Sunday, November 30, 2003

Six-String Samurai 

Just watched the Six-String Samurai. As far as camp movies go, this is the acme! Rather than spoil the fun by describing what I just survived, I'll let the sleeve of the DVD do the talking.

The Six-String Samurai is Buddy, a mysterious and powerful hero of the post-apocalyptic future, who must fight his way to Lost Vegas and ditch a bothersome orphan kid if he's ever to become the next King of Rock 'n' Roll. Along the way, they encounter bounty-hunting bowlers, a cannibalistic Cleaver family, a Windmill God and even the Russian army. Winding up at the gates of Vegas, buddy finds himself in an epic battle with Death over the child's soul and comes to realize just what it means to be King.

The Unbearable Lightness of being Stephen Roach 

Stephen Roach lives up to his uncannily cheerful reputation in this New York Times op-ed, in which he argues the productivity numbers are being measured wrong (especially in services) and that all the economic optimism is misplaced.

For many years, government statisticians have used worker compensation to approximate output in many service industries, which makes little or no intuitive sense. The denominator of the productivity equation — units of work time — is even more spurious. Government data on work schedules are woefully out of touch with reality — especially in America's largest occupational group, the professional and managerial segments, which together account for 35 percent of the total work force.

Courtesy of a profusion of portable information appliances (laptops, cell phones, personal digital assistants, etc.), along with near ubiquitous connectivity (hard-wired and now increasingly wireless), most information workers can toil around the clock. The official data don't come close to capturing this cultural shift.

As a result, we are woefully underestimating the time actually spent on the job. It follows, therefore, that we are equally guilty of overestimating white-collar productivity. Productivity is not about working longer. It's about getting more value from each unit of work time. The official productivity numbers are, in effect, mistaking work time for leisure time.

In the end, America's productivity revival may be nothing more than a transition from one way of doing business to another — a change in operating systems, as it were. Aided by the stock market bubble and the Y2K frenzy, corporate America led the world in spending on new information technology and telecommunications in the latter half of the 1990's.

This resulted in an increase of the portion of gross domestic product that went to capital spending. With the share of capital going up, it follows that the share of labor went down. Thus national output was produced with less labor in relative terms — resulting in a windfall of higher productivity. Once the migration from the old technology to the new starts to peak, this transitional productivity dividend can then be expected to wane.

Roach makes an interesting observation. I am not sure if he is right or wrong, though I tend to believe personally that IT will drive efficiency and productivity (if nothing else from reducing transaction costs), especially as its economy-wide impact becomes clearer in the years to come, though probably not as long as the 20 plus years it took for the productivity gains of electricity to express itself.

In the meanwhile, does Stephen Roach *really* have to point out the touch of grey in every silver lining?

Blog Watch -- A VC 

I came across this blog while randomly following links today. It's called A VC and is maintained by Fred Wilson, managing partner at VC firm, Flatiron Partners (think Vindigo). And no, it's not his support for Wes Clark that's responsible for the plug. It's a nice general interest blog covering topics ranging from productivity, technology etc to Wes Clark and Howard Dean to movies and music.

Saturday, November 29, 2003

Businessweek cover story on India 

Close on the heels of the Fortune cover story on Bangalore, Businessweek is carrying a story called The Rise Of India, a look at how India's fast changing economy is affecting corporate America. Some of the stuff is a little over-effusive, methinks.

Plenty of Americans know of India's inexpensive software writers and have figured out that the nice clerk who booked their air ticket is in Delhi. But these are just superficial signs of India's capabilities. Quietly but with breathtaking speed, India and its millions of world-class engineering, business, and medical graduates are becoming enmeshed in America's New Economy in ways most of us barely imagine. "India has always had brilliant, educated people," says tech-trend forecaster Paul Saffo of the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park, Calif. "Now Indians are taking the lead in colonizing cyberspace."

This techno take-off is wonderful for India -- but terrifying for many Americans. In fact, India's emergence is fast turning into the latest Rorschach test on globalization. Many see India's digital workers as bearers of new prosperity to a deserving nation and vital partners of Corporate America. Others see them as shock troops in the final assault on good-paying jobs.

There is also a story on the bi-directional R&D flows between India and Silicon Valley. More importantly, Michael Mandel writes about what the U.S. needs to stay competitive in the innovation game. Nothing new, but good to remind oneself every now and then.

Bhagwati and Dixit defend Krugman 

After Brad DeLong's defense of Krugman in last week's issue of the Economist, the current issue features a defense of Krugman by Avinash Dixit and Jagdish Bhagwati. Dixit and Bhagwati are responding specifically to a letter the Economist published that called Dixit and Bhagwati more deserving of the Nobel than Krugman. Here is the Dixit and Bhagwati letter in full.

We are happy and flattered by Philippe Kohler's praise (Letters, November 22nd). But we must take exception to his suggestion that Paul Krugman is less deserving of a Nobel prize. In the research phase of his career, Mr Krugman contributed many important insights to economics.

We also believe that valuable contributions to policy should increase, not decrease, one's eligibility for the Nobel prize in what is after all a social science. We would be delighted if the Nobel prize committee saw fit to honour us; who wouldn't be delighted to be so honoured? But our delight would be doubled if Mr Krugman was also included.

Jagdish Bhagwati
Columbia University
New York

Avinash Dixit
Princeton University
Princeton, New Jersey

Friday, November 28, 2003

The Greatest German Ever 

Viewers of ZDF TV had a chance to vote for their choice and they decided that Konrad Adenauer, the chancellor who oversaw post World War II reconstruction, was the greatest German of all time. While Adenauer is probably one of the greatest, what about Gutenberg, Einstein, Beethoven, Bach etc? The TV viewers voted Martin Luther the reformer and Karl Marx in at number two and three respectively. Needless to say, Adolf Hitler and his Nazi thugs were excluded from the poll. If I had to choose, I'd probably go for Gutenberg and Einstein, in no particular order.

Creativity and Cities 

I have often wondered why some cities are greater magnets of talent than others. In the US, San Francisco, New York, Seattle etc seem to attract a greater critical mass of talent than say, Columbus OH or Houston TX. In India, Bangalore and Bombay attract more talent and creativity than Madras or Chandigarh. The Straits Times is carrying a series of stories on this issue. In the first part, Warren Fernandez investigates what makes for "brain-gain" cities.

CITIES which draw talent have some common characteristics: they are welcoming to people of diverse backgrounds, providing them with room and opportunities to work and play hard. A recent survey of 'brain-gain' cities by the Washington Post found that these cities tend to have a high percentage of residents who are artists, writers and musicians, as well as large and visible gay communities.

These groups are not necessarily more talented than others. But their presence signals how open the local community is to new ideas and differences of views and lifestyles. Cities which are not welcoming to diversity tend to put people off, driving talent away, and with them the companies and jobs that they would fill.

Another key characteristic of 'brain-gain' cities is a high percentage of foreign-born residents, reflecting a significant population of college-educated imports. Boston's population, for example, swells by nearly a million during term time, when students from around the world descend on it to attend one of its many tertiary institutions. This talent helps make top-tier cities diverse, tolerant and rich with the cultural amenities that help them attract more talent.

Among the features these talent-magnet cities boast include pedestrian neighbourhoods, great food, good bookshops, and a vibrant arts scene, whether it be live music, theatre or a first-rate symphony orchestra. Happening places, with pubs, bars, humour clubs, or just pleasant parks and walkways are also significant draws.

The second part of the series analyses the specific cases of Austin, Boston and Seattle.

Key quote I agree with -- by Prof Richard Florida of Carnegie-Mellon, and author of The Rise of the Creative Class -- You cannot get a technologically innovative place unless it's open to weirdness, eccentricity and difference.

Thursday, November 27, 2003

India signs on to Galileo 

Shortly after China announced a 200 million Euro investment in the Galileo satellite navigation system, it is now being reported that India will now invest a similar amount (plus 100 million in developing satellites) in the EU project. This is interesting because the Galileo project is a direct competitor to the U.S. owned GPS system and the EU has managed to get both China and India to invest in its version rather than the U.S. version. Reports suggest that the unilateralism of the Bush administration, as expressed in its tight control over GPS use by other countries, may have driven China and India to make this decision.

The end of MP3.com 

While on the subject of DRM, I came across this article that informed me that MP3.com has been sold to CNET (who are planning their own digital download service). While a sale alone might not be bad news, CNET's plans for MP3.com are truly a tragedy. They plan on killing all the archives on MP3, archives where I found such delightful artists as Zero 7 and Astral Projection.

Musicians received this announcement on Friday.

"Your personal information, music, images, related content or other information will not be transferred to CNET Networks, Inc. or any other third party... Please note, however, that promptly following the removal of the MP3.com website, all content will be deleted from our servers and all previously submitted tapes, CD-ROMs and other media in our possession will be destroyed. We recommend that you make alternative content hosting arrangements as soon as practicable."

CNET will follow Wal-Mart, Real Inc. and Apple Computer into the DRM business, infecting as many computers as they can with restrictive software controls that close what for a brief period has been an open computer platform. They all hope that this tentative business model, the terms of which are set by the entertainment "industry", will somehow turn them a profit. Or at least give the illusion of doing so, until a better idea comes along.

