Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Deep Throat! Finally!!! 

The greatest guessing game in the history of journalism has finally been resolved. Bob Woodward announced today their secret source from the Watergate investigations -- Deep Throat -- was, in fact, W. Mark Felt, the No:2 man at the FBI. While only 3 people -- Carl Bernstein, Bob Woodward and Ben Bradlee -- knew of the identity of the mysterious Deep Throat, speculation was rife as to who Deep Throat really was. Possible candidates included Pat Buchanan (who worked in the Nixon White House) and Henry Kissinger.

Earlier today, Bob Woodward confirmed that Mark Felt was in fact Deep Throat after Felt and his family broke his silence in a Vanity Fair story. Obviously, I could go on and on, but I'd recommend heading over to the Washington Post (the newspaper that started it all) and read their account. Or else, you could also read the story in Vanity Fair, which effectively sccoped the Washington Post on one of the biggest stories in journalism.

PS: Give Nixon his due. He had suspected at several points that Mark Felt may have been the mysterious source for Woodward and Bernstein.

PPS: If there's anyone among you who is wondering (and I really hope there are none) what this post is on about , you need to head over to IMDB or Amazon and rectify the situation. Pronto.

Geldof announces Live 8 

Bob Geldof has announced plans for the biggest free concert he has organised since Live Aid. The concert which is being held to coincide with the G-8 summit in Scotland, to highlight the problems of global poverty, is being held at Hyde Park in London, alongwith concerts in Philadelphia, Berlin and Rome. Here is a full list of artists scheduled to play.

Hyde Park, London

Coldplay, Dido, Sir Elton John, Keane, Annie Lennox, Madonna, Mariah Carey, Muse, Scissor Sisters, Sir Paul McCartney, Joss Ston, Stereophonics, Sting, Robbie Williams, U2, REM, Velvet Revolver, Bob Geldof, The Killers, The Cure, Snow Patrol

Museum of Art, Philadelphia

Will Smith (host), Bon Jovi, Maroon 5, P Diddy, Stevie Wonder, Jay-Z, The Dave Matthews Band, Sarah McLachlan, Rob Thomas, Keith Urban, 50 Cent, Kaiser Chiefs

Eiffel Tower, Paris

Jamiroquai, Craig David, Youssou N'Dour, Yannick Noah, Andrea Bocelli, Calo Gero, Kyo Placebo, Axelle Red, Johnny Halliday, Manu Chao, Renaud

Brandenburg Gate, Berlin

A-ha, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Brian Wilson, Lauryn Hill, Bap Die Toten Hosen, Peter Maffay

Circus Maximus, Rome

Duran Duran, Faith Hill, Irene Grandi, Jovanotti, Tim McGraw, Nek, Laura Pasini, Vasco Rossi, Zucchero

As you can see, the venues are spectacular, the arists are absolutely top-of-the-line and if you can't watch it live, you ought to be able to watch it live on the BBC. It will almost certainly drive an enormous amount of attention to the G-8 summit and the Blair and Brown agenda for Africa. Whether any of this will have any effect at all on poverty in Africa remains to be seen.

An emerging India-China battleground 

Most of the bandwidth on competition between India and China has been hogged by China's attempt to break into the software market and India's attempt to become more competitive in manufacturing. And yes, much has been written in the past year about the competition for resources, especially for oil and natural gas. But, Keith Bradsher of the NYT argues that the competition between the two countries now extends into diamond polishing, an industry long dominated by India.

India excels at polishing diamonds as tiny as a hundredth of a carat. Masters of this craft in Antwerp, Belgium, and in Tel Aviv excel at handling diamonds of a carat or more. But pushing into the broad middle as the newest diamond power is China, a nation long enamored of jade that ignored diamonds for much of its half century of communist rule. The past is no longer holding it back. Several dozen privately owned foreign companies, most of them very secretive, have set up diamond polishing and jewelry manufacturing operations in China, many based here in a city about 80 miles up the Pearl River from Hong Kong. With a potent mix of experience, cheap labor, advanced technology and strict quality controls, they are challenging the industry leaders, especially India.

China now imports $800 million a year worth of rough diamonds and polishes them to become worth about $1.1 billion, accounting for 6 percent of the value added by the world's $4.6 billion diamond polishing industry. India, with a million diamond workers and an 80 percent share of the diamond polishing business, is nervous. Alarmed by the pace and skill with which China is improving, India's diamond industry leaders say that in diamonds, as in so many other businesses, China's advance cannot be stopped.

