The Advisory Boar

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Harike survey reporting: responsible journalism at its finest

Someone sent me a link to a story in the Indian Express that creatively distorts quotes extracted from my informal report on Harike to try and make the case that the survey was a waste of time and money. The article is by a Dharmendra Rataul, dated today. I can't figure out if it was published in the newspaper, or only online.

I just love how terribly official the article makes everything sound. Instead of saying “Some chap who was at Harike wrote email to a public list, and someone sent me a copy”, the article begins thus:

The controversy over the census of migratory birds at Harike wetland took a new turn on Monday when a member of the Census Committee constituted by the state wildlife department traced serious lacunae in the process. Abhijit Sen, a bird watcher who was on the census panel, has stated in a letter (sent via e-mail) to the Chandigarh Birds Club (CBC), the nodal agency that helped conduct the survey, that he was sad that the entire exercise was like a “free vacation”.

Nobody told me that a Census Committee (or was it a panel?) had been constituted, much less that I was a member of it. The Chandigarh Birds Club (which, as far as I know, is just a mailing list) becomes a "nodal agency" with its own acronym. Email becomes a letter, which The Indian Express has mysteriously obtained a copy of. But the best part is that my trip report is made to sound like some weighty official critique (lacunae!), when I wrote right at the beginning that:

My memories of the time I spent at Harike are already fragmented, and I don't feel up to writing another exhaustive report. Instead, here's a selection of the more vivid moments that I will remember the trip by—not in any particular order, and with no attempt to fill in the fuzzy grey areas in between.

Having selected such a solid foundation for his news report, Mr. Rataul goes on to disingenuously reorder two carefully-selected sentences from my (approximately four thousand word) report.

“Sadly I noticed that many people who had volunteered to help with the survey treated the entire exercise as a little more than a free vacation,” he has stated in the letter, a copy of which is The Indian Express (sic). He said he noticed a similar attitude during surveys at the Pong Dam (Himachal) too. “A total count (of birds) was impossible in the circumstances,” he stated.

In my report, the second sentence is in a different paragraph from the first one, and refers to a completely different set of circumstances, which I enumerate: “…because a total count was impossible in the circumstances (distance, rocking boat, lots of movement in the flocks), we sampled parts of the flock…”. Anyway, I was using "total count" in its technical sense where bird surveys are concerned. A little basic research would have told Mr. Rataul that total counts of flocking birds in large areas is often not possible, no matter how many scientists are present.

I notice, too, that "I was sad that P treated X as Y” has been summarised as “I was sad that X was Y”. But the article does not, of course, mention what I said in a subsequent "letter" in response to a comment about the "free vacation" bit.

It is true that there were people at Harike who did not take the survey seriously, but that is a potential risk with any volunteer-based survey effort. It is regrettable, and I hope that steps can be taken in future to make participants more aware of the methodology and implications of the work they're doing, and thus take it more seriously.

But I can also say that there were serious, interested birders at Harike who did their sincere best during data collection, and I don't think that the funds have "gone down the drain" at all. Every census, whether conducted by volunteers or professionals, has sources of error and scope for improvement. Just because I pointed out one problem does not mean that the entire effort was a waste.

I had never heard of Mr. Rataul, so I looked at some of the other articles he's written for IE. In an earlier story about the Harike survey, he says: “The majority of the birds are gray-legged geese, though bar-headed geese, mallard duck, pin-tale duck, porchid, varieties of avifauna, pelicans, flamingoes and teals have also been spotted.”

I realise it's unfair to expect a journalist these days to know anything about the subject he's covering, but really, where on earth did he find a word like "porchid"? And does he think "avifauna" is a specific kind of bird, like "geese"?

Anyway, with all the integrity and competence evident in Mr. Rataul's articles, I should consider myself fortunate that he at least managed to get my name right… oh, wait, scratch that. I guess correctly cutting and pasting my name from an email was also beyond him.

(I sent a complaint to editor@expressindia.com, but my mail bounced because "Database disk quota exceeded".)

Missed Opportunities

I'm not sure if anyone reads the articles in The Hindu's four-page "Opportunities" supplement on Wednesdays. Most of the space is taken up by job advertisements, and my uncharitable suspicion is that the articles are meant only to provide a veneer of respectability and fill the remaining space. The articles have such insightful titles as Path to dream job not usually smooth and Identify, groom employees with high potential early on, and are always written by one of the same four or five people (with contact address faqs@cnkonline.com).

