Tuesday, 31 August 2010

We lost sight of fairness in the false promise of wealth

Acceptance of inequality rests on assumptions that 'free markets' make us all richer in the end. Growth figures tell it differently

As Nick Clegg fends off accusations of selling out and Labour leadership candidates set out their stall, debates about inequality show no sign of going away. But the moral arguments are rarely extended far enough, and virtually no politician challenges a basic, erroneous premise that inequality is a price worth paying for a more efficient market system that enriches us all

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Reading The Bowler

Keep an eye on the point of release, the wrist, the position of the seam and more
August 26, 2010
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Shaun Tait flew into England's top-order batting, England v Australia, 5th ODI, Lord's, July 3, 2010
Tait: when's the release? © Getty Images
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Players/Officials: Glenn McGrath | Lasith Malinga | Shaun Tait
The replay comes up in slo-mo for us to get a closer look: Brett Lee runs in and bowls a short-pitched delivery at 150kph. Sachin Tendulkar seems to have all the time in the world to get into the right position - he goes back and across and plays it right under his eyes. The pace at which the TV camera reruns it makes it look a cakewalk, an everyday shot, but the batsman gets only a fraction of a second to judge, decide and execute. What is it that enables the likes of Sachin to tweak their responses and plan their shots?
Let me break it down further for you. At the point of release a batsman must ascertain the line and the length of the delivery, must weigh his options with regards to his response (attacking or defensive) and then move quickly to get his body into the right position to execute the option chosen. One of the principles of batting is to be prompt and to be in a position to receive the ball, as against arriving at the same time as the ball, because that is invariably too late. The quicker the bowler, the less time you have in hand to act. If the batsman fails to get his calculations right in time, he is most likely doomed. Unlike against slower bowlers, with whom you may have a second chance.
Judging the length and line
If judging the length and line early makes batting relatively more easy and effective, failure to do so puts the batsman at a disadvantage.
To judge the length, the batsman must watch the point of release of the delivery. The earlier the release, the fuller the ball, which in effect means that if the bowler delivers the ball at the first point of release, it would result in a beamer. Every subsequent delay in release would mean a reduction in the length, with the bouncer being the last point of release. That's the reason every batsman is taught to be ready for the full ball first, because that's the first possibility; if the bowler passes that point of release without delivering, the mind starts sending the body signals to be prepared to go on the back foot.
Batsmen around the world are brought up playing bowlers with high-arm actions and hence their minds are attuned to trying to ascertain the length by looking at the point of release. But if you're up against someone like Lasith Malinga or Shaun Tait, both of whom have slinging, round-arm actions, it's simply not possible to know the length for sure at the time of the delivery, as there is always a doubt about whether the release was early or delayed. The angle at which the arm comes down leaves a lot to the imagination; unfortunately, though, there isn't much time to imagine at their pace.
Another important aspect that influences the ability to judge length is the position of the batsman's head in his stance. Ideally the head should be still and the eyes level to be able to judge the length correctly. If the head is tilted upwards, even slightly, all deliveries might seem short-pitched.
Next comes the line. Batsmen try to keep a close eye on the bowler's wrist at the point of delivery and the position of the wrist with regards to the crease. In the case of a fast bowler, the tilt of the wrist may help send the ball in the direction in the direction it is tilted towards. When Ishant Sharma's wrist tilts towards the on side, you're more or less sure the ball will swing in to the right hander. This isn't foolproof, though, especially when the ball is reverse-swinging. Waqar Younis used to keep the wrist completely upright, or even slightly tilted towards the off side, while making the ball dip in to the batsman.
Wrist position is a good giveaway when it comes to reading spinners, many of whom cock their wrists to bowl topspinners. Similarly, the back of a legspinner's hand will usually face the batsman when he tries to bowl a googly. These variations are subtle but if observed and decoded accurately, they can help the batsman.
Makhaya Ntini's wide-of-the-crease action gave away the angle of his stock deliveries, which came in to the right-hander, while Glenn McGrath's close-to-the-stumps action ensured the ball stayed on a well-defined line around the off stump. An offspinner will usually prefer to come in close to the stumps to bowl the topspinner or floater.
While the wrists and the action will give you clues, keeping a still head in the stance, almost in line with the toes, is vital to your ability to judge line correctly as a batsman. The moment the head starts falling over, the lines get blurred - a problem Rohit Sharma is facing at the moment. Since his head is falling over, he's either chasing balls that should be left alone (in the first ODI against New Zealand) or finding the ball finishing in line with the front pad instead of in line with the downswing of his bat. From there on it's just a matter of when and not if he misses one.
Swing and drift
Batsmen also try to look at the way the bowler has gripped the ball, with regards to the position of his fingers and the orientation of the shiny surface. When bowling a slower one McGrath would hold the ball with his index and middle fingers split wide apart; Lee while doing similar would hold the ball deep in his hand. Zaheer Khan often bowls with his fingers across the seam, which tells you to be ready for a straight delivery because the ball won't swing unless the seam is upright.

