Tuesday, September 30, 2003

Profile: Joe Wilson 

The Washington Post has an excellent profile of Ambassador Joseph Wilson. He comes across as an iconoclast (one with an evolved sense of humour at that) whose defiance of Saddam Hussein in 1990 won him the respect of George H.W. Bush.

In 1990, while sheltering more than a hundred Americans at the U.S. Embassy and diplomatic residences, he briefed reporters while wearing a hangman's noose instead of a necktie -- a symbol of defiance after Hussein threatened to execute anyone who didn't turn over foreigners. The message, Wilson said: "If you want to execute me, I'll bring my own [expletive] rope."

This toughness impressed President George H.W. Bush, who called Wilson a "truly inspiring" diplomat who exhibited "courageous leadership" by facing down Hussein and helping to gain freedom for the Americans before the 1991 war began.

The Post story states his wife's age as 40. Now that contradicts what Larry Johnson says.

I worked with this woman. She started training with me. She has been undercover for three decades, she is not as Bob Novak suggested a CIA analyst.

This would mean either that the Post got its facts wrong, or Larry Johnson exaggerated in the heat of the moment or Valerie Plame actually went undercover for the CIA at age 10. OR what Larry Johnson meant was that she has been working during 3 decades -- the 1980's, the 1990's and the 2000's. Oh well, guess who's gonna use this as ammo to tear him down?

The Newshour bombshell 

Today's NewsHour with Jim Lehrer had two segments that I consider pretty explosive, at least as far as Team Bush is concerned. The first segment consisted of an interview with Gen. Anthony Zinni (4-star general, former Centcom commander and Bush envoy to the middle east), in which Gen. Zinni accuses (transcript here) Team Bush of exaggerating and distorting evidence to go to war. He also comes pretty close to calling for Rumsfeld's resignation.

I also think the case that was made to the American people for going in was exaggerated. And I think that's dangerous. We've been down that road before. If it was to take down Saddam because he is bad and evil, if it was to improve things in the region, if it was a strategic decision based on some strategic assessment, it should have run on its own merits.

But to make the case that there was, you know the smoking gun could be a mushroom cloud or that there's 48 hours that he could launch a missile, I think was really exaggerated.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think heads should roll because of this?

Absolutely. Any time we lose lives, any time we have miscalculated, any time we have to go back to the American people and ask for more treasure, more sacrifice and it was not calculated and it should have been, then somebody should be held responsible.

In the second segment, Larry Johnson (former CIA operative, counterterrorism official at the State Dept, Republican and supporter of Team Bush) is asked (transcript here) about the White House leaks in L'affaire Plame.

Let's be very clear about what happened. This is not an alleged abuse. This is a confirmed abuse. I worked with this woman. She started training with me. She has been undercover for three decades, she is not as Bob Novak suggested a CIA analyst.

I say this as a registered Republican. I'm on record giving contributions to the George Bush campaign. This is not about partisan politics. This is about a betrayal, a political smear of an individual with no relevance to the story. Publishing her name in that story added nothing to it. His entire intent was correctly as Ambassador Wilson noted: to intimidate, to suggest that there was some impropriety that somehow his wife was in a decision making position to influence his ability to go over and savage a stupid policy, an erroneous policy and frankly, what was a false policy of suggesting that there were nuclear material in Iraq that required this war. This was about a political attack. To pretend that it's something else and to get into this parsing of words, I tell you, it sickens me to be a Republican to see this.

Dawkins on Brights 

A few months back, I had made a post linking to a NYT op-ed by Daniel Dennett on the concept of "brights" -- the new collective term for atheists, agnostics, naturalists etc etc. Turns out that Richard Dawkins had written a similar piece in the Guardian at around the same time and is worth a read.

I used to deplore what I regarded as the tokenism of my American atheist friends. They were obsessed with removing "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance (it was inserted as late as 1954), whereas I cared more about the chauvinistic nastiness of pledging allegiance to a flag in the first place. They would cross out "In God we Trust" on every dollar bill that passed through their hands (again, it was inserted only in 1956), whereas I worried more about the tax-free dollars amassed by bouffant-haired televangelists, fleecing gullible old ladies of their life savings. My friends would risk neighbourhood ostracism to protest at the unconstitutionality of Ten Commandments posters on classroom walls. "But it's only words," I would expostulate. "Why get so worked up about mere words, when there's so much else to object to?" Now I'm having second thoughts. Words are not trivial. They matter because they raise consciousness.

Bright? Yes, bright. Bright is the word, the new noun. I am a bright. You are a bright. She is a bright. We are the brights. Isn't it about time you came out as a bright? Is he a bright? I can't imagine falling for a woman who was not a bright. The website http://www.celebatheists.com/ suggests numerous intellectuals and other famous people are brights. Brights constitute 60% of American scientists, and a stunning 93% of those scientists good enough to be elected to the elite National Academy of Sciences (equivalent to Fellows of the Royal Society) are brights. Look on the bright side: though at present they can't admit it and get elected, the US Congress must be full of closet brights. As with gays, the more brights come out, the easier it will be for yet more brights to do so. People reluctant to use the word atheist might be happy to come out as a bright.

My own position is summed up best by yet another Arthur C. Clarke line -- It may be that our role on this planet is not to worship God, but to create him. And yes, I still think I prefer the term agnostic to bright.

The Moral Sense Test 

(via Petra) Harvard has an interesting Moral Sense Test, a web-based project into the nature of moral intuition.

The Moral Sense Test is a Web-based study into the nature of moral intuitions. How do humans, throughout the world, decide what is right and wrong? To answer this question, we have designed a series of moral dilemmas designed to probe the psychological mechanisms underlying our ethical judgments. By putting these questions on the Web, we hope to gain insight into the similarities and differences between the moral intuitions of people of different ages, from different cultures, with different educational backgrounds and religious beliefs, involved in different occupations and exposed to very different circumstances.

Farewell, Galileo 

Since I touched upon Galileo briefly in my previous post, I might as well make a post on his namesake -- the satellite -- which crashed into Jupiter last week. Having watched a lot of Galileo images and news over the past 10 years, including the collision of Shoemaker-Levy into Jupiter, I thought Galileo was at least as successful at unlocking space-secrets as the Hubble telescope. Among the spacecraft's observations, the key ones were its findings about the Galilean satellites, especially Europa and Callisto.

Researchers had long suspected that Europa might have an ocean. Galileo confirmed that it does, though the liquid water is located beneath an icy crust. Indeed, Europa's ocean could be as much as 100km deep, which would mean that Europa has more water on it than Earth. Callisto, too, may have an ocean beneath its icy surface, though this is less certain. The ocean on Earth is thought to have been where life started, so these discoveries have led optimists to wonder whether the moons of Jupiter, rather than the deserts of Mars, may yield the first signs of extraterrestrial life.

Interestingly, it was the discovery of Europa's oceans that prompted scientists to crash Galileo into Jupiter, to avoid an accidental collision with Europa. There is a minor possibility that Galileo might have carried a microbe from Earth into orbit and if so, a collision with Europa would contaminate the satellite. It would be truly unfortunate if someday we do manage to launch a probe to study Europa's oceans for life and found instead a microbe from earth. Arthur C. Clarke wrote in 2010, "All these worlds are yours, except Europa. Attempt no landings there." Make that "no crash landings"!

Clark on the invariance of light 

Gen clark's interest in all things technological has been epitomized, thus far, by his post as chairman of the board of Wavecrest Labs, a start-up promoting a potentially revolutionary electric propulsion system. Now, Wired is carrying a story on Gen Clark's views on the invariance of light. Briefly, the General believes that science might just find a way around the invariance of light as postulated by special relativity.

"I still believe in e=mc², but I can't believe that in all of human history, we'll never ever be able to go beyond the speed of light to reach where we want to go," said Clark. "I happen to believe that mankind can do it." "I've argued with physicists about it, I've argued with best friends about it. I just have to believe it. It's my only faith-based initiative." Clark's comment prompted laughter and applause from the gathering.

This is the sort of statement that could prompt derision from conservatives since it implies the possibility of time-travel etc. However, I happen to think having such a vision is a lot better than saying "more and more of our imports are coming from abroad." Wired suggests that Gen. Clark's vision might also have to do with his familiarity with military technology.

Personally, I firmly believe in special relativity based on what we know and have proof of today. But, I also keep in mind that more than one scientist was burned at the stake or jailed for daring to suggest that the solar system might be heliocentric, going against the conventional wisdom of the day -- geocentricity.

Monday, September 29, 2003

Patently unfair? 

The New York Times is carrying an interesting story, based on the dissertation research done by MIT economist, Petra Moser, on patents and the nature of innovation. Her research seems to confirm one of my beliefs -- that patents aren't good for developing countries in and of itself. After all, the U.S. played its incredible catch-up game during the Industrial revolution/19th century by not giving a damn about patents and intellectual property protection.