Sometimes, I'm not fast enough on Wednesday mornings to get my hands on the main newspaper over breakfast, so I scan the first couple of pieces in Opportunities while biding my time. One thing I've noticed over and over again is the tendency of the authors to drop names indiscriminately (sometimes complete with made-up quotes).

Here's today's example, from Share your ideas, but be humble in expressing them:

Anand was almost irritated with this new entrant into his team. This guy joined just a couple of days ago and actually had the courage to go up to the team leader to provide some inputs on a new strategy they could implement. Wasn't there ever a rule as to when a new employee could actually start involving himself in ‘improving’ team affairs? Apparently not, because this person had pushed himself to do just that and now, he was recognised not just as ‘Mr. Congeniality’, but also as someone who could envisage new concepts and plans.

Anand, alas, is never again mentioned in the article, and nothing more is said about his almost-irritation with his enterprising colleague. But he's not the only one with problems:

I am often called the ‘enthu cutlet’ for being overtly enthusiastic and coming up with new ideas. I do feel this sends across the wrong message to my colleagues that I am attention-seeking and nothing else, rues Kamala.

Kamala, too, receives no further mention, but the article offers the following as part of a strategy to avoid provoking resentment in your new colleagues:

If you are a newbie, it is best to ask your team if you could contribute a fresh perspective on what already exists. This would be welcome, since they would automatically understand that it is imperative to procure this fresh perspective from a person who until recently was an outsider to the organisation, since it helps them gain knowledge of what the world thinks of what they have been doing.

Why do I find it just a touch difficult to believe that the mysterious, brooding Anand and Kamala's grumpy old (since nobody under fifty would call someone an "enthu cutlet") colleagues are brimming with automatic understanding of the greater good?

It becomes quite clear by the end of the article that Anand and Kamala were named only to satisfy some style guide's belief that mentioning "real" people makes it easier for readers to relate to situations described and advice offered. That may be true, but unfortunately for Opportunities, its fabricated case studies are usually quite transparent to the (only?) reader, and gratuitously detract from the point of the article.

I'm sorry, Anand, but you're a loser.

Bloomin' Health: courses in flower therapy

Ben Goldacre's Bad Science weblog is usually good for a quick dose of entertainment, but I have to limit my consumption; there's only so much I can take before it begins to depress me instead. On Sunday, a friend showed me his new copy of the Bad Science book. I didn't have the time to look through it properly, but it did inspire me to notice an article in the newspaper today that I might otherwise have missed.

The piece, written by Chetna Dua, is titled "Bloom in health", and it appears in the Metro Plus supplement to The Hindu in Delhi on November 23, 2009, sandwiched between Rahul Verma's occasionally entertaining food column and R. V. Smith's frequently annoying "Down Memory Lane". It's about the great healing powers of flowers, as employed in treatment since 1990 by the good Doctor Malti Khaitan of Delhi.

The flowers are plucked early morning in a special way so that their nectar is retained and then energised by the powers of the sun and proper meditation in Gangajal procured from Rishikesh. That is why they have great healing powers, she believes.

How could flowers plucked in a special way (by ELVES!) fail to have therapeutic value? I can't imagine they were happy about being forced to meditate in water from the Ganges, though, even if it was collected from Rishikesh (where the river enters the plains, and is not yet as polluted as it becomes further downstream) and the power of the sun was energising them at the same time.

But, Doctor, (one imagines the journalist asking, breathlessly) how do these flower remedies differ from other forms of medicine?

On how these concoctions differ from other forms of medicine, this PhD from the Indian Board of Alternative Medicines in Kolkata says, While most forms of medicine focus only on the physical element of a person, my remedies work to achieve a balance of the body, mind and soul in a human being, thus offering a complete healing of the person from within. The flower essences help to melt the tension in different chakras and subtle bodies of a person.

I wonder—does one have to eat the energised flowers, or is sniffing them enough to initiate complete healing from within?

The Indian Board of Alternative Medicine has a web site which serves up only a blank page. I presume the PhD is actually from the allied Indian Institute of Alternative Medicine, which has a frighteningly long list of alternative therapies, including "Pyramid Healing", "Holotropic Breathwork", and "Gem Therapy". Its "about us" page has photographs of its Founder and Principal with the last two Presidents of India, the current Prime Minister, and a smattering of other smiling dignitaries. Clearly an excellent place to learn about how to melt tension in chakras and subtle bodies.