One of the principles of batting is to be prompt and to be in a position to receive the ball, as against arriving at the same time as the ball, because that is invariably too late

The shiny surface, if visible, often gives away the direction in which the ball will move in the air. For instance, an offspinner's drift can be read by looking at which way the shiny part of the ball faces. If the ball is swinging conventionally, it will drift into the right-hander if the shiny side is outside, and vice versa. Keeping the shine facing the palm not only takes the ball away in the air, it also makes it skid after pitching, as the ball lands on the shiny side. Obviously, looking at the shine doesn't help much if you're up against the likes of Muralitharan, or someone who prefers to bowl with a scrambled seam.
Leg position
Once the line is deciphered, a batsman will mostly try to keep the front leg outside the line of the ball. For a right-hander the front leg must stay leg side of the ball. If the leg is not in the appropriate position, the bat will never come down straight, and you might end up playing across in front of your pads. Also, keeping the leg outside the line is mandatory to maintain good balance, or else you risk falling over.
There is a good chance, though, that these lines will get blurred when the ball's swinging or spinning too much. Murali and Warne have wreaked havoc because batsmen were never sure of the amount of turn off the surface while facing them. What started out seeming the correct place to plant the front foot often proved incorrect in the end. It's the same when the ball is reverse-swinging. Haven't we seen Waqar and Wasim hit people on the toes umpteen times?
Things are slightly more manageable on the back foot, because not only does the short ball give a little more time to adjust, it also doesn't swing as much.
The role bounce plays
Tall bowlers with high-arm actions, like McGrath, Ambrose, Kumble and so on, tend to generate more bounce than their round-arm, slingy counterparts like Malinga or Ajit Agarkar. While tall bowlers get consistent high bounce, it also often misleads the batsman into playing on the back foot, even to balls that are meant to be played on the front foot; this results in them getting trapped in front. On the other hand, bowlers like Malinga and Agarkar pose a different kind of threat - you can never trust the bounce with them. Playing horizontal bat shots and ducking - for both of which you need to be able to trust the bounce - are difficult while facing these bowlers. You have to tell yourself to be on the front foot, even if the length and pace are pushing you back, and also to play with a vertical bat as much as possible, to make up for the lack of bounce.
Then there's the rare breed of freakish actions, which take a while to make sense of. Remember Paul Adams and how he took the world by storm initially? He was bowling normal chinamen and wrong'uns but batsmen were hopelessly caught in the flurry of limbs. Such actions are a batsman's nightmare when you're up against them for the first time. Your brain will eventually find ways to look for certain nuances to decode the mystery. That's why it's important for these bowlers to keep evolving, because once the novelty wears off, they become easy pickings.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

The management consultancy scam

August 20, 2010

Johann Hari:
"We were proud of the way we used to make things up as we went along", he says. "It's like robbing a bank but legal"

