’s administrations. While he acknowledges the many humanitarian and rights-oriented perspectives on China, this book is about the perspective of global strategy. Halper’s premise is that China’s state capitalism, linked with the ruthless political model praised by Eric Li, is a combination that is not only “beating the West at its own game”, but is also creating a global posture that is isolating us and, if left unchecked, could one day leave the Western democracies with few choices to debate. How China is doing this is best illustrated by remarks from Abdoulaye Wade, President of Sengal, who in 2008 said:
China’s approach to our needs is simply better adapted than the slow and sometimes patronising post-colonial approach of European investors, donor organisations and non-governmental organisations. In fact, the Chinese model for stimulating rapid economic development has much to teach Africa … I have found that a contract that would take five years to discuss, negotiate and sign with the World Bank takes three months when we have dealt with Chinese authorities.
Here is Li’s utilitarianism again. Of course, Wade is not just talking about cutting red-tape, but about “incentives” for his ruling elite to allow projects to happen, something that Chinese companies can do easily, but that US companies, being subject to the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, cannot.
Halper details how Africa is a key part of Chinese strategy. Africa has at least 30 “totally or partly unfree” regimes, and China uses an ask-no-questions policy when dealing with their leaders – which makes sense, since China has a history of pleading offense when other nations comment on its own “internal affairs”. The net benefit for China is expanded trade, access to energy reserves, access to critical high-tech natural resources (like cadmium, tin and tungsten), and support for its broader political agenda – for example, with Taiwan.
A second benefit is lurking in Eric Li’s op-ed – more and more countries seem to agree with him. As Halper points out, the majority of people in Latin America, Africa, and most of the Middle East, now prefer “social order” over democracy. It wasn’t always this way. In 2002, 67% of Venezuelans said they liked American ideas on democracy; in 2007, the number was down to 40%. Halper’s view is that wars in Irag and Afghanistan certainly haven’t helped American prestige, but what’s most important is that China is filling the vacuum we are creating. When we consider that in the wake of the Arab Spring, democracy does not seem to be surging to the fore, the direction of Li’s op-ed becomes all the more worrisome.
Halper’s book lays out a blueprint for action. His recommendations can be debated – there’s more democracy for you – but one of his points is crystal clear: America is still the strongest world power, and especially has potential for “soft power” that far outweighs Beijing’s. Developing nations may like Chinese quick, utilitarian action, but they also can recognize the proverbial two-edged sword when they see it. The day it becomes in the “national interest” for Beijing to deal harshly with any client, or even to pollute its water and air, by its own principles it will do so. We democracies on the other hand can’t act that way – we have populations that for the most part won’t put up with that. Yes, I know, there’s hundreds of counter-examples that can be cited. I still say the difference is real. We need to make sure the developing world sees those differences.
To wrap up, here’s the best way I can describe The Beijing Consensus: Before reading it I was like most Americans, I thought the most important things about China were the financial and employment impacts of US addiction to Chinese imports; eventually Yankee know-how would have gotten us out of that mess. I would have dismissed Eric Li’s manifesto of political superiority as face-saving bluster of a slowly fading system, one that was inevitably destined to be replaced with some form of democracy – Chinese people have the same needs and wants as American people, right? For me, Halper’s book put all that into the context of a bigger game, one where:
The expanding appeal of China’s governing model is shrinking the West – making our notions of society and government less relevant – and will do more to alter the quality of life for Americans and the West in the twenty-first century than any other development.
I can’t speak to the political or academic quality of Halper’s book – I’m neither a politician nor a professor – but as a member of the American democracy I found it insightful. I certainly wish we could refute Eric Li’s op-end by having our 2012 candidates speak to the challenges Halper lays out. Somehow I expect that is a job that we the people will have to do for ourselves.
The world is experiencing spectacular displays of aurora borealis, stretching to countries which rarely experience them, like the U.K., and, in the photo to the right, the American Midwest. These graceful and mysterious lights inspired transcendentalist poet Christopher Pearse Cranch to write:
Who can name thy wondrous essence,
Thou electric phosphorescence?
Lonely apparition fire!
Seeker of the starry choir!
Restless roamer of the sky,
Who hath won thy mystery?
Mortal science hath not ran
With thee through the Empyrean,
Where the constellations cluster
Flower-like on thy branching lustre.
Cranch might not have been so enraptured had he known the aurora borealis is caused by solar flares. The latest IEEE Spectrum has an article on the damaging effects of solar flares, and friends, seeking starry choirs is the least mischief these electric phosphorescences intend. But as overwrought as he was, Cranch did get the electric part right. Solar flares occur when the Sun ejects massive amounts of material – on the order of a billion tons – in the form of charged particles, outwards with great force. These particles – electrons and protons – do 2 things: First, the particles beat back the shielding magnetic field of the Earth and create charged plasma in the upper atmosphere, called an electrojet. Current in the electrojet can exceed millions of amperes; these high-up currents can induce smaller, damaging currents at ground level.
Second, the impact on the magnetosphere causes waves in the Earth’s magnetic field. These waves are powerful enough to create GICs – geomagnetically induced currents – just as spinning a magnet inside a copper coil induces a current. GICs can be 100s of amps per incident.
Most of the time, these two effects are small, limited only to Cranch’s lonely apparition-type fires. But sometimes, these flares are really big. In 1989 all of Quebec was blacked-out in 30 seconds; its grid experienced 15 simultaneous failures and that instantly cascaded into province-wide failure. Bad as that storm was, there are recorded events of storms even bigger, including an 1921 storm that blanketed all of North America and most of the Pacific, and an 1859 storm that was much larger still. 2012-2013 will see the solar max, a period of increased sunspot activity, and also of increased solar flares.
The entire world is considerably more electrified today than even in 1989, and very much more than in 1921. That means we are all the more vulnerable. Nuclear power plants are exceptionally vulnerable because of the very large number of transformers and lines that service a nuclear facility. An 1989 or greater size storm that hits the US East Coast could have devastating effects.
The Spectrum sounds a hopeful note, however: Transformers can be protected from GICs with new, relatively inexpensive technology. Will we do it, though? I have to say, unlikely – it is more in our social nature today to risk billions or even trillions in damage, rather than spend millions in prevention.
Cranch went on to write:
Is not human fantasy,
Wild Aurora, likest thee,
Blossoming in nightly dreams,
Like thy shifting meteor-gleams?
Here’s hoping that the auroras of this year and the next bring us no more than fantastic dreams.
Listening to some drive-time radio, this occurred to me … how many musical questions could I remember? I’ll start of with the one I heard on the radio:
“If happy little bluebirds fly above the rainbow, why can’t I?”
“Do you wanna dance?”
”Do you you believe in magic?”
”How much is that doggie the window?”
”Do you know the way to San Jose?”
”Will you love me tomorrow?”
”Where have all the flowers gone?”
“Who’ll stop the rain?”
”Is she really going out with him?”
”Should I stay or should I go?”
”Who wrote the book of love?”
and, for the punctuation-alert …
“What is this thing called, love?”
Remembered one more:
“How soon is now?”
.. Melville, that is, legendary director of such films as L’ Armée des ombres (Army of Shadows) and Le Cercle rouge (The Red Circle). I have a yen to watch his stuff. This weekend’s viewing: Bob le flambeur (Bob the Gambler) and Le Samouraï.
Why, you might ask? I have some story ideas developing and I want to try and absorb some of le maître’s elan, style and suspense to help me bring them together. Yes, hopeless, I know … but if nothing else it’s time better spent than watching Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes, or any of the other assaults on the classics that pass for film today.