Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Dragon chokes Google

Good and evil in the Google Age
From The Statesman
Cyber Age
ND Batra

Today you can google-froogle anything from sushi kits to death kits, and so easily that Internet pioneers might be wondering, what have we wrought? Of course, inventors cannot control whether people would mess up with their inventions or use them to enhance the quality of life. Nor do they know what the government would do with their inventions.

In 1973, when two young computer scientists, Vinton G Cerf and Robert E Kahn, came up with the revolutionary idea of making different isolated computers talk to each other through a common language, they did not anticipate the Internet to become such a driving force for good — and evil — in our lives. E-trading, e-pornography, e-surveillance, e-death, and who knows what else is in store for us.

Welcome to the digital age, which makes networking and sharing inevitable. For example, you might wonder how a 26-year-old man Gerald Krein from Klamath Falls, Oregon, narrowly failed in enticing 32 women in chat rooms to commit a mass suicide on Valentine’s Day a year ago.“

The common theme is that these were women who were vulnerable, who were depressed. He invited them to engage in certain sexual acts with him-and they were to hang themselves naked from a beam in his house,” Klamath County sheriff Tim Evinger told the media. Had Krein succeeded, he might have used his Webcam to netcast the event to the world-32 women hanging naked by a roof beam.

Sexual asphyxiation is a most extreme form of the sexual act. In a land of extremes, of death by choice, it would have probably created a stir; and then been shrugged off as a bizarre event after the media had milked it dry for ratings.
(By the way, Oregon is the first state where the physician-assisted suicide solution for terminal patients has recently received the US Supreme Court approval.)

A Canadian woman, probably a prospect for after life, who saw the message entitled Suicide Ideology in a chatroom and learned to her horror that another chatroom woman intended to kill not only herself but her two children also, promptly informed the police.

Depressed women have been known to kill their children. At least 31 women had agreed to participate in the mass suicide, Krein told the police investigators upon his arrest. Chatroom records showed that Krein had been networking with women to solicit suicide since 2000.

Getting out of deep depression through extreme sex, consummated finally with collective suicide by hanging, if that’s a probable explanation, then one might also understand why some people blow themselves up in their zealous commitment to jihad, which without networking and sharing wouldn’t be so blindingly enticing.

Dying alone is terrible. Dying becomes easier when people die together. The Internet provides togetherness to faceless strangers.

Group suicide of strangers, mostly young people, who meet on the Internet, has not been an infrequent occurrence in Japan, a nation where hara-kiri has been an ancient ritual, a Samurai tradition.

In Japanese chat rooms, bulletin boards, and suicide-related websites, people come together to share their ideas about not how best to escape from their suicidal fantasies but how to execute them; for example, sealing themselves in a coal-burning room and dying of carbon monoxide poisoning; in cars parked in remote mountain places; overdosing on camera; jumping together from high-rise buildings.

Though some suicide pacts succeed, others end up in terrible injuries and life-long miseries.Yukio Saito, a Methodist minister, who founded, and oversees, a suicide hotline, Phone of Life, made a very insightful remark to Reuters: “The idea of dying together is somehow reassuring. Dying alone is lonely and takes more courage. The way these suicides are carried out is sensational for the media, and very suggestive for people who may be thinking of taking their lives.”

Think of Jim Jones of the People’s Temple, the cult leader who led 913 followers to a mass suicide death pact in 1978 in Jonestown, Guyana. Had Rev Jones had a website, let us say, Your Guide to Death is Beautiful, with a seductive young woman giving step by step instructions and the precise time from here to thereafter, he might have attracted millions of people to an unheard of mass suicide.

You could imagine what a charismatic jihadi leader might do online when he wraps up mass suicide bombings with a noble religious cause.No wonder the US justice department has asked a federal judge to force Google to let the government peep into millions of private searches the American people have been doing using its search engine.

Google says no, but that is laughable. Google bent its knees before the Chinese government, where profits trump morality, so how long would it resist the US justice department especially when other cyber age giants, MSN, Yahoo and AOL, for example, see no evil in compliance?

National security, protecting children from pornography, and my goodness, there are a host of other reasons for the government to see where people have been going in cyberspace, in spite of the fact that the Bill of Rights says loud and clear, it is none of your business, Uncle Sam.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Would Judge Alito think for himself?

