Wednesday, August 31, 2005

hello? espn? meet amir khan

I don't know why nobody shows boxing matches in India--especially since ESPN apparently spends half its time whining that it lost the rights to Indian cricket and the other half trying to figure out something that will get better rating than so-called professional wrestling--but here's an introduction to a guy who could pump up those viewer numbers, for a few years, anyway, while he's being groomed for a title shot. ESPN, meet Amir Khan. I know, I know, the promoters actually want MONEY to show boxing overseas. Tell 'em that it's a choice of some money--admittedly, not too much--or no money. Nobody else is going to give them a dime to broadcast their fight in India, so why the hell not? And since the match will take place in the middle of the night, India time, what will you be putting it up against but repeats of England-Bangladesh cricket matches of the 1980s? (Which brings me to another bone of contention, you bastards: Why do you put the Live logo on everything? Do you mean the players are still Alive? Do you mean the guys who turned on the tape in the studio are Live? And why, oh why, do you opt to play tapes when there are actually real Live sports going on simultaneously to which you own the rights?)

Interview: Amir Khan

Donald McRae
Monday August 29, 2005
The Guardian

A year ago today, on the last day of the Olympic Games in Athens, a sweet-faced 17-year-old boy from Bolton stepped into the ring to face a hardened 33-year-old Cuban fighter hailed as the world's greatest amateur boxer for more than a decade. Amir Khan had arrived in Greece two weeks earlier as a virtual unknown - a shy student from Bolton Community College who liked go-karting and playing football. He lived at home, still accepted a soft cuff round the head from his mum for not tidying his room and made it up to her by smiling like Bambi whenever he offered to walk down to the local shops to buy a pint of milk.

Mario Kindelan, meanwhile, came to Athens as the reigning world and two-time Olympic lightweight champion, his formidable amateur record after 340 fights burnished by the fact that many of his previously outclassed victims, like Felix Trinidad and Miguel Cotto, had gone on to become celebrated professionals. His victory over Khan in a third successful Olympic final was meant to be a brutal formality.

Khan, instead, pushed Kindelan close, stalking the Cuban with fluid intent. He then accepted his 30-22 defeat with a grace and dignity which seemed all the more striking at the end of a week in which another British teenage prodigy, Wayne Rooney, had been smeared all over the tabloids after visiting a brothel in Liverpool. Most of the eight million British television viewers who watched Khan receive his silver medal that afternoon were captivated.

"It happened so quick and it's gone totally mad since then," Khan says now, shaking his head at the thought that, after the recent attacks on London, normally sober writers have described him as "a standard-bearer among the Muslim community in combating terrorism" and "the single most important role model for a multinational British society". Khan laughs softly as, in a small office above a mini-cab firm in downtown Bolton, he tries to explain how much his life has changed in a year.

While he is reassuringly blasé when revealing that he has met the "down-to-earth" Queen three times and a "fairly normal" Tony Blair twice, Khan is more touching in describing the personal way in which fame has changed his life. "I keep telling myself that I'm still only 18 - even if most of the time I tend to act like I'm 25 or someone old like that. I haven't been able to go down to the shops for my mum for a long time. I tried it after Athens and people went mad. At first they would say 'you look just like Amir Khan' and I'd say 'you're the second person to tell me that today'. But then I started getting mobbed and it would take a couple of hours to get to and from the shops.

"But I'll tell you the weirdest thing. I keep getting everything for free. I'd rather be normal and pay my own way. If I go out for a meal with a few friends it can get embarrassing. When it's time for the bill the owner will come over and say it's on the house. I try to get them to take my money but it's their way of showing respect or admiration. I understand but I'm telling you it's not as good as it sounds.

"A lot of things have changed around me and that's why it can be quite hard. It makes me feel I've lost a lot of my youth. I came back from the Olympic Games and straightaway I'm this role model. So that means I can't mess around with my mates like I used to because, if I do, people are going to use it to knock me down. It used to piss me off but now I'm used to it."

His professional debut last month - a first-round demolition of a journeyman called David Bailey - was dominated by the decision to play Land of Hope and Glory during Khan's walk to the ring and his subsequent raising of a union flag in which the word "London" had been stitched in black. For an 18-year-old weighed down by his new social significance it seemed an unnecessary burden - and led to accusations that Khan might have been pressured into making a portentous statement.

Shifting uncomfortably in his seat, Khan insists that "it was down to me. Like everyone I was upset about the London bombings . . . but, you know, I'm only 18 and I don't really want to be a spokesman for anyone. It might sound selfish but I'm learning now to say no to people. I have to put myself first and think of the boxing rather than the rest of it."

