Thursday, July 31, 2003

Auf Wiedersehn, Dr. Strangelove 

Unlike his celluloid doppelganger, John Poindexter has finally had to resign. The flap over the Total Information Awareness program did not get him, but the "terrorism futures" idea did. While I thought TIA was an unbelievably bad idea, I happen to think that the "futures market" on terror had some merit and was shot down due to a lack of understanding of how it worked and an overdose of political correctness. Just for my own intellectual curiosity, it woud have been interesting to see if the idea would work. Perhaps I feel that way because of my own interest in both the role of information in efficient functioning of markets and the way markets capture information better than any other tool seems to. Professor Hal Varian agrees with my assessment of the terrorism futures idea in this piece he wrote in today's New York Times.

Markets do an awfully good job of forecasting many events and trends. The futures price for oil is about the best predictor available for this critical commodity, and it is widely used for forecasting by both political and economic analysts. The question is whether speculative markets would work well for other policy-relevant events.

History's Biggest Money Loser? 

I came aross this via Rajesh's blog. Brendan Koerner writes an interesting profile (including some historical background) about Masayoshi Son, erstwhile ruler of the Internet, now the biggest loser of money in history, and his ambitious plans to build a huge gigabit ethernet network to provide high-speed broadband connectivity to Japanese consumers.

Softbank has spent close to $2 billion building out a gigabit Ethernet network and leasing copper wire from Japanese telecom giant Nippon Telegraph and Telephone. The result is a service, offered under the Yahoo! BB brand, that provides Internet access to Japanese homes at 12 megabits per second - eight times faster than what Americans are used to - for about $21 a month. Every day, as many as 7,000 new subscribers fire up their plug-and-play DSL modems, making Yahoo! BB the world's fastest-growing broadband service.

I have to admit, there was a time in past when I used to think Son had figured it all out, especially after the huge success of Yahoo Japan. I am not so sure anymore. However, if I were offered 12MBps for $21, I'd drop my Road Runner service in a jiffy.

Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Mathematics and Poetry 

My good friends from India, Abraham Thomas and Martin D'Mello run a poetry ring called The Wondering Minstrels. Subscribe to the group and you get a poem a day (well almost), with some level of critical analysis. What started as a little thing among old friends from India has now almost 2000 members from around the world. Today's poem is called "Mathematical Problem" by the ancient Indian mathematician, Bhaskaracharya.

Whilst making love a necklace broke.
A row of pearls mislaid.
One sixth fell to the floor.
One fifth upon the bed.
The young woman saved one third of them.
One tenth were caught by her lover.
If six pearls remained upon the string
How many pearls were there altogether?

David McKelvie's analysis of the poem partly reads thus --

I found this problem-poem in a book called The Universal History of Numbers by Georges Ifrah. In it he says: "Numerical tables, Indian astronomical and mathematical texts, as well as mystical, theological, legendary and cosmological works were nearly always written in verse. From this type of game, the Indian scholars went on to use imagery to express numbers; the choice of synonyms [for whole numbers] was almost infinite and these were used in keeping with the rules of Sanskrit versification to achieve the required effect. Thus the transcription of a numerical table or of the most arid of mathematical formulae resembled an epic poem."

This poem was originally written in 1150 by Bhaskaracharya, a mathematician and mechanic and is taken from a book he wrote called the Lilavati, filled with poetic mathematical problems.

I would highly recommend this poetry ring to anyone even moderately interested in poetry.

Tuesday, July 29, 2003

China's ICT competitiveness and the WTO 

I am not really sure how recent this is, but here's a great WEF report on the impact of the WTO prcoess on China's ICT competitiveness. The authors are Christine Qiang, Bruno Lanvin, Pamela Mar and Frank-Jurgen Richter.

Johnny Can't Add, But Suresh Venktasubramanian Can 

This story was posted to a mailing list I belong to. Fred Reed, columnist of the Washington Times writes about the predominance of certain ethnic groups -- Indians, Chinese, Koreans and Jews at American research facilities and ponders the consequences. He argues that part of the reason for the decline of other groups has been the 'deliberate enstupidation' of American education, especially at the pre-grad school level.

People speak of globalization. This is it, and it's just beginning. Where will it take us? How long can we maintain a technologically dominant economy if we are, as a country, no longer willing to do our own thinking? If we rely heavily on less than 10 percent of our own population while employing more and more foreigners abroad?

George Akerlof on Bush 

George Akerlof is one of my favourite economists. I have used a lot of his ideas while framing my research questions. Akerlof also happens to have endorsed the RISC model as being workable. In this interview with Der Spiegel, Akerlof warns of the disastrous consequences of the Bush administration's fiscal policies.

Future generations and even people in ten years are going to face massive public deficits and huge government debt. Then we have a choice. We can be like a very poor country with problems of threatening bankruptcy. Or we're going to have to cut back seriously on Medicare and Social Security. So the money that is going overwhelmingly to the wealthy is going to be paid by cutting services for the elderly. And people depend on those.

Little wonder then that Akerlof calls this the 'worst administration in 200 years'. He also mentions his wife, Janet Yellen, who was on the Clinton economic team. Yellen has in the past criticised the Bush administration's policies as well.

Thanks, Petra, for sending the Spiegel story along.

Update on Buymusic.com 

It doesn't sound too good. Geek.com and USA Today suggest that Scott Blum may have compromised on quality in his rush to launch the service.

Buy.com's attempt to compete with Apple's extremely successful iTunes.com has had a slow and somewhat painful start: users who downloaded songs from the BuyMusic.com site have had issues transferring the songs to digital portable devices. The problem is caused by the fact that BuyMusic.com's files are encoded in Microsoft's Windows Media Audio format, which can be made to limit what can be done with the music file. The Internet retailer is planning on recoding its files to resolve the transfer issue, and will let users redownload the files.

Apple has sold 6.5 million songs since April; BuyMusic won't release figures, but "it's not millions," Blum says.

Good luck, RIAA 

The RIAA came up with its cuckoo scheme to sue everyone who shares files on P2P networks a little while back. They announced that everyone including parents/grandparents of kids who download could be held liable. The EFF retaliated by setting up a site that lets users find out if there are on RIAA subpoenas.

What is the RIAA thinking? Hasn't the success of Itunes taught them any lessons at all? Do they honestly think going after consumers aggresively will help stem the losses of the music industry? Thirteen years after the web came into being, the fossils at RIAA don't seem to have noticed this new medium called the Internet, which has opened up an entirely new distribution channel. The Inquirer in a part-facetious piece suggests that it would take the RIAA 2191.78 years to sue everyone.

She said: "I pulled out my calculator to see just how long it would take the RIAA to sue all 60 million P2P music file traders at a rate of 75 a day. 60,000,000/75 = 800,000 days to subpoena each person or 800,000 days/365 days in a year = 2191.78 years to subpoena each person".

Good luck, RIAA. You're going to need it.

Monday, July 28, 2003

Foreign Policy article redux 

Foreign Policy had carried a story by Tarun Khanna and Yasheng Huang on the India-China rivalry in its last issue. The article was widely distrbuted and discussed in several forums. In fact, I had myself linked to the story in the early days of this blog. Now, HBS's Working Knowledge is carrying an interview with Huang and Khanna about the article and related issues.

We think they see it as a new and intriguing way to look at a centuries-old comparison. The best endorsement for our article is the way in which it has been disseminated. In India, it has spread by word of mouth and been reprinted in numerous newspapers and magazines. In China, one is hard pressed to find public discussion of the article; though the message is being discussed, we've been told, in other, less transparent forums. This is, in some sense, part of the very point of the article!

There is no Nessie. Really. 

The BBC has finally proven that Nessiteras Rhombopteryx was a figment of the collective imaginations of those that have claimed to see her. Now, we can just enjoy Loch Ness for what it truly is -- a rather nice tourist spot with a touch of legend to liven things up. The BBC team investigating the monster used fairly hifalutin technology to disprove the myth.

