Friday, April 30, 2004

Promoting public service 

One of my pet peeves has been underfunding of programs/degrees in public health, government etc at American universities (true pretty much everywhere else too). Too many good friends of mine have been at the receiving end of this ridiculous system. Think about it -- someone with a public health degree has to take loans to thy kingdom come just to acquire a masters or doctoral degree. The same goes for people who go into government or education. Saddled with enormous loans, these folks then go into public service and get salaries that are less than one-third what the average MBA would get. That anyone chooses to enter public service (think opportunity cost) at all given the odds is probably a miracle. Or that the government or schools get any decent eployees at all.

I have often wondered whether the govt itself should provide incentives of some sort to give people a reason to join. So, I was thrilled when I heard that Mortimer B. Zuckerman, the owner of U.S. News & World Report and The Daily News was giving Harvard University $10 million to support professionals who choose to enter public service. It's not much, but it's a start. Perhaps more people will be goaded into make similar grants. Perhaps the government....

Given the pressures of student debt and the promise of lucrative careers in the private sector, many would-be public servants steer clear of careers in government, school or nonprofits, officials say. Lawrence H. Summers, Harvard's president and a former treasury secretary in the Clinton administration, said: "If you think about the magnitude of the challenges we have in our public schools, in public health, in the public sector, they require people of the highest quality of experience."

With the gift, Harvard will award fellowships to about 25 students each year who are working toward, or already have, degrees in business, medicine or law and want to add one in public health, education or government. While Harvard officials describe all their graduate schools as competitive, some attract more attention from applicants than others.

Bar Codes: The beginning of the end? 

RFID tags have been in the news for a while now as have Wal-Mart's plans to run trials using the technology. So, it came as no surprise to read about Wal-Mart's dry run with the technology. Seven stores and a distribution centre in Dallas are participating.

The RFID tags contain a chip that is imparted with information. In a backshop retail environment, the tags will contain the details of what is in a case or on a pallet of goods. Rather than have a worker with a handheld scanner logging in barcodes, the system will let a computer system use a radio signal to log the goods as they arrive at the loading dock.

The tags can also be used in the manufacturing process, which Dillman said can help suppliers become more efficient, and the tags will help companies on both ends know where their products are at all times. Wal-Mart says the tags will help reduce theft and counterfeiting, the latter particularly affecting prescription medicines.

Wal-Mart is beginning with 21 products and 8 suppliers, including Gillette, Hewlett-Packard, Johnson & Johnson, Kimberly-Clark, Kraft Foods, Nestlé Purina PetCare Co., Procter & Gamble and Unilever. Wal-Mart claims that at least 100 suppliers will come on board by Jan, 2005. This is a crucial dry run because I believe Wal-Mart can make or break this technology. The retail behemoth alone has the scale to drive the cost of RFID chips to below 5 cents, at which point hopefully, everyone else will jump onto the bandwagon.

Thursday, April 29, 2004

A non-profit drug company? What's that? 

I have posted a couple of times in the past on the way drug companies pour money into developing cosmetic drugs, while not investing a penny in research on infectious diseases, which kill millions of people worldwide and especially in the developing world. The standard excuses are the inability of the poor to pay and of course the various intellectual property issues. A couple of years back, I wrote to Hank McKinnell of Pfizer asking him whether Pfizer ever did a cost benefit analysis on what lack of access to life saving drugs in Africa was costing Pfizer from a PR perspective. I simply could not understand why Pfizer would not price discriminate in Africa, India etc while the Coca Cola company would. After all, the marginal cost of producing additional units of a drug is very low once the huge R&D costs are taken care of. And no drug company would invest that kind of money in R&D unless they were assured of profits in the developed world. So, why not price discriminate and save yourself the public relations debacle? To his credit, McKinnell did reply to me, though it was the usual drug company spiel.

Anyway, it was nice to read in the Scientific American about a drug company with a very different business model from the Pfizers of the world. This company tries to focus more on the drugs and less on the profits.

Just about when the two were getting started, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was coming into its own. When Hale approached the foundation, the officers told her that they were already supplying money for leishmaniasis through support for vaccine research for the disease. Hale emphasized that vaccines for parasites had a pitiful track record--malaria being a notable case in point. In 2002 the Gates Foundation agreed to provide $4.7 million, most of it for a Phase III leishmaniasis trial. "They're doing great stuff," Bill Gates says. "Just take that one thing, kala-azar. Hey, that's going to be a medicine [paromomycin] that is going to save a lot of lives." Late last year the foundation decided to supply another $5.3 million.

Last May, OneWorld and WHO started a clinical trial of paromomycin that has since enrolled 670 patients in Bihar state--the largest for an antiparasite drug ever conducted in India, according to Herskowitz. OneWorld will also use the study to seek approval in the U.S. or a European country, thereby meeting a set of international guidelines that will enable rapid approval wherever the disease is endemic.

If Indian regulators give the nod next year, OneWorld will pay up-front costs for manufacturing the first batches in India--and then future revenues will go to the drugmakers there. The biggest challenge will be to build a distribution system to ensure that the drug gets supplied to those who need it. "Pharmaceuticals haven't penetrated into the depths of these communities as much as Coca-Cola," Herskowitz remarks. In the past, India has had in place an emergency system that was mobilized when the disease reached epidemic proportions--and a collaboration of OneWorld, WHO and the Indian government will try to construct its supply network on this model.

Word of OneWorld's work has spread, and the company receives frequent calls from scientists and executives at other pharmaceutical firms who wonder how they can play a part in the nonprofit's mission. Celera Genomics licensed to OneWorld royalty-free a drug for Chagas disease that it inherited when the company acquired a smaller biotech firm. And Yale University and the University of Washington licensed on the same terms another compound for the parasitic disease, which afflicts 16 million to 18 million people in Mexico and Central and South America and causes 50,000 fatalities every year. The Chagas treatments, with some of the development work funded by the Gates money, will test the company's ability to take a drug all the way through the clinical trial process. And OneWorld has the makings of a pipeline--it has early-stage development programs for drugs to treat malaria and diarrhea.

I dont know what to make of this story and how much of the success is hype and how much is for real. But its a good beginning. Despite my free-market credentials, I have never been able to convince myself that developing life saving drugs should be entirely in the private domain.


So, the suspense (if you can call it that) is over. Google just announced plans for selling $2.7 billion of its stock at either the NYSE or the NASDAQ. Analysts expect Google to be valued at $20 billion or more. That would mean founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, who own almost 40% of the company, are set to become billionaires several times over. Andy Bechtolsheim's $200,000 investment is expected to be worth at least $300 million. Then there is John Doerr at Kleiner, Sequoia and Yahoo, all of whom own substantial chunks of Google. Finally there are several employees led by Eric Schmidt who are all millionaires in the making.

Does this story sound familiar? Perhaps like a certain browser manufacturer called Netscape? If I remember right, Marc Andreesen was worth $6 billion on the day after Netscape's float and the company seemed invincible, until Microsoft took aim. Word is that Microsoft, which acknowledges Google's superiority for now, is now working on search technology which aims to outstrip Google in a couple years time. History about to repeat itself? At the very least, lets hope Google's float does not result in the sort of speculative bubble that arose in the wake of Netscape's IPO.

Bliar, Bliar! 

Noone I know has a satisfactory explanation of Tony Blair's decision to back Team Cheney in their Iraq misadventure. And just like Bush, Blair cannot bring himself to ever admit that he may have miscalculated, never mind Najaf, Fallujah and the Mehdi brigade. His stock in Britain has been on a downward spiral. It's just his luck that he doesn't face a worthwhile opposition party or his goose would have been cooked by now. It's amazing how a leader at the absolute height of his popularity makes a decision that will probably doom his legacy, and then fail to explain satisfactorily his motivations for making the decision in the first place. It didn't help Blair's cause that he got slammed by fifty former ambassadors. And yesterday, the Financial Times carried an editorial that asked him to listen to the foreign policy experts.

The signatories to the letter include many distinguished and experienced public servants. They extend beyond the "usual suspects" of well-known Arabists, and there is every indication that many more serving and retired diplomats, as well as army officers, harbour the same misgivings. In any case, the notion that so-called Arabists - expert in the language, culture and politics of Arab countries - should be excluded from policy because of their alleged predilection to "go native" should be discredited by the way the Pentagon, which shut out anyone with actual knowledge of Iraq, has serially bungled the occupation.

The organisers of this most undiplomatic démarche are, moreover, Atlanticists. Yet, in essence, what they are telling Mr Blair is: if you really have influence with the Bush administration, now is the time to use it. If that proves "unacceptable or unwelcome" in Washington, they write, "there is no case for supporting policies which are doomed to failure".

The diplomats were shocked into action not just by gathering signs of implosion in Iraq but by US backing for the decision of Ariel Sharon, Israeli prime minister, to keep most Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank - and Mr Blair's endorsement of this "one-sided and illegal" new policy. Downing Street insists it has not abandoned the principle of a two-state solution in Israel-Palestine and the internationally underwritten "roadmap" to it. But Mr Sharon's strategy tramples on several United Nations Security Council resolutions, and Washington and London's support for it has inflamed Arab opinion to the point where it sees Palestine and Iraq as two fronts in a war of resistance against the west - the optimal outcome for the fanatics who follow Osama bin Laden. In Iraq itself, the letter says, the indiscriminate use of force and heavy weapons "have built up rather than isolated the opposition", while there "was no effective plan for the post-Saddam settlement". The critique is trenchant and almost wholly accurate.

