Saturday, August 30, 2003

Naturalised U.S. politicians 

I have often wondered about the anachronistic nature of the U.S. law that prevents naturalized citizens from becoming president, in a country that almost entirely consists of immigrants of one generation or the next. Clearly this 200-plus year old law dates beck to a time when the U.S. was a fledgling nation that wasn't sure of its ability to stand up to the great powers of the day. This law has meant that people like Madeline Albright or Henry Kissinger (or Arnold Schwarzenegger, for that matter) cannot run for president; this at a time when Sonia Gandhi is perfectly eligible to become P.M. of India.

There are a couple of moves afoot to change this law, to allow naturalized citizens to run for president (with some conditions). The New York Times has a report.

Both proposals would require amending the Constitution, which has been done only 27 times, most recently in 1992 with the ban on midterm raises for members of Congress. A constitutional amendment requires approval by two-thirds of both the House and the Senate. Then at least three-quarters of the state legislatures must ratify it. The movement to reverse the ban has created some odd alliances. Representative Barney Frank, the Massachusetts Democrat who presides over a suburban Boston district with a large population of Portuguese and Russian immigrants, is a co-sponsor of the House legislation. The conservative commentator George Will has also written in favor of abolishing the ban, arguing that it has an "unpleasantly nativist tang."

Friday, August 29, 2003

Wireless roofs 

Technology Review is carrying a good story on MIT's Roofnet project, which aims to give MIT students high quality/bandwidth access at very low costs.

Each computer and roof-mounted antenna at students’ apartments and MIT buildings is a node on the network and the arrangement in which they are connected to each other—the topology of the network—is constantly changing. “We want to understand how a whole bunch of computers with short-range radios can self-configure a network, forming order out of chaos,” says computer science professor Robert Morris, who coordinates the project. The network has now more than 30 nodes in a 4-square kilometer area surrounding the MIT campus. “We hope to reach a hundred nodes within a few months,” he says.

The project also addresses the need to look beyond the shortest-path strategy of the fixed Internet and to develop something that takes into consideration the attenuation of wireless signals over distances.

Most of the routing protocols now being proposed by mesh network researchers borrow the shortest-path strategy used in the fixed Internet. These protocols try to find the route with the fewest number of intermediate nodes between sender and destination. For the wired Internet—with its nearly static topology and reliable links—this scheme has been working pretty well: our e-mails hop from router to router and reach the other side of the world in a few seconds.

But it turns out that this shortest-path strategy might not be adequate for sending packets through the air. In a wireless network, according to the MIT group, distance matters: the longer the signal has to travel, the more it will degrade. Moreover, the link quality between nodes varies unpredictably due to such transient phenomena as trucks driving by, moisture in the air, or a pigeon sitting on the antenna. The result is a considerable amount of packet loss, transmission errors, and connections that simply appear and disappear throughout the day. A routing protocol that minimizes the number of hops ends up choosing longer distances for each hop—and therefore sending data over low-quality wireless links.

Obviously, I have to wonder whether something similar would work in India, of for that matter in any part of the world where there is a reasonable dense population, enough anyways to justify the cost of installation.

Emerging biotech cluster in Hyderabad? 

A couple of weeks back, Geoff Dyer and Khozem Mechant wrote in the Financial Times about the possible emergence of Hyderabad as a biotech cluster.

Hyderabad has the largest mass of scientific talent in India. There are some 40 laboratories, research centres and universities covering disciplines such as cellular and molecular biology and DNA fingerprinting. In the wings is the state-owned Indian Drugs and Pharmaceuticals Company, the drug industry's de facto finishing school for many biochemist-entrepreneurs. As a young chemist at IDPC, Dr Anjai Reddy, founder of Dr Reddy's Laboratories, one of India's leading drugs makers, mastered the relationship between science and the markets by ignoring his employer's commercially inert ways.

The trend certainly suggests an emerging "cluster". Some 50,000 science students graduate each year and Hyderabad is home to a large and mature science community. This community now markets its ideas. The government has set up a "knowledge" park for pure research and an adjoining biotechnology park for manufacturing in Genome Valley, an ambitious 600 sq km site.

Bangalore had branded itself as Bio Bangalore sometime last year. As with IT, Hyderabad is now emerging as a threat to the nascent biotech industry in Bangalore as well. Competition between the two cities always bodes well for the country.

Unfortunately, the story is only available with a premium subscription to FT. If any of you want to read it the article in full, e-mail me and I'll send it to you.

The ITU newslog 

Val Feldmann sent me the link to the newslog of the ITU Strategy and Policy Unit. It looks like a good way to keep up with international telecom news. For example, a post dated Aug 27 is carrying mobile telephony statistics, which ranks China Mobile as the world's largest mobile phone company.

According to statistics cited by the GSM Association (GSMA), China Mobile is currently the largest mobile operator in the world, with 153.1 mln GSM users. China Unicom is the world's second largest mobile operator, with 82 mln total users, of which 71.8 mln are GSM users. For a sense of scale, China Unicom has more GSM customers than the customer bases of the world's three largest CDMA operators (Verizon, SKT, Sprint) combined. China is not only the largest mobile services market in the world, but has recently also become the world's largest manufacturer of cellular phones.