Using 600 separate sonar beams and satellite navigation technology to ensure that none of the loch was missed, the team surveyed the waters said to hide Scotland's legendary tourist attraction but found no trace of the monster. Previous reported sightings of the beast led to speculation that it might be a plesiosaur, a marine reptile which died out with the dinosaurs.

Sunday, July 27, 2003

New ICT4Dev Journal from MIT 

MIT Press is launching a new journal titled "Information Technologies and International Development". At the very least, they have put together a very impressive team with Ernie Wilson and Mike Best being editors-in-chief. The advisory board includes Zoe Baird, Narayana Murthy, Nicholas Negroponte, Jeff Sachs and Mohammed Yunus. The editorial board includes Ashok Jhunjhunwalla, Ben Petrazzini, Rohan Samarajiva and Robin Mansell.

The audience for Information Technologies and International Development will come from academia, the private sector, NGOs, and government. It will attract readers interested in the "other four billion" – the share of the world population whose countries are not yet widely connected to the Internet nor widely considered in the design of new information technologies.

The Journal also has a call for papers. The topics they are looking at are Policy and regulatory issues; Engineering innovations; Theoretical and conceptual issues; Access and accessibility; Human-computer interaction, interface, and design;Multi-cultural, multi-lingual, and multi-literate systems; Financing, business models, and sustainability; Training and capacity building; Infrastructure; Humanistic and social development impacts; Health and wellness systems; Learning and education systems; Income poverty, economic development, and e-commerce; E-government, e-governance, and digital democracy; Highly localized systems and content; Social and cultural surveys and studies; Geographic and country reviews; Digital divide issues; The economics of information and Gender inequalities.

Perhaps this is the perfect vehicle to take RISC public.

Center for Science, Policy & Outcomes 

I visited theCenter for Science, Policy & Outcomes website today after a long while. That's unfortunate because one of my advisors, Michael Crow, was instrumental in setting up CSPO and I should definitely be visiting it more often. Anyway, I came across a nice series of articles posted there on "Knowledge Flows and Knowledge Collectives: Understanding the Role of Science and Technology Policies in Development". Volume 1 talks about knowledge flows, innovation, and learning in developing countries while Volume 2 addresses public value mapping for scientific research. Excellent series, complemented by some other links, including congressional testimonies on outsourcing and so on.

Backward tradition, meet technology 

The BBC reports an entirely unlikely marriage between a very backward tradition, wherein a Muslim man can divorce his wife by saying "Talaq" thrice, and mobile messaging. The Malaysian authorities now allow a man to divorce his wife via SMS.

The government's adviser on religious affairs, the man who counsels Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, said as long as the message was clear and unambiguous it was valid under Islamic Sharia law.

Saturday, July 26, 2003

The sun never sets on writing about the British empire 

Close on the heels of Niall Ferguson's book on the British empire and the lessons it offers to American empire, comes yet another book on a similar topic by Columbia University professor, Simon Schama. "A History of Britain: The Fate of Empire 1776-2000" is reviewed by Fareed Zakaria in today's New York Times. I haven't read the book yet, but the review itself was worth reading.

The reality that Schama does not dwell on, however, is Britain's complex legacy. A vast majority of third-world democracies today are former British colonies. Despite the undeniable cruelties and hypocrisies of British imperialism, it brought organization, institutions and Enlightenment ideas to some of its colonies. (Not all; Orwell was right about Burma.) In the end, Britain's failure was that it could never keep faith in its liberal ideals, succumbing instead to the petty arrogance of race and national might. America is a different country, of course -- less fascinated by empire -- but in one important respect it faces the same paradox as Britain. No matter how compelling America's ideals, they still come wrapped in American power. People abroad may love the former but they are inevitably suspicious of the latter. And if America falters in its application of its ideals, people around the world will believe that they are simply a smoke screen for its power. Call it the fate of empire.

The numbers on blogging 

Robyn Greenspan writing on Cyber Atlas has the newest numbers on blogging worldwide. There appear to be about 2.4 to 2.9 million active weblogs, of which approx 1.6 million blogs are hosted by the 3 biggies -- Blogger, LiveJournal and DiaryLand. As was the case with the Internet itself, a big majority of the blogs are written in English, with Portuguese, Polish and Farsi taking second, third and fourth spots (whatever happened to French and Spanish?) respectively. I wonder if the high number of Farsi blogs indicate anything about Iran's hopes for real democracy. If my gut were true, it would be very interesting to look at the numbers on Chinese language blogs. Does anyone have the numbers?

Friday, July 25, 2003

Blogs -- Freelance journalism redefined?  

With the recent announcement by AOL that it's giving away free blog publishing software to all of its 34 million customers, blogging has clearly gone mainstream. However, there is a very interesting sub-culture of blogging that is gaining traction, a sort of pay-to-read/reader-subsidized version of freelance journalism. Spencer Ante has more.

Is this the future of journalism? The New York Times may have nothing to worry about, but Allbritton's story hints at a new business model that could remake the lesser tiers of the media world. Call it pay-to-read journalism. Reporters, individually or in groups, could use the Net to raise money directly from readers interested in specific stories or journalistic styles. That could be independent journalism, in the spirit of the old Village Voice, or withering cultural criticism, a la The Baffler. Instead of aiming for the mass market, journalists have a way to target an audience of thousands, more easily pursuing stories that lie off the beaten path.

Thaksin and Thailand 

If one were to believe the macro-economic numbers, Thailand seems to have recovered from the Asian financial crisis well. GDP growth hit 5.3% last year and 6.7% first quarter this year; not comparable to the country's incredible growth in the nineties, but still making Thailand one of the fastest growing economies in Asia. How much of the turnaround in Thailand can be attributed to Thaksin Shinawatra, telecom tycoon and prime minister, who enjoys popularity ratings in excess of 70%? Business Week explores the issue.

The Bangkok stock exchange is up 41% for the year. Hard-currency reserves have hit $40 billion. Interest rates have fallen to 1.25%, their lowest level since the crisis. Thaksin is helping peasants and poor urban laborers with affordable medical care and microloans to small businesses and farms. He's cracking down on drugs, prostitution, and organized crime by ordering police sweeps and going after elected officials and civil servants accused of corruption.

Yet while many Thais admire Thaksin and his accomplishments, others are very uneasy over what this politician is doing. Opponents fear Thaksin is increasing his grip on power by cutting down potential rivals and filling key government and military posts with family members and associates from Shin Corp., the telecom and media empire he built up in the 1990s. They say he targets vocal opponents in Thailand's nongovernmental organizations. Others point to a brutally effective campaign against drug dealers as an assault on civil rights.

Not Dusseldorf after all? 

Ryan Air flies into Frankfurt, or so they claim. However, when I discovered where Hahn (of Frankfurt-Hahn fame) was in relation to Frankfurt, I started to wonder how long these low-cost airlines could get away with what is fundamentally a misrepresentation. I have no problems with anyone flying to Hahn, except that first-timers expecting to fly into Frankfurt could be in for a rude surprise. Turns out the courts have finally decided to call Ryan Air's bluff, not on Hahn, but on "Niederrhein-Dusseldorf".

A German court has ruled that the budget airline Ryanair cannot use the word "Duesseldorf" for an airport 70 kilometres (42 miles) from the city. The court in Cologne said that Ryanair's term "Niederrhein (Duesseldorf)" was deceptive advertising because the airport was too far from the city.

The ever-changing feedback mechanism 

Once again, I have had to change the provider of the feedback mechanism on my blog. My previous provider seems to have run out of disk space. I am now using a provider called Back Blog, which will hopefully survive longer than the previous provider did. In the meanwhile, apologies for the feedback that vanished. It had all been taken note of :)

Thursday, July 24, 2003

The Gutenberg Bible goes digital 

The Harry Ransom Center at UT Austin (yep, the same guys who bought the Watergate papers) have put the Gutenberg Bible online.