When the editorial of the country's leading financial newspaper slams you as well, one would think Blair would perhaps reconsider his opinions just a little bit. Not a chance.

Wednesday, April 28, 2004

The Green buildings of Boston 

The New York Times is carrying a story on the emergence of energy efficient buildings in Boston. At RISC, we have been keeping track of these energy efficient projects while thinking of the design of our buildings. This piece also mentions the famed new Gehry building at MIT.

The green inclination is driven by an economic rationale, said Robert M. Dickey, managing director of Spaulding & Slye Colliers, the developer of Biosquare, which has leased 50 percent of its space so far. "Green building is a new market phenomenon, and our interest is to capture the value it creates," he said. "From the outset of a project," Mr. Dickey said, "building green changes the cost-benefit analysis," adding that it "requires assembling a team of the owner, designers, engineers, contractors, brokers who are educated, experienced and make green building a top priority.'' "They need to understand that some decisions can take longer and cost more," he added.

The aims of green building are to minimize the use of energy, water and open space; to use sustainably produced materials; recycle waste; and have access to public transportation or car pools. As the buildings consume less energy and resources, they also strive to maximize the advantages of nature: fresh air, sunlight, views and outdoor access.

To qualify as "green," a building registers with the U.S. Green Building Council, a nonprofit advocacy group, which issues Leeds ratings (leadership in energy and environmental design) at various levels. The top award has been given so far to only five projects in the United States and one in India. Since 2000, about 100 buildings have been certified and 1,200 more are going through the process. California, with 13 green buildings and 200 in the pipeline to certification, ranks first among American states. Massachusetts is sixth, with 3 certified and 53 in the pipeline.

Green buildings may cost 1 percent to 16 percent more to design and build, but advocates say that their bottom line can be better than those of conventional buildings. "Their value can be enhanced," said Thomas J. Hamill, a vice president at Spaulding & Slye, "because they lease better, have less expensive mechanical systems that cost 20 to 40 percent less to operate and, therefore, a higher effective rent over time."

Integrating green performance with site selection, how a building sits on a site, design and construction are part of the process, said Christopher G. Leary, vice president of Stubbins Associates, which designed Biosquare. For the architect, "the aesthetic is tied to function," he said. "Windows in a traditional building are designed for appearance, but in a green one they may differ on each side depending on what they need to accomplish as the sun moves through the sky."Sometimes, Mr. O'Neill said, the green building payoff goes beyond environmental gains. "How can you estimate the benefits Genzyme will reap in advertising and recruiting," he asked, "when everyone in Cambridge is trying to hire engineers?"

Tip du Jour: Google Mail for Bloggers 

Here's a tip I had been meaning to pass on to my fellow bloggers. If you use Blogger and are interested in a Google mail account, just sign into Blogger and you will be invited to set up a Gmail account. Remember, Google has not yet opened up its e-mail service to all customers, so this is a good way to get yourself an account before all the user names get taken. As it is, I could not get "reuben at" and had to settle for "nebuer at" instead. Reserve an account now (it's 1 GB after all) and take a long hard think about privacy afterwards.

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Marriage and Monogamy -- An Organisational Design perspective 

I have argued with several readers of this blog about the outmodedness of the institution known as marriage, and in particular monogamy (both from the male and the female). In my mind, monogamy (and by extension, marriage) is a social construct that evolved at some distant time in the past and hasn't really kept up with the times. After all, most of the natural world seems to operate on very different rules from human beings.

So, I was pleasantly surprised to find support for my point-of-view from the unlikeliest of sources -- the late management guru, Sumantra Ghoshal. He uses some of the concepts of organisational design to explain lucidly what I muddle-headedly called outmodedness. In this conversation, reproduced in a remembrance column by a friend in an Indian business magazine, Ghoshal explains why the declining "moral standards" of married men and women in Delhi are in some ways inevitable. The original piece is not accessible to non-subscribers, so I have reproduced the relevant portions in full.

This is not about morality--it is about flawed Organisation Design. He then proceeds to explain to his audience the three central institutions that men are involved with throughout their lives -- the government, the place of work and marriage. Governments through history have evolved, morphed, and adapted to changing contexts from autocracies and plutocracies through monarchies and dictatorships to democracies. Politics of coalition and inclusion predicate the changing needs of our time and respond to the plurality of our polity.

The workplace too, over time, has seen significant changes. It's not enough to think of employees as assets. Perhaps we should see them as volunteer investors, choosing to invest their talents in the organisation they have joined. It is a very different dynamic to "command and control". The context has changed dramatically and the workplace is responding.

Now examaine the institution of marriage. It was designed at a time when the average lifespan of a male was about 30 years. Today, it is well over 70 and there has been no attempt at redisigning this fundamentally important institution. Strictly monogamous men would soon be extinct. Such fallibility is initrinsic to the design of any institution who context has changed dramatically but where the boundaries of design have been held static.

Rebutting Da Vinci's code 

I am not much of a fan of pulp fiction, not since the days of consuming Jeffrey Archer in my childhood anyway. That said, I did think Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code was a very interesting read. Perhaps it was the esoteric details on the history of Christianity (especially the part that seems to have been suppressed down the ages) that grabbed my attention. The book also happened to sell fantastically well. Perhaps a little too well. So much so that it has forced various fidei defensors to rise to the defence of traditional christianity. In the wake of rumours that Ron Howard may be planning a movie version of the book, the Church seems to have decided that a full-scale rebuttal of the book is necessary, according to this New York Times story.

Though for many readers the notions about Christian history in "The Da Vinci Code" seem new and startling, the novel introduces to a popular audience some of the debates that have gripped scholars of early Christian history for decades. The academic chatter grew louder after the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the 1950's and of ancient texts in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945. Among the findings were early Christian scriptures and fragments not included in the New Testament, including writings that scholars have come to call the "Gospels" of Mary, Peter, Philip, Thomas and Q.

"The Da Vinci Code" floats the notion that the fourth-century Roman emperor Constantine suppressed the earlier gospels for political reasons and imposed the doctrine of the divinity of Christ at the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325. A character in "The Da Vinci Code" points out that it is history's winners who get to write history, a refrain echoed by Mr. Brown on his Web site.

"The Da Vinci Code" taps into growing public fascination with the origins of Christianity. More scholars have been writing popular books about the relatively recent, tantalizing archaeological discoveries of Gnostic gospels and texts that offer insights into early Christians whose beliefs departed from the Gospels in the New Testament.

The plot of "The Da Vinci Code" is a twist on the ancient search for the Holy Grail. Robert Langdon, portrayed as a brilliant Harvard professor of "symbology," and Sophie Neveu, a gorgeous Parisian police cryptographer, team up to decipher a trail of clues left behind by the murdered curator at the Louvre Museum, who turns out to be Ms. Neveu's grandfather.

The pair discover that the grandfather had inherited Leonardo da Vinci's mantle as the head of a secret society. The society guards the Holy Grail, which is not a chalice, but is instead the proof of Jesus and Mary Magdalene's conjugal relationship; Langdon and Neveu must race the killer to find it. Along the way they learn that the church has suppressed 80 early gospels that denied the divinity of Jesus, elevated Mary Magdalene to a leader among the apostles and celebrated the worship of female wisdom and sexuality.

The one line that struck a chord with me is one that I have repeated ad infinitum -- that history's winners get to tell it too. You only have to look at the assumed *greatness* of the Roman empire for proof. Also oft-repeated lines like the North American continent not having any history or culture prior to the arrival of the Europeans or Copernicus being the first person to figure out heliocentricity. And I am convinced the same holds true for the "gospel truths" that survived.

Monday, April 26, 2004

More bad news on the intl admissions front? 

This story by Siddharth Srivastava seems to confirm my hunch that the new visa screening procedures for students are beginning to hurt the United States -- both from a financial (fees, multiplier effectetc) and advanced research (try filling those advanced science research posts without Asians) perspective. Though written from an Indian viewpoint, I think this trend probably holds true for most other countries that send students in large numbers to the U.S. to do advanced studies. It's the combination of tough screening procedures with the outsourcing backlash that has caused many Indian students to think twice about where to obtain the higher degree from.

Though the US remains by far the most popular destination for students from around the world, including India (over 70,000 students are currently studying there), a slow and definite change may be in the offing due to the tightening visa norms. Indian students, who form the single largest group of international students on US campuses, are looking at more friendly destinations.

According to the Council of Graduate Schools, an organization of institutes of higher education which has been tracking application numbers at 132 graduate institutes in the US, there has been a decrease in applications from international students in 90 percent of these schools this year. The master's and PhD-level schools enroll nearly half of all international graduate students in the US. The biggest decline has been in student applications from China and India - the two countries which send the largest number of students.
An indication of a shift away from the US becomes more glaring when compared to an almost exponential growth in the number of Indian students heading for other destinations. Affordable education, permanent residency, a more conducive environment, as well as lucrative employment opportunities, are the main attractions.