In the long fake boom of the Nineties and Noughties, we were sold a thousand scams. End government regulation of the financial system! Turn banks into casinos! Pay CEOs 500 times more than their staff! Bow, bow, bow before our mansion-dwelling overlords and the Total Efficiency they will bring! Yet from under the rubble left by these delusions, one of the greatest scams has skipped out unscathed, and it is now successfully selling itself as a solution to the fading of the boom-light. It is probably in your workplace now, or coming soon. Its name? Management consultancy.
There are now half a million management consultants in the world, and they all grumble that they face one question wherever they go: yes, but what is it that you actually do? They claim to be able to enter any organisation, watch its workers for a short period, and then - using graphs, algorithms, and a jargon that makes quantum physics look like Sesame Street - render it dramatically more efficient, for a fee. They are everywhere: in the US, AT&T (to pluck a random company) spent $500m on them in just five years, while the British state will soon be spending more on management consultants than on upgrading its nuclear weapons.
Yet the process of management consultancy has always been shrouded in priestly secrecy. Over the past few years there has been a string of memoirs by highly successful former management consultants, finally pulling back the flow-charts.
David Craig gives a typical explanation of what the consultants Actually Do. After getting a degree specialising in romantic poetry, he was astonished to be hired by a prestigious management consultancy, given three weeks training, and then dropped into major corporations to tell them how to run their oil rigs, menswear stores, and factories, for tens of thousands of pounds a pop. In his brave memoir Rip Off! he explains: "We were proud of the way we used to make things up as we went along... It's like robbing a bank but legal. We could take somebody straight off the street, teach them a few simple tricks in a couple of hours and easily charge them out to our clients for more than £7,000 per week." It consisted, he says, of "lies, lies and even more lies."
He worked to a simple model, which is common in the industry. He had to watch how a workforce behaved for a week - and then tell the company's bosses, every time, that they had 30 percent too many staff and only his consultancy could figure out who should be culled. If he calculated they actually had the right amount of staff, he was told by his bosses not to be so ridiculous and do his sums again: where was the money for them in a properly-staffed company? The company had to be POPed - People Off Payroll.
Of course, this advice was often disastrous. His company was sent into a chain of 500 menswear shops. They advised them to cut staff by (surprise!) 30 per cent, and to replace most full-time staff with part-timers. The result? The full-time employees had been highly motivated, because they wanted a career in the company; the part-timers only wanted a little extra cash. So motivation levels in the company collapsed, and with it the standard of service. The company was bankrupt within a few years.
Yes, you might say, but surely he was just a bad management consultant. The rest must get results. The evidence suggests not. The Cranfield School of Management studied 170 companies who had used management consultants, and it discovered just 36 per cent of them were happy with the outcome - while two thirds judged them to be useless or harmful. A medicine with that failure-rate would be taken off the shelves.
Matthew Stewart, another former consultant, summarises his high-flying years in the industry by saying: "I felt like a snake oil salesman without snake oil." When he was sent into a company, he was told to use complex formulae to analyse the productivity of its staff, but he soon realised that the results were "nearly random... Similar results could have been achieved by having four monkeys throw darts at a few matrices." Yet, on this basis, he was taking a fortune in payments, and firing thousands of productive people.
The recession has given a fresh burst to this industry, as corporations beg to be told where to apply the leeches. The number of senior consultants has swollen by 10 per cent in the past year, while the number employed by local government has grown by 11 per cent.
But there is a growing body of academic research showing that the strategies pushed by these consultancies are in fact disastrous - and hasten the collapse of a company or service. Professor Wayne Cascio of the University of Colorado has studied the relative costs and benefits of POPing your workforce. Corporations and governments are receptive to the idea that the quickest, easiest way to save money is to fire workers. But Cascio has shown that, most of the time, the costs outweigh the gains. Obviously, you have immediately to find large amounts of redundancy and severance pay. But the costs don't stop there. Your workforce becomes very nervous - and a nervous workforce is dramatically less productive and less innovative. The best people leave. The service to the customer deteriorates - so they abandon you even more.
The facts backing this up are striking. The OECD has studied developed economies over a 20-year period, and it found labour productivity growth was much higher in the countries where it is hardest to fire people. The better you treat a workforce, the better they work. Professor Peter Cappelli studied 122 companies and found that lay-offs most often shrank their future profitability, instead of swelling it.
Yet this is the antithesis of the management consultancy mindset. Stewart says "consultants are the cattle prods of the modern corporation. The chief message to be communicated, in almost all situations, is that you will be expected to work much harder than you ever have before and your chances of losing your job are infinitely greater than you have ever imagined." It's a dark, dehumanised vision of workers as cogs in a machine - and it's been there from the beginning. Frederick Taylor, the founder of management consultancy, compared workers to "an intelligent gorilla" and said "our scheme does not ask for any initiative in a man. We do not care for his initiative."
When challenged, the paltry evidence base of this industry soon becomes clear. Tom Peters, the author of management consultants' bible Excellence, snapped at an interviewer who asked about his way of analysing businesses: "Of course, we all know this is to some extent phoney baloney."
David Craig suggests a simple way to call their bluff. Insist that, from now on, all management consultants are paid by their results. If they promise greater productivity or higher sales, fine: don't pay them until it comes through. Today, almost no management consultancy works on this basis. If they did, they'd all be bankrupt.
And yet, and yet... you almost have to admire the rancid chutzpah of it. As the management consultant Bruce Henderson once sniggered: "Can you think of anything more improbable than taking the world's most successful firms and hiring people just fresh out of school and telling them how to run their businesses - and [getting them] to pay millions of pounds for this advice?" It's tempting to chuckle at the absurdity - until you realise the cack-handed consultants' scythe could come for you.
j.hari@independent.co.uk [j.hari@independent.co.uk]
For further reading
'House of Lies: How Management Consultant Steal Your Watch and Then Tell You The Time', by Martin Kihn (Grand Central, 2005); 'The Management Myth: Why the Experts Keep Getting it Wrong', by Matthew Stewart (Norton, 2009)

