Tuesday, August 31, 2004

The Forbidden List 

Here's to getting back on topic - to Asia and technology. This is a fascinating item about the discovery of an explicit list of words being blocked by China's most popular instant messaging program, QQ (run by company Tencent).

China Digital News: The words you never see in Chinese cyberspace

What's interesting is the bulk of PRC's Internet filtering happens at the server level - a proxy, a firewall or a content management system. It was anyone's guess as to what words were being "red flagged". Instead, this list is embedded in the client software itself, in a library file called "COMToolKit.dll." To even an average computer hacker, circumventing this filter is trivially easy. But what's more interesting is the insight this provides into what words are considered sensitive and what types of phrases are being screened out.

Sunday, August 29, 2004


This is adapted from a link I posted on a discussion we had on Reuben's post on Gandhi and the Middle East. I came across this piece by Nick Robins, where he talks about 'the public invisibility of the East India Company' in London. The East India Company was headquartered in London from 1600 to 1874, when it was dissolved, but there are few traces of the company in London now. Clive's statue, though, is an exception.

Walk to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office from St James' Park and you will go up 'Clive's steps', named after the statue of Robert Clive that stands without apology outside the old India Office buildings. It was here that the government transferred the administration of India in the wake of the disastrous 'mutiny' of 1857. Many explanations have been given for this uprising against Company rule in northern India, but the Company's increasing racial and administrative arrogance lay at the root.

Anglo-Indians were excluded from senior positions in the Company; non-European wives of the Company were forbidden to follow their husbands back to Britain. Verbal abuse mounted, with 'nigger' becoming a common expression for Indians. This slide into separatism also affected the Company's relations with its Indian soldiers, the sepoys. One by one, ties between the army and local communities were cut: Hindu and Muslim holy men were barred from blessing the sepoy regimental colours, and troops were stopped from participating in festival parades. As missionary presence grew, fears mounted that the Company was planning forcible conversion to Christianity.

Robert Clive is, of course, the man whose surprise victory at Plassey ultimately led to the subjugation and oppression of the Indian people for a few centuries. Shocked as I was to learn that Clive's statue still stands, I was even more shocked to see the wikipedia entry on Robert Clive. The wikipedia entry on Clive is based on the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, and is seriously outdated. I wonder how deep this problem runs. I am sure there are other references which are also outdated. Here is an extract from the wikipedia.

Having thus founded the empire of British India, Clive's painful duty was to create a pure and strong administration, such as alone would justify its possession by foreigners. The civil service was de-orientalised by raising the miserable salaries which had tempted its members to be corrupt, by forbidding the acceptance of gifts from natives, and by exacting covenants under which participation in the inland trade was stopped. Not less important were his military reforms.

If somebody can find a more appropriate reference on Clive, please do leave a comment.

Saturday, August 28, 2004

Girl on monkey bars 

[From Roberto Almanza] Here is a post on a pretty cool piece of work from the Microsoft folks. This is the kind of stuff that gets people excited about Microsoft. Until they discover the ways of the Empire, that is.

Michael Cohen and his colleagues at Microsoft Research have come up with techniques to take digital video like, say, stuff from a hand-held camera, and combine it with animation. In the sample video, they have produce an astonishingly convincing piece of visual magic realism. The proof, as always in computer graphics, is in the pudding. Check out the video.

Though others have turned a still image into a cartoon, turning a video into a cartoon is more challenging. "Some people say it's easy," said Cohen. "They use the technique for still images and apply it frame-by-frame. The problem is, if you do this, the images jump all over the place. The background shakes around a lot, and each frame looks like a different drawing. We want to make the video look like a normal cartoon where the motion is smooth."

Review du Jour: Outfoxed 

I finally managed to watch Outfoxed:Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism. Now, here's a movie that anyone interested in the media should be watching. A lot of it did not come as news to me, since I was involved in a project at Columbia that researched media concentration in the United States since the early 80's. Even so, it was a very disturbing look at Faux News, where the news and commentary blur into something that only a right-wing loon would call even mildly entertaining (check the footage of Bill O'Reilly asking the son of a 9/11 victim to shut up, for instance).

The movie consists of interviews with several ex-Fox News reporters, editors and contributors and what they have to say about Faux's so-called journalism is only part-amusing. Sure, Mike Moore made the point about Bush's first cousin at Faux being the first to call Bush as the winner in 2000, but somehow this movie is a little more convincing than F-9/11. I am guessing thats because the recorded material (done painstakingly by several volunteers) is proof of Faux's agenda in and of itself. The real tragedy in all of this is the seeming decision by CNN and MSNBC to follow in Fox's footsteps rather than stick to real journalism. One does to have to wonder then about corporate control of a vital cog of democracy and also at what point the FCC needs to intervene in some form to check unprecedented consolidation.

Here's what stuck out in the movie for me. A media analyst makes the observation that in the former Soviet Union, the citizens knew that Pravda and other state-controlled media were simply propaganda tools and therefore knew how to filter out the crap. Trouble is Americans do believe they are hearing the truth from the media because they dont expect it to be propaganda. And thats the real danger of letting Faux News run amok. In a similar vein, Indians expect malpractices in Bihar every election cycle and therefore make the necessary adjustments. Americans, on the other hand, do not expect malpractices in the Florida elections.

On another note, this documentary also serves as a warning to those of us in Asia who dont really think too much about media consolidation or Murdoch's (and his conservative agenda's) increasing reach into Asian homes. True, Star is not anywhere near as sinister, but this fair and balanced look at Faux serves as a reminder as to what the Murdoch media empire in Asia could morph into if it had the sort of power it has in western media markets.

Friday, August 27, 2004

The (Computer) Science behind Mona Lisa 

Hello, World!

For my first post in this forum I wanted to write about something from my field, Computer Science, that would have as universal an appeal as I could imagine while completely avoiding anything political or current. I think I have come up with the perfect topic: the role of CS in explaining the appeal of Mona Lisa, arguably the most famous painting ever.

If you had to name the one most striking feature of the painting, it would surely be Mona Lisa's smile. What is it about the painting that makes her smile so striking and, well, enigmatic? We're starting to see some serious scientific inquiry into this and already learning interesting things about the painting and, more importantly, about human visual perception in the process.

Christopher Tyler and Leonid Kontsevich at the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute note that adding slight noise over the mouth region can dramatically change our perception of Mona Lisa's expression; their paper gives the details. The New Scientist has a nice little article about their work in which they note:

Tyler says our visual system contains many sources of noise: fluctuations in the number of photons hitting light-receiving cells in the eye, spontaneous false activation of photon absorbing pigments, and randomness in the firing of neurons that carry the visual signals to the brain. Tyler thinks this natural noise makes people observing the picture believe its expression is subtly changing, rather than thinking they are seeing a single ambiguous expression.

Following a different line of work, neurobiologist Margaret Livingstone of the Harvard Medical School argues that the smile is so enigmatic because it is perceived differently when viewed foveally as opposed to peripherally.

So when you look at her eyes or the background, you see a smile like the one on the left, or in the middle, and you think she is smiling. But when you look directly at her mouth, it looks more like the panel on the right, and her smile seems to vanish. The fact that the degree of her smile varies so much with gaze angle makes her expression dynamic, and the fact that her smile vanishes when you look directly at it, makes it seem elusive.

You can hear Livingstone talk about this theory in this NPR story.

Is the mystery of Mona Lisa's smile now revealed? I would like to believe that further scientific inquiry will lead to still more insights. We shall wait and see. Meanwhile, if any of you is going to be visiting the Louvre soon, you have just been given some new things to think about as you stare at the great painting.

Built for America, Owned in Asia 

By now, you've probably heard about the attempt by Reliance Telecom and Tata Indicom to take over Tyco Global Network's assets for about $200 million (compared to the $3.4 valuation at the peak of the boom). This comes after Reliance's takeover of the Flag network which was preceded by SingTel's buyout of Global Crossing's $10 billion network for about $250 million. It is interesting to see this transfer of assets (at fire-sale prices) built by U.S. investors (mostly for U.S. customers) into Asian hands. This has resulted in U.S. carriers losing their chokehold on the flow of data traffic. The growth of domestic network exchanges in many countries hasn't helped either. As broadband usage grows around the world, it would be interesting to see the consequences of this shift in the routing of international data traffic. Jennifer Schenker has more details on this power shift.

Some $30 billion in international telecommunications infrastructure owned by United States companies was sold to foreign-owned entities from 2000 to 2004 for a total of about $4 billion, said Sam Paltridge, an economist at Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris. Because it bankrolled the networks, "Wall Street has inadvertently financed more telecom infrastructure overseas than the World Bank and other international agencies,'' Mr. Paltridge said.

The change in the balance of ownership may have political consequences. The international pieces of a nation's communications infrastructure, considered strategic and defensive holdings, can be controlled by some who may not share that nation's interests. The new profile of owners has changed the business. The smaller companies that sought for years to be treated as equals by American rivals can offer their customers global end-to-end services, including access to the biggest market - the United States - over their own networks or others owned by partners they are better able to negotiate with.