In June 2002, the Ransom Center and IImage Retrieval Inc. of Carrollton, Texas collaborated on the digitization of the Center's Gutenberg Bible using the I2S Digibook 6000 overhead scanner. The project took less than a week to complete and resulted in nearly 1,300 digital images. For the first time, it is possible for the general public to view all of the pages from the University of Texas copy, including all of the large illuminated letters in volume I and the copious handwritten annotations, as well as other indications of the book's use in religious services.

One of the highlights of my last trip to Germany was a trip to Mainz and to the Gutenberg museum. The museum has the Gutenberg Bible, the original printing press, the original blocks etc alongwith a neat exhibit on the history of printing. The best part about the museum is that you can print pages using the Gutenberg press, using approximately the same techniques and paper used by Gutenberg himself. Highly recommended even if its some distance away from Frankfurt.

Water, water, everywhere... 

The Economist is carrying a great survey on water. They make a fairly good case for pricing water, despite my personal misgivings post Bechtel and Cochabamba. Among the issues tackled in the survey are dams, rain-water harvesting, replenishability of water, private-public partnerships and so on.

The critics' hostility to profit and the private sector is equally misconceived. Water delivery and treatment are highly capital-intensive businesses. As Gérard Mestrallet of Suez, the world's biggest water company, likes to say, “God provided the water, but not the pipes.” Wherever that capital investment comes from, somebody has to pay for it: if not users, then taxpayers or aid donors. For the people who now have no access to clean water, what matters is whether water comes out of the tap, not who delivers it.

Jane's Addiction strays back 

It's been a long 13-year absence for the band that pretty much kicked of the alternative rock movement. Jane's Addiction is back with what seems like a terrific new album. I have not listened to all of the songs, just 4-5 of them. So far, so fantastic. You can stream the songs in MP3 format off the official Jane's Addiction website. Jon Pareles reviews the album for the Rolling Stone, giving it a very enthusiastic 4 stars.

Jane's Addiction return with three quarters of their old lineup and every bit of their old zing on Strays, their first studio album since 1990. At a time when most hard rock has devolved into bluster, spite and tattooed self-pity, the revived Jane's Addiction rock for something that shouldn't have become unfashionable: joy.

Wednesday, July 23, 2003

Readable economists 

The Economist writes about the legacy of MIT economist, Charles Kindleberger, an eminently readable practitioner of the dismal science, in the mould of a Galbraith or a Krugman. In particular, it addresses Kindleberger's interest in bubble economics, especially at a time when the uber-rational theories held sway.

A self-confessed “literary economist”, Mr Kindleberger, a professor at MIT and the author of more than 30 books, was a critic of the growing reliance of the economics profession on mathematics and on what he regarded as over-narrow rational models of human behaviour. Only a few years ago, his work would have been praised more for its readability than its insights. But he lived to see his best-known book become essential reading on Wall Street and be cited approvingly by younger, more mathematically inclined academics.

Now, if only someone could persuade the rest of them social scientists to become a tad more readable. They might actually find an audience beyond the usual eleven, all of whom reside in the same ivory tower or are being coerced :)

The Hydrogen Conundrum 

The hydrogen economy is just waiting to happen, if one were to believe a lot of what one reads in the media. If only the damned automobile industry could be convinced to shift to hydrogen-as-fuel. There has always been a problem with this line of thinking, a hydrogen conundrum, if you will. Richard Muller addresses the conundrum in the current issue of Technology Review.

The key fact is this: Hydrogen is not a source of energy. It is only a way of storing and transporting it. Although hydrogen is the most abundant element in the Universe (and in the more immediate neighborhood, it makes up 90 percent of the atoms in the Sun and Jupiter), there is virtually no hydrogen gas on Earth. Our gravity is so weak that essentially all our primordial hydrogen except that which bound itself into heavier compounds escaped into space billions of years ago. So hydrogen fuel must be manufactured by extracting it from water and methane. You get out from hydrogen fuel only the energy you put into extraction, or from burning carbon in the process.

He adds -- Hydrogen is far from an ideal automobile fuel. Even in its densest form (liquid), hydrogen has only one-third as much energy per liter as gasoline. If stored as compressed gas at 300 atmospheres (a more practical option), it delivers less than one-fifth the energy per volume as gasoline. Such low energy density means that fuel storage would take up lots of room in a hydrogen-powered car or, alternatively, a modest-sized fuel tank would severely restrict the vehicle's range between fill-ups.

Is carbon sequestration the answer? Muller doesn't think so.

Serious research programs are underway to find a way to sequester carbon dioxide, whether it comes from hydrogen production or any other process that burns fossil fuels. One cheap solution could be to bury it in depleted gas and oil wells. My pessimistic bet, though, is that sequestering will be expensive. Politicians will choose to dump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and pay the hidden price of pollution, rather than ask the public to pay an up-front price at the pump.

Tuesday, July 22, 2003

A Guardian for American media? 

The rumours have been around for sometime. Following the success of the BBC in the United States, the Guardian is supposedly planning to start a liberal magazine here. The New York Times reported these plans in a small piece yesterday. Today, the New York Daily News repored that former Clinton aide, Sidney Blumenthal wanted to become editor of the U.S. version and that Blumenthal had been in discussions with the Rolling Stone's Jann Wenner, among others. I also came acoss this story by Michael Wolff that pretty much confirms the rumour. I suspect the Guardian is onto something and will probably do well. One hopes this "niche liberal market" that everyone, from the BBC to the Guardian, wants to tap into puts to rest the myth of the "liberal media bias" in the United States.

IT's all about location, location, location! 

By now, perhaps everyone has read the Economist report on the new geography of the IT industry. As always, the Economist comes up with a fabulous analysis and discusses the effects changing geography has on the IT industry itself.

At the same time, large parts of the business are migrating offshore, mainly to India, but also to such places as China, Russia and Vietnam. This is already being likened to what happened to manufacturing in the 1970s and 1980s, when companies in the rich world moved many of their operations overseas. The IT industry is now developing something that it has not had before (except in hardware manufacturing): a fully operational, international supply chain.

Of particular interest to me is what happens in the U.S. economy when white-collar jobs start to migrate abroad in greater numbers, especially since white-collar workers within the U.S. tend to have more political clout than their blue-collar counterparts, whose jobs began to migrate to East Asia in the late 70's and late 80's. Will the white-collar use their clout to curb the outsourcing of jobs (something that could be in direct violation of WTO norms) or will the U.S. go through yet another wave of innovation, like the one that threw up the IT-centric service industry in the wake of manufacturing jobs moving en-masse to Asia?

How much of the IT industry will move offshore, and how many IT jobs in America and Europe will disappear? In the United States there is already a political backlash, of sorts. Lawmakers are pushing to tighten visa regulations, so that foreign IT firms can no longer send their employees to customers for training. And several state legislatures have bills pending that would stop government agencies sending IT and other services work overseas.

Yet the best hope for a comeback is for the Valley to ride what many expect to be the next big wave of innovation after the internet: the convergence of bio-, info- and nano-technologies. Each holds much promise in its own right, but together they could give rise to many new kinds of products.

The outsourcing of white-collar jobs, meanwhile, has been attracting a lot of media of attention. Here's a story that appeared in the New York Times today.

Buy.com introduces digital music downloads 

Perhaps the brain-deadedness of the music industry is coming to an end. The first sign was the emergence of Apple's ITunes and its huge success among users. Itunes's problem though, clearly, is that Apple doesn't ever seem to understand that 95% of the world's computers use Windows and if you leave them out, you are denying yourself a very lucrative market. Apple responded to this criticism by announcing that the Windows version would be out fairly soon. In the meanwhile, Buy.com and Scott Blum have stolen Apple's thunder by starting up a Windows based digital music download service called BuyMusic. The downloads are cheaper than ITunes at $0.79 and up for songs and $7.95 and up for albums. I haven't used the service yet, though I hope to do so later today. There are some reports in the media that BuyMusic has a lot more restrictions than ITunes does.