His eyes widen and glitter as he remembers the 109-second fight more vividly than the surrounding political metaphors. "I was excited and nervous but as soon as the bell rang it went quiet in my head. It was just me and him. I knew it was going to be easy as soon as I saw him charging at me. That made me totally relaxed and he just fell on to my shots. I blew him away."

A far more telling measure of Khan's undoubted potential had emerged in his previous bout in May, his last as an amateur, when he gained imperious revenge over Kindelan. In dominating the Cuban, who claimed to be determined to win the final fight of his majestic career, Khan proved that his exceptional talent is allied to a steely nerve and sharp intelligence.

"In Athens I faced so many completely different boxers that I couldn't get my head focused on Kindelan and his style until just before the final. But this time it was just like a professional fight. I studied Kindelan so closely that by the time we got into the ring I reckon I knew before him what he was going to do next. And then I'd hit him - bam! Bam-bam!"

He leans across the small table separating us and gently hammers his fist against the wooden surface. "I was actually surprised by how easy it was and that gave me a lot of confidence because Kindelan is a lot better than most pros. After the fight I spent some time with him in Cuba and that was special. I met the other Cuban legends like [Teofilo] Stevenson and [Felix] Savon, and they told me how much it hurt Kindelan to lose his last fight. But he was so respectful to me that I was inspired by him and the whole Cuban boxing history."

Khan's unbridled passion for the ring is more intriguing than liberal attempts to sanctify him in modern Britain. It also helps explain why such a charming and engaging 18-year-old is able to bring such dark spite to his work between the ropes.

"You need that kind of pleasure as a fighter. You have to like what you actually do in the ring. That's why in the pro game I look up to the Mexicans. Marco Antonio Barrera and Erik Morales are the guys I want to base myself on. They fight with their whole heart and with such work-rate. They just don't stop punching. I want to be like that - never boring."

When asked to pick his favourite between two fighters who have shared three thrilling but excruciating battles - with two wins for Barrera, "The Baby-Faced Assassin", shading the lone victory of Morales or "El Terrible", as the hollow-eyed super-featherweight from Tijuana tags himself - Khan leans forward. His voice sounds husky. "Morales is my guy. I've always loved him as a fighter. I hope to meet him one day - just to shake his hand."

It is, crucially, not lost on Khan that Naseem Hamed was finally ruined by Barrera - even if his demise had begun years earlier. "It's definitely a lesson for me. Naseem was my hero for a long time and at his peak he was brilliant. If he had fought Barrera four years before I think Naseem would have beaten him. But the money got to him, and the hype, and I think he stopped putting the work in. The Mexicans are different; they never stop working."

Khan remembers how, in the early hours of a Sunday morning in April 2001, "at my mate's house in Bolton we sat up all night waiting for Naseem to fight Barrera. I felt I should support Naz but he had no chance against Barrera that night. Barrera left Naseem hurt and confused. It explained again why the Mexican way - fighting hard, staying hungry - is such a big thing."

Like Hamed, Khan imagines becoming a "legend" and retiring undefeated from boxing at the age of 25. He is too young to accept, when it is pointed out to him, that every fighter professes the same noble aim but that none, beyond Rocky Marciano, has managed to walk away unblemished. The ring is too dangerously addictive. Yet as long as Khan remains in thrall to Morales and Barrera, rather than the bloated shell of Hamed, he could forge a remarkable career.

He may eventually shatter prejudice or even spread more unity in a splintered society but for now it seems enough that Khan lights up when talking about Bolton Wanderers or Freddie Flintoff. He and Flintoff often train alongside each other in the same Salford gym: "Freddie's real strong and I reckon he'd have made some boxer. But I'm happy he chose cricket because I can't get enough of the Ashes. I've been racing home after training every day to see us against the Aussies. It's been brilliant."

Flintoff has been invited to be Khan's special guest a week on Saturday when the young lightweight fights on a Joe Calzaghe undercard in Cardiff. In the midst of the deciding Test at The Oval Flintoff will presumably be able to watch another fast win for his Lancashire ally only on ITV - as Khan should easily dismantle the 34-year-old Baz Carey from Coventry.

Far greater tests await Khan, if not Flintoff, and it as almost as significant as his Mexican fervour that he has picked out his own future rival. "I always said as an amateur that I'd want to one day fight and beat Kindelan because he was the best out there. Same thing in the pros. I look out there and I see that Floyd Mayweather stands head and shoulders above everyone else. He's another fighter I would like to base myself on because he's got incredible fast hands and feet. He's flashy but, man, is he good."