For example, The French inventor Hippolyte Mège-Mouriez, who invented margarine in 1870, blithely showed his invention to two Dutch entrepreneurs. Mr. Mège-Mouriez, having received a patent, felt confident that his idea was protected. The Dutch entrepreneurs took the Frenchman's ideas, improved on them (keeping their improvements secret) and established a thriving margarine business that in the 20th century merged into the multinational conglomerate Unilever. Mr. Mège-Mouriez died a pauper.

So what is the lesson for Brazil, China, India and other countries that are being pressed by industrialized nations to create strong patent systems? "We try to force patent laws on developing countries and say, This is best for you," she said. "Then we are surprised when they say they don't want patent laws. But they have a point. Such laws could actually hinder innovation in those countries."

Sun going the Dell way 

Much has been written on the future of Sun Microsystems, most of it gloomy. The Economist has a very interesting story on Sun's plans.

This week, he unveiled Sun's newest offerings to firms and governments. Chief among them is a bundle of all the software layers needed to run server computers, at a price of $100 for each employee. This is indeed radical. Other software vendors price their products per microprocessor or per data entry.

Mr McNealy considers it insane that firms now assemble their computer data-centres as though they were making a jalopy from scratch by getting all the parts together (or, more realistically, by hiring consultants such as IBM to do it for them). Eventually, Mr McNealy believes, customers will buy complete systems, just as they buy complete cars. One day, he thinks, they will not even buy cars, but only take taxis—ie, tap into computing services through a web browser, just as many people already check e-mail through Hotmail.

Definitely No Spin here 

Not content with sending Al Franken's new book to the top of the New York Times bestseller list for 4 weeks, Bill O' Reilly has done it again. In this interview with Time Magazine, he really reveals the parallel zone he lives in.


Not at all. This man is being run by some very powerful forces in this country, and we needed to confront it. I was ambushed at a book convention. He got up in front of a national audience and called me a liar for 20 minutes. President Andrew Jackson would have put a bullet between his eyes.

This coming from the part of the political spectrum that consistently pokes fun of a "vast right-wing conspiracy?" It would also be interesting to find out what O'Reilly's sources for the Andrew Jackson comment are. Boy, here's a guy who needs some advice on spin.

Sunday, September 28, 2003

Karl Rove in a spot of bother? 

A couple of months back, I had made a post about Ambssador Joseph Wilson's op-ed in the New York Times, in which he basically blew holes through Team Bush's assertion that Iraq was trying to purchase Uranium from Niger. Just as a quick recap, someone in the White House leaked the name of/blew the cover of Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, an under-cover CIA operative in a bizarre attempt to extract revenge. Point being that an allegation of nepotism could be made. Instead, what the White House got was a CIA request for a probe of the White House to see who leaked that ultra-sensitive piece of information (unmasking a spy and pretty much her entire network) just for pettiness's sake. The Washington Post has more.

Wilson, while refusing to confirm his wife's occupation, has suggested publicly that he believes Bush's senior adviser, Karl C. Rove, broke her cover. Wilson said Aug. 21 at a public forum in suburban Seattle that it is of keen interest to him "to see whether or not we can get Karl Rove frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs."

The Intelligence Protection Act, passed in 1982, imposes maximum penalties of 10 years in prison and $50,000 in fines for unauthorized disclosure by government employees with access to classified information.

Saturday, September 27, 2003

Electric cynicism 

Few standards battles have been more intriguing than the one fought between Edison and Westinghouse (a/c and d/c current). The Economist is carrying a review of Mark Essig's Edison & the Electric Chair, which recounts a particularly morbid saga of this battle.

After surveying execution methods from the guillotine (too bloody) to morphine overdoses (too pleasant), a commission appointed by the New York state legislature recommended in 1888 the use of electrocution, which it promised would be “instantaneous and painless” and “devoid of all barbarism”. The man who had persuaded the commission of this was Thomas Edison, America's most famous inventor.

Edison's primary interest in recommending electrocution was to discredit his chief rival in the race to wire America, George Westinghouse. Edison's company used direct current. Westinghouse's firm used alternating current. Edison not only argued that electrocution would be the best new way to kill condemned prisoners, but that Westinghouse's alternating current would be better at it than his own direct current. In other words, his support for electrocution was a marketing ploy. Edison hoped that using alternating current for executions would indelibly associate it with death in the public mind, and give him an edge in the electricity market.

Friday, September 26, 2003

Hitchens on Said 

Chris Hitchens truly lost his marbles after the 9/11 incident, though many will argue that he lost them a great deal earlier. Since 9/11 though, he made a fantastic transmogrification (or is that mugged by reality?) from left-liberal to neo-conservative. That doesnt stop him from writing well on occasion (though the occasions are few and far between) and this obituary of Edward Said is proof.

His feeling for the injustice done to Palestine was, in the best sense of this overused term, a visceral one. He simply could not reconcile himself to the dispossession of a people or to the lies and evasions that were used to cover up this offense. He was by no means simple-minded or one-sided about this: In a public dialogue with Salman Rushdie 15 years ago, he described the Palestinians as "victims of the victims," an ironic formulation that hasn't been improved upon.

Big Brother is blocking you 

I have been following this absurd story for a few days now. The Indian govt's Dept of Telecom has effectively blocked all access to Yahoo groups from India. The alleged reason is that some Meghalayan separatist outfit was running a group (if 32 messages over a year's time can be called that). So here we have a self-proclaimed IT powerhouse resorting to the basest form of censorship, and in the proces blocking access to perfectly legitimate users of Yahoo groups. What is the Indian govt thinking? If solving political disputes were as easy as blocking a Yahoo website, India should not have any more outstanding disputes. I cannot understand why the Indian govt would choose the Saudi, Iranian or Chinese govts as role models when it comes to free flows of information.

Thursday, September 25, 2003

KAW on outsourcing 

Knowledge @ Wharton has an excellent special section on business process outsourcing. The special is divided into 4 sections -- BPO providers moving up the value chain (ex-IBM research head Alok Aggarwal's new start-up, Evalueserve is an example), the BPO business in Mauritius (which is mostly leveraging its proximity to India), how Hyderabad emerged as a BPO hub (thanks to Naidu, Sudan etc) and whether small businesses in the U.S. can take advantage of BPO opportunities.

On another note, I have been wondering about the backlash against outsourcing specifically and trade in general. During yesterday's Democratic debate, I was a little concerned about the anti-trade rhetoric, despite being fully aware that the candidates were playing to their base. What was even more worrying was the anti-H1B, anti L-1 spiel by Lou Dobbs, someone I presumed was trade-friendly, on his show tonight. Funnily enough, it was a Democratic politician by the name of Adam Smith (isn't that curious) who was defending free trade and all that.

Asia Rising 

(via Rajesh and Brad) Martin Wolf of the Financial Times wrote an excellent article on Sept 21st called "Asia is Awakening," on the inevitable rise of Asia as an economic powerhouse, especially the east and the south. In fact, Wolf labels the 21st century as Asia's century.

What, then, might such a rise imply? Consider three possibilities.

The first is that, as it industrialises, China will shift the terms of trade decisively against manufactured goods, particularly labour-intensive manufactured goods, in favour of primary commodities (oil, other raw materials and even foodstuffs). This would have a big impact on the rest of the world.

The second is that Asia becomes home to the world's deepest financial markets. Until the 1997 crisis, most Asian countries regarded the financial sector as a conduit for financing industry. They learnt, brutally, that the opening and liberalisation of such a financial sector is lethal. The obvious conclusion is that financial sectors need modernisation. That has started, but much more needs to be done. When it is, the new financial sectors will have access to the world's highest savings and most dynamic economies. These will be formidable advantages.

The third is that India also makes the changes needed to generate growth of up to 8 per cent. Should it do so, the speed with which the centre of economic gravity would shift towards Asia could be even more astonishing. Even if it does not, Asia seems certain to become much the most important region within a few decades.

Japan has already made a big difference. But Japan is a country of 127m, still traumatised by its defeat in the second world war. China has 10 times Japan's population and none of its bashfulness. Europe was the past, the US is the present and a China-dominated Asia the future of the global economy. That future seems bound to come. The big questions are how soon and how smoothly it does so.

FT has a paid website, so if you want to access the story, let me know and I'll e-mail it to you as a Word document.

Twin obits 

A day that claims two intellectual giants does not happen that often, or at least I hope not. I woke up this morning to hear about the Luekemia-linked death of Edward Said, post-colonial studies scholar, advocate of the Palestinian cause (highly controversially) and Columbia University professor. And now, I just read about the death of Nobel laureate, Franco Modigliani, of the Modigliani-Miller theorem and the Life-cycle Hypothesis fame. R.I.P.

Tim Berners-Lee speaketh 

Tim Berners-Lee, in conversation with Tracy Logan talks about the past, present and most importantly, the future of the Web.

