Asian Correspondent » Atanu Dey Asian Correspondent Thu, 28 May 2015 01:43:36 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Islamic terrorism coming home to roost at terror central Sat, 02 Jan 2010 04:11:50 +0000 What happened in Pakistan on the first day of the year is no different from what’s been happening: routine killings by Islamic terrorists. BBC reports:At least 88 people have been killed by a suicide bomb attack at a volleyball court”, which it says brings up the last three months’ total death toll of Islamic terrorism to around 600. Of course the BBC being what it is – biased – identifies the criminals as militants instead of Islamic terrorists. Never mind who denies Islamic terrorism – even this – and never mind how vociferous the denial. But Samuel Huntington’s observation is being corroborated daily, across the world. He wrote, “Islam‘s borders are bloody and so are its innards. The fundamental problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism. It is Islam, a different civilisation whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture and are obsessed with the inferiority of their power.” (Ref. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order.)

Like the rest of the world, India is also a victim of Islamic terrorism. In fact, India draws exceptional fire from Islam primarily because India is a shining example of Islam’s failure to conquer the idol-worshiping kafirs. But for real bloodshed, one has to look at Pakistan which should be referred to as Pakistan, TC ( something like Washington, D.C.), short form for “Pakistan, Terror Central.” Pakistan is TC because it not only manufactures the greatest amounts of Islamic terrorism, but aside from exporting Islamic terrorism (much of it to India), its domestic consumption of Islamic terrorism is quite significant. Yes, India also consumes some of its home-grown Islamic terrorism but because Pakistan is more Islamic (100 percent) than India (around 20 percent), Pakistan suffers more from Islamic terrorism. 

Islam’s borders, as Huntington wrote, are bloody. Mark Steyn writes (Dec 29th 2009 Wall Street Journal): “The Muslim faith, whatever its merits for the believers, is a problematic business for the rest of us. There are many trouble spots around the world, but as a general rule, it’s easy to make an educated guess at one of the participants: Muslims vs. Jews in “Palestine,” Muslims vs. Hindus in Kashmir, Muslims vs. Christians in Africa, Muslims vs. Buddhists in Thailand, Muslims vs. Russians in the Caucasus, Muslims vs. backpacking tourists in Bali. Like the environmentalists, these guys think globally but act locally.

Pakistan is an Islamic state and its population is nearly 100 percent Muslim. Yet the bloodshed. That’s what Huntington meant when he wrote about Islam’s bloody innards. Shias killing Sunnis and vice versa. Half the Islamic population (females) are oppressed by the other half (males) – and this has religious sanction.

The world is pretty rapidly descending into a hell brought on about by an ideology. Humanity had the guts to oppose Nazism and communism. It appears to have lost the appetite to survive. The historian Arnold Toynbee noted that “civilizations die from suicide, not murder.” I see that happening to the Indian civilization in front my very eyes. Every day I note the main stream media glorifying the ideology that has wreaked havoc on the Indian civilization for centuries. Europe is giving up on the enlightenment that it gained at great cost without a struggle – barring the odd little symbolic moves to ban scarfs or the construction of new minarets.

It is still not too late. We should look at what’s happening in Islamic states such as Pakistan TC, and note that even if the whole world were to become Islamic, the wholesale murder and terrorism will not stop. It will only intensify till the collapse of human civilization. We have to fight back. We have to save ourselves from The Religion of Peace. There is no other option.   

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One of the greatest discoveries in neuroscience Fri, 01 Jan 2010 12:20:20 +0000 According to Keith Hudson, polymath extraordinaire, one of the greatest meta-discoveries in the last 10 years is that “each of us grows millions of new neurons during our lifetime.” Allow me to quote his post to a select list of readers in its entirety before I add my few comments. 

There are some discoveries which the whole world knows about the next day and there are others, of similar potential, which only create a stir among specialists. And some of the latter don’t even create sufficient stir among specialists for its wider implications to be discussed among themselves – at least not in that generation.

During the Christmas period I’ve been reminded of one of the latter after reading Graham Farmelo’s biography of Paul Dirac, one of the most penetrative scientific minds of the last century.  He ranks alongside other geniuses such as Planck, Einstein, Bohr and Kapitza in his own field of physics, or Fisher, Eldridge, Gould and Margulis in biology, or Luria, Eccles, Sperry and Libet in neuroscience.

Strangely, however, there has been no single great mind associated with one of the greatest discoveries in neuroscience, revolutionary though it has been described by more than one its practitioners. It came with a whoosh about ten years ago. It can best be described as a meta-discovery.  It came as the result of many different experiments, none of which were actually aimed at the phenomenon itself.  It was a byproduct. To my knowledge there have been no books written about it so far – it is too recent.

Its implications are enormous, however. Sooner or later, it is going to overturn one of the foundations of modern society and modern politics. But let me backtrack now. What was said in the biography of Dirac?  Farmelo quotes what was said by many other scientists about Dirac in his later years, and it was said by many about many other scientists, too. It is this: “He will have no new ideas now. He is over 30.”

So let me backtrack a bit further now to the great brain discovery of the last ten years. For one thing, it overturned the received wisdom of brain scientists for most of the past century that we grow no new neurons in our brains once we are born. It was said with the same conviction that we develop no more new genes once we are born. But it has been discovered not to be true. Each of us grows millions of new neurons during our lifetime.

They grow in the period between puberty and at around 30 years of age. Before puberty, million of neurons are culled. They are culled as they are not required by the particular environment into which a baby is born and grows up. If an individual is deprived of certain sounds, sights, experiences, skills and ideas up until puberty then many of his potential abilities are blunted for life. The neurons that could have expressed the full potential of that individual no longer exist.

So what about the millions of new neurons that grow after puberty? Can’t they compensate? No, because they grow in the frontal lobes of the brain. The frontal lobes are only mainly involved in supervising the rear brain. Mainly, they can only largely develop the skills that happen to have been laid down already in the rear part of the brain – social, manual, intellectual, artistic, what-have-you. Even then, if those skills have been of a low standard, then it’s a laborious process – often impossible – to raise them further, no matter how hard the frontal lobes try.

So what are the frontal lobes and the millions of new neurons for? Triggered into existence by sex hormones, they’re preparing the individual for the adult world. And the most important of the rear brain skills that are developed are the social skills. If the pre-pubescent child hasn’t learned the full gamut of basic social skills then even the frontal lobes can’t rectify the deficiencies. Correspondingly, there’s a whole gamut of psychopathologies as a result, ranging from mildly neurotic individuals through to killers and megalomaniacs.

Without at least some social skills, even potential geniuses can’t burgeon after puberty. Even Paul Dirac, hardly ever being able to converse normally in childhood and for the rest of his life, came close to being sidelined into dead-end jobs very early on. He had some lucky breaks, however, in opportunities that came along and in older people who recognized his potential.

So how is all this going to “overturn one of the foundations of modern society and modern politics”, as I wrote above? It is that modern complex society can’t afford to have an old population. If it becomes deficient in young minds then new ideas will find it even harder to be discussed, or funded, never mind being adopted. 

Quite beside this, national economies will not be able to afford health care — or even basic care — for the old in future years. When state pensions were first adopted there were eight workers who could be taxed to support every old person. Now it’s already getting towards only two or three workers to every old person in most advanced countries. Within a generation, it will be one-to-one. A generation afterwards it will be one worker supporting more than one elderly person besides himself and his own children — if he can afford to have any!

Governments know this already, of course, even though the politicians dare not say so to their electorates. Society will adjust, just as it always has done. For most of our 100,000 years anyway. Hunter-gatherer societies had a multitude of cultural ways of dealing with their old folk when they became too heavy an economic burden — starving them, bludgeoning them, leaving them behind on their nomadic travels, even eating them sometimes. Unless a group did so it imperiled its own future existence.

This is already happening in advanced society of course. In a kindly way, terminally ill people in some hospitals are being deprived of food to send them on their way quicker; less kindly, increasing number of old people in nursing homes are being treated cruelly; and increasing numbers of old people are living isolated lives, not even understanding the welfare benefits that are theoretically available to them, and dying alone.

So we are adjusting already, but it’s all surreptitious so far. It’s not being brought out into the open and honestly debated. This will have to happen one day – but, as always, such a momentous change will take at least another generation to be ancted into legislation.

But this – allied though it is – has been a diversion from my main thought today. The discovery of frontal lobe development, and that the vast majority of the seminal ideas only come from the pre-30 year olds will also have to be faced. That will probably take yet another generation after voluntary and involuntary euthanasia has finally become politically acceptable.

At the present time the white populations of Europe and America either can’t afford or don’t want to have more than two children per family. Thus, they’re going extinct, never mind being able to support ever-larger proportions of old people. And, probably, once immigrant non-whites have integrated into the culture of the whites they, too, will have less than replacement-sized families. 