Supreme Court mirrors American values
Cyber Age: ND Batra
From The Statesman

US Supreme Court mirrors America’s conflicting values “to cultivate a set of leaders with legitimacy in the eyes of citizenry, it is necessary that the path to leadership be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity”. Thus spoke the US Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor regarding the admission policy of the University of Michigan a few years ago.

Justice O’Connor, who occupied a middle-of-the road open-minded position on the US Supreme Court, is retiring. Samuel Alito, a federal appeal court judge, has gone through the Senate Judiciary Committee’s grilling whether he is “the right person” to serve on the Supreme Court, whose decisions in the long run shape American society.

Like India, the USA is an imperfect and messy democracy and the goal of inclusiveness has been a struggle for every generation. Time and time again, the US Supreme Court has played a critical role in bringing the American people back to the basics, the vision of the founding fathers of an inclusive society.

The Supreme Court is not only the ultimate authority in the interpretation of the Constitution. It is regarded as the supreme moral authority in the USA. The only way to overrule the Supreme Court is to amend the Constitution, which is a long, arduous and daunting process.

When the Supreme Court speaks, the question of what is right and what is wrong is settled until the next time when another crisis brings the nine justices together to ponder over and argue once again what the Constitution means, after all.

Its decisions are seldom unanimous and the voice of dissenting justices is never lost. Even a lone dissenting opinion might become the voice of the court majority in another time when the mode of consciousness of society changes.

That’s why there is so much partisan political struggle as to who gets appointed to the Supreme Court.

By and large the court is a reactive institution. It listens and questions. But when it does speak, everyone listens. That’s how it holds American society together whenever it seems to be coming apart, for example, in the 2000 Bush-Gore presidential election.

On 23 June, 2003, for example, the Supreme Court spoke about the affirmative action policy of the University of Michigan and its decision has impacted every private and public institution as well as businesses in their recruitment practices.

One of the decisions involved the University of Michigan Law School that had been using a holistic method of admission in which race was included as one of the factors.
The court upheld the practice thus affirming the 1978 (Bakke case) decision that allowed race to be considered a “plus” factor for admission, emphasising that diversity enriches educational environment.

The court was, however, troubled with the University of Michigan’s College of Literature, Science and the Arts that used a point system that automatically granted 20 points to a minority student (Blacks, Hispanics or Native Americans) toward a minimum of 100 (on a scale of 150) required for admission.

The plaintiffs had complained of reverse discrimination that disqualified otherwise qualified white students. In this case, a 6-3 majority led by the late Chief Justice Rhenquest called the numerical system not good enough to enrich diversity.

An individualised admission programme would consider the whole person, including race as a factor, among others. In the Law School case, Justice O’Connor wrote for the 5-4 majority: “Effective participation by members of all racial and ethnic groups in the civil life of our nation is essential if the dream of one nation, indivisible, is to be realised…. Access to legal education (and thus the legal profession) must be inclusive of talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity so that all members of our heterogeneous society may participate in the educational instructions that provide the training and education necessary to succeed in America.“

Sometimes I hear similar voices coming from the Indian Supreme Court also. Great democracies echo each other. Since the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Americans have been given a legal recourse to fight against discrimination based on race, colour, religion, sex or national origin.

It has opened many doors for minorities to advance in fields that were shut on them.The US military wouldn’t be what it is today without affirmative action. It is the biggest repository of the American Dream and minorities are drawn to it with the hope that service to the nation would open up opportunities for them. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, a retired General, exemplified what a person could achieve once affirmative action opened the door.

American businesses too have embraced diversity as something good for them to succeed in the multi-cultural global environment.

The Supreme Court heard myriad briefs filed in support of the University of Michigan and its decision embodies their collective voice: Diversity is a compelling national interest. So is the right to reproductive freedom, as a Democrat would put it. But a conservative Republican would ask, what about the right to life and liberty of a child in the womb?

In 1973, the Supreme Court ruled in the Roe vs Wade case that women have the right to abortion, a precedent that has stood the test of time. What would Judge Alito do if the Supreme Court were to face the question again? The Judiciary Committee couldn’t figure it out in spite of all the stabs inflicted on him.

Unlike the race question, the abortion question is not finally settled, at least not in the opinion of conservatives who believe that a conservative majority on the Supreme Court would overturn Roe vs Wade abortion decision.

