Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Is “Classical” Music Irrelevant?

In 1977, when NASA was pondering what music to include on the “golden record” aboard the Voyager spacecrafts intended for intelligent extraterrestrial life who may find them, astronomer Carl Sagan quipped, “I would vote for Bach, but that would just be showing off…” 

Bach’s music has endured 300 years and two world wars, yet, pop culture critics believe the music of Bach and other great composers of the past is now dead. They cite declining sales and the recent bankruptcy of The New York City Opera as markers of the irrelevance of “classical” music today. 

Perhaps classical music is taking a beating in the United States. Cuts in arts funding, absence of musical education in schools, reduced attention span of listeners, proliferation of competition for the entertainment dollar, and the treatment of “classical” music as elitist, conformist, and boring in the media, are contributing to the waning popularity of classical music. However, with the internet, music that was once limited to a select society is now available to an unimaginably large audience all over the world. 

In terms of numbers, classical music is enjoying an unprecedented period of popularity. In fact, there has never been a better time to get into classical music. The 2014 BBC Proms Classical Concerts saw record attendance, 375 tickets sold every minute of the first hour of sales! Furthermore, the growing classical community in developing countries, particularly in Asia, and its application in development are creating a new generation of classical aficionados outside the Western realm.

Until the late twentieth century, classical music was composed, played, and listened to primarily by an elite slice of society in Western countries — and the perception that classical music is inherently elitist exists even today. “The idea that classical music is the province of some white-wigged old farts shows a failure of imagination and rank snobbery!” British actor Stephen Fry argued at a Cambridge Union debate in 2011. Unfortunately, classical music comes across as "posh" because people automatically associate the formality and etiquette traditionally surrounding it as esoteric and pretentious. Popular Hollywood films such as School of Rock and Rock and Roll demonize classical music as conforming to an archaic and boring norm. Classical music is unpopular in the West today, not because Beethoven cannot pull in crowds like Lady Gaga, but because people associate the music with the elite and refuse to interact with it.

The 1988 film Running on Empty has a great scene where a music teacher plays a Madonna number and a Beethoven piece and asks the class, “What’s the difference?” A young River Phoenix responds, “Ya can’t dance to Beethoven.” Large portions of modern music today are dance tunes — music that is portable — for running, to liven up a Saturday night party, or even as background for writing an op-ed piece. Classical music, even the modern material, does not lend itself to that world. It requires the listener to sit and actively engage and allow the music to take you on a journey — not exactly "fun" in the modern internet age. 

There is a conscious attempt by the classical music community to alter this perception. To pull in crowds, symphony houses are giving free or heavily discounted tickets to students, and orchestras are opening their doors to pianists like James Rhodes who plays in sneakers and jeans and looks more like a Deadhead. Programmers are trying to make classical music approachable and fun by injecting humor and eschewing the formality out of performances.

However, there is a more transcendental aspect to classical music than just fun. In the Second World War, the British took the opening bars of Beethoven’s monumental Fifth Symphony: “daa, daa, daa, daa”, the Morse code for “V for Victory” and made it into a war cry on the wireless. In doing so, they took something quintessentially German, Beethoven, and appropriated him for larger purpose: a symbol of the resistance and a united voice against the Nazis. 

“[Classical] music has to be recognized as an agent of social development, in the highest sense because it transmits the highest values – solidarity, harmony, and mutual compassion. And it has the ability to unite an entire community, and express sublime feelings,” says Jose Abreu, the founder of El Sistema in Venezuela. El Sistema provides free classical music education to over 250,000 young musicians, mostly orphans, across Venezuela. Its most famous achievement was the formation of the renowned Simon Bolivar Orchestra. For many of the children in the program, being a part of the orchestra goes beyond music. Here, they find a new home. The Applied Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies found that participation in El Sistema “…promotes human opportunity and development for impoverished children improving concentration, attendance, and behavior in schools.”

Copycat schemes in India, China, Portugal, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom have seen similar success. The In Harmony scheme in the United Kingdom, in particular, has managed to introduce classical music to a new audience: the British youth. The growing popularity of the radio channel, Classic.FM, is testament of the success of the program. The informal approach of the channel has done much to allay the stigma of elitism associated with classical music. 