One such idea is the tremendously popular notion of 'compulsory licenses' - a flat rate fee to be levied by some rich nitwit, somewhere (as a society we can choose who and where at our leisure) - but which potentially provides us with free music private sharing and a way of ensuring the creators are recompensed. It's handicapped with a Stalinist name, right now, but even the libertarian Electronic Frontier Foundation has thrown its weight behind the idea.

The author of the article, Andrew Orlowski argues in an earlier piece that the profitability of digital downloads was a big lie.

The problem with this gold rush is, as Jobs himself reminded us last week, there's no money in it for the retailers themselves. The difference between Apple and the arrivistes (and, for that matter, the 800lb gorilla Sony, which will enter the business next year), is that Apple makes money from iPod sales. Sony will outflank Apple thanks to its huge vertical integration advantages: it owns the content and has a historic presence as a consumer manufacturer. But for the others, it's hard to see where the money comes from.

If this is true (that digital downloads per se are not profitable), I can understand why Itunes is just a front for selling Ipods and why Moby thinks a new distribution model may be in the offing.

Wednesday, November 26, 2003

So much for Itunes DRM 

Sometime last month, I had made a post on the trouble with Itunes's DRM. In that post, I had made the offhand prediction that the DRM would be cracked sooner rather than later. A month on, CNET is reporting that the ITunes DRM has been cracked by Jon Johansen, of DeCSS fame. Seems like Johansen's software works by latchng on to the ITunes stream before DRM locks in.

Johansen's program works by patching Apple's QuickTime software with a new software component of his own. Because he called the program a "memory dumper," programmers on message boards around the Web speculated that QTFairUse made a copy of the raw, unprotected song data from the computer's temporary memory after it was unprotected for playback, rather than simply recording the audio stream as it played. But this was not independently verified by Apple or Johansen.

The software, which is downloadable from here, works only with ITunes for Windows and songs legally bought from ITunes. And it sure as hell isn't easy to use.

Johansen's software isn't for technology novices. In its current form, it requires several complicated steps to create a working program from source code, and it doesn't create a working song file that can be immediately or simply played from a digital music program like Winamp or Microsoft's Windows Media Player. But if other developers--or Johansen himself--pursue the project, it could herald the arrival of simple ripping programs that could create unprotected music files from iTunes songs as simply as from an ordinary compact disc.

Wonder how Apple will react. Update Quick Time or realise the stupidity of what they have done in their zeal to sell Ipod's by using a trick straight out of Microsoft's playbook?

Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Infrequent blogging 

I just noticed that my blogging has got really tardy the past few days. I've just been doing far too much. Between doing my research, reading, getting the paperwork done for renewing my visa, arranging for my tickets back to India and arranging for concert tickets, my plate's been crazily full. I am hoping this workload will come down a notch over Thanksgiving and I can catch up with my blogging. Until then....

Monday, November 24, 2003

Liberal India 

For the longest time, I have argued with friends that the time was ripe in India for the formation of a liberal party (liberal in the traditional sense) that kept a safe distance from the bigotry of the right and the lunatic socialism of the left. Nothing major, just a party that probably would have to stay urban to start with, but would tap into a lot of goodwill and money. I even once wrote to P. Chidambaram asking him why he didnt think of launching something along those lines, especially since he had a strong political base. Needless to say, he did not respond. Unlike Jairam Ramesh, Chidambaram is not very responsive to e-mail, I think.

So, it was considerable surprise that I read Satya's post about the formation of a liberal party in India. The website for the Liberal Party of India is here and its objectives are here. Yes, it's terribly designed and they need to hire a good designer for starts.

I could write a lot more about the party, but Satya does a better job. If these guys are serious about this, I might actually join them.

Friday, November 21, 2003

Brad defends Krugman 

I had posted the link to the Economist's profile on Krugman last week, a profile in which the Economist tried hard (and unsuccessfully) to take some cheap shots at Krugman, with very little evidence. The current issue of the Economist carries a letter from Brad DeLong vigorously defending Krugman. I reproduce the letter in full here.

So Paul Krugman is a partisan hack (Face value, November 15th)? Did you not have the time to find out what Mr Krugman has also written about prominent Democrats like Robert Kuttner, Lester Thurow or Robert Reich? Mr Kuttner, proprietor of the American Prospect, believes that Mr Krugman is a right-wing mole: “far more charitable to very conservative fellow economists [like] Milton Friedman, Robert Lucas, Martin Feldstein...than to fellow liberals...whom he dismisses as pseudo-economists and mere ‘policy entrepreneurs'.”

Mr Krugman wages, and always has waged, intellectual thermonuclear war against all whom he regards as denizens of the pit and carriers of error. He's usually right (80% of the time?); he's sometimes wrong. The interesting question—which you did not pose—is what has the Bush administration done over the past three years to draw such a concentration of Mr Krugman's intellectual fire? It is odd that you name only one critic, lyinginponds.com, but mention unnamed “people” and “critics” who “cannot all be easily dismissed”, “game theorists” who were “not convince[d]”, “fellow economists, jealous”. Perhaps this is because laudably you do not want to give public prominence to unbalanced loons.

J. Bradford DeLong

Soros on American Supremacy 

(Via Jed) George Soros writes a scathing critique of the Bush administration's foreign policy in the December issue of the Atlantic Monthly. Among other things, the article touches on the problems with the neoconservatve ideology, the unwinnability of the current war on terror and a financial market analogy to Team Bush's foreign policy. I have to say that the more I read Soros, the greater the regard I have for him.

This foreign policy is part of a comprehensive ideology customarily referred to as neoconservatism, though I prefer to describe it as a crude form of social Darwinism. I call it crude because it ignores the role of cooperation in the survival of the fittest, and puts all the emphasis on competition. In economic matters the competition is between firms; in international relations it is between states. In economic matters social Darwinism takes the form of market fundamentalism; in international relations it is now leading to the pursuit of American supremacy.

The Bush doctrine, first enunciated in a presidential speech at West Point in June of 2002, and incorporated into the National Security Strategy three months later, is built on two pillars: the United States will do everything in its power to maintain its unquestioned military supremacy; and the United States arrogates the right to pre-emptive action. In effect, the doctrine establishes two classes of sovereignty: the sovereignty of the United States, which takes precedence over international treaties and obligations; and the sovereignty of all other states, which is subject to the will of the United States. This is reminiscent of George Orwell's Animal Farm: all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.

September 11 introduced a discontinuity into American foreign policy. Violations of American standards of behavior that would have been considered objectionable in ordinary times became accepted as appropriate to the circumstances. The abnormal, the radical, and the extreme have been redefined as normal. The advocates of continuity have been pursuing a rearguard action ever since.

To explain the significance of the transition, I should like to draw on my experience in the financial markets. Stock markets often give rise to a boom-bust process, or bubble. Bubbles do not grow out of thin air. They have a basis in reality—but reality as distorted by a misconception. Under normal conditions misconceptions are self-correcting, and the markets tend toward some kind of equilibrium. Occasionally, a misconception is reinforced by a trend prevailing in reality, and that is when a boom-bust process gets under way. Eventually the gap between reality and its false interpretation becomes unsustainable, and the bubble bursts.

Exactly when the boom-bust process enters far-from-equilibrium territory can be established only in retrospect. During the self-reinforcing phase participants are under the spell of the prevailing bias. Events seem to confirm their beliefs, strengthening their misconceptions. This widens the gap and sets the stage for a moment of truth and an eventual reversal. When that reversal comes, it is liable to have devastating consequences. This course of events seems to have an inexorable quality, but a boom-bust process can be aborted at any stage, and the adverse effects can be reduced or avoided altogether. Few bubbles reach the extremes of the information-technology boom that ended in 2000. The sooner the process is aborted, the better.

The quest for American supremacy qualifies as a bubble. The dominant position the United States occupies in the world is the element of reality that is being distorted. The proposition that the United States will be better off if it uses its position to impose its values and interests everywhere is the misconception. It is exactly by not abusing its power that America attained its current position.

Meteor Killer 

It has been sort-of accepted in scientific circles that it was a meteor strike 65 million years ago that wiped out the dinosaurs, among others. Kenneth Chang writes about a paper published in Science today that suggests that there was a much larger meteor strike 250 million years ago that led to the extinction of nearly 90% of the species alive then. Perhaps it's time to pay more attention to NEAT?

The researchers report that they found the meteorite fragments in rocks in Antarctica that date from the Permian-Triassic boundary. The mineral composition of the fragments, each less than one-fiftieth of an inch wide, correspond to that of certain meteorites and is like nothing found naturally on Earth, they reported. In addition, the scientists said, the same rocks had previously yielded soccer-ball-shaped molecules known as buckyballs containing extraterrestrial gases, as well as grains of quartz with fractures that indicate a tremendous shock.

Skeptics abound.

Dr. Eldridge Moores, an emeritus professor of geology at the University of California at Davis, described the meteorite fragments as "the most interesting evidence for a meteorite event at this boundary that I've seen so far." But, he added, while the evidence for the dinosaur-killing meteor 65 million years ago is a convincing 10 on a 1-to-10 scale, the evidence for a killer meteor at the Permian-Triassic boundary is not nearly as solid.