Thursday, 12 August 2010

The real villain is Klepto-Capitalism



DNA / R Jagannathan / Thursday, August 12, 2010 2:28 IST
Infosys Technologies' chairman and chief mentor NR Narayana Murthy has the ability to say it like it is. A year before he hangs up his boots, Murthy has cut loose on our unspeakable netas and babus, accusing them of a fundamental lack of ethical behaviour — though in not so many words.
Our netas, he said, saw no need for transparency and behaved like masters. Our IAS babus were no better. Their general administrative skills and colonial mindset were largely unrelated to the needs of the day. As for governance, there's no such thing, and accountability is largely absent in the system. His solution: abolish the IAS and set up an Indian Management Service manned by specialists who were paid market-clearing wages.
Murthy is only half-right. He has diagnosed the symptoms, and said little about the underlying disease. The IAS as such is not the problem. The question is: why does the IAS cadre behave like it does? Why does it treat its customers (citizens) like chattel? Why do their bosses (the babus) focus more on accumulating wealth than on delivering governance? The answer lies with us. Murthy himself excoriated citizens for apathy, which allowed corruption to flourish and criminals to go unpunished.
To understand the malaise at its roots, we need to start with our flawed democratic system. The cost of winning elections creates a huge demand for unaccounted cash to bribe the voter with. This is why no honest person can hope to get into politics. Even the not-so-dishonest politician needs lots of moolah to win the next election. This can only come from corruption.
The system is built around this fundamental flaw. This brings us to the next big stakeholder in corruption: business. Since businessmen cannot afford an unstable policy environment, they have a stake in funding sleazy politicians. Businessmen running competitive enterprises cannot afford to divert huge sums of money to bribery and skullduggery — unless there is another source for it.
This is one reason why they get into rent-seeking behaviour. In order to generate volumes of cash without business risk, they seek opportunities to make money out of scarcity. In the past this was done by manipulating the licence-permit raj.
In the post-liberalisation era, the focus has shifted to land ("they ain't making any more of it no more") and spectrum (again, a limited resource).
Ever wonder why no one can afford a decent home in Mumbai or in any of India's big cities? Politicians and businessmen have ganged up on you to bottle up available land and make money for themselves. Land is released by netas and babus in driblets, so that prices can be raised forever, and slush funds generated.
Former World Bank chief economist Raghuram Rajan makes the same point in his latest book Fault Lines. He told DNA in an interview: "The predominant sources of mega wealth in India today are not the software billionaires who have made money the hard way by being competitive in a global economy. It is the guys who have access to natural resources or to land or to particular infrastructure permits or licences. In other words, proximity to the government seems to be a big source of wealth."
This is why when Murthy talks of lack of transparency, it is a mere description of the problem, not its underlying cause. If the neta, the babu and the lala (the rentier class of businessmen) are hand-in-glove to make a pile for themselves by generating scarcity, why would any of them want to be transparent? The neta-babu-lala combine is replacing genuine, participative democracy with a narrow kleptocracy laced with populism. To bring in the vote, the politician prefers the grand feudal gesture (doles for the poor) to genuine empowerment and reform; the businessman prefers land-grab (klepto-capitalism) to building a genuinely profitable business model through hard work; and the bureaucrat prefers to block change rather than facilitate it since he has more to gain personally from it.
The only way to weaken the nexus is by making democracy cheaper and election funding transparent. This may not eliminate corruption altogether, but would take away the main reason for it. Elections can be made cheaper by state funding of political parties and tax-free contributions, but we also need to use technology better.
If, for example, we create a countrywide broadband network that can reach every village, no neta will need to hire hundreds of jeeps and helicopters to reach his message to voters. He can do it from anywhere. He can communicate directly with his voters — just as his rivals can. Voters, armed with Nandan Nilekani's unique ID, will even be able to vote over the internet. The only way to stymie a corrupt kleptocracy is to make democracy less expensive.

Reading the Batsmen

Video footage is well and good, but there are also plenty of clues for bowlers to pick up from their opponents' grips, back-lifts and stances
August 12, 2010