Bharti Enterprises in India and Singapore Telecommunications have teamed to build a cable called i2i that promises to offer the largest amount of bandwidth capacity of any undersea fiber-optic cable in the world, said Alan Mauldin, a senior analyst at TeleGeography. "At a time when everyone is thinking the telecom boom is over and the industry washed up, in India they are just getting ready to go,'' Mr. Mauldin said.

The same competitive and pricing pressures that hit the American telecommunications industry are expected to hit the new Indian and Chinese global players. It is an intensely competitive market, but entering at bargain-basement prices should help the new competitors, analysts said.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

The Best Science Fiction Movie? 

In a poll of 60 eminent scientists, Blade Runner has been voted the best science fiction ever made. "2001:A Space Odyssey" came in second while "Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back" came in third. "Alien" and "Solaris" round up the top 5, while "Terminator" came in at No:6 and "The Matrix" came in at No:9.

Stephen Minger, a stem cell biologist, said Blade Runner had won because it was "so far ahead of its time". Mr Minger, from King's College, London, said: "Blade Runner is the best movie ever made."It was so far ahead of its time and the whole premise of the story - what is it to be human and who are we, where we come from? It's the age-old questions." Chris Frith of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College, London, paid tribute to the film's discussion of how to tell a human from a machine.

The scientists were also polled on their favourite science fiction writers.

Isaac Asimov headed the list for his novel I, Robot and the Foundation Trilogy. Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham was also a favourite, as was Fred Hoyle's The Black Cloud.Other writers in the top 10 included Arthur C Clarke, Ursula le Guin, Philip K Dick, Ray Bradbury, Frank Herbert and Stanislaw Lem.

I was a little surprised "Bladerunner" beat "2001" since I thought the latter would be a slam-dunk among the scientific community. Do you folks agree with these results? Feel free to leave your vote for favourite science fiction film and science fiction writer in the comments section.

Video Blogs Redux - Userplane Tool 

Related to my previous post on the use of video in web logs, vSpan is an interesting blog which embeds video in each post and includes interviews and video musings.

However, the neatest part is a new tool from Userplane which can easily record and embed video into Web sites and blogs. It does it all with a Macromedia Flash plugin and requires no software installation by the user, and the quality is quite good. Want to see?

A/V Blog by Userplane

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Good news from the air-conditioning front 

I have posted several times on this blog on how important air-conditioning is to productivity, especially in tropical countries where temperatures can reach highs that make working (at any level of efficiency) pretty darn impossible. The downside, obviously, is whether developing countries can handle the load extensive air-conditioning will place on their power grid, a predicament Shanghai faced as recently as last month. Part of the solution lies in building more energy efficient, green buildings. In that context, researchers at University College in London may have come up with an excellent solution.

A new coating for glass that can keep the heat from the sun out, saving on air-conditioning costs, has been developed by scientists in London. The glass has a microscopic coating that allows glazing to keep heat out of buildings while allowing light to pass through. The key is a thin coating of vanadium dioxide, around the thickness of a human hair, that is placed on normal window glass.

"This coating can actually be used for modifying the properties of the glass," said Ivan Parkin, of the team at University College London that has developed the coating. "When put onto a window, it will let in only a certain fraction of the sunlight. When the window gets hot, it becomes more reflective. But it only becomes more reflective of the heat portion of the sunlight, not in the visible portion."

The UCL team have also found a way to choose at which temperature the glass begins to prevent heat coming in, by putting tungsten into the vanadium dioxide coating. "By controlling the amount of tungsten dopent we introduce, we can change the temperature at which it will reject the heat," Dr Parkin explained. "We can actually tune our system from anywhere between 70 degrees, which is the pure vanadium dioxide switching temperature, all the way down to zero degrees, if we wanted to."

However, currently the amount of glass they can cover at one time is around 10cm square. The scientists are currently in negotiations with companies to look at scaling up the process. Dr Parkin explained there were a number of problems that needed to be overcome to make it a full-scale commercial enterprise. One is that the coating is a yellow colour that makes the window look dirty. The team are currently looking at a way of modifying this."Also there are issues when you scale up the chemistry. Sometimes the chemistry doesn't behave on a three metre-wide piece of glass as it does on a piece 10 centimetres wide," Dr Parkin said.

Gandhi and the Middle East Redux 

To follow up on my previous post on the subject, the BBC is reporting that Arun Gandhi, the grandson of the Mahatma is on a peace mission in the occupied territories to preach non-violent struggle in order to achieve a settlement and reconciliation with the Israelis.

"I am going to tell the people about the value of non-violence. I am going to tell them that 55 years of violence has achieved nothing but more agony and heartaches and that it is time for them to try new ways of dealing with the issue," Arun Gandhi told BBC News Online. He feels that the Palestinians have no alternative but to pursue peaceful methods of resistance to Israel in the long term. "It is the safest and sanest alternative. Violence has not achieved anything. The Palestinians do not have the capacity and the ability to match the weapons of mass destruction that are available to Israel. So it is virtually suicide for them," says Arun Gandhi.

Non-violence is not alien to the Palestinian resistance, says Mohammed al-Atar, director, Palestinians for Peace and Democracy. "In the first intifada the Palestinian people called the shots and the occupation reacted to it," he says. "We boycotted their (Israeli) products. We called labour strikes when we wanted. They closed our schools. We opened our homes as schools. We refused to pay their taxes. We were in charge."

Now, if only al-Atar (or Arun Gandhi, for that matter) could sell the same ideas to Hamas, Hezbollah and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. No harm in hoping, I guess.

Equatorial Guinea, back again 

Back in March, I had made a post about an attempted coup to overthrow the government of Equatorial Guinea and had referred to Frederick Forsyth's alleged involvement in an earlier coup attempt, which became the basis for the best-selling "Dogs of War." The details on the March 2004 coup attempt were murky when I made the post. Now, we have news filtering out about who may have orchestrated the coup. Apparently, Sir Mark Thatcher, the son of Margaret Thatcher has been arrested (and granted bail) on suspicion of providing funding and logistical assistance for the coup, involvement which sounds eerily like Forsyth's alleged involvement in the previous coup attempt.

What is it with rich Britishers wanting to overthrow the government of Equatorial Guinea anyway? Is oil the sole motive or is there more? What else does a small African country with a GDP of $1.2 billion (PPP) have on offer?

Blogs using Video 

There's an interesting trend in the blogosphere of late - the use of video as a linkable, malleable datatype. Traditionally, text and photo content have been the main blog elements for commentary and linking. This is simply because today's tools are oriented towards linking to newspapers, magazines or other web sites such as the New York Times, Newsweek or The Guardian. It has been much harder to comment on television shows or films that have provided memorable moments, heated debate and outright controversy, simply because there was no way to deliver the original video material web log readers. That's starting to change.

In the newspaper industry, the old saying was that "today's news is tomorrow's fish wrap." It gave solace to reporters and politicians alike, because a mistake of the day would be, more often than not, relegated to the dustbin of history and into obscurity. That all changed with the World Wide Web, Lexis/Nexis and the Google cache. Blogs have magnified this even more, by keeping news events in the media ecology, sustaining complex discussions and even determining what become the memes that "stick."

The similar saying for television is, "the show is hurtling through space to Mars," referring to over-the-air television broadcast signals cast off and forgotten because there really was no way to archive or reference the thousands of hours of television commentary and coverage. That has changed as well. Capturing these video streams used to be the domain of C-band satellite junkies with VCRs recording 24/7. The results were fringe but landmark movies such as "Spin" [1, 2] and "FEED" [1].

However, with personal video recorders (such as Tivo), peer to peer networking and gigabytes of free server space on the Internet, this has allowed bloggers to post videos as easily as text and picture, and even to provide video responses to video.

Some notable examples of late include:

Much of what is happening requires the capture of broadcast video. Fortunately, home recording of video has been firmly established in the United States since the Betamax case of 1984. The display of such video can be defended by fair use, but because it is subject to case law, bloggers using such video will no doubt be subject to scrutiny by copyright owners with much deeper pockets and larger teams of lawyers. And unlike hyperlinking, most folks using video have made outright copies of the video source. Here's hoping the blogopshere can continue to pioneer the use of video, but it will have legal obstacles and challenges, that's for sure.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Why steal famous art? 

Jaideep has already blogged the robbery of Munch's paintings. This one has brought up in my mind a question I have asked several times in the past -- what do art thieves do with stolen high value, world famous art? I mean, what is the point of stealing something as famous as the "Mona Lisa" or the "Scream"? How are you going to make money off the robbery? Who on earth are you going to sell to? Is ransom the only plausible motive? Apparently, Edward Dolnick has similar concerns.