The number of Indian students heading to Australia doubled from 2,800 in 2001-02 to 5,700 in 2002-3, and is expected to rise to 9,000 students this year. Canada hopes to double the number of Indian students to over 5,000 this year. A study conducted by the British Council and Universities of the United Kingdom has indicated that Indian students will be the third largest contingent of overseas students in the UK by 2020, outnumbering those from the US, Germany and France. The study said as many as 29,800 Indians are expected to study in the UK by 2020, against 8,600 in 2005. A separate government-funded study has calculated that education has become one of Britain's most important export industries, earning 11 billion pounds (US$19.4 billion) annually, placing education in the same league as exports of oil and financial services.

PS: I know for a fact from well-heeled people I have spoken to personally that holiday ideas in the U.S. have been abandoned as Indian tourists head increasingly to more welcoming locations, be it Europe, South-East Asia or Australia/New Zealand. Put all of these together -- if I were a U.S. policy maker, I'd begin to get a little concerned about the trends, even assuming they may be atypical.

The Copenhagen Consensus 

(Via Petra)I have been following Bjorn Lomborg since the time the Economist first wrote about him, which then inspired a furious counter-attack from Scientific American. For those who came in late, Lomborg attracted a LOT of attention by saying that most environmentalists were being overly alarmist and that his research seemed to suggest a less bleak future for the planet. His brainchild, the Copenhagen Consensus now has a pretty decent website up which discusses 10 major problems facing the planet today and proposes solutions, keeping in mind both the scarcity of resources and the cost-benefit equations to human beings. The idea being that these discussions will help policy makers prioritise their interventions. The major problems being discussed include communicable diseases, climate change, conflicts, migration, education, subsidies, trade barriers etc.

These problems were distilled from a list of 32 issues the experts (which include Jagdish Bhagwati) had drawn up. For my own part, I was glad to see the "digital divide" was discussed and then dumped. It's such a non-issue, in my mind, and I cannot understand how some agencies can afford to offer it more importance than health and education. Anyway, if you're interested in these issues and want to hear a centre-right perspective on this, it might be useful to sign up for the newsletter.

Europe's Jihadi problem 

Everyone knows Europe has a serious problem with balancing it's liberal values with the lunatic fringes of its large Muslim population. For example, how do you balance free speech with hate speech? Of course, every time something like the Iraq conflict happens or headscarves are banned in France, the nutters get more radicalised while some fence-sitters become nutters. There are of course those that argue that the nutters would be nutters irrespective of provocation since they are in fact dreaming of a pan-Islamic caliphate. The very existence of anyone who thinks otherwise would therefore be provocation enough. The New York Times has a pretty chilling story today on how bad the problem has become.

In this former industrial town north of London, a small group of young Britons whose parents emigrated from Pakistan after World War II have turned against their families' new home. They say they would like to see Prime Minister Tony Blair dead or deposed and an Islamic flag hanging outside No. 10 Downing Street.

They swear allegiance to Osama bin Laden and his goal of toppling Western democracies to establish an Islamic superstate under Shariah law, like Afghanistan under the Taliban. They call the Sept. 11 hijackers the "Magnificent 19" and regard the Madrid train bombings as a clever way to drive a wedge into Europe.

Despite tougher antiterrorism laws, the police, prosecutors and intelligence chiefs across Europe say they are struggling to contain the openly seditious speech of Islamic extremists, some of whom, they say, have been inciting young men to suicidal violence since the 1990's. One chapter in Sheik Omar's lectures these days is "The Psyche of Muslims for Suicide Bombing."

The authorities say that laws to protect religious expression and civil liberties have the result of limiting what they can do to stop hateful speech. In the case of foreigners, they say they are often left to seek deportation, a lengthy and uncertain process subject to legal appeals, when the suspect can keep inciting attacks.

Admittedly, the nutters are still confined to the fringes of mainstream Muslim society. But then it becomes incumbent upon the mainstream to control and tame the lunatic fringe, rather than have the government become heavy handed. Perhaps there is more to the internal battle within Islam that Tom Friedman keeps talking about than I was willing to believe.

It's all about productivity? 

There has never been any dearth of people/agencies offering various recipes to promote rapid economic growth in the poorer regions of the world. From the Marxists to the neo-liberals, everyone has had something to offer, though the results have been varied. Even the Marxists now accept that a watered down version of liberalism is probably what works best based on the evidence at hand. It doesnt help their cause that the Chinese cat keeps killing rats without acknowledging its own colour. The McKinsey Quarterly offers its version of the truth in this interesting piece. They believe the vital ingredients missing in most of the earlier recipes for growth have been an emphasis on productivity and a consumer-centric approach.

GDP per capita is widely regarded as the best single measure of economic well-being.2 That measure is simply labor productivity (how many goods and services a given number of workers can produce) multiplied by the proportion of the population that works. This proportion varies around the world—though, interestingly, not by much.

Productivity, however, varies enormously and explains virtually all of the differences in GDP per capita (Exhibit 2). Thus, to understand what makes countries rich or poor, you must understand what causes productivity to be higher or lower. This understanding is best achieved by evaluating the performance of individual industries, since a country’s productivity is the average of productivity in each industry, weighted by its size. Such a micro approach reveals the important fact that the productivity of industries also varies widely from country to country.

This approach yields two crucial insights. First, to understand why some countries are mired in poverty, it is necessary to look beyond broad macroeconomic policies, such as interest rates and budget deficits, and also consider the myriad zoning laws, investment regulations, tariffs, and tax codes that hold back the productivity of industries and thus a nation’s prosperity. Of course, macroeconomic stability is necessary. MGI’s studies of Brazil, India, and Russia show that without it companies concentrate on making money by exploiting the instability rather than by raising their productivity. Yet a stable economy alone isn’t enough to make countries prosper and grow: Japan has had a stable economy for decades but has suffered from ten years of stagnation.

The second insight is the realization that the income level of a country is determined, above all, by the productivity of its largest industries. High productivity in the unglamorous "old-economy" sectors—retailing, wholesaling, construction—is most important, since more people work in them. The fabled high-tech enclaves and financial markets are less so. MGI’s study of rapid US productivity growth in the 1990s found that it was caused by just six industries, including retailing and wholesaling, not by the vaunted "new economy."3 IT investments played a modest role. In India, the fast-growing IT industry has yet to raise the living standards of more than a minuscule part of the population.

Friday, April 23, 2004

It takes all kinds to make e-bay 

(Via Martin) One of the more bizarre auctions I have ever seen on E-Bay. An offer to lower your Erdos number to 5, assuming it's higher than that to start with. What's worse, the current bid (after 25 bids) is at $354. I know at least two people who could offer lower Erdos numbers on e-bay and what's more, they read this blog. Hint, hint, boys :)

You are bidding on a chance to connect yourself to the largest and most-studied social network of scientific and mathematical technical writers. Or to lower your score, if you are already in it. Or, perhaps, to lower mine -- depends on your current score, doesn't it?

The seller's coauthorship route from Paul Erdös is as follows:

Paul Erdös (0)
Mark Kac (1)
Robert M. Ziff (2)
Mark E. Newman (3)

The seller is one co-author of a 1997 paper in Physics Letters A [Volume 228, Issue 3, Pages 202-204 (7 April 1997)] with Dr. Newman -- and thereby has an Erdös number of 4. The seller will make his time available to the winner -- after payment is received -- on a part-time basis not to exceed 40 total hours doled out at a rate of no more than 10 hours per week, distributed to their mutual convenience over the period beginning May 1 2004 and ending on July 31 2004.

During that period, the seller will provide expert technical advice on research projects in the fields of evolutionary algorithms, machine learning, agent-based modeling of complex biological and social systems, complex systems research in general, social network theory (including business and marketing applications), engineering design automation using machine learning algorithms, artificial life, and any of a number of other specialties (a more comprehensive list available on request; a complete curriculum vitae will be provided to the winner).

The Republicans get it, al long last!!! 

(Via Steve) For the sake of fairness and balance, I have to let you know that Republican sympthisers seem to have figured out how google search works. Type "waffles" into search and see what it comes up with. Quite funny. Yes, it's a fairly old trick, but give them some credit for finally (yes, it could also be argued that Democratic sympathisers have too much time on their hands) figuring it out :) For old time's sakes, type chimpanzee or weapons of mass destruction or miserable failure while you're at it too. Enjoy.

Thursday, April 22, 2004

Acela who? 

If you've been curious about the new Maglev train in Shanghai as I have, here's the New York Times's take. Though the train system seems to be suffering from plenty of teething troubles, it still manages to reach a top-speed of 432 kmph (268 mph) while covering the distance between the city and airport in 8 minutes flat. Jeebus, what was that about Acela reaching 240 kmph on the NYC-Boston corridor?

Friedman on losing the edge 

Seems like the threat to America's innovation system is the meme du jour. Right after making my post on how the current visa system hurts America, I found Tom Friedman's op-ed in the NYT which addresses practically the exact same issue.

Other executives complained bitterly that the Department of Homeland Security is making it so hard for legitimate foreigners to get visas to study or work in America that many have given up the age-old dream of coming here. Instead, they are studying in England and other Western European nations, and even China. This is leading to a twofold disaster.