Despite its large music catalog, lack of monthly subscription fees and option to preview music through 30-second samples, BuyMusic.com limits what downloaders can do with the tracks and albums they purchase through the site. Users are limited in terms of the number of times they can copy a song and where they can copy it. They must register each device they plan to use for downloading, according to the site's terms.

Either way, this is a good sign that the music industry is coming to its senses and has realized that this is perhaps the only way it can beat back the P2P networks, not by filing lawsuits against users, ISP's etc. Then again, perhaps I am giving the industry too much credit and giving Steve Jobs and Scott Blum too little.

Monday, July 21, 2003

United States Vs Canada 

As an outsider, I have been struck by the differences between Canadians and Americans that go beyond just non-membership in the Commonwealth. In fact, besides an inexplicable love for that most gladiatorial of games -- ice hockey -- they really dont seem to have much in common despite living right next door to each other. Thane Peterson examines this phenomenon in greater detail while reviewing the book, "Fire and Ice: The United States, Canada and the Myth of Converging Values " by Michael Adams.

The fact that Canadians seem outrageously liberal to many Americans these days shows just how out of step the U.S. is with public opinion in other advanced democracies around the world. Like it or not, it also has major implications for U.S. global leadership. How can America rally its closest allies when their fundamental notions of tolerance and decency are so vastly different from its own?

A rush of blood to the head? 

Coldplay is one of my favourite bands. Their new album, I'd rank as one of the best ever. Frontman Chris Martin seems like a great guy with a great voice. The posh foursome certainly don't seem like the sorts that would end up in a Gallagher-twins kinda scrap. However, I knew something had to give from the time I first heard Chris Martin had started dating Gwyneth Paltrow. Well, something finally did. Mr and Mrs Paltrow were apparently being harassed by Aussie paparazzi and Chris reacted by breaking the windows of the paparazzo's car. He has been served with a summons to appear in court.

Coldplay singer Chris Martin has been charged with malicious damage in Australia after he allegedly attacked a photographer's car. Mr Martin was interviewed by police after being reported by Jon Lister, who had taken pictures of him surfing at Seven Mile Beach in Byron Bay, 500 miles north of Sydney.

I think Chris would do well by not taking the names of rock albums, especially his own, too seriously.

Sunday, July 20, 2003

Undervalued Yuan 

When I feel like I have nothing better to do - a feeling that I encounter frequently - I check out the Big Mac index of The Economist. After all, who can deny it's great fun to find out which currencies are the most undervalued/overvalued in the world? Over time, I have come to notice that Asian currencies have been the most consistently undervalued currencies in the world, barring the few exceptions like the South African Rand or the Aussie dollar. Of the Asian currencies, the Yuan tends to be the most undervalued currency of all. Both the Economist and Businessweek address the issue and its implications in recent issues.

Jeffrey Garten writes in Businessweek -- An even bigger problem is China, where large trade surpluses and growing reserves should dictate a revaluation of the yuan. Nevertheless, the currency remains fixed to the dollar at a rate of 8.2 to 1. Every time the dollar notches down, the Chinese currency automatically follows suit, making that country's exports even more competitive. As long as the tight dollar-yuan linkage exists, other Asian nations won't allow their currencies to float upward. They refuse to put themselves at a competitive disadvantage.

The Economist concurs -- In a free market, China's currency would surely rise. But demands from foreigners are likely to fall on deaf ears. The Chinese government is worried about rising unemployment as jobs are lost in unprofitable state companies, and deflation remains an issue. Moreover, until banks are reformed and non-performing loans tackled, it would be dangerous to liberalise the capital account. It would be safer to repeg the yuan at a higher rate. But most economists reckon that, at best, the yuan's band will be widened slightly over the next year, without allowing room for any significant appreciation. And, so long as the yuan is pegged to the dollar, other Asian countries will have a big reason to resist appreciation too.

The BBC and America 

Tim Burt writes in the Financial Times about the increasing popularity of the BBC in the United States. I have often griped about the quality of news in the US, especially on the cable networks. I normally watch the BBC at 11 pm on PBS to catch up on pretty much everything CNN and MSNBC have left out. I used to think that very few people in the US actually tuned into the BBC, but this article seems to contradict my belief and claims that viewership has actually risen considerably, especially in the aftermath of the Iraq war.

Leading US media groups - among them News Corp - don't want their news coverage to upset the Bush administration as it ponders long-waited media ownership reforms. The BBC aims to exploit that trend, arguing that there is an appetite for "long-form" journalism: a mixture of news and detailed analysis whether from Basra or Berlin.

Friday, July 18, 2003

RAND report on technology 

The RAND corporation has published a report that predicts the US will hold on to its lead in the global technology sector, despite signifiant challenges from Asia, especially from China. According to the report, American acceptance of change and innovation and its ability to let uncompetitive industries die are among the reasons for its lead.

"Unlike many other nations that concentrate on protecting existing businesses and institutions, the United States presses ahead with change even when it means 'creative destruction' of companies that drive its economy today in order to build a stronger economy tomorrow," said Richard O. Hundley, the lead author of the study.

The Economist on UAV's 

I am way back on my reading, especially of the Economist, which I like to finish the weekend after I receive it in the mail. So, last night I found myself reading the issue of July 5th. It had a great story about the possibility of using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) for commercial purposes -- from being a cheaper alternative to satellite-based broadcasting to providing broadband access, thanks to its ability to hover in one place for extended periods of time.

SkyTower should be able to make flights of several weeks' duration over the wealthy markets of North America and Europe. (Longer flights will be possible over countries near the equator, because they are sunnier and there is less wind.) This, he says, is long enough to make it possible to provide a broadband service that would be cost-competitive with today's land and satellite-based systems. A single UAV could provide connections of at least five gigabits per second to around 200,000 subscribers, and a rotating fleet of them would provide continuous coverage.

Those who know me well know about my great interest in the economics of providing satellite based connectivity, so to read about a cheaper, more viable alternative was very exciting. The Economist article was also timely because there have been several stories appearing in the media recently about the US marketing airships to India.

Thursday, July 17, 2003

Junoon and the Islamists of Pakistan 

Okay, perhaps I am watching too much television, but PBS has been broadcasting some really good stuff the past few days. After the program on Henry VIII's wives last night, there was a fantastic two hour special on Harry Truman (which will be concluded in another two-hour episode next week). Today, Wide Angle presented a show about the conflict between militant and moderate Islam in Pakistan -- the conflict between the Sufi rock of Junoon and the ban on music by the extremists in the NWFP. Jon Pareles reviewed the program in today's New York Times.

The confrontations shown in "Junoon: The Rock Star and the Mullahs" are mild ones: conversations between Salman Ahmad, the leader and guitarist of the Pakistani rock band Junoon, and militant Islamic mullahs and students who believe music should be banned. But this documentary, which is being broadcast tonight on PBS stations as part of the "Wide Angle" series of international news reports, sees portents of greater repression.

PS: The good thing about PBS is that they do repeat shows. I would highly recommend all three shows to anyone who can make the effort to track the repeats.

Wednesday, July 16, 2003

The six wives of Henry VIII 

The greatest soap opera of the Tudor period was brought to life extraordinarily well on PBS tonight. The first part of a TV series on the six wives of Henry VIII aired tonight and the second part airs the next week. Tonight's episode starred Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. The next episode will recount the lives of Catherine Howard, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves and Catherine Parr. The only minor crib I had was that the rift in the church wasn't covered as extensively as I thought it would. Then again, this was a series about the women, not about the birth of the Anglican church. I also hoped they would spend some time on the incredible story of Anne Boleyn's bastard child, Elizabeth, who later went on to become the Virgin Queen and one of the most powerful British monarchs ever. Perhaps they will in the next episode. Anyways, a series I would very highly recommend, especially to history buffs. For more on the series, visit the PBS site here.

Thaw in Indo-Pak relations thanks to little girl? 