Dr. Frank Kyte of U.C.L.A., who several years ago discovered a fragment of the meteor that killed the dinosaurs, said the fragments described in the Science paper do possess the chemical signatures that they came from outer space, "but it's a little unbelievable they've survived for a couple hundred million years in the sediment." The shards, Dr. Kyte said, could be merely interplanetary dust that floated down through the atmosphere.

Why investors should learn to stop worrying and love the Democrats 

Prof Hal Varian wrote a very interesting article in the NYT yesterday which investigates whether the stock market does better under the Democrats or the Republicans. Funnily enough, the Democrats win this one by a mile. Counter intuitive indeed. Prof Varian tries to explain using material from "Political Cycles and the Stock Market," authored by Pedro Santa-Clara and Rossen Valkanov.

Professors Santa-Clara and Valkanov look at the excess market return - the difference between a broad index of stock prices (similar to the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index) and the three-month Treasury bill rate - between 1927 and 1998. The excess return measures how attractive stock investments are compared with completely safe investments like short-term T-bills. Using this measure, they find that during those 72 years the stock market returned about 11 percent more a year under Democratic presidents and 2 percent more under Republicans - a striking difference.

What would cause such a large difference? One possibility is that Wall Street investors expect the Democrats to be bad for the market and sell their stocks before elections that the Democratic candidate is likely to win. Then, when the Democrats do not prove as bad as expected, stock prices rise again. The authors, though, find that the data do not support this theory - stock prices generally do not tend to decline before elections that Democrats win.

But this finding itself raises another puzzle. If returns are so much higher for Democratic presidents than Republican ones, shouldn't we see investors rushing to the market when a Democratic victory looks likely? We don't see that happen, either. "In sum,'' the authors write, "the market seems to react very little, if at all, to presidential election news." Here's another theory. Economic policies under Democratic administrations may tend to be more volatile than those under Republicans - so investors demand higher returns to compensate them for the extra risk. A clever idea, but it is also contradicted by the evidence. If anything, the volatility of stock market returns is slightly higher under Republicans than under Democrats.

Most provocatively, they suggest that the causality might go the other way, with market returns driving presidential elections. Perhaps voters feel wealthier when stock prices are high and then vote Republican; when stock prices are low, they vote for Democrats. The Santa-Clara/Valkanov finding offers an attractive area of research for both economists and political scientists. But even if scholars eventually come up with a satisfying explanation, we are still left with the financial side of the puzzle: For at least 72 years, the stock market did far better under Democratic presidents than under Republicans. How can it be that investors have failed to take advantage of this seemingly predictable pattern?

Thursday, November 20, 2003

The Indians *really* are coming!! 

(Via Sanjay) Not technology. Not Bollywood. If this website is to be believed, auto-rickshaws -- that most potent symbol of Indian public transport -- are set to enter the U.S. market early 2004. Have a look at the models Bajaj plans to introduce. At the very least, they have done a great job of designing the vehicles. Let's just say I never thought I'd use stylish and auto-rickshaw in the same breath.

Wesley Clark up close 

I had the opportunity to listen to a major foreign policy address made by Gen. Clark at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is extremely impressive in person, in fact a lot, lot more impressive than he is on TV. Though he was speaking to his strength -- foreign policy -- he came across as being very articulate and in command of the facts. Some of his foreign policy ideas (on NATO and the middle east, for example) did hint at the strategic genius both friend and foe attribute to him. I just hope he isn't going to be Gore II, with an inability to transform personal brilliance into something more politically viable.

There was a large international media contingent listening to the speech from what I could gather. I just cant help getting the feeling at these events that the rest of the world will just heave a collective sigh of relief if GWB is defeated in the elections. Or as Clark said in his speech, "Our friends want this long international nightmare to be over. And America will see an outpouring of support from around the world when it is." I agree.

PS: Spotted at the meeting were Chris Lehane and James Rubin. Rubin is apparently serving as foreign policy advisor to the General.

The Indians are coming 

The Economist has a story on a new trend in the Indian IT industry, one that might help change its image from being just the sucking sound from the east -- hiring people in America.

This month, two Indian conglomerates, the Godrej Group and the Essar Group, each said they were to buy a struggling American call-centre firm. Wipro, an Indian IT services firm, has announced the purchase of two small American consultancies. Scandent, another Indian group with interests in the IT industry, has bought a minority stake in North American Benefits Network, which administers company health and benefits plans. Other firms flush with cash, such as Infosys, a big rival to Wipro, are said to be seeking deals.

Officials at Nasscom, the Indian software industry's trade group, say that their members have made cumulative investments of $350m abroad recently, most of it in America. Having cut their teeth subcontracting for big western firms such as IBM and Accenture, the Indians now want to build closer relationships with customers—big firms that are outsourcing everything from systems maintenance to accounting. To do that, Indian firms need to offer the ability to run call centres and the like from America as well as from India.

Tuesday, November 18, 2003

McKinsey Quarterly on India 

Rajesh sent me this old-ish (2001) McKinsey Quarterly report on India. It serves as excellent background reading and it also serves as a point of comparison (vis-a-vis reforms) in the 2-year period since this report was published. The report identifies 3 main problems that are holding the Indian economy back and then examines each of these problems in great detail.

Regulations governing product markets, land market distortions, and government-owned businesses—the three main barriers to India’s economic growth—have their depressing effect largely because they protect most Indian companies from competition and thus from pressure to raise productivity.

The report also makes some key recommendations on policies that need to be in place to achieve the 10% growth rate that has long been the dream of Indian planners.

Thirteen policy changes would dismantle most of these critical barriers to higher productivity and growth. The changes include eliminating the practice of reserving products for small-scale manufacturers, rationalizing taxes and excise duties, establishing effective and procompetitive regulation as well as powerful independent regulators, reducing import duties, removing restrictions on foreign investment, reforming property and tenancy laws, and undertaking widespread privatization.

Such profound changes would certainly prompt resistance in the name of social objectives, especially from those protected by the current regulatory regime. But the fact is that the current policies have not achieved their social purposes, however worthy: many have been counterproductive. Reserving products for small companies, for example, has cost India manufacturing jobs by preventing companies from becoming productive enough to compete in export markets. Similarly, tenancy laws designed to protect tenants have driven up nonprotected rents and real-estate prices, thus making ordinary decent housing unaffordable to many Indians.

Critics might still argue that the increase in GDP resulting from these policy changes will all flow to the already rich. But after carefully examining the expected effects of the proposed reforms on the Indian economy, we can see that, once again, the opposite is true. By creating a virtuous cycle of broad-based growth in GDP, the changes will benefit every Indian. For example, the real incomes of farming families—the poorest group—will rise by at least 40 percent over ten years.

Monday, November 17, 2003

Gore Vidal on Bush 

(Via Col G. Lucas) Always fun to read a vitriolic diatribe, and even more so when it's coming from Gore Vidal. LA Weekly features an interview with Gore Vidal in which he heaps scorn on the Bush administration as only he can and makes the case that the founding fathers would have been rather upset with Team Bush, all things considered.

So the corruption predicted by Franklin bears its terrible fruit. No one wants to do anything about it. It’s not even a campaign issue. Once you have a business community that is so corrupt in a society whose business is business, then what you have is, indeed, despotism. It is the sort of authoritarian rule that the Bush people have given us. The USA PATRIOT Act is as despotic as anything Hitler came up with — even using much of the same language. In one of my earlier books, Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, I show how the language used by the Clinton people to frighten Americans into going after terrorists like Timothy McVeigh — how their rights were going to be suspended only for a brief time — was precisely the language used by Hitler after the Reichstag fire.

We are talking about despotism. I have read not only the first PATRIOT Act but also the second one, which has not yet been totally made public nor approved by Congress and to which there is already great resistance. An American citizen can be fingered as a terrorist, and with what proof? No proof. All you need is the word of the attorney general or maybe the president himself. You can then be locked up without access to a lawyer, and then tried by military tribunal and even executed. Or, in a brand-new wrinkle, you can be exiled, stripped of your citizenship and packed off to another place not even organized as a country — like Tierra del Fuego or some rock in the Pacific. All of this is in the USA PATRIOT Act. The Founding Fathers would have found this to be despotism in spades. And they would have hanged anybody who tried to get this through the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Hanged.

Vidal seems to agree with George Akerlof that this is the worst administration in history.

Well, nobody has ever wrecked the Bill of Rights as he has. Other presidents have dodged around it, but no president before this one has so put the Bill of Rights at risk. No one has proposed preemptive war before. And two countries in a row that have done no harm to us have been bombed.

With each action Bush ever more enrages the Muslims. And there are a billion of them. And sooner or later they will have a Saladin who will pull them together, and they will come after us. And it won’t be pretty.

Only Vidal! :)

Fortune on Bangalore 

India, or rather, the loss of U.S. jobs to India seems to be the flavour of the month. Lou Dobbs can't seem to stop talking about it. Now, Fortune is carrying a lead story on Bangalore it calls Where Your Job Is Going. For a lead story, it's a mostly blah-blah article with nothing new to say (serves as good background reading if you don't really know much about India), but since it's about Bangalore, I figured I might as well post it.