First, one of America's greatest assets — its ability to skim the cream off the first-round intellectual draft choices from around the world and bring them to our shores to innovate — will be diminished, and that in turn will shrink our talent pool. And second, we could lose a whole generation of foreigners who would normally come here to study, and then would take American ideas and American relationships back home. In a decade we will feel that loss in America's standing around the world.

Still others pointed out that the percentage of Americans graduating with bachelor's degrees in science and engineering is less than half of the comparable percentage in China and Japan, and that U.S. government investments are flagging in basic research in physics, chemistry and engineering. Anyone who thinks that all the Indian and Chinese techies are doing is answering call-center phones or solving tech problems for Dell customers is sadly mistaken. U.S. firms are moving serious research and development to India and China.

Friedman also suggests (while admitting culpability) that the U.S. might be paying too much attention to the terrorist threat and leaving its other flanks unguarded.

The bottom line: we are actually in the middle of two struggles right now. One is against the Islamist terrorists in Iraq and elsewhere, and the other is a competitiveness-and-innovation struggle against India, China, Japan and their neighbors. And while we are all fixated on the former (I've been no exception), we are completely ignoring the latter. We have got to get our focus back in balance, not to mention our budget. We can't wage war on income taxes and terrorism and a war for innovation at the same time.

Craig Barrett, the C.E.O. of Intel, noted that Intel sponsors an international science competition every year. This year it attracted some 50,000 American high school kids. "I was in China 10 days ago," Mr. Barrett said, "and I asked them how many kids in China participated in the local science fairs that feed into the national fair [and ultimately the Intel finals]. They told me six million kids."

The only crisis the U.S. thinks it's in today is the war on terrorism, Mr. Barrett said. "It's not."

Always On is carrying a similar story too (Via .Rajesh)

On criticising Israel 

Sanjay had posted a comment some time back on how criticism of Israeli policies is equated with anti-semitism in certain circles. I tend to agree. I have found it annoying that one cannot criticise Israeli policies without being labelled anti-semitic. I dont know if this is a very clever trick to deter criticism, but it sure works, especially in the West. Of course, the West has reason to be *very* cautious about criticism, given the terrible history of the Holocaust. However, I have not understood why that "guilt" needs to be borne by people around the world who not only have never discriminated against Jews but have been rather welcoming of them. After all, I am writing this from Cochin, where Jews have found shelter from around the time of the sack of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, and where the Jew Town (right next to the old palace of the King) stands as testament to the incredible tolerance of Hindu society.

I am writing this post after watching today's Hard Talk on the BBC, where Tim Sebastian was interviewing Yosef Tommy Lapid, the Israeli Justice Minister. Tim Sebastian was, as usual, being extremely tough on Mr Lapid. Towards the end of the interview, Mr Lapid actually said something to the effect that it was well known that Tim Sebastian favoured the Palestinians over the Israelis. There you have it -- when Mr Lapid had no answers to Sebastian's tough questioning, he shifted to blaming Sebastian of being anti-Israeli. To Tim Sebastian's credit, he hid his obvious discomfort fairly well and asked Mr Lapid to watch his interviews with the Palestinians before forming any opinions.

Now, one may or may not like Tim Sebastian. But, you certainly cannot accuse him of being unfair. His program is equally tough on just about everyone being interviewed, with a great deal of background research to provide context. So, it seemed absurd to me that he would be accused of being pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli etc. Perhaps its just paranoia? Then again, noone can fault the Israelis for being paranoid, given their history and the environment around them currently.

Larry Summers on visas 

I have blogged in the past that the U.S. could risk losing its edge in innovation by making the visa process difficult for foreign students. All the data seems to indicate that international student arrivals in U.S. universities have been dipping (I treat the numbers with some skepticism) over the past year or two. Its a well known fact that American students generally tend to shy away from the sciences, engineering and from advanced degrees in these subjects. Combine the two and we could potentially be looking at a situation where the innovation system in the U.S. begins to get affected, apart from the financial hit these universities are taking from the lower enrollment of foreign students of course.

Former Treasury Secretary and current president of Harvard, Larry Summers, has now joined the voices expressing concern over the lower enrollment rates among foreign students. By virtue of his past and his present, Larry Summers has the closest thing to a bully pulpit in American academia. Hopefully, his opinions will ensure the issue gets a wider hearing and will help amend laws in a way that strikes a balance between legitimate security concerns and the well-being of the academic community.

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Lessons of Operation Bluestar in Najaf 

(Via Arun) The Washington Post is carrying an interesting op-ed by Vali Nasr on how American forces who who have encircled the holy city of Najaf could do well to remember the disasters that followed in the wake of Indira Gandhi's ordering of the Indian Army into the Golden Temple in Amristar.

The trouble was caused by Sikh terrorism, led by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his followers who were lodged inside that shrine. Gandhi decided to end the problem by ordering the Indian army to sack the Golden Temple. The terrorists were killed in heavy fighting, but the real casualty was India's stability. Sikh soldiers and units across India reacted to the operation by revolting, and two of Gandhi's trusted Sikh bodyguards took revenge later by killing her. Her murder in turn led to the killing of thousands of Sikhs in New Delhi and other cities in northern India, deeply scarring the country. Gandhi had a strong case for entering the Golden Temple to end Sikh terrorism, many of whose victims were Sikhs. However, the reaction of all Sikhs to the violation of the sanctity of their shrine was uniformly one of horror and anger.

Violating the sanctity of Najaf can similarly inflame Shiite opinion across the Middle East and change the tenor of Shiite politics. It can harden Shiite attitudes toward U.S. occupation and in the process weaken the position of those Shiites who are engaged with the United States. Most notably, it will constrict Ayatollah Sistani in managing Shiite politics. Much has gone wrong for the United States since the fall of Baghdad. However, one thing has gone right, and that is the emergence of Sistani as a major power broker. He has been a moderating influence on Iraqi Shiites, a force for normalization of Iraq's politics, for state building and for the orderly transition of sovereignty.

It is crucial that U.S. policymakers take stock of Sistani's importance and the positive role that he can play in helping America realize its goals in Iraq and the broader region. The U.S. administration must look to strengthen Sistani. This means avoiding radicalizing Shiite politics, increasing Sistani's room to maneuver and making sure that he is able to maintain his legitimacy by delivering on the demands of his community, especially with regard to the constitution and the interim government that will take over on June 30. If he fails to do so, his brand of politics will give way to one that looks to confrontation rather than negotiation.

More importantly and immediately, the United States must allow Sistani to find a solution to the standoff in Najaf. If Sistani is able to preserve the sanctity of the city and prevent bloodshed while addressing U.S. demands, his stature will be enhanced immensely. This is ultimately what America wants -- to empower Sistani and to cage Sadr, to nudge the Shiite community away from combative posturing and toward constructive engagement over the constitution and future of Iraq. The imperative of reining in Sadr and his militia has to be balanced with the larger goal of achieving the U.S. objectives of bringing stability and order to Iraq. Preserving Sistani's position should matter more than crushing Sadr.

Saturday, April 17, 2004

TINA -- The South African edition 

So, the elections results in South Africa are in. Thabo Mbeki and the ANC have won an overwhelming majority, as most of the opinion polls and pundits had been predicting. Despite the terrible snafus around AIDS issues, Mbeki is very popular with his people, unlike another president next door. However, in a democracy you have to wonder how long it will be before Lord Acton's dictum about absolute power corrupting absolutely kicks in. In South Africa, an opposition alternative has been historically lacking. The National Party ruled from 1948 to 1994. The ANC has been in power since the handover under Mandela and Mbeki. Opposition is scant and there seems to be no danger of a credible opposition part appearing anytime soon.

Of course, it is also possible to have the TINA factor at work but for people in power to not succumb to its temptations. Botswana and Japan are obvious examples. However, most people would agree that the polity in South Africa would be better served with competition. Martin Woollacott touches on some of these issues in the Guardian.

A political system with a dominant party is not a one-party state or a dictatorship, it does not rig its elections, and it is not lawless. But how can democracy function, if there is no alternation in power? How can efficiency be achieved if affirmative action brings into public service and business echelons of people who might otherwise not have risen to those positions, setting off a cycle of patronage which cannot then be easily stopped?

How can solidarity be maintained if the luck and wealth of this new class of governmental and economic appointees is not matched by the adequate provision of jobs, housing and education for ordinary folk? How can the need to satisfy the demands of local and international business be reconciled with the need to satisfy the demands of ordinary people for rapid improvement in their circumstances? And how can the gap between rhetoric and reach, between the proclamation of policy and its execution, be bridged?

The greatest difficulty for dominant parties is that they must play to two constituencies - one to the right, consisting of business and the new class of beneficiaries they and business together have created, and one to the left, consisting of the masses they are also trying to serve and whose interests in theory are their priority. The South African picture of unemployed men and women queueing in the sun to vote at polling booths in the shadow of skyscraper offices on whose executive floors Africans are more and more a presence sums up these contradictions.

The internal democracy of the dominant party can be a substitute to some extent for the competition and choice of a multi-party system. But it is an imperfect substitute, even where the party has a record of strong internal debate.

Outsourcing at the IMF? 