Bizarre twist to call-centre tale 

For months now, there has been a great deal of interest in the media, especially western media, about the outsourcing of call-centres to India. In bizarre new twist, the Republican party has outsourced its telephone-based fund-raising campaign. In effect, you have the affected accents from Noida and Gurgaon soliciting funds from Republican donors.

HCL eServe has put in place a team of 75 people to work on the project out of its call centres in Noida and Gurgaon. According to industry sources, the number of seats could be ramped up depending on the success of the campaign. These operators are required to call up people in the US seeking their support for President George W Bush and a donation for the Republican cause.

Just wait till the Democats and the unions find out :))

Thursday, August 28, 2003

Warren Zevon's last stand 

I have never too much of a fan of Warren Zevon, though "Werewolves of London" was staple fare on most classic rock stations and was a reasonably interesting song. Zevon had been diagnosed with a terminal illness (lung cancer) and given three months to live. What does he do? He puts out one last album. Marketing this album has however proved to be a bit of a headache for Artemis records.

"To promote this as the final work would have been in bad taste," says Artemis founder and longtime Zevon friend Danny Goldberg. So Artemis has kept things low-key with little advertising. Instead, the budget on the album was increased by an extra $75,000 for production.

I have to admit I love Zevon incredibly black sense of humour though. He requested Artemis that the first single to be released of the album be his cover version of Dylan's "Knocking on Heaven's Door." Losing Zevon will be a tragedy, in this age of overly self-righteous musicians who take themselves too seriously.

Problems with feedback 

My feedback/comments has been acting up in the past couple of days. I spoke with the ASP that runs the service and they told they were in the process of changing servers and therefore the problem. They assured me it would be back up soon. Until then, feel free to e-mail me, if need be.

Wednesday, August 27, 2003

The policy and regulatory implications of wireless overtaking wireline 

I had briefly in the previous post touched upon the shift in the big metropolitan cities in India where wireless subscribers are fast overtaking wireline subscribers. While this phenomenon is new in India, several countries like Cambodia and Uganda have situations where wireless subscribers are almost 70% of overall telecom subscribers (it is true that the base of landlines was very low to start with). Of course, there are serious policy and regulatory implications to this development, including whether the telcos in developing countries should just hang up on expensive wireline telephony and fully embrace wireless instead.

In this paper, a good friend of mine, Valerie Feldmann, Telecoms policy consultant at the ITU, analyses some of the issues.

Hutch India IPO could make it $1.5billion company 

In a sign of how quickly the Indian telecom market (especially mobile cellular) is growing, Telecom Asia is reporting that post-IPO, Hutch could be valued at over $1.5 billion, making it the second largest player in the Indian mobile space after Bharti and incumbent BSNL.

Hutchison does not disclose financial figures, which makes it difficult to value the company, but analysts said Bharti's valuation provided a benchmark. "Bharti is valued at about $2.5 billion, so Hutch should be valued at close to $1.5 billion," said Shubham Mazumdar, an analyst at brokerage Motilal Oswal Securities.

Meanwhile, Delhi now has more wireless subscribers than wireline subscribers. Bombay and Madras are set to follow as the cheapest cell phone rates in the world continue to fall and the market continues to expand at an average of 107% every year.

The latest FDI numbers 

The Financial Times is carrying a report on the latest on global FDI flows, based on the latest UNCTAD report. Though the United States continues to be the most favoured destination of FDI, China is catching up fast.

The figures showed China rapidly catching up with the US as the world's most popular location for foreign investment. The US tops the league table of overseas investment destinations with a stock of FDI of $1,351bn. But the stock in China totalled $448bn, up from just $25bn in 1990. Combined with Hong Kong's stock of FDI of $433bn, greater China takes the number two spot.

Even if we factor in the fudge factor in Chinese economic numbers, these numbers are quite an astonishing testament to how much a liberal economic regime is helping. What would be interesting to see is be how much of this money is recycled from the SAR and the mainland itself. Brazil comes in second to China among the developing countries.

Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Gen Clark on immigration 

While I was checking Clark's stand on the issues, I came across his take on immigration.

We’re a nation of immigrants. We should be encouraging every person from the Indian Institute of Technology that comes to this country to stay in this country. Become an American citizen. Join with us. Make a great company. Let’s all be wealthy and prosperous and happy together. Immigration has a vital part to play in that process. (Source: New Democrat Network speech)

Just got me one more reason to plug for him :))

Clark Plug 

I had made a post about the possibility of Gen. Wesley Clark running for president in 2004, presumably on a Democratic ticket, a couple of months back. Since then, the tempo of the campaign to recruit Gen Clark has increased considerably. I have to say the more I see of Clark, the more impressed I am with the man. He is extremely sharp and articulate, and funny to boot. A Zogby poll released yesterday shows Gen. Clark actually beating Bush by 9 points in a blind-bio poll, and this without even officially entering the race. I think he would be a formidable candidate. There has also been some rumours about a possible Dean/Clark candidacy. I wonder how that will play out and whether Gen. Clark will provide Dean with the much-needed "national security" cover.

Anyway, I have decided to post my first political plug on the blog. This is directed especially at the Americans among you. Go to this website and make a pledge to donate to Gen. Clark's candidacy, if he decides to run. Of course, if he decides not to run, you dont lose any money, but if he does run, you honour your pledge. I would pledge some money myself, but since I am not an American citizen, I am not allowed to. Those of you who can, should.