There’s nothing more certain that mankind is on the path to extinction at present. There’s only one solution that I can see: “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”  And, in all animal species so far – millions of them – when the going get tough, the tough fork off into a new species. If and when such a new Homo species is established then it will also have to carry at least three new cultural traits with it. The first is that old people must be cropped before they become too burdensome, the second is that it will have to organize itself so that parents can afford more than two children per family, the third is that it will fully appreciate the talent that is presently going to waste both in pre-pubescence and also in the ideas that arise in the frontal lobes of their young adults.

So what of the value of my ideas – being 74 years of age? I think they’re valuable because they’re not mine but have been in existence for at least a century now. Think of H. G. Wells or Aldous Huxley, for example. And those authors certainly engaged my mind before I was 30 years old. So I’m really only regurgitating what my own frontal lobes were already thinking about 50 years ago.  

Keith Hudson

I concur with his view that mankind is on the path to extinction. I also think that it is reasonable to argue that a new Homo species could be on the cards. My reason for posting Keith’s post is somewhat different. It has to do with the implications of the neurological development of humans.

My point is that if we neglect to provide a well-rounded education to our pre-pubescent population (of which there are a few hundred million in India), we are forever dooming them to stunted intellectual growth. Let me repeat what Keith notes above: “Before puberty, million of neurons are culled. They are culled as they are not required by the particular environment into which a baby is born and grows up. If an individual is deprived of certain sounds, sights, experiences, skills and ideas up until puberty then many of his potential abilities are blunted for life. The neurons that could have expressed the full potential of that individual no longer exist.”

Our policymakers of course are blissfully ignorant of these facts. Otherwise we would be doing whatever we could to change the education system.

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Is it our moral responsibility to save drowning children? Fri, 01 Jan 2010 05:23:48 +0000 Most emphatically yes, if it is within your power to do so. A child accidentally falls into a river and your jump in without a second’s thought – assuming that you can swim – and save the child. But what if there are people who are thoughtlessly or even deliberately pushing children into the river. Should you continue to be fully engaged in saving the drowning children or must you at least tackle the problem where it originates, and go tie up the adults who are dropping children into the river?

My friend Nihar over at uses the analogy of saving drowning children in his new year musings to argue that we, the non-poor, have a moral responsibility for charitable giving for the benefit of the poor. I find much value in that argument. While I am willing to burden the rich with giving, I also have to hold the poor responsible to no small extent for the poverty in the world. The poor, as I have argued before, are responsible for their poverty. 

Here’s a brief response I wrote to Nihar’s post, for the record.

Nihar, an excellent post with valuable insights.

I agree with your view that helping alleviating at least some of the horrendous misery that exists around the world is an imperative for moral people. That said, I would like to look at the obverse side of the issue. It is good to hold people to higher moral standards and demand that they meet them. If one pushes responsibility on the affluent, one should also demand the non-affluent to be more responsible as well. Though cliched, it is still true that it takes two to tango. Alleviation of poverty cannot be the sole responsibility of the non-poor. Perhaps the poor are to some extent — maybe even to a major extent — responsible for their poverty.

If one puts a collective burden the rich to solve poverty, one should also put a collective responsibility on the poor for their poverty. I say collective because individuals are helpless to do anything about the circumstances of their birth. Life is a random draw and you don’t get to choose your parents. Collectively the poor help perpetuate their poverty by their fecundity. If the number of children born to poor parents exceeds the capacity of the society to lift children out of poverty and provide them with a decent shot at life, then the numbers of the poor will continue to expand.

Today you save one poor child from drowning, to use your analogy. But that poor child grows up and produces more children and the world then gets burdened with the saving of multiple children from drowning. At some point, you have to impress on people that they have a personal responsibility towards the children they produce — and that if they cannot care for the children they bring into the world, they out of basic human decency should avoid doing so. It is selfish for adults to procreate in circumstances where neither the adults nor the society has the wherewithal to take care of the children. The rights of the children must matter, not just the rights of the adults who have the opportunity to have sexual intercourse.

The charities that I support of two kinds: the first, those who help provide education to the children of the poor; the second, those that help the poor have only that many children as they can provide for. The former helps those unfortunates whose parents were irresponsible; the latter helps prevent more unfortunates from being born.

Warm regards,

What say you?

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Indians don’t like sex and don’t have sex Wed, 30 Dec 2009 08:24:05 +0000 That, dear boys and girls, is clearly not so. First of all, the storks did not deliver the babies that go on to make up the 1.2 billion population. There aren’t that many storks in the world. Clearly Indians do have sex and I am certain that some even like it. Humans are sexual beings (just like all sexually reproducing species). Though going by Indian politicians it may appear that Indians are pond-scum, Indians are indeed humans. Therefore it is not the least surprising that Indians like sex. 

The government of India, however, does not like Indians to like sex. That’s your paternalistic government for you. That’s the cha-cha Nehru government for you. No cha-cha would like to allow his incompetent nieces and nephews to look at sexually explicit material, leave alone having sex. It’s all for the good of the people, of course. The government would like to control what you read, what you see, what you write, what you think. Wonderful, isn’t it? I just love the government of India to bits – in a platonic way, of course. 

I just did a search on for “sex”. I captured a part of the screen of results. That picture appears on the top of this post. 

A Guardian article reports: 

A Guardian investigation has discovered that several internet companies have quietly introduced filters to prevent Indian users from accessing sexual content.

The Yahoo search engine and Flickr photo-sharing site (owned by Yahoo) altered their sites earlier this month to prevent users in India from switching off the safe-search facility. The block also applies to users in Singapore, Hong Kong and Korea.

Microsoft has also barred Indian users of its Bing search engine from searching for sexual content. Users who do try to search for sexual material receive a notice informing them that “your country or region requires a strict Bing SafeSearch setting, which filters out results that might return adult content”.

The clampdown is understood to be in response to recent changes to India’s Information Technology Act of 2000, which bans the publication of pornographic material.

That law, which is based on a 150-year-old statute (section 292 of the Indian penal code), defines obscenity as “any content that is lascivious and that will appeal to prurient interest or the effect of which is to tend to deprave or corrupt the minds of those who are likely to see, read or hear the same”.

You read that right. Indians were repressed by laws that reflect the Victorian prudishness of the colonial rulers of India and after 1947, cha-cha Nehru, his descendants and their minions impose the same idiotic, imperialistic, insane, anti-human, irrational, senseless, paternalistic bullshit laws on Indians. 

Note that like cattle, the Indians meekly obey. No wonder Indians worship cows. The bovine attitude of the Indian population makes it quite appropriate to worship cows.

More seriously, it is not Big Brother but Big Daddy that is threatening India. Go read the Binu Karunakaran Jan 2009 article “India Sleepwaks to Total Surveillance” in and feel very afraid.

It was our age of innocence and Kafka wasn’t thought to be a realist. Under repressive regimes people lived in constant fear, but the terror they felt and the machinery that enforced it was tangible.

Not any more. We live in a time when information about our personal lives and behaviour are being gathered, stored and shared by governments and multinational corporations on a scale that no one ever thought was humanly possible.

In the name of fighting terrorism governments across the world have been creating new regulations that infinitely augment the state power of surveillance with no meaningful public or parliamentary debate.

The Information Technology (Amendment) Bill, 2006 passed by the Indian Parliament recently allows the government to intercept messages from mobile phones, computers and other communication devices to investigate any offence. Not just cognizable offence, the kind you witnessed in Mumbai 26/11, but any offence.

Any email you send, any message you text are now open to the prying eyes of the government. So are the contents of your computer you surfed in the privacy of your home.

Around 45 amendments have been made to the original Act, which now treats both publishers of online pornography and its consumers on equal footing. A law so sweeping in its powers that it allows a police officer in the rank of a sub-inspector to walk in or break in to the privacy of your home and see if you were surfing porn or not. It’s the personal morality of the official that will decide whether the picture/content you were looking at was lascivious or appeals to prurient interest.

The amended Act also grants the state absolute power to block access to any website in the national interest. In short a total gag and surveillance act that doesn’t set any limits for law enforcers, or have inbuilt safeguards against misuse.

It is sickening how easily people give up their freedom. No wonder in the last 800 years or so, India has been sorta-kinda free for about 60 odd years. No, I take that back: Indians are not really free yet – the socialistic, licence, control, permit, quota, reservation raj is nothing even remotely close to freedom. 

As I say, if your government does not allow you basic freedoms such as that to read, write, watch and publish what you wish, you must be living in a third world country.

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The Truth about Global Warming Mon, 28 Dec 2009 05:19:11 +0000 Actually that is a provocative title. We are non-experts in the debate and we certainly cannot be sure of what the truth is. As lay persons in this context, the best we can do is to carefully read the evidence on both sides of the issue with — and here’s the important bit — a skeptical mind. 