But the most intriguing thing about a Supreme Court Justice is that once confirmed, he or she begins to listen to his or her own inner voice as reflected in the Constitution rather than to the President who appointed him or her; much as Thomas Becket did by embracing the will of God as soon as he was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury by his friend and patron King Henry II (1133-1189), who wanted him to do his bidding rather than listen to God.

“Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” Henry cried. The King’s goons murdered Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in December 1170. You can’t do that to US Supreme Court Justices. They are there for life. And they don’t retire or die that quickly.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

It pays to kowtow in China

Murdoch stooped to conquor in China, as did Microsoft, Google and others. World is safe for freedom. But who needs freedom if China can do without it?

Our man in India

India has become a haven for free-wheeling spies.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Taming corporate executives

Cyber age
Corporate America’s rotten apples
From The Statesman

Wal-Mart is in the news again. Its former vice-chairman Thomas Coughlin would plead guilty for misappropriating “$500,000 from Wal-Mart through fraudulent re-imbursements and improper use of gift cards,” according to The Wall Street Journal.

What goes through the thick skull of these otherwise brilliant people that they begin to think of themselves as invincible once they sit on the top floor is beyond my comprehension. Coughlin, who earned millions in compensation from the penny-pinching global retailer, was caught misusing gift cards amounting to a paltry sum of $ 5,100, the report said.

Why do powerful people throw away their reputation for a handful of silver or blonde hair? By the end of the month, the former chairman of the defunct global energy giant Enron would face trial for killing the goose he thought was laying golden eggs.

The functioning of corporate America is based on authoritarianism, not on internal checks and balances. In contrast, the US political system is based on a healthy distrust of people in power. The tripartite system of government of co-equals in power, the White House, Congress and the Judiciary, and other built-in checks and balances along with a free Press have kept politicians from abusing power by exposing them to public ridicule, threatening to impeach them or put them in jail.

Think of Presidents, state governors and legislators who have been disgraced because of their abuse of power. The notorious lobbyists Jack Abramoff has agreed to name names and testify against members of Congress whom he bribed to buy favours for his business clients. Watch the unfolding American drama of political corruption. The founding fathers did not leave the functioning of the political system to the innate goodness of the people seeking power. Nor did they leave the development of good political behaviour to any kind of special education or training in ethics course work in schools or colleges; or the culture of the sports arena, for that matter.

The temptation of power trumps everything else, so transparency and accountability are indispensable to a self-renewing democracy.That unfortunately is not the case with Wall Street where most Americans are vested through their pensions and other retirement accounts. Today we live in a world where corporate power overshadows most of our activities.

The classic Marxist-Leninist class struggle, workers versus capitalists, has been replaced by public interest civic groups versus corporate global. As someone said: The beat goes on.

Corporate leaders rise to power on the promise of maximising profit, market value and economic health of their companies. Shareholders are selfish and passive. Boards of directors are morally passive; their interest is limited to increasing shareholders’ value. They worship executives who maximise their investments.

So long as an executive performs well and exceeds the expectations of Wall Street, he could get away with some excesses.Last July, former chief executive Bernard Ebbers of WorldCom (now MCI, Inc), whose $11-billion fraud dumped the telecommunications company into bankruptcy was sentenced to serve 25 years in prison.

The former financial chief officer of the company, Scott Sullivan, who pleaded guilty and testified against his former boss, told the jury that he had warned Ebbers that accounting adjustments, creative accounting or cooking books, whatever you call it, could not be justified. Ebbers told him nevertheless that the company had to “hit the numbers”, and meet the financial and revenue targets. Ebbers of course blamed his underlings for the fraud, said to be the largest in US history.

At its peak in 1999, WoldCom had a market capitalisation of $180 billion, and Ebbers was a toast of Wall Street. That was the problem: a reputation built on sand.When WorldCom real earnings could not meet the forecast, Ebbers asked the account department to “adjust the numbers”. Corporate accounting departments are notorious for “slouching towards Gomorrah”.

Wall Street analysts and financial journalists who out of fear or favour work as paid employees of big corporations rather than watchdogs of public interests went along with the web of lies woven by the WorldCom team until the whole edifice began to collapse in 2000; and the share price sank to $15 from a high of $65. Ebbers’ personal fortune, too, was linked with WorldCom’s market share price and to keep it high, he raised analysts’ expectations.

But Wall Street is a hard and cruel taskmaster. One cannot get away with lies for too long, but sometimes the price a company and eventually the public pay is too high; and the damage to the reputation is irreparable. But what can be done? Can we make corporate bosses honest? Can we instil ethics into their souls?