Having helped people suffering from all kinds of illness like headaches, cold, asthma, depression, etc., she notes that the results vary from person to person. Somebody might get cured in two months while for another it could even take six months. She adds, However, I don't stop the allopathic medicine of a patient. This is an alternative therapy which has no side affects and can be taken by a patient along with any other form of medication.

This reminds me of a favourite "Wizard of Id" strip, where the King admires the Wizard for his tenacity: He'll get that tide to turn, even if it takes him twelve hours to do it! (Aside: the strip should be somewhere in this archive, but I have not been able to find it. If someone knows where it lives, I would very much appreciate a link.)

But we learn that the good Doctor is not content merely with curing people without side affects (sic):

After having put down the remedial powers of flowers in her book Flowers That Heal, Khaitan now wants to spread her knowledge and skill to more and more people so that it continues to live after her. Keeping this in mind, she has launched a series of courses in flower therapy at her studio in Lajpat Nagar.

In a country where Homoeopathy is not only wildly popular, but officially recognised as legitimate medicine, I'm sure her courses will do very well.

Bird watchers and purple prose

Speaking of bird-watching and poetry, I've noticed that bird-watchers, at least on the few Indian bird-watching lists I subscribe to, adore purple prose. They applaud it when they see it in other people's trip reports, and do their best to put it in their own.

It is always entertaining to see things like this written with no apparent sense of irony (in this case, about a photograph of a pair of Himalayan Bulbuls):

Reminded me, in fact, of a pair of elegant aristocrats, somewhat puffy-chested with ‘stale airs’, a touch stern in demeanour, necks and crests craning back with a stiff pride.......

As if, As if.... somehow the couple is steeling to bear the gathering autumn of an erstwhile many-splendoured life, now stripped of privy privileges, purses and titles!

Very picturesque, but when I think of an aristocrat stripped of privy privileges, I can't help but imagine an old butler, neck stiff with spondylosis, saying I'm sorry, Sir Neville, but they took away the outhouse.

But any literary allusion, no matter how trite or overused, is cause for celebration. Comparisons to poetry are frequent followups; and sometimes a phrase catches someone else's imagination, and reappears in their own reports. Someone once responded to a post, which was relatively subdued in comparison to the above, with a comment that Ruskin Bond was quaking in his boots, presumably from fear of competition (though the post didn't rule out, say, uncontrollable laughter).

Read more…

The domestic violence problem

The October 4 issue of The Hindu Sunday Magazine features a Talking Point column by Vijay Nagaswami about domestic violence, entitled Even once is too much.

The article gets off to a promising start:

Domestic violence, as it is officially called, has been happening for centuries in our country and is very much part of ‘Indian culture’.

The author goes on to explain that he is referring only to spousal abuse (and not other forms of domestic violence, such as child abuse); and that such violence may be physical, sexual, verbal, or emotional (…wherein one partner subjugates the other through persistent demeaning, insults, threats, and intellectual battering). He also makes no bones about the fact that domestic violence is by no means confined to people from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

Then he gets right down to the problem:

Since we live in a patriarchal society, most spouse abusers are men. Since men have been taught ever since they were boys that they should ‘control’ their wives and since, more often than not, they are physically bigger and stronger, they tend to resort more easily to using violent means to take charge of their marriages, if they find their wives challenging their authority.

But wait, that's not all there is to it.

Having said that, it is no longer uncommon to see men, particularly in urban areas, being victims of spousal abuse from their wives. Typically verbal and emotional abuse are more common, but physical abuse also does take place. Women who feel the need to dominate their spouses may tend to, particularly if the man is generally soft natured and easy to push around, intimidate their husbands by constantly belittling them in private and public, thereby establishing dominance in the marriage. Also, some of them, if they are physically strong, may lash out physically at their husbands by slapping, scratching, kicking and throwing things at them. Since very few men want to acknowledge publicly that they are being abused by their wives, cases of spousal abuse of males are largely under-reported, although in recent times, abused men have been coming together in support groups and have formed associations to help each other deal with the situation.

I had no idea that the nature of domestic violence had changed so much in recent times that two sentences suffice to describe violence by men (who are just doing what they've been taught), but five sentences and many, many commas are needed to describe the reverse. But when I think about it that way, all sorts of things begin to make more sense.