This article by the Viscount Mockton of Brenchley, “The Scientific American’s Climate Lies“, is instructive and well-written. It presents the view of those whom the Viscount Mockton calls skeptics but the Scientific American refers to pejoratively as contrarians, naysays and denialists. The author of the article points out logical fallacies such as the head-count fallacy and the reputation fallacy in the arguments that SA uses against the skeptics. Monckton quotes TH Huxley (“Darwin’s bulldog”), “The improver of natural knowledge absolutely refuses to acknowledge authority, as such. For him, skepticism is the highest of duties: blind faith the one unpardonable sin.” (1860). 

Here’s a bit from the article, for the record:

Straw Man 1: “Anthropogenic CO2 can’t be changing climate, because CO2 is only a trace gas in the atmosphere and the amount produced by humans is dwarfed by the amount from volcanoes and other natural sources. Water vapor is by far the most important greenhouse gas, so changes in CO2 are irrelevant.”

True skeptical argument: CO2 is a greenhouse gas, second only to water vapor. It is settled science that the direct effect of adding it to the atmosphere will be some warming – but not very much. The effect of measured changes in cloud cover over the past 30 years has caused at least four times as much warming as CO2, which is a bit-part player. Water vapor concentration – column absolute humidity – increases as the atmosphere warms, theoretically causing an amplifying feedback that is, however, offset partly by the lapse-rate feedback and partly by the cloud-albedo feedback, which the IPCC finds strongly positive when it is in fact strongly negative. Even large volcanic eruptions do not cause significant increases in measured CO2 concentration: to this extent, therefore, volcanoes are irrelevant.

My view: there may or may not be a global warming trend. That is an empirical question. Warming to what degree is also an empirical question. Then the question is whether or to what degree is the warming due to human activity. And then finally, if there is something that humans can do to arrest the warming (regardless of the cause of the warming) and at what cost. 

It could be that warming is partly anthropogenic (attributable to human activity.) Even then, we have to choose between the costs and benefits of fixing that bit. But even after fixing that bit, what we cannot control (yet) is the non-anthropogenic bits. What if the NA bits overwhelm the A bits? That is an empirical question. What we know for sure is that the future generations will be richer and more technologically advanced than the present generation. We have to consider how much this (poorer) generation is willing to give up for the sake of the future (richer) generations when realistically they can afford more than we can to address problems (anthropogenic or not).






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The Spiritual versus the Material Sun, 27 Dec 2009 06:34:48 +0000 I came across this bit of wisdom in an email. “Growing older gives us an opportunity to sort through our value system. For example, we can better see that the spiritual really does contribute more to our life than the economic. We finally agree with the philosopher who says that who we are influences our happiness much more than what we have.”

That raised the question: Is it indeed true that ‘the spiritual does contribute more to our life than the economic’? I don’t think that the answer is an unqualified yes. I believe that the proper answer is “It depends.” It depends on what the levels of the two factors are in one’s life. If you are so materially deprived that it is nearly impossible for the body and soul (as they say) to stay integrated, then the economic is most certainly going to contribute more to you than the spiritual. If starvation threatens one’s life, a loaf of bread will be more welcome than a spirited sermon on the futility of merely seeking the material. But if one has a surfeit of material goods at one’s service, then a bit of pondering on the ceaseless change as the nature of the universe would be good.

Wisdom dictates the the middle way, avoiding the extremes. That was one of the Buddha’s insights and Buddhism is the “Middle-wayed Way.” I believe that disparaging the material and elevating the spiritual unconditionally is unwise.

Several world religions preach that material things are unimportant. That appears to be wise. Note the word “appears.” Here’s a bit on that from a previous post from Sept 2004 titled “Why, oh why, are they so materialistic?” 

Indeed material belongings are unimportant. If several religions of the world make that point, they are indeed right. But if they don’t go to the next step, they have only a partial grasp of the true nature of things. The next step is to make sure that one does not get bogged down with having to mess around with the unimportant. Here is where “The Panchatantra” is wiser than most half-assed religions.

 From the introduction to the translation of the Panchatantra by Arthur Ryder:

“The Panchatantra, being very wise, never falls into the vulgar error of supposing money to be important. Money must be there, in reasonable amount, because it is unimportant, and what wise man permits things unimportant to occupy his mind? … Needless to say, worldly property need not be, indeed should not be, too extensive, since it has no value in possession, but only in use…”

Most people are “materialistic” because they don’t have sufficient material. If they had the required material, they would not be “materialistic.” Humans are rational creatures. They will not bother with something that is unimportant. A thing only becomes important when there is a shortage. To make a thing unimportant, see that reasonable amounts of the stuff is available.

Water is unimportant only when there is sufficient amounts available to go around. If you are stranded in a lifeboat, water becomes important. You can make the most impassioned speeches about the greatness of self-sacrifice and nobleness of sharing, but it will not amount to a hill of beans when there is only a little water left and people have to fight to survive.

The objection would be that some people can be “too materialistic.” Let me try to understand that. I suppose it means that some people spend too much of their time running after material things. So what? It is their time and it is what they evidently value. They have nothing better to do. For myself, beyond my basic material requirements (basic as defined by me, not by anyone else), I am quite happy to pursue other interests that I have. As far as I am concerned, a person who spends all his time and effort gathering stuff is more to be pitied than censured. He is being stupid and missing out on other things that life has to offer.

Running after material things at the cost of everything else is stupid, not immoral. So the proper attitude towards these people ought to be, “You are astonishingly stupid”, not “Be good or else god will punish you.” 

An old favorite British TV series was “Bless Me, Father.” The stories were about an old parish priest and his young curate. At one point, the curate complains, “Father, why do you spend so much time with the rich. Don’t you think that the poor need our spiritual guidance more than the rich?” The old priest replies, “No, that is not true. The rich need us more. They don’t even have the comfort of the illusion that money is the answer to life’s miseries.” (It’s been a while and the dialog is from memory. So it’s actually a a paraphrase.)

We need material stuff because we are made of stuff. But that is something so obvious that it escapes our notice. Let’s not forget that.

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The Islamic terrorists are winning – here’s why Sun, 27 Dec 2009 08:02:28 +0000 Because the world is too chicken-shit scared to take the fight to them.

We are giving up our basic freedoms little by little in response to every act of Islamic terrorism. Both in the air and on the ground. A few years ago I was at a duty free shop in Sydney, waiting in line to pay for my bottle of scotch. The Australian in front of me was furious. He was told that it was too late for him to buy his scotch because he could not take it on board himself and it was too late for the duty free shop to get the bottle delivered to his flight. In his frustration, he yelled, “F**k {insert one monotheistic religion’s name here}”. The others in line said, “Amen.”

Every time we go through airport security in the US, we have to remove our shoes and put them through the scanner. Thanks to the Islamic “shoe-bomber.” The latest Islamic terrorist, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, stuffed explosives in his underwear close to his testicles. Will the Transportation Safety Authority of the USA now grope your gonads to check for explosives? Strip search perhaps. It appears that we average unbelievers have to pay for the crimes of the believers. Why? Because it would be too distasteful to profile Muslim males between the ages of 18 and 58. 

So what’s the TSA’s response? Take away a little bit of freedom from the passengers of planes flying to the U.S. 

Dec. 26 (Bloomberg) – Airline passengers traveling to the U.S. from other countries were ordered to remain seated for the last hour in flight, and were limited to one carry-on item in response to an attempted terrorist attack yesterday on a Northwest Airlines flight to Detroit from Amsterdam.

New U.S. Transportation Security Administration rules also prohibit passengers from getting anything from their carry-on bags or having anything in their laps in the final hour of flight, the agency said. Air Canada and British Airways informed passengers of the rules in statements on their Web sites. [Source.]

Imprisoned in the seat for a full hour before landing. And no keeping stuff on your lap. My response on reading that was the same as that Aussie’s in the checkout line. 

As I said, not just in the air. I enter my office building in Lower Parel in Mumbai and I have to go through metal a metal detector and my backpack is scanned. The security at the gate of the office complex checks the car under-body for explosives. At the train stations in Mumbai, one has to run the gauntlet of metal detectors and hand-held scanners. I enter the housing complex in Pune where I live and the security guy has to note down details of who I am, where I live, why I am coming back so late at night, my mother’s maiden name, and other details. That is supposed to make me feel safe from Islamic terrorism. 

The list goes on. And keeps on increasing as the Islamic terrorism attacks grow more varied and imaginative.

I cannot carry on a little bottle of water on flights. Why? Because a bunch of Islamic terrorists were discovered making plans to take on liquid explosives on board a dozen transatlantic airliners a few years ago. The insane response of the TSA was to bar all liquids carried by all people – even infant formula. It is insane. Let’s just ignore the elephant in the room and go after the fly. As Andrew Sullivan wrote:

. . . when I watch little old ladies have their lipstick removed in the security line and my own mother all but strip-searched coming to my wedding, you wonder why someone named Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab who’s on a no-fly list could have gotten through security with an explosive contraption strapped to his leg. 