Robert J Schiller, a Yale professor and author of Irrational Exuberance, faults the education that US business schools impart to budding corporate executives. Writing in the New York Times, he said that instead of emphasising ethics and liberal arts, “Modern business education often encourages excessive respect for anything that can be considered a result of the free market.” Teach them ethics, he says.

No, that’s not enough. Let them write case histories of former CEOs who have been disgraced and are serving prison terms. Better still; give the business school graduates experiential knowledge by putting them into jail with common criminals.
Let them see whether greed is good.

Tuesday, January 3, 2006

Credit card bliss

cyber age: ND Batra

Credit card conundrum
From The Statesman

During the holiday weeks, millions of American consumers used credit cards to charge their gifts. Now that the bills have begun to pour in, many of them won’t know how to pay them. In spite of the recent legislation in the USA that makes personal bankruptcy rather more difficult, more than a million people would end up as bankrupt.

But never mind; they would do it again. Bankruptcy is no shame in the USA. It is a method of reorganising your life and business. But let’s not blame the holiday season for overspending because Americans love to use the card to make all kinds of payments: medical bills, groceries at the supermarket, college tuition bills; and even online porn. In fact, consumers are rewarded for using their charge cards.

Many card companies offer cash back, frequent flyer miles, or some other grizzly temptation every time the customer uses the card. Enter any major chain store, especially during a holiday season, a beautiful girl greets you: “If you open the credit card account now, you will get 10 per cent discount on all your sales today.” With very little background check, instant credit is issued to the customer and the spending spree begins.

Fortunately, the economy is very healthy; nonetheless, the total household debt of $1.7 trillion (2004) is a staggering sum. Without savings, how can a family balance its budget in tough times, except through more borrowing with the credit card? An average American family has several credit cards and borrowing from one to pay the other is a common practice among many delinquent debtors, until they reach the bankruptcy court.

Bankers do not feel that credit card delinquencies pose a serious threat to the American banking system because most card customers are good, so good that their business covers up not only the losses due to bankruptcies but also due to frauds.

A few years ago, there was a message on my office answering machine. An urgent female voice said: “This is not another sales pitch, but I urge you to call me back because twice last month someone charged your card in California.”

My credit card company, of which I’m a charter member (no big deal except that I don’t pay the annual fee), keeps an electronic eye on my purchasing pattern, and probably the computer shouted ‘foul’: Man lives in the East, charges card on the West Coast, how come? The Visa lady assured me that I won’t be liable for the fraud but they do want to catch the thief. I did spend my vacations in California the summer before with my family and left my electronic footprints wherever I went and someone thought it was a good time to rob me.

In any case, the cardholder liability is limited, but it is a terrible hassle to face inquiries. Every year, thousands of people become victims of card frauds. There have been several media reports, including an investigative report from the CBS “60 Minutes”, whipping the Nigerians for most of the credit card frauds in the USA.

The Nigerians or the Russians may be slick operators, but credit card thieves come in all colours and nationalities and they have the same modus operandi: access a computer terminal linked to national credit data banks maintained by one of the three nationwide credit bureaus. Once logged on, the crook can get a person’s social security, credit status, and address, and with his stolen ID he can live the other person’s life.

It seems that credit card companies are not much scared of frauds because they simply write them off as business losses or expenses, or they pass them on to their customers in the form of higher finance charges. The federal law limits to $50 the cardholder’s liability for unauthorised use.

So the usurer, the debtor and the crook, all are doing good business, but it is a continuous challenge to the American ingenuity that some foreign or homegrown variety of card thieves should outsmart one of the best systems in the world.

But imagine what would happen to India if credit cards were issued as generously (or irresponsibly) as they are done in the USA. Most Indians would be suddenly thrown into the consumer mainstream, with unforeseen consequences for the economy. Would it create an economic miracle or bubble bust? The American miracle depends on spending, not on savings. Would the American model work for India?

I am a trifle confused. I don’t know what Dante, the immortal creator of the Divine Comedy, was thinking when he placed the usurers in one of the hottest circles in Hell.Charles Lamb, the British essayist, too said in a letter: “All bankrupts, of whatever denominations, civil or religious, ought to be hanged.” The usurer and the bankrupt are doing well in America. So are credit-card crooks and con artists. So shall they flourish in India, as growing prosperity feeds the middle class hunger for consumer goods.