14 July 2021

It's 2 A.M. and I can't, for now, get back to sleep. The warm weather can serve as an excuse. So I have made myself a mug of tea and am listening to the crickets sing their night song.

The Serpent

Earlier, we watched the last two episodes of the BBC- Netflix mini-series on the life of Charles Sobhraj, "The Serpent". I was not previously aware of him. At the time that hippies were making their way across Iran to India, Thailand and beyond, he was living as a criminal, engaging in scams, robberies and frauds. He would drug and poison lonely backpackers and foreign couples, sometimes drowning them in the ocean, or burning them alive. It's thought that around twenty may have suffered this fate. After killing them he would use their passports to move between countries. A charming man, literally - as charm seems to have been the secret of his success. The TV series is fictionalized, because the real story was even wilder and too difficult to wrap tidily into a mini-series. According to Wikipedia, while serving out his sentence in an Indian jail:

"Sobhraj's systematic bribery of prison guards at Tihar reached outrageous levels. He led a life of luxury inside the jail, with television and gourmet food, having befriended both guards and prisoners. He gave interviews to Western authors and journalists, such as Oz magazine's Richard Neville in 1977 and Alan Dawson in 1984.

He's still alive and serving a long sentence in Nepal.

While watching the series, I thought of Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts, of Papillon by Henri Charrière, and of Paul Bowles's books about Morocco. I also remembered my own journeys to the east at about the same time as of Sobhraj. I met young people who could easily have been characters in the series, in Istanbul, Teheran, Kabul and Delhi.

A scam from the '70s

While in Delhi I was nearly scammed in a tale involving travellers cheques. My Canadian roommate in Pahar Ganj had met a man who said that he could obtain for him a fantastic rate on travellers cheques. He'd arranged to meet the guy at a cafe to discuss the matter, and invited me to come along. We took an auto-rickshaw to the appointed place, where we met a middle-aged Indian who described the illegal deal to my roommate. While there, a young American came over and told us that he too had made a lot of money in this deal, and recommended it to us. We later realised that this American must have been an accomplice.

A time was set for the next day, the Canadian met the Indian guy and went with him in a taxi. At a certain point, the Indian guy told him to give him the double-signed cheques and wait in the taxi, while he took them up to his uncle in a nearby building. Of course, that was the last the Canadian saw of the man or his travellers cheques. He came back to the hotel room highly distraught. He had lost all his money, on top of which, he was worried that the authorities might be after him for illegally handing over travellers cheques. He immediately packed all his things and was going to try to get back to Europe overland, with $19 in his pocket.

The reason I myself did not fall for the scam is that I had practically no money. Going to India had been a last-minute whim. I'd decided while in Greece. When I reached Teheran, I had ordered funds to be delivered to me in Delhi via American Express. It was supposed to be waiting for me on arrival. However, nothing came through. I would go to the AmEx building every day to inquire, while meanwhile my financial situation grew ever more precarious.

That money never did reach me in Delhi. Instead, I had to ask my father to have another sum sent to me, this time to Thomas Cooks. That amount arrived duly, after two or three days. The other funds were returned much later, when I was no longer in India. Afterwards I learned that this was a common ploy. Banks in India would receive the money sent to foreign travellers, but hang onto it - I suppose foreign currency must have been scarce at the time. Many people fell afoul of the system during that period.

Today's links

India's billionaires Ambani and Adani got richer while coronavirus pushed millions into poverty CNN

An alarming 90 per cent of respondents ... reported that households had suffered a reduction in food intake as a result of the lockdown," the researchers wrote in a May report examining the impact of one year of Covid in India. "Even more worryingly, 20 per cent reported that food intake had not improved even six months after the lockdown.

Now, as India braces for a potential third wave of Covid-19, researchers hope the government can introduce some bold measures to cushion the impact on the world's weakest.

Twitter is a mess in India. Here's how it got there - [CNN]](https://edition.cnn.com/2021/07/09/tech/twitter-india-strategy-intl-hnk/index.html)

2 February, 2021


When my kids were teenagers, I used to hate their House music, and now, weirdly I've started to like it myself. I've hardly seen a dance floor, but like to put it on while working. Listening a lot lately to Cafe de Anatolia, and Nora En Pure right now, in a piece recorded in Gstaad. My discovery engine is YouTube, but I think it's wasteful to stream, so I download it instead with Youtube-dl. I was till now downloading also the video and then extracting it, but now I've discovered how to download just the audio.


I bought my earphones about five years ago in an airport in Delhi or Mumbai. They're the simple in-ear kind with a black plastic wire, but they've been really good. It's easy to lose earphones, but I tend to look after my stuff. I also find that once something has been with me a while it tends to stick to me, and gets harder to lose. So the other day I had the earphones in my pocket on my afternoon walk. It was a particularly wild walk, as I didn't keep to the paths but scrambled down the face of the hillside, jumping over rocks and wading through thick grass. When I got home, I found the earphones were no longer in my pocket. I don't give up so easily, and the same evening I went out with my phone light and retraced at least the more civilized part of the way I had taken. No luck. The following afternoon I went out again and tried to approximate the route I'd taken down the hillside; which was impossible, but some of it I got right. After about 20 minutes, I saw them; my earphones were lying there on a rock.