When I started writing this blog, I had promised myself not post any mushy stories. However, this one is too good to resist posting. I have maintained that a lot of the so-called intractable conflicts of the world could be solved by simply arranging people-to-people contact, whether it be Israeli-Palestinian, Indo-Pakistani or whatever. Contact sort-of establishes that the "dreaded enemy" is not really that different from you. The latest proof of this comes via Noor, the little girl from Pakistan with a heart problem who underwent a successful surgery in Bangalore, where she and her family managed to get to thanks to the restoration of the Lahore-Delhi bus. According to various acounts, the reception accorded to the little girl and her parents has been extremely warm, with people lining up on streets, offering to pay for Noor's surgery and so on. This is the Hindustan Times' version and this is from the BBC.

In Bangalore, children on Tuesday lined the streets with placards reading "Get Well Soon!", and total strangers gave flowers to Fatima's parents at the hospital. "I am overwhelmed by the hospitality I got... We are feeling at home even though we are 4,000 kilometers away," said Sajjad. "Thoughout the day we received telephone calls from unknown Indians who told us they were praying for our kid. We have been bombarded with good wishes, greetings cards and flowers for the last two days," he said.

The parents have decided to establish a fund for ailing Pakistani and Indian kids, using the money donated to them for Noor's surgery as seed.

Does this mean Siachen can be demilitarised tomorrow? Certainly not, but this story probably represents what could be.....

Tuesday, July 15, 2003

The British and Lasagna 

First, the French claimed to have invented cricket. Now, the Brits -- the natural home of every form of bad cuisine there ever was (sorry, Germany) -- claim to have invented Lasagna. I guess all that remains to be done is for me to lay claim to the Vatican.

Lasagne is British. It's so British the court of Richard II was making it in the 14th Century and most likely serving it up to ravenous knights in oak-panelled banqueting halls. The claim has been made by researchers who found the world's oldest cookery book, The Forme of Cury, in the British Museum.

Evolution of language 

Nicholas Wade writes an excellent article in today's New York Times about the early evolution of language -- a subject that has endlessly fascinated me. According to him, part of the reason for the lack of research on the subject has been the influence of Noam Chomsky, perhaps the best-known linguist, who has tended to duck it. I could go on and on, but I think Wade does a better job than me :)

At first glance, language seems to have appeared from nowhere, since no other species speaks. But other animals do communicate. Vervet monkeys have specific alarm calls for their principal predators, like eagles, leopards, snakes and baboons. Researchers have played back recordings of these calls when no predators were around and found that the vervets would scan the sky in response to the eagle call, leap into trees at the leopard call and look for snakes in the ground cover at the snake call. Vervets can't be said to have words for these predators because the calls are used only as alarms; a vervet can't use its baboon call to ask if anyone noticed a baboon around yesterday. Still, their communication system shows that they can both utter and perceive specific sounds.

Almost everything you wanted to know about Dean, but were afraid to ask.  

The strange case of Howard Dean is getting curioser and curioser. He has managed to raise more money than all the other democratic contenders, relies heavily on the Net to raise funds, maintains his own blog and calls himself a representative of the democratic wing of the Democratic party. However, not much is known about him beyond his role as governor of Vermont and his opposition to the Iraq War. Howard Fineman provides some additional information about the man and his background in Newsweek.

Ironically, the roots and rising of one Howard Brush Dean III bear an eerie similarity to those of one George Walker Bush: Mayflowering family trees, early industrial-era money, family compounds near Atlantic waters, prep schools and a party-hearty life at Yale (Bush ’68, Dean ’71). The birthright of such an upbringing is confidence in social position and a sense of license to say anything to anyone at any time—without warning, restraint or evident regret.

Sunday, July 13, 2003


I was supposed to watch "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" on Saturday night, but all the reviews I had been reading seemed to indicate the movie was somewhere between bad and extraordinarily bad. I figured I'd keep away from LXG until any one of my friends, who is also a fan of the comic strip, sees the movie and lets me know what it's like. So, I picked up the DVD of "Adaptation", the recent Spike Jonze movie. And a very good idea it was. Excellent movie, well and truly deserving of all the good press. I thought the screenplay for "Being John Malkovich" would be pretty hard to beat, but Charlie Kaufman comes pretty darn close with this movie. I can't remember whether it won any Oscars, but I do remember that Charlie AND Donald Kaufman were nominated for adapted screenplay. All that remains to be settled now is whether Donald Kaufman or Roderick Jaynes was/were the first fictional character/s to be nominated for an academy award.

Watch out for cameos by Spike Jonze, John Malkovich, Susan Orlean, John Cusack and Curtis Hanson. All in all, a must-see movie.

Bill Moyers with Jon Stewart 

There is just one person on TV unafraid to criticize the Bush administration for its lapses -- Jon Stewart of the "Daily Show". It is an irony that the supposed news people will not do their job, but a comedian can and will. Bill Moyers interviewed Stewart on NOW this Friday, and hopefully it will air again sometime soon. Jon Stewart was at his best, using his trademark deadpan expression while criticizing the news media for abdicating its role as the fourth estate.

BILL MOYERS: Why is it that President Bush has to go to South Africa to be asked a critical question about nuclear weapons of mass destruction?

JON STEWART: Because in the United States he doesn't see anybody in the press. He's in a-- small room, with a treadmill, that he runs on. And a little brush to clear diorama. Like he's not-- he is not exposed in any way.

You know what's great? Watch a Bush press conference, and then turn on-- Tony Blair and Parliament. Where he literally has to sit in front of his most vociferous critic. And that critic will say, "Sir, on the 13th, the dossier of the French, would not the nuclear. You were hiding things. How do you answer, sir?"

"The distinguished gentleman is wrong. I can prove it in this way." Contrast that with the press conference that Bush had on the eve of war. "Uh, okay, the next question is-- Jim. Is there a Jim here? Yeah. You got the next one."

"That is not the agreed upon question. We're gonna move on. Ralph, you got something?" It an incredibly, managed, theatrical farce. And it's incredible to be that people are playing along with it. And they say that they're playing along with it because they're afraid of losing access. You don't have any access! There's nothing to lose!

I can only hope more people in the media have the guts to say what Stewart says openly. Maybe, someday he will also move from Comedy Central to ABC and cultivate a larger audience. The full transcript of the interview can be accessed here.

Saturday, July 12, 2003

In the beginning was the word, and the word was Bright? 

Yet another op-ed from the New York Times. Daniel Dennett writes about the need for agnostics, atheists and non-believers to come out of the closet and proclaim themselves as a large minority. I have often thought about this. I know I dont move in circles that can be considered representative of the population-at-large, but I'd say a good 90 per cent of my friends have a very healthy disrespect for religion. I am guessing my friends arent the only "brights" (Dennett's term for it) out there.

Most brights don't play the "aggressive atheist" role. We don't want to turn every conversation into a debate about religion, and we don't want to offend our friends and neighbors, and so we maintain a diplomatic silence. But the price is political impotence. Politicians don't think they even have to pay us lip service, and leaders who wouldn't be caught dead making religious or ethnic slurs don't hesitate to disparage the "godless" among us.

Dennett also suspects there might well be brights among the clergy as well. Interesting, given the current flap in Denmark over the suspension of Thorkild Grosboll, a pastor who saw no contradiction in his being a pastor and denying any belief in God, Virgin Mary etc. For their part, the good priests parishioners support him vigorously and some even threaten to leave the church if Grosboll remains suspended. Absolutely reaffirms my belief in the incredible progressiveness of the Scandinavian countries.

Foy my part, I am not sure I like "bright" more than agnostic. I'll have to think about it for a while.

Kristof on race 

Nicholas Kristof writes a very interesting op-ed on race in yesterday's New York Times entitled "Is race real"?

On the other hand, genetic markers associated with Africans can turn up in people who look entirely white. Indians and Pakistanis may have dark skin, but genetic markers show that they are Caucasians. Another complication is that African-Americans are, on average, about 17 percent white: they have mitochondria (maternally inherited) that are African, but they often have European Y chromosomes. In other words, white men raped or seduced their maternal ancestors. Among Jews, there are common genetic markers, including some found in about half the Jewish men named Cohen. But this isn't exactly a Jewish gene: the same marker is also found in Arabs.