This time around, thieves stole a different but equally valuable rendition of "The Scream'' - Munch returned time and again to the themes that haunted him - and made off with a painting whose open-market value experts put in the neighborhood of $100 million. Who would steal an instantly recognizable painting? Whenever thieves take a masterpiece too famous to sell openly - when they stole the "Mona Lisa" in 1911, or Vermeer's "The Concert" in 1990, or Leonardo da Vinci's "Madonna of the Yarnwinder" in 2003 - bewildered policemen hint darkly that some criminal mastermind has ordered the theft for his own delectation.

Not so. Wherever "The Scream" is now, it is almost certainly not in a billionaire's study. Except in movies, thieves are seldom connoisseurs. In the eyes of a typical art thief, the most dazzling of paintings is simply a multi-million dollar bill hanging on a poorly guarded wall. Those who steal art are surprisingly casual about the details of how they might turn their newly acquired paintings into money. In my interviews with art thieves, they talked lightly about "Arab sheiks" or "South American drug lords" sure to want a bargain-price Van Gogh.

Thieves know, too, that a painting doesn't have to surface to be valuable; it can be used as blackmarket currency in the underworld. In 1990, Gabriel Metsu's "Woman Reading a Letter," which had been stolen in Dublin in 1986, turned up in Istanbul, in the hands of a thief trying to barter it for a shipment of heroin. Ransom is another possibility. "Art-napping," after all, offers the advantages of kidnapping without all the fuss. No one needs to feed a stolen painting or keep it quiet. And if the police begin closing in, a painting can always be flung into a dumpster.

The one bright spot is that the greatest paintings, which are the hardest to sell, are the most likely to end up back where they belong. For criminals are foolish, as the 1994 "Scream" theft demonstrated. After a bumbling attempt to sell the painting back to the National Gallery, the thieves were ensnared by a Scotland Yard detective, posing as "The Man from the Getty," who was willing to pay anything to buy back the painting and share it with the world. Let us pray that thieves have grown no smarter in a decade.

Radical Reforms in Georgia -- Cops 

Mash had made a post a while back about the radical reforms being undertaken in Georgia under the new government of Mikhail Saakashvili. In that same vein comes a story by C.J.Chivers on the the attempts to reform Georgia's hopelessly corrupt police force.

This summer Mikhail Saakashvili, Mr. Shevardnadze's successor, dismissed his nation's traffic police officers, almost to a man, and a month later he replaced them with a force whose Western influences are unmistakable. Two remarkable things followed.

First, for a month in Georgia there were almost no traffic police at all, a condition that led one Russian visitor to declare that in the summer of 2004 it was as if the White Guard had left the city, but the Red Guard had not arrived. According to Mr. Saakashvili, the accident rate held steady, which says more about the ineffectiveness of the former traffic cops than about the defensive driving habits of Georgian drivers, such as they are. The second and more lasting change is that Mr. Saakashvili appears to have struck a decisive blow against one of the most loathed figures to emerge from the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In theory, the point-and-nod signals a driver to stop for ticketing and a document check. In practice, once a traffic cop sidles up to your window, almost invariably there comes a rub. Your tires are bald, your lights are not working, your speed was fast, your documents are not quite right. Make that all of the above. Now open the trunk. The way for a driver to escape the insistent scolding and arbitrary probing, and resume driving, is to pay a bribe. "Fines," as the police prefer to call them, usually vary from 50 cents to $10. (Sometimes the traffic police officers may also cadge a cigarette, then ask the driver to light it.)

Georgia's problems were of a type. It had become impossible to drive any distance without being stopped. Mr. Saakashvili said that was so because every traffic cop was expected to pay his supervisor a regular cut, and every supervisor paid his senior officer, up the chain of command. "It was like a pyramid," he said in an interview in his office in Tbilisi, Georgia's capital. "The police were the biggest headache in this country."

For Mr. Saakashvili, who has taken to fighting corruption with vigor, the traffic police, known here as GAI (pronounced ga-EE), were the perfect opponent for his fight card - flabby, unpopular and crooked, ready-made for a quick knockdown. He disbanded them in July. A new force was recruited, trained and dispatched by mid-August. Called the Patrol Police, it has a broader mission than traffic enforcement and is modeled after American state police. It is also smaller than GAI, with 1,600 officers, and better paid than the old, to reduce the temptation to levy informal driving taxes.

To those of us who grew up in India, this sounds eerily familiar. You knew that if you were stopped by the cops, they would find some way or the other to extract a "fine." Therefore, it would be very interesting to see if this little experiment in Georgia will work. In this context, it is also interesting to note PM Manmohan Singh's promise to end the "tyranny of the Inspector Raj" made in a speech at the JRD Tata centennary celebrations yesterday.

Monday, August 23, 2004

E-Bay takes a stake in Craig's List 

No website epitomises the participatory/community feel of the fledgling Internet as much as Craig's List does. So, I was a little surprised when I heard that E-Bay had acquired a minority stake in CL. So, I googled a little to figure out what Craig Newmark thought of the deal and came up with this interview in the San Francisco Chronicle. It's a long-ish interview, but worth a read since it gives some insight into the the business model and also into the early history of CL.

In the meanwhile, those of you who really, really have time on your hands/are doing ph.d's can amuse yourself by checking out the Best of Craig's List. It includes such posts as free set of air drums, good morning al-qaeda, free prosthetic arm and my dog the nihilist. Enjoy.

Gandhi and the Middle East 

I have often wondered why the Palestinians haven't ever adopted lessons from the Gandhi playbook on dealing with a militarily powerful opponent. Clearly, stones and AK-47's are no match for Apache helicopters and M1A1 Abrams tanks, so why bother? What may work is moral superiority of the sort Gandhi used so effectively against the British. Instead, the Palestinian movement seems intent on destroying their own case and credibility (in the court of world public opinion) by the continued use of violence as a weapon. Why? This is a question I have never managed to answer, but Brian Whitaker attempts to, albeit in a different context. He asks this question in terms of the wider middle east region, rather than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

He didn't believe in killing people - or animals, for that matter - but he did understand the principles of asymmetric warfare, now used by bin Laden and others to fight a more powerful enemy with ingenuity and minimal resources. It might be argued that Gandhi took asymmetric warfare to its logical conclusion: dispensing with weapons altogether, he relied instead on mass public support and moral superiority."Nothing but organised non-violence," he wrote, "can check the organised violence of the British government."

In the Middle East, though, his ideas have less appeal. Maybe it's because a wispy vegetarian in granny glasses and loincloth doesn't fit with Arab views of a manly hero.

A number of Muslim writers have made a plausible case for Islamic non-violence. One is the elderly Syrian scholar, Jawdat Said, who watched the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt during the 1950s and predicted that the use of violence by Islamic movements would eventually prove self-destructive. One problem with "non-violence" is that the word sounds rather negative when translated into Arabic, implying passivity and surrender. Khishtainy therefore uses an alternative term - "civil jihad" - which sounds more positive and in some ways better reflects Gandhi's methods.

Whatever people call it, though, it's still liable to freak out the authorities. In the Syrian town of Darya, a small group of citizens got together, influenced by Jawdat Said's ideas of Islamic non-violence. They set up a free library and showed a number of videos (all of them licensed by the authorities) - including one on the life of Gandhi. They also discouraged bribery and smoking, and did some voluntary work to clean up the town. In Syria, as in much of the Arab world, it is easy to see how a bit of unpaid street-cleaning might be interpreted as a subversive message to the government, and quite possibly that is what the people who did it intended.

Now, Gandhi's interpretation of of "asymmetric" works when one's opponents are the British or anyone imbibed with some sense of fairplay. What if you aim your non-violent protests at the Syrian government instead?

In Darya, the final straw came in May last year when the non-violent activists held a silent march protesting against the invasion of Iraq. A few days later, 22 men were ordered to report to Military Security. Eleven were kept in detention until January this year, and seven more until April. The remaining four were tried in secret by a Field Military Court and convicted for the bizarre offence of "attempting to establish a religious organisation, involvement in unlicensed social activities and attending unlicensed religious and intellectual classes".

Gandhi once cheerfully remarked that prison enabled him to catch up on lost sleep, but the experience of the four Syrians has been very different. The men are now being held in Sednaya prison, about 15 miles north of Damascus, in what Amnesty International describes as "extremely unhealthy, dehumanising and degrading" conditions. "They have been subjected to various forms of torture and ill-treatment, including threats and insults; having their fingers crushed; beatings to their face and legs; having cold water thrown over them or their blankets; being forced to stand for long periods during the night; hearing loud screams and beatings of other detainees; sleep deprivation; being stripped naked in front of others; and being prevented from praying, and from growing a beard.

It is true that one must choose one's opponents with care when applying methods from the Gandhi playbook. Like I said earier, a sense of fairplay is key. That said, what may not work against the Syrian or Iranian government will certainly work against more fair minded (which the large majority of Israelis are) opponents. And that's why I remain puzzled as to why the Palestinian do not adopt Gandhian methods. Whitaker does a reasonable job of explaining why Gandhi's ideas lacks appeal in the wider middle east, but in the territories?