The idea of Khan one day fighting Mayweather - a vicious and brash unbeaten 28-year-old American light-welterweight who calls himself "Pretty Boy" - may be a Hamed-like invitation to hubris. Yet, staring across the table at a young fighter flaming with wild hope and grand dreams of his own, I hear myself asking Khan how long he realistically believes he needs before he might be ready to face a consummate boxer like Mayweather.

The reply is fast and certain. "Three and a half years . . ."

I raise a brow at the speed and seeming exactitude of his ambition. "Well, maybe four years," Khan finally says, with a grin. "As long as I don't allow myself to get distracted I think that's possible. If I keep focused like Morales or Barrera then I can do it. Why not?"

In the meantime Khan will continue living at home with his parents, two sisters and young brother Haroon - a 14-year-old bantamweight. "Haroon is already a Four Nation and British champion and he thinks he's going to be better than me. We spar a lot and sometimes, even though he weighs only 6½ stone, he can hurt me. I give him one back then - just to let him know who's boss."

The older brother smiles knowingly, sounding suitably mature, just as he does when recognising his own youthfulness in his very next breath.

"Y'know, I don't want to move out of home for a few more years. I don't want to be opening envelopes, reading bills, posting cheques. That's too much pressure for an 18-year-old. I've got enough on my plate at the moment. All that other boring stuff will come soon enough. Until then I just want to chill out - and fight."

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

the diviners by rick moody

Let us pause for a moment to give thanks for Rick Moody, literary heir to Thomas Pynchon and—yes—Walt Whitman in this age of winnowed down writing program prose, as compulsively labored as a set of washboard abs.

The Diviners, Moody’s latest offering, is the story of a bunch of strivers, movie people, television execs, yogis, washed-up action film stars and, of course, an ambitious desi cab driver attempting to make an epic television miniseries that begins with the Mongol hordes sweeping into Europe and ends with the founding of Las Vegas. The novel will have you laughing so hard—whether it is the page-long paean to the satori that is the Krispy Kreme original glazed doughnut, the hilarious riff on the California “botox party” or another of a dozen mad set pieces—you won’t care that it all fizzles out, leaving you wondering, in the end. Along the way, Moody never stoops to the language of the lowest common denominator. He never bores. And he skewers America’s obsession with the next new thing, the culture-of-the-moment culture, with pinpoint accuracy. So accurate, in fact, that I wouldn’t be surprised to see some of Moody’s loony television ideas—in particular a Desperate Housewives cum Buffy the Vampire Slayer serial billed as The Werewolves of Fairfield County--appearing on real networks next season. Exiles beware: Whitman would have called this one Song of New York.

grand theft identity

Be careful, we've been told, or you may become a fraud victim. But now it seems that corporations are failing to protect our secrets. How bad is the problem, and how can we fix it?

Newsweek's Steven Levy and Brad Stone weigh in again -- this time with inputs from India on the Karan Bahree scandal -- on the problem of identity theft.

Grand Theft Identity

By Stephen Levy and Brad Stone

Sept. 5, 2005 issue - Millions of people now have a new reason to dread the mailbox. In addition to the tried-and-true collection of Letters You Never Want to See—the tax audit, the high cholesterol reading, the college-rejection letter—there is now the missive that reveals you are on the fast track to becoming a victim of identity theft. Someone may have taken possession of your credit-card info, bank account or other personal data that would enable him or her to go on a permanent shopping spree—leaving you to deal with the financial, legal and psychic bills. Deborah Platt Majoras got the pain letter recently, from DSW Shoe Warehouse. Hers was among more than a million credit-card numbers that the merchant stored in an ill-protected database. So when hackers busted in, they got the information to buy stuff in her name—and 1.4 million other people's names. "It's scary," she says. "Part of it is the uncertainty that comes with it, not knowing whether sometime in the next year my credit-card number will be abused." Now she must take steps to protect herself, including re-examining charges closely, requesting a credit report and contacting the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to put her complaint into its ID-theft database. The latter step should be easy for her, since Majoras is the FTC chairman.

Somewhere, Willie Sutton is smiling. Sutton was the sly swindler who, when asked why he robbed banks, was said to reply, "Because that's where the money is." Today the easy money is still in banks—databanks: vast electronic caches in computers, hard disks and backup tapes that store our names, ID numbers, credit-card records, financial files and other records. That information can be turned into cash; thieves can quickly sell it to "fraudsters" who will use it to impersonate others. They visit porn sites, buy stereo systems, purchase cars, take out mortgages and generally destroy the credit ratings of innocent victims, who may be unable to get new jobs, buy houses or even get passports until the matter is painstakingly resolved. And since the crime is all done remotely, modern ID thieves suffer little of the risk that Sutton shouldered a half century ago when he robbed banks with a machine gun.