I have blogged in the past about the imabalance on the U.N. Security Council and so on. The composition of the Council is reflective of the post-war power balance, not of reality today. Same goes for the G-7 which does not even include China, which is among the 5 largest economies in the world today. The most egregious of these imbalances, however, are at the World Bank and the IMF. Sometime in the dim and distant past, a decision was made at a resort in New Hampshire to carve up the IMF and the Bank as a duopoly between the U.S. and Europe. In effect, the president of the World Bank *has* to be an American (Jim Wolfensohn is an Aussie by birth, but is an American citizen) while the MD of the IMF *has* to be European. This equation is just assumed and not open to debate among the member states of the Twins. I cannot think of anything more absurd in a world where the power balance has clearly shifted and demographics are working in favour of countries outside of Europe.

Recently, Horst Kohler (he of the piss everyone off fame) gave up his post as MD of the IMF to take over the presidency of Germany from Johannes Rau. This is as good a time as any to perhaps democratize the decision making process at the top of the IMF. In an op-ed in the Economic Times, Chile's ambassador to India, Jorge Heine makes a similar case. Unfortunately, he is promoting the case of a Chilean economist and therefore the motives are probably a little suspect (drum up support in India etc). However, some of the points he makes at perfectly valid.

The recent resignation of Horst Koehler, the IMF DG, to stand for the German presidency, provides an extraordinary opportunity for the IMF to change. Fourteen of its 24 executive directors have said as much. Nobody is arguing for a mechanical application of the geographical rotation principle here. Simply opening the doors to the best candidates, wherever they may come from, will do.

The irony is that the World Bank and IMF that never tire of preaching the virtues of the market and competition, have until now refused to allow competition and transparency in the selection of their own respective leaders. It is, of course, much easier to handle this “discreetly” with a few trans-Atlantic telephone calls and be done with it. Yet, apart from this being a suboptimal approach to executive selection, the vast majority of the developing countries that, in the end, have to experience the IMF recipes and adjustment programmes find this quite questionable.

Running the IMF is a tough job as it is, without premising it on the curious notion that, although the overwhelming majority of the problems he or she will face will be in the South, only somebody who is not from the South can fill it.

Friday, April 16, 2004

Plan of Attack 

By now, nothing I hear about Team Bush's real intentions in Iraq surprise me. Even so, it does sound like Bob Woodward's new book, Plan of Attack, might be worth a read if this Washington Post story on the preparation for the Iraq war (which as everyone now knows began in the immediate aftermath of 9/11) is any indication.

Beginning in late December, 2001, President Bush met repeatedly with Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks and his war cabinet to plan the U.S. attack on Iraq even as he and administration spokesmen insisted they were pursuing a diplomatic solution, according to a new book on the origins of the war. The intensive war planning throughout 2002 created its own momentum, according to "Plan of Attack" by Bob Woodward.

Adding to the momentum, Woodward writes, was the pressure from advocates of war inside the administration led by Vice President Cheney, whom Woodward describes as a "powerful, steamrolling force" who had developed what some of his colleagues felt was a "fever" about removing Hussein by force.

Woodward describes a relationship between Cheney and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell -- never close despite years of working together -- that became so strained that Cheney and Powell are barely on speaking terms. Cheney engaged in a bitter and eventually winning struggle over Iraq with Powell, an opponent of war who believed Cheney was obsessed with trying to establish a connection between Iraq and the al Qaeda terrorist network and treated ambiguous intelligence as fact.

Powell felt Cheney and his allies -- his chief aide, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz and undersecretary of defense for policy Douglas Feith and what Powell called Feith's "Gestapo" office -- had established what amounted to a separate government. The vice president, for his part, believed Powell was mainly concerned with his own popularity and told friends at a private dinner he hosted a year ago to celebrate the outcome of the war that Powell was a problem and "always had major reservations about what we were trying to do." Before the war with Iraq, Powell bluntly told Bush that if he sent U.S. troops there "you're going to be owning this place." Powell and his deputy and closest friend, Richard L. Armitage, used to refer to what they called "the Pottery Barn rule" on Iraq -- "you break it, you own it," according to Woodward.

But, when asked personally by the president, Powell agreed to present the U.S. case against Hussein at the United Nations in February, 2003 -- a presentation described by White House communications director Dan Bartlett as "the Powell buy-in." Bush wanted someone with Powell's credibility to present the evidence that Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction -- a case the president had initially found less than convincing when presented to him by CIA deputy director John McLaughlin at a White House meeting on December 21, 2002. McLaughlin's version used communications intercepts, satellite photos, diagrams and other intelligence. "Nice try," Bush said when he was finished, according to the book. "I don't think this quite -- it's not something that Joe Public would understand or would gain a lot of confidence from."

The president described praying as he walked outside the Oval Office after giving the order to begin combat operations against Iraq on March, 19, 2003, and the powerful role his religious belief played throughout that time. "Going into this period, I was praying for strength to do the Lord's will. . . . I'm surely not going to justify war based upon God. Understand that. Nevertheless, in my case I pray that I be as good a messenger of His will as possible. And then, of course, I pray for personal strength and for forgiveness."

I hope he's been praying for a lot of personal strength and a lot of forgiveness given the events of the past week in Iraq. I keep wondering how many more of these stories Joe Public needs to read before a *majority* of them are convinced they (or the Supreme Court) made a mistake in 2000.

Thursday, April 15, 2004

AIDS in India 

One of the good things I noticed at the Rawalpindi test match between India and Pakistan was that everyone on the field (both teams and the umpires) were all sporting little red ribbons to raise AIDS awareness in both countries. Given the popularity of the cricketers, its a very positive step. However, I also think that unless some Indian politician steps up, takes over the bully pulpit and does what President Musuveni did brilliantly well in Uganda, I dont really see how the prevailing attitudes towards AIDS can be changed. Even well-educated Indians I know don't seem to care about the looming AIDS epidemic, despite my drawing their attention to the CIA report (calling AIDS a national security threat) that suggests that India could be looking at between 20-25 million HIV infections if corrective measures aren't immediately taken.

There are already 4.5 million Indians infected by HIV, a number second only to South Africa. Mind you, under reporting is a given and I am sure the actual numbers are probably higher. 4.5 million is a relatively small part of the population and therefore India has not quite felt the same economic pain as South Africa. However, if the Indian government thinks there are no economic costs to their pretending a disease that culls people in their productive prime (most of the infected are between 15 and 45) doesn't exist, it would be instructive to survey the destruction the epidemic has wrought in Botswana. A prosperous country with a high per capita income and life expectancy in excess of 70, Botswana has seen its life expectancy drop to around 30, thanks mainly to HIV infections rates that are between 35%-40%. In this context, I was glad that the Economist is carrying a special report on AIDS in India. Perhaps all those worthies at South Block who claim to read the Economist will take notice at long last?

the statistics, in the words of one onlooker, are “highly suspect”. Another, Dr Gilada, reckons 8m-12m Indians are HIV-positive, and he may be in a position to know: his clinic in Mumbai—one of the few where a patient can come for advice, testing, treatment, drugs, the lot—draws patients from all over India. Officialdom has an interest in keeping the prevalence rate below 1%: above that the outbreak is considered to have spread into the general population, not just the high-risk groups.

Even the official designation of only six out of 35 states as high-prevalence can be misleading: the population of the six (Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Manipur, Nagaland and Tamil Nadu) is 292m people, nearly 30% of the total. Three others (Goa, Gujarat and Pondicherry, with 53m people all told) have “concentrated” epidemics, with prevalence rates of 5% or more among the high-risk groups.

Admittedly, some of the statistics may overstate the problem. In general, the epidemic seems worse in the south, though it is acknowledged to be bad in parts of the north-east, close to Myanmar, where many people inject drugs with shared needles. The south is certainly where most of the effort is concentrated. Yet it is not clear whether comfort should be drawn from this coincidence of epidemic and effort. The south generally has better social indicators than the north, better health care, better education and probably better reporting. “Worryingly,” though, “not enough is known about HIV spread in the vast populous interior of Uttar Pradesh and other northern Indian states,” remarked UNAIDS last November. The situation there may be worse than is commonly appreciated.

And everywhere, north and south, the difficulties are formidable. Too much time has been lost. The country was in denial for five years while the disease was taking hold among certain groups. Survey after survey suggests that, despite much progress, much remains to be done. For example, some 61% of women in Orissa have never heard of AIDS, reported one survey in February. Though the proportion of truckers in Tamil Nadu who reported paying for sex declined from 38% in 1996 to 17% in 2001, it rose to 21% in 2002. Only 37% reported using a condom with a casual partner. And though 90% of female prostitutes in Tamil Nadu now say they use a condom, only 45% of male homosexuals report having used one in their most recent anal-sex encounter. And so on.

The trouble with Dollar Auctions 

An e-mail from Kuldeep reminded me that I needed to link to one of the best posts that Atanu has made in recent times. In a post on Dollar Auctions, he uses the framework of the dollar auction model to explain wars and much else. Though I have excerpted some of the stuff on here, I would strongly recommend you read the rest of it. It's a brilliant and thought-provoking post.

One enlightening model of human behavior is the so-called "Dollar Auction" which illustrates the sort of trap that conflicts can lead to with costly consequences. This auction proceeds much as a normal auction except that while the highest bidder gets to keep the $1 bill bid upon, the second highest bidder has to pay the auctioneer the amount of the second highest bid.