Globalisation, meet Jim Morrison (sort of) 

This nugget is courtesy of Mark Kaplan's Charlotte Web..

Speaking of a unified world, one of my American students confided in me after a trip abroad "they don't seem to have a cafe culture in Italy, do they?" 'What?," I stammered. 'Well, I didn't see a single Starbucks all the time I was there."

As Jim Morrison might have said, 'I've been steeped in simulacra so damn long, it sure looks like the real to me."

Blog On 

Reuben was so kind as to induct me into this fine group, though I'm still not clear what "wetware" or "Zoo station" refer to. Chalk it up to me being officially old and out of touch.

I have resisted blogging for a long time, but I jump into the blogosphere knowing I'm surrounded by very smart people. I'm eager to find more viewpoints - your viewpoints. You see, my area of research is exactly this type of dynamic - participatory journalism. Most of my work concentrates on wikis, and specifically, studying the collaboratively edited free encyclopedia, Wikipedia, and how communities self-organize in environments without strict editorial policies or operational hierarchies. It's one of the few examples of an "intercreative" space and a "writable" web, originally envisioned by Tim Berners-Lee.

One person who is a pioneer in both web logs and wikis is Isaac Mao, a China-based netizen who has effectively used both publishing tools, in a country not exactly know for freedom of information. Isaac started one of the first web log hosting servers in China. He's also used wikis to coordinate the translation of Larry Lessig's book Free Culture into Chinese, all by having volunteers come to the site to translate a word, a sentence, a paragraph, a page, a chapter, or whatever they can contribute. This is where the wiki concept truly shines. Lessig's book talks about technology, law, history, business and politics. Finding a single translator knowledgeable in all these fields would be a challenge. With a wiki, folks from multiple disciplines can pitch in their expertise, without having to worry about the daunting task of full translation. (Many other fine examples are told by journalist, and teaching colleague, Dan Gillmor, who has put out a fine book, We the Media: Grassroots Journalism, By the People, For the People.)

Participatory journalism has filled a knowledge gap that has traditionally existed between the news and the history books. I like to describe it this way - if news is the first draft of history, then Web logs are the first commentary on history and Wikipedia is the working draft of history.

Most strikingly, it is ordinary citizens, not the mainstream media outlets, creating this new content as grassroots efforts. While these are largely text- and photo-oriented right now, this activity of citizen-generated content is starting to extend to audio and video, with the proliferation of broadband and P2P networks. Exciting times are ahead for both mature and developing economies alike.

So I look forward to posting on all things about technology, China, India, greater Asia, East-West politics, online communities, sociology and anything that will change the world.

Number crunching 

I came across this excellent article in The Economist on sections of society surviving without the concept of numbers. While understanding and making use of the abstract concept that is a number is driven by economic need, the fact that economists conducted experiments with a tribe whose concept of a numerical system is 'one - two - many' is pretty curious. Also, I wish the article were a lot longer. If you guys have other sources with material related to this line of thought, let me know.

While recognizing that there are such things as colors for which you have no name is certainly a cognitive leap, it may not be a good test of Whorf's ideas. Colors, after all, are out there everywhere. Numbers, by contrast, are abstract, so may be a better test. Dr Gordon therefore spent a month with the Pirahã and elicited the help of seven of them to see how far their grasp of numbers extended.

Using objects with which the participants were familiar (sticks, nuts and—perhaps surprisingly—small batteries), he asked his subjects to perform a variety of tasks designed to measure their ability to count. Most of these tests involved the participant matching the number and layout of a group of objects that Dr Gordon had arranged on a table.

The tests began simply, with a row of, say, seven evenly spaced batteries. Gradually, they got more complicated. The more complicated tests included tasks such as matching numbers of unevenly spaced objects, replicating the number of objects from memory, and copying a number of straight lines from a drawing.

Sunday, August 22, 2004

The Scream goes missing 

It is perhaps the most parodied work of Expressionist art and as far as recognizability goes, ranks right up there with Che. Edvard Munch's The Scream, along with his other famous work, Madonna, was stolen from a crowded museum in Oslo on Sunday. If you scroll down the story in the NYT, you'll see an AP picture of one of the thieves actually running away with Madonna.

The painting, which features a haunted-looking stick of a man howling on a bridge under a sunset, is an icon of the modern Expressionist school of painting and has been replicated humorously on coffee mugs, T-shirts and shower curtains the world over. The other stolen painting, "Madonna," is perhaps the second best-known image by the artist.

" 'The Scream' is in a league by itself," said Franck Giraud, a New York art dealer and a former head of modern art at Christie's. "It's almost impossible to value, but if it were for sale today, it could sell for over $100 million and become the most expensive painting in the world."

Art experts said that given the fame of both "The Scream" and "Madonna," it would be nearly impossible to sell them to a collector. They speculated instead that the thieves would demand some form of ransom. That is what happened in 1994, when another version of "The Scream" was stolen and later recovered.

Friday, August 20, 2004

Rainier trumps Budweiser 

Everytime I think the tone on this blog is getting too serious, I come across a story that effectively lightens the mood. And kudos to the BBC for bringing much-needed comic relief into our lives. Apparently, its not just me who thinks Budweiser is a shyte beer.

A black bear went on a binge at a campsite in the US state of Washington - guzzling down some 36 cans of beer. Campground workers were stunned to come across the bear sleeping off the effects in their grounds, surrounded by dozens of empty beer cans. But this was no ordinary case of a bear with a sore head at Baker Lake resort, 80 miles (129km) northeast of Seattle. He had apparently tried out and rejected the mass-market Busch beer in favour of local brand Rainier.

The bear appeared to have got into campers' cool boxes and used his teeth and claws to puncture the cans. Fish and wildlife enforcement Sgt Bill Heinck said the bear tried one can of Busch and ignored the rest - then got stuck into three dozen cans of Rainier. "This is a new one on me," Sgt Heinck said in an Associated Press report. "I've known them to get into cans, but nothing like this. And it definitely had a preference."

Now, you know that TV tax in the U.K. (which funds Auntie) is being put to good use.

PS: Can someone who lives in Washington confirm that the bear was indeed displaying sophistication and good taste while rejecting Rainier for Budwesier? [Ed: mistake noted]

Update: Anand corrected me by pointing out that the bear rejected Busch beer, not Budweiser (I admit I was just taking a gratuitous swipe at Bud). Secondly, the bear did not reject Rainier. Apologies all around, including to the Anheuser-Busch company, black bears, readers who are fans of Budwesier and to the under-utilised editorial scythe.

PPS: Busch is every bit as bad a beer as Budweiser. Will someone in Washington now confirm whether the bear was indeed displaying sophistication and good taste while rejecting Busch beer for Rainier beer?

Fear and loathing, Thompson style 

Only Hunter S. Thompson would attempt and successfully pull off a take on modern history from the sports desk. The second celebrity flower power product after John Perry Barlow to vent anger against the GOP in the past few weeks, Thompson doesn't pull any punches in his tirade against Bush Jr. In his new book, Blood Sport, the Bush Doctrine, and the Downward Spiral of Dumbness: Modern History From the Sports Desk, Thompson disses everyone from sportscasters to NFL, all the time maintaining a perspective of current political affairs. Like I said, this seemingly convoluted task could only be pulled off by someone as brilliant or as under the influence as Thompson. Excerpts from a review in the Washington Post.

Thompson is a genuinely unique figure in American journalism, a superb comic writer and a ferociously outspoken social and political critic. Anything he writes is worth reading, even when it radiates serious signs of having been composed under the influence of something rather more hallucinating than office coffee. So at least Thompson would like us to believe, since spaced-out is the persona he adopted back in the 1960s and has lived off ever since. No doubt he's done his share of bad (and good) stuff, but my hunch is that in significant measure this is an act; you don't think as clearly as Thompson does or write as much as he does -- more than a dozen books to date, not to mention fugitive journalism and scads of letters -- in a state of perpetual, drug-induced nirvana.

A case can be made, in fact, that the drug that Thompson really gets high on is outrage. "Fear and loathing" has been his mantra for more than three decades, and these columns contain plenty of evidence that it's still what keeps him going. In his first ESPN piece, written in November 2000, he warned readers that "we are living in dangerously weird times now," and even though one senses that he's writing on autopilot, the theme is Thompson to the core. Two years later, with the aftershocks of the 2001 terrorist attacks still reverberating, he insisted that "we are living in unnaturally savage times, folks," and in the summer of 2003, with "that stupid, fraudulent" war in Iraq going from bad to worse for the Bush administration, his outrage peaked:

"The American nation is in the worst condition I can remember in my lifetime, and our prospects for the immediate future are even worse. I am surprised and embarrassed to be a part of the first American generation to leave the country in far worse shape than it was when we first came into it. Our highway system is crumbling, our police are dishonest, our children are poor, our vaunted Social Security, once the envy of the world, has been looted and neglected and destroyed by the same gang of ignorant, greed-crazed bastards who brought us Vietnam, Afghanistan, the disastrous Gaza Strip, and ignominious defeat all over the world."