We've become accustomed to the digital grease that smooths transactions, loans and eBay bids, even as worries about identity theft quietly shadow us, often leading us to restrict our activities and be extra careful with our credit cards and personal information. In recent months, though, there's been something different, a cascade of reports about big break-ins and bungles where the booty is our secrets. Suddenly things seem out of control: instead of losing our identities one by one, we're seeing criminals grabbing them in massive chunks—literally millions at a time. Just last week security firm Sunbelt Software discovered a U.S.-based server storing passwords for online accounts from 50 banks, eBay and PayPal log-ins, and credit-card numbers stolen by a Trojan virus. In June lax security at an Atlanta-based company called CardSystems exposed a possible 40 million Discover, Visa, MasterCard and American Express numbers to hackers, who have already begun turning the digits into cash and prizes. "It only makes sense that criminals would go where information is collected," says Martha Stansell-Gamm, head of the computer-crime division in the U.S. Justice Department.

"Over the last nine years, criminals have gotten a better understanding of the power of information," says Rob Douglas of PrivacyToday, a security consulting firm. "Instead of selling drugs, so much can be made so quickly with identity theft, and the likelihood of getting caught is almost nil." Avivah Litan of research firm Gartner Group speculates that fewer than 1 in 700 identity crimes leads to a conviction. This goes a long way toward explaining why it's the fastest-growing crime of this century. Crooks rack up $53 billion a year in ID theft in the United States alone. Consumers get stuck with $5 billion directly; and the rest is paid by retailers and businesses—which pass it on in higher prices.

Losing your credit card can be a huge hassle, but laws usually limit losses. In more distressing forms of ID theft, someone —swipes not just your card but also your entire financial persona. Judy McDonough, a 56-year-old occupational psychologist from the north of England, has been living a nightmare since last year, when she found that someone—she suspects a relative—racked up 33,000 pounds sterling of debt over three years, which included two credit cards, three bank loans and 2,300 pounds sterling of catalog orders. She reported the crime six times before taking it to her member of Parliament. Most banks, says McDonough, "just hope you'll go away."

For years, the primary cause of ID theft has been good old-fashioned analog crime. Thieves rifle mailboxes, snatch purses and dive into the garbage for discarded bank statements or credit-card receipts. More recently, we've seen a plague of "phishing"—sending bogus e-mails that look as if they come from legitimate companies, asking us to supply personal information. After the CardSystems heist, phishers, trying to capitalize on the news, sent out e-mails sup-posedly from MasterCard, asking people to update their information. "They played on the fear that consumers had when the announcement was made," says Susan Larson of SurfControl, an Internet-security firm.

Savvy computer users know the requisite defense against a phishing attack: never respond to a request for personal information. This wisdom is part of the standard tool kit of protections against ID theft. Check your credit-card bills with an eagle eye. Request your credit report. Shred your information. This regime makes perfect sense for individuals. But when it comes to companies charged with safeguarding millions, sometimes even billions, of records, what do they do?

They leave it unencrypted on computers, where malicious hackers get hold of it. The DSW Shoe Warehouse is far from the only hacked database owner. According to a U.S. government consent order, BJ's Wholesale Club, a Massachusetts-based firm operating big-box stores and gas stations, not only failed to encrypt, but stored records in violation of bank-security rules, didn't use a firewall to prevent wireless intrusions and protected the information with the easy-to-guess default passwords that came with the system. Result: credit cards ripped off in early 2004 were used to charge millions in goods.

They inadvertently allow employees to sell it. This June, a 24-year-old Indian man named Karan Bahree, who at the time worked for Gurgaon-based online marketing firm Infinity eSearch, allegedly sold information on 1,000 bank accounts to an undercover journalist working for The Sun, a British tabloid, for 2,750 pounds sterling, according to a Sun article. Bahree has since claimed that he was only a middleman and that he did not sell data his employer had collected (he's since been fired, according to a statement by Infinity eSearch). Infinity eSearch has said the company doesn't handle any data for the banks named in the Sun report, and that Bahree didn't have access to confidential data of any kind through his employment with the company, according to press reports. But the case has raised fears of an anti-outsourcing backlash if Indian firms are seen to be careless with the data they handle.