Adam Gilchrist bats, second Test, Australia v India, Sydney, January 6, 2008
Gilchrist's grip: bigger downswing, greater reach © Getty Images
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What if a bowler could read a batsman's mind - predict how a batsman would play before bowling a ball to him or having watched him play? Wouldn't it bolster his chances, give him leeway to plan, and buttress his skill?
Some may call it wishful thinking, others a secret science, but often just looking at the grip with which a batsman holds his bat tells you something about his preferences in terms of shots, and the way he stands may help you place your fielders.
Will a batsman be a good driver of the ball or more comfortable scoring off the back foot? Will he prefer scoring runs through the on side or the off? It's important to observe the finer nuances of a batsman's grip, stance and back-lift to size him up and plan accordingly. While it may seem utterly useless in this day and age of exhaustive analysis based on video footage, which is available to almost all professional teams, observation was one of the tools players relied heavily on in the past, and it continues to be useful.
The grip
Most batsmen playing professional cricket hold the bat correctly with regard to the Vs made by thumbs and forefingers. The top hand is firmer and the V its thumb and forefinger makes opens out towards the outer edge of the bat, while the bottom hand plays only a supporting role.
A correct grip allows a proper downswing, which in turn enables a batsman to play the ball with the full face of the bat. The right grip is also imperative if you want to play the entire range of shots.
While the basics remain the same, lots of batsmen do enough with the grip to give some information away. For instance, Sanath Jayasuriya holds the bat close to the bottom of the handle, and Adam Gilchrist higher up. Now the coaching manual recommends that one holds the bat in the middle of the handle, but to say that successful players like these two don't hold the bat correctly would be grossly incorrect. While there are pros and cons to each approach, it all boils down to what suits your game best.
Holding the bat closer to the bottom gives you more control and helps you generate more power at the point of impact. In such cases, since the bottom hand becomes dominant very often, you don't need a high back-lift to hit the ball long and hard. That's why Jayasuriya is ever so good with his short-arm jabs. Such players generally are more comfortable on the back foot, and horizontal bat shots are their bread and butter. The flip side of holding the bat close to the base of the handle is that the arc of the downswing gets radically smaller, which in turn reduces the reach and makes driving off the front foot that much difficult. But some players are exceptions to this rule. Sachin Tendulkar holds the bat close to the bottom of the handle but has managed to overcome the shortcomings with ease.
On the contrary, Gilchrist's batting is built on the extension of the arms, and holding the bat high on the handle compliments the extension. With this grip, the arc of the downswing becomes bigger, and hence increases the reach of the batsman. Lower-order batsmen tend to prefer this grip to enhance their reach. That's how the phrase "using the long handle" was coined. The flip side of such a grip is that you may not have enough control and you have to rely on the downswing to generate power. Players with such grips prefer playing on the front foot and can also be a little circumspect against quick short-pitched bowling. Gilchrist, like Tendulkar, is an exception here.
Then there were those like Javed Miandad, who had a gap between the top and bottom hands. The textbook recommends keeping the hands close to each other on the handle, to ensure that they move in unison. Yet Miandad's grip allowed him to manoeuvre the bowling and milk it for singles, though he possibly sacrificed some fluency in the bargain.
The stance
If the grip on the bat is the first giveaway, the manner in which a batsman stands is the second. While the coaching manual recommends the feet be about a shoulder span apart, lots of batsmen have toyed with different options to suit their game.
People who stand with their feet too close to each other are often good back-foot players and the ones with wider stances are generally stronger on the front foot. Here, too, there are snags: you lose some balance if both feet are too close, and too wide apart results in lack of foot movement.
A stance that's too side-on or too open-chested also tells you a bit about the strengths and weaknesses of a batsman. While you'd be suspect against inswingers if your stance is too side-on, you'd struggle against away-going deliveries if it is too open. Sachin Tendulkar's is the closest to what would be a perfect stance - though even he tended to lean too much towards the off side when he started.

The textbook recommends keeping the hands close to each other on the handle, to ensure that they move in unison. Yet Miandad's grip, with hands apart, allowed him to manoeuvre the bowling and milk it for singles

Even the way you take guard can give the bowler a pointer or two. Generally players who ask for a leg-stump guard are good on the off side, for they try to make room by staying beside the line. And the ones who ask for middle stump are good on the leg side, for their endeavour is to whip it through the leg side. It's not a hard-and-fast rule but any information is better than none at all.
If a batsman is falling over, with his head not in line with his toes - which is the case with a lot of batsmen - he will predominantly be an on-side player, but would still be susceptible to sharp, incoming deliveries. Also, the intended ground shots on the leg side will probably travel in the air for a while, and hence positioning a fielder at short midwicket comes in handy. Such a batsman would also be unsure of his off stump and hence might play balls that are meant to be left alone.
The back-lift
The last clues before the ball is finally bowled come from the height of the back-lift and its arc. Ideally the bat should come down from somewhere between the off stump and first slip, to ensure that the bat moves straight in the downswing.
Players who bring the bat in from wider than second slip, like Rahul Dravid, need to make a loop at the top of the downswing, or else they will find it difficult to negotiate sharp incoming deliveries. Should they fail to make that loop, the bat won't come down straight, which means meeting the ball at an angle instead of straight on.
Batsmen with higher back-lifts find it difficult to deal with changes of pace, because with higher back-lifts it's tougher to pull out of a shot after committing. Also, there's always a possibility they will be late in bringing the bat down to keep yorkers out. Ergo, yorkers and slower ones might just do the trick.
Since players with short back-lifts, like Paul Collingwood and Andrew Symonds, don't have a reasonable downswing, they rely on the pace of the ball to generate power for their shots. They tend to struggle if the ball has no pace on it, so taking the pace off isn't a bad move against them. On the contrary, short back-lifts are almost ideal to keep yorkers out with.
If anyone has to think on his feet in cricket, it is the bowler. For it is he who initiates the action and everyone else reacts to what he delivers. Yet, these days he's the game's underdog, constantly at risk of being on the receiving end, and bound to follow a plan to render himself effective. Since video data isn't available to teams before they reach a certain level, most bowlers rely on observing the finer nuances of their opponents in order to strategise.
Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of Beyond the Blues, an account of the 2007-08 Ranji Trophy season. His website is here
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Wednesday, 4 August 2010

A home schooling success story

Portrait Of A Prodigy
  • Ranked 33rd in IIT entrance exam at 14
  • Gold medal at International Biology Olympiad at 14
  • Bronze medal at 14, silver at 13, at Asian Physics Olympiad
  • Passed Class X at 12, Class XII at 14
  • Won Nehru Planetarium's Young Astronomer Award at ages 10 and 11