Thursday, August 19, 2004

New team blogger 

Folks, we have a brilliant new addition to Team Zoo Station -- Prof Andrew Lih of the journalism and media studies department at Hong Kong University. Andrew is a good friend and former colleague of mine. Before joining HKU as director of technology and assistant professor, Andrew was director of technology and adjunct professor at Columbia University's Journalism School. Widely regarded as one of the top new media experts of the world, Andrew also co-founded the Interactive Design Lab at Columbia. Before joining Columbia's J-School as faculty, Andrew spent a few years at Bell Labs researching user interface design issues and software systems.

Andrew, welcome to Zoo Station. I hope you'll enjoy blogging on here as much as we'll enjoy reading your posts.

Summary of Poll data 

Here is an interesting website that keeps track of all the latest polling data on the U.S. presidential race. Since its a comprehensive (mother of all polls, if you will) and up-to-date (literally by the day), it's a good place to look at for emerging trends. And the current trends indicate this --

Needed to Win: 270 Electoral Votes
All states (based on most-current poll only):
Bush = 207 Electoral Votes
Kerry = 301 Electoral Votes
Tied = 30 Electoral Votes

Cause for optimism? If this trend continues after the Republican convention, maybe! In the meanwhile, stop looking at national poll data and look at state level data instead. As the last election proved, winning the popular vote doesn't amount to much in the electoral college-based system in the U.S. You can have razor-thin margins in national polls and yet have a comprehensive winner of the electoral college votes.

Update: Andrew pointed me to this site, which presents some of the same information in a graphic format.

A Real battle for online music 

By now, you've heard of Real Networks taking the battle to Itunes by offering songs at $0.49 (compared to $0.99 at Itunes) and entire albums for between $4.99 and $5.50 each at its Real Music Store. The store supports a whole range of music players including the Ipod, the iRiver, most players from the Creative Nomad stable and even the Palm Zire, the Treo 600 etc. In principle, i.e.

I spent several hours trying to make my Zen work with the Real Harmony player (which you need, to play stuff downloaded from the store), with no luck. The problem here is that Real lets you download in a proprietary format called RAX (some version of AAC), which requires a firmware upgrade to play on the Zen. After trying for a long while, I figured that I should have taken Real's warning about Harmony being in beta stage seriously. Clearly, there is a bug in the current build that prevented the songs from being transferred despite several firmware upgrades.

There's still a solution, right? Yes, you need to burn the tracks you bought onto a CD and then rip back in MP3. Just make sure you transfer one song at a time (it claims insufficient rights if you try to transfer all the tracks at one go) and then burn the entire CD in audio format. I had no problem ripping the CD back into MP3 format afterwards. As a result, I am listening to Thievery Corporation's excellent new album, The Outernational Sound (bought at $4.99), as I write this post.

The point of this post is to alert y'all to the fact that buying 4 CD's for $20 is a superb deal and the Real store does have a huge selection, including an entire section of Indian music. The only trouble is the burn and rip back thing if there's a compatibility issue with your MP3 player. On the other hand, if you dont have an MP3 player and just want to buy some cheap music, this is a fantastic opportunity. I dont expect this offer to last for too long since Real has got to be losing money selling music at these prices. This is just Real's attempt to lure customers from the Itunes store. At these prices, it just might work.

The Economist on C.K.Prahalad 

I figured CKP would attract a lot of attention in the wake of the publication of "Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid," the new book that exhorts businessmen to look anew at the fortune that lies untapped at the bottom of the economic pyramid. In its current issue, the Economist reviews CKP's ideas in its Face Value column.

He is a fierce critic of traditional top-down thinking on aid, by governments and non-governmental organisations alike. They tend to see the poor as victims to be helped, he says, not as people who can be part of the solution—and so their help often creates dependency. Nor does he pin much hope on the “corporate social responsibility” (CSR) programmes of many large companies. If you want serious commitment from a firm, he says, its involvement with the poor “can't be based on philanthropy or CSR”.

Mr Prahalad reckons that there are huge potential profits to be made from serving the 4 billion-5 billion people on under $2 a day—an economic opportunity he values globally at $13 trillion a year. The win for the poor of being served by big business includes, he says, being empowered by choice and being freed from having to pay the currently widespread “poverty penalty”. In shanty towns near Mumbai, for example, the poor pay a premium on everything from rice to credit—often five to 25 times what the rich pay for the same services. Driving down these premiums can make serving the BOP more profitable than serving the top, he argues, and points to a growing number of leading firms—from Unilever in India to Cemex in Mexico and Casas Bahia in Brazil—that are profiting by doing precisely that.

But to be profitable, firms cannot simply edge down market fine-tuning the products they already sell to rich customers. Instead, they must thoroughly re-engineer products to reflect the very different economics of BOP: small unit packages, low margin per unit, high volume. Big business needs to swap its usual incremental approach for an entrepreneurial mindset, because BOP markets need to be built not simply entered.

Mr Prahalad worries that firms may be deterred from BOP strategies by fear of attracting criticism from activists. If a large international bank were to start lending to the poor at interest rates, reflecting higher risks and start-up costs, of say 20% (compared with around 10% in rich countries), “the whole anti-globalisation lobby would probably be against it. Yet the alternative is for the poor to borrow at 500% from a money lender. Whose side are the activists on?” If you are on the side of the poor, he says, “surely you need to help get rates down from 500% to 20%. After that, you can work on getting them from 20% to 10% like in the rich world.”

The more time I spend in the economic development space, the more I am convinced that CKP is fundamentally right, with one minor caveat. I think businesses who buy into the BOP strategy would be well-advised to first tap the top (say 10%) of the bottom of the pyramid first rather than try to tap the whole of the BOP. We have tried hard to keep this in mind while trying to implement the RISC model.

PS: I havent read the book yet, only the background papers that have been in circulation for a while now. I ought to get the book tomorrow. Will try and post a review after I finish with reading it.

Beam me across the Danube, Scotty! 

The BBC is reporting that physicists have achieved a breakthrough in long-distance teleportation by tranferring key properties of light particles 600m across the Danube in Austria.

Researchers from the University of Vienna and the Austrian Academy of Science used an 800m-long optical fibre fed through a public sewer system tunnel to connect labs on opposite sides of the River Danube. The link establishes a channel between the labs, dubbed Alice and Bob. This enables the properties, or "quantum states", of light particles to be transferred between the sender (Alice) and the receiver (Bob).

Quantum teleportation relies on an aspect of physics known as "entanglement"; whereby the properties of two particles can be tied together even when they are far apart. Einstein called it "spooky action at a distance". The Nature study used an experimental method in which Alice performs a joint measurement on one photon in the entangled pair and on an "input" photon. As a result of this measurement, Bob transforms the quantum state of the other photon in the entangled pair into that of the "input" photon.

The researchers were able to teleport three distinct polarisation states between Alice and Bob via the fibre-optic cable through the tunnel. The significance of this research was that it took place under "real world" conditions. "The really interesting question for us was whether we could do this outside a lab setting, in the environment used for today's fibre-optic communications," co-author Rupert Ursin of the University of Vienna told BBC News Online.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Patent victory for Microsoft 

In a not-so surprising decision, the US Patent Office rejected all 10 claims from Eolas' patent. Having some degree of familiarity with the patent process, what was surprising to me was the earlier decision to award Eolas about half a billion dollars.

If upheld, the patent could force Microsoft and other browser makers to take out a license if they want to run within the browser applications like Macromedia's Flash animation software, Adobe's PDF document software, or Sun's Java programming language. A workaround could disrupt millions of pages around the Web, industry and standards experts warn.

When I read Eolas' patent, what struck me was its generality - there was stuff which covered something as general as the idea of launching applications from within a browser window. Patents such as these are intended to be primarily defensive, not offensive.

One hates to side with Microsoft on anything related to intellectual property rights, but in this particular case, they have the better case. Has justice been served? That, unfortunately, is an interesting question.

A Global Currency? 

Okay, I know most of you have raised eyebrows/are smirking already. Indulge me, or rather, indulge Martin Wolf for a little bit and read on. On the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the Bretton Woods conference, it's a worthwhile question to ask whether floating exchange rates are a good replacement for the adjustable exchange-rate pegs of the Bretton Woods twins. Wolf doesnt think so. In the wake of attending two conferences on global finance (including one organised by, who else, Robert Mundell), Wolf wrote thusly in the Financial Times.

Consider the following features of the world economy today: the world's richest country is, far and away, its biggest capital importer and net debtor; the two periods of sizeable net lending to emerging market economies over the past three decades ended in financial crises and sharp reversals in lending (see chart); and, since the most recent set of global crises, emerging market economies have, in aggregate, accumulated enormous quantities of foreign currency reserves.