(Note: That guy was actually not on a “no-fly” list. He was only on a list of suspected terrorists. Yeah. That’s the logic. Terrorists suspects are alright just so as long as they are from the RoP.)

The US is run by idiots. I used to think that with the departure of G. W. Bush, things would improve. But clearly the U.S. decided that it would be nice to jump from the frying pan into the fire. I was wrong to assume that there couldn’t be greater idiots than G. W. Bush. 

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Rajan Parrikar’s photo blog Sun, 27 Dec 2009 05:19:08 +0000 Rajan Parrikar is a friend of mine who lives in Mt View, California. He is an amateur photographer and shares some of his pictures on his photo blog. Recently he put up a series titled “Barges” which I want to share with you. He writes:

The flotilla of barges plying in Goa’s rivers presents a charming diversion to the tourist, but this picture postcard scene masks a dark and ominous reality.

Goa is being mined to death, with devastating consequences, some of them not yet upon us. Forests have been flattened, and beautiful villages trashed, muddied, their air rendered unbreathable with toxic particulates. Health problems among villagers are on the rise. The rapid spread of groundwater pollution has imperiled Goa’s water supply. Left unchallenged, the miners will bring about Goa’s demise long before the effects of climate change kick in.

Enabling and profiteering from this destructive effort are Goa’s criminal Chief Minister Digambar Kamat – himself a beneficiary of the scores of new mining leases sanctioned (by him) – and his cronies. As the most venal man ever to be elected to the state’s top political office (that takes some doing given the superlative standards of corruption attained to by Goan politicians) Digambar Kamat’s rightful place is behind bars. But India is not a nation governed by the rule of law.

These days on the River Mandovi there is a virtual traffic jam of barges pregnant with iron ore. The Chinese are paying top dollar and the mining mafia along with their political bedfellows are raking in the moolah, environment and people be damned.

Although these images make a political statement (fine with me) I shot them because I saw photographic merit in the compositions. The first three were taken from the Mandovi bridge in Panjim soon after sunrise, the last from the ferry in Old Goa on a stormy afternoon.

Go take a look at Rajan Parrikar’s Photo Blog. And if you are interested in Indian classical (Hindustani) music, you will be delighted by his writings on the subject. 

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The Deep Roots of the Indian Civilization Sun, 27 Dec 2009 04:52:01 +0000 In a recent review of B. B. Lal’s book “How Deep are the Roots of the Indian Civilization? Archeology Answers”, Sandhya Jain wrote in the Pioneer:

Town planning, especially given the chaos in our cities today, will remain ancient India’s greatest contribution to civilisation. Be it Kalibangan, or Sisupalgarh near Bhubaneshwar, Orissa, the grid pattern with streets running north-south and east-west was the rage. This, it is pertinent, was an era in which Egypt or Mesopotamia (the West’s favourite ‘cradle’ of civilisation) had no notion of such town planning. The idea, it must be conceded, was original to India. To cap it all, there were covered drains and manholes for discharge of sullage.

Bricks were kiln-fired, and there was bonding, with bricks laid out in alternate courses — length-wise and breadth-wise — for strong walls, way back in the third millennium BCE. And clay floors were soled with fragments of terracotta nodules and large pieces of charcoal — to absorb moisture, prevent dampness travelling up the walls, and inhibiting termites! 


Town planning is just one example of an area where India led the world at some stage but later gave up the race. What it comes down to is that Indian civilization has declined for centuries from time to time. I believe that for India to ever have a hope of catching up with the world, India has to have proper cities. Here’s a bit from the post from April 2007 titled “Ancient Cities, Modern Slums

Isn’t it astonishing that 2,600 years ago, when most of the world was living in tiny little human settlements, the Indus Valley civilization had well-planned cities of Harappa and Mohenjodaro?

“Some of these cities appear to have been built based on a well-developed plan. The streets of major cities such as Mohenjo-daro and Harappa were paved and were laid out at right angles (and aligned north, south, east or west) in a grid pattern with a hierarchy of streets (commercial boulevards to small residential alleyways), somewhat comparable to that of present day New York. The houses were protected from noise, odors, and thieves, and had their own wells, and sanitation. And the cities had drainage, large granaries, water tanks, and well-developed urban sanitation,” the Wikipedia article on urban planning says.

What is even more astonishing is that now, two and a half millennia later, most of the current inhabitants of land of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro civilization live not in well planned cities but in tiny little impoverished villages, and some in unplanned congested mega-slums. The shame of the whole thing is that as a collective not only have they lost the knowledge of what cities mean but they don’t even dream of building and inhabiting cities. One wonders when the regression started and what led to the death of the spirit that built those ancient cities. Something snuffed out the spirit, something killed those dreams, something made the inheritors of such great vision and accomplishment into myopic poverty-stricken masses living in misery, huddled into very primitive small villages.


As V S Naipaul put it, India is a wounded civilization. The first step to fix that must be to boldly admit that fact. Then the next step will be to figure out how and why it got to be so. And only then can we move ahead with fixing the problem. 

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The Mystery of Money, Gold Prices and the Dollar Mon, 21 Dec 2009 05:17:45 +0000 Though all of us use it, money is one of the most mysterious things that humans have created. As an economist, I am supposed to know what money is but I frankly admit that I don’t have the faintest clue about money. Of course I know that money is not real in the sense that unlike say a lump of iron or a piece of timber, money is an abstract concept. The representation of that abstract concept has to be in terms of some material. As time has gone by, the material representing money has become less materialistic, so to speak. It began with special stones, cowries, special metals (gold, silver, etc.), then on to paper, and now we have bits and bytes in computer memory.

Money, being an abstraction, can be created and destroyed at will. But material stuff cannot be so easily created and destroyed. If you linked the amount of money you create to the amount of some stuff (say gold), then it puts a limit to how much money you create. That could be a good thing because it helps keep the supply of money reasonably constant. Why do we want the money supply to be somewhat constant? Because it helps with our accounting and therefore our plans for the future. If the supply of money expands too much relative to the supply of goods and services, we have what is called “price inflation” or just plain inflation. Inflation is itself an abstract notion but it has an impact on the real world because of the way it affects human behavior. We trade not only across space but across time, and these trades involve money as a means of keeping account of who owes whom how much. If the value of money keeps changing too rapidly, it becomes harder to trade. This leads to welfare losses. 

Money is not a real thing, as I mentioned above. If every one of us were to have all our money magically doubled instantly, it would not affect us at all. Assuming that the amount of real goods and services available also did not magically double instantly, the doubling of the amount of money would only double the price of all goods and services. We would still be able to buy the same amount of stuff as before. Prices express a relationship between the amount of money and the amount of stuff. If the amount of stuff grows (or shrinks) with the growth (or shrinking) of the amount of money, the price remains the same. Otherwise the price appropriately goes up or down. 

Price changes though the interaction of the demand and supply of stuff and the amount of money. 

So if the price of gold goes up to say $1,200 per ounce and previously it was $400 per ounce, we have to ask what happened? Did the amount of dollars increase? Or did the amount of gold decrease? Or did the demand for gold increase? Or was it a combination of those factors?

Here’s a report that says that “Gold is not going up — Paper Money is going down

Paper Money Collapsing against Gold – The problem with paper money is that governments can create unlimited amounts. This is what they have done throughout history and especially in the last 100 years and which has led to the total destruction of most currencies. Most people don’t even understand that their government makes their money worthless. Money printing gives them the illusion of being richer whilst all they have are pieces of paper with more zeros on them.  But there is one currency that governments can’t print which is gold. Gold has been real money for almost 5,000 years and it is the only currency that has survived throughout history. Gold can’t be printed and no government controls it. Therefore gold will, over time, always reveal governments’ fraudulent actions in creating money out of thin air. And this is what we are experiencing currently. Gold is not going up. Instead gold is doing what it has always done, namely maintaining its value and purchasing power. What we are seeing currently is the total annihilation of paper money whether it is Dollars, Pounds or Euros etc. The chart below shows the US dollar against gold.In the last 10 years the dollar has declined by 79% against gold. Most currencies have declined by similar percentages. So it is an illusion to believe that gold is going up when it is the value of paper money that is going down. All gold is doing is to reflect the virtually limitless printing of paper currencies. Since gold can’t be printed, it is the only honest currency that exists. This is why many governments don’t like gold increasing in value against their paper money since it exposes their total incompetence in running their country’s economy.