The world is lousy with places claiming to be another Silicon Valley. But in Bangalore the claims have an eerie ring of truth. For one thing, as in Northern California, the climate is a big draw--Bangalore is 3,000 feet above sea level and thus has the most bearable summer weather of any Indian metropolis. What's more, like the San Francisco area it boasts fine educational institutions (foremost among them the Indian Institute of Science, founded in 1909) and an openness to outsiders--born of the city's status as a big army garrison since colonial days and as the home of India's defense and aerospace industries since independence. There's even a wine country (okay, one winery) north of town.

The real clincher is that despite constant complaints about the city's insane traffic, skyrocketing real estate prices, and fickle workforce--and constant efforts by other cities, especially Hyderabad and Chennai, to get in on the action--companies and people keep coming to Bangalore. Which, of course, sounds exactly like Silicon Valley in the late 1990s. And while Bangalore was a graveyard of failed startups in 2001, just like the Valley, the very corporate cost cutting that has meant continued lean times in California has brought tons of new business to South India.

Nandan Nilakeni, the CEO of Infosys has the last word on the trade issue.

India at its best is a lot like the U.S. at its best--a nation of staggering ethnic and religious diversity that somehow holds together by dint of tolerance and a sense of shared destiny. And now that India wants to join the material world, it seems churlish for Americans to begrudge it entry. "For the last 20 years, you've been telling countries like India and China to adopt free markets and join the global economy," says Nilekani of Infosys. "Now that we're doing it, you can't just say, 'Stop it!'"

Sunday, November 16, 2003

Clark to testify against Milosevic 

One of the interesting things to emerge from Gen Clark's appearance on Meet the Press was his decision to take a break from campaigning and testify at the trial of Slobodan Milosevic at the Hague.

Retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark agreed to take a brief hiatus from his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination to go to the Netherlands and testify at the U.N. war crimes trial of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic. "Because of the historic importance of this proceeding -- the first trial of a head of state before a war crimes tribunal -- I have agreed to appear," Clark said in a statement. He said the U.S. government had authorized his participation, and lawyers from the State Department and the Pentagon would accompany him. His planned appearance at The Hague raises the possibility that questions might arise about a 1994 meeting between Clark and Bosnian Serb Gen. Ratko Mladic, who was later indicted for war crimes.

China overheating? 

This is a question a lot of economists and analysts would love to find the answer to. Not easy given the notorious unreliability of data from China. The Eonomist takes a stab, nevertheless. But first, it advocates the use of PPP to measure GDP more accurately.

According to a widely quoted figure (in The Economist, among other places), America accounted for two-thirds of the increase in global GDP between 1995 and 2002. Yet this number is a little misleading. Because it is calculated using market exchange-rates, the rise in the dollar until 2001 inflated America's share of global growth. Now that the euro is rising, the same method implies, bizarrely, that sputtering Europe has been the main source of global growth this year. It is therefore safer to use GDP figures converted at purchasing-power parity, which are not distorted by exchange-rate swings.

Using this alternative method, the Bank Credit Analyst, a Canadian research firm, estimates that America accounted for only 20% of global growth in 1995-2002, while China's share was 25% (see chart 1). The rest of emerging Asia contributed another 18%. China is now a powerful engine of the world economy alongside America. Since 1995 its imports have grown twice as fast as America's. In the past 12 months they have risen by 40%, compared with America's mere 2%.

The Economist agrees with Stephen Roach's and Andy Xie's take that government intervention in the form of credit tightening is inevitable, in an attempt to cool the economy down.

Admittedly, it is not going about this in the most direct way, by revaluing the yuan. The fixed exchange rate and strong capital inflows have caused foreign-exchange reserves and hence the money supply to swell. The broad money supply grew by 21% in the year to October. The central bank has tried to soak up the excess liquidity by selling bonds, but this “sterilisation” has its limits. More helpfully, the central bank tightened regulations on lending to property developers in June and increased banks' reserve-requirement ratio in September.

A second reason not to panic yet is that there are few of the signs of overheating usual at a cyclical peak. China's current-account surplus suggests that domestic demand is not overstretched; inflation, although at a six-year high, is only 1.8%; and though property prices are bubbling in some cities, average house prices have risen by only 4% in the past year.

A third reason for hoping that China's boom is not about to go bust is that official figures probably overstate investment. Jim Walker, an economist at CLSA, a Hong Kong broker, points out that China's statistics are notoriously dodgy, and that the investment data are among the least reliable. According to official figures, investment was 40% of GDP in 2002. Adding in this year's investment growth may have lifted it to 47% of GDP.

Bottom line seems to be that given the current account surplus and high savings rates, the Chinese economy is probably good to go for a while longer.

The Economics of god 

The Economist analyzes a very interesting paper by Robert Barro and Rachel McCleary titled Religion and Economic Growth. Taking a cue from the work of Gary Becker (economic efficiency of human decisions) and Max Weber (protestant work ethic), the authors try to establish whether a connection exists between religiosity of a nation and its economic performance.

They have collected data from surveys of religious belief for 59 countries in the 1980s and 1990s—whether people say they believe in God, heaven and hell, and whether they attend services at least once a month—and have tried to tease out whether these have any direct effect on GDP growth.

This is not easy, because in theory the causal arrow could run either from religion to economic growth or in the other direction. On the one hand, adherence to religion might foster behaviour that helps a nation to become rich. The Protestant ethic emphasised thrift and willingness to work hard. Honesty might generate trust. Openness to strangers could lead to openness to trade and immigration. On the other hand, economic growth might bring about changes in a country's religiosity. As European countries have become richer during this century, fewer people have gone to church. In America, however, the downward trend has stopped, or even gone into reverse, in recent decades and Americans are far more religious than Europeans. It is also thought that church attendance declines as people become better educated and as they move from the country to the city. Both these shifts tend to accompany economic growth.

The most striking conclusion, though, is that belief in the afterlife, heaven and hell are good for economic growth. Of these, fear of hell is by far the most powerful, but all three indicators have a bigger impact on economic performance than merely turning up for church. The authors surmise, therefore, that religion works via belief, not practice.

They find that church-going, after a certain point, is (in an economic sense, anyway) a waste of time. They argue that higher church attendance uses up time and resources, and eventually runs into diminishing returns. The “religion sector”, as they call it, can consume more than it yields.

The Economist is not biting.

All this is intriguing, but does religion make much difference? Japan, where there are many sects but little fear of hell, has grown far faster since the second world war than the Catholic Philippines. Officially atheist China is growing at a cracking pace. Presumably, what your religion is matters as much as whether you are religious: has anyone theorised about a Catholic work ethic? And if religion does have an effect, is a 20-year period long enough to find it?

Outsourcing Radiology 

Andrew Pollack writes in the NYT about the next wave of techonology that will probably be outsourced to India -- medical technology (beyond mere transcription etc). In this case, radiology -- the hospital would beam images electronically from some scans to India, to be worked on by radiologists there..

Radiology is not the only medical service that may someday be performed for Americans by people in other countries. Other candidates are the analysis of tissue samples, the reading of electrocardiograms, the monitoring of intensive care units and even robotic surgery. Back-office medical work has been moving offshore for several years now, particularly to India, which has a large number of educated English-speaking people. Though the number of affected jobs is only a small fraction of the total, many experts say the share is growing as hospitals face pressure to cut costs.

Radiology may be just the start of patient care performed overseas. Next may be pathology. It is now possible to transmit images of tissue samples for remote diagnosis. There are also robotic microscopes that can be operated remotely, allowing a doctor at a different site to move a slide and focus the image. As technology improves, "it would be possible for a small hospital in the United States to digitize an image, put in on their server and have a pathologist anywhere in the world, such as in India, provide a diagnosis," said Ronald S. Weinstein, professor and head of pathology at the University of Arizona College of Medicine in Tucson and director of the Arizona Telemedicine Program.

Medical care, the most intimate and localized of services, is grappling with the globalization that has moved many jobs - first in manufacturing and more recently in white-collar work - across the ocean. And in health care, of course, there is more at stake than jobs. Dr. Courneya and other critics worry that radiologists outside the United States may not be trained properly, endangering patients' safety.

The movement of back-office jobs offshore has raised some concerns about privacy, in that foreign workers could not be easily prosecuted under American laws governing confidentiality of American records. But the outsourcing of radiology overseas raises more issues. Unlike back-office functions, radiology is performed by doctors and is directly related to patient care. A mistake could conceivably cost a patient his or her life.

Much ado about nothing?

On the surface, the controversy may seem a bit odd. Experts say that the number of X-rays from the United States now being read in India is minuscule and that regulatory restrictions are likely to keep it from growing rapidly. Moreover, most hospital jobs, unlike those in radiology, require close patient contact, so there is a limit to how much offshore outsourcing can be done. Besides, employment in American health care has been growing. In the 12 months ended in August, the category added about 250,000 jobs while overall nonfarm payroll jobs shrank by nearly 500,000. Hospitals alone added about 70,000 jobs in that period.