Ninety-seven per cent of all debt placed in international markets between 1999 and 2001 was denominated in just five currencies: the US dollar, the euro, the yen, the pound sterling and the Swiss franc. Even well-run emerging market economies, such as Chile, cannot borrow in their own currencies. Whatever the explanation for this difficulty, the limited currency composition of global lending has powerful consequences for capital flows. By definition, net borrowing then creates a potentially lethal currency mismatch. When a currency falls sharply, net borrowers will experience large balance sheet losses. Many financial institutions will be wiped out as a result of the insolvency of any debtor that is burdened by large net foreign currency liabilities.

Having either experienced this pain or watched other countries do so, competently run emerging market economies have tried to limit their net foreign currency liabilities. This has been particularly true of the Asian emerging market economies. These countries have attempted to preserve robust current account positions. They have also recycled inflows of foreign direct investment into official holdings of foreign currency assets, principally US treasury securities.

A world in which borrowing abroad is hugely dangerous for most relatively poor countries is undesirable. A world that compels the anchor currency country to run huge current account deficits looks unstable. We should seek to lift these constraints. The simplest way to do so would be to add a global currency to a global economy. For emerging market economies, at least, this would be a huge boon.

Irrational number-crunching 

This is further to Jaideep’s recent post about the role of emotion in economics. The fact that people are irrational is not new, even for economists: Adam Smith wrote about it as long ago as the 18th century. The problem is one of technology: it’s just extremely difficult to model a marketplace in which the actors are heterogeneous and irrational [1]. To make the analysis more tractable, classical economic theory assumes that people are uniform and rational – more like Mr. Spock than Capt. Kirk.

This is not an entirely arbitrary assumption. We can invoke the ‘efficient markets hypothesis’ to argue that arbitrageurs will always iron out any local inefficiencies (‘irrationalities’) so that the market as a whole behaves rationally, and is thus amenable to classical analysis. Unfortunately, the efficient markets hypothesis fails to hold in many real-life scenarios: for instance, when irrational traders outnumber rational ones by a significant margin. As Keynes famously put it, “the market can remain irrational for longer than you can remain solvent”.

But I digress. Coming back to the topic of behavioural economics, the great breakthrough achieved by Kahneman, Tversky and others was to realize that although people are irrational, they are often irrational in consistent ways. And these persistent biases can be isolated empirically, using ingenious experiments that measure how people react to risk and reward. The results of these experiments (‘asymmetric utility functions’, for example) can then be plugged into analytical models of irrational behaviour. Voila!

For further reading, the Economist has a comprehensive report on the history and ideas current in this field. (The report was published in late 1999, at a time when theories of irrational behaviour were in vogue – I wonder why). Also of interest is the introductory chapter of Camerer, Loewenstein & Rabin’s review of the field, ‘Advances in Behavioral Economics’, which can be found here.

[1] As an aside, the advent of cheap computation has spawned a new field called ‘intelligent agent theory’, in which individual (possibly heterogeneous and irrational) actors interact in simulated marketplaces. Call it ‘experimental economics'.

Monday, August 16, 2004

Should New York City secede? 

Anyone who has visited New York city will note the stark difference between the city and the rest of the United States. Talk of NYC seceding is neither new nor does it only emanate solely from liberals pissed off with how conservative the rest of the country is. The occasional conservative has been known to suggest that New York be cut away from the mainland and floated down the Atlantic. Since NYC's secession is an idea that both liberals and conservatives agree on, perhaps it does have some merit and deserves more attention. In this piece from New York magazine, Jennifer Senior examines the issue with all the mock seriousness she can muster.

New York has always felt like a nation apart. In a country that grows ever redder, it is the bluest of blue cities in one of the bluest of blue states, with the eccentrics to match. Eric Bogosian, with those three cubic feet of curls and black-leather car coat; Harvey Weinstein, with his public tantrums and highfalutin taste; Ed Koch; Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson; the Black Israelites preaching in Times Square; Mexican kitchen workers preparing sushi in Korean delis—could any of them find a home anywhere but New York? Only in New York. Psychically, then, New York already seems headed out of the union—so why not go all the way?

After contemptuously dismissing the idea, even the crustiest, crankiest city officials will say that, yes, the Democratic Republic of New York is a very interesting place to contemplate. How fabulous our national anthem would be. How cool our currency, the york, would look. Vera Wang could design our flags, Groucho Marx would be on our stamps; we’d all agree not to have a national bird (sorry, pigeon). Bill Clinton could be president again.

The question of New York secession first came up in 1861, under circumstances that showed just this kind of ruthless pragmatism, when Mayor Fernando Wood hoped to preserve the right to trade with both the North and the South. Most other New York City secession proposals have focused on becoming a separate state. In 1788, Alexander Hamilton warned that the city’s secession was “inevitable” if the state failed to ratify the Constitution. In 1969, Norman Mailer and Jimmy Breslin ran on a mayoral platform arguing that the city, needing local control of its services and finances, should become the 51st state. The most inspired part of their proposal contended that the city had dibs on the name “New York.” The rest of the state, they suggested, should be renamed “Buffalo.”

“I knew I couldn’t live in America and I wasn’t ready to move to Europe, so I moved to an island off the coast of America—New York City,” said the late Spalding Gray, the quintessential New Yorker.

What about that minor issue called defense?

Perhaps, in the end, what we New Yorkers would have to do is redefine our conception of defense. Our primary mission would be to defend ourselves and only ourselves, just like the Swiss: There’d be no training to fight in deserts or the Arctic, no heavy equipment devoted to razing jungles and boring into caves. Install a couple of surface-to-air missiles under the Brooklyn Heights promenade and call it a day. Or better yet, let Donald Trump build a fortress on the West Side, paint it gold, and crown it with his name in four-story neon lights. That would scare off any barbarians at the gate, sure as a Scud.

All that’d be left would be normalizing relations with the United States. It’d be ugly at first, but eventually we’d find that special someone, that perfect ambassador who both speaks the red-state language but still unambiguously represents New York. Again, I’m thinking the Donald. I have two words for you, Mr. Trump: You’re hired.

This is the sort of fantasy every New Yorker likes to indulge in. An ideal universe with the United Nation of Manhattan at its centre. And while we're at it, we must also do our damndest to help Staten Island secede from the city. They've been trying since 1993 to do so. I bet they could use some help. After all New Yorkers are helpful, if nothing else, right?

Sunday, August 15, 2004

The economics of emotion 

I have always found it difficult, even in the most superficial of conversations, to explain away emotion while discussing market economics. For instance, how do you explain the suicidal feelings of a farmer in north Karnataka who is too proud to cash in his crop insurance or the indignation of an urbanite in Bangalore who refuses to pay a 'Gujarat tax' to help rehabilitation efforts in the riot-hit state? I know some of you have made these issues the subject of academic pursuit, so I'm posting this article from Newsweek on behavioral economics.

For all its intellectual power and its empirical success as a creator of wealth, free-market economics rests on a fallacy, which economists have politely agreed among themselves to overlook. This is the belief that people apply rational calculations to economic decisions, ruling their lives by economic models. Of course, economists know that the world doesn't actually work this way; if it did, you wouldn't need a financial adviser to remind you to save for retirement. But until recently the anomalies were chalked up to the pernicious influence of emotions, emanations from the primitive regions of the brain, a kind of mental noise interfering with the pure, rational expression of economic self-interest.

The new paradigm sweeping the field, under the rubric of "behavioral economics," holds that studying what people actually do is at least as valuable as deriving equations for what they should do. And when you look at human behavior, you discover, as Camerer and his collaborator George Loewenstein of Carnegie Mellon have written, that "the Platonic metaphor of the mind as a charioteer driving twin horses of reason and emotion is on the right track—except that cognition is a smart pony, and emotion a big elephant." The fMRI machine enables researchers in the emerging field of neuro-economics to investigate the interplay of fear, anger, greed and altruism that are activated each time we touch that most intimate of our possessions, our wallets.

The Windows Alternative 

Low-cost/affordable computing is an issue that's been covered several times on this blog. Besides the obvious hardware cost, there is the monopoly rent charged by Microsoft on its software which inflates the cost of computing. The obvious alternative is Linux and I have mentioned before that I saw more Linux-oriented ads on TV in India than I have ever seen in the U.S. As Linux gets more and more user-friendly, becomes more compatible with office software, and governments get more interested, is Microsoft facing a real threat of losing its desktop monopoly? Here is Wade Roush's take after he bought a Linspire-based system at Wal-Mart for $278 (apprx INR 12,500).

It had a respectable 1.6-gigahertz processor, a serviceable 40-gigabyte hard drive, a CD-ROM drive, an MP3 player, and enough other software to keep me occupied for life, though supporting it all was a barely adequate 128 megabytes of RAM.Rather than Windows and Office, it came with Linspire 4.5, one of the many commercial versions of the open-source Linux operating system that are now available, and a link to a website where I could download a variety of open-source applications.

