Friday, October 31, 2003

Blog Holiday 

I am off to San Francisco today. I am not taking my laptop with me and therefore blogging will probably be non-existent at worst and sporadic at best. I have been traveling quite a bit, which explains the slow-down in blogging the past week. In the meanwhile, if there's any of you out in the Bay area and have time to kill, shoot me an e-mail. Perhaps we can meet for a beer/coffee etc.

A historical look at colonialism 

Via Ramesh Rao -- A fabulous article dated October 1908 from the Atlantic Monthly, written by Jabez T. Sunderland, introduces American audiences to the fledgling Indian Nationalist movement and the destruction wrought by British Colonialism.

Why is England in India at all? Why did she go there at first, and why does she remain? If India had been a comparatively empty land, as America was when it was discovered, so that Englishmen had wanted to settle there and make homes, the reason would have been plain. But it was a full land; and, as a fact, no British emigrants have ever gone to India to settle and make homes. If the Indian people had been savages or barbarians, there might have seemed more reason for England's conquering and ruling them. But they were peoples with highly organized governments far older than that of Great Britain, and with a civilization that had risen to a splendid height before England's was born.

Said Lord Curzon, the late Viceroy of India, in an address delivered at the great Delhi Durbar in 1901: "Powerful Empires existed and flourished here [in India] while Englishmen were still wandering painted in the woods, and while the British Colonies were a wilderness and a jungle. India has left a deeper mark upon the history, the philosophy, and the religion of mankind, than any other terrestrial unit in the universe." It is such a land that England has conquered and is holding as a dependency. It is such a people that she is ruling without giving them any voice whatever in the shaping of their own destiny.

Sunderland also gets into specific details on how British colonialism hurt India.

The people of India are taxed more than twice as heavily as the people of England and three times as heavily as those of Scotland. According to the latest statistics at hand, those of 1905, the annual average income per person in India is about $6.00, and the annual tax per person about $2.00.

Great Britain wanted India's markets. She could not find entrance for British manufactures so long as India was supplied with manufactures of her own. So those of India must be sacrificed. England had all power in her hands, and so she proceeded to pass tariff and excise laws that ruined the manufactures of India and secured the market for her own goods. India would have protected herself if she had been able, by enacting tariff laws favorable to Indian interests, but she had no power, she was at the mercy of her conqueror.

A third cause of India's impoverishment is the enormous and wholly unnecessary cost of her government. The amount of money which the Indian people are required to pay as salaries to this great army of foreign civil servants and appointed higher officials, and then, later, as pensions for the same, after they have served a given number of years in India, is very large.

For such foreign wars and campaigns -- campaigns and wars in which the Indian pcople had no concern, and for which they received no benefit, the aim of which was solely conquest and the extension of British power -- India was required to pay during the last century the enormous total of more than $460,000,000.

In the form of salaries spent in England, pensions sent to England, interest drawn in England on investments made in India, business profits made in India and sent to England, and various kinds of exploitation carried on in India for England's benefit, a vast stream of wealth ("tribute" in effect) is constantly pouring into England from India.

An interesting article, even if a little quaint. Definitely something I would designate as required reading to apologists of colonialism -- folks like Niall Ferguson and so on.

Not with a bang, but a hum 

The New Scientist is carrying a report on an analysis done on the leftover radiation from the Big Bang. Turns out it wasn't a bang as much as it was a hum.

To produce the sound, Cramer took data from NASA's Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe. Launched in 2001, the probe has been measuring tiny differences in the temperature between different parts of the sky. From these variations, he could calculate the frequencies of the sound waves propagating through the Universe during its first 760,000 years, when it was just 18 million light years across. At that time the sound waves were too low in frequency to be audible. To hear them, Cramer had to scale the frequencies 100,000 billion billion times.

The sound file can be found here. Thrilling stuff.

Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Mini power grids 

The BBC has an interesting story on locally-owned community power (solar mostly) grids which apparently provide good quality power in parts of Nepal and India. The part that's missing in the story is the economics of local power generation. I would love to know if the sharing of the cost of production and distribution actually reduces unit cost to manageable levels or if there are subsidies involved.

The mini-grid consists of a basic power-generation unit that stands alone from a national grid, and is able to supply power to a small community, regulated by adding and removing electric loads to respond to changes in demand. In India, the scheme has been piloted in the Sundarbans islands, in the Ganges delta in the southern part of West Bengal.

The mini-grid concept really only comes into its own when you are so far away from the main generators that it's no longer cost-effective to run a set of wires to that particular set of customers," stated Professor Nick Jenkins, a chief researcher at the High Voltage Research Centre in Manchester. "It could work in isolated rural areas and the particular applications are clearly on islands." He added that they could also help with supplying the estimated two billion people around the world currently without power. "If you can get the technology right and the costs right, then autonomous power supplies - mini-grids for them - may be an appropriate way forward."

Monday, October 27, 2003

File Sharing Ver 2.0 

The New York Times is carrying a story on a beta technology being tested at MIT that might offer a new lease of life to file-sharing in an RIAA-afflicted world. The technology bypasses the Internet and instead uses a medium that has considerable less restrictive licensing -- analog cable. I wonder what the law says about using technology of this nature on public cable networks.

M.I.T. students, faculty and staff can choose from 16 channels of music and can schedule 80-minute blocks of time to control a channel. The high-tech D.J. can select, rewind or fast-forward the songs via an Internet-based control panel.

While listening to music through a television might seem odd, it is crucial to the M.I.T. plan. The quirk in the law that makes the system legal, Mr. Winstein said, has much to do with the difference between digital and analog technology. The advent of the digital age, with the possibility of perfect copies spread around the world with the click of a mouse, has spurred the entertainment industry to push for stronger restrictions on the distribution of digital works, and to be reluctant to license their recording catalogues to permit the distribution of music over the Internet.

The university, like many educational institutions, already has blanket licenses for the seemingly old-fashioned analog transmission of music from the organizations that represent the performance rights, including the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers or Ascap, the Broadcast Music Inc. or B.M.I., and Sesac, formerly the Society of European Stage Authors and Composers.

Thus far, the RIAA and the big music companies have had no comment about the MIT system. I am sure though we can depend on them to be paranoid and attempt to scuttle this system too, using legal tactics.

Nuclear Explosions Database 

Geoscience Australia has a database of every single nuclear explosion conducted since 1945. Details include dates, time, location, yield and so on. 400+ explosions are listed. I came across one new fact via this database. I had always assumed that South Africa was an undeclared nuclear power (like Israel) that later rolled back its nuclear program. Turns out South Africa did conduct an atmospheric test in the southern Indian Ocean in 1979. If you have time, the website also has data on earthquakes, tsunamis and so on.

Sunday, October 26, 2003

Ann Coulter on the subway 

One always runs into strange sorts on the New York subway. Tonight, I ran into Ann Coulter on my way home from a concert. There was nothing remotely conservative about her dress sense, I have to say. Come to think about it, it was 3 am, a time when most good conservatives ought to be in bed and fast asleep. I got the feeling she lives in my neighbourhood, which really is a strange choice. After all, Morningside Heights isn't exactly known to be the most Joe McCarthy-friendly neighbourhood in the United States.

Friday, October 24, 2003

From the waste of time and money dept: Call Now 

(Via Sameer) Dislike someone? Better still, hate someone? Don't want to take calls from them? Well, here's a number you can hand out to them the next time they ask -- +1-415-356-9833. I suspect you will not hear from them again.

Thursday, October 23, 2003

Oldest Vertebrate Fossil 

Discovery reports the discovery of the oldest vertebrate fossil in South Australia's Flinders Ranges. The fossil's been dated at 560 million years, pre-dating by 30 million years the previous oldest fossil find.

Our very most distant relative looks like a long tadpole, about 26 inches long, with muscles, a head, a fin on its back, but most importantly, a backbone, PM's Nance Haxton said.

South Australian Museum Director, Tim Flannery, said the discovery is of enormous significance. "Well, it's not so much humans, it's really the origin of all other things, humans, dogs, birds, fish, everything with a backbone and what it's suggesting is that perhaps this lineage goes back a lot further in time than any of us imagined," he told PM. Nilpena station owner Ross Fargher stumbled across the fossil five years ago while driving around his 540 square mile cattle property.

Wi-Fi Lake 

CNETAsia is reporting that the 11.05 sq km Dal Lake, in the heart of Srinagar (capital of Jammu and Kashmir), has become wi-fi enabled, perhaps the first wi-fi enabled lake in the world.

Tourists flock to the picturesque lake for its rustic tranquility, but those who prefer to stay connected can now also browse the Web and check email while afloat on native houseboats. The 802.11b wireless LAN coverage of the lake has been set up by Chennai-based provider Dax Networks and will be officially launched Nov 1. Dax spent around US$13,000 setting up the network to promote the firm's technical abilities.

There you have it -- fast broadband access while lolling around the lake, if you can prevent the jihadis from taking pot shots at you, that is. Sometimes, truth is really much stranger than fiction.