For example, a contributing factor that the author does not mention is that women who are successful in dominating their husbands produce sons that are more soft natured and easy to push around—and thus vulnerable to another generation of slapping, scratching, kicking (and biting!) women. An ever-increasing number of men must suffer in silence, while women try to publicise their tales of woe at every opportunity. I begin to feel sorry for the poor man who is forced to beat his wife a little to reassert his fading authority.

But alas, lawmakers still have the problem backwards:

The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act has provided succour to many women who have been victimised by their spouses. It is a well-intended and welcome piece of legislation, but, unfortunately, doesn't provide men who are victims of domestic violence any space for redressal of their grievances. Another important legislation that needs to be touched upon here is Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code which covers any act of cruelty committed upon a woman by her husband or his relatives. Sadly, one of the more distressing by-products of both these laws is that they are abused. Unscrupulous legal professionals as well as acrimonious wives and their relatives try and either intimidate the husband or extract their pound of flesh by filing cases under these laws. I do know of men who have been threatened under Sec 498A of the IPC, merely because the wife and her family want a better divorce settlement than he originally offered. Sometimes where the wife wants a divorce and the husband is unwilling to grant her one, Sec 498A is used as a sword of Damocles over the latter, and it is not unusual to see petitions filed under these laws on falsified charges. More often than not, a messy legal battle ensues that, from what I have seen, no one wins.

What a depressing picture, when all the law does is to abet unscrupulous lawyers and acrimonious wives in wielding the Sword of Damocles to cut a pound of flesh from distressed and intimidated husbands (and this, when it is no longer uncommon to find men being victims of domestic violence in the first place). It's a good thing that there are support groups to help husbands deal with the situation. Sticks and stones may break her bones, but being shafted by the law is what really hurts:

The whole process leaves everyone scarred, angry and frustrated with wounds that take ages to heal.

The author, having turned my entire view of domestic violence on its head, concludes with some advice on dealing with abuse:

But, per contra, if there is violence or cruelty, don’t hesitate to take recourse to the law, for, that is the best protection available to you. However, do so only after the matter has been escalated to other members in the family and assistance from mental health professionals has been sought.

Er… wait. Is he seriously suggesting that The Family is the best place to look for help? And why on earth should a woman have to seek assistance from mental health professionals if she's a victim of domestic violence?

The writer is a Chennai-based psychiatrist […]

Ah, right. I get it now.

On applying for a US visa from Delhi

Speaking of renewing passports and the horrors of international travel, 1999 was also the last time I applied for a US visa (and, I hope, the last time I'll ever need to).

On that occasion, I queued up at dawn (behind a hundred-odd people!) and was denied a visa many hours later because I didn't have "strong enough ties" to my country. When I needed to travel to Europe some years later, most embassies took one look at the US "application received" stamp in my passport and matched it with one of their own ("application received" sounds innocuous, but it might as well say "VISA FAIL"). It took a long time to get that sorted out.

Things have changed a lot since then. Hassath, who wanted to attend the Grace Hopper Conference this year, investigated the process. A few years ago, the embassy outsourced the initial paperwork, which is now done online. The dawn queue is also gone: the web site displays an appointment schedule, and you can book a convenient free slot and turn up at the embassy at that time. But one of the biggest changes is in the handling of the application fee.

When I applied, the non-refundable visa application fee was some INR1200 (about USD25). Now the fee is USD131 at the "consular exchange rate" of INR50/USD (which conveniently favours the USD by about INR3/USD), which makes it INR6550. That is a substantial portion (>70%) of a month's rent for us. If money is important to you, as travel.state.gov casually puts it, you will be happy to learn that

Nonimmigrant visa fees are based on "reciprocity," (what another country charges a United States citizen for a similar-type of visa). The United States strives to eliminate visa issuance fees whenever possible; […but…] you need to understand the distinction between a visa "issuance" fee and a visa "application" fee. Most non-diplomatic and non-official visas issued by United States consular officers abroad require a visa "application" (machine-readable visa - MRV) fee that recovers for the United States the costs associated with manufacturing, processing, and printing the visa. The current visa "application" fee is $131.00.

I had to pay the fee by demand draft at the embassy, but now one has to pay it (plus the INR374 service charge for VFS, the company that handles the online application process) at any of about a dozen select branches of the HDFC bank and obtain a receipt before you can book an appointment online. If you find that no appointments are available before you travel, you lose the money. If you misplace the receipt, you lose the money. If you manage to apply and are denied a visa, you lose the money (but perhaps the distinction between "issuance" and "application" fees will be a source of comfort, if money is important to you).