The growth in classical musical education in developing countries, especially in Asia, ensures that while classical music might be culturally losing ground in the much of the West, it will be around for the time being, albeit elsewhere. Probably today, some teenager in the Indian subcontinent is discovering the wonders of Bach for the first time…

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Getting Back Into It

The dormancy of the blog is now at an end.  The dragon is awake.  Returning from a quite spectacular summer in Lebanon, Cyprus, and Turkey, I'm ready to get back to some random spiels and rants, and some travel stories from the summer.  Look forward to it!

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Does AAP Spell the End for NaMo?

The newly elected prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, affectionately known to his supporters as NaMo, stormed onto the American stage at a sold out Madison Square Garden event last July. The US-Indian crowd, mostly from the world of business, greeted Modi like teenage girls at a Justin Beiber concert – with screams, streamers, and tears. Modi was a rock star – the Messiah, the Cure, the “2008 Obama” – the change we could believe in. 

Then in February, the unraveling began. A regional party in Delhi, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), resoundingly trounced Modi’s Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) in local elections, taking almost all the seats in the state legislature. Modi fever suddenly seems to be ending, a victim of their over promise, Hindu fanaticism, and arrogance.

With a history of governments that have let them down, the cynical Indian public can lose faith in a heartbeat. Considering the regional Aam Aadmi Party’s last foray in forming a local government in 2012 lasted only 49 days, and that Modi and his party had won all of Delhi’s seven seats in last year’s national election, the quick turnaround is harsh evidence of that. 

In the general elections last year, Modi had electrified the nation with soaring rhetoric and a marketing campaign that included Tupac-esque holographic rallies. Tired of the frustrating ten-year rule of a corrupt and inefficient United Progressive Alliance government led by secularist Congress Party, India fell in love with Modi, whose Hindu nationalist party won an unprecedented 52% of the seats. Voters, both the business class and the impoverished, jumped on the Modi ship with unreasonable and fantastic expectations of “Acche din aagaye” – everything will become better. 

Modi’s rise to power was murky. In 2001, when Modi was chief minister of the state of Gujarat, savage communal riots between the Hindus and Muslims broke out in the town of Godhra. Modi did little to prevent the riots, and allegedly protected the Hindu fundamentalists after the violence. Since the riots, Modi has carried the stigma of a perceived right wing, anti-Muslim fanatics. When asked by the BBC about what he regretted most about the riots, he had replied, “I could have dealt with the media better.” Yet, the people of India chose the promise of economic success over secularism. Modi had done a good job bringing Gujarat's economy onto the fast lane when he was chief minister, and many Indians believed his pro-business policies would transform India. Pro-business, however, has not translated to pro-poor, at least not yet.

“Modi talks about big things like bringing big factories and bullet trains. That may be good for the country, but that’s not going to help me!” Kumar, anauto-rickshaw driver in Delhi told Al Jazeera in a post-poll interview. Kumar is not alone. Post-election data shows higher turnouts from poorer regions in the east and northeast. About 4 million of Delhi’s 16 million people live in abject poverty and they spoke their mind this election. 

Modi’s tenure has made it clear that while the BJP makes vague announcements for the poor, it delivers concrete results only for the corporate sector. For instance, the Land Acquisition Ordinance now makes it easier for an industry to acquire agricultural and tribal land. New labor laws and environmental reforms allow some industries to violate existing standards. 

“People — especially in migrant areas, lower castes, Muslims, and other minorities found AAP more exciting because they were better listeners,” says Shiv Visvanathan, a leading Indian sociologist. “They went door-to-door, house-to-house with simple solutions.” While the regional party chose a simple grass-root campaign strategy, the BJP tried to use Modi’s celebrity status to power their way through Delhi. Modi ran the campaign himself, adding to the sting of the failure.

Now even the purported growth story is turning out to be a disappointment. The preliminary estimate for the GDP growth rate for 2015 was 5%. However, right before the Delhi elections, newly appointed chief statistician TCA Anant, released a revised projected rate of 7.5%, exceeding China’s 7.3% - truly a Modi miracle! What BJP failed to mention is that this number arises from a “new definition” of GDP and not an increase in economic activity. Former finance minister P. Chidambaram, of the opposition Congress Party, commented, “Truth be damned. And statistics are lies.” 