They pack it in boxes and put it in a mail truck. That's what CitiFinancial, a unit of Citigroup, did with the financial secrets of 3.9 million customers last May. The box never arrived at its destination, and now CitiFinancial is telling customers that their identities are at risk.

They leave it on laptops that get stolen. Last March at UC Berkeley someone made away with a computer holding personal information of almost 100,000 grad students and applicants.

They don't monitor what insiders may do with it. In April, more than a dozen people, including employees of an MphasiS call center in Pune, India, were charged with cheating Citibank customers out of $350,000. Citibank had outsourced some of its customer-service operations to MphasiS.

They just plain lose it. Bank of America is still looking for backup tapes with information on 1.2 million government workers, discovered lost in December.

They don't do what they say. CardSystems, a privately held company, processes an es-timated $15 billion in credit-card trans-actions a year (between the merchant and the bank). In direct violation of its agreement with MasterCard and Visa, CardSystems retained 40 million credit-card numbers "for research purposes," as its CEO John Perry initially told the press. These were sucked out of the system by digital invaders. CardSystems' clients admit that protection was lax: "Obviously there were deficiencies and other issues," says Josh Peirez, head of government affairs for MasterCard. Since the break-in, CardSystems has reportedly installed a new "intrusion-prevention product" (hey, thanks).

An elaborate infrastructure of crime has emerged to collect and distribute stolen records. When it comes to attacking databases, malicious hackers either use automated software "bots" to methodically probe the Internet for vulnerable databases or target companies that are likely to harbor honey pots. Most often, they enter systems through preventable security flaws, like guessable passwords (example: "Dave" or the default password that came with the program) or known vulnerabilities in software.

Once records are stolen, they are passed on or sold in fleeting digital dark alleys—chat rooms or instant-messaging sessions where transactions are quickly, stealthily enacted. Sometimes the crooks are sufficiently brazen to post their offerings on Web sites that are sort of fraudster eBays. At one site posted by a member of the Shadowcrew organization (which was shut down by the U.S. government last year), $200 gets 300 credit cards without the security codes printed on the back of the card. If you want card numbers with the code, it will cost you $200 for 50 of them.

After fraudsters buy the purloined numbers, they commonly use them to grab goodies as fast as possible. It's kind of a high-tech form of supermarket sweepstakes, where the crook keeps stealing until the fraud-management software of the credit-card companies kicks in. "The method is smash-and-grab," says Bryan Sartin, VP for in-formation-security firm Cybertrust. "The turnaround time is amazing."

As bad as the recent exposures have been, they may well wind up helping spur some very long-needed reform. Though identity theft is a devilishly difficult crime to combat, the key to fighting these huge cyber-raids is making the databases that hold private records more secure. Indian outsourcing firms have been quick to beef up internal security, and local police departments—like the one in Pune, which solved the Citibank case—have been starting cybercrime units. The best solution would make the companies that collect the data liable for their failings. The U.S. Congress may slap fines on companies that lose records. Anything that increases the cost of losing information to the company, as opposed to the consumer, would give firms an incentive to protect consumer secrets.

Each time we hear of another huge data breach, the pressure increases to tighten up security and fight the ID crooks. But change, if it comes, will come too late for Daniel Bulley, who's spent months trying to distance himself from a home he never owned, a job he never held and a portfolio of credit cards and accounts he never opened. Bulley is angry—at the crooks, at the cops (no one would investigate his case) and at the corporations that let his information fall into evil hands. He's especially steamed at the billion-dollar industry that has emerged to sell people protection against data theft—run by parts of the same industry that fails to protect the information in the first place. Corporations, says Bulley, need to be tighter with the data they hold: "Why should we pay them to do their job right?"

Reported by William Lee Adams, Holly Bailey, Jennifer Barrett, Juliet Chung, Temma Ehrenfeld, Charles Gasparino, Andrew Horesh, Nicole Joseph, Susannah Meadows, Ben Whitford, Kathryn Williams, Jason Overdorf and Mary Acoymo
© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.

© 2005


'the death of reform'

In India these days, don't believe everything you read.
By Jason Overdorf
Newsweek International

Sept. 5, 2005 issue - Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's yearlong reign has been a balancing act, as he endeavors to live up to his reputation as the father of India's economic reforms without alienating the left-wing parties that his coalition government needs to survive. But lately, as his Congress party wrangles with the communists, the balance has been tipping. One by one, bold reforms are getting killed or shelved. These days Singh talks of the need for politicians to compromise in order to survive in office.