Sahal Kaushik keeps mostly to himself as he makes his way around the sprawling IIT Kanpur campus with student guide Soumyajit Bose. It's his first day of class and, at 14, he is the youngest ever student to enter the portals of an IIT; no little feat, but amplified by his somewhat unconventional education—home-schooling, no less—and the award of a gold medal at the International Biology Olympiad in Seoul.
Not surprisingly, his reputation has preceded him here. As  second-year student Soumyajit puts it, "There is a lot of curiosity about him on campus, because making it to IIT at the age of 14 is quite an unprecedented feat."
But the reticent and somewhat withdrawn Sahal, who has enrolled in the five-year integrated MSc course in physics, would rather not have the spotlight trained on him. And mostly he won't be prodded beyond brief, sometimes monosyllabic, responses on his remarkable success story.
Ask him how he rates himself academically and a disinterested "I don't know" is all he'll offer. Did he expect to crack the Joint Entrance Exam? "Yes. But I did not expect such a good (all India 33rd) rank." On subjects that catch his fastidious fancy, however—like astrophysics, for one—he is more obliging. Says father Tapeshwar, an army officer, "When he interacts with participants at the olympiads, he can talk for hours. He is comfortable with people who share his interests."
That precondition should be easily met at IIT, where, even though his classmates will be senior by 3-4 years, intellectual wavelengths should be in sync. Institute director Prof Sanjay G. Dhande has no qualms about handling such a young student. He believes that once someone is ready to participate intellectually, age is not a consideration. Sahal's mother Ruchi isn't anxious either, recalling how, as a newly anointed teen, Sahal spent all of eight days in Bangkok at the Asian Physics Olympiad last year, with 'peers' older by five years or more and didn't feel a wee bit out of his depth.
To meet the challenge of ensuring that school and home, too, provided Sahal with similar levels of stimulation, Ruchi, a doctor, had hung up her white coat for good to home-school the prodigy. Clearly not a mother in the usual mould, she decided quite early to teach her children herself until they were seven or eight. But when Sahal's unusual mental abilities surfaced—reciting multiplication tables up to 100 when he was only three and juggling binary numbers a year later—she had to make that crucial decision. Did she want to send him to school at all? "Had I sent him to school at seven, he would have been restricted to addition and subtraction whereas he had already moved on to trigonometry and logarithms," she says.
So, in the face of all the naysayers' words of caution that a boy who wasn't sent to school or didn't go out and play (and never watched TV either, their home doesn't have one) would be socially maladjusted, the Kaushiks knew what they had to do. And while Sahal today is, the Kaushiks admit, "very reserved", his Facebook account has as many as 295 friends (he reveals the number after much coaxing). He met them through all the science camps he has attended, and a few of them will be keeping him company at IIT too.
But just how enviable is it to be a minor—and a gifted one at that—among adults in a fiercely competitive and demanding environment? Consultant psychologist Anuttama Banerjee says, "There are some emotional challenges. There could be jealousy among his older classmates, which might lead to inter-group conflict. Older kids might not wish to include him when they are hanging out or just chatting about their girlfriends." She adds, however, that if such a child's social and emotional intelligence is on the same level, he would be able to match up.
Only the next five years will tell if he does. Sahal's parents don't seem too apprehensive, yet, tellingly, they've reorganised their lives just to extend his comfort zone. They have planned their own relocation from Delhi, to a housing complex near the campus, so that Sahal, who is a day scholar, could come back home every evening.
It may sound suspiciously like a case of ambitious parents living vicariously through a super-achieving son. But the Kaushiks argue, with some eloquence, that this is not a hat that fits them—they're just parents who want to provide the right environment for a gifted child. "The thirst for knowledge was his own. We were there basically to provide him with whatever information he wanted," says Ruchi. Interestingly, the same set of parents allowed Saras, Sahal's 12-year-old sister, who is also home-schooled, to take her own time to get started on her education. "Till the age of eight, Saras could not even write her mother's name in Hindi," says Tapeshwar. "If society can accept a delayed learner like Saras, why hold back a fast learner? Why is someone who is good at something that others generally aren't comfortable with made out to be a geek?" argues Ruchi, making a strong case for greater recognition, by society, of the needs of gifted children.
The decision to try for IIT so early was, says the family, Sahal's own. He had sailed through the Class X and XII board exams, but to crack the JEE he needed specialised training. And so from the world of stimulating, flexible home-based learning, the Dwarka boy made his way to what many would regard as its polar opposite: a coaching institute. Excited by the opportunity to help Sahal achieve his feat, teachers at the Narayana IIT Academy coached him individually, with chocolates and juices as incentives to spur on their little student.
IIT will be a much longer, tougher journey down the road of formal education for this home-schooler, who wants to be a researcher one day. "Sitting in a class of 400 is a first for me, but I'm enjoying it," he says in one of his more talkative moments. "He must learn to fend for himself," says Tapeshwar on the transition. "After all, he has to make his own way." That seems to be Sahal's style already, right from the day he looked through a refractor as a young child, set his heart on astrophysics, and decided to follow the stars wherever they might lead him.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

How the FBI "in a free country" hounded historian Howard Zinn!