Leading up to the Delhi elections, accusations of Modi’s past religious fundamentalism returned to haunt him. Targeting of churches in Delhi, and the hard-line Hindu Rashtriya Sangh’s attempts to dictate cultural and lifestyle choices by burning books and vandalizing movie theaters are making people realize the dangers of BJP’s sectarian agenda. The Hindu Mahasabha’s threat to marry couples who were out holding hands on Valentine’s Day, was just a comic topping on a deeper cultural tension. Modi's opponents attacked his silence on the matter, and the swing voters he attracted just one year ago are beginning to reconsider their position in the “secularism” verses “growth” debate.

The scale of BJP's defeat in Delhi suggests a shift in the political landscape. During the national campaign, Modi had declared, "Delhi’s mood dictates India’s mood". What do these Delhi election results mean for the emerging mood elsewhere in India? The victory of AAP is galvanizing non-BJP parties in other states and smaller parties may form coalitions to defeat BJP in some tactical alignment of political forces. 

Presently, the main opposition, UPA, is still trying to resurrect itself from the grave, and AAP is still a regional power. Given the mercurial nature of politics in India, AAP’s win could just be an insignificant blip in Modi’s record. However, if this new mood gains traction, Modi's national supremacy will come under serious strain and will require major course correction. First, Modi must end the divisive politics of Hindu hardliners. Second, the BJP needs to deliver on the promises of mass employment, growth, sanitation, and infrastructure.

At Madison Square Garden, NaMo closed with a glib, “may the Force be with you”, but the Delhi elections show that the Force may not be strong in Modi.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Raghu Says It All...

Raghuram Rajan pulls off Godwin's Law like a champ at the Ideas conference in Goa on the 20th of February.  Extra, extra, read all about it "Democracy, Inclusion, and Prosperity".  My opinion to follow soon.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Fracking, Nuclear Power, and the Environment

Last October I visited the 605-megawatt Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon while driving through New England and taking in the fall colors.  It was a nostalgic visit.  Several years earlier, I had worked on a study to determine contingency plans for the failure of Vermont Yankee, and in a few months, Vermont Yankee was going to become one of the early casualties of America's aging fleet of nuclear stations.  Perhaps the retirement of a small power station in the far corner of the northeast is not newsworthy, but in my opinion the shutdown of Vermont Yankee is a harbinger of a new era of the U.S. energy landscape.  The “nuclear free” story has deeper consequences than many recognize, however, as well as a more complex impact on the environment.  

The United States is the world’s largest producer of nuclear power, accounting for more than 30% of global nuclear electricity production.  Domestically, nuclear energy represents about 20% of the generation mix, but with the planned early retirements of nuclear stations, and new constructions under threat, by 2020 that contribution may shrink.  In the late 1990s changes in government policies helped pave the way for significant growth in nuclear capacity; however, lower natural gas prices since 2009 have put the economic viability of some existing reactors and proposed projects in doubt.  Oil and gas prices are at historical lows, and with shale and fracking promising to keep costs down, nuclear technology is no longer an attractive option for power.  Though the cost of nuclear fuel is considerably low, increasing safety and security concerns are pushing up the building and operating cost of nuclear production beyond gas-powered combined-cycle and coal units.  Today, the competitive advantage of a new nuclear power plant is questionable.  The five nuclear plants presently under construction have been stuck in financial and regulatory nightmares since 2009. Furthermore, the indelible memory of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, coupled with the recent Fukushima disaster in Japan, is killing the dream of an American nuclear renaissance. 

In Japan, nuclear still has a competitive advantage over gas-fired plants since natural gas prices in Japan are considerably higher than the U.S.  This is why Japanese power companies are trying to restart their nuclear power stations after the automatic reaction of shutting down all fifty nuclear units in Japan after the Fukushima disaster in March 2011.  