Wednesday, October 22, 2003

The Trials of Henry Kissinger 

Just watched the movie, The Trials of Henry Kissinger, based on the book of the same name by Chris Hitchens. Unlike the aggresive polemic in the book, the movie actually attempts to be fair to Kissinger by interviewing Kissinger-friendly folks like Alexander Haig and Brent Scowcroft, alongside Seymour Hersh and Rene Schneider Jr (the son of Gen Schneider). Nevertheless, it does occur to the viewer that if there were a uniform set of international human rights laws, Henry Kissinger would probably find himself in a lot of trouble based on his involvement in Vietnam, Cambodia, East Timor and of course, Chile.

However, I remain intrigued by Kissinger's long-held claim that the rules of morality between individuals cannot be applied to the interaction between states, especially when states have to choose between two evils. I guess I have not thought about it long enough or hard enough to make a final call on that. Nevertheless, a movie I would recommend to any Kissinger watcher.

The Doing Business Index 

Hernando de Soto has long advocated that the difficulty in starting up businesses is one of the biggest stumbling blocks to the spread of capitalism in the developing world. The World Bank goes one better and has put together a Doing Business Index, which ranks countries on 5 parameters (benchmarked to Jan 2003) -- Starting a Business, Hiring & Firing Workers, Enforcing Contracts, Getting Credit and Closing a Business.

The data set covers 133 economies. The sample includes 22 high-income OECD economies as benchmarks, 25 economies from Europe and Central Asia, 33 from Africa, 5 from South Asia, 21 from Latin America, 14 from the Middle East and North Africa and 13 from the East Asia and the Pacific region.

The principal data collection methods for the indicators are the study of the existing laws and regulations in each economy; targeted interviews with regulators or private sector professionals in each topic; and cooperative arrangements with other departments of the World Bank, other donor agencies, private consulting firms, business and law associations.

It takes 46 days to start a business in China, 88 in India and 152 in Brazil. By contrast, it takes 4 days to start a business in the United States.

IEW gains members 

India Economy Watch, the other spot I blog at, has two great new additions. Rajesh Jain and Atanu Dey have also started to blog there. While this might seem like a RISC takeover, it really isn't :) We hope to have a lively discussion group going there soon. So, if you have any interest in the Indian economy, head right on over.

The magic of Kerala cuisine 

Yesterday, I had made a post about a little-used weapon in India's soft power arsenal -- Bollywood. Today it's the turn of food. I am a food fascist. Let me explain that -- while I like to try food from just about everywhere, I am not polite towards food I dislike. And after careful thought and examination of the issue, I have no doubts whatsoever that Indian food is simply the best food there is. In my highly subjective opinion, it beats out competitors like Thai, Italian, French, Ethiopian etc hands down. The biggest plus to Indian food, alongwith spice and flavour, is the sheer diversity of the food. Each state has pretty much its own distinct cuisine, though folks in the west are only used to the food from the north-west of the country.

Time to take this post on a distinctly parochial path now. Of all the Indian cuisine I have tried, I think the food from Kerala stands head and shoulders above the rest. The spice trade of yore has resulted in a fantastic mish-mash, which when mixed in with native spices and flavours makes for a terrific combination. The influence of Kerala food can be seen all the way from east African cuisine through to south-east asian cooking, not really a surprise when one considers the routes of the spice trade. Funnily enough, food from Kerala also remains one of India's best kept secrets, with very few restaurants serving it outside the sub-continent, though London is the exception with 3 decent Kerala restaurants I know of. Otherwise, the best option would be to eat Malaysian or Sri Lankan food, which come closest in character to Kerala cuisine. So, I was pleasantly surprised to find the New York Times carrying Kerala cuisine as its lead story in the Dining section today. And boy, it was one hell of a long and descriptive story.

For centuries, long before the steamship, long before the jet plane, venturesome traders rode the trade winds to Kerala. Romans, Phoenicians, Chinese, Arabs, Portuguese, Frenchmen, Dutchmen and Britons all came here, and so did Jewish merchants from Venice. St. Thomas the Apostle is said to have landed along this coast in A.D. 52, and Christopher Columbus was headed west in search of Kerala's fabled spices when he stumbled upon America.

Each group of outsiders brought along their own culinary traditions, and each adapted to their new circumstances. The Arabs contributed fennel and fenugreek. On their quest for black pepper, the Portuguese carried the cashews and chilies they had discovered in the New World, changing forever the way the subcontinent eats. The Jews clung to kosher dietary restrictions, but they added green chilies and coriander to their meals. Blending all these influences with the abundant native spices and coconut has yielded a light, bright and vividly varied cuisine, little known to the rest of the world and totally different from the hearty tandooris and creamy curries of arid northern India.

Though there is probably an overdose of subjectivity in this post, I will strongly advise those of you who havent tried it yet to try it out. I think it'll be worth your while.

Tuesday, October 21, 2003

A historical twist to the outsourcing tale 

I have often wondered about the profound irony of outsourcing and the protestations against it in the developed world. After all, there is something very ironic about British workers protesting a decision by the erstwhile Hongkong and Shanghai Bank (HSBC) to move jobs back to Asia. George Monbiot writes in the Guardian about the flight of jobs to India and provides some very interesting historical perspective. Though I think he is too cynical (and perhaps too simplistic) about the effect on the British economy, it still is a good read and is a perspective one does not often come across.

Britain's industrialisation was secured by destroying the manufacturing capacity of India. In 1699, the British government banned the import of woollen cloth from Ireland, and in 1700 the import of cotton cloth (or calico) from India. Both products were forbidden because they were superior to our own. As the industrial revolution was built on the textiles industry, we could not have achieved our global economic dominance if we had let them in. Throughout the late 18th and 19th centuries, India was forced to supply raw materials to Britain's manufacturers, but forbidden to produce competing finished products. We are rich because the Indians are poor.

There is a profound historical irony here. Indian workers can outcompete British workers today because Britain smashed their ability to compete in the past. Having destroyed India's own industries, the East India Company and the colonial authorities obliged its people to speak our language, adopt our working practices and surrender their labour to multinational corporations. Workers in call centres in Germany and Holland are less vulnerable than ours, as Germany and Holland were less successful colonists, with the result that fewer people in the poor world now speak their languages.

For the first time in history, the professional classes of Britain and America find themselves in direct competition with the professional classes of another nation. Over the next few years, we can expect to encounter a lot less enthusiasm for free trade and globalisation in the parties and the newspapers which represent them. Free trade is fine, as long as it affects someone else's job.

Reminds me of a line Joe Stiglitz used at a seminar to describe the western interpretation of free trade -- Free Trade is good. Imports are bad.

Monday, October 20, 2003

The Dilbert Weasel Poll results 

(Via Andrew) The results of the second annual exuberantly non-scientific Dilbert Weasel Poll are in. 35,874 people voted.

Weaseliest Organization was won by the Recording Industry Association of America. Weaseliest Company was won by Microsoft. The Weaseliest Individual award was won by George W. Bush. Weaseliest Profession went to Politicians. Weaseliest Country went to France. Weaseliest Behavior was Blaming fast food restaurants for making you fat.

Bollywood is Coming!!! 

Run?? Maybe not. There is a sea change in the sort of movies that are being made, and a lot of the movies are increasingly made with a worldwide audiences in mind. Taking cognizance of the fact, Time Asia is carrying the "new" Bollywood as its cover story.

The film world has heard rumors of an Indian invasion for years. In London in particular, the success of cross-cultural writers like Vikram Seth, Hari Kunzru and Monica Ali, Andrew Lloyd Webber's Bombay Dreams, department store Selfridges' decision to adopt a Bollywood theme, and a host of wildly successful Indian TV comedies has long convinced the British public that it was set for a Bollywood bonanza. Often, the sheer size of the Indian film industry—releasing an average 1,000 films a year, compared with Hollywood's 740; and attracting an annual world audience, from Kuala Lumpur to Cape Town, of 3.6 billion, compared with Hollywood's 2.6 billion—made it seem as though the West was the last to catch on.

So what's changed? Everything. Rai's [ed: Aishwarya] unchallenged position in the industry is partly due to her determined pursuit of "different, against the grain" roles, such as her 1997 part in Tamil director Mani Rathnam's little-seen but acclaimed art-house movie Iruvar. But Rai is not some solitary crusader, rather the most successful disciple of a new mantra of innovation that has swept Indian film in the past year. Because in 2002 Bollywood truly bombed. All but 12 of the year's 132 mainstream Hindi releases flopped, and the $1.3 billion-a-year industry, used to comfortable annual growth of 15%, groaned under unaccustomed losses of some $60 million. The formulas suddenly weren't commercial anymore. And although some moviemakers groped around for new blueprints—horror, skin flicks, anything—a band of urban and Westernized writers, directors, producers and actors, loosely grouped under the banner "New Bollywood," overran the industry.

The issue also has interviews with Aishwarya Rai (who also graces the cover), Amitabh Bachchan, Rahul Bose, Ram Gopal Varma, Aamir Khan and also an essay written by long-time Bollywood junkie (and one of my favourite movie reviewers), Richard Corliss.