I wasn't so surprised really. It's at least the second time I've found those earphones somewhere outside. The other time was on a park bench. I happened to re-visit the same bench without actually looking for them, a day or two later.

The Expanse

The Expanse is one of the few TV series I have stuck through. I didn't read the James Cory books - unlike one of my sons, who listened to all of them on audio - but I like the cast and the storyline. Unfortunately, I can never remember all the ins and outs of the plot, so I get a bit lost some times. Now it's at Season 5, and probably remains one of the best Sci-Fi series.

Muhammad Bakri interview

Last week I helped with setting up and then publishing the interview we did with the filmmaker Muhammad Bakri. As mentioned elsewhere in this blog, he just lost a suit that was brought against him by a soldier when he was making the film "Jenin, Jenin", back in 2002, just after the massacre/battle. He has been ordered to pay something like $80,000. Two earlier court cases had failed. In this one the plaintiff won because for a period of 4 seconds, he had been caught on film while in the refugee camp, so could claim that the charges of massacre brought by the interviewees damaged his personal reputation. Rubbish, of course. Bakri has been hounded, persecuted and denied work in Israel since making the film - almost 20 years ago. He views himself more as an actor than as a film maker. But he does not regret making the film. As he says, if it managed to get so many people riled up, and they are still going after him all this time, maybe the film "has something". Some of the viewers of the Zoom interview asked him if he would accept donations to help cover his losses; but he refused outright. He says he will take full responsibility. If people want to donate money, let them give it to those who were maimed or disabled after what happened there in Jenin, for example. Great guy. I see there's:

Jenin Jenin: Livechat with Mohammad Bakri and Adam Bakri
by bildamilda on YouTube
with him in English, recorded a couple of weeks ago.

Downfall of a psychologist

My partner was shocked to hear in the evening news that a psychologist she knows has been accused of multiple instances of sexual exploitation and rape. He's now in jail. He was also a yoga teacher, and is very popular in the alternative scene. I don't know him at all. But I know that creepy feeling of being disappointed with someone who you thought you knew.

Links blog

I saw that Cory Doctorow has written about how Google surveils us when we embed YouTube videos in websites, so have started to look into alternative ways.

✭Youtube videos without cookies
Many companies, media outlets and bloggers enjoy sharing YouTube videos on their sites. The problem is that YouTube sets a tracking cookie (for marketing purposes) by default.
2021.02.02 21:22:40 edit delete
✭Lite YouTube Embeds - A Better Method for Embedding YouTube Videos on your Website - Digital Inspiration
Learn how to embed YouTube videos on your website in a fast, lightweight manner that loads the embedded video on demand thus reducing the size of your web pages and improving your core web vitals score.

✭Twitter suspends hundreds of Indian accounts after government demand | India | The Guardian
A Twitter statement on “country-withheld content” said suspensions of accounts or content was routine, arguing “many countries have laws that may apply to tweets and Twitter account content”.
#india #social-media

✭Chinese millennials aren't getting married, and the government is worried - CNN
With a looming population crisis on the horizon, the Chinese government has introduced a flurry of policies and propaganda campaigns exhorting couples to have children. State media lectured couples that the birth of a child is "not only a family matter, but also a state affair." In cities and villages, propaganda slogans advocating for a second child went up, replacing old ones threatening strict punishment in violation of the one-child policy.

✭WHO's Covid warnings were not heeded. Now the world has a new chance to beat the virus
Rich nations have made bilateral deals with manufacturers to vaccinate entire populations, sometimes several times over. This has left countries under huge domestic pressure to start immunising their populations little choice but to make their own arrangements.

This has resulted in manufacturers prioritising more profitable deals with rich countries, rather than support equitable rollout of vaccines to all countries.

✭Important stories hidden in Google's 'experiment' blocking Australian news sites | Technology | The Guardian
"The search giant’s experiments see sources of questionable quality being promoted over mainstream websites in some cases"
Smart people use other search engines.

✭Lunar cycle has distinct effect on sleep, study suggests | Sleep | The Guardian
"Scientists have long understood that human activity is facilitated by light, be it sunlight, moonlight or artificial light. But a study suggests our ability to sleep is distinctly affected by the lunar cycle, even when taking into account artificial sources of light."

Blame it on the moon.

29 October, 2020

Hubzilla acting up

For some reason, Hubzilla has begun to regurgitate and re-distribute old posts, which would be all right, except that I'm not sure when I wrote them, and sometimes it may happen that they are out of whack with the times.

A Suitable Boy

We watched the six part mini-series and enjoyed it. It is sumptuously made, with a cast of first class actors and captures the broad outline of Seth's 1500 page novel. I was not able to find many expert reviews on IMDB. It was fairly well received except on two main counts. The first was that it tries to compress the book into too short a time span. Well, I read the book a really long time ago, so I don't even want to try to compare it with the series. I think the series has to be judged on its own merits. I think that broadly it works as a piece of storytelling. It is true that there are too many characters for such a short series, and that their behaviour is sometimes exaggerated almost to the level of stereotypes or caricatures in order to overcome the brevity of their performances.