True, Microsoft still commands 94 percent of the market for PC operating systems. But Linux is gaining fast. Software that gives a Linux machine the look, feel, and functions of a Windows PC is available both in free, unsupported versions and in souped-up commercial versions from a growing group of companies such as Novell, Red Hat, Sun Microsystems, and Lindows, the company that makes the Linspire system. In Toronto, customers can walk into the world’s first retail Linux store, Sub500.com, and walk out with a Linspire workstation for as little as $222. Over the last three years, the fraction of home and office PCs powered by Linux has roughly doubled, to almost 3 percent, and it’s set to double again before the end of 2005, according to market research firm IDC. Linux’s market share has already surpassed Apple’s, and every 1 percent gain for Linux sucks millions of dollars a year out of Microsoft’s revenues. Much of that money stays in the pockets of businesses and consumers.

The flowering of open source on the desktop seems certain to change the balance of power in personal computing. Linux’s availability is already driving price reductions—even for Windows machines—that are opening up computing and the Internet to millions around the world who would otherwise be unable to afford PCs. Inside businesses, open source is helping IT departments cope with today’s smaller budgets and freeing up money that can be reinvested in new technologies.

OpenOffice is a core reason for the ascension of the Linux desktop. Based on initially proprietary software that was later made open source by Sun, it includes a word processor, a spreadsheet program, a presentation builder, and an image editor and has become one of the most popular open-source alternatives to Microsoft’s productivity software. The key feature of OpenOffice is that it behaves pretty much the same way users of Windows software would expect—which means that any number of people could, in principle, become Windows defectors the next time they or their companies buy new computers or upgrade aging software.

The folks at Redmond are clearly nervous Linux's potential in emerging markets. The move to offer a stripped-down version of XP is clearly an attempt to cover that flank. However, this version lets you run only 3 programs at a time and pricing details are not available yet. MS has got to be kidding if they think this strategy will work. They've got to find a way of offering a reasonable version of XP+Office for about 20 bucks if they want to grab market share. MS strategy folks are probably staring down the barrel. They know they need to grab the emerging markets of Asia for the continued success of the company in the OS business. Trouble is that noone in Asia seems in the mood to pay for monopoly rent, especially when a viable alternative called Linux exists. How this plays out will be fascinating to watch.

The importance of remittances 

I have argued several times on this blog that inward remittances are a reasonable trade-off for the so-called brain drain in developing countries. As I had mentioned in an earlier post referring to India, even ball-park estimates of the amount India loses every year due to the brain drain factor would not cross $4-$5 billion a year. Compare that with the approximate $10 billion India makes every year from remittances (mind you, all such estimates are bound to be under-estimates, given the nature of remittances). Clearly, a net-positive. The Economist has more on the increasing importance of remittances to developing countries.

According to a recent study* by Dilip Ratha, an economist at the World Bank, remittances amounted to $93 billion last year. This is more than poor countries received from aid or capital markets. The real number, Mr Ratha says, may be twice as high—making remittances greater than foreign direct investment and in some countries more valuable than exports.

What is plain, however, is the importance to several countries of emigrants' remittances. These payments provide more than a quarter of GDP for Jordan, Lesotho, Nicaragua, Haiti and Tonga, and more than 5% for many others. In 36 countries, remittances exceed all other imports of capital combined, public and private.

As a source of finance, remittances have several advantages. Unlike development loans, they do not come with a liability or an obligation to pay interest. They are sent directly to the people for whom they are intended and thus cannot be squandered by governments. They are a more stable funding source than foreign direct investment (and even more stable than portfolio flows).

It's not all rosy though.

Despite their virtues, remittances can also be a source of trouble. How much trouble, no one can tell. Because it is hard to know the size of the flows, it is hard to be sure that the mass of tiny transactions are not being used to launder money or finance terrorism. Applying know-your-customer rules to millions of tiny transactions is plainly impossible. Trying to stop suspicious flows can be costly to recipient economies: recent efforts by Saudi Arabia (after America, the largest source of remittances) to crack down on the financing of terrorism have had a discernible effect on money being sent back to the Philippines. There may also be economic costs associated with reliance on remittances. Like any unearned wealth, they may foster idleness among those who benefit. They might result in what economists call “Dutch disease”, pushing up the value of a nation's currency.

A more philanthropic world? 

A bunch of us had a back-and-forth about philanthropy in response to an earlier post made by Vinay. In that context, I figured this special carried by the Economist on increasing philanthropic activities around the world (and especially in the United States, where it has crossed 2% of GDP) might be of interest to several of you.

Measuring philanthropy is difficult, but two things are clear. Private giving is small in all rich countries, relative to state spending. And American generosity outstrips that of most other countries, especially in money terms, and particularly if gifts to religious bodies are included. Excluding donations to religious congregations (an important point where America is concerned), giving varied in developed countries in the second half of the 1990s from around 1% of GDP in the United States (and 1.3% in Israel, where much generosity comes from abroad) to less than 0.1% in Italy, where cash donations account for the same proportion of GDP as they do in India.

Of course, money is not everything.Around 60% of private giving takes the form of volunteering, the value of which he measures by ascribing to it the average wage of a community worker. Volunteering turns out to be particularly high in the Netherlands, Sweden and other Scandinavian countries, as well as in a few developing countries.

Why do people give money and time? On the face of it, the idea of working to earn money, only to give it away is an odd one. Economists, typically baffled by selflessness, have tended to hunt for hidden self-interest in apparent altruism. One recent study† found the reverse: people gave more willingly if they could cloak their altruism in apparent self-interest. When asked to give to a highly worthy cause (to help emotionally disturbed children), the donation rate trebled if donors were offered a product in exchange for their gift. But when asked to give to a mildly worthy cause (helping a team to buy sports equipment), the offer of a present made no difference.

The piece also goes into some detail on how tax structures affect giving.

Taxes affect giving in two ways. High taxes reduce people's incomes and wealth, leaving them with less money to give away. But generous tax exemptions allow people to give more with less loss of income. They cut the price of giving. Some recent studies, though, suggest that government may give up a great deal in tax revenue to stimulate fairly small amounts of giving. And the relationship between giving and taxation can have perverse effects. For example, America's charities have lobbied hard against scrapping estates tax: they fear people will cut legacies to charities out of their wills if there is no longer any tax advantage in making them.

Tax incentives probably do not cause people to give in the first place, but they may well encourage them to give more generously. They may also have a bigger impact on the wealthy, who are particularly tax-sensitive, than on ordinary mortals. The charities that attract the wealthy, such as universities and opera houses, have more to gain from tax incentives than those the poor favour, such as churches.

Review du Jour -- The Dead 

On Friday, I fulfilled one of my longest lasting dreams -- to watch The Dead live in concert. Okay, so it wasn't the Grateful Dead, but under the circumstances, watching Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzman and Phil Lesh (alongwith Jimmy Herring, Warren Haynes and Jeff Chimenti) putting on a fabulous show is more than I could ask for. I remember back in 1995 (in Bombay) thinking to myself that I would never get a chance to watch them live when they announced their disbanding after Jerry Garcia's death.

Starting with "The Wheel" and "No More Do I" the band jammed their way through "Uncle John's Band", "Let it Grow", "Dark Star", "Slipknot", "Franklin's Tower" etc before ending the show with the best encore I've ever heard at a concert -- "We Bid You Goodnight." In between all of this, they did an awesome version of, believe it or not, Metallica's "Nothing Else Matters," the first time they've played it in concert apparently. It was quite brilliant really, if it weren't for Phil Lesh suppressing a smile while attempting to do a Philip Hetfield on vocals :)

Besides the music, other little things of note included a strategically placed John Kerry for Prez sticker on Phil's speakers, which kept showing up on the large screen every time the camera focussed on Phil, which was pretty often, as you can imagine. Right before the encore, Bob Weir finally decided to end his prolonged silence by exhorting people to register to vote saying "if only everyone who was eligible to vote in Florida had voted, we wouldn't be in the mess we are in today."

And the crowd. What a crowd! Clean cut Wall St types mixed in with reprobate hippies, little children with parents, pot-smoking teenagers etc etc and every last one of them dancing for 3.5 hours plus. There was more energy flowing through the crowd at this concert than there was even at the U2 concerts in 2001, and that's saying something. In short, everything you heard about the Grateful Dead concert experience (the jams, the dancing, the vibe, the bizarre mix of people etc) is, in fact, true. And for those of you who think Coventry this weekend marks the end of something beautiful, remember thats what I thought back in 1995 about the Dead.

Friday, August 13, 2004

Saddam Hussain - A man who deserves a free and fair trial? 

P.V Bhakthavatchalam, a Chennai-based Advocate and Human Rights activist is looking to be on an international panel of lawyers who will defend Saddam Hussain, according to this article on rediff. When Saddam was captured, I had cast a few cursory thoughts on who might defend him in court, since it was clear that under the aegis of democracy, he would indeed have a 'trial'. Would it be hardline Saddam supporters? Or would the U.S or the U.N nominate a 'puppet' attorney to go through the motions? The answer, it turns out, is that some rather enterprising activists are making use of George Bush's ultimate coup as a platform to indulge in more U.S-bashing!