Mars did it. Honest. 

The Indian government can call of its efforts to identify the perpetrators of yesterday's car bombings in Bombay. Astrologers in India have already figured it out. Mars did it.

While Indian authorities blamed Islamic militants for car bombings in Bombay that killed 52 people, astrologers are convinced the culprit was Mars, which is dangerously close to Earth. Astrologers believe the current positions of the moon, Mars, Saturn and Rahu -- an imaginary malefic planet in the horoscope -- bode ill for the near future, with the Indian government due to make wrong decisions and the public responding violently.

Whew. Thats a relief. For a while yesterday, I actually thought the jehadis might be involved and might lead to increased tension on the sub-continent. I needn't have worried after all. I wonder if a similar other-worldy explanation exists for Sept 11th as well? It wasn't the CIA, really, it was Mars.

Monday, August 25, 2003

Jimi is the greatest!!!! 

For as long as I can remember, I have maintained that among the guitar greats, there was Jimi Hendrix and then there were the mortals. 200 years from now, Jimi will be remembered and listened to with the same reverence we currently accord to a Beethoven or a Mozart. Rolling Stone has apparently done a definitive list of the greatest guitarists of all time. No prizes for guessing who comes out on top. Yahoo/Reuters is carrying a brief snapshot of the results, which will be carried in the latest edition of Rolling Stone which hits the news stands this weekend. I promise to post the complete results when the issue hits the stands.

Just for the record, Duane Allman and B.B. King come in at numbers 2 and 3 respectively. I'd be very curious to find out where the various yardbirds come in, as also the Steve Vai, Joe Satriani crowd. Watch this space. For now, Voodoo Chile, here I come.

Goodbye to a great champion 

Pete Sampras formally bade the world of tennis goodbye last night in an emotional ceremony at the U.S. Open. I first became a big tennis fan after watching the 1985 Wimbledon final between Boris Becker and Kevin Curran. Earlier, I had been content to watch videos of the great Bjorg-McEnroe, McEnroe-Connors games, but Becker brought something to the game I found very exciting. I thought Becker was one hell of a great player, but all that was before I first watched Pete Sampras in 1990. The more I watched him, the more I was blown away by his game. And then, there was that incredible final against Agassi last year. Yes, I do think he is the greatest player ever, though I'll admit I havent watched that much of Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall etc.

To me, Pete Sampras represents everything that is great about American sports and sportsmen. Now, if only you could convince the powers-that-be that Sampras as a role model would be a far better idea than those numerous basketball and football players who seem to spend at least as much time getting into trouble as being on the playing field.

Site recommendation -- Bottomquark 

Came across bottomquark while surfing today -- a site that features discussion of science and technology news. Recent entries include everything from a link to the new book on the standards battle between Tesla, Edison and Westinghouse to the discovery of the rajasaurus narmadensis. Well worth a bookmark.

The Blackout - a biological analogy 

Steven Strogatz, professor of applied mathematics at Cornell and author of Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order writes an interesting op-ed in today's New York Times about the biological comparisons that can be drawn with the great blackout of 2003.

The blackout was not caused by an infectious electrical disease; it was caused by the grid's immune response to the threat of such a disease. In other words, the grid suffered a violent allergic reaction, a sort of anaphylactic shock. Just as the symptoms of a severe allergic reaction are caused not by the offending bee sting itself but by the overzealous response of the body's immune system to it, so the blackout was aggravated by the grid's attempt to defend itself, one power station at a time. Threatened by a torrent of electrical energy gone berserk, or overwhelmed by the sudden loads placed on it, each power plant in turn tripped its circuit breakers, detaching itself from the grid. Though this strategy achieved its desired aim — saving each plant's generator from being damaged — it was too myopic to serve the best interests of the grid as a whole.

I hate to go on and on about a goddamn power failure, but there have been some fascinating issues/stories that have been thrown up by the catastrophic nature of the failure, and its these stories I feel consistently like posting.

Sunday, August 24, 2003

The science in science fiction 

The BBC is carrying an interesting story on the dismally bad science used in some recent sci-fi flicks like "The Hulk" and "Matrix Reloaded". I think the problem is particularly heightened and noticed by audiences when the movie-plot itself it pretty damn bad. Mark Ward agrees.

One can forgive Luke Skywalker, Captain Kirk and Flash Gordon for monkeying with the laws of physics in the interests of a rip-roaring storyline, but does bad science make a poor sci-fi film far worse?

The article also links to Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics, a great site to waste lots of time on.


Just came back from watching Thirteen, the sort-of indie flick directed by Catherine Hardwicke and written partly by Nikki Reed, who also plays a major role in the movie. I was impressed by the reviews and so decided to watch it this evening.

Thirteen has always been an age when establishing one's identity becomes paramount, and "Thirteen" tries to answer the question: What does it mean to be a 13-year-old girl right now, right here, in today's society?

It was well worth it, even though it is was absolutely brutal at times. An astonishingly good performance by Holly Hunter and an equally good one by Evan Rachel Wood makes for the icing on the cake. Definitely worth a watch.

Saturday, August 23, 2003

Stanley Fischer on Globalization 

Got this link off Rajesh's blog. In this lecture delivered at the Institute for International Economics, Dr Stanley Fischer, former deputy managing director of the IMF and MIT professor addresses the issues surrounding globalization. Of particular interest to me was to read the former IMF man's take on international capital markets and the global financial system. Even if its a bit long at 34 pages, definitely worth a read.