Computers will become so powerful and there will be so many of them with so much storage that they will in fact be more powerful or as powerful as a brain and will be able to write a program which is a big brain. And I think philosophically you can argue about it and spiritually you can argue about it, and I think in fact that may be true that you can make something as powerful as the brain, really whether you can make the algorithms to make it work like a brain is something else.

Genetically engineering extinction 

It has been reported that 50 of the 225 Marine Corps soldiers who went into Liberia have been hospitalized with Malaria. Scholars like Jeff Sachs have commented at length about the disastrous economic consequences of malaria and of living in malarial zones. After all, over a million lives are lost to malaria each year and costs African countries approx $12 billion to cope. So, I read with some interest an evolutionary biologist's insight on how it might be possible to engineer the extinction of the malarial mosquitoes.

attach a useful gene to a selfish genetic element, release individuals modified to carry the element and, within about a dozen generations, that gene should be present in every individual in a population. Or, to engineer extinction, devise an extinction gene — a selfish genetic element that has a strongly detrimental effect. The element could, for example, be designed to put itself into the middle of an essential gene and thereby render it useless, creating what geneticists call a "knockout." If the knockout is recessive (with one copy of it you're alive and well, but with two you're dead), it could spread through, and then extinguish, a species in fewer than 20 generations.

Of course, it cant be that easy, else someone would have thought of it much earlier.

As with any new technology, the benefits of using it must be measured against possible risks. Here, the risks are two: ecological collapse and genetic escape. Genetic escape is the idea that the extinction gene might somehow get into a species other than the target and inadvertently wipe it out as well. In principle, this could happen in either of two ways. Anopheles mosquitoes might not be fussy about whom they mate with; if they engage in sex with mosquitoes of other species, the gene could spread into those species and eliminate them, too.

I certainly dont have the knowledge to comment on the feasibility of the idea or whether other approaches are less risky, but an intriguing idea nevertheless.

Wednesday, September 24, 2003

Nervous Conservatives? 

From the vicious attacks that have been unleashed on Gen. Clark by the various fair and balanced media outlets of the right-wing, one can safely surmise that he is definitely someone they are nervous about. After all, you dont see them go after Joe Lieberman with the same enthusiasm. The Drudge Report (via Robert Novak), for example, made a BIG deal of a photograph of Clark and Ratko Mladic. I had been meaning to make a post about that, but I found that Nitpicker had already done the needful.

Novak makes it sound as if Mladic had already been indicted by the time Clark met with him, but Mladic wasn't indicted until more than a year after their meeting. Even more telling is that the event for which Mladic was indicted -- the Srebrenica massacre -- didn't happen until eleven months after Clark met with him! So, at the time Clark met with the man, Mladic wasn't a war criminal and, as someone who worked in strategic plans and policy for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Clark would have been remiss if he hadn't taken an opportunity to get to know an influential commander in an army our nation might have soon faced in battle.

Of course, Novak and Drudge forget to mention that similar photographs exist of Rumsfeld with the Reagan administration's favourite middle-east ruler at the time, a certain Saddam Hussein, a fact that Nitpicker notes while pointing to this Guardian article. For an even more detailed dissection of Bob Novak's allegation, read Public Nuisance's take on it.

General Clark on war 

Bruce Nussbaum reviews Gen. Wesley Clark's new book, Winning Modern Wars: Iraq, Terrorism, and the American Empire in the current issue of Businessweek. Though I have not read the book in full, the review offered some evidence of why this man is described by friend and foe alike as one of the best strategic brains in the United States.

The war in Iraq "has thus far been a perfect example of dominating an enemy force but failing to win the victory." Clark says the Administration made the classic mistake of equating the defeat of an enemy with achieving its larger political goal. That goal was to set up a democratic, stable, secular Iraq which would help stop terrorism. Clark argues that this required higher force levels and a different strategy: "Victory means not the defeat of the opposing army but rather winning the follow-through operation to accomplish the aims and intent of the plan." Too few troops on the ground going in left Saddam's Sunni heartland unconquered and rearguard supply troops vulnerable to attack. Moving unilaterally meant there were no European or other foreign troops to help in combat or policing the peace. And inadequate postwar planning meant few Arabic-speakers on hand, hardly any power generators, and no portable communications equipment. The Pentagon's war strategy, in effect, had "a profound flaw -- the endgame."

After tonight's Democratic debate, we'll probably find out whether Gen Clark is up to the big one or whether he'd make a better vice-presidential candidate.

Berlusconi Redux 

Just a few days back, I had made a post on Silvio Berlusconi's public relations skills. Well, he has done it again, this time while wooing U.S. businesses to invest in Italy.

"Italy is now a great country to invest in... today we have fewer communists and those who are still there deny having been one," he was quoted as saying. "Another reason to invest in Italy is that we have beautiful secretaries... superb girls," he added.

Not quite in Mayawati's class, but definitely getting there.

Kristof on Gates 

I have very conflicting views on Bill Gates. I think Microsoft is bad news for the computer industry -- one need only look at the state of operating system innovation for proof. On the other hand, he has, via the Gates Foundation, done more for disease control than any other individual on the planet and perhaps more than most governments. In a bizarre way, its the monopoly rents he charges on Microsoft products that end up saving hundreds of thousands of lives in Africa and elsewhere. Between lack of innovation and saving lives (albeit indirectly), its a tough call. Nicholas Kristof, my favourite New York Times columnist, addresses similar issues in his op-ed today, written while undertaking a tour with the Gates's in Africa.

The buzz among African aid workers is that Mr. Gates will be remembered more for his work fighting disease than for Windows. Certainly the wealth of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is improving the prospect that vaccines will be found for malaria and AIDS. The foundation's most banal work is with vaccines, but those programs have already given out vaccines that will save 300,000 lives.

I agree with the African aid workers assessment of Gates's legacy. Kristof also makes an excellent recommendation for Gates -- Mr. Gates's achievements in public health are undermined by cynicism that all this is just a promotion for Microsoft. And frankly, the world needs AIDS and malaria vaccines more than it needs a new version of Windows. So Mr. Gates should think about moving full time to his foundation to concentrate on what he does best — fighting malaria and AIDS, and, yes, holding research consultations with Botswana prostitutes.

Tuesday, September 23, 2003

Billions for Bombay 

Bombay is a city I spent a few wonderful years in. Though I did get tired of the city, I continue to be very fond of it, especially when I visit for a few days at a time. So, I used to wonder why the city was allowing the attrition of businesses, especially to the booming southern cities. In fact, a report I once read predicted that the GDP of Bangalore would overtake Bombay by about 2008, though Bangalore has only one-third the population. Jayshree Bajoria reports the results of a new McKinsey study, according to which Bombay needs investments worth at least $10 billion over 10 years to be competetive with other commercial hubs like Shanghai, Dubai and Singapore.

The report strikes an optimistic note by suggesting that Bombay could actually raise that money quite easily, especially if it grew at 8-10% per year. The government has clearly taken note of the report and has announced that it would contribute $1.3 billion to the Mumbai Infrastructure Fund. Amen.

Stairways to Heaven 

An idea so fantastic very few science buffs dared dream it -- space elevators -- might be closer to reality than you think, according to Kenneth Chang. Given the technological advancements in building nanotubes and advanced fibres, scientists are now predicting that space elevators could come into being in as little as a decade or two, lowering satellite launch costs from $10,000 a pound to $100 a pound.

Instead of using magnetic levitation, the apparatus would lift up to 13 tons of cargo by pulling itself upward with a couple of tanklike treads that squeezed tightly onto the ribbon. Up to eight would ascend the ribbon at any one time, powered by lasers on the ground shining on the solar panels on the rising platforms. It would take about a week for one to reach geosynchronous orbit, 22,300 miles up, where a satellite circles the Earth in exactly one day, continuously hovering over the same spot on the Earth's surface. The first elevator would go up only. At the top, the platform would simply be added to the counterweight or be discarded into space.

Incidentally, this idea was used by Arthur C. Clarke in the Fountains of Paradise. Whether space elevators will become the second Clarke prediction to come true, after communication satellites, remains to be seen.

Monday, September 22, 2003

Has thou slain the Jabberwacky yet? 

Back in 1998-99, MIT's START natural language system used to be a constant source of amusement for me, in particular when it would answer "42" to the question, "what is the meaning of life?" The BBC is carrying a story on Jabberwacky, a finalist for the Loebner Prize, the formal instantiation of the Turing Test.

While most others are programmed by rigid sets of rules defining how it communicates, Jabberwacky is more complex and learns from thousands of online conversations with humans. "Nothing is hard-coded, nothing is fixed, and it changes slightly, on its own, every day. Jabberwacky doesn't have just one personality, and to a reasonable degree, tends to reflect the users back to themselves.

I played around with Jabberwacky for a bit. Its interesting, though the high level of usage slows it down considerably. So besides curiosity, you also need a great deal of patience to deal with him/her/it.