The question is whether Singh has fallen from compromise to capitulation on reform, as the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party claims. Labor, pension and banking reforms are going nowhere. A new law creating special economic zones for foreign investors was so watered down by the left, it won't have much impact. The commission set up to do away with monopolies and restrictive trade practices is moribund. Last week Finance Minister Shri P. Chidambaram, widely seen as Singh's right-hand man in the reform cause, announced that the government was scrapping plans to sell its stakes in 13 state companies, including an oil refiner, an aluminum maker and a shipping firm. This latest move "is another nail in the coffin of reform," says Arun Shourie, BJP Disinvestment minister in the previous coalition government.

Certainly the story dominating headlines in India is the Death of Reform. But despite all the evidence, the declaration may be premature. The prognosis of most investors is much more optimistic: the Bombay Stock Exchange showed no reaction to Chidambaram's announcement on privatization. The following day the benchmark Sensex index closed at a record high on buying by foreign funds. Investors had expected the shelving of privatization, which was foreshadowed in a common platform released by the ruling coalition partners last year. Meanwhile, the government has achieved progress on other fronts, lifting a rule that limited the ability of foreign joint-venture partners to expand inside India, as well as a cap on foreign direct investment in telecommunications. "Arun Shourie is just being a politician," says Saumitra Chaudhuri, an economic adviser at Indian credit-rating agency ICRA Ltd. "Privatization is not all there is to reforms."

This is about the politics, not economics. Chidambaram's announcement came shortly after every major Indian news outlet carried graphic photographs of striking Honda workers being beaten by police in Gurgaon, Haryanaone of the hotbeds of outsourcing and foreign investment. It also comes a few months before state elections in Bihar, as well as Kerala and West Bengal, where communists have dominated the polls. When the elections are done, many analysts say, the reform effort will resume. "This is only a minor hiccup," says S. A. Chari, executive director of the credit-rating agency Onicra Ltd. "Everybody is seeing the results of the reforms. Even in places like Calcutta [in West Bengal] you can see things changing very dramatically."

The danger, however, is that by positioning itself for these state elections, Congress could be creating expectations that will be hard to live down. In southern states like West Bengal, the communists are so well entrenched that they can throw open the door to foreign investors even as they spout Marxist slogans on the national stage, in order to solidify their one base in the north: trade unions at state-owned companies. Meanwhile, Congress must make good on populist election promises to gain ground in the south if it is to restore itself as a dominant national party.

That explains why, rather than pushing free-market reform, Congress party legislators recently passed a bill that guarantees every rural household in India at least 100 days of paid employment each year. Though they are still bullish now, the markets eagerly expect Congress to lift the many barriers to foreign direct investment: India attracts less than 1 percent of global FDI, while China attracts 10 percent. "It's a generous interpretation to say that reforms are on hold for elections," says Chaudhuri. "If you wait for elections to be over, thinking you will have a little more freedom, then those political positions become written in stone." And that stone could mark the real death of reform.
© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.

Monday, August 29, 2005

snap judgment: books

(From Newsweek International August 29, 2005 issue)

The Whale Caller by Zakes Mda
Mda's fifth novel tells the story of the growing love between the whale caller, an old man whose kelp horn calls the migrating whales that bring tourists to South Africa's Western Cape, and Saluni, an aging woman who cadges drinks at the town taverns. An elusive allegory, it begins like an optimistic counterpoint to J. M. Coetzee's "Life & Times of Michael K." Mda's unemployed and uneducated heroes carve out a life of startling, almost magical beauty. But this land cannot break free of tragedy, whether the cause be Coetzee's torturers or Mda's tourists, politicians and hacks. It's a place where mercy comes to a beached whale (which may represent the nation) as 500 kilograms of dynamite.
—Jason Overdorf

Kiss & Tango: Looking for Love in Buenos Aires by Marina Palmer
In this smoldering new memoir, Palmer describes the tango as "the magic trick that transforms two bodies into one." She thoroughly explores the tango and sex connection, giving readers a brutally honest and often hilarious account of the three years she danced tango in the smoky milonga halls of Buenos Aires, and the long line of Latin lotharios she met along the way. Hollywood, take note: this love story could steam up the big screen.
—Brian Byrnes

Unfeeling by Ian Holding
This intense book is disturbing and gripping precisely because it is based largely on the current plight of white farmers in Zimbabwe. Davey Baker and his parents live on a large farm that has been passed down through the generations and that becomes a scene of violence and death. The book moves back and forth with agile precision from the events leading up to the parents' brutal murder to the aftermath of the tragedy that Davey must learn to accept. "Unfeeling" is one of the season's best books.
—Ginanne Brownell
© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

maybe we shouldn't discount rushdie's latest after all...