A key problem is that we have no accepted framework in which a country in extremis can impose a payments suspension or standstill pending agreement with its creditors to support the restoration of viability. Which takes us to Anne Krueger’s proposal for a Sovereign Debt Restructuring Mechanism (SDRM), a legal mechanism to approve payments standstills by sovereigns, and for the restructuring and if necessary writing down of sovereign debts.

The costs of resorting to such measures have to be high if the international financial system is to work well. If creditors believe emerging market debtors will too easily use legal provisio ns to restructure debts, spreads will rise and capital flows to those countries will decline. That is why policymakers from emerging market countries generally oppose proposals to make it easier for them to restructure their payments, be it through collective action clauses or the creation of a sovereign bankruptcy procedure.

You can also read an article in The Economist which discusses Dr. Fischer's lecture.

RISC -- moving towards investigation/R&D phase 

With Atanu's move back to India from the Bay Area, we hope to start up the investigative phase of RISC in the first week of September, working out of our Bombay office. Atanu wrote a short essay on RISC on the eve of his departure to India.

RISC provides the benefits of urbanization by making available to rural populations the full set of services and amenities that are normally available in urban areas. It brings the benefits of ICT and the increased access to global markets that globalization promises. The model recognizes that rural populations face a number of inter-related gaps, not just the celebrated digital divide. Bridging them simultaneously with a holistic solution is more likely to succeed than any partial intervention can.

The model facilitates the coordination of the investment decisions of the private sector, the public sector, NGOs, and multilateral lending institutions. To achieve its goal, the model strikes a number of balances — between the local and the global, between planned infrastructure investment and market-driven service provision, between specialization and standardization. It does not require government subsidies for its continued operation, although the government does have a role in providing some critical functions such as risk alleviation, loan assistance, and enacting enabling legislation.


My good friend, Dr. Madan Mohan Rao has a new book out called "AfricaDotEdu: IT Opportunities and Higher Education in Africa." A related website is in the process of being developed.

What kind of impact is IT having on educational institutions, systems, processes and knowledge assets in Africa? And what critical roles does the higher education sector play in developing local capacities in pedagogy, research, knowledge exchange, publishing, healthcare, e-commerce and cyberlaw?These are the two most critical sets of Information Age questions facing researchers, educators and policymakers in Africa today, as well as in the development community at large. The themes are scholarly researched and include contributions from over 25 African writers, covering topics ranging from digital libraries and country case studies to national IT policies and e-learning. Future books in this series will include AfricaDotGov, AfricaDotBiz and AfricaDotMedia.

The worm and I 

I have never been so pained by an Internet worm as I have with this goddamn sobig.f worm. This morning, for example, I woke up to find my inbox stuffed with some 25 new e-mails. It was all returned e-mail from various ISP's in reponse to my spoofed e-mails. I first thought my computer might be infected, but I ran several virus scans and found nothing. This probably means that someone I know is infected and the worm is using my e-mail address (among others) from his/her inbox to send out massive amounts of spam on my behalf. Of course, I have to then deal with the "message undeliverable" messages coming in by the tens from various ISP's. If you want to check specifically whether you have picked up any variant of the worm, you can can download a free scan from Symantec here.

Thursday, August 21, 2003

Madeleine Albright on the U.N. 

There was a time in the not-so-distant past when a certain U.S. administration did give a damn about the United Nations. Madeleine Albright, who served in that administration both as ambassador to the U.N. and as secretary of state, writes in Foreign Policy about both the relevance of the U.N. and the misconceptions surrounding it in the U.S.

The annual budget for core U.N. functions—based in New York City, Geneva, Nairobi, Vienna, and five regional commissions—is about $1.25 billion, or roughly what the Pentagon spends every 32 hours. The U.N. Secretariat has reduced its staff by just under 25 percent over the last 20 years and has had a zero-growth budget since 1996. The entire U.N. system, composed of the secretariat and 29 other organizations, employs a little more than 50,000 people, or just 2,000 more than work for the city of Stockholm. Total annual expenditures by all U.N. funds, programs, and specialized agencies equal about one fourth the municipal budget of New York City.

ASIMO as diplomat? 

ASIMO, Honda's revolutionary new humanoid robot is going where, errmmm, no robot has gone before. According to the BBC, ASIMO will join Junichuro Koizumi and Vladimir Spidla, the prime ministers of Japan and the Czech Republic for dinner at a state reception in Prague.

Japanese leader Junichiro Koizumi decided to bring the robot - made by the Japanese company Honda - as a tribute to the Czech writer Karel Capek. Capek invented the word "robot" in his 1921 play RUR (Rossum's Universal Robots), when he introduced the concept of human-like creations capable of doing dull repetitive tasks. Robot comes from the Czech word robota, which means drudgery.

More on "RUR" can be found here or you can buy it.

The updated CIA World Factbook 

Anytime I want quick reference on any country (that I don't have to pay for), it is the CIA World Factbook that I turn to. I just noticed that the Factbook has updated itself and for most countries, the information was updated last in August, 2003. I checked out India, China and the U.S. just to get a quick sense of what has been updated.