This game played at a party leads to some unexpected outcomes which result from the dynamics of conflict escalation. Players exhibit irrationality in most cases and often the $1 bill is auctioned off for many times its value. This happens because there is a trap in the structure of the game where the loser not only does not get the prize but also loses the amount he bid.

Suppose the auction begins with a bid of 5 cents. This is appealing to most since 5 cents is worth bidding for a prize of a dollar. But as the bidding proceeds beyond 50 cents, the players are caught in a trap. At this point the game changes complexion. Assuming that bids have an increment of 5 cents, the person with the bid of 50 cents has an incentive to outbid the higher bid of 55 cents. Otherwise he would lose 50 cents and the winner would gain 45 cents. Naturally, the bidding continues upwards. The auctioneer from this point onwards stands to gain irrespective of what happens next. When the highest bid is 95 cents, the situation is not at all rosy for the second highest bidder. He stands to lose 90 cents if he stops there. He also knows that his opponent stands gain 5 cents. Therefore the bid reaches $1. The participants quickly realize that it is no longer a game in which either of them would win. The question from then on is whether one can stand to see one's opponent lose less than oneself. Because at this point both lose money but the "winner" loses a dollar less than the loser. The only winner in this game is the auctioneer.

What are the modes of termination of the dollar auction? First, the players could realize right up front the nature of the trap and refuse to participate. No one loses and the auctioneer doesn't gain anything. Once the auction starts, it is still possible for the players to exit without losing. This happens if the players collude and decide to not outbid each other and to stop before the highest bid reaches 50 cents. They could agree to split the profits among themselves. And the auctioneer loses money in this deal. This scenario does not occur because co-operation requires accomodating one's opponent's interests which may be inconceivable in a situation of escalating conflict. Once past the 50 cent mark, the auctioneer is assured of a profit. The game continues till one of the participants exhausts his capacity to bid any more or one decides to cut his losses and fold. The winner is of course not as badly off but still has the winner's curse of having paid more than the value of the prize to win the prize.

The only way to win at a dollar auction therefore is either to not participate or if one does begin, then to either reach a compromise with one's opponent or to exit as early in the game as possible. Wars too have the peculiar characteristic that both parties, winner as well as the loser, pay. The dollar auction game illustrates the trap that nations fall into in a process of conflict escalation given the structure of strategic games.

Divide and Rule returns 

Osama Bin Laden has played what I am sure he thinks is one of his trump cards -- the presumed ability to drive a wedge between the United States and Europe.

Two Arab TV channels have broadcast an audiotape said to be from Osama Bin Laden in which he offers Europe a truce if it "stops attacking Muslims". But in the tape, aired by al-Arabiya and al-Jazeera satellite channels, the voice said the initiative would not be extended to the US.

The voice on the tape said that "the door is open" for about three months to forge a truce, although this could be extended. The speaker used the Arabic phrase "mubadarat sulh", which can be translated as reconciliation initiative. The initiative itself would then begin when "the last soldier" leaves "our countries", it added.

Everyone knows that post Iraq, most Europeans are fed up with the policies of the current U.S. administration. So, we have Bin Laden using an old European colonialist trick (Bengal pre-1905, for example) against the Europeans themselves. Though Britain, Spain and the EC have all rejected the offer as ridiculous, I do hope the European public aren't stupid enough to buy this nonsense from OBL. I fear however that OBL's trump may work to the extent that it might reinforce the idea a lot of Europeans nurse that they are being targetted by Al-Qaeda only because their governments support the Bush administration.

Wednesday, April 14, 2004


There are a few things about airplane regulations that have amused me. For example, why do they insist on doing that drill in case of a landing on water? Have any of you heard of a Boeing 747 that landed on water and the people surviving to tell the tale? I would assume just the impact of the crash would be enough to kill everyone on board. And one can also safely rule out a jetliner gliding gently to a halt on the Atlantic Ocean.

Similarly, why do they ask you to switch off your mobile phones once you are air-borne? The general assumption is that it would interfere badly with the aircraft's avionics. But if it were that simple, all an Al-Qaeda nutter would need to do would be to switch on his cell-phone. The Economist throws some light on the latter issue in a piece on mobile phones on planes.

Contrary to popular belief, mobile phones do not pose a safety threat to airliners. On an average transatlantic flight, several phones are usually left switched on by accident, and the avionics systems on modern aircraft are hardened against radio interference. No, the use of phones on planes is banned because they disrupt mobile networks on the ground. An airliner with 500 phones on board, whizzing across a city, can befuddle a mobile network as the phones busily hop from one base-station to the next. This obstacle is on the point of being overcome: the technology is being developed to allow passengers to use their existing handsets in flight, without interfering with ground-based networks

First, a laptop-sized base-station, called a “picocell”, will be installed in the aircraft cabin. This is connected to the telephone network via a satellite link. The aircraft cabin is shielded to prevent handsets from making contact with base-stations on the ground. Instead, they “roam” on to the network signal from the picocell. Since the picocell is so nearby, the handsets need use very little transmission power to maintain contact with it, which eliminates interference with the plane's avionics, and with networks on the ground.

All of these pieces have been put together in a prototype system by WirelessCabin, a consortium led by the German Aerospace Centre with members including Airbus, Siemens and Ericsson. It will allow mobile phones based on the dominant GSM standard to be used in the air, and also supports laptop-based internet access via the popular Wi-Fi protocol. (The first commercial airborne Wi-Fi service is being launched this month by Lufthansa.) The system has been successfully tested on the ground and will be tested in flight this summer, says Josef Kolbinger of Siemens.

As of April 5th, Lufthansa's claims remain just that, according to Om Malik. That said, I think its a great idea and I would happily pay $20 to get rid of the sheer boredom of long-haul flights. Now, if only they would also provide power slots, especially for the non-Centrino laptops that lack the juice to make full use of a fixed-price model. I dont know if Lufthansa also has an a la carte pricing model in the works.

Cooling an overheating Chinese economy 

For a few months now, the warning signs have been tangible of the Chinese economy overheating -- surging raw material prices, shortfalls in the supply of energy, rising inflation etc. Several astute China-watchers have warned that the government needs to start taking steps right now to prevent the Chinese economy crashing (and perhaps taking the world economy along) and instead take it downwards on a glide path to avoid a bust. The obvious steps to take would be to let the Yuan move to a higher band and raising interest rates, though both are probably politically unpalatable to the Chinese govt (imagine what the appreciating Yuan would do to exports). I am not sure whether this "western" doctrine applies to China, given all of the complexity within the economy and the banking system. Keith Bradsher provides more signs that the chinese economy may indeed be overheating.

The biggest monetary policy challenge facing China is the flood of foreign cash, both foreign direct investment and speculative, that is washing into the country. It is being converted into yuan, pumping up the money supply and allowing China's banks to lend more and more. The official New China News Agency said on Tuesday that new figures from the Commerce Ministry showed that actual foreign investments rose 7.5 percent in March compared to a year earlier. Contracts for future foreign investments, an indicator of how much money may be entering China in the coming months, increased by 49.2 percent.

Interest rates have already jumped more than half a percentage point just this week for 7-day interbank loans, climbing to 2.48 percent late Monday, and even higher on Tuesday. Rates have climbed even faster for some bonds. The central bank cut back the volume of bills that it tried to auction this week by three-fifths compared to last week. But the bank was able to sell less than half of them as investors rejected the low interest rates that the bills carry at a time when unregulated rates are rising quickly.

The government for its part has instructed the People's Bank (the central Bank) to curb lending by commercial banks. Measures include raising minimum reserve requirements to 7.5% of outstanding loans. Wonder is this move will put an end to reign in bad loans. Or are interest rate hikes inevitable?

Research Methodology 101 

In an earlier post, I had wondered about the methodology used by research firms to arrive at dodgy outsourcing damage numbers (to the U.S. economy). Petra did me a huge favour by pointing to a website that explains the research methodology in pretty serious detail. If you need more background information to provide context, go here.

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Calculating asteroid impact effects the self-service way 

Ever since those twin turkeys, "Deep Impact" and "Armageddon" hit the movie screens, discussions on asteroid impact have gone mainstream. Now, 3 researchers at the University of Arizona have put together a Impact Effects site that lets you, gentle user, work out the catastrophic effects of an asteroid collision with earth. Users can choose the size and type of asteroid and also the distance from impact. The program will work out the devastation for you, combining data from earthquakes and nuclear explosions alongwith "complex equations." Specifically, the program works out thermal radiation, earthquakes, debris thrown out and the air blasts that occur in the wake of an impact.

Indeed, a very pleasant way to spend your Sunday afternoon or any other afternoon, for that matter. For more specific information on asteroids etc, you could also visit the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous Mission.

Legal challenges to Gmail 

I had in an earlier post noted that Google's e-mail plans had critics within the company itself, folks who were worried about the advertising model that Gmail planned to use. In a lot of people's minds, it seemed like an assault on privacy. These criticisms have now led Democratic Senator Liz Figueroa of California to draft legislation to block Gmail.

Senator Figueroa describes the service as being a bit like "having a massive billboard in the middle of your home". The targeted adverts would use key words after scanning your private e-mail - posting adverts for pharmaceutical products, for example, if a message mentions a medical condition. Google's plans have already come under fire from privacy campaigners objecting to adverts linked to the content of messages, and to the permanent storage of email.