Bollywood is the world's largest movie machine. Big Bollywood stars like Amitabh Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai arguably command a larger fan base than most Hollwood stars. In fact, Bachchan was voted Star of the Millennium in a BBC poll, leaving names like Sir Lawrence Olivier, Robert De Niro and Homer Simpson behind. Bollywood and India are the only sources of competition to Hollywood and the U.S. in the domain of pop culture. I have always maintained that India does not make any use of the "soft-power" potential inherent in this cultural dominance. Clearly, that's a lesson India (and Bollywood) need to learn from the U.S. -- it's not just nuclear explosions that gain you influence in the world. It's also "Friends," "Simpsons" and Rock n' Roll.

Sunday, October 19, 2003

Not just any Ribbit 

Well, this story has been around for a few days, I almost feel embarassed at not having posted it here. The BBC has reported the discovery of the Nasikabatrachus sahyadrensis (announced in Nature), a purple frog with the most bizarre snout and head I have ever seen. It almost looks like its caught somewhere between fish and amphibian on the evolutionary ladder.

Scientists have given it the name Nasikabatrachus sahyadrensis, from the Sanskrit word for nose (nasika); batrachus, meaning frog; and Sahyadri, the name for its mountain home.

N. sahyandrensis is related to a family of frogs in the Seychelles called Sooglossidae. DNA analysis suggests the common ancestor of the animals lived 130 million years ago, when the planet's landmasses were joined together into a giant supercontinent called Gondwana. Its subsequent break-up would have sent the frogs on a diverging path of evolutionary development.

Well, it's purple in colour. One can safely assume it can't sing. I'd say dont kiss the bugger. It just might turn into Prince.

Bono on the new album 

U2 are one of my favourite bands. Every now and then, I check the progress on the new album, which has been in the works for about a year and a half now. In a recent interview, Bono characterized (in a way only Bono can) the album this-a-ways.

There's only one reason for U2 to put an album out right now it has to be a monster, a dragon, and this is. It's filled with big tunes and it's driven by a guitar player who is sick of the sight of me shaking hands with dodgy politicians. The anger is unbelievable.

While the humour is obvious, I have long heard rumours that this is an Edge-centric album. The last time a guitarist's rawness (and anger and well, okay, intake of drugs in the case of Mr. Richards) fuelled an album, the result was the brilliant Exile on Main Street. Wicked!

India's Sizzling Economy 

Well, it looks like the 7% GDP growth number has finally caught the attention of the media. Tomorrow's New York Times is carrying a lead story on India's sizzling economy. Clearly, the Indian economy is poised on the verge of explosive growth, much like China a few years ago.

After growing just 4.3 percent last year, India's economy, the second fastest growing in the world, after China, is widely expected to grow close to 7 percent this year. The growth of the past decade has put more money in the pockets of an expanding middle class, 250 to 300 million strong, and more choices in front of them. Their appetites are helping to fuel demand-led growth for the first time in decades.

India is now the world's fastest growing telecom market, with more than one million new mobile phone subscriptions sold each month. Indians are buying about 10,000 motorcycles a day. Banks are now making $15 billion a year in home loans, with the lowest interest rates in decades helping to spur the spending, building and borrowing. Credit and debit cards are slowly gaining. The potential for even more market growth is enormous, a fact recognized by multinationals and Indian companies alike. In 2001, according to census figures, only 31.6 percent of India's 192 million households had a television, and only 2.5 percent a car, jeep or van.

Foreign institutional investors have poured nearly $5 billion into the Indian market this year, already more than six times last year's total. The Bombay Stock Exchange's benchmark Sensitive Index has risen by more than 50 percent since April, hitting a three-year high. Foreign exchange reserves are at a record $90 billion.

After huffing and puffing in place for eight or nine years, "the train has left the station," C. K. Prahalad, a professor at the University of Michigan Business School, said of the Indian economy.

The trouble with Apple 

Since I had been reading about Apple's new Itunes for Windows, I decided to try it out yesterday and downloaded about 11 songs. First, the good news. With a great interface etc, Itunes is extremely user-friendly software. I could authorise a transaction and download a song, all in about 15 seconds over my broadband connection. Now, the bad news. Apple uses a standard caled M4P, which is a variant of MPEG-4 with embedded DRM. Thanks to DRM, you cannot really convert to any other format like MP3, WMA etc. And M4P doesn't play on any player other than the Ipod.

Effectively, it seems like a strategy to sell Ipods, which are good machines, but are hopelessly over-priced -- $100 to $200 more expensive than similar players like the Creative Nomad Zen and so on. So, if you dont own an Ipod, I would not recommend the Itunes service. Of course, one can always hope that Apple comes to its senses (or some hacker in eastern europe breaks the M4P DRM) and makes it an open standard. Else, they will always remain a fringe player, the way it has been in the computer market for long. That would be a pity since I think Itunes is rather impressive but for this major snafu. For now, Apple had lost my business and I am going to head to Buymusic, Napster, Musicmatchor some such to get my music.

The Rainmaker is back? 

Earlier today, while reading the New York Times, I came across a name I have not read about in a long, long while now -- George Gilder -- yes, he of the infinite bandwidth and telecosm fame. I remember the time when everyone needed to read the Gilder Tech Report to be with it on the technology scene. After the dot-com and telecoms bust, it never occured to me to wonder what happened to the dot-com punditocracy. Well, Katie Hafner has the low-down on this partiular guru. And it doesnt look good, even if the man remains optimistic in the face of the improved performance of the tech sector.

People canceled their subscriptions by the tens of thousands; only the original newsletter survives today, with just 8,500 subscribers [ed: down from 110,000]. Since the tech bubble burst, all but five staff members have been laid off. A former business partner holds a lien on Mr. Gilder's house. And in a cruel twist of fate, Mr. Gilder, an outspoken critic of the nation's tax structure, finds himself at the mercy of the Internal Revenue Service, as he awaits the agency's final decision on the terms of his tax bill.

The one thing he did not foresee, he says, was the effect of what he calls "this incredible morass of regulations" affecting the telecommunications industry. "I knew the factors, but I kept believing technology would triumph over them." He said he still believes it will, eventually.

Let's hope he's right and that he gets back in business and all that. Perhaps he should be a tad less gung-ho about the future of technology this time around. It might save him (and a lot of people who take him seriously) a lot of money.

Pecking on the Economist 

Sanjay has, partly in jest, started a new blog he calls The Eggonomist. The idea being to "peck on that inflated journal from the insipid kingdom." Now, every time the Economist's condescension bothers you, you have a place to go vent your spleen :)

Saturday, October 18, 2003

Total Recall 

No, the Democrats haven't yet decided to recall Gov. Schwarzenegger. In the meanwhile, Brad links to the Internet Archive Wayback Machine, a machine so dastardly it allows you to recover cached content from websites from as far back as 1996.

The Barbarous Relic returns? 

Buttonwood writes this week about the declining confidence in the promises of central bankers. The backdrop is the APEC summit, where there is bound to be pressure on both China and Japan to revalue their currencies. It seems highly unlikely that China is about to heed the U.S.'s plea and I dont see why they should. At most, the renminbi will adopt a wider band on its peg. Japan, whose economy seems to be creeping out of stagnation, will be just as unwilling to do anything to rock the boat. Anyway, Buttonwood asks whether the falling allure of currencies might lead to a fallback on a Keynesian nightmare.

At some point, perhaps even the European Central Bank will wake up to the fact that the rising euro will keep the European economy close to recession. All of which is to suggest that none of the world’s major currencies is especially alluring; for one reason or another governments in all three might want them to fall. Of course, they cannot all fall against each other. They can, however, fall against something largely unloved by those under the age of 50, and famously dismissed by Keynes as a “barbarous relic”: gold.

Some historical context is provided.

It is only in very recent years that gold has lost its allure as a store of value. For centuries, the metal was virtually synonymous with money: the Egyptians were casting gold bars as money as long ago as 4000 BC. The gold standard’s heyday was from the 1870s to the 1930s (with a brief interruption in the first world war). Britain left the standard in 1931, a move pronounced as “the end of an epoch” by no less an authority than The Economist. America did the same in 1933. One by one, other rich countries followed suit. The gold standard was revived in a famous agreement in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire after the second world war, but only in America, which by then had three-quarters of the world’s gold stock. Although other currencies were fixed to the dollar, they were not fixed directly to gold. As other countries prospered, so America’s current-account deficit began to rise and its stock of gold began to dwindle. By 1971, inflationary pressures were driving up the real value of the dollar. In August of that year, President Richard Nixon took America off the gold standard once again.

Since then there has been a central-banking standard instead. The standard was set by Paul Volcker, the Federal Reserve chief who quashed inflation (which erodes the value of money) with draconian interest rates in 1980, and killed off the bull market in gold, which had climbed from $35 an ounce in 1968 to $850 an ounce in 1980. In its place came a bull market in government IOUs. Bonds, after all, pay interest, unlike gold.

Friday, October 17, 2003

A dim view of the university revisited 

While making the post about the Bollinger op-ed in the WSJ, I was reminded of an old paper by Columbia B-school professor and my former boss, Eli Noam. The paper, published in Science in 1995, was provocatively titled Electronics and the Dim Future of the University. The main thrust of Eli's argument was that while new communications technologies would greatly enhance research, they would undermine the traditional role of the University.