Interesting to note the economic numbers, even if its in PPP terms. The U.S. economy (at $10.4 trillion) is twice the size of the Chinese economy ($5.7 trillion) which itself is more than twice as large as the Indian economy ($2.6 trillion). Of course, in real dollar terms, the U.S. economy would remain as is, China would drop to just above $1 trillion, while India would be around half that. Same is the case with per-capita incomes.

Strangely enough, the numbers that havent been updated are the telecoms numbers -- which are probably the easiest numbers to acquire. China's mobile market is at 65 million while India's is just above 2 million while the true numbers as of today are 200 million plus and 16 million plus respectively.

Tuesday, August 19, 2003

Everything you wanted to know about D-Day but were afraid to ask 

Encyclopaedia Brittanica has put together a fantastic site called Normandy 1944 -- a comprehensive guide to the D-Day invasion. History, geography, strategy, the works. I'll shut up now and let the site do its own talking. Definitely worth a visit, especially if you're a WWII fan like I am.

Birds revisited 

It's amazing how one's opinions (or taste) about popular culture changes with time. I have always held Alfred Hitchcock to be one of the masters and I have always remembered Birds as a darn good movie, never mind that I last saw it in 1993. So, I picked up the DVD yesterday and boy, what an unbelievably bad movie it was. Completely pointless beyond birds of a feather attacking together. Not much in terms of a plot and tacky special effects that make some of the 1950's Harryhausen movies look positively good (okay, maybe Gollum will seem tacky in 2035 too). What was Hitch thinking when he made this? And why do critics think it is such a good movie? Hell, why did I think it was such a good movie?

Maybe I should watch Psycho or Rear Window and then decide whether I need to reassess my opinion of Hitchcock?

7E7 panacea to Boeing's problems? 

2003 has simply got to be one of the worst years on record for Boeing -- an annus horribilis of sorts. Airbus has not only caught up, but seems to have overtaken Boeing in terms of orders for 2003. Furthermore, the Airbus 380 will be ready to fly to soon, killing the 747's monopoly on "jumbo" jets. And there seems to be a fair degree of enthusiasm among airline companies for the A-380, unlike the reception handed out to the sonic cruiser. Technology Review reviews some of these problems and suggests that the new Boeing 7E7 might prove to be the way out for the aviation giant.

At first glance, the 7E7 will be a rather conventional-looking mid-size plane that carries between 200 and 250 passengers. But Boeing says it will burn 20 percent less fuel than today’s similarly sized commercial jets. What’s more, built of lightweight composites and packed with sophisticated electronic controls and diagnostics, the 7E7 could cheaply and efficiently travel an ocean-hopping 14,800 kilometers, demonstrating the same range and speed as large jets, like the 747. In other words, the 7E7 could get you from Paris to Minneapolis without a stop and, company officials say, do it less expensively than any large commercial jet flying today.

You can get more details on at the 7E7 website.

Sunday, August 17, 2003

E-bay -- a dynamic self-regulating economy or overgrown flea market? 

Last week, Businessweek carried a special report on the future of technology. In it, Robert D. Hof pondered the e-bay economy and its continued and astounding growth. I have used e-bay as a virtual analogy to explain the concepts behind RISC, in the sense that it too is a platform that greatly reduces transaction costs for buyers and sellers to do business. So, it was interesting to read Hof's take.

eBay's success holds potent management lessons for many businesses. In place of Stuyvesant's tyrannical approach, seemingly a model for conventional business management, Meg Whitman must take a more laissez-faire approach. It is based on cooperation and finesse, not coercion and force. To make sure eBay doesn't do something that incurs the wrath of its citizens and incites a revolt, eBay's executives work more like civil servants than corporate managers. They poll the populace through online town hall meetings and provide services to keep them happy -- and business humming.

Another take on revaluing the Yuan 

A few weeks back, I had posted a note about the highly undervalued nature of the Yuan. It contained links to a couple of articles on the implications of the continued undervaluation of the Yuan, both of which suggested that the Chinese needed to revalue. Last week's issue of Businessweek has a different take.

But boosting the value of the yuan may not be the best way to tame China's capital flows, say a growing number of economists and currency analysts. In fact, it could do more harm than good -- not just for China but also for the global economy. Among the hazards on the Chinese side: a big slowdown in the mainland's export machine. That would depress China's need for imported raw materials and machinery. It also would hurt incomes, which would lower Chinese demand for imported consumer goods. On the U.S. side, a higher yuan would boost U.S. prices for everything from toys to power tools, and trigger a fall-off in Chinese purchases of U.S. Treasury securities.

Is the grass always greener on the other side? 

The Economist is carrying a fascinating piece on the relation between rising incomes and happiness. The question seeking redress is why people haven't become happier even as their incomes have risen considerably over time. The implications for public policy are also addressed.

One explanation is “habituation”: people adjust quickly to changes in living standards. So although improvements make them happier for a while, the effect fades rapidly. For instance, 30 years ago central heating was considered a luxury; today it is viewed as essential. A second and more important reason why more money does not automatically make everybody happier is that people tend to compare their lot with that of others. In one striking example, students at Harvard University were asked whether they would prefer (a) $50,000 a year while others got half that or (b) $100,000 a year while others got twice as much. A majority chose (a). They were happy with less, as long as they were better off than others.

Hugely interesting. In fact, I would strongly recommend reading the entire lecture by Layard, which can found in PDF format here.