A related item which I find instructive is by Rakesh Mohan on the future of the dollar in McKinsey

The outbreak of the global financial crisis was preceded by an extended period of persistent financial imbalances. These imbalances stemmed from the symbiotic relationship between the US, with its huge current account deficits, and China (as well as some other countries) that had equally persistent trade surpluses and which financed the US deficits with large capital inflows. These imbalances were fueled further by the very sharp increase in oil prices that occurred after 2003, leading to large surpluses in oil exporting countries. As global cross-border flows exploded during this period, along with accommodative monetary policy in the United States, severe pressures emerged that affected exchange rate determination across the world. The US dollar tended to depreciate significantly with respect to most other floating currencies. As a consequence, with much international trade being transacted in dollars, some countries intervened in their foreign exchange markets to restrain currency and monetary volatility in order to maintain domestic financial stability. That led to increases in dollar prices of many commodities and a spiral of further reserve accumulation. With the outbreak of the global financial crisis after the Lehman episode, the initial reaction in world financial markets was capital flight to US “safety,” which led to a rise in the value of the dollar, even though the crisis originated in the dollar’s home country. Such is the status of the United States in the global political economy and in global markets. This is also why the dollar is the world’s primary reserve currency, the unit of exchange, and store of value. It was only after financial markets began to return to some degree of normalcy that fundamentals seemed to reassert themselves in the dollar’s valuation. Now, as the dollar has depreciated, concerns have arisen regarding its status as the world’s reserve currency.

Like I said before, money is pretty mysterious. Not just to you and me, but to all those who we think must know. It must be so because if it were not so mysterious, there would be no heated debates about why the world goes through all kinds of financial crises and what to do about them. 

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Maybe We’ve Been Railroaded into the Global Climate Change Hysteria Mon, 21 Dec 2009 04:35:26 +0000 Folk wisdom puts the matter crudely but accurately that when enough of the smelly stuff accumulates, eventually it hits the big rotating blades. When that happens, the accumulated stuff gets spread around. I am reminded of this in connection with what’s being called “Climategate.” Dr Pachauri, the chairman of the IPCC, appears to be a major player in this sordid story. Widely regarded as a leading climatologist, Dr Pachauri is actually a railroad engineer with a PhD in economics. There are questions whether Pachauri actually railroaded the world for personal gains.

Last week Lord Monckton raised some penetrating questions about Dr Pachauri’s speech at the Copenhagen conference on global warming. He wrote 

Pachauri was just a couple of seats away, so I gave him a letter from me and Senator Fielding of Australia, pointing out that the headline graph in the IPCC’s 2007 report, purporting to show that the rate of warming over the past 150 years had itself accelerated, was fraudulent.

Would he use the bogus graph in his lecture? I had seen him do so when he received an honorary doctorate from the University of New South Wales. I watched and waited. 

Sure enough, he used the bogus graph. I decided to wait until he had finished, and ask a question then.

Pachauri then produced the now wearisome list of lies, fibs, fabrications and exaggerations that comprise the entire case for alarm about “global warming”. He delivered it in a tired, unenthusiastic voice, knowing that a growing majority of the world’s peoples – particularly in those countries where comment is free – no longer believe a word the IPCC says.

They are right not to believe. Science is not a belief system. But here is what Pachauri invited the audience in Copenhagen to believe.

Then he proceeded to poke huge holes in Pachari’s claims. Here are a select few:

7. Pachauri said that the proportion of tropical cyclones that are high-intensity storms has increased in the past three decades. However, he was very careful not to point out that the total number of intense tropical cyclones has actually fallen sharply throughout the period.

8. Pachauri said that the activity of intense Atlantic hurricanes had increased since 1970. This is simply not true, but it appears to be true if – as one very bad scientific paper in 2006 did – one takes the data back only as far as that year. Take the data over the whole century, as one should, and no trend whatsoever is evident.  Here, Pachauri is again using the same statistical dodge he used with the UN’s bogus “warming-is-getting-worse” graph: he is choosing a short run of data and picking his start-date with care so as falsely to show a trend that, over a longer period, is not significant.

9. Pachauri said small islands like the Maldives were vulnerable to sea-level rise. Not if they’re made of coral, which is more than capable of outgrowing any sea-level rise. Besides, as Professor Morner has established, sea level in the Maldives is no higher now than it was 1250 years ago, and has not risen for half a century.

And now yesterday’s reports the many commercial connections that “UN climate change guru” Dr Pachauri has and how they lead to conflicts of interests. 

Although Dr Pachauri is often presented as a scientist (he was even once described by the BBC as “the world’s top climate scientist”), as a former railway engineer with a PhD in economics he has no qualifications in climate science at all.

What has also almost entirely escaped attention, however, is how Dr Pachauri has established an astonishing worldwide portfolio of business interests with bodies which have been investing billions of dollars in organisations dependent on the IPCC’s policy recommendations.

These outfits include banks, oil and energy companies and investment funds heavily involved in ‘carbon trading’ and ‘sustainable technologies’, which together make up the fastest-growing commodity market in the world, estimated soon to be worth trillions of dollars a year.

Today, in addition to his role as chairman of the IPCC, Dr Pachauri occupies more than a score of such posts, acting as director or adviser to many of the bodies which play a leading role in what has become known as the international ‘climate industry’.

It is remarkable how only very recently has the staggering scale of Dr Pachauri’s links to so many of these concerns come to light, inevitably raising questions as to how the world’s leading ‘climate official’ can also be personally involved in so many organisations which stand to benefit from the IPCC’s recommendations.

The issue of Dr Pachauri’s potential conflict of interest was first publicly raised last Tuesday when, after giving a lecture at Copenhagen University, he was handed a letter by two eminent ‘climate sceptics’. One was the Stephen Fielding, the Australian Senator who sparked the revolt which recently led to the defeat of his government’s ‘cap and trade scheme’. The other, from Britain, was Lord Monckton, a longtime critic of the IPCC’s science, who has recently played a key part in stiffening opposition to a cap and trade bill in the US Senate.

Their open letter first challenged the scientific honesty of a graph prominently used in the IPCC’s 2007 report, and shown again by Pachauri in his lecture, demanding that he should withdraw it. But they went on to question why the report had not declared Pachauri’s personal interest in so many organisations which seemingly stood to profit from its findings.

The letter, which included information first disclosed in last week’s Sunday Telegraph, was circulated to all the 192 national conference delegations, calling on them to dismiss Dr Pachauri as IPCC chairman because of recent revelations of his conflicting interests.

That news item notes that “the real question mark over TERI’s director-general remains over the relationship between his highly lucrative commercial jobs and his role as chairman of the IPCC.”

TERI is “The Energy Research Institute”, formerly known as the “Tata Energy Research Institute.” The Telegraph concludes with these words.

TERI have, for example, become a preferred bidder for Kuwaiti contracts to clean up the mess left by Saddam Hussein in their oilfields in 1991. The $3 billion (£1.9 billion) cost of the contracts has been provided by the UN. If successful, this would be tenth time TERI have benefited from a contract financed by the UN.

Certainly no one values the services of TERI more than the EU, which has included Dr Pachauri’s institute as a partner in no fewer than 12 projects designed to assist in devising the EU’s policies on mitigating the effects of the global warming predicted by the IPCC.

But whether those 1,700 Corus workers on Teesside will next month be so happy to lose their jobs to India, thanks to the workings of that international ‘carbon market’ about which Dr Pachauri is so enthusiastic, is quite another matter.

So questions about Pachauri raise doubts about TERI and indeed by association companies owned by Tatas across the world. This has all the markings of a great scandal which will affect the global climate for reasoned debate on climate change adversely.






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VidyaGyan: A great idea for rural education Fri, 18 Dec 2009 05:01:45 +0000  

Educating its children has to be the most critical task that any society faces. It is a bellwether task for a society: how well it does in education indicates how well the society is able to do anything else. No society which is a failure in education can ever hope to amount to anything much. 

India’s dismal education system should be cause for the most intense worry and concern. The general disregard and the widespread apathy by the policymakers towards education perhaps arise from the broken education system itself. It’s a catch-22 situation. The movers and shakers of the society are themselves not sufficiently educated to be able to fully appreciate the value of education and don’t appear to have an interest in fixing the system.

There’s good news from time to time, however. People try to make a difference and in ways that make sense. I came to know of one such initiative: VidyaGyan school in the Indian state of UP. 

VidyaGyan is an initiative of the Shiv Nadar Foundation — set up by Shiv Nadar, founder of the U.S.$5 billion technology group HCL. The first school has just opened, taking in 200 students from the fifth grade who scored the highest on the UP state board examinations. From the sixth grade onwards, they will study at VidyaGyan, a residential institute where all expenses are paid. The students are from economically challenged backgrounds, and VidyaGyan aims to mold them into leaders.

“The quality of primary and secondary education in this country is abysmal,” Subramanian says. “We have a few world-class institutes — the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), for instance — in higher education. But there is no equivalent in the primary education space, except for a few private schools in urban areas.”

. . .

The Shiv Nadar Foundation’s mission is to create a more equitable, meritocracy-based society and empower individuals to bridge the socio-economic divide. The foundation aims to achieve this primarily by setting up outstanding educational institutions that provide meritorious students from all walks of life the opportunity to receive a world-class education.  . . .

“We have always believed in building institutions of excellence … to last,” says Nadar. “The school will not only provide these very deserving kids a global education; it will also build leadership and character. These children have risen above exceptionally challenging circumstances to top their districts. Twenty years hence, these kids will not just fill a job vacancy. They will go out and change the world.”