PS: For the record, it answered my heartfelt query about the meaning of life thus -- "As an inanimate electronic creature, you will never know." Oh well.

The Internet Reborn 

The Internet, as we know it, is an old network with old standards and protocols. Old in Internet time, i.e. Technology Review is carrying a great story about how researchers backed by big technology firms are dreaming it all up anew -- a faster, more secure and smarter network tentatively called Planet Lab. Planet Lab, if all goes well, will enable you to --

1. Forget about hauling your laptop around. No matter where you go, you’ll be able to instantly recreate your entire private computer workspace, program for program and document for document, on any Internet terminal
2. Escape the disruption caused by Internet worms and viruses—which inflicted an average of $81,000 in repair costs per company per incident in 2002—because the network itself will detect and crush rogue data packets before they get a chance to spread to your office or home
3. Instantly retrieve video and other bandwidth-hogging data, no matter how many other users are competing for the same resources
4. Archive your tax returns, digital photographs, family videos, and all your other data across the Internet itself, securely and indestructibly, for decades, making hard disks and recordable CDs seem as quaint as 78 RPM records.

According to the article, some of these features are in beta stage already. I personally am very intrigued by these ideas and see a lot of business models evolving from these features. For example, I dont think anyone would grudge paying a fee to replicate one's machine across the network, provided one's security and privacy weren't compromised.

OceanStore encrypts files—whether memos or other documents, financial records, or digital photos, music, or video clips—then breaks them into overlapping fragments. The system continually moves the fragments and replicates them on nodes around the planet. The original file can be reconstituted from just a subset of the fragments, so it’s virtually indestructible, even if a number of local nodes fail. PlanetLab nodes currently have enough memory to let a few hundred people store their records on OceanStore, says Kubiatowicz. Eventually, millions of nodes would be required to store everyone’s data. Kubiatowicz’s goal is to produce software capable of managing 100 trillion files, or 10,000 files for each of 10 billion people. To keep track of distributed data, OceanStore assigns the fragments of each particular file their own ID code—a very long number called the Globally Unique Identifier. When a file’s owner wants to retrieve the file, her computer tells a node running OceanStore to search for the nearest copies of fragments with the right ID and reassemble them.

Though a trifle long, I would highly recommend this article to anyone even moderately interested in the future of the Net and our interaction with it.

Sunday, September 21, 2003

Neal Stephenson's back 

Neal Stephenson, the authot of the spell-binding "Snowcrash" and "Cryptonomicon" is back with a new book -- Quicksilver, the first volume of the Baroque Cycle. If the New York Times review is any indication, it promises to be a phenomenal read, as good as, or even better than the previous two.

The cards are stacked precariously in a cabin in Newtowne, the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in 1713 where a philosopher, Daniel Waterhouse, is trying to organize all of human knowledge. Each card is also inscribed with a number. And just as each number is a unique product of prime numbers, so, in this system, is each concept a unique product of elemental concepts. For every number there's a concept, for every concept a number.

Waterhouse's project is imagined by Neal Stephenson in his gargantuan 927-page historical novel, "Quicksilver," to be published next week. But the project also derives from one imagined by the 17th-century philosopher Leibniz and that still lives on in varied incarnations. For if all the world's knowledge could be encoded in number, then the acts of creation and invention would just be forms of calculation. And the world would reveal itself as a calculating machine, an information processor.

The book -- due out tomorrow -- is already at No:9 on the Amazon bestseller list. Surprise, surprise.

Britney does Bhangra 

I dislike Britney Spears's music. I dislike Bhangra. Enough excuse for this post, I guess. Fresh from smooching Madonna, Britney has now decided to use Bhangra rhythms for her comeback album/song/whatever. Apparently, British Asian producer Rishie Rich is remixing her new track. I presume this is an attempt at reinvention before people actually start to notice how bad the music really is.

Rich said that while bhangra had been established in the UK for a while, it has only just begun influencing music in the US and therefore Spears would be seen as at the cutting edge of musical change there.

Rich added that he felt the demand from music bosses for bhangra-flavoured hits was a response to the huge amount of manufactured music dominating the mainstream.

Hmmmmm, and I suppose Britney doing Bhangra is not manufactured?

More on the Mozilla Firebird 

One of the not-so-good things about the Firebird is that a lot of stuff that works on IE does not seem to work with the Firebird, for example, the google toolbar, blog this etc. Petra sent me the cure -- a website of Firebird extensions. The stuff you get there includes Blog This, News Monster and of course, the Google tool bar. Makes it all the more difficult to not use Firebird :)

Silvio Berlusconi: No Spin Zone? 

I have often wondered what prompts Berlusconi to make the sort of gaffes he makes in public, the most recent of which has been to suggest that Mussolini never killed anyone. What next? That Italy never fought in the second world war?? The BBC investigates the phenomeon that is the Italian prime minister.

Many voters think Mr Berlusconi's outspoken comments simply means he speaks their language. When he recently described Italy's judges as mentally disturbed, he defended it by saying that it was what the people on the street thought.

Well, I suppose there is some truth to the adage that in a democracy, people get who they deserve!

Saturday, September 20, 2003

Clark tops poll 

As I had been predicting, Gen Clark has already risen to the top of the Democratic heap if this poll can be believed. 4 days into his campaign, he has already moved into the lead, ahead of Dean and Gephardt. I dont know if this is a testament to Clark or a reflection of the apathy the rest of the field has evoked. Even the supposed downside of the poll -- that 45% didnt know who he was -- shouldn't be much of a bother since the man has been actively campaigning for just a few days. Give him some time and we'll probably we find out whether or not his campaign gains momentum. I predict it will.

Friday, September 19, 2003

The United Nations Conundrum 

According to this New York Times story, the United Nations is a facing a real dilemma, caught between the only superpower which treats the organisation with scorn and the rest of the world that views it as, hmmmmm, something else altogether. Shashi Tharoor puts it succinctly -- "The worst fear of any of us," said Shashi Tharoor, an under secretary general whose entire career has been spent at the United Nations, "is that we fail to navigate an effective way between the Scylla of being seen as a cat's paw of the sole superpower and the Charybdis of being seen as so unhelpful to the sole superpower that they disregard the value of the United Nations."

I believe part of the problem lies in the composition of the United Nations security council, which is representative of an entirely different time and place, an issue that Kofi Annan touches upon in the report. I dont see how the claims of Japan, Germany, India and perhaps Brazil can be ignored for much longer. Of course, the problem with Germany becoming a veto-bearer is that the EU gets 3 permanent votes, which is pretty ridiculous. I think the EU should have two votes, at most.

For the U.S. though, its a different conundrum. To minimise the influence of France and Russia, it would probably help to enlarge the council. On the other hand, getting India and Brazil to cooperate with some of its mis/adventures might prove to be more difficult. After all, if it still was about buying off poor countries, the Cancun round would not have collapsed, would it?

Cellular walkie-talkies 

No, I am not about to plug for Nextel. The Boston Globe is carrying a story on how a new software called Fastchat enables users to communicate internationally using their cellular phones which also double up as walkie-talkies.

In reality, Fastchat is more like a voice version of "instant messaging" than a walkie-talkie. The software converts your voice into packets of data and transmits them just like a text message via the Internet data service now provided on most cell phones. When the message arrives at another cell phone with the software, the data is converted back into voice.

Apparently the voice quality is nowhere near Nextel's, though it is a cheap method to make long-distance calls. And some of the problems with quality might dissapear as the underlying technological platform evolves and matures.

Fox -- Fair, Balanced and Accurate yet again 

I saw this on Moby's daily web journal.

the other day i did an interview with fox news about my support for john kerry. fox news is traditionally quite conservative and right-wing and i think that they were annoyed with me when i said 'even most of the republicans that i know think that george bush is doing a terrible job as president' and 'by any objective and non-partisan criteria it's obvious that george bush's presidency is bad for america.'

so perhaps to express their pique(in a 'fair and balanced' way, mind you...) they reported that my 1999 album 'play' has sold almost 10,000 copies. i wonder how factual they are regarding other things that they report? maybe this is where george bush gets his information when he talks about 'the nation of africa'. - moby

Just for the record, the last time I checked, "Play" had sold well over 10 million copies. Thats only a difference of 9,990,000 copies. From homicide bombings to missing a few zeroes, Fox continues to redefine news as we know it.

More on the Firebird 

From Andrew: One thing you can do that's cool -- make a bookmark folder with all the stuff you want to load at one time, then choose "Open in Tabs" and boom, all the links will be opened up in different tabs in the same browser window. It's like a butler coming out and laying down all your favorite newspapers on the table for you. You can also right click on the tabs and say "Reload all tabs" which does a blanket reload.

Use the middle mouse button, and it automatically opens the clicked link in a different tab. Middle click on a tab, and it goes away immediately. So it's really fast now to browse around. It's the first real innovation in Web browsing in the past few years.