Scholarly activity, if viewed dispassionately, consists primarily of three elements: to create knowledge and evaluate its validity; to preserve information; and to pass it on to others. Accomplishing each of these functions is based on a set of technologies and economics. Together with history and politics, they lead to a set of institutions. Change the technology and economics, and the institutions must change, eventually.

8 years on, though it might be too early to pass any judgment on Eli's paper, the University remains as strong as ever. In fact, the dot-com bust and the rotten economy forced more students back into academia rather than away from it -- and academia of the physical sort, not the virtual sort.

Blogging at India Economy Watch 

I have started blogging at India Economy Watch, a site run by Edward Hugh, Kaushik Banerjee and Vivek Oberoi. It is a new blog that hopes to initiate some level of discussion about issues surrounding the Indian economy. The larger aim being to create an Asiawatch-type blog at some point, which will be an umbrella group for discussing the Asian economy. For now, it's just Indiawatch.

There might be some level of cross-posting with this blog, but I think IEW will contain more highly India-focused posts. Since IEW is still very much in beta stage, there might be minor snafus with the site. We also are wondering whether or not to move the site to Movable Type from Blogger. These issues will get resolved over time. Do visit the site and leave comments/participate in the discussions.

Columbia turns 250 

Having spent 4+ years at Columbia University, perhaps it's time for me to revel in my ivy-league pedigree and indulge in some good-natured univ pride. And now is as good a time as any since Columbia is celebrating its 250th anniversary this week. Lee Bollinger, the president of Columbia University, wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal for the occasion. Of course, it has the mandatory self-congratulatory remarks on the contributions made by Columbia grads, alumni and faculty.

Everything from the sewers (Charles Frederick Chandler), to the 12-avenue, 155-street grid system (Gouverneur Morris), to the subway (William Barclay Parsons), to the parks and highways (Robert Moses), to the public school system (De Witt Clinton), to Broadway (Rodgers and Hammerstein), to Wall Street (Warren Buffet), to the Yankees (Lou Gehrig), to the mayor's office (one-seventh have been Columbians) -- every facet of the city has been created and shaped by Columbia faculty or graduates. And the same is true of the country: the drafting of the Declaration of Independence (Robert R. Livingston) and the Constitution (Gouverneur Morris); the authoring of the Federalist Papers (Alexander Hamilton and John Jay); the office of the president (both Roosevelts and Eisenhower) and the Supreme Court (nine justices, the most recent being Ruth Bader Ginsburg) -- and on and on.

On and on would include Isaac Asimov, Enrico Fermi, Dr. Ambedkar, Suzanne Vega, Jack Kerouac, Gary Becker etc.

Columbia, like every other university, celebrates its contributions to knowledge: 64 Columbians have won the Nobel Prize (with Columbia College having graduated more laureates in science than any other American college); and whole fields (anthropology) and theories (plate tectonics) were conceived at Columbia.

Bollinger also writes about the importance of idea of the University, especially in open and democratic societies, and why it had withstood the test of time.

There are many reasons why universities have endured the test of time, but a few are fundamental. Foremost is the purpose they serve. Universities remain meaningful because they respond to the deepest of human needs, to the desire to understand and to explain that understanding to others. A spirited curiosity coupled with a caring about others (the essence of what we call humanism) is a simple and unquenchable human drive, certainly as profound an element of human nature as the more often cited interests in property and power, around which we organize the economic and political systems. Moreover, universities at their best have nurtured a distinctive intellectual atmosphere in which one is forced to live in a world of seemingly infinite complexity, while holding onto the natural but quixotic hope that someday it all will be resolved. If the pursuit of understanding is your mission, you simply cannot avoid confronting the immense variety of perspectives out there and, ultimately, how much we don't know, our sheer ignorance. You cannot rely on the comforts of common sense and of having a point of view. Learning to live comfortably in this very uncomfortable mental environment, with all its confusions and disorder and possibilities, defines the intellectual character of the modern university.

And this has great significance for shaping the intellectual and emotional character of open, democratic societies. Just as instilling an entrepreneurial spirit is difficult and takes time, so does the creation of a democratic personality. The instinctive impulse in the marketplace of ideas is to stick with what we think we know, to find others who think similarly so we can mutually reassure ourselves of the correctness of our beliefs, to avoid situations where we might have to justify our ideas and to resort more and more to certitude as the best defense when under attack. These impulses, natural as they may be, are of course devastating to society. With all the pressures toward the closing of our minds that come with conflict in the public arena, it's not a bad idea to have special communities like universities distinctly dedicated to the open intellect.

Well, a tip of the hat to Columbia University and here's wishing it another 250 years of existence.

Dear Economist, the Sun has set. Really. 

Earlier this month, I had made a post on why I love the Economist. Among the reasons I mentioned was great covers. Well, I guess it's time for me to eat some crow. The current issue has a most obnoxious cover and analysis of China's spaceflight. For those too lazy to look it says "Congratulations China -- So, no need for anymore aid then?" The leader goes on to call it a publicity stunt and calls on Japan to stop lending to China since that money is being used to subsidise its space program.

I agree it is a publicity stunt. But, I suppose the Economist is going to argue that the Gagarin and Shephard flights were not publicity stunts. Lets face it, the entire early part of the U.S. space program was based on a series of publicity stunts meant to prove it was winning the Cold War. Nothing wrong with publicity stunts, especially when it works.

As for the aid part, Sanjay explains the hypocrisy best when he says "Why should lenders bother how I spend the money, as long as I don't default and pay interest? The Economist doesn't make any noise when other lenders (like India) use lenders' money to buy weapons, say from the UK." Spot on. No protests from the Economist about how the Egyptians, the Saudis or the Israelis spend their "aid" money either. For that matter, I dont remember the Economist protesting too violently when "aid" money kept Mobutu's govt in power for 32 years in Zaire. Oh, but that was for the greater cause of winning the cold war, wasn't it?

I can't help but get the feeling that there is a sense of bitterness (about lost glory) every time the Economist chooses to be condescending. Reminds me of all the criticism Nehru etc faced while making those huge investments in the IIT's and the science and technology sector in India. It's that investment that's partly responsible for the giant sucking sound from the east, Dear Economist. Get used to it. And yes, do enjoy the last rays of that setting sun.

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

We Media 

Once again, Andrew pointed me in the direction of the excellent We Media website, which examines closely how participatory journalism is changing the face of journalism as we know it. I had myself posted on how blogs are changing some aspects of Journalism. As John commented, blogs had become some kind of short-to-medium term memory device whereby some stories refused to die. A lot more of the issues, from blogging to opinionisation of news to the future of peer-to-peer news is examined in great detail. Highly recommended if you are interested in the issues.

In the view of futurist and author Watts Wacker, the question is not about greater personalization but about greater perspectives. According to Wacker, the world is moving faster than people can keep up with it. As a result, there are fewer common cultural references that can be agreed upon. Ideas, styles, products and mores accelerate their way from the fringe to the mainstream with increasing speed.

If participatory journalism has risen without the direct help of trained journalists or news industry initiatives, what role will mainstream media play? And are mainstream media willing to relinquish some control and actively collaborate with their audiences? Or will an informed and empowered consumer begin to frame the news agenda from the grassroots? And, will journalism's values endure?

First Japan, now China 

(Via Andrew) Tacking on the obligatory swipe at the IMF, Joe Stiglitz dismisses attempts by the U.S. administration to blame China for its economic woes and pins the blame right where it belongs -- the massive U.S. deficit. As several economists including Stiglitz have noted, the last time the U.S. had an out-of-control deficit, Japan was to blame. This time around, it's China.

First, international trade is based on the principle of comparative advantage: countries export goods in which they have a relative advantage and import goods in which they have a relative disadvantage. America now has a relative disadvantage in manufacturing, while China has a relative advantage. China should be exporting manufactured goods to the US.

Second, if a country invests more than it saves, it will need to borrow, and the counterpart to that borrowing is a trade deficit. America's burgeoning trade deficit is a result of Bush's unprecedented mismanagement. Tax cuts that the US could ill afford turned a huge fiscal surplus into a massive deficit; rather than saving, America is borrowing, much of it from abroad. That - not China's exchange rate policy - is the culprit.

The IMF is right: there is a real risk of global instability, but the underlying cause is massive US borrowing from abroad. If, some day, America's creditors decide that they want to hold fewer dollars, it could set off large exchange rate movements, causing global instability. Why hasn't the IMF sternly criticised these deficits?

The Taikonaut has landed! 

Reuters just reported that Yang Liwei has made a safe landing. This is fantastic news. A tip of the hat to Liwei and the Chinese space program.

Picture Speaks a Thousand Words 

R.K.Laxman, the brilliant Indian cartoonist expresses through one cartoon, posted by Atanu on the Deeshaa/RISC blog, the problem with the misplaced emphasis on the digital divide better than any academic paper could. Scroll to the bottom of the post for the cartoon.