You still need to produce scads of personal and financial information (for example, tax returns and bank statements for the past few years), of course, but much more thought has been put into the rules for the visa photo. "Passport-sized" used to be a sufficient description, but now there is a special size (larger than anyone else asks for), and a number of rules to spell out what is expected of the background, foreground, clothing, and direction of the applicant's gaze. Everyone is fingerprinted these days, so you are also instructed to arrive for your appointment with clean hands.

For people who are refused a visa, the embassy now has this helpful page that begins with the heart-wrenching tale of Sanjay and Anil—friends who will not see each other because one could not obtain a visa to visit the US. It has soothing answers to a number of questions the distressed applicant may have.

Q. Why is there a visa requirement?
A. The U.S. is an open society. […]
Our immigration law requires consular officers to view every visa applicant as an intending immigrant until the applicant proves otherwise.

Ten years ago, the Consular Officer helpfully told me at the end of my visa interview that I would have to wait three days before I could apply again, but I have somehow contained my enthusiasm to reapply ever since. Based on the current application process, I think I can hold out a while longer.

Sify nullband service

Last year, during a particularly frustrating period where our MTNL DSL kept getting disconnected every few minutes, we subscribed to the Sify Broadband service (the only other ISP in the area at the time; this was a few months before Airtel DSL became available).

Sify claims to provide "wireless" broadband, but that's a bit of a misnomer. I gather there's a wireless router of some sort on the roof of the neighbouring apartment block, and they string Ethernet cables from it to people's desks. The people (from the local Sify franchisee) who came to install this giant lightning conductor through our study window cut the cable too short, and spliced(!) on another length to reach our computers.

Sify requires you to run an "authentication client" that talks to their web server before you get IP connectivity to the outside world. They do provide a Linux client, but it took some hackery to make it run on our machines; and the web site it sent us to ("new user registration") did not like Firefox at all. So the cable-splicers went back to their office and registered the account for us using their Windows machine, and we got it all working eventually.

We meant to use the Sify connection only as a backup, and our MTNL line started working again, so it was a while before we noticed that we had massive packet loss to the gateway (i.e., the thing on the roof). The authentication client couldn't talk to its server, so we couldn't talk to anyone. The cause was obvious to us: the spliced cable. But the cable-splicers blamed the fact that we used Linux, and said they would have to call in a Linux expert from Sify central to "check" the problem.

The expert never arrived. I tried to follow up a few times, but I ran out of time and energy eventually (and unfortunately, we pre-paid for the entire year). The upshot is that the service has never worked for us after the first day.

So I was rather amused to receive this SMS the other day:

Dear Sify Customer, due to heavy rain you may face disruption in service. Regret for inconvenience.

Regret for inconvenience, indeed.

Domain registration with Net4India

In February 2005, the "IN" TLD was opened to registrations. In the weeks preceding the opening, a number of registrars were accepting pre-orders for .IN domains, the idea being that they would submit the requests once the registry was opened. I wanted to register oryx.in, and I chose to use Net4India as registrar.

I submitted the pre-order and tried to pay the required INR4500 (500 for processing fees and 4000 for two years' registration charges) by credit card, but the transaction failed; and instead, I paid in person at their office by cash. I got a receipt, and was told that my registration would be processed.

A few days after the opening, I noticed that the domain had not yet been registered. I received no response to my mail asking why not. I tried to register the domain using another registrar (Key Systems), and was able to do so, thus proving that my registration had not even been processed. I received no response to followup inquiries either. An ex-employee of Net4India gave me the email address of a director, to whom I addressed a complaint. He forwarded it to someone in the customer support department who asked me for the details of the case, but did not get in touch with me again, or respond to my mail over the next few months.

I sought legal advice, but lacked the time, money, and energy to follow the suggested course of serving notice and attending the consumer court. By early 2006, I had given up hope of ever recovering my money, and was reminded of the incident only by the occasional spam that was sent to the throwaway address that I'd used to communicate with the company.

In early 2009, by some monumental coincidence, someone from the company posted to a mailing list I'm on, asking for some help. I replied to the effect that I'd be happy to help if he could help me get a refund, and to my amazement, he did so within a week. (I got only INR4000, because the processing fee was non-refundable. Given that they hadn't actually done any processing… but after three years, I didn't want to quibble.) I am extremely grateful for the prompt and courteous assistance I received.

But I'm afraid I cannot recommend Net4India as a domain registrar.