Friday, November 14, 2003

Artificial Life in a fortnight 

Craig Venter is back in the news. This time for building a virus from scratch in two weeks, becoming the second virus to be synthesized artificially after Eckard Wimmer's polio virus in 2002 (which took 3 years to build and could barely infect a cell and reproduce).

Venter's team cobbled together the virus, called phi-X174, following its published genetic sequence. They stitched up its DNA from ready-made overlapping fragments called oligonucleotides, each built from 40 chemical building-blocks, or bases. The smart part, according to Wimmer, involved steps that eliminated genetic errors. For example, the team filtered out common oligonucleotides that harbour genetic mutations.

The team used enzymes to glue the oligonucleotides together accurately into the complete 5,386-base genetic strand, and to copy it many times. When the synthetic viral genome was injected into bacteria, the bacterial cell's machinery read the instructions and created fully fledged viruses. Genetically, one of the resulting virus strains was 100% identical to the natural virus, says Venter. By contrast, Wimmer's polioviruses, which were some 7,500 bases long, had to be laboriously checked for mistakes as each genetic piece was added.

Of course, the spectre of bio-terror (especially given the ease with which Dr. Venter's team built the virus) has been raised.

The study may revive concerns that such techniques could one day be hijacked to make pathogens such as polio or even smallpox for bioweapons. This was widely discussed following the publication of Wimmer's work. The prospect of synthetic viruses or bacteria also raises fears about their possible environmental impact. "It reminds us that we'll continue to confront these issues in an accelerating way," says public-health expert Stephen Morse of Columbia University, New York City. Now, as then, Morse and others argue that the benefits of the new technique outweigh the risks and that the method should be made public.

Thursday, November 13, 2003

In Praise of Cheap Labor 

Yes, that was the name of an old piece written by a left-wing Stalinist and subject of my previous post, Paul Krugman. I was re-reading it a few days back and it comes as a breath of fresh air in the midst of all the anti-free trade/global minimum wage nonsense one hears in America today. Of course, the Democratic candidates pandering to their left-wing doesn't help raise the standard of the debate at all. Perhaps all of them should be forced to read this Krugman piece -- it's forceful, yet makes its point with minimum fuss.

The benefits of export-led economic growth to the mass of people in the newly industrializing economies are not a matter of conjecture. A country like Indonesia is still so poor that progress can be measured in terms of how much the average person gets to eat; since 1970, per capita intake has risen from less than 2,100 to more than 2,800 calories a day. A shocking one-third of young children are still malnourished--but in 1975, the fraction was more than half. Similar improvements can be seen throughout the Pacific Rim, and even in places like Bangladesh. These improvements have not taken place because well-meaning people in the West have done anything to help--foreign aid, never large, has lately shrunk to virtually nothing. Nor is it the result of the benign policies of national governments, which are as callous and corrupt as ever. It is the indirect and unintended result of the actions of soulless multinationals and rapacious local entrepreneurs, whose only concern was to take advantage of the profit opportunities offered by cheap labor. It is not an edifying spectacle; but no matter how base the motives of those involved, the result has been to move hundreds of millions of people from abject poverty to something still awful but nonetheless significantly better.

Why does the image of an Indonesian sewing sneakers for 60 cents an hour evoke so much more feeling than the image of another Indonesian earning the equivalent of 30 cents an hour trying to feed his family on a tiny plot of land--or of a Filipino scavenging on a garbage heap? The main answer, I think, is a sort of fastidiousness. Unlike the starving subsistence farmer, the women and children in the sneaker factory are working at slave wages for our benefit--and this makes us feel unclean. And so there are self-righteous demands for international labor standards: We should not, the opponents of globalization insist, be willing to buy those sneakers and shirts unless the people who make them receive decent wages and work under decent conditions. This sounds only fair--but is it? Let's think through the consequences.

First of all, even if we could assure the workers in Third World export industries of higher wages and better working conditions, this would do nothing for the peasants, day laborers, scavengers, and so on who make up the bulk of these countries' populations. At best, forcing developing countries to adhere to our labor standards would create a privileged labor aristocracy, leaving the poor majority no better off.

And it might not even do that. The advantages of established First World industries are still formidable. The only reason developing countries have been able to compete with those industries is their ability to offer employers cheap labor. Deny them that ability, and you might well deny them the prospect of continuing industrial growth, even reverse the growth that has been achieved. And since export-oriented growth, for all its injustice, has been a huge boon for the workers in those nations, anything that curtails that growth is very much against their interests. A policy of good jobs in principle, but no jobs in practice, might assuage our consciences, but it is no favor to its alleged beneficiaries.

The economist as superstar 

You know you're a superstar when both the New Yorker and the Economist carry stories/profiles on you in the same week, for reasons other than your academic genius. The New Yorker story if a follow-up on the Don Luskin stalker controversy that has been floating in Blogistan for sometime now. The Economist profile is the more intriguing one. They clearly accept the genius of Krugman, unlike the various fools on the right who try fruitlessly to tear Krugman down. What to do then when Krugman consistently attacks your boy emperor? How about a comparison with Ann Coulter?

What is beyond dispute is that Mr Krugman is the finest economist to become a media superstar—at least since Milton Friedman or, earlier, John Maynard Keynes turned to journalism. Mr Krugman's work on currency crises and international trade is widely admired by other economists. He holds the John Bates Clark medal in economics, which is slightly harder to get than a Nobel prize. As for popularity, his new book, “The Great Unravelling”—his eighth aimed at a broad, non-academic readership—has spent eight weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.

The Economist, which itself has been known on occasion to clamber off the economic fence, can hardly criticise anybody for writing hard-hitting (yet engaging and accessible!) economic analyses. But, increasingly, people are asking whether Mr Krugman's success as a journalist is now coming at the expense of, rather than as the result of, his economics. For while he has had some journalistic coups during his time as a columnist—most notably in recognising, long before most other commentators, that market manipulation played a role in the California energy crisis—perhaps the most striking thing about his writing these days is not its economic rigour but its political partisanship.

Lyinginponds.com, a website that tracks partisanship among American political columnists, rates Mr Krugman second in the overall partisan slant of his columns, behind only Ann Coulter, a fiercely (and often incoherently) conservative polemicist.

Dear Economist, try as hard as you might, but comparing Krugman to Coulter kinda disses your credibility. True, Krugman is partisan and blasts the boy emperor day after day, but generally speaking, he also tends to be right most of the time (both on facts and analysis). On the other hand, right, wrong and facts are of no consequence to Ms Coulter.

But, the Economist being more fair and more balanced than Faux News ends the profile saying this.

Many of Mr Krugman's fellow economists, jealous of his celebrity, comfort themselves with the thought that his angry rants have hurt his reputation enough to ensure he will not now win a Nobel prize. They may be kidding themselves. The Nobel committee has not been averse in the past to giving the prize to economists who have achieved popular notoriety, as its awards to Mr Friedman and, more recently, Joseph Stiglitz show. Mr Krugman is probably still in the running.

My personal take on Krugman is that while I love reading his NYT op-eds, I think his genius is wasted on the boy emperor and his prime minister. His is a mind that should be tackling bigger picture issues. Criticising Bush can be done competently by Mike Moore and Al Franken. It does not require a genius like Krugman.

First Dixie Chicks, now Jethro Tull 

(Via Atrios) The atmosphere in America (as opposed to NYC) is pretty surreal today. First, there was that flap about the Natalie Maines comment about GWB. Apparently, Jethro Tull have got banned on a New Jersey classic rock station after Ian Anderson made some supposedly disparaging statements about the flag. Whatever happened to the first amendment and freedom of speech?

Jethro Tull is off the playlist of one classic rock station after the band's front man criticized displays of the Stars and Stripes. Ian Anderson made the remarks in an interview published Sunday in the Asbury Park Press. "I hate to see the American flag hanging out of every bloody station wagon, out of every SUV, every little Midwestern house in some residential area," Anderson was quoted as saying. "It's easy to confuse patriotism with nationalism. Flag waving ain't gonna do it."

The verdict from listeners of WCHR-FM's "Free Beer and Hot Wings" morning show was swift. "The reaction of our audience has been 99 percent in favor of the ban and 99 percent incredulous that he would say such stupid things," said Phil LoCascio, WCHR program director and on-air personality. "He is a smart guy. As far as we're concerned, this ban is forever."

Personally, I am not sure being thrown off a program called "free beer and hot wings" is such a bad thing. But, it gets better with the radio station not being content with merely banning Tull.

When the "Rubbing Elbows With Ian Anderson" tour makes a stop in Red Bank on Friday, the radio station plans to be there. "We found somebody who will supply us with flags," LoCascio said, "and we'll be handing them out to anybody who wants one."

I guess that will REALLY disprove Ian Anderson's point. Talk about being thick as a brick!

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

The Return of the Natives 

The Economist is carrying a story on the return of overseas Chinese to the mainland to become entrepreneurs or players in the world's fastest growing economy.