Something's Rotten In The State Of Delhi 

Delhi was never a safe place for women, but could things actually be getting worse? The recent spate of alleged rape cases seem to suggest so. First, there was the accusation that four men from the Presidential Guard were involved in a gang rape. Today, the BBC is reporting that a Swiss diplomat was allegedly raped by two men late Tuesday night. What on earth is going on in Delhi? If a diplomat has no security, what chance does an average citizen have?

Does the administration in Delhi realise this is the sort of reputation they could ill-afford and could cost them economically, especially at a time when Bombay has started to boom again and there is severe competition from the southern cities for business. The Sheila Dikshit administration has done an admirable job of governing the state, to the best of my knowlege. Surely, they can do something to address one of the oldest problems with Delhi -- the lack of security for women?

Tuesday, October 14, 2003

China Launches 

The Associated Press has just reported that the Chinese have launched their first manned mission to space, fulfilling a quest dating back all the way to the Ming Dynasty (early rocketry etc). Shenzhou 5, carrying taikonaut Yang Liwei blasted off about 20 mins back. The mission is supposed to last about 21 hours. I just think this is great news especially if it can spark of a new space race/space collaboration akin to the Soviet-U.S. race, but minus the rivalry. The U.S. is bound to take note and I am sure countries like India will very enthusiastically try to follow up with their own indigenous space programs. In the meanwhile, lets hope the landing will be as successful as the launch.

The all-new outsourcing trend 

(Via John L) The WSJ published a very interesting story yesterday on a new outsourcing trend in India -- back-office work for firms in countries like Finland, Norway and Sweden. The catch? Indians might be good with English, but the number of Indians who can speak Finnish and Swedish fluently is rather limited and certainly not enough to man back-office operations. So, what's going on?

As it turns out, an entirely new form of "adventure" tourism. These jobs are being pitched to young Finns and Swedes as a way to see the world, ala Peace Corps or the Foreign Legion, where they work for much less than they would at home, but still manage to lead a better life style, thanks to the lower cost of living in India. Effectively, London-based eBookers PLC is shipping both the call-center jobs and the workers to India.

The work itself is standard customer-service fare, including answering e-mails and phone calls from Europeans back home about travel arrangements and flight times. The Europeans in New Delhi, whose work day is shifted by a few hours to be in sync with their home market, say that apart from flickering lights and non-Nordic colleagues, there are few clues in the office that they are abroad.

On weekends, though, they travel around India or dance to Hindi pop in New Delhi discos. "In Finland, life can sometimes be boring. But not here," says Anne-Maarit Laitinen, 26, the Finnish team leader in New Delhi.The workers say their lower wages stretch fairly far because the cost of living is so low in India. Lasse Rantala, 25, among the first Finns to sign up, stayed for a year and now works for ebookers in Helsinki. He says he saved some money in India, but more importantly, "It was something else than just to study and stay in cold Finland."

Ahhhh, so that's what it's really about. Escaping the cold. Is this a sustainable trend or a fad? eBookers seems to think its a viable niche.

Ebookers, which trades on the London Stock Exchange and the Nasdaq Stock Market and had more than $450 million in sales last year, won't say exactly how much money it's saving through the program. But the company says it is coming out well ahead, even after paying for perks like round-trip plane tickets for Europeans who stay on for 12 months and transportation to and from the office each day.

The WSJ has its doubts.

The call-center trek will never approach the scale of conventional job outsourcing to India, in which local English speakers field calls from American and British consumers or do technical tasks and research for companies abroad. Technology-outsourcing experts say Europeans with advanced skills are unlikely to agree to the pay, while the brisk turnover of young, low-skilled expat workers offsets part of the savings by imposing added recruiting and training costs.

Monday, October 13, 2003

The Clark Meetup 

Okay, so I finally made it to the Clark Meetup, the first one since Gen. Clark announced his candidacy. On the whole I was impressed with what I saw. Clearly, these meetups are providing an outlet for those who feel excluded to vent. Having said that, I am sure thats more of a Dean phenomenon than a Clark thing -- the riding on a wave of anger against Bush. Though the energy and enthusiasm was very palpable, the crowd today was generally speaking older than the Dean crowd and definitely more pragmatic. There was no extreme left rhetoric and most people were encouraging others to keep their eye on the final goal -- to unseat Bush. The General made a short and interesting webcast address as well.

For my part, I agreed to out together a list of blogs that could be part of a larger media strategy. I know all the usual suspects -- Josh Marshall, Atrios, Kevin Drum, Daily Kos etc. If you know of any other interesting blogs these folks could tap into, please let me know.

The Agenda Setters 

I dont know how recent this list is, but Silicon.com has put together a list of the top agenda setters in 2003 for the technology industry. All the usual suspects are in there -- Steve Jobs and Bill Gates top the list. The rest of the group includes everyone from Linus Torvalds to Carly Fiorina to Time Berners-Lee to Sir John Sulston. The interesting part is that the top-10 includes two names that I would not have expected in this group -- at no:4, Hu Jintao and at no:8 Atal Behari Vajpayee -- and yes, they place above names like Rupert Murdoch, Arun Sarin, Jeff Bezos etc. This is clearly indicative of the importance the tech industry places on India and China.

With China, size is everything and a population of some 1.3 billion people means the modernisation of Chinese society will turn the country into the most lucrative technology market in the world. The country already has 300 million mobile phone users - twice that of the US.

The profile of Vajpayee includes the following lines -- India's boom - largely engineered by Vajpayee - means some analysts are predicting the country could face its own IT skills crisis over the next five years. Initiatives introduced by Vajpayee include generous tax incentives for outsourcers investing in call centres and computer technology, technology parks and plans for a national fibre optics telephony infrastructure.

The Indian boom engineered by Vajpayee??? I am not sure I would too many Indian techies who would buy that one. A large part of the Indian IT industry's success has been precisely because the government stayed out of it. Of course, the govt has provided tax sops and so on, but does that have anything to do with Vajpayee? I am not really sure he understands technology the way a Chandrababu Naidu does (and I am surprised Naidu did not make the cut here). I believe the best thing Vajpayee has done is to stay out of the way and let his far more competent underlings handle things.

The other politicians on the list include Mario Monti, Christian Ude (the mayor of Munich) and David Blunkett (for some of his Orwellian ideas).

Sunday, October 12, 2003

The opensourcing of scientific research? 

Reuters and Nature are reporting the creation of a new science journal -- PLOS Biology -- that directly challenges established majors like Science and Nature. Backed by folks like Dr Harold Varmus and Dr Stephen Cohen, the USP of the new journal is that it will be available online for free.

The scientific journals that now control the world of scholarly publishing can cost tens of thousands of dollars a year. They usually require a lengthy "peer review" process in which experts raise questions about studies and suggest changes to written reports. Researchers complain the process takes too long and most journals require them to keep quiet about their research while it is in press.

The scientists behind the journal, called PLoS Biology, are challenging standard publishing practice, in which researchers pay to read others' results in journals. They argue that this is unfair - to scientists who submit their work freely and to the public whose taxes subsidize the research.

Though I can't comment on its sustainability, I think this is a good thing to happen to scientific publishing. I hope this trend will catch on in other disciplines too.

Saturday, October 11, 2003

Moby gets It 

Much has been written about the RIAA's completely screwed up policy on policing music downloads on the Internet, a policy that has resulted in lawsuits being filed against a 12-year old and a grandmother, among others. I had made a post about the impossible odds the RIAA faces in enforcing such a policy. They just don't seem to get it -- the Internet is a new and different medium and should be treated as such.

But Moby gets it. This is a post from his journal, in response to someone on the Moby.com board getting sued by the RIAA .

personally i just can't see any good in coming from punishing people for being music fans and making the effort to hear new music. i'm almost tempted to go onto kazaa and download some of my own music, just to see if the riaa would sue me for having mp3's of my own songs on my hard-drive.

Bless your soul, Richard Melville Hall!

Movie plug -- Nowhere in Africa 

Last night, I watched Nowhere in Africa, the German movie directed by Caroline Link that won the Oscar for best foreign language film this year. The movie is set in the late 1930's-1940's and tells the story of a German Jewish family that escapes Germany in the nick of time and finds a home on a farm in remote Kenya. Though its one of those movie thats not easily reviewed (you simply have to watch it), I think Roger Ebert does a fair job. Once again, highly, highly recommended.

The Immersive Salvador Dali Experience 

A few weeks back, I had made a post about the Hayden Planetarium's foray into the world of psychedelic spectacles -- a new 35-minute show called SonicVision. So, I finally did go see the show tonight. Two words -- absolutely mindboggling. I have often wondered what the early psychedelic experiments of Pink Floyd etc must have seemed like to the audiences at the Roundhouse and the Marquee. I think I got some idea today. The best way to explain the show would be to imagine being on the inside of a series of Salvador Dali paintings, something like Premonition of Civil War or Metamorphosis of Narcissus. Add a soundtrack mixed by Moby including songs by U2, Coldplay, David Bowie, Zwan, Radiohead etc and you sort of get the picture.

I would strongly recommend the show to anyone in the New York city area or visiting New York in the near future. The other option would be to wait for the show to travel to other cities, which I am sure it will in due course.