Saturday, August 16, 2003

The theorists and the blackout 

I was wondering aloud a couple of days back what the network theorists would have to say about the blackout of 2003, especially since some of them have talked about the interconnectedness of the power grid in the past. Sure enough, the New York Times is carrying an op-ed by Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, author of the rivetting Linked: The New Science of Networks.

Cascading failures are occasionally our ally, however. The American effort to dry up the money supply of terrorist organizations is aimed at crippling terrorist networks. And doctors and researchers hope to induce cascading failures to kill cancer cells. The effect of power blackouts, economic crises and terrorism can easily be limited or even eliminated if we are willing to cut the links. Strictly local energy production would guarantee that each blackout would also be strictly local.

But severing the ties would also cripple the network. Shutting down international trade would surely eliminate the impact of the Japanese central bank on the American economy, but it would also guarantee a global economic meltdown. Closing our borders would reduce the chance of terrorist attacks, but it would also risk the American dream of diversity and openness.

Ken Keniston interview 

Rajesh sent me a link to an interview with Ken Keniston that appeared in Technology Review. The interviewer is Venky Hariharan. Prof Keniston talks about cheap information kiosks in India and the changes they are bringing about. I dont necessarily agree with all of Prof Keniston's views, but nevertheless the interview is a good primer for those who would like an introduction into the ICT4DEV scene in India.

Billions of dollars are being spent on ICT4D—but if it crashes, people may feel that the money is better spent on something else. To prevent that we need to know what works and what doesn’t work, how costly it is, and who can pay for it.

Friday, August 15, 2003

"Fair and Balanced" day 

I also discovered something very amusing today, a day after I posted my own fair and balanced post. Apparently, the movement to be fair and balanced caught fire and August 15th was declared as "Fair and Balnced Day", with hundreds of bloggers incorporating Fox's infamous line into their blogs. A not-so-comprehensive list can be found here. It's goddamn hilarious. I wonder if the selective defenders of free speech at Fox News have got the message. Probably not.

Blackout and the media 

Of course, the media had to obsess about the blackout. From what I can make out today (since I could not catch anything yesterday except for shortwave radio), the entire world paid attention to the North American blackout. I watched a CNN report about the reaction in India to the blackout, which consisted mostly of amazement at what the fuss was all about.

Then CNN carried a story on how little sympathy the Iraqis had for the plight of Americans. I just marvelled at the stupidity of that report. The United States bombed Iraqi utilities to thy kingdom come. Iraqis have been living in mindboggling 120-130F heat without electricity for months now, while the Americans have been making promises about how soon the electric grid will be restored. And the Iraqis are expected to show sympathy to a bunch of people who have had to deal with 1/10th of their discomfort for 1/100th of the time?? I can only hope the discomfort will help Americans understand what it feels like to live the way Iraqis do, even if just for a day. Empathy 101.

Blackout impressions 

I am back online finally after the blackout yesterday. Everything in New York had come to a stop. Trains, traffic lights, mobile phones, internet access, television, everything. It definitely served as a reminder as to how technology dependent we have become that something I would take for granted in India would bring New York to a grinding halt. I initially thought of it as a bit of a joke and thought everyone was making an unusually big deal of a power failure. Then I stepped out and saw the masses of people walking home as food and water began to run out. That combined with the 10 floor walk-up to my apartment convinced me that it was a big deal after all. I was also taking in some RISC-related lessons along the way about the inefficient way in which electricity production and distribution works in the U.S.

To the great credit of Manhattan-ites, after the initial problems, everybody just accepted that this was not a problem that was going to be solved soon and set about enjoying themselves as only New Yorkers can. The pubs were full, streets parties were everywhere. I also managed to take advantage of a clearer-than-usual sky to take in both the Perseids and Mars (which is at its closest point to earth in 60, 000 years).

Thursday, August 14, 2003

Conservatism 101 

Dayalan sent me this piece earlier today. Admittedly, it's from the left-leaning Guardian who have good reason to publish such a story, but the study itself was underwritten by the U.S. government. I think there's more than a kernel of truth to the results of the study.

A study funded by the US government has concluded that conservatism can be explained psychologically as a set of neuroses rooted in "fear and aggression, dogmatism and the intolerance of ambiguity". As if that was not enough to get Republican blood boiling, the report's four authors linked Hitler, Mussolini, Ronald Reagan and the rightwing talkshow host, Rush Limbaugh, arguing they all suffered from the same affliction.

The authors also peer into the psyche of President George Bush, who turns out to be a textbook case. The telltale signs are his preference for moral certainty and frequently expressed dislike of nuance.

Will the administration now underwrite a similar study on liberals? More importantly, is there a need for such a study given that Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly intuitively know the results?

Wednesday, August 13, 2003

My Fair and Balanced blog 

I have decided to add the tag "fair and balanced" to my blog description after reading the blogs of Matthew Yglesias and Brad de Long earlier today.

If you've got a blog, please consider adding a "fair and balanced" tag somewhere in recognition of Rupert Murdoch's out of control litigiousness (tort reform, anyone?). You also should consider buying the book.

If you're totally out of the loop on what this is about, read this NYT editorial or read Franken's response to Fox's lawsuit. This whole episode reminds me of Warner Bros suing the Marx Brothers for using the term 'Casablanca' in their movie "A Night in Casablanca." Groucho responded by telling Warner that the Marx Brothers were brothers long before Warner Brothers and about a possible infringement. An exasperated Warner Bros just gave up eventually.