Writing in The Atlantic, Christopher Hitchens -- whom I've rarely known to be flat out wrong about a book -- vindicates Salman's latest after all the naysaying. Because many readers will not be able to access the review on the Atlantic web site, I've reproduced some of the more relevant paragraphs below.

"After various grueling excursions [Rushdie] here wheels back to the sacred and profane territory that made him celebrated before he became notorious: the still contested territory of Midnight's Children and Shame," writes Hitchens.
"Tragedy, both in the Attic sense of the fatal flaw and in the Hegelian sense of a conflict of rights, is to be the master theme. At one point Rushdie gives what is in effect a short modern history of the Kashmiri conflict. He does so by telling the story 'straight,' as it were, but interleaving Max Ophuls, as the American ambassador to New Delhi, into the factual record. It is breathtakingly well done, like a pentimento beneath the figures of John Kenneth Galbraith and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and it helps to illustrate the degeneration of Kashmiri life and Kashmiri ethics.
"This is a highly serious novel, on an extremely serious subject, by a deeply serious man. It is not necessary to assimilate all the details of the conflict in Kashmir in order to read it. Nor is it necessary to favor one or another solution, though we get a hint from the epigraph page—Mercutio's 'plague on both their houses,' from Romeo and Juliet—of Rushdie's opinion of Indian and Pakistani policy. Rather than seek for anything as trite as a 'message,' I should guess that Rushdie is telling us, No more Macondos. No more Shangri-las, if it comes to that. Gone is the time when anywhere was exotic or magical or mythical, or even remote. Shalimar's clown mask has been dropped, and his acrobatics have become a form of escape artistry by which he transports himself into 'our' world. As he himself says in closing his ominous message of Himalayan telepathy, 'I'll be there soon enough.'"

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

India's Supreme Court Rejects Quotas for Lower-Caste Students at Private Colleges

By Shailaja Neelakantan/NEW DELHI

(From the Chronicle of Higher Education, Issue cover-dated August 16, 2005)

In a judgment that could limit access to professional education, India's Supreme Court ruled last week that colleges that do not receive government aid are not required to use state admission quotas for students from minority groups and lower castes.

The ruling also held that unaided private colleges have complete autonomy to admit students of their choice in medicine, engineering, and other professional fields.

Admission quotas are popular in India, where the Constitution guarantees that nearly a quarter of all government jobs and student places in higher education are reserved for members of indigenous tribal groups or lower castes. Many other people qualify for quotas based on their religion or ethnicity, a disability, or some other characteristic (The Chronicle, February 13, 2003).

Last week's decision has been severely criticized by several lower-caste groups. Government-supported medical and engineering colleges will be able to maintain quotas for lower castes, but those institutions do not have the capacity to meet the demand for professional courses. Private colleges, which charge much higher fees, fill that gap, but they are unaffordable for the disadvantaged, including the lower castes.

The court's ruling will be effective beginning in the 2006-7 academic year.
Admissions made for 2005-6 under court orders and directions of state committees will not be affected.

The ruling stressed that although every institution is free to devise its own fee structure, fees could be regulated to prevent profiteering.

And while unaided institutions can set their own admissions standards, the criteria they use must be fair, transparent, nonexploitative, and based on merit, the judgment said. It also recommended a common entrance examination to cut costs and to make it easier for students who would otherwise have to take several tests.

The court also allowed private colleges to set aside 15 percent of their seats for expatriate Indian students, but those students must pay higher fees than those paid by students who live in India. The court said the expatriate students' fees should be used as aid for needier students.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

gk ii renaissance?

A few posts back, I called for a renaissance of the GK2 M block market, which used to be Delhi's bar center and has not improved to match the city's ever-better bar scene over the past three years. Well, here's some (dubious) good news: the Odd Bin, with its hideous decor and torture-rack furniture, has finally been redone as a place called Soul Punjab (or Punjab Soul or something). It's a straight restaurant format and not the hippest hangout, but I predict this place is going to be a smash hit, vying with Flames, across the market. Soul Punjab/Punjab Soul offers a six or seven page menu of all the Punjabi favorites at very low prices for South Delhi liquor vends, and the planners saw fit to add a dozen varieties of tawa/tandoori paranthas to compete with the kitschy Not Just Paranthas across the way--they're damn good and you don't have to put up with all the little kids running around and screaming. The best news: beers are just Rs. 75 or 80! (Don't get me started on the ultimate combination of paranthas and beer--or why Delhi sweet shops should at least serve Kingfisher--I'm trying to keep these posts under 500 words).