“VidyaGyan [is] personally a very challenging and exciting project for me,” says Roshni Nadar, Nadar’s daughter who is a trustee of the Shiv Nadar Foundation and executive director and CEO of HCL. “The first school is off the ground and the next – possibly at Varanasi – will come up soon. After that, there is the Shiv Nadar University, which will be modeled after top-notch U.S. universities…. [VidyaGyan] is financed entirely by the Shiv Nadar Foundation, which has set aside substantial funds needed for a project of such quality and impact.”

As for the funding required, Subramanian says, “The land cost US$3 million,” he says. “The infrastructure costs another US$7 million.” Not all the money has been spent as some facilities have yet to be built. “Our running costs are US$1,600 per child per year. It will be less — US$1,200 to US$1,400 – when we achieve economies of scale.” This is just the beginning, he adds. “In two years, we will have four or five schools.” The final plan is for a network of more than 50 schools.

[Source: Knowledge at Wharton]

I have been persuaded that this is a good model. Abilities and talents are distributed normally in any population. Rural India has a couple of hundred million children who are of school-going age. Imagine how many extremely talented kids that means. As Stephen Jay Gould remarked, “I am somehow less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.” Not providing education to these is a crying shame and a certain loss to society that it can ill afford. But even those who are not latent Einsteins – such as the rest of us – deserve to have a good shot at a decent life for which a good education is indispensible. 

Every child must have access to basic education. By basic education, I mean that level of education which is the minimum required for living an average life in the society concerned. In our case, that must be high-school equivalent and at least some vocational training sufficient for earning a living wage. The rich can pay for basic education; the poor cannot. There is a way out for the poor, however.

Education makes a person more productive relative to an uneducated person. In general the benefit of education exceeds the cost of that education. So even if a person does not have the means to pay for the education, once educated that person can pay for the education. What needs to be done is to release the credit constraint, as economists put it.

The VidyaGyan model should be coupled with what I call an “intergenerational transfer of resources” mechanism. The generation that gets educated then turns around and pays for the education of the succeeding generation. (I have written about this model on this blog. See the archives.)

Education is too important to be left to the government. But then most things are. I am glad that people like Shiv Nadar are doing their bit.  


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Some Good Stuff Worth Reading Thu, 03 Dec 2009 03:48:04 +0000 An essay by George Orwell “Why Socialists Don’t Believe in Fun“, written in 1943.

Socialist thought has to deal in prediction, but only in broad terms. One often has to aim at objectives which one can only very dimly see. At this moment, for instance, the world is at war and wants peace. Yet the world has no experience of peace, and never has had, unless the Noble Savage once existed. The world wants something which it is dimly aware could exist, but cannot accurately define. This Christmas Day, thousands of men will be bleeding to death in the Russian snows, or drowning in icy waters, or blowing one another to pieces on swampy islands of the Pacific; homeless children will be scrabbling for food among the wreckage of German cities. To make that kind of thing impossible is a good objective. But to say in detail what a peaceful world would be like is a different matter.

Nearly all creators of Utopia have resembled the man who has toothache, and therefore thinks happiness consists in not having toothache. They wanted to produce a perfect society by an endless continuation of something that had only been valuable because it was temporary. The wider course would be to say that there are certain lines along which humanity must move, the grand strategy is mapped out, but detailed prophecy is not our business. Whoever tries to imagine perfection simply reveals his own emptiness. This is the case even with a great writer like Swift, who can flay a bishop or a politician so neatly, but who, when he tries to create a superman, merely leaves one with the impression the very last he can have intended that the stinking Yahoos had in them more possibility of development than the enlightened Houyhnhnms.


From the New Republic Why the West Consistently Underplays the Power of Bad Ideas

Underestimating Ideas:

Karl Bracher, for many years the leading German historian of the Nazi regime, called attention to what he termed “the problem of underestimation” of the causal impact of totalitarian ideology. Bracher argued that before 1933, during the era of Western appeasement in the mid- to late-1930s, and even during the war itself, many of Hitler’s politically influential contemporaries refused to believe that his ideological assertions were actually the basis of his policy. For varying reasons, Marxists, conservatives and liberals defined sophistication as the ability to see past Hitler’s ideological statements to his deeper, more genuine motivations. Hence these “sophisticated” thinkers underestimated the prescriptive intent of his publicly expressed views in foreign policy. (Churchill’s willingness to take Hitler at his word was, of course, the exception that proved the rule.) The enduring merit of Hannah Arendt’s postwar classic, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), lay precisely in its challenge to the reductionist approaches to ideas common among Marxist, liberal and conservative analysts.


From Salon – “Illegal Immigration – Indian Style“.

I suppose an economist could make a case that the overall welfare of the Indian people will rise faster than it would have otherwise if Chinese laborers build new roads and power plants and airports at an accelerated pace. But as we know from the U.S. example, arguments about the impact of outsourcing or illegal immigration on our collective prosperity tend not to make much of an impact on the individual who has been downsized or otherwise lost out competing in the job market with foreign imports.

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The Universe is Lumpy – and so is everything in it Thu, 03 Dec 2009 03:33:15 +0000

It is often claimed that technology will even out differences. Particularly that ICT will be instrumental in all sort of things, including bridging divides. I think it is not so. Technology amplifies differences and, as time goes on, the range of prosperity of human societies will increase.

If uniformity is characteristic of early stages of development of an entity (universe, society, individuals), then inequality in some sense is characteristic of development. Inequality grows with time. Whatever be the moral and ethical dimensions of inequality, the fact appears to be that there is a monotonic increase in inequality among the entities that constitute an entity.

Here I will confine myself to the entity called an economy. Individuals are the basic building blocks of an economy, the cellular units of the body. My conjecture is that as any economy grows, the degree of inequality continues to grow. This is almost as if it were a natural law. Let’s look at the broad sweep of human history.

Five hundred years ago, wealth among humans was unequally distributed. But compared to the unequal distribution of wealth today, it was much less unequal. Granted the fabulously wealthy then had a lot more of land and all sorts of precious stuff but aside from living more comfortable lives, they had access to the same goods and services that the average person had. They could not, for example, get antibiotics or triple heart bypasses or buy first class air travel. Technology has increased what is on offer and thus accentuated the inequality. It is much more meaningful to be fabulously wealthy today than it was ever before in our history. Bill Gates, who epitomizes the wealthy individual, is richer than not just the current generation but is richer than any generation that ever existed. By the same logic, future Bill Gateses will be far richer than the present one.

Here’s more.


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Life is all about Choices — and Paradoxes Thu, 03 Dec 2009 04:06:09 +0000 And the paradox of choice. Economists obsess about choice because at the heart of it all, we have to choose among competing wants since the universe is limited. Being able to choose freely is a good thing but you could have too much of a good thing. A great article exploring the matter of choice and what it means in Scientific American makes interesting reading. You have to choose whether to read it — The Tyranny of Choice (pdf) — or go do something else. The article by Barry Schwartz notes, “it seems that as society grows wealthier and people become freer to do whatever they want, they get less happy. In an era of ever greater personal autonomy, choice and control, what could account for this degree of misery?”

A SURFEIT OF alternatives can cause distress in yet another way: by raising expectations. In the fall of 1999 the New York Times and CBS News asked teenagers to compare their experiences with those their parents had growing up. Fifty percent of children from affluent households said their lives were harder. When questioned further, these adolescents talked about high expectations, both their own and their parents’. They talked about “too muchness”: too many activities, too many consumer choices, too much to learn. As one commentator put it, “Children feel the pressure … to be sure they don’t slide back. Everything’s about going forward. . . . Falling back is the American nightmare.” So if your perch is high, you have much further to fall than if your perch is low.

. . . The news I have reported is not good. We get what we say we want, only to discover that what we want does not satisfy us to the degree that we expect. Does all this mean that we would all be better off if our choices were severely restricted, even eliminated? I do not think so. The relation between choice and wellbeing is complicated. A life without significant choice would be unlivable. Being able to choose has enormous important positive effects on us. But only up to a point. As the number of choices we face increases, the psychological benefits we derive start to level off.

Makes for good reading and thinking about.


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Expectations matter Thu, 03 Dec 2009 03:28:23 +0000 How society actually functions depends on how people expect it to function. Which means that if you could change expectations you could change society. Which requires will and wisdom. 

We behave to a large extent on how others expect us to behave.

It is interesting to understand how expectations are formed. Within a closed system, expectations are endogenous by definition. In open systems, at least part of the expectations must be exogenous. Since individuals are not closed systems – that is, they are influenced by events and things outside of themselves – there is a role for others to influence the expectations that individuals have. For now, I will not go into how expectations are formed. I am only asking how the aggregation of individual behavior influenced by expectations gives rise to macro phenomenon.

People expect trash on the streets in India. That is they expect others to throw trash. That expectation allows them to feel free to add their own (small amount of) trash. Aggregated over many people over an extended period of time, the trash accumulates as the expectation itself gets reinforced. Eventually you have Singapores and Mumbais.