I agree.

Mozilla Firebird 

On a strong recommendation from Andrew, I tried out the new browser from Mozillla -- the Firebird. Been using it for about half an hour now and boy, its impressive. Its a stand alone browser, lean, fast and has some very impressive features. It has google search and an effective pop-up killer built in. My favourite feature though is tabbed browsing, which can rightly be described as the TiVo of the Internet.

Tab-Browsing can be likened to a TiVo DVR with two tuners - record two programs while you watch another - but in the case of Tab-Browsing you can download many pages in the background while you read the first. TiVo has changed the way people watch TV, and likewise Tab-Browsing is a revolutionary change to the way you browse the internet.

If you need more reasons to try the Firebird out, look here.

Thursday, September 18, 2003

A Psychedelic Planetarium 

The Hayden Planetarium at the AMNH is simply the best of breed, with its fantastic Zeiss Mark IX projector and so on. Now, it is planning to go beyond its brief and put up an entertainment spectacle using all of its super-computing resources and a little help from Moby.

"SonicVision," which is to open on Oct. 3, is 35 minutes of soaring, churning and immersive visualizations set to a thumping score of techno-electronica and contemporary rock mixed by the recording artist Moby. A recent test screening revealed vast, surreal three-dimensional visions that morphed back and forth from the purely abstract - a kind of kinetic, cosmic tie-dye - to whirling wheeled machines, seas of blinking human eyes, architectural forms and optical puns. All of it is computer-generated and none of it involves lasers.

Moby said the music for the show, which includes bits of songs by Coldplay, Radiohead, U2, the Flaming Lips, Queens of the Stone Age and David Bowie, was digitally stitched together with a computer and ProTools digital editing software.

The Google Code Jam 

For the programmers among you, Google has announced a new contest -- a Code Jam 2003, that pits the best programmers against each other for a bunch a monetary and non-monetary reasons. The use of Java, C++, C# or VB.NET programming languages is allowed.

Google is looking for engineers with the programming skill to rewrite the world’s information infrastructure. The Google Code Jam 2003 is one way we hope to find them. Your participation in this contest gives us a chance to observe how you operate in conditions similar to the all-out environment within the Googleplex. Think of it as a job interview with a large potential cash bonus just for showing up.

Prizes run the gamut from Google t-shirts to $10,000 in cash, but I suspect programmers are going to be involved for different reasons -- part pleasure, part ego trip. Registration opens on October 1st and ends on October 15th, 2003. Though registration is unlimited, only the top 500 from the Qualification Round will advance to Round 1 of the Code Jam.

The Economist on the Indian Economy 

The new issue of The Economist is carrying a survey on the state of India's economy, agreeing with the general consensus of 6% growth for the year. Cautiously, the survey even suggests that an investment boom might be in the offing.

In 2002, a subdued year for the world economy, India's exports grew by 19.2%, a rate beaten only by China, whose currency, Indian exporters point out, is notoriously undervalued, whereas the rupee has, unusually, been appreciating against the dollar. However, India's is still, in global terms, an economy that has a long way to go before it looks very much like a tiger. Last year it accounted for just 0.8% of world exports.

It is true that many Indian firms are exhibiting new signs of self-confidence. Indeed, China itself, long seen by Indian businesses as a threat, is now seen by some as an opportunity. The success there of Indian steelmakers, to take an old economy example, has been such that they have been exceeding the quantitative quota (3% of steel imports) that China imposes on them.

Asked to explain the rosier outlook, manufacturers cite one factor above all: the sharp decline in interest rates—from an annual rate of roughly 12% to half that—in the past five years. Besides beautifying company balance sheets, this is encouraging consumers to borrow, to buy cars, for example, and build houses.

PS: The cover of the new issue is worth a look :)

Microsoft Vs Governments 

The last issue of the Economist carried an excellent story on governments shifting to open-source software and the software and the consternation it is causing in Redmond. In my mind, governments -- especially developing country ones -- using open-source software is a no-brainer, even for reasons other than cost.

In theory, the software's transparency increases security because “backdoors” used by hackers can be exposed and programmers can root out bugs from the code. The software can also be tailored to the user's specific needs, and upgrades happen at a pace chosen by the user, not the vendor. And, of course, there is no risk of being locked in to a single vendor

Obviously, Microsoft does not agree. Here's part of the reason why.

Government purchases of software totalled almost $17 billion globally in 2002, and the figure is expected to grow by about 9% a year for the next five years, according to IDC, a market-research firm (see chart). Microsoft controls a relatively small part of this market, with sales to governments estimated at around $2.8 billion. But it is a crucial market, because when a government opts for a particular technology, the citizens and businesses that deal with it often have to fall into line.

Financial Times makes its Indian entry 

For a long time, I used to wonder which newspaper would used by the Financial Times as a proxy to enter the Indian market. The rumours used to swirl around the Business Standard and today, it was confirmed that FT was picking up a 13.8% stake in the second largest Indian financial newspaper, joining Kotak Mahindra and Great Eastern Shipping as lead investors. Under current rules, FT can up its stake to 26%, which I am guessing it will in due course. From there on, it can hope that the Indian government reverses its rules on foreign ownership in media. In any case, for $3 million, I'd say its a steal as far as the Financial Times is concerned.

Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Viewing problem fixed? 

Lots of people have complained about viewing difficulties on the blog. After several futile attempts to fix the code myself, Steve at Blogger lent a helping hand and assures me the blog is now fixed. If you continue to have viewing problems, please let me know. Be warned that Netscape 6 and below have issues that are beyond the code on my blog.

The mystery of music 

Yesterday's New York Times carried a fascinating story on a subject that has always intrigued me -- why every culture on earth has had an affinity to music and why music evokes a reaction in almost every person. Are we somehow genetically predisposed to music or is there any truth to the maternal heartbeat in womb theory, for example? This article provides some interesting alternatives and insights.

Music is still a mystery, a tangle of culture and built-in skills that researchers are trying to tease apart. No one really knows why music is found in all cultures, why most known systems of music are based on the octave, why some people have absolute pitch and whether the brain handles music with special neural circuits or with ones developed for other purposes.

Darwin suggested that human ancestors, before acquiring the power of speech, "endeavored to charm each other with musical notes and rhythm." It is because of music's origin in courtship, Darwin believed, that it is "firmly associated with some of the strongest passions an animal is capable of feeling."

Why on earth would nubile young women choose a rock star as a possible father of their children instead of more literary and reflective professionals such as, say, journalists? Dr. Miller sees music as an excellent indicator of fitness in the Darwinian struggle for survival. Since music draws on so many of the brain's faculties, it vouches for the health of the organ as a whole. And since music in ancient cultures seems often to have been linked with dancing, a good fitness indicator for the rest of the body, anyone who could sing and dance well was advertising the general excellence of their mental and physical genes to a potential mate.

The new transnational 

Businessweek is carrying an interesting story on next stage of globalisation -- the emergence of the "stateless" transnational corporation. In effect, these are companies spread right across the world using every form of arbitrage to their competitive advantage.

What's different about these outfits -- call them transnationals -- is that even the executive suite is virtual. They place their top executives and core corporate functions in different countries to gain a competitive edge through the availability of talent or capital, low costs, or proximity to their most important customers.

C.K. Prahalad, a professor at the University of Michigan Business School, calls this the fourth stage of globalization. In the first stage, companies operate in one country and sell into others. Second-stage multinationals set up foreign subsidiaries to handle one country's sales. And the third stage involves operating an entire line of business in another country.

Among the companies profiled in the article is Wipro, with its twin headquarters in Bangalore and California, though I am not convinced Wipro fits the bill just yet.

For Wipro Ltd., there are clear pluses to locating sales in the U.S. and engineering in India. Wipro's vice-chairman, Vivek Paul, is based in Silicon Valley to be close to the mammoth U.S. market. At the same time, the company can underprice Western rivals because 17,000 of its 20,000 software engineers and consultants are in India, where the annual cost per employee is less than one-fifth that of Silicon Valley.

I told you so! 

For the last couple of months now, I have been posting off an on about the possibility of Gen. Wesley Cark entering the presidential race. The Washington Post is confirming the entry of the general. While it remains to be seen whether his campaign will gain traction, I have been very impressed by what I have seen and heard of him. As a result, I feel obliged to link to the draft campaign and also the offcial Clark website.

Investments in China head west 

One of the big criticisms levelled at the Chinese government has been the uneven spread of economic growth. The eastern seaboard has been growing at a phenomenal pace while the western heartland has lagged considerably, resulting in unsustainable levels of migration from the west to the east. Telecom Asia counters the perception with a story on how the Chinese government is managing to drive some amount of technology investment into its hinterland -- in this case to the Himalayan city of Chengdu.