Consider Mr Bhaktavatchalam's background:

'Bakthavatchalam, 68, who heads the Organisation for Civil and Democratic Rights in Chennai, has defended groups like the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and Al Umma, the Islamic fundamentalist group accused of involvement in bomb blasts in Tamil Nadu'

...and his take on terrorism

'You call them terrorists, but I would say they are only fighting State terrorism. Otherwise, nobody is happy to be a terrorist. In that context, you can call Bhagat Singh and Subhas Chandra Bose terrorists. Perspectives differ. These people are wedded to a philosophy. They are also prepared to die to defend that philosophy. But the State wants to annihilate them.'

To put it mildly, one might say that he casts his vote for the underdog. Still - I do agree that everyone's viewpoint must be heard - and therefore we do need the existence of a few (mind you, just a few) Bhaktavatchalams. After all isnt that what a democracy is all about?

So why does he want to defend Saddam?

'In the case of Saddam Hussein also, I do not claim he had always been for the people. He has committed a lot of crimes against his people. But the way in which the Americans are going ahead with the trial, it is quite obvious they want to hang him'

'Whether we succeed in the case or not, we want to expose the real criminal, that is the American government machinery. Saddam is a criminal, but America is a bigger criminal. I have been exposing the government of Tamil Nadu and the Government of India all these years, now I will get a chance to expose the American government also. I felt enraged when the Americans attacked Iraq. What right do they have to attack and rob that country? It means they can also arrest Manmohan Singh and say he is against the people [of India].'

So its really not a fight to defend Saddam. Ironically enough you can see how the 'democratic-powers-that-be' cannot very well suppress this group. This makes it interesting. The trial will, I assume, focus on Saddams crimes. So is the defense actually going to plead 'not guilty'? Or, since the trial will no doubt have an enormous amount of media coverage, will they just use it as a soap-box to further attack the US, while Saddam's fate lies as a foregone conclusion? Either way, an isolated Indian viewpoint will most certainly be represented.

Perhaps a certain Michael Moore, might be a willing ally to Mr. Bhaktavatchalam's cause!

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Apple vs MS rebuttal 

As a rebuttal to Reuben's post quoting the Economist on Apple's proprietary strategy a few days back, here's an interesting take by John Gruber on Daring Fireball.

It's not hard to see how the conventional wisdom came to be. Apple had a 5-10 year lead in terms of UI design; if only they'd licensed the Mac OS in the 80s.

But we need to stop right here, because if we want to be realistic, if we want to be even vaguely rigorous while playing this particular game of "What If?", then we need to clarify exactly what Apple could have licensed in the mid-80s.

The operating system, of course, we might decide - because that's what Microsoft did, and they made tens of billions of dollars doing so.

But except Apple couldn't just license the "Mac OS" (which wasn't called "Mac OS" until the mid-90s) in 1984, because there weren't any computers that could use it. Much of the original Mac operating system was implemented in ROM, as hardware. The Mac's designers didn't do this to tie the operating system to Apple's proprietary hardware - they did this because it was necessary in terms of price, performance, and the meager memory and storage they had available. Each 400 KB floppy disk had to store the System (to boot the Mac), whatever apps you wanted to run, and your data files. Every KB of the Mac Toolbox in ROM freed up another KB of space on your floppy disks.

Or consider the display. The Mac's GUI depended on a 512-by-384 pixel monochrome display, capable of displaying text in the novel color scheme of black text on a white background. This, at a time when PC displays were typically used as character-based terminals displaying orange or green type on a black background, and displayed only 320-by-240 pixels. [Correction: 320x200 with four colors, or 640x200 monochrome.]

In short, what were then called IBM-compatible PCs were technically incapable of providing a user experience even vaguely resembling that of the Macintosh. Apple could not have simply licensed the "Mac OS" to run on any existing personal computer platform.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Free Markets and Osama 

(Via Crooked Timber) I really dont know what to make of this interesting/bizarre piece from TechCentralStation, the online home of many a libertarian. As Chris of CT points out, it could well have been written by the staff at Onion. In a nutshell, the author of the TCS piece, James Miller suggests unleashing market forces in the hunt for Osama Bin Laden by upping the bounty on his head to $1 billion.

With a $1 billion reward in place, an international group of intelligence, military and terrorist experts that could credibly claim to have, say, at least a 5% chance of finding Bin Laden could easily raise $20 million or so from the financial markets to finance their search. With several such organizations unleashed on the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan, Osama's margin of safety would shrink. If my $1 billion free market experiment were implemented and proved successful, the U.S. could offer very large rewards for other international villains. Firms would then likely come into existence that specialized in capturing different types of criminals, some, for example, going after South American drug barons while others concentrated on Middle Eastern terrorists.

The obvious moral hazard issue aside, I can think of many problems with this approach. What do these companies do *after* they capture OBL, assuming they do? Wind up the firm? Miller also seems to assume the problem with Bin Laden's capture is one of incentive. What makes him think some bounty hunter from Texas will have any more luck in Waziristan than United States special forces? Will the reward differntial between now and the hypothetical be enough to convince the ISI to cooperate more fully in the hunt for OBL?

Maybe, this article deserved to be published in the Onion, after all. However, I maintain an open mind and am willing to hear any counter-arguments from the ultra free-marketers among you. After all, I must keep in mind that it was a bounty hunter (Boba Fett) that turned Han Solo in.

The Man Who Knew Ramanujan 

I recently finished reading The Man Who Knew Infinity, Robert Kanigel’s superb biography of the Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. Readers from the subcontinent will doubtless already know many of the details of Ramanujan’s remarkable life: of his childhood in an obscure South Indian town, of his flunking out of college, of his subsequent highly individualistic researches into analytical number theory, of his ‘discovery’ by the eminent Cambridge mathematician G. H. Hardy, of his voyage to England, of his tragic death from tuberculosis just five short years later, and of his posthumous apotheosis as perhaps the greatest ‘intuitive’ mathematician of the 20th century. Mr Kanigel does an excellent job of bringing these bare facts to life; his book is full of colour and detail, and not the least bit shy of exploring reasonably advanced mathematical territory.

What struck me most forcibly about Ramanujan’s tale, though, was a sense of how easily things could have turned out differently – either for the better (for instance, if Ramanujan’s talent had been recognized and given proper support and guidance while he was still a youth) or for the worse (for instance, if Professor Hardy had not bothered to read all the way through the letter of theorems that Ramanujan had sent him). Mr Kanigel makes the same point in his introduction to the book:

It is a story of one man and his stubborn faith in his own abilities. But it is not a story that concludes, Genius will out – though Ramanujan’s, in the main, did. Because so nearly did events turn out otherwise that we need no imagination to see how the least bit less persistence, or the least bit less luck, might have consigned him to obscurity. In a way, then, this is also a story about social and educational systems, and about how they matter, and how they can sometimes nurture talent and sometimes crush it. How many Ramanujans, his life begs us to ask, dwell in India today, unknown and unrecognized? And how many in America and Britain, locked away in racial or economic ghettos, scarcely aware of worlds outside their own?

Educational systems matter; they matter a great deal.

Perversely, in Ramanujan’s case it could be argued that the system did exactly what it was supposed to do. In a 19th-century report on the educational system in India, the British civil servant William Thackeray (no relation to the novelist, as far as I’m aware) wrote:

It is very proper that in England, a good share of the produce of the earth should be appropriated to support certain families in affluence, to produce senators, sages and heroes for the service and defense of the state; or in other words, that a great part of the rent should go to opulent nobility and gentry, who are to serve their country in Parliament, in the army, in the navy, in the departments of science and liberal professions. The leisure, independence and high ideals which the enjoyment of this rent affords has enabled them to raise Britain to pinnacles of glory. Long may they enjoy it. But in India that haughty spirit, independence and deep thought which the possession of great wealth sometimes gives ought to be suppressed. They are directly averse to our power and interest. The nature of things, the past experience of all governments, renders it unnecessary to enlarge on this subject. We do not want generals, statesmen and legislators, we want industrious husbandmen. If we wanted restless and ambitious spirits there are enough of them in Malabar to supply the whole peninsula.

In other words, the Raj educational system was designed to stamp out originality and initiative, and to produce instead an army of clerks and accountants.

But to blame all of India’s educational ills on the British Raj would be to take the easy way out. The real tragedy is that a hundred years after Ramanujan, and fifty years after Independence, nothing has changed. Our system still churns out drones by the dozen, while stifling creativity and non-traditional thought. And where would Ramanujan be, were he alive today? J. B. S. Haldane answers the question:

Today in India Ramanujan could not get even a lectureship in a rural college because he had no degree. Much less could he get a post through the Union Public Service Commission. This fact is a disgrace to India. I am aware that he was offered a chair in India ­­after becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society. But it is scandalous that India’s great mean should have to wait for foreign recognition. If Ramanujan’s work had been recognized in India as early as it was in England, he might never have emigrated and might be alive today. We can cast the blame for Ramanujan’s non-recognition on the British Raj. We cannot do so when similar cases occur today.