People expect the politicians to be crooks. Their expectation of a lower moral standard allows the politicians to be immoral scum. The immorality of politicians is widely known. The pile of immoral acts grows and at any time there is an average level of depravity. The next politician seeing the huge pile, feels free to add to the heap and indeed goes a little deeper in the depravity department. The average sinks further and people adjust their expectations downwards even more and the vicious cycle continues.

Go read it all.


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Best of the Archives: An integrated rail transportation system Thu, 03 Dec 2009 03:17:15 +0000

India has to have a good long-distance mass transportation system. I have proposed an integrated rail transportation system. Here’s a bit from that.

The crux of my argument is that information and communications technology (ICT) plays a supportive role in an economy. Not unlike in a body, where the nervous system though critical is worthless unless the musculo-skeletal is robust, the digital network is worthless unless there is an underlying non-digital economy of stuff such as manufacturing, agriculture, and services. You need to have factories and farms, roads and railways, schools and shops, houses and hospitals — not just broadband digital 3.5G MP3 camera phones for surfing the web.

Not paying attention to the fact that the “digital economy” has as its foundation the “stuff economy” has perverse consequences of providing the illusion of progress while the system insistently regresses. For instance, unlike in those bad old Pre-internet days, today you can visit the web site for the railways in India and make your train reservation in about a half hour. You no longer have to stand in line for hours on end to get to the ticket counter and find out that there are no seats available for weeks on end. The website will tell you that the trains are full after half an hour.

The illusion of progress — at least to those lucky few who have web access — is short-lived when you realize that though you can attempt to book the seats online, the underlying system has not changed much, if at all. The so-labeled “super fast express” trains make their way at a stately 70 kms an hour average, pretty much what they were capable of doing forty years ago. Thirty years ago, the Shinkansens were doing 200 kms an hour and today they exceed 300 kmph. But in India, we maintain a dignified traditional 70 kms an hour for decades on end.

What India needs to pay attention to is the underlying hard economy which is the infrastructure upon which the soft economy of internet and services can ride. In this one, I will briefly focus on one bit of the hard economy: the railroad transportation system.


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Why Pat Condell is intolerant Wed, 02 Dec 2009 03:28:19 +0000 Good god, the man is intolerant! Foaming at the mouth intolerant. He’s intolerant of misogyny, sexism, racism, homophobia, cruelty to animals, etcetera. He is utterly and brazenly intolerant of those things. And he’s most intolerant of ideologies that justify misogyny, sexism, racism, homophobia, cruelty to animals – those ideologies that arise from the “god of the desert.” His feelings are of utter revulsion at the mention of the monotheistic god. 

Pat Condell, you be the man.


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Best of the Archives: Nehru’s Arrogant Ambition Wed, 02 Dec 2009 03:11:30 +0000

Why did Nehru decide to not align India with the victorious Western nations and instead chose that India should be non-aligned? I believe that it is instructive to examine what the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir did at the time of India’s independence.

Following the withdrawal of the British from India and the creation of Pakistan, the Princely States had the option to align themselves with either the union of India or with the Islamic nation of Pakistan, or remain ‘independent.’ Kashmir chose to be independent. Or more accurately, the Maharaja of Kashmir chose to be independent. It is important to recognize that it was the leader who chose, not the people.

How the existence of J&K as an independent state could be contemplated by any sane person is difficult to understand unless one posits that the Maharaja was not entirely sane. How can a sane person think that the territorial avariciousness of the newly formed Islamic nation would not extend to a beautiful state with nearly half its population Muslims?

I think that Maharaja Hari Singh was insane.

The Maharaja was suffering under a grand delusion — the goal of personal power blinded him to reality and led to his disastrous mistake for which hundreds of millions are paying today. The Maharaja refused to align Kashmir with India until after the Pakistanis invaded. Then he suddenly realized that he wasn’t as great and mighty as he had imagined himself to be. That is when he turned to India to save his sorry ass. Maharaja Hari Singh’s story is the story of Nehru played out on a smaller stage.

There are certain parallels between the actions (or rather the inaction) of the Maharaja during 1947-48, and the actions of the leaders of independent India. The Maharaja, by acceding neither to India nor to Pakistan, wanted to be non-aligned and be independent. In attempting to do so, he failed miserably and ended up being a dhobi ka kutta, na ghar ka, na ghat ka.

India too followed that same policy with equally disastrous results. I lay the blame on Nehru. I believe that his idealism was the result of arrogance rather than wisdom. He saw the world as he wanted it to be rather than seeing the world as it was. Being a pukka Britisher was more important to him than being realistic. So in his attempt to be more British than the English, to do what was ‘cricket,’ he bought into what the British themselves don’t buy.

This is pure conjecture of course but I think that Nehru wanted to be the monarch of an independent India. He could not countenance being the monarch of an India that was certainly going to be a junior partner in any coalition had he aligned India with on either side of the Cold War. In this sense, Nehru was merely following the same impulses that forced Jinnah to demand a separate nation to be the monarch over. They all — from Hari Singh to Jinnah to Nehru — wanted to be king. They were arrogant but their arrogance was not supported by sufficiently powerful armies. Perhaps Nehru should have read and understood Machiavelli at least, even if he was too much of a Pukka Sahib to read Kautilya’s Arthashastra. He should have paid attention to this part of Machiavelli’s The Prince . . .

Read the full piece from 2003


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Does India need a First Amendment? Thu, 03 Dec 2009 03:22:52 +0000 India and the US are two large democracies. One is successful and the other is struggling to develop. One of the pieces that the US has but which is missing in India is the First Amendment. Here’s my position: 

In India, the government is powerful compared to the individual. It exercises that power regularly to suppress individual rights. Why is it important to curb the power of the government in a democracy? Because otherwise vote bank politics give the government the incentive to trample on individuals. And when the individual is trampled beneath the government boot, the society suffers and over sufficient time, poverty is the inevitable consequence.

Go read it all.

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“Ghost workers” in India’s capital? I am shocked. Fri, 04 Dec 2009 05:27:42 +0000 This is pretty scary. There are ghosts who work in the municipal corporation of Delhi. Nearly 23,000 of the 127,000 workers are not real people. Zombies perhaps. The cynically inclined may say that this must be a serious undercount because many of the politicians and bureaucrats – not employees of the municipal corporation – in Delhi are zombies. I tend to disagree, even though I am very cynical. Zombies are pretty innocuous compared to some of the p’s and b’s that devour humans by the millions through their policies. 

Anyhow, here’s a report from the BBC about those “Ghost workers.”

Salaries for the missing Municipal Corporation of Delhi workers add up to nearly $43m a year, City Mayor Kanwar Sain said in a statement. The “gap” was discovered after the authorities introduced a biometric system of recording attendance. Correspondents say it shows some civic officials created a list of “ghost workers” to siphon off state funds.

Civic officials siphoning state funds? I am shocked. Shocked, I say, I am shocked. Who would have ever thunk! No, this can’t happen in India, the land where civil servants are the most honest and dedicated in the world.

A press release issued by Mayor Sain’s office said: “There is a gap of 22,853 employees in the Municipal Corporation of Delhi between the data given by drawing and disbursing officers, the head of the department and the number of employees enrolled for biometric attendance.”

An “in-depth vigilance inquiry will be conducted into the matter to ascertain the facts,” he said.”Strict disciplinary action will be taken against officials who cooked the books,” the mayor said. It was long suspected that the city was being defrauded by “ghost workers”, but the authorities had always denied the charge.

Yeah right. Disciplinary action against massive flagrant public corruption will take place the day pigs fly. 


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What Tatas did post 26/11 Thu, 03 Dec 2009 02:47:50 +0000 The Taj Hotel in Mumbai is a Tata property and one notes that the property is largely restored. Lives too were shattered by Islamic terrorism. What did the Tata’s do? I didn’t hear about it until I came across the following forwarded account. (HT Raj Iyer)

The author is one Dileep Ranjekar. [I have a few comments in parenthesis.] (Pardon the horrid formatting. The interface makes it difficult to do much about it.)

October 10, 2009

Meeting with H N Srinivas – Senior Executive Vice President, Taj Group of Hotels


Last evening, I had a dinner meeting with H N Srinivas in Goa (I was there for a National Institute of Personnel Management conference as a speaker). He narrated the 26th November 2008 terror attack on Taj Mumbai and there were some important points.

A.    Terrorist entry


1. They entered from the Leopold Colaba hotel entrance and also from the northern entrance – spraying indiscriminate bullets on the Taj security personnel and guests in general.

2. Though Taj had a reasonable security – they were surely not equipped to deal with terrorists who were spraying 6 bullets per trigger.

 3. The strategy of the terrorists was to throw chunks of RDX in an open area that will explode and burn – creating chaos so that the guests and staff run helter skelter so that the terrorists could kill them. The idea was to create maximum casualties.