Wonder what the various racial supremacists have to say about the new scientific evidence being thrown up. Then again, what is science to a bigot?

Friday, July 11, 2003

Powered data networks? 

The BBC reported a couple of days back about the possibility of the RJ-45 outlet being not just to feed data to your electronic device but also the power. If this does indeed work out, the days of carrying multiple adapters etc may be coming to and end, a real boon for those of us who travel between continents frequently.

Amir Lehr, vice president of business development and strategic planning at Israeli company PowerDsine, said the idea of supplying power via data cables had been perfected over the last four years. It is an extension of basic networking technology that converts data into voltages and then sends them down a wire.

wi-fi growth  

Reuters reports that there will be strong wi-fi growth in the next 5 years, with hotspots in the asia-pacific region growing the fastest.

While North America has the largest number of hot spots currently, with 12,400, the Asia-Pacific region is expected to overtake North America by 2008, according to a report to be released later on Thursday by technology research firm Allied Business Intelligence. The report refers only to commercial hot spots, and excludes free, publicly accessible locations such as in parks and on college campuses.

While sitting at a lovely cafe in the Morningside Heights neighbourhood, I realised that each of these cafes could provide free wi-fi access just to get people to stick around longer and spend more money. Whats $40 p/m on broadband if you can get a bunch of new customers to bring in their laptops and hang around. In this "business model," wi-fi access would simply be an add-on to induce "stickiness." I have not really seen any viable business models around wi-fi just yet. For all we know, wi-fi could simply go the way of the Internet itself, where the core model doesn't necessarily make money but layers built on top will.

Return of the Natives 

Rajesh Jain writes an excellent series of articles titled "Dear NRI" at his blog, which calls on non-resident Indians to change the way they view India and to perhaps return home and invest in the country's future. I have maintained that if India could attract at least 10% of the non-resident talent to either return home or to invest in India, a big difference could be made, similar to when the Taiwanese returned home to start up the semi-conductor industry or the Chinese returned to the mainland. The problem in India though was the attitude of the government which treated NRI's as pariahs and worse for having "abandoned" the country. Clearly, the government has decided to be more pragmatic with the granting of dual citizenship and so on, even if they have managed to bungle up that process by making it selective on very arbitrary grounds. I, for one, could argue that there's more money pouring into India in remittances from the Persian Gulf than from the United States. If thats the case, why aren't they eligible for dual citizenship? Hopefully, this is a temporary hiccup and like everything else in India, corrective measures will be applied at some point.

Thursday, July 10, 2003

13 billion year old planet 

Hubble has done it again. The New York Times is reporting that Hubble has discovered a planet formed just a bllion years after the Big Bang, approximately 13 billion years ago, hinting that planets might be more abundant than thought before. The planet, far larger than Jupiter, was found in the M4 star cluster.

The observations challenged a widely held view among astrophysicists that planets could not have formed that early because the universe had yet to generate the enough heavy elements as raw material needed to make them. Planet-making ingredients include silicon, iron and other elements heavier than hydrogen and helium. These so-called metallic elements are cooked in the nuclear furnaces of stars and accumulate in the ashes of dying stars that are recycled in new stars and their families of planets. If a planet has now been detected from a time when heavy elements were extremely rare, the astronomers reasoned, the discovery shows that theories of planetary formation may have to be revised.

The BBC is carrying a similar story on the discovery.

Xbox as low-cost PC? 

The New York Times is carrying an interesting story today on the possibility of using the xbox as a sub-$200 PC (after some tinkering), running on Linux. Certainly not what Microsoft had in mind, I am sure. The article also goes into copyright issues under the DMCA 1998 Act.

The Xbox is a particularly attractive target for hackers because while it is essentially a standard PC modified to do only a few things, like play Xbox games, it is much cheaper than a PC. It is like an economy car modified to follow only a few roads - but one potentially as powerful as a far more expensive model. In the Xbox, that power comes in the form of a 733-megahertz Intel processor, comparable to a midrange personal computer, and sophisticated graphics and audio systems. Its limited operating system, based on a version of Windows, can be used by a programmer to run simple software like a music player - or the machine can run a new operating system altogether, namely Linux.

In a sense, Xbox hackers are exploiting Microsoft's business model, which is to sell Xbox hardware at a loss (to build penetration of the system) and make the money back on royalties from the sale of Xbox software. A PC manufacturer like Dell, meanwhile, has to recoup its costs and generate a profit from the initial sale.

I hope the folks interested in bringing computing costs down, especially in developing countries, have taken note of the xbox possibility. How much of a possibility it represents, I am not really sure, but a sub-$200 PC running a 733 MHz processor sounds good to me.

Tucker eats shoe 

Tucker Carlson is one conservative I really like. He doesnt come across as being the mean, obnoxious, angry, white male that most other conservative commentators on TV (exhibit A: Michael Savage) seem like. In fact, his show with Bill Press on CNN is one that I miss and one whose cancellation by the channel still boggles my mind. Nevertheless Tucker cannot keep his tongue down when the "Clinton" word comes up. In April, he confidently asserted that he would eat his shoe and tie if Hillary's memoirs sold a million copies. Yesterday the publishers announced the sale of a million copies and it was time for Tucker to eat his words, his shoe and his tie, in no particular order.

CNN reports that Hillary Clinton personally showed up on the "Crossfire" set to help Tucker keep his word, even if there was some legerdemain involved. Tucker even admitted he was impressed by the lady. About time, Tucker.

A.S.Byatt on Potter 

The BBC writes about the Booker-prize winning Byatt's diss of the Harry Potter series.

Author AS Byatt has dismissed the Harry Potter books as being written for people whose imaginations are confined to the "worlds of soaps, reality TV and celebrity gossip". The Booker Prize-winning author said Rowling's stories lacked the "seriousness" of great children's writers and questioned why adults were fanatical about her writing.

I am not the greatest fan of the Potter books. However, Rowling must be doing something right for so many tens of millions of these books selling, and not just in the reality-TV obsessed countries of the world, but just about everywhere. Honestly, I'd rather have children read a not-so-great series of books rather than have them sitting around watching TV all day and reading nothing at all. If Harry Potter is what inculcates the reading habit, so be it. Noone should be complaining, least of all Byatt. Some of these kids might actually grow up and read "The Virgin in the Garden."

Wednesday, July 09, 2003

Googling for WMD 

Here's a really worthwhile investment of your time -- go to Google , enter "weapons of mass destruction" in the search field, and hit the "I'm feeling lucky" button. Enjoy what you find. According to ZD Net news , this gag has attracted over a million visitors in the past one week. To me, not only is it a great gag, but its also a testament to how you can use google's search algorithm to your advantage. In this case, the wider the gag circulates, the higher its relevance will be on google, thereby ensuring a reign at the top of the search list. Unless and until the White House and 10, Downing Street launch a counter offensive, i.e. :) Thanks, Karen, for pointing it out to me.

PS: The author of the gag, Anthony Cox, also has a New York Times "invent story" spoof site, which puts Jayson Blair to very good use. One Blair or another, bliars all!!

Tuesday, July 08, 2003

Honey, I blew up the evidence! 

Tony Blair has been put through the wringer, and now the BBC has decided to take on the White House on the falsification of evidence used to justify war against Iraq. According to the report, the CIA warned the US Government that claims about Iraq's nuclear ambitions were not true months before President Bush used them to make his case for war. The BBC report and the White House's belated acceptance of some exaggeration (on the Niger uranium) have come in the wake of the almost surreal op-ed in the New York Times by Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who was sent to Niger verify whether or not Iraq had tried to source uranium from there.

Here's how the Wilson op-ed starts off -- Based on my experience with the administration in the months leading up to the war, I have little choice but to conclude that some of the intelligence related to Iraq's nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat.