UK-based campaign group Privacy International has complained to the UK's Information Commissioner about Google's plans to send users links to advertising based on a computer scan of their correspondence, and presumed interests. It also pointed out that Google's terms of service did not allow users to delete their emails permanently, despite European data protection legislation which gives users full control over their own communications.

Some of the criticisms makes Google sound positively Microsoft-ian. I am not sure things are that bad. First, Google is not doing this on the sly. Folks who sign up know from the start how the targeted advertising works. Secondly, people who are uncomfortable with the privacy angle have the option of not signing up. The latter POV is not good PR, obviously.

If I were at Google though, I would immediately find a way to discriminate between customers who dont mind invasions of privacy and customers who do. Perhaps, the more sensitive customers could use a mailbox that had 1/10th the capacity of the normal mailbox -- that would still mean 100 MB of storage space, about 20 times more than average. These customers would receive their ads the tried and trusted way via banner ads, viral ads and so on. The other option would be to make sensitive customers pay, though I am not sure that would work given the competition in the web-based e-mail space. Either way, Google needs to resolve this really quick since it would be suicidal to risk its reputation and image of being a technology wonderkind.

Fareed Zakaria on Iraq 

Fareed Zakaria has written an excellent piece in Newsweek that pretty much sums up why the American adventure in Iraq has gone so badly wrong. He also suggests a couple of steps that the U.S. could take before Iraq does truly spin out of control. Must-read, if you have an interest in geo-politics.

The tragedy is that so much of this was avoidable. The Bush administration went into Iraq with a series of prejudices about Iraq, rogue states, nation-building, the Clinton administration, multilateralism and the U.N. It believed Iraq was going to vindicate these ideological positions. As events unfolded the administration proved stubbornly unwilling to look at facts on the ground, new evidence and the need for shifts in its basic approach. It was more important to prove that it was right than to get Iraq right.

Over the course of the 1990s, a bipartisan consensus, shared by policymakers, diplomats and the uniformed military, concluded that troop strength was the key to postwar military operations. It is best summarized by a 2003 RAND Corp. report noting that you need about 20 security personnel (troops and police) per thousand inhabitants "not to destroy an enemy but to provide security for residents so that they have enough confidence to manage their daily affairs and to support a government authority of its own." When asked by Congress how many troops an Iraqi operation would require, Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki replied, "Several hundred thousand" for several years. The number per the RAND study would be about 500,000.

But the civilian leadership of the Pentagon knew that such troop strength would require large-scale support from allies. Besides, it was convinced that the Clinton administration, the United Nations and the Europeans were feckless and incompetent. Donald Rumsfeld publicly ridiculed the U.N.'s efforts in Kosovo and declared that the administration intended to do its nation-building quite differently—better, lighter, cheaper. Thus America has tried to stabilize Iraq with one half to one third of the forces that its own Army chief of staff thought were necessary.

The Bush administration's answer to the need for security was "Iraqification," the transfer of security to local forces. It's an excellent idea but takes months or even years to accomplish. The administration solved the problem by dramatically shortening the training schedule, and placed barely trained and vetted Iraqi security personnel on the streets. These hapless and ill-equipped forces command neither respect nor authority. In the last few weeks, at the first sign of trouble, whether in the north or south, the Iraqi Army and police vanished, in some cases siding with the militias and insurgents, in others simply running away.

America's lack of presence on the ground is even greater when it comes to civilian authorities—political advisers, engineers, agronomists, economists, lawyers and other experts who could help Iraqis as they rebuild their country. The Coalition Provisional Authority has about 1,300 people working for it. Douglas MacArthur had four to five times as many when he was in Japan—and that was in circumstances where the Japanese state was fully intact and functioning. As a result, the CPA has virtually no presence outside Baghdad. Across much of the country, its acronym is jokingly said to stand for "Can't Provide Anything."

Monday, April 12, 2004

Call-center baloney? 

I have been very suspicious about the numbers surrounding outsourcing. In fact, I was just discussing with a friend whether he had seen any numbers he would call truly reliable. This is a point that I have made earlier on this blog itself -- the very dodgy data surrounding the claims of damage done to the U.S. economy. AEvery other story critical of oursourcing to India has depended on a Forrester study which claimed that 3.3 million jobs would be outsourced by 2015, a forecast for which the methodology used was unknown. John Kerry attacks outsourcing based on that number and so does everyone else. A cover-story in the Wall Street Journal throws some more light on this number.

The actual number of jobs lost to outsourcing and its impact are a lot less clear than the politicians and media jumping on the issue acknowledge. Many economists estimate that roughly 100,000 white-collar jobs migrate overseas each year. That is a substantial number, though actually relatively small when measured against the size of the labor market and job losses that occur for others reasons.

For a sense of the confusion over the outsourcing numbers, consider a set of oft-cited estimates from John McCarthy, a researcher at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. In April 2002, Mr. McCarthy traveled to India in an effort to develop and sell research about offshore outsourcing. He left impressed with the country's ability to win contracts from American companies for white-collar work, such as processing insurance claims. When he returned to his office, he gathered newspaper clippings and pored through Labor Department statistics on 505 white-collar occupations. Based on his own assumptions about the vulnerability of various job categories to outsourcing, he made an educated guess about how many jobs would be shipped offshore by 2015.

His number -- 3.3 million jobs representing $136 billion in wages -- fed a growing media and political storm. BusinessWeek highlighted the number in a February 2003 cover story. The Wall Street Journal has referred to it at least five times. Lou Dobbs, a CNN business-news anchor, has made mention of the numbers on several occasions in his criticisms of businesses that move jobs overseas.

Sen. John Kerry, the likely Democratic presidential candidate, cited the Forrester research last November when he introduced legislation to regulate the call-center industry, noting in a press release, "this is 2% of the entire work force." Tom Daschle, the Senate Minority Leader, latched onto Mr. McCarthy's numbers when Democrats introduced legislation in February requiring companies to file disclosures when they send jobs overseas.

Mr. McCarthy now says his numbers were hyped and that it "makes me a little mad." He says the projected loss of jobs and income will occur over a number of years, mostly later in the decade. To date, he says, the actual number of white-collar jobs that have moved offshore is less than 300,000. That equals only about 0.2% of the total job market in any given year. "I'm in awe that 18 months later I'm still getting five calls a day" about the report, says Mr. McCarthy. He refers to the increased attention on Indian companies as "this call center baloney."

Brian Lara goes quadruple!!! 

Brian Lara is nuts. His side was on its way to its worst ever defeat -- a whitewash at the hands of the visiting English side. His own performances in the first three tests were pathetic. He had to apologise twice to West Indian fans for absymal scores, including the West Indies's lowest ever score. His captaincy may have been on the line. So, the man decided to compensate.

By scoring the first ever quadruple hundred in cricket history. By becoming the first man since the incomparable Don Bradman to score two triple hundreds. By becoming the first person to own the world record for highest score twice. By having the audacity to break Matt Hayden's previous world record with a six followed by a four to break the record. By providing one of sport's greatest moments. Last but not the least, by ensuring his team would not have to endure a whitewash at the hands of a team the West Indies used to routinely thrash in the 80's.

Simon Cambers wrote thusly on the reaction when Lara broke the record in a piece entitled "I was there!" -- The new record, brought up next ball with a sweep for four, was as much a relief as anything. Lara leapt in the air, kissed the middle of the pitch, and was congratulated by all the English players, half the crowd and the Antiguan prime minister. The crowd gave him what must be one of the longest standing ovations ever seen in sport, and it's a mark of respect that the English supporters, in a huge majority once again, rose to acclaim Lara's genius.

I still continue to believe Sachin Tendulkar is the best player in world cricket today. Given his all-new and watchful approach to cricket though, Brian Lara and Matt Hayden are snapping at his heels. But that leaves open the question -- is Brian Charles Lara the greatest West Indian batsman ever? This is a toughie given that other contenders include Gary Sobers and Viv Richards. I think this performance by Lara probably tips things in his favour. Either way, this is fantastic for West Indian cricket, which was going through a demoralizing patch, under attack by a combination of bad team form and the power of U.S. television beaming in the NBA. Would be great for international cricket if the Windies could get back to being at least a shadow of the team they were not so long ago.

Sunday, April 11, 2004

DDT to fight Malaria? 

A very thought-provoking article by Tina Rosenberg in the NYT magazine asks whether it is time to turn back to DDT in order the deal with the menace of Malaria. I remember when I was in school in India, DDT was treated like any other chemical and the municipality would send out sprayers with DDT in order to control Malaria. So, when I first Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and other western commentaries on the subject, I was not-so-pleasantly surprised. In this piece, Rosenberg agrees that DDT is not a good idea in America, but under the right conditions it could well be Africa's only chance against Malaria.

I dont know enough about the subject to comment any further. I do know however that Malaria is a serious, yet under-rated killer. It kills over 2 million people a year and many hundreds of millions of people more are laid low (an economic disaster) every single year. Given these facts, it's disturbing that no pharmaceutical company devotes any time or money to develop an anti-Malarial drug (of course, Africans cannot pay for it). I also know that Malaria was rampant in the United States for a long while, until a whole host of methods, including the spraying of DDT, brought the disease under control and virtually eradicated it. Rosenberg's point is that the West discovered the downside of pesticides like DDT *after* the eradication of Malaria and so its much easier to diss its use, thereby decreasing the possibility of its control or eradication in Africa.