4. There were several critical gatherings and functions happening in the hotel on that day – a Bohra wedding, global meet of Unilever CEOs and Board members and 2 other corporate meetings were being held in the hotel – besides the usual crowd.

5. The firing and chaos began at about 8.30 p.m. and the staff including employees on casual and contract basis displayed exemplary presence of mind, courage and sacrifice to protect the guests who were in various halls and conference rooms.

B.    Stories of Staff Heroics

1. A young lady guest relation executive with the HLL gathering stopped any of the members going out and volunteered 3 times to go out and get stuff such as ice cubes for whiskey of the guests when the situation outside the hall was very explosives and she could have been easily the target of the bullets  [That’s not heroic — that’s stupidity. AD]

2. Thomas George a captain escorted 54 guests from a backdoor staircase and when he was going down last he was shot by the terrorists

  3. There were 500 emails from various guests narrating heroics of the staff and thanking them for saving their lives

4. In a subsequent function, Ratan Tata broke down in full public view and sobbed saying – “the company belongs to these people”. The wife of Thomas George who laid his life saving others said, she and the kids were proud of the man and that she did not know that for 25 years she lived with a man who was so courageous and brave 

5. The episode happened on 26th November, a significant part of the hotel was burnt down and destroyed – the hotel was re-opened on 21st December and all the employees of the hotel were paraded in front of the guests [What’s this supposed to mean? AD]

6. It was clearly a saga of extra-ordinary heroics by ordinary people for their organisation and in a way for their country. The sense of duty and service was unprecedented

7. The young lady who protected and looked after the HLL guests was a management trainee and we often speak of juniority and seniority in the organisation. She had no instructions from any supervisor to do what she did

a. She took just 3 minutes to rescue the entire team through the kitchen

b. Cars were organised outside the hotel as per seniority of the members

c. In the peak of the crisis, she stepped out and got the right wine glass for the guest [They were elegantly drinking wine at the peak of the crisis? AD] 

8. People who exhibited courage included janitors, waiters, directors, artisans and captains – all level of people


C. The Tata Gesture

1. All category of employees including those who had completed even 1 day as casuals were treated on duty during the time the hotel was closed

2. Relief and assistance to all those who were injured and killed

3. The relief and assistance was extended to all those who died at the railway station, surroundings including the “Pav-Bhaji” vendor and the pan shop owners

4. During the time the hotel was closed, the salaries were sent my money order

5. A psychiatric cell was established in collaboration with Tata Institute of Social Sciences to counsel those who needed such help

6. The thoughts and anxieties going on people’s mind was constantly tracked and where needed psychological help provided

7. Employee outreach centres were opened where all help, food, water, sanitation, first aid and counselling was provided. 1600 employees were covered by this facility

8. Every employee was assigned to one mentor and it was that person’s responsibility to act as a “single window” clearance for any help that the person required 

9. Ratan Tata personally visited the families of all the 80 employees who in some manner – either through injury or getting killed – were affected.

10. The dependents of the employees were flown from outside Mumbai to Mumbai and taken care off in terms of ensuring mental assurance and peace. They were all accommodated in Hotel President for 3 weeks

11. Ratan Tata himself asked the families and dependents – as to what they wanted him to do.

12. In a record time of 20 days, a new trust was created by the Tatas for the purpose of relief of employees.Tatas were covered by compensation. Each one of them was provided subsistence allowance of Rs. 10K per month for all these people for 6 months.

14. A 4 year old granddaughter of a vendor got 4 bullets in her and only one was removed in the Government hospital. She was taken to Bombay hospital and several lacs were spent by the Tatas on her to fully recover her

15. New hand carts were provided to several vendors who lost their carts

16. Tata will take responsibility of life education of 46 children of the victims of the terror

17. This was the most trying period in the life of the organisation. Senior managers including Ratan Tata were visiting funeral to funeral over the 3 days that were most horrible

18. The settlement for every deceased member ranged from Rs. 36 to 85 lacs in addition to the following benefits:

a. Full last salary for life for the family and dependents

b. Complete responsibility of education of children and dependents – anywhere in the world

c. Full Medical facility for the whole family and dependents for rest of their life

d. All loans and advances were waived off – irrespective of the amount

e. Counsellor for life for each person

D.    Epilogue

1. How was such passion created among the employees? How and why did they behave the way they did?

2. The organisation is clear that it is not something that someone can take credit for. It is not some training and development that created such behaviour. If someone suggests that – everyone laughs

3. It has to do with the DNA of the organisation, with the way Tata culture exists and above all with the situation that prevailed that time. The organisation has always been telling that customers and guests are #1 priority

4.The hotel business was started by Jamshedji Tata when he was insulted in one of the British hotels and not allowed to stay there.

5. He created several institutions which later became icons of progress, culture and modernity. IISc is one such institute. He was told by the rulers that time that he can acquire land for IISc to the extent he could fence the same. He could afford fencing only 400 acres.

6. When the HR function hesitatingly made a very rich proposal to Ratan – he said – do you think we are doing enough?

7. The whole approach was that the organisation would spend several hundred crore in re-building the property – why not spend equally on the employees who gave their life?


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The Train to Delhi — Part 2 Wed, 02 Dec 2009 17:26:32 +0000 To get to Igatpuri from Pune, I will be taking the Pune-Manmad Express. You shouldn’t be taken in by the “express” in the name. That basically means that the Indian Railways makes you pay extra although the train averages about 20 miles an hour — about the same pace as a bicycle on a level road. The 140 miles from Pune to Nasik takes 7 hours.

It is easy to understand why Indian trains on average run no faster than a fit bicycle-rider on level roads. It is a government monopoly. India is an extremely poor country (what else do you expect given that it is a socialist country) and except for a small minority, Indians cannot afford to travel by cars and airplanes. Railways are the only mode of long-distance transport for them. The government controls the railways for a variety of reasons. The railways employ over 1.5 million. That’s a powerful lever for exercising control and extracting rents. The railway minister’s job is coveted for that reason. You get to decide who gets to work for the railways.

Then there are other perks.

In my previous post on this topic, I mentioned that I traveled in air-conditioned first class to Delhi and that the compartment was only half occupied. Here’s why. Indian politicians — past and present — get to travel for free on Indian railways in first class. On every train, about 25 percent of the seats in the upper classes are reserved for politicians and railway officials. They don’t pay for the tickets. 

Politicians who have the privilege of free train travel routinely reserve seats on trains even when the chances of them actually traveling are slim to none. After all, what if they really want to travel on that day? Why not just reserve a seat or two and if one doesn’t want to travel, no skin off their back!

I asked around and the railway staff on the Rajdhani AC first class told me that about half a dozen seats that politicians (such as members of parliament) reserve do not get occupied. Waste of public money but then who cares — certainly not the politicians. That’s not their job. 

Taking of which, here’s a picture that perhaps illustrates the “not my job” attitude. I don’t know the source and cannot really vouch whether the picture is indeed from the Indian Railways. But I think that it is Indian. 

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Banning of Minarets is a wonderful thing Tue, 01 Dec 2009 16:04:35 +0000 Last Sunday, nearly 60 percent of Swiss voters voted in favor of banning the construction of new minarets on mosques in Switzerland. They are afraid of the Islamization of their country. Switzerland has only 400,000 Muslims and only four minarets. But minarets, according to the general secretary of the Swiss People’s Party, the largest party in the Swiss government told the BBC that it was a vote against minarets as symbols of Islamic power.”

I completely agree. I am all for Islamic power in Islamic countries. Non-islamic countries should — and must — prohibit the exhibition of Islamic power. 

I wish India would have the spine to stop Saudi money from constructing mosques in India. Everywhere in India, mosques are mushrooming like nobody’s business. I don’t care what sort of imaginary gods people believe in. What I am vehemently against are the loud speakers from mosques that disturb the peace several times a day. I don’t really care that they believe in some god who they think is the greatest thing since sliced bread but I don’t want to hear it being proclaimed several times in Arabic. I am a polytheist but I don’t shout that in people’s faces several times a day. India is a crowded country and it makes no sense for anybody to use loud speakers to proclaim what they believe in.  

It is quite funny if you think about it. Islamic countries don’t recognize other religions as legitimate. You cannot even carry a Bible — the holy book of the predecessor religion of Islam and from which it gets most of its theology and intolerance — into Saudi Arabia, leave alone building churches there. But the Saudis howl bloody murder at the Swiss not allowing any new minarets. That’s hypocrisy with a capital H. Islam heaps insults and preaches hatred of people who are non-muslims and when the non-muslims return the favor, all hell breaks loose. 

It is high time that non-muslims started speaking out against the rabid ideology of Islam. The Swiss have symbolically made a small move against Islam’s attempt at global domination. The non-islamic world should sit up and take notice. 

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We all need a little push from time to time Mon, 30 Nov 2009 12:13:55 +0000 Like so.

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