Chengdu, where a statue of Mao Zedong at the city's main square stands just blocks away from a shopping district filled with glitzy stores, gave rich incentives to Intel, analysts said.Those incentives are part of China's "go west" policy, which offers preferential taxes and infrastructure assistance to lure foreign firms to the nation's less developed hinterland.

Perhaps there is a lesson in here for people like me who worry about the skewed economic growth in India, where peninsular India, which (unlike China) has a lesser proportion of the population, outstrips the rest of the country. Then again, the Chinese government is a more centralised animal that can direct investment more effectively than either the Indian government or the government of U.P. and Bihar. The U.P. government has also got to realise that promising would-be investors that they "will not be kidnapped" (unlike before) does not constitute real incentive to invest.

Tuesday, September 16, 2003

AOL-Time Warner no more 

When it comes to botched deals, not many rank in the same league as the AOL-Time Warner merger. The poster child of the dot-com boom (and the dot-com bust) has truly bit the dust. The Washington Post is reporting that the company is planning on dropping the AOL part of its name and revert to just plain Time Warner. A good thing too, considering AOL probably earned less for the company than the first two installments of the Lord of the Rings.

The corporation's board of directors is scheduled to approve the name change at its monthly meeting in New York tomorrow, people close to the board said. Richard D. Parsons, chairman and chief executive, strongly supports the change and intends to move quickly to implement it. The company's logo will be changed and its stock-ticker symbol will revert to "TWX," which Time Warner used before its $112 billion merger with America Online in January 2001.

Monday, September 15, 2003

Dark Side of the Moon 

One more review -- I watched the new DVD release of Pink Floyd's classic, Dark Side of the Moon. People who know me well know I regard DSOTM as one of the greatest albums of all time, if not THE greatest. Watching the DVD reminded me of why. Though its a very short documentary (better to borrow than buy), it brings out in vivid detail the sheer technical genius of the album -- Chris Thomas's production, Gimour's amazing double tracking, Alan Parson's engineering, the experimentation with electronica etc etc. You also get a brief look at what "On the Run" sounded like in its initial avatar, as "The Travel Song" -- an amazing track.

The DVD features interviews with the band, Alan Parsons on his deck, Chris Thomas, Storm Thergerson (of Hipgnosis), David Fricke (of Rolling Stone) and Bhaskar Menon -- the Mallu guy who was head of Capitol Records and later EMI and was partly responsible for the astonishing success of the album in the U.S. Well worth a watch or two or three, especially if you're a Floyd fan.

Lost in Translation 

Just got back from watching Lost in Translation, Sofia Coppola's new directorial venture. A comedy, it tells the heartwarming tale of two Americans, Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, who play lonely strangers in Tokyo whose paths cross and whose relationship undergoes strange twists. I think Roger Ebert's review does the movie the greatest justice.

She's in her early 20s, Bob's in his 50s. This is the classic set-up for a May-November romance, since in the mathematics of celebrity intergenerational dating you can take five years off the man's age for every million dollars of income. But "Lost in Translation" is too smart and thoughtful to be the kind of movie where they go to bed and we're supposed to accept that as the answer. Sofia Coppola, who wrote and directed, doesn't let them off the hook that easily.

With fantastic acting by Murray and Johansson and great directing from Coppola, it is definitely one of the best movies I have watched all year.

Economist survey on Islam 

The Economist is carrying a fabulous survey called Islam and the West in its current issue. Take an hour off to read it in full. Its riveting stuff. 'nuff said, yet again.

Blaine Crazy  

A couple of months back, I had posted an article about the difference between Canadians and Americans. Today, I found a story in the New York Times about the British reaction to magician David Blaine's latest stunt -- being suspended over the Thames without food -- which perhaps illustrates the difference between the yanks and the brits, at least vis-a-vis levels of cynicism. I certainly dont see whats magical about Blaine's gig and I tend to agree with the British on this one. Talk about starving for publicity!!

In The Guardian, the columnist Catherine Bennett encouraged Londoners to join in "an exhilarating act of public ridicule" by taunting Mr. Blaine with food. "Even a blob of oily ice cream," she wrote, "tastes exquisite when consumed in the suspended company of the preposterous, faux-starving Blaine."

Reshaping Tibet 

Nothing new in this New York Times story. However, it is useful to remind oneself of a great injustice in one of the most peaceful corners of the world, unnoticed thanks to a combination of apathy and realpolitik. Not that I think Tibet has any hope of becoming independent, but the story reminds one of the gradual atrophying of one of the world's unique cultures.

The Chinese Communist government is reshaping Tibet with the force of China's superheated economy, pouring money and tens of thousands of Han Chinese into the region. The economic goal is to "modernize" Tibet's agrarian economy. But the political goal, analysts say, is to gradually secularize Tibetans and undercut political opposition with the fruits of capitalism.

Of course, there are two sides to this story too, i.e., the economic benefits of the "Hanification" of Tibet.

the investments also seem intended to expand tourism. The number of tourists visiting Tibet, discounting the drop this year attributed to the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, in China, is growing rapidly. While the high altitudes once kept many Chinese away from Tibet, now, encouraged by Beijing, they are coming in droves, adding another dimension to the Chinese presence in Tibet.

Dilbert on mental superiority 

Abraham Thomas pointed me in the direction of today's Dilbert strip. 'Nuff said.

Sunday, September 14, 2003

Macroeconomic perspective on the role of cities 

I came across this old powerpoint presentation by Rakesh Mohan (of the Rakesh Mohan committee) earlier today -- a fascinating look at the role of cities in economic development. Though the presentation is from 2000, the lessons are still relevant and instructive, especially as we forge ahead with RISC.

The presentation once again raises the issue of what numbers to believe when it comes to population figures. Though most statistics I've looked at seem to agree on Tokyo as the largest urban agglomeration, noone can seem to agree on the next 3-4 cities. I have seen everything from Bombay to Mexico City to Shanghai to Sao Paulo. According to Rakesh Mohan's numbers, the big 6 in 2000 were, in order, Tokyo, Bombay, Sao Paulo, Shanghai, New York and Mexico City. I personally find it hard to believe that NYC is bigger than Mexico City, unless the numbers that are taken into account are the ones for the daytime when a very large number of outsiders enter the city.

An order of freedom fries with the crow?? 

There is nothing in this Salon article that isn't new. Its novelty lies in its zinger of a headline -- "Would you like some freedom fries with your crow, Mr. President?" For that reason alone, this article is worth preserving. And hell, it does make sense, even if its old hat.

The Bush administration's humiliating announcement that it wants the U.N. to bail it out officially confers the title of "debacle" upon the grand Cheney-Rove-Wolfowitz adventure. Not even the world-class chutzpah of this administration can conceal the fact that by turning to the despised world body, it is eating a heaping plate of crow. This spectacle may give Bush-bashers from London to Jakarta a happy jolt of schadenfreude, but it does nothing to help Americans who are stuck with the ugly fallout of the Bush team's ill-conceived, absurdly overoptimistic attempt to redraw the Middle East.

Saturday, September 13, 2003

Broadband in Asia 

One of the trends in technology that has continued to boggle me has been the stupendous growth of broadband in East Asia, especially in South Korea and Japan. It is then intriguing there has been no real study, that I know of, that attempts to explain the phenomenon. I came across this paper by Isumu Aizu that compares the growth of broadband across Asia. Not only does he analyse why Korea has been successful, but also why Singapore lags, for example. However, I think he fails to sufficiently address what I believe to be the main reason -- expensive legacy systems that made the transition to broadband far easier in these countries.

Cities in Transition 

A new World Bank report titled Cities in Transition is now available for download as a PDF document.

The role of national governments is being refocused to facilitate markets, promote economic and social stability, and ensure equity. But reforms of public sector management or private sector development will not do what is desired for national development until they are adapted and implemented appropriately at the municipal level. Local government remains the everyday face of the public sector —the level of government where essential public services are delivered to individuals and businesses, and where policy meets the people.

The Science of Buddhist Meditation 

To coincide with the MIT conference I had posted about earlier, the New York Times magazine is a carrying an excellent article that investigates the scientific research being conducted into the heart of Buddhist Meditation techniques, a topic of discussion at the MIT conference as well.

The fact that the brain can learn, adapt and molecularly resculpture itself on the basis of experience and training suggests that meditation may leave a biological residue in the brain -- a residue that, with the increasing sophistication of new technology, might be captured and measured.

It adds -- Interestingly enough, the Buddhist subjects themselves are largely open to scientific explanation of their practices. ''Buddhism is, like science, based on experience and investigation, not on dogma,'' Matthieu Ricard explained in an e-mail message to me last month. The religion can be thought of as ''a contemplative science,'' he wrote, adding, ''the Buddha always said that one should not accept his teachings simply out of respect for him, but rediscover their truth through our own experience, as when checking the quality of a piece of gold by rubbing it on a piece on stone, melting it and so on.''

Rising anti-Americanism? Not really. 