Monday, May 30, 2005

Racism and outsourcing 

(Via Madman) Apparently, there are a large number of call center workers in India quitting because of racial abuse hurled at them by a few customers, especially from the U.S and U.K.

The report in The Observer said workers faced a spectrum of rudeness — from sexual harassment to fury at unsolicited sales calls to open racism, and that some BPOs had started employing counsellors to help employees cope. It cited one Pooja Chopra from Delhi who spent two years fielding calls for BT Cellnet and AOL. “People would say 'You're a Paki, I don't want to talk to you, pass me on to someone who can speak my language'.”

Aren't call center workers trained to deal with this sort of harassment from customers? Does the putting-on-an-accent-and-claiming-to-be-someone-you-aren't BS play a role in this harassment? Or is it just blatant racism?

Review bitchy write how to 

As someone who used to write film and music reviews once upon a time, I know how much easier it is to trash something than write something good. I mean trashing just flows from the tip of the tongue, whereas writing something good requires time, thought and effort. Every now and then, I run into a review that raises the bar on how to completely trash a movie. Anthony Lane's review of Revenge of the Sith in the New Yorker is an excellent example. No matter how you feel about the movie (I kinda liked it), you can still laugh at Lane's bile. Some excerpts.

Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and his star pupil, Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen), are, with the other Jedi knights, defending the Republic against the encroachments of the Sith and their allies—millions of dumb droids, led by Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) and his henchman, General Grievous, who is best described as a slaying mantis. Meanwhile, the Chancellor of the Republic, Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), is engaged in a sly bout of Realpolitik, suspected by nobody except Anakin, Obi-Wan, and every single person watching the movie. Anakin, too, is a divided figure, wrenched between his Jedi devotion to selfless duty and a lurking hunch that, if he bides his time and trashes his best friends, he may eventually get to wear a funky black mask and start breathing like a horse.

No, the one who gets me is Yoda. May I take the opportunity to enter a brief plea in favor of his extermination? Any educated moviegoer would know what to do, having watched that helpful sequence in “Gremlins” when a small, sage-colored beastie is fed into an electric blender. A fittingly frantic end, I feel, for the faux-pensive stillness on which the Yoda legend has hung. At one point in the new film, he assumes the role of cosmic shrink—squatting opposite Anakin in a noirish room, where the light bleeds sideways through slatted blinds. Anakin keeps having problems with his dark side, in the way that you or I might suffer from tennis elbow, but Yoda, whose reptilian smugness we have been encouraged to mistake for wisdom, has the answer. “Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose,” he says. Hold on, Kermit, run that past me one more time. If you ever got laid (admittedly a long shot, unless we can dig you up some undiscerning alien hottie with a name like Jar Jar Gabor), and spawned a brood of Yodettes, are you saying that you’d leave them behind at the first sniff of danger? Also, while we’re here, what’s with the screwy syntax? Deepest mind in the galaxy, apparently, and you still express yourself like a day-tripper with a dog-eared phrase book. “I hope right you are.” Break me a fucking give.

The New Manifesto 

After Salon's excellent (albeit dated) take on Ginsberg's Howl, The NYT has this lucid version of Marx's Manifesto. Rings true and is an excellent read.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

The occasional miracle 

I never thought any Indian prime minister would have the guts to utter these words: No more free electricity. Maybe the fact he's never had to win an election helps, after all. Nonetheless, let's wait and watch to see if he can also convince populist chief ministers from his own party in Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra to get rid of these outrageous subsidies, utilised in most cases by the rich, not the poor.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

An Obsession with Shopping 

Last week in Korea, one thing that struck me was how obsessed with shopping the women there were. This group included not only the locals but also a bunch of Japanese tourists .

To give you an instance, there are a few (almost) 24 hr markets - a collection of shops selling clothes, bags, and other trinkets - that were crowded at 4 am. Why is it that this part of the world is so obsessed with shopping? I don't have any convincing argument yet but here are some thoughts. Perhaps some of you more familiar with the region can add to it?