In a country where less than 1% of the people are enrolled in higher education, 90% of returning Chinese hold a master's degree or a doctorate from abroad. “China has the hardware, but not the software. China needs knowledge. China's biggest challenge is human resources,” says Henry Wang, a businessman and a Canadian-educated professor who is also a senior member of the Western Returned Scholars Association (whose 90th anniversary Mr Hu was celebrating).

While some of that “software” goes into academia and government, most returnees go into business—either joining the staff of foreign multinationals or state-owned enterprises, or setting up their own business. In Beijing alone, there are now 3,300 enterprises started by returners, including some of the country's largest private companies, such as UTStarcom, a maker of telecoms-networking equipment, and Sohu, an internet portal. It is not hard to see why the numbers returning are increasing so fast. China's 7-8% annual growth and steady march towards capitalism has helped it to rival America as one of the best places to seek success and wealth.

The perks and a shot at becoming wealthy are not the whole story. Cultural and family ties are a draw, along with a desire to give something back to the motherland. Sometimes this is combined with a suspicion that they may have hit a glass ceiling in their adopted country. “I was already on top of American society for immigrants,” says Mr Yang. “I could have played lots of golf if I had stayed in America. But I wanted to use my technology to offer China something important.”

This pattern of return resembles the return of the Taiwanese diaspora to kickstart the local economy. This recycling of brains across economies runs counter to the conventional logic of brain drain. And I believe the better the economy performs, the more Chinese that will return. In fact, this is probably truer for Indians who have the added bonus of a functioning democracy to return to.

Tuesday, November 11, 2003

Paul Kennedy on the BRIC's 

(Via Arul) A month back, I had posted the Goldman Sachs study on the so-called BRIC countries -- Brazil, Russia, India and China. In this article, Paul Kennedy, author of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers addresses some of the implications of the rise of the BRIC countries. In particular he raises some of the geopolitical consequences of the rapid growth of these countries, issues that aren't raised often in the mainstream media.

Russia will grow at a faster pace than Brazil, but will taper off by mid-century. China's year-on-year increase in gross national product of around 8 percent will slowly ease to 5 percent, a figure most other countries would die for. And the forecast for India is the most striking of all: a 5 percent to 6 percent annual growth rate that will not fall away in the next 50 years, leading to a 35-fold increase in its per capita income. Whew.

But the report is also fascinating because of its implications for the world's power balances. If this projection holds, Brazil will have overtaken Italy's economy by 2025, and France's by 2031. Russia will pass the UK in 2027, and Germany in 2028. In fact, the report suggests that by mid-century only the United States and Japan will rank among the world's top six economies (G6).

What this implies is a world in 2050 of three really big powers
(ed: the U.S., China and India) and a cluster of medium-sized ones, like Japan, Germany and Britain, with France and Italy (because of population decline and slow growth) beginning to fall off the map. This is not good news for Europe, and perhaps the best ever argument for real unification.

But it is also not good news for our current hyper-power, the United States, to be overtaken by China as the world's largest economy ($45-$35 trillion), and closely pressed by India ($27trillion). To be sure, the average American will still enjoy a larger income than the inhabitants of China and India, but the gap will have narrowed significantly and - and this returns us to Lenin's point - those two Asian powers will be able, if they so choose, to match U.S. defense spending. The full implications of such developments cause one's head to spin, but one thing seems clear: Neither the Indian Ocean nor the Western Pacific will be "an American lake" in 50 years' time.

The Origin of Life 

Nicholas Wade addresses biology's most daunting problem -- how and why did life emerge?

Life must have started in the simplest possible way, as a cycle, a natural chemical reaction that repeated itself, spinning off byproducts, some of which stayed around to maintain and develop the cycle. Where did this cycle start? Dr. Wächtershaüser favors some mineral surface like iron pyrites, also known as fool's gold. A natural catalyst, the iron pyrites could have assembled chemicals like carbon monoxide into biological building blocks. At some stage, the little cycle acquired a cover of protective chemicals, to separate its own reactions from the general milieu. When the cover eventually enveloped the cycle and broke free of the mineral surface, the first cell was born.

Dr. Wächtershaüser and others have shown that important components of today's biochemistry can be formed on iron pyrite surfaces, notably pyruvate, the fuel for a basic energy-producing reaction known as the citric acid cycle. A different entry point to the origin of life concerns RNA, the close chemical cousin of DNA. Though DNA gets the attention, it is RNA that performs all of the trickiest operations in the cell, whether retrieving information from the DNA or turning this information into proteins.

Biologists have long supposed that RNA was the pivotal actor in the earliest cells and later delegated most of its information-storage duties to DNA, a less versatile but stabler chemical. The concept gained credence when Dr. Thomas R. Cech and Dr. Sidney Altman discovered independently that RNA could act as an enzyme, a catalyst of chemical activities, as well as store genetic information.

This dual property of RNA seems in principle to resolve one of life's thornier paradoxes, that DNA requires a protein catalyst for its replication, and the protein requires DNA to make it, implying neither could exist without the other's being there first. RNA could have performed both functions. Chemists have not yet devised an RNA molecule that can replicate itself. But they have shown that RNA molecules can copy short pieces of RNA. That bolsters the idea that before DNA there was an RNA world in which RNA, or some similar precursor polymer, ran the show. The subunits of RNA molecules are themselves quite complex chemicals. It is not too easy to see how the first RNA molecules could have come into existence. But a clay called montmorillonite, formed from weathered volcanic ash and familiar in many households as cat litter, has the interesting property of catalyzing the formation of RNA from its subunits.

In an article in Science magazine last month, researchers from the Massachusetts General Hospital reported that the montmorillonite clay had another property of possible relevance to the origin of life. It makes droplets of fat molecules rearrange themselves into small bubbles, similar to the membranes that make up the walls of living cells. Often the clay particles are incorporated into the bubbles, the research team found, with any attached RNA molecules. "Mineral particles may have greatly facilitated the emergence of the first cells," they said.

Before the Big Bang 

The previous post is the perfect segue to this one where Dennis Overbye asks what happened before the Big Bang.

Still, this has not stopped some theorists with infinity in their eyes from trying to imagine how the universe made its "quantum leap from eternity into time," as the physicist Dr. Sidney Coleman of Harvard once put it. Some physicists speculate that on the other side of the looking glass of Time Zero is another universe going backward in time. Others suggest that creation as we know it is punctuated by an eternal dance of clashing island universes. In their so-called quantum cosmology, Dr. Stephen Hawking, the Cambridge University physicist and author, and his collaborators envision the universe as a kind of self-contained entity, a crystalline melt of all possibilities existing in "imaginary time."

At the moment there are two pretenders to the throne of that ultimate theory. One is string theory, the putative "theory of everything," which posits that the ultimate constituents of nature are tiny vibrating strings rather than points. String theorists have scored some striking successes in the study of black holes, in which matter has been compressed to catastrophic densities similar to the Big Bang, but they have made little progress with the Big Bang itself.

String's lesser-known rival, called loop quantum gravity, is the result of applying quantum strictures directly to Einstein's equations. This theory makes no pretensions to explaining anything but gravity and space-time. But recently Dr. Martin Bojowald of the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics in Golm, Germany, found that using the theory he could follow the evolution of the universe back past the alleged beginning point. Instead of having a "zero moment" of infinite density — a so-called singularity — the universe instead behaved as if it were contracting from an earlier phase, according to the theory, he said. As if the Big Bang were a big bounce.

In their dreams, theorists of both stripes hope that they will discover that they have been exploring the Janus faces of a single idea, yet unknown, but which might explain how time, space and everything else can be built out of nothing. A prescription for, as the physicist Dr. John Archibald Wheeler of Princeton puts it, "law without law." Dr. Wheeler himself, the pre-eminent poet-adventurer in physics, has put forth his own proposal. According to quantum theory's famous uncertainty principle, the properties of a subatomic particle like its momentum or position remain in abeyance, in a sort of fog of possibility until something measures it or hits it.

Likewise he has wondered out loud if the universe bootstraps itself into being by the accumulation of billions upon billions of quantum interactions — the universe stepping on its own feet, microscopically, and bumbling itself awake. It's a notion he once called "genesis by observership," but now calls "it from bit" to emphasize a proposed connection between quantum mechanics and information theory.

Science and the existence of god 

Now that I have the annoyances out of the way, back to the good stuff :) George Johnson asks whether science can prove the existence of god.

God, for those who want to use that term, can be invoked to account for phenomena that have not yet yielded to the scientific method. What is for some the ultimate question — Does God exist? — has become a matter of how much further the domain of the unknown will continue to contract, and if it will ultimately evaporate. The momentum has been in that direction. The whirlpool of cosmic stuff that spawned the solar system spins because it is one small part of the great rotating galaxy, the Milky Way. When a random fluctuation causes enough gas and dust to bunch together, gravity takes over and celestial bodies begin to form. If you want to know where the galaxies came from, there are answers as well. Ultimately, it all comes down to the Big Bang.

That is where the chain of reasoning bottoms out. What caused the primordial explosion? At this point all but a few scientists go with Wittgenstein ("of what we cannot speak we must pass over in silence") or with Kierkegaard, blindly taking the leap of faith into the abyss of the unknown, choosing what to believe.