The Deeshaa team's take on ICT for Development 

ICT for Dev is a subject I have thought about a great deal, especially the misallocation of resources in misguided attempts to bridge the so-called Digital Divide. I have been posting off an on about the misallocation issue, but Atanu does a more comprehensive job at the Deeshaa blog. He made these posts after attending a policy makers workshop on the issue in Madras/Chennai.

Misapprehension #78: There is a digital divide and it is the cause of retarded development. Hence, if we bridge the digital divide, development will occur.

The reference is to the fact that broadly speaking, the rich have computers and cell phones and the poor do not. No argument there: the rich have not just that, but they have cars, and airconditioners, and washing machines, and toilets, and medicines, and excess food. So what is so astonishing about them having more digital gizmos? And why is that digital divide more important than the other scores of divides such as the airconditioner divide or the toilet divide or the food divide?

He also addresses a question that was raised at the workshop.

Can ICTs be useful for rural and remote areas of developing countries, especially the poverty-stricken regions?

We need to examine that question for a moment. At one level of analysis, it is hard to not answer that question in the affirmative. At another level, it is a meaningless question. Merely because it is syntactically correct does not imply that it has any content. Consider the question:

Can magnetic levitation superfast monorail transportation systems be useful for rural and remote areas of developing countries, especially the poverty-stricken regions?

Clearly, yes. Not just magnetic levitation superfast monorail transportation systems, but an almost unending variety of things would be useful for the development of poverty-stricken remote areas. Not merely for those areas, all of those unending variety of things would be useful for the development of not so remote and not so poverty-stricken areas of any developing country. Thus that question is actually content-free.

It is hard to argue that ICT, or anything else for that matter, cannot be useful in development. There are only two problems:

1. Our resources are limited. Anyone who does not keep that in mind is clearly out of touch with reality.
2. Prioritizing the needs and sequencing the required intervention is an impossible task unless considerable thinking goes into the analysis of the problem.

Therefore a meaningful question would be: How appropriate is ICT for rural and remote areas of developing countries, especially the poverty-stricken regions? Or, how should we sequence the use of ICT, both temporally as well as spatially, for economic development? That is, should we take our resources and thinly distribute it all across the country or should we focus on some areas first and then move to other areas? Should we use our limited resources to bring ICT tools to the most remote and the poverty-stricken areas of the country and neglect other areas? Should we concentrate on ICT for remote and poverty-stricken areas before we concentrate on other needs of those areas?

The re-christening of RISC 

The RISC project, whose core team I am part of, has begun to gain some traction as a result of Atanu's move back to India to head the project. As part of this process, we have re-christened the project Deeshaa, which is a Sanskrit word meaning "direction." Interestingly, the word also means the same thing in a variety of other Indian languages including some of the Dravidian languages.

We have also started a new blog while the commercial site is being built. Feel free to leave comments, suggestions etc. Of course, the blog is a work-in-progress and very much in beta stage. So, I shall pre-emptively apologise for any screw-ups that may occur.

KAW on Outsourcing -- Part Deux 

Knowledge @ Wharton has published Part II of its special section on outsourcing. I had posted a link to Part I the last week of Sepember. The current issue tackles both the opportunities for and backlash against BPO's in a series of interviews with major players in sections titled What the Numbers Show, Why Corporations Pursue BPO, Hard Time for Labor and A View from the Developing World. The interviewees include Rebecca Scholl, Peter Bendor-Samuel, Michael Quinn, Marcus Courtney, Ron Hira and Kiran Karnik.

Friday, October 10, 2003

Tomorrow's Economic Giants Part II -- Dreaming with BRIC's 

Here is the Goldman Sachs study mentioned in my last post -- Dreaming with BRIC's: The Path to 2050. The authors are Dominic Wilson and Roopa Purushothaman and the publish date is Oct 1, 2003. The paper is a fascinating read. Though noone can really predict anything over a long-ish period, such a study is useful, if nothing else to alleviate ignorance about the potential of emerging markets.

Personally, I happen to think 2050 is a bit on the conservative side. If India, China and Brazil can maintain relative political stability, I'll predict that this catch-up process will happen a lot sooner. I remain circumspect (as noted in the previous post) about Russia. Sure, the economy is doing really well under Putin, but what on earth are they going to do about their demographics in an immigrant-unfriendly situation?

Thursday, October 09, 2003

Tomorrow's Economic Giants 

Here is a story that I have been wanting to see in the press for a long time. In fact, I have made posts about the relative ignorance in the West about the growth trajectories of several developing country economies and in particular India and China (especially since these developments will have profound geo-political consequences). The Economist story is about a Goldman Sachs study done on BRIC's (or Brazil, Russia, India and China) -- the economic giants of tomorrow.

A new study by Goldman Sachs focuses on the so-called BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China). Today their combined GDP (at market exchange rates) is one-eighth of the output of the G6 (Goldman leaves out Canada, which accounts for only 3% of the G7's GDP) But the study concludes that the total output of the four economies will overtake that of the G6 in less than 40 years. Of today's G6, only America and Japan would then still be among the world's six biggest economies.

China is tipped to overtake Germany by 2007, Japan by 2015 and America by 2041. India could overtake Japan by 2032. All four BRICs will be bigger than any western European economy by 2036. For firms looking where to invest, the most striking result is that, by 2009, the annual increase in total dollar spending in the BRICs could be greater than that in the G6. By 2025, spending could be increasing twice as fast in the BRICs.

Just for the record, if one were to use PPP measures, China is already the world's second largest economy and India the fourth largest. In order, that would be U.S, China, Japan, India and Germany. The nominal dollar stats would be different, though India and China would still be in the top 10 economies.

PS: I am not sure why Russia figures in this group. As I understand it, the demographics of Russia is certainly not conducive to keep rapid economic growth going. Plus Russia isn't exactly an immigrant friendly country.

Shyamalan to make Pi? 

Here's an interesting story about M.Night Shyamalan being in discussions to adapt Yann Martel's Life of Pi for the screen. Would probably make for compelling viewing, if the other Shyamalan movies are anything to go by.

The novel, which won Britain's coveted Booker Prize for 2002, is a magical adventure story centering on Pi Patel, the precocious son of a zookeeper. Dwellers in Pondicherry, India -- the town that Shyamalan is from -- the family decides to move to Canada, hitching a ride on a huge freighter. After a shipwreck, Pi is found adrift in the Pacific Ocean on a 26-foot lifeboat with a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and a 450-pound Bengal tiger named Richard Parker, all fighting for survival.

"There are also some similarities to Pi Patel and Night. Pi is an immigrant child who left his homeland and found his way to a new country, and Night was also a boy who left India and found his way to this country. He saw it as a way to explore a completely new challenging realm."

Wednesday, October 08, 2003

Profile: Valerie Plame/Wilson 

Here is a follow-up to my link to Amb Joe Wilson's profile -- a profile of his wife and uber spy, Valerie Plame. Despite having read my quota of spy thrillers growing up, it still is interesting to read about the real thing. A mum of twins, a volunteer with post-partum depression groups doubling up as a NOC, the highest calibre of CIA undercover operative.

Her activities during her years overseas remain classified, but she became the creme de la creme of spies: a "noc," an officer with "nonofficial cover." Nocs have cover jobs that have nothing to do with the U.S. government. They work in business, in social clubs, as scientists or secretaries (they are prohibited from posing as journalists), and if detected or arrested by a foreign government, they do not have diplomatic protection and rights. They are on their own. Even their fellow operatives don't know who they are, and only the strongest and smartest are picked for these assignments.

The more I read these stories though, the more I feel sorry for anyone in foreign countries who came into contact (innocently or otherwise) with Mrs Wilson or Brewster, Jennings (the CIA front company). They are probably completely screwed and either in hiding or entertaining phone calls from their counter-intelligence agencies.

A rumour is all it was 

The Nobel Prize in Economics was awarded to Clive Granger and Robert Engle. With hindsight, it might have been odd to award the Nobel for work on international trade in the year the Cancun/Doha Round collapsed.

Tuesday, October 07, 2003

Nobel rumour du jour 

From Brad's blog -- The rumor is that it is going to be Jagdish Bhagwati and Paul Krugman for work on international trade.

I can only hope this is true. No two people would be more deserving of the award. We'll find out in a few hours.

Monday, October 06, 2003

The Huawei threat 

I have had an interest in Chinese telecom major Huawei since the time they first set foot in Bangalore, the only major Chinese software operation in India. By March this year, Huawei had about 600 employees in Bangalore office and were planning to expand staff strength to 1,500. So, it was interesting for me to read the New York Times story on Huawei which suggests that the Chinese upstart might pose a challenge to equipment majors like Cisco and Nortel. Even assuming thats a bit of an exaggeration, if Huawei can simply capture 70%-80% of the Chinese telecom equipment market, it would probably become a major player. Of course, if it can capture some other major emerging markets like India (currently the fastest growing telecom market in the world) and Russia, they could in principle threaten the dominance of the North American majors.

In a tough market, its domestic sales grew by a third in the first half of the year, and analysts expect international sales to grow from $550 million last year to $1 billion this year and $1.4 billion next year.