If you havent read that letter, you absolutely should, because it is vintage Groucho. You can find it in its entirety here.

More on non-western science 

Sanjay made a couple of excellent suggestions in response to my post on Tharoor, which though he chose to keep private, I thought would be of interest to everyone. The first, a book recommendation, seems really interesting at first glance. In the Crest of the Peacock, George Joseph investigates the non-European origins of mathematics.

From the Ishango Bone of central Africa and the Inca quipu of South America to the dawn of modern mathematics, The Crest of the Peacock makes it clear that human beings everywhere have been capable of advanced and innovative mathematical thinking. George Gheverghese Joseph takes us on a breathtaking multicultural tour of the roots and shoots of non-European mathematics. He shows us the deep influence the Egyptians and Babylonians had on the Greeks; the Arabs' major creative contributions; and the astounding range of successes of the great civilizations of India and China.

The second, a website, investigates the Black Athena controversy.

Based upon Bernals experience with his study of languages he realized that classical Greek shared so many of the same words that there must be more than a passing relationship between the Semitic peoples and Greek culture. Bernal postulated that Greeks must have either had direct contact with the Caananite people early in their history or they were directly descended from a Caananite people. He finally states in Black Athena that more than 25% of Greek comes directly from Semitic roots, 40 to 50 percent came from indo-European roots and the final part of the language was from Egyptian.

Blog Reloaded 

I have noticed a curious problem with Blogspot every time I have tried to access it from an external machine. Every now and then, the page only partially loads with just 2-3 posts. All you need to do if that happens is to reload the page a couple of times and you should be able to access all the posts.

Shashi Tharoor on Indian science, addresses a crib of mine 

Shashi Tharoor, under-Secretary General of the United Nations and renowned author, addreses a crib of mine in a couple of articles he wrote for the Hindu newspaper. While I completely accept that recorders of history (in the west) will record their own highly western-biased versions of it (compounded by the Indian inability to record their own history), the complete disregard of facts by some of these historians has always puzzled me.

Therefore, civilization began with Greece and Rome, never mind Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley etc. Science was a product of European enlightenment in the middle ages. Rome was the greatest military power in history, never mind the Mughals, Genghiz Khan etc. The list goes on, and what's worse, this is the version of history most Indians know as well. Of course, the problem is compounded when Hindu nationalists/pseudo-Hindus make wild claims (Denmark was a Hindu kingdom called Dhenu Marg, for example) which then casts doubt on the validity of everything else.

Shashi Tharoor shows in these two (part I, part II) articles that its perfectly possible to make the point about Indian science without resorting to wild exaggeration. Tharoor also quotes from Dick Teresi's Lost Discoveries: The Ancient Roots of Modern Science -- from the Babylonians to the Maya, a book I'd highly recommend to anyone interested in the origins of science.

Tharoor writes -- If I were to focus on just one field in this column, it would be that of mathematics. India invented modern numerals (known to the world as "Arabic" numerals because the West got them from the Arabs, who learned them from us!). It was an Indian who first conceived of the zero, shunya; the concept of nothingness, shunyata, integral to Hindu and Buddhist thinking, simply did not exist in the West. ("In the history of culture," wrote Tobias Dantzig in 1930, "the invention of zero will always stand out as one of the greatest single achievements of the human race.")

He concludes the two articles thus -- India made the highest-quality sword steel in the world. Iron suspension bridges came from Kashmir; printing and papermaking were known in India before anywhere in the West; Europeans sought Indian shipbuilding expertise; our textiles were rated the best in the world till well into the colonial era. But we were never very good with machinery; we made our greatest products with skilled labour. That was, in the end, how the British defeated us.

Salvador Dali Online 

Anyone who says "I don't take drugs; I am drugs" should be taken very seriously indeed. Hence, my interest in Dali. While randomly surfing today, I came across the excellent Salvador Dali Art Gallery. The website includes Dali's biography, every single Dali painting, a discussion group, the idiot's guide to surrealism and links to stores where you can buy Dali (and other surrealist) prints pretty cheap.

Zanzibar and mobile phones 

The BBC reports on Zanzibar's mobile phone revolution. The reports seems to indicate efficiency and welfare gains similar to what I had observed with the fishermen in Kerala.

Mbwana Simahimbo has owned a mobile phone for three years and he told BBC News Online that it has changed his life. "I use to have to drive around looking for fares. This was tiring, time consuming and cost me a lot in petrol. "Now, I wait for my customers to call me and I just go and pick them up." The mobile phone has had a huge economic impact on Mr Simahimbo. He reckons that on average he makes around US$15 a day in fares compared to up to $7 before he had a phone.

Though the average spend, at $10, is less than the Kerala case, the market is probably set to boom as the efficiency gains leads to increased incomes. Now, if only one could convince the "digital divide" brigade that spending money on low-tech mobile phone applications is probably what will help bridge the economic divide, digital or otherwise!!

Google Calc 

I don't know how new this feature, but Google has introduced a very cool built in calculator into its web search features, which lets you evaluate mathematical expressions.