Why there is something instead of nothing is not an issue that science is well equipped to address. As cosmologists understand it, the primordial eruption did not take place at a certain instant in a certain place. The Big Bang created absolutely everything, including space-time itself. How can anyone ask what set the whole thing going if there was no space or time for a creator to be in, much less any matter or energy for Him or Her or It to work with?

I am not sure why science is required to prove the existence of god. The current inexplicability of the Big Bang is just as true for god. So why not use Occam's Razor instead?

Annoying Euro-centrism 

I also have a bone to pick with the previous article. It's something I have been meaning to post about for a long time and a wonderfully euro-centric paragraph in that article gave me the perfect excuse.

"There have been very few times in the history of civilization when there hasn't been a war going on somewhere," said Victor Davis Hanson, a military historian and classicist at California State University in Fresno. He cites a brief period between A.D. 100 and A.D. 200 as perhaps the only time of world peace, the result of the Roman Empire's having everyone, fleetingly, in its thrall.

WORLD peace? EVERYONE in its thrall? Does "everyone" include non-europeans? Or doesn't the fact that the VAST majority of the world live outside of Europe matter? Why is there this assumption in the west that the Roman was a world empire? Here is a map of the Roman empire at its greatest extent (it includes Mesopotamia which was in Roman hands for about 20 years and was abandoned by Hadrian). Sure, it includes western Europe and some parts of North Africa. But even a cursory look at the map will tell you that this world empire was in fact a meditteranean empire. Now compare the size of this empire to the empires of the Mauryas, the Hans, Ghengiz Khan, the Mughals etc and you'll see the idiocy of this oft-repeated expression of Roman having ruled the world. To me, Rome's "world" empire sounds exactly like America's "world" series.

War as biological necessity 

In the aftermath of the Iraq war, it is probably as good a time as any to ask the question whether war and aggression are encoded into our being. There is some research that suggests otherwise.

In the heartening if admittedly provisional opinion of a number of researchers who study warfare, aggression, and the evolutionary roots of conflict, the great philosopher was, for once, whistling in a cave. As they see it, blood lust and the desire to wage war are by no means innate. To the contrary, recent studies in the field of game theory show just how readily human beings establish cooperative networks with one another, and how quickly a cooperative strategy reaches a point of so-called fixation. Researchers argue that one need not be a Pollyanna, or even an aging hippie, to imagine a human future in which war is rare and universally condemned.

They point out that slavery was long an accepted fact of life; if your side lost the battle, tough break, the wife and kids were shipped off as slaves to the victors. Now, when cases of slavery arise in the news, they are considered perverse and unseemly.

Dr. Frans de Waal, a primatologist and professor of psychology at Emory University, points out that a different species of chimpanzee, the bonobo, chooses love over war, using a tantric array of sexual acts to resolve any social problems that arise. Serious bonobo combat is rare, and the male-to-female ratio is, accordingly, 1:1. Bonobos are as closely related to humans as are common chimpanzees, so take your pick of which might offer deeper insight into the primal "roots" of human behavior.

To me the best case against an innate proclivity to war can be made by taking a quick look north at the Scandinavan countries, whose ancestors were the various barbarian tribes. Or the fact that the interlinking of world economies makes it that much difficult to wage a war where economic consequences might be severe. Either way, it's good to keep in mind an old Einstein line that appears in this article too -- I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones."

Science Times anniversary 

The New York Times's Science supplement is celebrating its 25th anniversary. Science Times has a special issue for the occasion full of excellent articles. I have selected some of the ones I liked as the next few posts.

China plans universal digital TV 

China is planing to switch all of its cable TV broadcasting to digital by 2010 and phase out analog broadcasts altogether by 2015, according to this report. This is a move that could potentially catalyze a worldwide shift towards digital broadcasting, given the sheer numbers in the Chinese market. Such a move is long overdue, given the opportunity cost to using all that analog spectrum (most of which TV broadcasters got for peanuts or less). Of course, U.S. law mandates that analog TV be completely phased out by 2006. I don't see any chance of that condition being met (the lobbyists will make sure there is an extension). Let's hope the Chinese have better luck with their deadlines. At the very least, give them credit for thinking in terms of freeing up valuable spectrum, not to mention providing better quality TV.

Monday, November 10, 2003

Karl Marx on Life, the Universe and Everything 

(Via Brad) Donald Sassoon interviews Karl Marx in the Oct 2003 issue of the Prospect Magazine. Mr. Marx denies any culpability for the Soviet Union and the Gulags, but has an interesting take on America. Among other things.

DS Calm down. Let's move on. I've got to ask you this: the Soviet Union, the gulag, communist terror.

KM I thought you would. I must admit that I am as vain as the next person and all this personality cult and Marx-worship did get to me. It did tickle me to see my face on banknotes of the old DDR and a Marxplatz in every Prussian city. Of course, thanks to Engels's marketing skills and the efforts of Bernstein and of that tedious man, Kautsky, I became the grand guru of the socialist movement soon after my demise. Consequently Russian westernisers had to take me as seriously as electricity. So I was not surprised when Lenin decided to turn me into the Bible. Lenin was a clever politician with good instincts. But he was also a fundamentalist determined to find in my works the justification for whatever it was he wanted to do. He made "Marxism" up as he went along. This detestable habit, typical of religions since time immemorial, spread everywhere. I began to have the feeling that even my shopping lists were being drafted into the service of this or that faction of the movement. Take the notion of the "dictatorship of the proletariat." This was a formula I had devised to suggest, following its ancient Roman usage, an exceptional government in a time of crisis. I must have used this expression no more than ten times in my life. I can't tell you my surprise when this resurfaced as a central idea of Marxism, used to justify one-party rule. What can I say? And I was rather surprised when the first so-called socialist revolution occurred in such a deeply backward country run by Slavs-of all people. What the Bolsheviks were doing was accomplishing the bourgeois revolution that the Russian bourgeoisie was too small and stupid to carry out. The communists used the state to create a modern industrial system. If one must call this the "dictatorship of the proletariat," well, so be it.

DS What about America?

KM Always liked the Yankees: no feudalism, no hallowed traditions. Of course, a lot of cant and religion. But somehow they come out of every capitalist crisis stronger and stronger. Wonderful system of government. Fake democracy, fake elections, fake political system surrounded by humbug and greedy lawyers. This allows business to get on with its tasks, buying candidates, a bribe here, a bribe there. The people are not taken in. Half of them don't bother to vote. For the other half, politics is harmless fun, like watching Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? I moved the headquarters of the first international of workers to New York not just to control it better but also because America was becoming the workers' country par excellence. It is really the only working-class country in the world. Their games, their culture, their manners, their food; everything about Americans is working class. Of course, old Europe remains rather snobby about them, a consolation prize for lost supremacy.

The Philosophy of What???????? 

(Via Crooked Timber) Following up the surreality theme from the John Barlow on Cheney post, here is something that beats it hands-down. A Belgian (I kid you not) University has put out a call for contributions on the broad theme of The Philosophy of Cricket.

The synopsis reads thus -- The Philosophy of Cricket encompasses a series of reflections upon the nature of cricket, its forms of practice, its history and its influence in shaping the human form physically, emotionally and morally. A recurring theme throughout is the interplay between the matter (what the game is) and spirit of cricket (ideals concerning how one plays the game). What are these ideals and how do they impinge upon cricket’s conditions of existence? Furthermore, is cricket's ratio essendi exhausted by a set of prescriptive laws or does it encompass a broader ethos, a body of conventions and connotations, a history and tradition that bind the game to realities beyond its constitutive boundaries?

The submissions criteria -- Contributions are accepted from a broad range of philosophical disciplines discussing issues relevant to the game of cricket. Possible themes include, but are certainly not limited to, the aesthetics of cricket; ethics in cricket; cricket and the nature of man; cricket and education; cricket and culture, etc. Topics related to broader philosophical themes, such as the phenomenon of sport in general, may also be accepted provided they are predominantly illustrated with examples from cricket. All submissions must be of a philosophical nature, meet high standards of rigour and display an obvious command of the language and subject matter.

Papers should be between 5000 and 8000 words in length, though longer papers of exceptional quality and focus may also be accepted. No papers should exceed 10000 words in length.

In the immortal words of Jon Stewart, Whaaaaaaa???? I really cannot decide if Belgian academics delving deep (and critically) into the philosophical heart of cricket is good news or bad news. Thoughts, anyone?

Stephen Roach on China 

Stephen Roach writes about the currency implications of a slowing Chinese economy. I am not sure I see any evidence of a slowdown within the Chinese economy, but then I don't have enough information to dispute Andy Xie's and Roach's perspective that there will be a policy-induced (credit-tightening) slowing in 2004.

If the slowdown in China in 2004 turns out to be sharp enough, the cyclical deceleration in demand for commodities could overwhelm the structural demand for these items. A negative terms-of-trade shock should hurt commodity currencies such as AUD, NZD, and CAD. Further, from a currency valuation perspective, the risk of a correction in these currencies is real. Our fair value range is 0.61–0.69 for AUD/USD and 1.27–1.43 for USD/CAD, depending on the valuation metric. AUD/USD is already protruding from the top of its fair value range. At the same time, the CAD is now overvalued according to eight of our 12 valuation specifications. Lingering in over-valued territory should help push these currencies lower against the structural USD correction.