Drawbacks: on its first Friday night, the place looked primed to attract Delhi's usual mustachioed marauders--ladies, be sure to come with glowering escorts.

south indian answer in delhi

Nandini, in Saket opposite the mall coming up on Press Enclave Road, has staked its claim to be the best South Indian restaurant in Delhi. It offers the usual thali and tiffin combo, but what sets it apart from the crowd is that the restaurant also offers a half-dozen or so special Southie curries. We tried two okra-based curries, one in tomato, the other in curd, as well as an eggplant and tomato curry. All three were amazing. The appams--unusual for Delhi's Southie joints--were another boon. Apart from Andhra Bhavan, this place gets my vote for Delhi's go-to South Indian restaurant. (Forget Sagar's unfermented dosas, people!)

Thursday, August 04, 2005

unintentional comedy

The RSS--which has seesawed over whether Indian women are asking for it with their low-rise jeans and spaghetti straps or this whole rape thing is the fault of a bunch of twisted, sexually insecure and power-hungry bastards--came out with some strong statements on how society should deal with rape in a recent issue of the Organiser. Saying that dress codes and increased policing won't help, it calls for stiff punishments for offenders, adding that "the punishment should be eye for eye, tooth for tooth." The editorial did not venture any suggestions as to who would take on the onerous task of buggering the convicted rapists, but no doubt there are few patriotic acts beyond the valor of knickerwalla "volunteers."

dumb plan

Operation Meth Merchant, an ongoing effort to catch store clerks who "knowingly" sell the ordinary household materials needed to make methamphetamine, may be the stupidest drug interdiction program yet. This week law enforcement officials ran a sting on 49 convenience stores, according to the New York Times , catching 44 Indian immigrants in the act of selling stuff like charcoal and cold medicine. The undercover agents apparently hinted that they were buying the stuff to make meth with phrases like, "I need this stuff to finish up a cook," slang that the Times reports many of the arrested immigrants weren't able to understand.

Even if we ignore the institutional racism that is implicit in this scheme, it still has to rank among the most moronic policing efforts of recent years. Essentially, the plan is based around an "undercover" operation in which cops go into stores and say "I'm buying this Sudafed so that I can make methampetamine." Topping it off, they use coded language that Indian immigrants (and squares like me) will never understand, virtually guaranteeing that those who are hip to the meth scene will get curious about drugrunners that blab their business to strangers, while innocent folks will blithely ring up their purchase. That's dumb. But here's a news flash that proves it's even dumber: meth makers might well go to a grocery store and buy charcoal, then head to Seven-Eleven and buy Sudafed, then to the pet store for kitty litter. How's a clerk supposed to be tipped off that this is a drug maker--unless the guy's an undercover cop and tells him flat out that he's buying the stuff to make drugs?

India's Prime Minister Sharply Criticizes Universities as Lagging Behind

By Shailaja Neelakantan/NEW DELHI

India's prime minister, Manmohan Singh, said on Tuesday that the country's universities were falling behind their peers elsewhere in the world in terms of both personnel and infrastructure.
"There is a need to make India's institutions of high education and research world-class," said Mr. Singh, who was speaking at the first meeting of a Knowledge Commission that was created to advise him on promoting excellence in the education system.

Mr. Singh's surprisingly critical comments were a harsh wake-up call for India's higher-education system. Even though India has 5.3 million unemployed university graduates, growing sectors of the economy -- such as the news media, entertainment, fashion, advertising, investment banking, and tourism -- face personnel shortages (The Chronicle, June 3).
Academics and economists blame the problem on the country's antiquated higher-education system, which they say has failed to keep up with the needs of the economy. The country's public universities serve 9.3 million students, or about 7 percent of India's population of 18- to 24-year-olds.

The central government has said it wants to increase the college-going rate to 10 percent by 2007, which would mean four million more students in the university system and even more graduates looking for work.

Exacerbating the problem of declining quality, Mr. Singh said, are tight government budgets whose effects are being neutralized only in part by the private sector. "Together," said Mr. Singh, "the public and private sectors are not able to cope with the demand for higher and professional education."

The prime minister said he would like the commission to propose ways to attain excellence in research and teaching, especially in mathematics, science, and technology.

The seven-member commission, which includes academics, economists, industrialists, and technologists, is scheduled to present a plan by October and to finish its work by October 2008.

Copyright © 2005 by The Chronicle of Higher Education