Why The Feds Fear Thinkers Like Howard Zinn

By Chris Hedges

02 August, 2010

Today I will teach my final American history class of the semester to prison inmates. We have spent five weeks reading Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States." The class is taught in a small room in the basement of the prison. I pass through a metal detector, am patted down by a guard and walk through three pairs of iron gates to get to my students. We have covered Spain's genocide of the native inhabitants in the Caribbean and the Americas, the war for independence in the United States and the disgraceful slaughter of Native Americans. We have examined slavery, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, the occupations of Cuba and the Philippines, the New Deal, two world wars and the legacy of racism, capitalist exploitation and imperialism that continue to infect American society.

We have looked at these issues, as Zinn did, through the eyes of Native Americans, immigrants, slaves, women, union leaders, persecuted socialists, anarchists and communists, abolitionists, anti-war activists, civil rights leaders and the poor. As I was reading out loud a passage by Sojourner Truth, Chief Joseph, Henry David Thoreau, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B Du Bois, Randolph Bourne, Malcolm X or Martin Luther King, I have heard students mutter "Damn" or "We been lied to."

The power of Zinn's scholarship—which I have watched over the past few weeks open the eyes of young, mostly African-Americans to their own history and the structures that perpetuate misery for the poor and gluttony and privilege for the elite—explains why the FBI, which released its 423-page file on Zinn on July 30, saw him as a threat.

Zinn, who died in January at the age of 87, did not advocate violence or support the overthrow of the government, something he told FBI interrogators on several occasions. He was rather an example of how genuine intellectual thought is always subversive. It always challenges prevailing assumptions as well as political and economic structures. It is based on a fierce moral autonomy and personal courage and it is uniformly branded by the power elite as "political." Zinn was a threat not because he was a violent revolutionary or a communist but because he was fearless and told the truth.

The cold, dead pages of the FBI file stretch from 1948 to 1974. At one point five agents are assigned to follow Zinn. Agents make repeated phone calls to employers, colleagues and landlords seeking information. The FBI, although Zinn is never suspected of carrying out a crime, eventually labels Zinn a high security risk. J. Edgar Hoover, who took a personal interest in Zinn's activities, on Jan. 10, 1964, drew up a memo to include Zinn "in Reserve Index, Section A," a classification that permitted agents to immediately arrest and detain Zinn if there was a national emergency. Muslim activists, from Dr. Sami Al-Arian to Fahad Hashmi, can tell you that nothing has changed.

The file exposes the absurdity, waste and pettiness of our national security state. And it seems to indicate that our security agencies prefer to hire those with mediocre or stunted intelligence, dubious morality and little common sense. Take for example this gem of a letter, complete with misspellings, mailed by an informant to then FBI Director Hoover about something Zinn wrote.

"While I was visiting my dentist in Michigan City, Indiana," the informant wrote. "This pamphlet was left in my car, and I am mailing it to you, I know is a DOVE call, and not a HOCK call. We have had a number of ethnic groups move into our area in the last few years. We are in a war! And it doesn't look like this pamphlet will help our Government objectives."

Or how about the meeting between an agent and someone identified as Doris Zinn. Doris Zinn, who the agent says is Zinn's sister, is interviewed "under a suitable pretext." She admits that her brother is "employed at the American Labor Party Headquarters in Brooklyn." That is all the useful information that is reported. The fact that Zinn did not have a sister gives a window into the quality of the investigations and the caliber of the agents who carried them out.

FBI agents in November 1953 wrote up an account of a clumsy attempt to recruit Zinn as an informant, an attempt in which they admitted that Zinn "would not volunteer information" and that "additional interviews with ZINN would not turn him from his current attitude." A year later, after another interrogation, an agent wrote that Zinn "concluded the interview by stating he would not under any circumstances testify or furnish information concerning the political opinions of others."

While Zinn steadfastly refused to cooperate in the anti-communist witch hunts in the 1950s, principals and college administrators were busy purging classrooms of those who, like Zinn, exhibited intellectual and moral independence. The widespread dismissals of professors, elementary and high school teachers and public employees—especially social workers whose unions had advocated on behalf of their clients—were carried out quietly. The names of suspected "Reds" were handed to administrators and school officials under the FBI's "Responsibilities Program." It was up to the institutions, nearly all of which complied, to see that those singled out lost their jobs. There rarely were hearings. The victims did not see any purported evidence. They were usually abruptly terminated. Those on the blacklist were effectively locked out of their professions. The historian Ellen Schrecker estimates that between 10,000 and 12,000 people were blackballed through this process.

The FBI spent years following Zinn, and carefully cutting out newspaper articles about their suspect, to amass the inane and the banal. One of Zinn's neighbors, Mrs. Matthew Grell, on Feb. 22, 1952, told agents that she considered Zinn and another neighbor, Mrs. Julius Scheiman, "to be either communists or communist sympathizers" because, the agents wrote, Grell "had observed copies of the Daily Workers in Mrs. Scheiman's apartment and noted that Mrs. Scheiman was a good friend of Howard Zinn."