Sunday, November 09, 2003

Common Errors in English 

Came across this interesting site today that features a comprehensive database of common errors in the English language, even though the variant of choice is American English. One of my pet peeves -- Gandhi, not Ghandi -- is included, among others.

Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name... 

Newsweek is carrying a cover story on how Prime Minister Cheney made the case for the Iraq war on mostly flimsy grounds. In this context, Kevin Drum has posted a relatively old essay called Sympathy for the Devil written by John Perry Barlow, better known for being the lyrcist of the Grateful Dead and founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Turns out Barlow used to know Cheney well, being from Wyoming and all. Beyond the surreality of a Dead lyricist writing about Cheney, its a very interesting read, irrespective of whether you agree with what Barlow says or not.

With the possible exception of Bill Gates, Dick Cheney is the smartest man I've ever met. If you get into a dispute with him, he will take you on a devastatingly brief tour of all the weak points in your argument. But he is a careful listener and not at all the ideologue he appears at this distance. I believe he is personally indifferent to greed. In the final analysis, this may simply be about oil, but I doubt that Dick sees it that way. I am relatively certain that he is acting in the service of principles to which he has devoted megawatts of a kind of thought that is unimpeded by sentiment or other emotional overhead.

Here is the problem I think Dick Cheney is trying to address at the moment: How does one assure global stability in a world where there is only one strong power? This is a question that his opposition, myself included, has not asked out loud. It's not an easy question to answer, but neither is it a question to ignore.

etc, etc.

I have myself tried to figure out what Cheney's about, and haven't got very far. Guess the Rolling Stones had it right.

Pleased to meet you
Hope you guess my name
But what's puzzling you
Is the nature of my game

Don't believe your eyes 

The BBC is carrying a story about false memories. The gist of it is that one shouldn't believe everything one sees. This research, if valid, could probably explain a lot of the "miracles" people claim to have "witnessed."

A study in the United States has confirmed that they can also "remember" seeing things that were never there. Researchers at Ohio State University suggested these so-called false memories occur much more easily than many people realise. Dr David Beversdorf and colleagues based their findings on a study of 23 young adults, all of whom had a clean bill of mental health. Each volunteer was shown 24 sets of 12 slides. Each slide portrayed different geometric shapes, which varied in number, size, position, shape and colour. For instance, the volunteers were shown a set of 12 slides showing yellow triangles. Each slide showed one, two or three large or small triangles. Multiple triangles were arranged either vertically or horizontally.

After studying each group of slides, the participants were shown an additional five slides and asked if they had seen any of the shapes in the original viewing. Two of these had been shown before. However, the other three had not. Two of these looked very different to what had been shown before while the remaining slide looked slightly similar, what researchers termed the lure slide.

The volunteers correctly identified those slides they had seen 80% of the time. They also correctly identified the images that obviously weren't part of the original set of shapes 98% of the time. However, nearly 60% said they had also seen the lure slide. "This suggests that visual false memories can be induced pretty easily," said Dr Beversdorf.

Shekhar Kapur peeks into the future 

Edward made this fascinating post linking to an interview with film-maker Shekhar Kapur. While the interview itself is fascinating, I found Edward's introductory comments very interesting too.

What amazes me about this interview is that he sees everything so clearly. I have been trying to argue some of these topics here in Western Europe for the past couple of years. You see I think here - especially in the 'culture industries' - the numbers are everything, and once you pass a critical point, there really is no turning back. Kapur can even see the importance of the age structure of the population, even if he doesn't grasp the full signifiance of this. He even 'gets' the fact that GWB leading the US off on a 'bad for business' war in Iraq may yet have profound implications, well beyond those that were originally envisaged.

So why are virtually none of the conventional economists getting the message? Why do you need a film maker and cultural entrepreneur to explain this to the world? I've thought long and hard about this. The only answer I've come up with (and I think I've said this before on Bonobo) is the existence of a form of soft-racism. A soft-racism which exists in Asian society itself, in the sense that people feel so lacking in their own self confidence and abilities that they think it can never happen. Then there's the soft-racism of the left, who need the poor to be poor. I mean if the poor can get to be rich by themselves, wouldn't that mean that capitalism might work? And then of course there is the soft-racism of the political and economic elites in the US and Europe who just can't even begin to imagine that a bunch of yellow and brown people could finally get their act together.

Shekhar Kapur brings up the importance of soft power -- an issue I have harped about in the past -- and sees the 21st century as belonging to Asia due to a convergence of economic, demographic and cultural reasons.

Every way we look at it, my guess is that 10 years down the line the absolute revenue in the entertainment business will be more out of Asia than from the West. Let's take a look at the demographics. Entertainment demographics run from 14-15 to just under 30. The stunning population statistics are huge in the particular demographics I'm talking about. In India, we are expecting almost 30 per cent of our population to increase within that demographic. In the US, despite immigration, they are expecting between 5 and 10 per cent. So it's not just population growth. It is population growth within that demographic as a percentage of total population growth.

So there's probably a hundred million Asian diaspora dotted around that will support any such reverse cultural colonisation. They will also have the purchasing power. And the purchasing power at home is growing. Shall I give you an example of this? Everybody told me Bombay Dreams won't work, including Andrew Lloyd Webber. It became the most successful show in town. Who supported it in the first month? The diaspora. Apollo is the largest theatre in town [London]. It's now going up 80 per cent and 90 per cent every day and 100 per cent at the weekends. Still, it's one year down the line. It was for the Really Useful Group -- Andrew Lloyd Webber's company -- the fastest payback for investors ever. Not even Phantom of the Opera returned it that fast. All investments were recovered within a year, in fact within eight or nine months it went into profit.

The big business opportunity now is for this big Asian corporation, or corporations, to come in and take a long-term view and see that if 70 per cent of the growth in revenues from the entertainment, infotainment, media business is coming from Asia, are we looking at out of US$1.3 trillion, at least $700 billion coming from Asia? If there is a $700 billion future market, how much of that comes from India? Can India take 30 per cent of that? Are we then talking about a $200 billion business that can come out of India?

Saturday, November 08, 2003

Penn State Univ and Napster  

In an unusual twist to the digital download tale, Penn State and Napster have signed a unique agreement, whereby PSU pays Napster to let its students download music legally. This is an interesting development which, if it works, will probably lead to more Universties tying up with the numerous digital downloading services that are cropping up all over the place. This way, the Universities are spared the bother of dealing with RIAA's threats and students get to access music easily (despite the constraints). The problem, of course, remains that you can only access 1/10th the number of titles through these legal services as you can through Kazaa and so on. Whether students will really abandon the peer-to-peer networks, given the constraints and not-so-comprehensive catalogues, for the ease and the legality is the million-dollar question.

The service will allow students to listen to an unlimited number of songs as often as they want. They will be able to download the music to use on three personal computers as long as students are at Penn State. If they want to keep the songs permanently or burn them to a CD, though, they will have to pay 99 cents each. Dr. Spanier said the university will pay for the Napster service out of the $160 information technology fee students pay each year. The cost to the university is "substantially less" than the $9.95 fee that individual subscribers pay for the Napster service, he said, though he declined to disclose the precise terms.

Some students criticized the Napster service, which uses copy-protection software to prevent files from being copied to more than three computers or burned to a CD without paying the 99-cent fee.Why, asked Penn State's student newspaper, The Collegian, in an editorial last month, "must the proposed program be so limited?" The editorial predicted that students would still copy music without paying for it over services like Kazaa, adding that the Napster service wasn't "truly free," because student funds would be diverted from other services to pay for it.

On another note, I did try out Napster. Though it's a very decent service (claims to have 100,000 songs more that Itunes), I think the Itunes interface is easier to navigate. Of course, the problems with Itunes are a different story.

Vinod Khosla and RISC 

Folks who know the RISC project well know of Vinod Khosla's involvement with the RISC project, especially at the conceptual level. Khosla has just put the full RISC academic paper (co-written with Atanu) online at his KPCB website (scroll to the bottom of page). This is the most comprehensive RISC document there is; so do have a look if you have the time.

Friday, November 07, 2003

Google 2004 Anita Borg Scholarships 

(Via Sree) Google has announced the 2004 Anita Borg Scholarships for female students in computer science. This is really neat of Google and hopefully it will provide encouragement and incentive for that rarest of rare breeds -- female techies. If you know of anyone doing CS, let them know. Though the webite is not clear about the eligibility criteria for foreign students, it might worth clarifying with Google.

Google is pleased to announce two $10,000 scholarships for female students in the computer sciences during the 2004-2005 academic year. One will be awarded to an undergraduate student and one to a graduate (master’s level) degree candidate. Selection will be based on the strength of academic background, responses to short essay questions, letters of recommendation and financial need? Complete applications must be received by Friday, January 30, 2004. Finalists will be notified by March 1, 2004 and recipients will be announced on Monday, March 22, 2004.

PS: The Google website also a short bio of Anita Borg for those who are wondering.