Whether any of this will make any dent in President Bush's unassailable popularity remains to be seen. At times I wonder why a president lying about his private sex life held far more interest for both the American public and the media than a President who seemingly lied (or someone at the White House led him on) about the reasons to commit American soldiers to risk their lives in a foreign land, fighting a increasingly unpopular war.

Monday, July 07, 2003

Benjamin Franklin 

These lines were once used to describe an unusual American genius, Richard Feynman. "There are two kinds of geniuses: the 'ordinary' and the 'magicians'. An ordinary genius is a fellow whom you and I would be just as good as, if we were only many times better. There is no mystery as to how his mind works. Once we understand what they've done, we feel certain that we, too, could have done it. It is different with the magicians. Even after we understand what they have done it is completely dark. Richard Feynman is a magician of the highest calibre."

One could easily substitute Richard Feynman with Benjamin Franklin and I believe the same description would hold true. July 4th weekend and thereabouts is as good a time as any to remember Franklin, possibly the greatest polymath that lived since Leonardo Da Vinci -- the best scientist, inventor, diplomat, business strategist all-rolled- into-one of the 18th century.

Walter Isaacson, the former head of CNN, has written an excellent biography of the man called "Benjamin Franklin : An American Life." Amazon's review of the book reads partially thus -- Benjamin Franklin, writes journalist and biographer Walter Isaacson, was that rare Founding Father who would sooner wink at a passer-by than sit still for a formal portrait. What's more, Isaacson relates in this fluent and entertaining biography, the revolutionary leader represents a political tradition that has been all but forgotten today, one that prizes pragmatism over moralism, religious tolerance over fundamentalist rigidity, and social mobility over class privilege. That broadly democratic sensibility allowed Franklin his contradictions, as Isaacson shows.

In addition, Time is carrying a special spread on him thats well worth a read. A couple of Franklin quotes from the special spread are well worth remembering in these troubled times.

"Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."

"The opinions people have are almost as various as their faces. The job of printers is to allow people to express these differing opinions. There would be very little printed if publishers produced only things that offended nobody. Printers are educated in the belief that when men differ in opinion, both sides ought equally to have the advantage of being heard by the public; and that when Truth and Error have fair play, the former is always an overmatch for the latter."

Sunday, July 06, 2003

Wimbledon and India 

This has been the most amazing Wimbledon for India -- three Indians playing the finals and two of them going on to win. First, Sania Mirza partnered with Alisa Kleybanova to win the girls doubles. Then Leander Paes partnered with Martina Navratilova to win the mixed doubles event, handing Martina her record-equalling 20th Wimbledon title. As Leander said, "For this little kid from India it was a dream to be on Center Court and when I was seven, eight years old, I watched Martina play and she really inspired me to be out here so today. For me to be on Center Court with a true legend of our sport and to win is a dream come true."

The only downside (if you can call it that) was top-seeds Mahesh Bhupati and Max Mirnyi's loss to Bjorkman and Woodbridge in the men's doubles. If anyone had told me back in 1986, when I first started watching Wimbldeon on TV, that three Indians would play in Wimbledon finals and two of them would go on to win, I'd probably have laughed. How things change!

Bunker 13 

I am currently reading "Bunker 13" by former Tehelka and Outlook correspondent, Aniruddha Bahal. The book is interesting, if for nothing else, because it literally goes where no credible Indian writer has gone before. I'll save myself some trouble and let Time do the reviewing.

The book's strangest quality is that it has only the faintest tint or scent of India. Except for proper names, the book's vernacular and cultural references are almost entirely American, and impressively authentic at that. The hard-boiled dialogue is straight out of classic Hollywood, a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the Anglo-American spy spoof. If Bond and Matt Helm outrageously flout social norms, MM seems to follow an inverted morality, almost defying the reader to accept him. Yet there's something charmingly retro about Bahal's "outlaw" approach. His closest literary parallel is with the Beats: the grim, druggy surrealism of William S. Burroughs, the headlong rush of Jack Kerouac.

Time is also carrying a short Q & A with Bahal.

Swaminomics on retailing 

Swaminathan S Iyer writes at length in the Times of India about the need for the central government to let in large retail chains into the country. According to him, such a move will not only harness growing domestic demand, but will also globalise the Indian agricultural sector.

India has failed to get into the global market for processed fruit and vegetable for a simple reason: global chains like to deal with giant farms that can reliably deliver huge quantities of quality produce on time. They simply cannot deal with hundreds of small farmers of the sort we find in India. Many global fruit companies have studied India and thrown up their hands in despair. But retail MNCs will venture into this difficult terrain to penetrate the fast-growing domestic market. As incomes rise, the demand for superior foods and premium products shoots up. This has been demonstrated in South-East Asia and in India itself, where imported fruit now sell at fancy prices. Retail MNCs will enter India and spark a second green revolution if entry is made simple, and if Punjab and other states establish farmers' associations as legal entities with corporate obligations (there can be no compromise on quality).

Aborted Mercury 13 mission 

On the occasion of the 40th anniversary of Valentina Tereshkova's pioneering space flight, the BBC is carrying a story about the aborted mission to put US women into space earlier than Tereshkova. It was a couple of decades before Sally Ride eventually made it to space.

When Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space in 1961, it signalled a shift in priorities in space missions that severely crippled the hopes of the Mercury 13. After the United States lost, as it were, the space race to the Soviets when Yuri Gagarin was launched into orbit, President John Kennedy set his sights on landing a man on the Moon," Ms Akman said. "He thought that that was a bigger prize than the space race, and a way for the United States to assert Cold War supremacy. "Women were viewed as complicating things and being unnecessary."

Friday, July 04, 2003

Raghuram Rajan as chief economist 

The BBC writes that Raghuram Rajan, professor at the U-Chicago and author of the very interesting "Saving Capitalism from the Capitalists" has been appointed as chief economist of the IMF. It is interesting that the IMF chooses to appoint an Indian to a crucial post (joining Montek Singh Ahluwalia in the upper echelons) at a time like this. However, he has quite a task at hand, succeeding as he is, someone of Ken Rogoff's stature.

Rahguram has some very interesting comments to make in an interview published at Rediff about India becoming a lender to the IMF:

India just became a lender in the IMF.

(Laughs for a long time).

Why do you laugh?

Well, you will understand when I say that it seems a great source of national pride and to some extent it should be that we actually are in a position that we can lend and part of it has to do with we are redeploying our enormous reserves. But that said, a country like ours needs tremendous resources and really in the larger scheme of things, a developing country should be a big debtor rather than a creditor. In a small way, this is fine that we are putting our resources back into the IMF. But in the larger scheme of things if we were really doing the right thing, we should be borrowing a lot and investing a lot. Think about it, any growing economy should be investing tremendous amounts. I would say being a small creditor is fine but let us not get too carried away.

Do you find it ironic that India is now a lender?

A little bit. I mean the richest country in the world is the biggest debtor while poor countries are lending tremendously to rich countries (laughs). I don't say it is wrong in some ethical way. I am saying it is just funny that this should be the situation in the world economy. The question is how much is enough? It's a sign of some success. If we carry it too far, it will reflect some failure also.

Thursday, July 03, 2003

Entrepreneurial activity 

The Economist comments on the lack of entrepreneurial activity in Japan. The interesting part of the article is the accompanying graph which shows Thailand and India to have the greatest level of entrepreneurial activity in the world, far greater than the United States or Britain or even China. This is certainly good news for RISC because we are betting, through the RISC model, that given the right kind of infrastructure ecology, rural entrepreneurship will flourish.

Wednesday, July 02, 2003

More on Carlyle 

Andrew pointed me in the direction of an earlier story done by Dan Briody in an old issue of Red Herring. Its a great read for those who want to know more about Carlyle but do not want to invest in the Briody book.

India's IT confidence vis-a-vis China 

Bruce Einhorn writes in Businessweek Online about the renewed confidence in the Indian IT sector about the Chinese threat, post-SARS and post the BPO boom in India, a boom China would hard pressed to replicate given the language barrier.