Beginning in the late 1990's Huawei invested heavily in establishing sales networks in Asia, the Middle East and Russia; it now sells products in 40 countries, often at prices as much as a third lower than its rivals.

Confluence hunting 

(Via John K) Using GPS technology, confluence hunters are seeking out confluence points on earth where latitudes and longitudes cross, in order to create a picture of the world.

But these confluence seekers are undeterred, for their goal is to photograph every such intersection on the planet, apart from those too far out to sea to be feasible, and post the images on the Degree Confluence project website.

Seven years later and 2,521 confluences have been visited in 126 countries - leaving 13,625 still to be bagged. Wherever you are, there is a confluence point within 49 miles (79km).

Migration Post III 

In response to my previous posts about migration and the external taxation solution that Prof Bhagwati proposes, Andrew sent me this document. It is an appeal by the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong to the United States to repeal or revise its tax policies. As Andrew says, the U.S. finds itself in the strange company of North Korea, Eritrea, Philipines and Vietnam that also have an external taxation policy. Even with a $80,000 exemption, I think it's ridiculous to tax someone twice just for making your living in another country.

D'Souza's not too bright 

(Via John L) Since I had made more than one post on Brights (one, two), I figured I might as well post an opposing point of view. And of all the places for it to come from, it comes from the Wall Street Jounal opinion page in the form of Dinesh D'Souza. D'Souza ridicules Dennett, Dawkins etc by using Kant's enlightenment fallacy.

The Fallacy of the Enlightenment is the glib assumption that there is only one limit to what human beings can know, and that limit is reality itself. In this view, widely held by atheists, agnostics and other self-styled rationalists, human beings can continually find out more and more until eventually there is nothing more to discover. The Enlightenment Fallacy holds that human reason and science can, in principle, unmask the whole of reality.

In his "Critique of Pure Reason," Kant showed that this premise is false. In fact, he argued, there is a much greater limit to what human beings can know. The only way that we apprehend reality is through our five senses. But why should we believe, Kant asked, that our five-mode instrument for apprehending reality is sufficient for capturing all of reality? What makes us think that there is no reality that goes beyond, one that simply cannot be apprehended by our five senses?

Kant persuasively noted that there is no reason whatsoever for us to believe that we can know everything that exists. Indeed what we do know, Kant said, we know only through the refracted filter of our experience.

Kant isn't arguing against the validity of perception or science or reason. He is simply showing their significant limits. These limits cannot be erased by the passage of time or by further investigation and experimentation. Rather, the limits on reason are intrinsic to the kind of beings that humans are, and to the kind of apparatus that we possess for perceiving reality. The implication of Kant's argument is that reality as a whole is, in principle, inaccessible to human beings. Put another way, there is a great deal that human beings simply will never know.

What I am amused by here is D'Souza using Kant's reasoning as the limitless truth, sort of messing up his own argument about limits etc. And how does his argument hold up against agnosticism? For that matter, one can turn Kant's arguments around to argue against religion (especially the absolutist ones) instead.

I have to wonder -- why did the WSJ take 3 months to come up with a counter? Did it take that long for D'Souza to read (and understand) Kant? The more relevant question might be the one that John posed in his e-mail -- whether the WSJ opinion editors feel a need to write a rejoinder to everything the NYT op-ed publishes. :)

Follow-up to previous post 

I received quite a bit of feedback/e-mail to my last post -- the Bhagwati essay -- mostly agreeing with my take that external taxation was a bad idea. I just want to elaborate on that a little bit, especially on an idea that Edward touched on briefly. Much has been made about the cost to developing countries of emigration. In fact, a UNDP report suggested that India loses about $2 billion every year because of the emigration of computer professionals alone. Let me ballpark that number a bit and suggest that India perhaps loses $5-$6 billion every year due to emigration of all hues. Sounds huge, except none of the naysayers takes into account the role of remittances. The remittances from Indians abroad amounts to somewhere in the region of $9-$11 billion per year, depending on where you look. That's a net gain to India and makes the idea of taxation on emigrants rather superfluous, besides complex and problematic to enforce. And this net gain is purely expressed in monetary terms here. Once we add the effects of "brain circulation," we are probably looking at a serious net gain.

As far as I can remember, Eritrea imposed a 2% exit tax on emigrants and the results weren't all that great and caused a great deal of friction in the Eritrean diaspora.

VK also makes a good point about Prof Bhagwati's numbers when he suggests that India produces about 25,000 engineers per annum. Yes, the state of Karnataka alone produces something like 15,000 engineers per year. My guess (and I could be wrong) is that India graduates about 150,000 engineers every year of which around 50,000 or so are from IT-related courses. If anyone has better numbers/guesstimates, please let me know.

Sunday, October 05, 2003

Migration Sans Frontieres 

I have been meaning to post this old-ish Foreign Affairs essay for some time now. In it, Jagdish Bhagwati outlines the pointlessness of trying to stem the flow of international migration. I agree strongly with that idea; in fact I think some of these immigration barriers are nothing but non-tariff trade barriers.

The reality is that borders are beyond control and little can be done to really cut down on immigration. The societies of developed countries will simply not allow it. The less developed countries also seem overwhelmed by forces propelling emigration. Thus, there must be a seismic shift in the way migration is addressed: governments must reorient their policies from attempting to curtail migration to coping and working with it to seek benefits for all.

Prof Bhagwati quotes some statistics -- These asymmetries of opportunity reveal themselves not just through cinema and television, but through the immediacy of experience. Increasingly, emigration occurs after study abroad. The number of foreign students at U.S. universities, for example, has grown dramatically; so has the number who stay on. In 1990, 62 percent of engineering doctorates in the United States were given to foreign-born students, mainly Asians. The figures are almost as high in mathematics, computer science, and the physical sciences. In economics, which at the graduate level is a fairly math-intensive subject, 54 percent of the Ph.D.'s awarded went to foreign students, according to a 1990 report of the American Economic Association.

Many of these students come from India, China, and South Korea. For example, India produces about 25,000 engineers annually. Of these, about 2,000 come from the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITS), which are modeled on MIT and the California Institute of Technology. Graduates of IITS accounted for 78 percent of U.S. engineering Ph.D.'s granted to Indians in 1990. And almost half of all Taiwanese awarded similar Ph.D.'s had previously attended two prestigious institutions: the National Taiwan University and the National Cheng Kung University. Even more telling, 65 percent of the Korean students who received science and engineering Ph.D.'s in the United States were graduates of Seoul National University. The numbers were almost as high for Beijing University and Tsinghua University, elite schools of the People's Republic of China.

He adds -- A realistic response requires abandoning the "brain drain" approach of trying to keep the highly skilled at home. More likely to succeed is a "diaspora" model, which integrates present and past citizens into a web of rights and obligations in the extended community defined with the home country as the center. The diaspora approach is superior from a human rights viewpoint because it builds on the right to emigrate, rather than trying to restrict it. And dual loyalty is increasingly judged to be acceptable rather than reprehensible. This option is also increasingly feasible. Nearly 30 countries now offer dual citizenship. Others are inching their way to similar options. Many less developed countries, such as Mexico and India, are in the process of granting citizens living abroad hitherto denied benefits such as the right to hold property and to vote via absentee ballot.

The problem, as I see it, with Prof Bhagwati's thesis is that I am not sure his idea of "external" taxation will work. In fact, as I understand it,there are calls for even the U.S. to review its policy on taxation.

...the taxation of citizens living abroad. The United States already employs this practice. This author first recommended this approach for developing countries during the 1960s, and the proposal has been revived today. Estimates made by the scholars Mihir Desai, Devesh Kapur, and John McHale demonstrate that even a slight tax on Indian nationals abroad would substantially raise Indian government revenues. The revenue potential is vast because the aggregate income of Indian-born residents in the United States is 10 percent of India's national income, even though such residents account for just 0.1 percent of the American population.


I came across this story a few days back, but havent been able to get much more information about the technology being dubbed "wider-fi". Apparently, this is a technology that gets over the distance limitations of wi-fi, is in implementation mode in the mid-west, and might prove to be viable competition for conventional broadband technologies.

Of course, if it works at reasonable prices, it could have implications in any area with sketchy coverage. The problem with this story is that there is very little by way of technical specs, besides a comment that wider-fi works at the 5GHz end of the spectrum. So, there is no way to tell whether it is in fact viable. To me, it seems like (I could be wrong) wider-fi is simply a catchier name for 802.16 or WiMax or at least that's what the limited tech specs in the article seems to suggest.

Lower interest rates and the Indian economy 

(Via Pseumo) I got this story on interest rates in the mail, and I thought it made for a fascinating read. Rajiv Lall, of Warburg Pincus, writes in the Business Standard on the dramatic impact the lower cost of capital has had on the Indian economy, to the extent that he predicts that India will start to outperform China in the next 5 years.

Over the past three years, borrowing rates have declined by about 600 basis points for most medium to large sized enterprises in the country. Whereas such companies were paying 14 per cent on one-year loans three years ago, today they are paying only 8 per cent. Borrowing rates for some of the largest corporates are up to 200 basis points lower.