In contrast, Germany is retiring its entire nuclear fleet in an attempt to move to safer and cleaner renewable power but in the process caused coal prices to increase dramatically and create a spike in energy prices.  Additionally, even though wind and solar provide clean energy, the capital requirements and maintenance costs of renewable power, particularly offshore wind and solar, is significantly higher than for nuclear technology, making gas units a more attractive replacement for nuclear in the United States.

What do these factors mean for the U.S. energy landscape?  Power prices are low; the lights still come on when we flip the switch, so why should we care if a few nuclear power plants are retiring?  First, a recovering U.S. economy is driving up energy demand and sparking a series of new gas-powered plant constructions since gas prices are so low.  Second, some industry experts are concerned that the increasing shale gas production through fracking, which has helped keep oil and gas prices low, is unsustainable.  If gas prices increase in the near future, overall energy prices will increase, adversely affecting the weakly recovering industrial sector.  More than a long-term increase in power prices, however, retiring nuclear power generation has a concerning yet ignored underlying environmental story.  

Industry analysts estimate that the early retirement of the 2000-megawatt San Onofre (SONGS) reactor complex north of San Diego will increase California’s greenhouse gas emissions by up to 6 million tons per year, which is almost a 12% increase of emissions from the electricity generation sector in California.  Energy expert Geoffrey Styles comments: “While accounting for only 3% of the state’s [California] 2011 generating capacity from all sources, the SONGS reactors typically contributed around 8% of the state’s annual electricity generation, due to their high utilization rates. That’s a large slice of low-emission power to remove from the energy mix in a state that is committed to reduce its emissions to below 1990 levels.”  With aggressive targets to reduce greenhouse gases, the loss of existing U.S. nuclear capacity, which has negligible emissions, is a major setback, particularly since renewable energy cannot completely offset the energy generation gap.  California is not the only state that faces this challenge.  The retirement of the Indian Point nuclear station in New York will have a similar effect.  Moreover, the primary economic driver (gas prices) that is making nuclear power financially unfeasible is also contributing to the most amount of environmental damage—“fracking.”  

Fracking is the primary reason for the plummeting gas price in the United States, which is now a quarter of the price in Europe, and shale gas accounts for more than a quarter of total gas production in the United States.  Hydraulic fracking is the process of stimulating liquid and gaseous wells through injecting high-pressure super-heated chemical solutions into shale deposits—a controversial process, as signified by New York state's  banning of it.  Apart from the potential environmental damage, there are health hazards such as methane leaking from fracking wells into the water table causing the phenomenon of “flammable water.”  Although a recent MIT report found that “only a handful of the 20,000 wells drilled in the previous decade had caused contamination,” the question remains: is cheap gas worth the risks associated with fracking?  While some pro-frackers argue that fracking is technically a “green” technology since gas has lower greenhouse gas emissions than coal, gas is still “dirtier” than nuclear technology.

In addition, decommissioning a nuclear power station is a regulatory challenge and expensive.  Entergy Corp., which owns the Vermont Yankee power station, estimates that cooling the reactor and permanently shutting down the plant will require ten years and about $1.5 billion.  Consumers will pay a large part of this cost through higher electricity rates.

In a deregulated energy market, where economics is the key driver for determining the resource mix, policy plays an important role in encouraging or discouraging forms of production, by taxation or credits.  Under present policy, low cost gas-powered units will replace the forced nuclear retirements— not an optimal outcome from an environmental perspective.  It is imperative that policy makers understand the long-term impact of these nuclear retirements when refusing nuclear license renewal and considering new plants.  Nuclear opponents cheer the net loss of nuclear power and may consider the replacement of nuclear with renewable technology as progress.  However, if fossil fuels, rather than renewables, replace nuclear, it seems more like a step backward.  A reasonable alternative might be a staggered long-term nuclear retirement strategy coupled with policies to promote renewable power through higher production credits or introducing often-discussed carbon taxes.  Although this is not a perfect solution, it should prevent fossil fuels from completely replacing nuclear and setting back achieving emission targets by several years.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015


My roommate remembered this great article in The Atlantic while we were watching  Bradley Cooper and Clint Eastwood's "American Sniper".  "The Tragedy of the American Military" is a great read for people trying to understand America's fascination with the armed forces, and why America keeps entering one losing battle after another since the Second World War.