Indeed, a tremendous change in feeling about China is apparent in India these days. In the corporate offices of Bangalore and other Indian IT hotspots, far less concern is visible about the Chinese stealing the software business any time soon. Indeed, Indians seem convinced that their country's rise as an IT power is unstoppable.

The secretive world of the Carlyle Group 

I have spoken to a lot of friends over time about the lack of interest in the US media about secretive private equity organisations like the Carlyle Group. The BBC reported in a "Panorama" episode broadcast just after Sept 11th about the Carlyle group which included, among others, Bush 41, Bush 43 and various members of the Bin Laden family, including Bin Laden pere. What was interesting at the time was the way the entire Bin Laden clan was spirited out of the United States on Sept 12th before the FBI had a chance to question them. I am not implying any link between Bush and Osama (nor do I have a problem with the Carlyle group or the way it operates), but the fact that the Bushies/Carlyle have been involved in a lot of business deals with the Bin Laden clan should be in the public domain. For some reason, despite foreign press coverage of this story, it was absolutely wiped out of the US media. I am yet to figure out why, since its a story that arouses a great deal of interest any time you recite it to anyone.

The Economist reviews Dan Briody's "The Iron Triangle: Inside the Secret World of the Carlyle Group" this week. The review raises some of the points I have made in the past, including the connection between the Bin Laden and Bush families.

On the day Osama bin Laden's men attacked America, Shafiq bin Laden, described as an estranged brother of the terrorist, was at an investment conference in Washington, DC, along with two people who are close to President George Bush: his father, the first President Bush, and James Baker, the former secretary of state who masterminded the legal campaign that secured Dubya's move to the White House. The conference was hosted by the Carlyle Group, a private equity firm that manages billions of dollars, including, at the time, some bin Laden family wealth. It also employs Messrs Bush and Baker.

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, when no one was being allowed in or out of the United States, many members of the bin Laden family in America were spirited home to Saudi Arabia. The revival of defence spending that followed greatly increased the value of the Carlyle Group's investments in defence companies.

PC market in India 

According to CIOL, the Indian PC market grew by 12% last year, with HP and HCL dominating the desktop maket.

The PC market in India continues to move slowly on its growth path and recorded modest gains during the financial year 2002. The growth in the run rate business coupled with a spurt in large tenders during the second half of the year were imperative for the higher number recorded in the year. IDC Research indicates that the total PC market (including desktop, notebooks and servers) totaled at 2.3 million units in the FY 2002 with a growth rate of 11.7 per cent.

My question is this: clearly this article is talking about the "white" market for PC's and all of us know that most PC's in India sell in the unbranded grey market. Why doesnt any study attempt to capture the numbers from the grey market? What would the growth rate and installed base look like if the grey market numbers were included? I guess this is similar to the question I posed earlier about GDP numbers.

In any case, I certainly dont think the PC will become a mass-market phenomenon until it crashes through a certain price-point barrier, which I'd say is the cost of a B/W TV, i.e. about Rs 5000-6000.

The crumbling Great Wall? 

Admittedly, the source is not the National Geographic, but Wired is carrying a story about the long-term strutural damage being done to the monument (if you can call it that).

Looking at the hoards of camera-toting tourists jostling for the best backdrop for their shots there, it's hard to take seriously claims that a structure that would stretch from Miami to Seattle could one day disappear. Dong Yaohui, secretary-general of the Great Wall Society of China, delivers the wake-up call. "Believe it or not, the Great Wall is crumbling, unable to withstand natural deterioration and calamities caused by people."

On another note, I wonder if the Great Wall still remains the only man-made object visible from space. I kept hearing about an artificial Japanese island which could be seen from space as well. onder what came of it. Does anyone know?

Fuel Cell laptops 

Long before fuel cell cars hit the road, NEC wants to unveil fuel cell laptops. The BBC writes that the early versions can keep a laptop running for about 5 hours, while later versions promise up to 40 hours between refills. The small fuel cell is powered by 300 cubic centimetres (half a pint) of methanol and uses a catalyst to break this down into oxygen and hydrogen and generates heat and power as by-products. On its own, the fuel cell weighs 0.9 kilograms (1.98 pounds) but adds 2 kg (4.5 lb) to the weight of a laptop when built-in.

I wonder how much this technology will add to the cost of the laptop. As it is, the additional 2 kgs does not sound good at all.

The Pentaquark? 

The BBC is reporting that physicists have discovered a new class of subatomic particle that will provide unexpected insights into the fundamental building blocks of matter.

The discovery involves quarks - particles that make up the protons and neutrons usually found in the nuclei of atoms. The new particle is the so-called pentaquark - five quarks in formation. Until now, physicists had only seen quarks packed into two- or three-quark combinations. They say the discovery of this new particle should have far-reaching consequences for our understanding of the Universe is put together.

Tuesday, July 01, 2003

More on the "liberal media" 

Eric Boehlert writes in Salon about the easy ride GWB gets in the supposedly liberal mainstream media -- In 2000, the media hounded Al Gore over alleged minor exaggerations. So why does it give Bush a pass when he doesn't tell the truth about life-and-death matters like Iraq and tax policies?

Public Patents? 

Representative Dennis Kucinich writes about the need for public patents to build an effective public health system. There have been far more incisive papers written about patents by others, but its still interesting to know what a congressman, albeit a Democrat from Ohio, thinks about these issues.

Liberal Media 

I have often wondered where the concept of the liberal media in the United States came from. I survey the media landscape and all I can see is a conservative media and a mainstream media. Where is the liberal equivalent of Fox News or Rush Limbaugh or Bill O'Reilly? And if there is none, how did the term "liberal media" come into being?

Eric Alterman addresses similar issues in The Nation. He writes -- Liberals are now grappling with a problem not unlike that facing the far right forty years ago: how to get one's ideas across through media that twist and distort them beyond recognition? It is hardly an academic question.

New Book -- "News Media and New Media" 

My good friend, Dr. Madan Mohan Rao, has just launched his new book "News Media and New Media: The Asia-Pacific Internet Handbook, Episode V." According to Madan, "It focuses on the impact of the Internet and wireless technologies on the news environment of the Asia-Pacific. Topics covered include newsroom workflow, online journalism, business models, media activism, children's content, cyberlaws, blogs, capacity building, knowledge management, course outlines, Internet/SMS PR, media convergence, political censorship, diaspora communities and international relations. The book has contributions from over 25 regional experts, and includes 9 thematic chapters, 4 case studies, 13 country profiles, and reviews of 15 relevant books."

More details on the book an be found here.

Globalization Index 

Foreign Policy and A.T.Kearney have released their 2003 index of globalisation. Fantastic read as are the related stories you will find on the left.

This year’s ranking of global integration among 62 countries (representing 85 percent of the world’s population) offers a dissenting view. To be sure, 2001 saw a dramatic downturn in some of globalization’s most visible drivers, from foreign direct investment (FDI) to international travel and tourism. In many cases, however, not only was a slowdown already in train before the attacks, but prompt response by policymakers to September 11 helped dissipate the negative economic effects. Moreover, globalization involves far more than the ebb and flow of economic cycles. That’s why the A.T. Kearney/FOREIGN POLICY Magazine Globalization Index makes use of several indicators spanning information technology (IT), finance, trade, personal communication, politics, and travel to determine a country’s ranking. And, in addition to giving each nation an overall score, we provide a multifaceted view of a country’s level of global integration by combining these indicators into four subcategories: economic integration, technology, personal contact, and political engagement.

There is also an additional link at the ATK website from where one can access more rich data and also download the full report or just the country rankings.

Reinvent the State Department? 

Newt Gingrich writing in Foreign Policy calls for a reivention of a "rogue state department."

Anti-American sentiment is rising unabated around the globe because the U.S. State Department has abdicated values and principles in favor of accommodation and passivity. Only a top-to-bottom reform and culture shock will enable the State Department to effectively spread U.S. values and carry out President George W. Bush’s foreign policy.