The FBI, which describes Zinn as a former member of the Communist Party, something Zinn repeatedly denied, appears to have picked up its surveillance when Zinn, who was teaching at Spelman, a historically black women's college, became involved in the civil rights movement. Zinn served on the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He took his students out of the classroom to march for civil rights. Spelman's president was not pleased.

"I was fired for insubordination," Zinn recalled. "Which happened to be true."

Zinn in 1962 decried "the clear violations by local police of Constitutional rights" of blacks and noted that "the FBI has not made a single arrest on behalf of Negro citizens." The agent who reported Zinn's words added that Zinn's position was "slanted and biased." Zinn in 1970 was a featured speaker at a rally for the release of the Black Panther leader Bobby Seal held in front of the Boston police headquarters. "It is about time we had a demonstration at the police station," Zinn is reported as telling the crowd by an informant who apparently worked with him at Boston University. "Police in every nation are a blight and the United States is no exception."

"America has been a police state for a long time," Zinn went on. "I believe that policemen should not have guns. I believe they should be disarmed. Policemen with guns are a danger to the community and themselves."

Agents muse in the file about how to help their unnamed university source mount a campaign to have Zinn fired from his job as a professor of history at Boston University.

"[Redacted] indicated [Redacted] intends to call a meeting of the BU Board of Directors in an effort to have ZINN removed from BU. Boston proposes under captioned program with Bureau permission to furnish [Redacted] with public source data regarding ZINN's numerous anti-war activities, including his trip to Hanoi, 1/31/68, in an effort to back [Redacted's] efforts for his removal."

Zinn and the radical Catholic priest Daniel Berrigan had traveled together to North Vietnam in January 1968 to bring home three prisoners of war. The trip was closely monitored by the FBI. Hoover sent a coded teletype to the president, the secretary of state, the director of the CIA, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Department of the Army, the Department of the Air Force and the White House situation room about the trip. And later, after Berrigan was imprisoned for destroying draft records, Zinn repeatedly championed the priest's defense in public rallies, some of which the FBI noted were sparsely attended. The FBI monitored Zinn as he traveled to the Danbury Federal Prison in Connecticut to visit Berrigan and his brother Philip.

"Mass murders occur, which is what war is," Zinn, who was a bombardier in World War II, said in 1972, according to the file, "because people are split and don't think … when the government does not serve the people, then it doesn't deserve to be obeyed. … To be patriotic, you may have to be against your government."

Zinn testified at the trial of Daniel Ellsberg, who gave a copy of the Pentagon Papers to Zinn and Noam Chomsky. The two academics edited the secret documents on the Vietnam War, sections of which had appeared in The New York Times, into the four volumes that were published in 1971.

"During the Pentagon Papers jury trial, Zinn stated that the 'war in Vietnam was a war which involved special interests, and not the defense of the United States,' " his FBI file reads.

By the end of the file one walks away with a profound respect for Zinn and a deep distaste for the buffoonish goons in the FBI who followed and monitored him. There is no reason, with the massive expansion of our internal security apparatus, to think that things have improved. There are today 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies working on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States, The Washington Post reported in an investigation by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin. These agencies employ an estimated 854,000 people, all of whom hold top-secret security clearances, the Post found. And in Washington, D.C., and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001. Together, the paper reported, they occupy the equivalent of almost three Pentagons or 22 U.S. Capitol buildings—about 17 million square feet.

We are amassing unprecedented volumes of secret files, and carrying out extensive surveillance and harassment, as stupid and useless as those that were directed against Zinn. And a few decades from now maybe we will be able to examine the work of the latest generation of dimwitted investigators who have been unleashed upon us in secret by the tens of thousands. Did any of the agents who followed Zinn ever realize how they wasted their time? Do those following us around comprehend how manipulated they are? Do they understand that their primary purpose, as it was with Zinn, is not to prevent terrorism but discredit and destroy social movements as well as protect the elite from those who would expose them?

Zinn's book is revered in my cramped classroom. It is revered because these men intimately know racism, manipulation, poverty, abuse and the lies peddled by the powerful. Zinn recorded their voices and the voices of their ancestors. They respect him for this. Zinn knew that if we do not listen to the stories of those without power, those who suffer discrimination and abuse, those who struggle for justice, we are left parroting the manufactured myths that serve the interests of the privileged. Zinn set out to write history, not myth. And he knew that when these myths implode it is the beginning of hope.

"If you were a Native American," one of my students asked recently, "what would have been the difference between Columbus and Hitler?"

Chris Hedges writes a regular column for Truthdig.com. Hedges graduated from Harvard Divinity School and was for nearly two decades a foreign correspondent for The New York Times. He is the author of many books, including: War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, What Every Person Should Know About War, and American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America. His most recent book is Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.