To Americans, DDT is simply a killer. Ask Americans over 40 to name the most dangerous chemical they know, and chances are that they will say DDT. Dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane was banned in the United States in 1972. The chemical was once sprayed in huge quantities over cities and fields of cotton and other crops. Its persistence in the ecosystem, where it builds up to kill birds and fish, has become a symbol of the dangers of playing God with nature, an icon of human arrogance.

Yet DDT, the very insecticide that eradicated malaria in developed nations, has been essentially deactivated as a malaria-control tool today. The paradox is that sprayed in tiny quantities inside houses -- the only way anyone proposes to use it today -- DDT is most likely not harmful to people or the environment. Certainly, the possible harm from DDT is vastly outweighed by its ability to save children's lives.

No one concerned about the environmental damage of DDT set out to kill African children. But various factors, chiefly the persistence of DDT's toxic image in the West and the disproportionate weight that American decisions carry worldwide, have conspired to make it essentially unavailable to most malarial nations. With the exception of South Africa and a few others, African countries depend heavily on donors to pay for malaria control.

Instead, the malaria establishment in developed nations promotes the use of insecticide-treated nets that people can buy to hang over their beds. Treated bed nets are indeed a useful tool for controlling malaria. But they have significant limitations, and one reason malaria has surged is that they have essentially become the only tool promoted by Western donors. ''I cannot envision the possibility of rolling back malaria without the power of DDT,'' said Renato Gusm-o, who headed antimalaria programs at the Pan American Health Organization, or P.A.H.O., the branch of W.H.O. that covers the Americas. ''Impregnated bed nets are an auxiliary. In tropical Africa, if you don't use DDT, forget it.''

William Ruckelshaus, the head of the newly created Environmental Protection Agency, banned DDT in 1972. It remains one of the most controversial decisions the E.P.A. has ever taken. Ruckelshaus was under a storm of pressure to ban DDT. But Judge Edmund Sweeney, who ran the E.P.A.'s hearings on DDT, concluded that DDT was not hazardous to humans and could be used in ways that did not harm wildlife. Ruckelshaus banned it anyway, for all but emergencies.

Ruckelshaus made the right decision -- for the United States. At the time, DDT was mainly sprayed on crops, mostly cotton, a use far riskier than indoor house spraying. There was no malaria in the United States -- in part thanks to DDT -- so there were no public health benefits from its use. ''But if I were a decision maker in Sri Lanka, where the benefits from use outweigh the risks, I would decide differently,'' Ruckleshaus told me recently. ''It's not up to us to balance risks and benefits for other people. There's arrogance in the idea that everybody's going to do what we do. We're not making these decisions for the rest of the world, are we?''

Timing a Polar reversal 

I remember the first time (about 9 years back) I had mentioned the idea of a reversal of the Earth's poles to a friend, he thought I was joking. To this day, I know friends of mine who think it is a joke that the South and North Pole could trade places and that catastrophic results could follow. I digress. Earlier today, I was reading this interesting Discovery story on how a U.S. scientist is now predicting that such a reversal could last all of 7,000 years -- a pretty scary thought if one were to think in terms of the long-drawn out consequences.

The so-called flip between the Earth's North and South poles occurs at long but unpredictable intervals, the most recent one occurring about 790,000 years ago. A compass needle, if one existed then, would have pointed to the south and not to the north. The 180 degree switch occurs when there is a change in the circulation patterns in the molten iron that flows around the Earth's outer core and, like a dynamo, creates the magnetic field. The intensity of the field drops for a while before the circulation rhythm is established and the new polarity occurs.

But scientists have only estimated how long the switching process takes before the new poles become established. Estimates have ranged from a couple of thousand years to 28,000. Clement cast light on this area of uncertainty by analyzing records taken from sedimentary rock samples drilled from various sites around the world. These samples, deposited at four different ages in Earth's history, had a residual magnetic echo from the magnetic field at the time. "These records yield an average estimate of about 7,000 years for the time it takes for the directional change to occur," Clement said.

But the big switchover does not take place in one swoop. It happens more quickly at the equator and takes longer at higher latitudes, the closer you get to the poles. He calculated it took 2,000 years at the equator and about 10,000 closer to the poles. The reason for this, said Clement, is that in the absence of the main north-south magnetic field, the Earth's core develops a weaker secondary field that has many mini-poles at the surface. Eventually the two main poles are established again, but on opposite sides of the planet, and restore their primacy.

Many aspects of life today would be literally turned upside down, both for humans, given our dependence on magnets for navigation, and for migrating animals that use an inner compass. We would also be more exposed to deadly bursts of solar radiation, from which we are normally protected by Earth's magnetic field. And the loss of that shield, would cause solar particles to smash into the upper atmosphere, warming it and potentially causing wrenching climate change. There was a scare in 2002 after French geophysicist Gauthier Hulot discovered a weakening of Earth's magnetic field near the poles, which could be interpreted as an early sign that a flip is near.

Saturday, April 10, 2004

Unread book du jour -- The Size of Nations 

No, I have not read this book. However, the optimal size of nations is something I have wondered about for a while now. Frequent readers of this blog will know that I am not a fan of the concept of the nation-state or the rabid nationalism and flag-waving that the existence of the nation-state promotes, though I am certain human beings are creative enough to come up with something equally abhorrent, even if all nation-states were to somehow magically dissapear. One of the reasons why I support globalization and global capitalism is because I believe it will make the nation state much weaker as business (including labour, one hopes) and finance becomes stateless (like terrorism, I can almost hear the critics complain).

I first started to wonder about ideal size while I was consulting at the World Bank. I was working on the peculiar nature of some of countries in the sub-saharan African region. Let's take Uganda for example. Uganda is a landlocked country (Lake Victoria doesn't really count). Even assuming that the Musuveni government managed to get its act together and provided world class transportation infrastructure, there would continue to be problems since Uganda would have to depend on the transportation networks in Tanzania or Kenya to get to a port. So, the upgradation of infrastruture would have to necessarily happen at a regional level where southern African countries would have to make collective decisions(or form a loose federation of states) so everyone could benefit.

Large states (or loose federations) clearly are better positioned to reap economies of scale. Per-capita cost of provision of public goods would almost certainly come down. The flip side is obviously of increased cultural and political heterogeneity. Does globalisation reduce the advantages of size? Is it possible to selectively decentralize and centralize (depending on factors like economic integration, cultural heterogeneity etc) within large states/federations? The numbers of states have widly fluctuated over the years (Harold Innis has an interesting information storing/coding/transmitting theory on this). So, what will the world look like 100 years from now in terms of number of countries (I tend to favour large, loose federations)? These seem to be the sort of questions the authors address, if the reviews I have been reading are any indication. Definite must-read, once I get back stateside. In the meanwhile, if any of you have read this book/are planning to read it, let me know what you think.

As an aside, the European Union is always referred to as the first modern experiment at forming a union/federation of heterogeneous states. I personally think India did this 50 years earlier, when a large number of kingdoms and territories that had very little in common with each other decided to form the Indian Union. The unitary bias in the constitution tends to obscure this fact, acknowledgement of which would almost certainly lead to a greater decentralization of power (something I consider inevitable and hugely beneficial in the case of India).

Zimmer on the Shiva Tandava 

The previous post allows me to segue perfectly to the Heinrich Zimmer piece on Shiva's cosmic dance (the tandava) that Atanu pointed to (which some of you may have missed), in a comment posted in response to my post on outsourcing. It is one of the best (and simplest) descriptions of the Tandava I have read anywhere.

The dance is an act of creation. It brings about a new situation and summons into the dancer a new and higher personality. It has a cosmogonic function, in that it rouses dormant energies which them may shape the world. On a universal scale, Shiva is the Cosmic Dancer; in his Dancing Manifestation (nritya-murti) he embodies in himself and simultaneously gives manifestation to Eternal Energy. The forces gathered and projected in his frantic, ever-enduring gyration, are the powers of the evolution, maintenance, and dissolution of the world. Nature and all its creatures are the effects of his eternal dance.

Shiva is Kala, 'The Black One' 'Time'; but he is also Maha Kala, 'Great Time', 'Eternity'. As Nataraja, King of Dancers, his gestures, wild and full of grace, precipitate the cosmic illusion; his flying arms and legs and the swaying of his torso produce – indeed, they are – the continuous creation-destruction of the universe, death exactly balancing birth, annihilation the end of every coming-forth. The choreography is the whirligig of time. History and its ruins, the explosion of suns, are flashes from the tireless swinging sequence of the gestures. In the medieval bronze figurines, not merely a single phase or movement, but cyclic rhythm, flowing on and non in the unstayable, irreversible round of the Mahayugas, or Great Eons, is marked by the beating and stamping of the Master's heel.

Shiva is apparently, thus, two opposite things, archetypal ascetic, and archetypal dancer. On one hand , he is Total Tranquility – inward calm absorbed in itself, absorbed in the void of the Absolute, where all distintions merge and dissolve, and all tensions are at rest. But on the other hand, he is Total Activity – life's energy, frantic, aimless, and playful.