Fouad Ajami, professor at SAIS, writes in Foreign Policy about the falseness of rising anti-Americanism and argues that anti-Americanism was in fact a well-entrenched feature well before Sept 11th. I dont necessarily agree with a lot of what Ajami says, especially the parts where he sounds like his former boss, Paul Wolfowitz, but its still an interesting article.

To come bearing modernism to those who want it but who rail against it at the same time, to represent and embody so much of what the world yearns for and fears— that is the American burden. The United States lends itself to contradictory interpretations. To the Europeans, and to the French in particular, who are enamored of their laïcisme (secularism), the United States is unduly religious, almost embarrassingly so, its culture suffused with sacred symbolism. In the Islamic world, the burden is precisely the opposite: There, the United States scandalizes the devout, its message represents nothing short of an affront to the pious and a temptation to the gullible and the impressionable young. According to the June BBC survey, 78 percent of French polled identified the United States as a "religious" country, while only 10 percent of Jordanians endowed it with that label. Religious to the secularists, faithless to the devout— such is the way the United States is seen in foreign lands.

Interestingly, the same issue of Foreign Policy is also carrying a review of Au Revoir to American Empire, a book that seemingly tells a different story from Ajami's.

But if a nation is willing to become so indispensable to the world, isn't that nation in desperate need of the world? In exchange for its stabilizing efforts, the United States imposes an economic yoke on the entire planet—what Todd calls servitude volontaire (voluntary servitude). U.S. citizens annually consume $450 billion more in goods and services than they produce domestically. U.S. businesses absorb $865 billion a year in foreign investment, and the U.S. government feels free to borrow as much as it sees fit. For Todd, the United States has become "a kind of black hole, absorbing goods and capital but incapable of providing, in return, equivalent goods." Thus, "America cannot do without the world" and "has objectively become a predator." This attitude, hardly to be found among Europeans even 15 years ago, now dominates intellectual reflections throughout the Old World.

This combination of political omnipresence, military aggressiveness, and economic vulnerability predestines the United States to failure. So, Todd asks, how can the world manage a superpower that is economically dependent and politically useless? Two of his prescriptions for taming the United States' imperial ambitions make this book indispensable for U.S. policymakers.

Though the book has some interesting points to make, I personally dont see a EU-Russia-Japan axis emerging anytime soon. And unlike Todd, I happen to think the countervailing force to the United States, if it ever emerges, will be Asia (riding on Japan, China and India) and not a demographically challenged Europe or Russia.

MIT hosts the Dalai Lama 

Starting today, MIT hosts a conference titled Investigating the Mind: Exchanges between Buddhism and the Biobehavioural sciences on How the Mind Works. Starring the Dalai Lama and an incredible array of scientists, the conference attempts to tap into the 2,500 year old Buddhist tradition of studying the mind. The speakers include such luminaries as Daniel Kahneman, Eric Lander and Jerome Kagan, besides the Dalai Lama himself. The conference includes sessions on Attention and Cognitive Control and Mental Imagery, among others. The conference sounds exceedingly promising, and if there are any interesting papers and insights that emerge, I will post it here.

For a brief look at what's being discussed, you can read this article.

Scientists are trained to trust "third-person" verification and are sometimes wary of "first-person" spiritual explanations. But psychologists and neuroscientists have become interested in meditation, a central component of Buddhist religious life, and in what it says about the limits of an individual's control over the mind. Panelists suggested that scientists are starting to see that expert meditators may be useful not only as guinea pigs, but in shaping understanding.

Problems with viewing 

Blogspot (so I think) continues to have some strange issues with Internet Explorer, where the full content of the blog is not visible until you reload the page a few times. I have also discovered another solution that seemingly works -- expanding and contracting the broswer window using the buttons on the top-right corner. I have wondered whether there is something wrong in the template code that can be corrected. If anyone has any ideas, please let me know.

Thursday, September 11, 2003

A B-flat from a galaxy far, far away 

After the Hubble space telescope, it is now the turn of the Chandra X-ray observatory to make the most amazing discoveries. Nature reports that Chandra has detected the lowest B-flat ever heard, from a black hole sitting at the heart of the NGC 1275, a galaxy in the Perseus galaxy cluster.

These ripples of high- and low-density gas are like sound waves in air. But their frequency is far lower than the deepest sound audible to the human ear. A piano capable of producing the note would have 57 octaves below middle C and would be more than 15 metres long. The sound waves carry immense amounts of energy away from the black hole, heating up the surrounding gas. Researchers suspected that the gas in clusters such as Perseus must be kept warm, but they did not know how.

Everything you wanted to know about airline meals? 

Here's a website about nothing but airline meals. Perhaps a useful place to look at before you board those terribly long flights? Thanks, Petra, for sending it along.

Wednesday, September 10, 2003

The best of Capt Haddock's curses 

No Indian can lay claim to having a well-rounded personality without having read Tintin. It took you around the world at reasonable prices. Hell, it even took you to the Moon. Of course, most people would also agree that Capt Haddock is a far more interesting character than Tintin could ever aspire to be. Since he first appeared in The Crab with the Golden Claws, Haddock has entertained us with his bumbling drunkenness and his colourful language. Sara sent me this great site which attempts to compile every cuss word Capt Haddock has ever used. A rough and random sample includes such gems as -- Rhizopods, Bootlegger, Gogglers, Aborigine, Bagpipers, Pyrographers, Crab-apples, Goosecaps, Aztecs, Paranoiac, Twister, Vagabonds, Sea-gherkins, Road-hogs, Zapotecs, Cercopithecus, Toads, Psychopath

Dr Strangelove strikes back? 

A month back, I had posted a note about Admiral Pondexter's departure from the Pentagon. A good thing to, as I wrote, despite what I considered the relative merit of the terrorism futures idea. Now, Admiral Poindexter has written an op-ed in the New York Times about why noone should be afraid or concerned about the new surveillance technologies being planned. Unfortunately, he makes as little sense as uber-Patriot, John Ashcroft, which is a bit dissapointing.

But it is a myth that the Information Awareness Office intends to develop some kind of system to spy on Americans. The terrorism information program is not and never has been intended for use in surveillance against Americans. The program's research is aimed at detecting foreign terrorist planning. The experiments have used only data from foreign sources, data that is legally available to all agencies that participated. There is no use of credit-card, banking or other data on United States citizens.

Yeah, I guess he plans on leaving all of that to CAPPS II!

PS: BTW, the real inspiration for Kubrick's and George's Strangelove, Edward Teller, died the day before yesterday.

Tuesday, September 09, 2003

Leni Riefenstahl dead at 101 

Joseph Goebbels was widely recognised as Hitler's propaganda chief. However, I'd argue that Leni Riefenstahl, the maker of Triumph of the Will and Olympia, played an equally big role in creating the myth around Hitler, especially in the early and mid-1930's. I have watched both the movies and I believe that if it weren't for her Nazi past, those movies would held in the same esteem as a Citizen Kane. Leni Riefenstahl was treated as a pariah instead, inspite of the amazing work she did among the Nuba or the underwater coral gardens. Leni Riefenstahl died earlier today and this was the obit carried by the Washington Post.

As a filmmaker and artist, she had an eye for detail and a talent for editing that evoked the hypnotic spectacle of the massed Nazi legions, the raw charisma of the German fuhrer and the mesmerizing drama and majesty of Olympic competition with a force and power not seen before in the film medium.

Ike, meet the military-industrial complex 

Gen Eisenhower left office warning Americans of the dangers of a "military-industrial complex." Businessweek is carrying a story on possibly the greatest embodiment of the military-industrial complex -- the outsourcing of war. Pretty damn intriguing, though the conflicts of interest are clear, when a private entity actually makes money every time the U.S. decides to fight a war. I had made a similar observation on the Carlyle group a couple of months ago.

KBR has billed the U.S. government about $950 million for work completed under contracts capped at $8.2 billion. At the same time, KBR is in line to earn tens of millions of dollars more to maintain the archipelago of U.S. military bases that now arcs from the Balkans south to the Horn of Africa and east to Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan. Closer to home, KBR built the detention camps in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, that house Taliban and al Qaeda prisoners.

The Magdalene Laundries and Joni Mitchell 

I had been aware of a Joni Mitchell song called "The Magdalene Laundries" but I had never made the connection with the movie, until I was researching something to post onto the blog. Apparently, Joni Mitchell was herself "interned" in one of the Magdalene Laundries for having committed the "sin" of having a daughter out of wedlock. She was reunited with her own daughter Kilauren, in 1997. The song is hauntingly beautiful, and especially so after having watched the movie and gained some context.

These bloodless brides of Jesus,
If they had just once glimpsed their groom,
Then they'd know, and they'd drop the stones
Concealed behind their rosaries.

You can read more about the Magdalene Laundries here.