To use Google's built-in calculator function, simply enter the expression you'd like evaluated in the search box and hit the Enter key or click the Google Search button. The calculator can evaluate mathematical expressions involving basic arithmetic (5+2*2 or 2^20), more complicated math (sine(30 degrees) or e^(i pi)+1), units of measure and conversions (100 miles in kilometers or 160 pounds * 4000 feet in Calories), and physical constants (1 a.u./c or G*mass of earth/radius of earth^2). You can also experiment with other numbering systems, including hexadecimal and binary.

Tuesday, August 12, 2003

The Robotic Future 

Marshall Brain, founder of How Stuff Works (one of the best ways to waste time online), has written an interesting series of articles on a robotic future for America. He envisions a dark future for workers as robots displace a very large number of workers in conventional jobs.

If you think about it, robots are a very good thing. Human beings should not be driving trucks, flipping burgers or scrubbing toilets. These activites represent a massive waste of human potential. The question is: what will these tens of millions of people do to make a living when their tens of millions of jobs evaporate? What will happen to the economy when the unemployment rate reaches 30% or 40%?

This seems like a Luddite argument to me, one that has repeated ad nauseam everytime a new technology showed up. In fact, unemployment rates have dropped steadily since the Industrial Revolution. Even assuming that Marshall's robotic future will come to pass, he seems to rule out structural re-adjustments (and innovation) within the economy that can end up creating entirely new jobs and absorb people waylaid by a possible robotic revolution. At least, that seems to be the evidence at hand from technological revolutions of the past.

The rapid growth of the Indian cellular market 

India's cellular phone market has now reached China-like growth rates. According to the Business Standard, 2 million new subscribers signed on in the month of July alone. In effect, the first few months of 2003-2004 have seen more subscribers added than the whole of 2002-2003. Given that the TDSAT has ruled in favour of the limited mobility companies, growth rates will probably accelerate, if anything. The Business Standard also provides a detailed breakdown of the cellular market, clearing the confusion in my mind what exactly the "cellular" numbers in India constituted. Looks like the world's cheapest mobile phone market is all set to become the world's third-largest (after China and the United States) market well before the end of the decade.

Monday, August 11, 2003

John Daly on Blogging 

John Daly has written an interesting essay called "Blogging for Development," which can be accessed from the Development Gateway site. If nothing else, the essay comes with great links, including one on Ph.D. weblogs.

There are a number of blogs that are specifically relevant to ICT for Development. For example, Geoffrey Kirkman, who was the Managing Editor of the Global Information Technology Report 2001-2002, has a blog. Steve Cisler is one of the people most active in bringing Internet access to communities worldwide, and his blog, Glocal, is a useful addition to the materials he has placed on the Web on his home page and other sites. Bret Fausett, a Los Angeles lawyer, maintains a blog about the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) activities. ZeroCostComputing (by Jason Nolan, Julia Dicum, and Jasjit Sangha) is "an exploration of issues surrounding technology and the digital divide from a perspective that we call Zero Cost Computing."

RISC related conference paper 

Rajesh and Atanu presented a RISC related paper called "Two Mutually Reinforcing Applications of ICT for Socio-economic Development of India" at a recent ICT workshop in Sydney. This paper was co-authored by Rajesh, Atanu, Vivek and yours truly. Rajesh had been posting excerpts of this paper on his blog the past couple of weeks. The excerpts can be read in its entirety here.

If you have any comments about the paper or the concepts outlined in the paper, please let me know.

Saturday, August 09, 2003

Global Transformations site 

I came across the Global Transformations site today while googling for something else. It looks very interesting -- has some great content, great links and they publish what look like very comprehensive books on globalization. I myself have placed an order for the The Global Transformations Reader edited by David Held and Anthony G. McGrew. Will post a review when I actually receive and read the book.

Virtual Bacon? 

The BBC reports the results of a study that claims that an e-mail needs to be forwarded a mere five to seven times to reach almost any other e-mail user, pretty much replicating in the virtual world what unemployed students managed to prove a long time ago with Kevin Bacon.

The small world idea has now gained support from the work of a research team headed by Peter Dodds and colleagues from the Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy at the Columbia University in New York, US. In their experiment, the scientists recruited 61,168 individuals and asked them to try to relay messages to one of 18 target people in 13 countries.

PS: The University of Virginia CS department has an Oracle of Bacon website where you can waste plenty of time.

Broadband in the mountains 

After a hectic week in Washington D.C., I am in the Blue Ridge mountains pretty much doing nothing besides shooting the breeze. Funnily enough, I have broadband access here, in the middle of nowhere. I guess that either means kudos to universal service, or more likely, that even people in remote communities in the U.S. are getting themselves broadband access. Enough subscribers anyway to make the provision profitable (I hope) for a company like Adelphia. So here I am, surrounded by a lush green forest and catching up on all the news I missed out the last 8 days. Maybe, I will post something to the blog later today.

Saturday, August 02, 2003

Life without Broadband 

I am used to the high-quality, even if pricey, broadband access I have at home in New York. A broadband network combined with 802.11b within the apartment makes for a very comfortable life. Now, I find myself in Washington D.C. using dial-up once again. Jesus, it is goddamn frustrating!!! I cannot imagine how I survived with dial up for 5 years prior to using broadband.

Anyway, this probably means I am not going to be able to post as regularly as I'd like to, not for the next one week anyway. I guess I'll just make up with excess prolixity (whatever that means) when I get back to New York.