Consider the following: Every 10 per cent fall in interest rates leads on average to a 30 per cent increase in profits before tax (PBT) for larger Indian corporations. For firms in manufacturing that operate with higher levels of debt relative to the average for all companies (companies in the less asset intensive service industries can operate with lower debt-equity ratios), the impact on PBT of declining interest costs is likely to have been even larger.

Given that borrowing costs for larger corporates have fallen as much as 40 per cent in the past three years, profits before tax for these companies have more than doubled, raising returns on equity to well above the cost of capital. Suddenly, even manufacturing activity is looking like an attractive proposition in India.

From the waste of time dept: The 007 Test 

(Via Chacko) If you have lots of time to waste, this is the game for you -- the Secret Service Test. See if you have what it takes to be part of Her Majesty's Secret Service. For my own part, I was rejected twice, though I scored above 60% both times. I guess I haven't played enough video games in my life, not enough to hone my reflexes anyway.

The Globalization of Science 

I came across the WorldSci site while randomly following some links. The site is part of a sociological project to study the globalization of science and in particular the effect of the Internet on science in the developing world. The diffusion of the Internet has been studied in Ghana, Kenya, South Africa and the state of Kerala (in India) under the aegis of this project. The site also contains links to papers and surveys, some of which look promising.

Saturday, October 04, 2003

Microfinance and Credit Bureaus 

One of the major conundrums of economc development is the unavailability of credit, especially to poor, rural consumers. By extension, the lack of effective national credit bureaus is a problem most developing countries face, and is something I have given considerale thought to. So, I read this old-ish (2001) Development Alternatives paper with some interest, and yes, its worth a read. It tackles the issue of whether credit bureaus are a necessity for micro-finance to work effectively and concludes that credit bureaus are very useful to the healthy functioning of markets, especially if they can prevent fragmentation (of the credit information market) by super-specialisation.

The abstract -- Why and how do regulated and unregulated microfinance institutions share information? What information do they share? Additionally, the paper argues that microfinance institutions, particularly those in competitive markets, need to share information and will benefit from credit bureau consultation. However, a review of the information markets in five Latin American countries reveals that such markets are far from perfect and, in fact, vary tremendously in terms of their levels of development. The paper then turns its attention to institutional and market structure questions. Should microfinance institutions form their own credit bureaus, regardless of the state of development of the market, or should they participate in private or public credit bureaus, however imperfect they may be? Finally, the paper discusses the roles of governments, MFIs, and donors and how they can help promote healthy credit information markets: As markets become more complex, the development community must be prepared to respond. Government authorities, donors, technical assistance providers, microfinance networks, banking and commerce associations, and large institutional users must work together to develop an effective policy and institutional framework for client information sharing.

Community Radio in India 

I have always been fairly skeptical about various ham-handed attempts to bridge the so-called digital divide, especially using hi-falutin technology. I have maintained that the best way to tackle the situation would be using technologies that carry on the oral tradition, like mobile phones and radio and providing services that correct inefficiencies and/or are income generating. The Washington Post carried a story about how community radio in India has been making a difference, even if the flow of information leaves officials concerned.

India's first independent community radio initiative is in this millet- and tomato-growing village in the southern state of Karnataka. It is a cable radio service because India forbids communities to use the airwaves. A media advocacy group, with the help of U.N. funds, laid cables, sold subsidized radios with cable jacks to villagers and trained young people to run the station.

Since it began broadcasting in March, Our Voices community radio has crackled with the sounds of schoolchildren singing songs and giggling to jokes; of young girls talking fearlessly about the evils of dowry and admonishing boys for teasing them at school; of women giving out recipes and teaching others how to open a bank account; and of farmers debating the vagaries of the weather and fluctuating crop prices.

Village Reach 

Via Mukul, I came across an interesting project called Village Reach, which is currently in operational mode in Mozambique. In a sentence, the project sets out to correct rural supply chain inefficiencies, especially in the public health sector.

With annual under-five child mortality rates as high as 208 per 1000 children (WHO’s figures) and vaccination rates in some areas as low as 29%, it was clear that rural Mozambicans needed a healthcare system that was robust enough to overcome the challenges of minimal funding, lack of infrastructure and severe understaffing. The solution? Increase efficiency, improve transport, upgrade equipment and implement best practices like routine maintenance and on-site training that maximize the impact of scarce government resources.

In addition, the model has also managed to create income-generating activities which achieve the dual goal of meeting community needs while contributing to the cost effectiveness of the model at the same time.

VillageReach and its on-the-ground partner, the Foundation for Community Development (FDC), established VidaGas. VidaGas is a Mozambique-based company whose primary mission is to supply the Mozambique Ministry of Health with propane gas, also known as LPG, for powering essential equipment in health facilities like lamps and refrigerators. In addition to serving the needs of rural clinics without access to electricity, propane is an efficient, safe alternative to biomass fuels (e.g. wood, charcoal, dung) and kerosene which have traditionally been used by households and local businesses for lighting, cooking, and a variety of other activities. Profits from VidaGas sales are expected to partially cover VillageReach’s project costs, helping to ensure long-term financial sustainability. The local economy also benefits through the creation of new jobs and the reliable availability of fuel that is essential to the success of local businesses such as hotels and restaurants.

Village Reach seems to be precisely the sort of service provider that could benefit from being part of the RISC project.

Friday, October 03, 2003

Igging them on 

Close on the heels of J.M.Coetzee winning the Nobel Prize for literature comes the announcement of the Ignobel awards. The Ignobels (or Igs) are awarded by the magazine Annals of Improbable Research to honour people whose achievements "cannot or should not be reproduced." This years winners include Lal Bihari of Uttar Pradesh who was awarded the Ignobel for Peace in recognition of his dogged efforts to convince people he was in fact not dead.

Bihari, who lives in Azamgarh, 220 kilometres (130 miles) southeast of Lucknow, was listed as deceased in 1976. He found thousands of other Indians in the same plight and led a "posthumous" campaign to tackle the issue, even creating the Association of Dead People to press the authorities into action.

Others winners include a medical team from the University College London for their pioneering work to prove that the hippocampus of London cabbies was larger than the population-at-large and to Karl Schwarzler (Economics Ig) and the nation of Liechtenstein for making it possible to rent the entire country for corporate conventions, weddings, bar mitzvahs, and other gatherings. The full list is here.

Just for the record the real thing will be announced next week with the Nobel Peace Prize being announced on Oct 10th.

101 Reykjavík 

If you've ever wondered what Icelandic slackerdom must be like, this is the movie for you. If you haven't paused to think about Icelandic slackerdom, here's your chance. 101 Reykjavik tells the tale of Hylnur whose one-night stand turns out to be with his mother's bisexual girlfriend. Well, that should give you an idea on where this bizarre black comedy is headed to. Almodovar in the snow.....whatever...watch it.

John Dean on the Plame Affair 

John W. Dean, White House counsel to Richard Nixon and the person whose testimony bust the Watergate cover-up, writes about the Plame Affair in Salon. In it, he advises the Wilsons to file a civil suit, recalling the effect that a similar civil suit against CREEP had in busting the Watergate cover-up.

I believe that Ambassador Wilson and his wife -- like the DNC official once did -- should file a civil lawsuit, both to address the harm inflicted on them, and, equally important, to obtain the necessary tools (subpoena power and sworn testimony) to get to the bottom of this matter. This will not only enable them to make sure they don't merely become yesterday's news; it will give them some control over the situation.

Why does a cookie crumble? 

As a doctoral student myself, it is refreshing to read about fellow Ph.D. types making significant contributions to our understanding of the world and its processes. Qasim Saleem and his colleagues, at Loughborough University, took hi-falutin physics to the world of cookies to explain why the cookie crumbles.

Saleem and his colleagues closely monitored the surface of cookies as they cooled to room temperature. Using a laser beam, the students followed the tiny deformations that evolve as the cookie picks up moisture around the rim, which causes the biscuit to expand, while loss of moisture at the center causes it to contract. The resulting strains can pull the biscuit apart, or leave it more vulnerable to breakage before purchase.

Well, that's one less problem to worry about. Now, if only someone could explain which way the cookie crumbles. Any takers?

Cool, Cool Canada 

I have never lived in Canada. I have only visited and that too, just the big cities. From what little I have seen, I have been very impressed by the country. It seemed a lot more liberal than its southern neighbour. Even the diversity seemed real, in the sense that minorities are represented well in all forms of governments, in the media etc. In fact, I had made a similar post a couple of monts back. Of course, this could simply be the grass being greener. With that caveat in mind, I read the Economist editorial on Canada with great interest.

Part of what makes it cool is a certain boldness in social matters. Canada's government has recently announced its support for pioneering bills to legalise gay marriage and decriminalise marijuana, both excellent liberal ideas. It has granted home rule and control over mineral rights to some of its indigenous Indians. While other rich countries suffer a racist backlash over immigration, Canadians welcome migrants and are proud of their tolerance and cultural diversity. This has turned Canada's big cities into vibrant, cosmopolitan places. Canadian writers and other cultural figures enjoy unprecedented international success.

While generally positive in tone, the editorial also points out some problem spots. Nevertheless, Canada seems like a good country to live in, if only something could done about the goddamn cold. Where is that global warming I was promised?