Monday, September 08, 2003

World Investment Report 

UNCTAD had released its World Investment Report last week. Key findings include a positive FDI outlook for 2004, despite the slump this year and the emergence of China as the foremost destination of FDI.

Inflows into the United States fell by nearly 80 percent to 30 billion dollars from 144 billion dollars in 2001, pushing the United States down to fifth position in attracting investment. Flows into Britain fell by 60 percent to 25 billion dollars from 62 billion dollars. The top destination was Luxembourg, which attracted 126 billion dollars much of which was money being put through the tiny country to gain tax advantages. It was followed by China, which attracted 53 billion dollars marking an increase of 13 percent, France with 52 billion dollars showing a fall of 6.6 percent, Germany 38 billion dollars, up 12 percent, then the United States, followed by The Netherlands with 29 billion dollars, a fall of 43 percent, and then Britain.

India came in at No:28 with just about $4 billion in FDI. These numbers don't seem to take into account the revised numbers issues by the Govt of India. For that matter, I am not sure the Chinese numbers reflect the "round-tripping" of FDI to the mainland. The full report can be found at the UNCTAD website.

Warren Zevon, R.I.P 

I had made a post at the end of August on Warren Zevon's last stand. I just learnt that Zevon has succumbed to his illness, two weeks after releasing his final album, The Wind, which currently occupies the No:1 sales rank on Amazon. As I had mentioned in my last post, he died as he lived, with his sense of humour intact.

Zevon was the sole guest for an episode of the Late Show With David Letterman in October of 2002, and Letterman asked Zevon if he had learned anything about life and death since his diagnosis. Perhaps hinting at his epitaph, Zevon answered, "How much you're supposed to enjoy every sandwich."

RIP WZ. Will miss seeing and hearing you on Letterman.

Sunday, September 07, 2003

New blog feature 

I have added a newsfeed from ArgMax, which provides economic news, data and analysis. Though it has a bit of an American focus, most of the news tends to be of interest. The newsfeed updates every 4 hours or so. Do leave comments or e-mail me is there's something else you would like to see added.

The Magdalene Sisters 

Just returned from watching The Magdalene Sisters. A most claustrophobic movie, it recounts the tale of the Irish Catholic equivalent of Birkenau, the Magdalene Convents, where upto 30,000 women were kept in brutal "captivity" and made to do slave labour to repent for their sins. The sadism (a combination of physical and emotional) of the nuns runinng the convent has to be seen to be believed. The surreal part of the story is the revelation made at the end of movie that the last of these places shut down in 1996 -- at a time when Ireland was being proclaimed as the Celtic Tiger and was very much part of the EU. And you thought this sort of societal anti-woman behaviour existed only under the Taliban.

Geraldine McEwan delivers a fantastic performance as the Mother Superior, and I would not be surprised if she is nominated for something at the Oscars, assuming the academy can look beyond the criticism of the Vatican, which also tried creating a furore at the Venice Film Festival, where the movie won the Golden Lion. I can only hope similar movies made 30 years from now will make the religious bigots of today, irrespective of religion, feel at least a little bit embarassed. Hopefully, thats what anyone from the Irish Catholic Chruch would feel after watching this movie.

Saturday, September 06, 2003

Reinventing the Transistor 

Claire Tristram writes in the September issue of Techology Review about blue skies research being conducted at HP to build computers whose functionality depends on the working of individual molecules.

To do so will mean reinventing the transistor. While silicon and other inorganic semiconductors have always been the basic building blocks of microchips, it turns out that organic molecules can also have some potentially useful electrical properties. Indeed, over the last few years, researchers have learned to synthesize molecules that can function as electronic switches, holding binary 1s or 0s in memory or taking part in logical operations. And molecules have one significant advantage: they are really small.

Such work is critical to the future of computing, because conventional chip fabrication technology is on a collision course with economics. Today’s best computer chips have silicon features as small as 90 nanometers. But the smaller the features, the more expensive the optical equipment needed to manufacture them. A state-of-the-art fabrication plant for silicon microchips now costs some $3 billion to build. A chip in which silicon transistors are replaced with molecular devices, on the other hand, could in principle be fabricated through a simple chemical process as inexpensive as making photographic film. A circuit with 10 billion switches could eventually fit on a grain of salt; that’s a thousand times the density of the transistors in today’s best computers.

Simple Heuristics That Make Us Smart 

In response to my previous post about the debate between the prospect and neoclassical theories, Sanjay left me feedback saying I should look up Gerd Gigerenzer, Peter Todd and the ABC research group. I did a preliminary recce, and it was very, very interesting. Here's the link for anyone who might want to read on.

In our book, "Simple Heuristics That Make Us Smart," we invite readers to embark on a new journey into a land of rationality that differs from the familiar territory of cognitive science and economics. Traditional models of rationality in these fields have tended to view decision-makers as possessing supernatural powers of reason, limitless knowledge, and an eternity in which to make choices. But to understand decisions in the real world, we need a different, more psychologically plausible notion of rationality. This book provides such a view. It is about fast and frugal heuristics-simple rules for making decisions with realistic mental resources. These heuristics can enable both living organisms and artificial systems to make smart choices, judgments, and predictions by employing bounded rationality.

Rise and Fall of World Trade -- 1870-1939 

While at the MIT press, I came across an excellent paper that traces the history of the initial era of globalization that was brought to an end by the two wars. This initial period of glablization, especially at the turn of the 20th century tends to be glossed over in a lot of the accounts of globalization one reads today, especially from those that protest it.

Measured by the ratio of trade to output, the period 1870­-1913 marked the birth of the first era of trade globalization and the period 1914­-1939 its death. What caused the boom and bust? We use an augmented gravity model to examine the gold standard, tariffs, and transport costs as determinants of trade. Until 1913 the rise of the gold standard and the fall in transport costs were the main trade-creating forces. As of 1929 the reversal was driven by higher transport costs. In the 1930s the final collapse of the gold standard drove trade volumes even lower.

Homo Economicus Vs Homo Sapiens 

A few weeks back, I had made a post about the relationship between rising incomes and happiness. In the same vein, the Economist is carrying an article on the implicit rationality of human beings assumed in neoclassical economic thought.

Real people tend to judge their well-being relative to others, not in absolute terms; their actions depend on the way choices are presented; they fear loss more than they crave gain. Such insights form the core of what is known as “prospect theory”. Some economists think that prospect theory can overthrow two centuries of neoclassical thought. Others say that it only gives credence to the idea that people repeatedly make daft mistakes. Is there a way of settling the dispute?

This is fascinating stuff, especially as I read further on the subject. Two papers that link back to this article are -- Neoclassical Theory versus Prospect Theory: Evidence from the Marketplace and Does Market Experience Eliminate Market Anomalies?

Beach reading 

One good thing about the holiday was the amount of reading I got done. Of particular interest was River Out of Eden, a Richard Dawkins book that I had been meaning to read for the longest time, for there isn't a better modern-day defender of evolution than Prof. Dawkins. In the book, he writes about the pitilessness of nature.

On the contrary, if the universe were just electrons and selfish genes, meaningless tragedies are exactly what we should expect, along with equally meaningless good fortune. Such a universe would be neither evil nor good in intention. It would manifest no intentions of any kind. In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, or any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.

Yes, I did have an enjoyable holiday :)

Back from Mexico 

Much against my wishes, I had to give up my sun bed, the beautiful beaches and return to New York. I have decided that I need a beach holiday at least twice a year. As I had mentioned in my previous post, Sayulita is definitely a place I would recommend to anyone wanting a non-Cancun vacation in Mexico.

A couple of observations about rural Mexico -- 1) Eerie similarity to some parts of rural India, except they have better automobiles, thanks to the proximity of the United States and less duty on imports, I guess 2) A hell of a lot of very endearing stray dogs that completely redefine the idea of strays. The stray dogs in Sayulita included Golden Retrievers, Boxers, Labradors, Dalmatians, Chihuahuas and funnily enough Dobermans (which were FEROCIOUSLY looking for shade on the beach to sleep under). I wonder if there are tourists who simply leave their pets behind or some such. I cannot think of any other explanation for the various breeds of strays I found. 3) A perfunctory look at the inventory management in the stores indicated that a concept like RISC would probably work in rural Mexico as well.

Wednesday, September 03, 2003

Postcard from Mexico 

The absence of posts on the blog can be partially explained by the fact that I am in a fishing village on the Pacific coast of Mexico and partly by laziness to come to the main plaza and get online, I guess. I would highly recommend Sayulita (about an hour from Puerto Vallarta airport) to anyone looking to take some time off from the U.S. and just chill somewhere far away from technology, news etc. I was pretty surprised by how expensive it was (compared with a Goa, which is a far bigger tourist spot). Perhaps the American tourists just dont mind overpaying. Anyway, the grand view of the Pacific ocean out of your bed and fantastic beaches to swim/float/laze at more than compensate. Thats it from Mexico. I am heading back to my sunbed. Adios.