The second issue was that there were problems around the use of language. The reviewers said that it often sounded forced and unrealistic. It isn't just that the characters are speaking English, but more about the kind of English being spoken. These were Indian reviewers saying that. I felt something similar, but, on the other hand, I remember having similar feelings about the book. It was so clear that the dialogue was that of a writer, and not the way that ordinary people speak - in India or any other English speaking milieu. In a way, the series improved on this, because we were able to hear people occasionally speaking Indian languages, which I assume were mainly Hindi and Urdu. (I don't know if Bengali and the Bhojpuri dialect were included in the mix.)

In the early episodes I felt a slight embarrassment in general about the presentation, as if this were a series made to appeal to exotic-India lovers. I got over it as the series proceeded.


✭ Israeli zeal for second Trump term matched by Palestinian enmity | US elections 2020 | The Guardian
Wrong side of history
✭ Apple is Stepping Up Efforts To Build Google Search Alternative - Slashdot

✭ White House science office says Trump ended COVID-19 pandemic as US hits record cases | TheHill
"The White House science office listed "ending the COVID-19 pandemic" as the top accomplishment of President Trump's first term, even as the U.S. has set records for new daily infections and numerous hospitals across the country are stretched to their breaking points."

It really is his best accomplishment.

✭ Use plaintext email
 guide, including names of email clients, recommended practices, etc.

✭ China's leaders look to boost self-reliance as country turns inward | China | The Guardian
Analysts expect leaders to advocate policies that help replace lost international trade with domestic demand, in line with the “dual circulation” economy the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, has been pushing amid the pandemic, focused on improving its home-grown technology and other industrial sectors.

✭ Wild hing makes India’s heart sing as favourite spice is home-grown at last
Asafoetida is a mainstay of the country’s cuisine, but only now are the first saplings being planted on Indian soil

29 October, 2020

Wondering what Vikram Seth himself thought about the Suitable Boy series, I sought out some interviews with him on YouTube. He's a very interesting speaker, just as he is a very interesting person. Lately I have been thinking a lot about the antagonism being felt by the Islamic world towards France, in the wake of the Samuel Paty murder and his promotion to the status of a hero for France's secularism and free speech. In two of the interviews I watched, Seth spoke of the importance of tolerance. He said that of all the gifts India has given to the world, one of the most important ones is the secret of learning how widely different cultures managed to live together. I was thinking that too. Yesterday I started to write a blog post about that very idea in fact, but lost confidence in the idea. The BJP are, after all, undermining pluralism and tolerance. If they succeed, they will be undermining a long tradition. And its also true that it is a tradition that is full of internal contradictions and bloody exceptions. To the point where tolerance was perhaps the exception. There is a similar myth about the harmony that existed between Muslims, Christians and Jews in Andalusia. But the idea that people of different cultures or religions are unable to live together is a worse and more damaging myth. We can live together if there is humility and respect. Our religions and ideologies are based on fine ideas. The idea of a secular state is a fine idea, but only if it is willing to accommodate citizens who may have a set of beliefs that is quite different to that of secularists.

October 18, 2021

10pm - Sitting out on the patio here; a very pleasant 25 C. There's a lot of action in the ficus tree; sounds almost like a troupe of monkeys, with even a characteristic squeak, but of course there are no monkeys here: it's probably bats. Other than that, there's only the sound of the distant highway and an occasional dog bark.

I saw another episode of the second series of L'Amica Geniale. It doesn't make for very pleasant watching. Lots of cruelty there. I haven't read the books, and often don't get the cultural nuances. In episode 3 there's a scene where Lenù and Lila go to a party, and I didn't at first pick up on the fact that Lila thought everyone were rich snobs. If they had been Brits or Americans, I would have understood more quickly. I suppose I should have known by the cue that this was the first time the two had ever ridden in an elevator. I was also amazed by the reaction of Lenù's mother to receiving a "whole" salami and the package of new books that Lila had given them. These were very poor people, whereas I have always, evidently, been very rich. I'm drawing a salary of $600 a month, after all, and want for nothing.

Earlier we went for a walk in the woods, meeting two people along the way. Both of them are working from home these days. Varda said she was not suffering so much from the heavy building going on next to her (the village is expanding there. She says she gets in a meditative mood in her work and it doesn't bother her. She says she just feels happy that has been able to live in a quiet corner of the village the last 18 years, and accepts the fact that now she will soon have some new neighbours. Bob, meanwhile, is about to build a second story to his own house, and we walked through the plot he has also purchased in the expansion plan. With the new construction, his three daughters will be all sorted, should they all wish to live in the village.


✭ The maps that show life is getting better | World news | The Guardian
This is quite encouraging, though perhaps doesn't give the complete picture, because I think there has not been the expected decrease in world hunger, for example. There was another headline this week that the world hunger problem could actually be solved by 2030 for a sum of 330 million dollars. Which means that Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates could get together and solve the problem if they wanted to.

✭ Why Monopolies Make Spying Easier | The New Yorker