1. Culturally, there is a greater pressure to conform and be similar. This might lead to a similar tastes and a herd mentality in buying products?
2. On an average, they watch more television and are exposed to more advertisements.
3. Women in these parts typically live with their parents and work as well, a combination that gives them significant dispensable income.

An observation at graduation 

The Ph.D. graduation ceremony at Columbia was an interesting affair held at the beautiful St. Paul's chapel. The ceremony itself was split into two days and I graduated mostly with students from the sciences. At the procession and the ceremony, I noticed something I have written about several times on this blog -- the low numbers of Americans in the advanced science programs. It's one thing to write about it and another to actually observe it upfront. I'd say that over 75% of the graduates were non-American, and that may well be an underestimate.

America has always been a great magnet for the best talent from around the world. Traditionally, any drop-off in the numbers of Americans in the sciences have been compensated by importing talent, a very large part of which come from India and China. However, as both countries begin to grow dramatically and increase their R&D spend to retain and regain talent, it's anyone's guess whether the U.S. can continue to depend on imports to make up for the lack of interest in the sciences within the country (bizarre debates over evolution do not help the cause of U.S. science either). As it is, the IIT's are claiming that there has been upto a 40% drop-off in the number of graduates taking off for the United States.

To make things worse for itself, the United States has undertaken measures in the wake of 9/11 that are the equivalent of shooting yourself in the foot with great care and precision. Sanjay and Slashdot both pointed me to a bizarre new law that is supposed to take effect soon, which makes things even worse for foreign scholars in the sciences.

New federal rules proposed by the Department of Commerce in March could impede Gupta's access to educational equipment and force him to apply for government licenses to use specific technology in the classroom, each of which could take months to acquire. In fact, hundreds of thousands of international students and scientists working and studying in the U.S. could lose access to equipment and technology that they have had routine use of until now. Because Gupta is studying chemical engineering, he will eventually encounter what the government calls "dual-use technology" -- technology that has both civilian and military applications. Under the new Commerce Department proposal, the use of everything from basic computer systems, semiconductors, and training manuals to microscopes and telescopes will require some international students to apply for government licenses before they can legally have access to or study the technology.

According to changes recommended by the Department of Commerce, universities could soon be forced to apply for individual licenses from the federal government before they can "export" knowledge to specific students about the operation, installation, maintenance, or repair of certain equipment. But thousands of academic subjects fit into the dual-use category, including computer science; mathematics; civil, mechanical, and nuclear engineering; and biological and chemical studies. The proposed regulations would make universities apply to the Bureau of Industry and Security, an arm of the Commerce Department, for deemed export licenses for students who hail from 12 so-called countries of concern (China, Cuba, India, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Libya, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Sudan, and Syria) and who intend to do research in dual-use areas. The new regulations seem likely to create huge bureaucratic obstacles to foreign students' attendance at U.S. universities. In 2003, the Commerce Department reviewed fewer than 1,000 deemed export license applications for foreign nationals. If the new regulations are adopted as proposed, that number could shoot as high as 350,000.

Note how Saudi Arabia, home to 15 of the hijackers, is not in that list, but China, India and Russia (home to a great deal of scientific talent) are.

To get a license for a student from a country of concern, a university would have to go through a long application process for each student and for each piece of technology that student might potentially use. The application requires a detailed history of a student's citizenship(s); the student's résumé; a letter of explanation of the student's course of study; specific descriptions of the process, product, size, and output capacity for all technology and software to be used; a dollar value for the technology transfer; a description of the availability of the specified technology abroad; and a detailed description of measures that will be taken to prevent unauthorized access to the technology. There is a fee of approximately $1 per student, per application.

In a situation like you can always depend on politicians to jump in with completely ill-advised remarks.

"I would suggest the standard we should use is that Chinese students are free to come here as long as they're studying poetry and [free] enterprise, and not high-tech systems that could have dual use," Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-California) said at an April 14 joint hearing of the House Armed Services and the International Relations committees.

Where does all of this leave U.S. science?

Claus warns that rules like these have been dangerous in the past. "When the Third Reich was emerging, they said that only Germans of pure Aryan descent could attend German universities. Significant numbers of German scholars departed," she says. "That was detrimental for Germany, but was glorious for the U.S.

That might be exaggerating things a bit much. What's more, I am yet to see this story appear anywhere but the SF Weekly (if you've heard of others, please let me know) and maybe the Weekly is pulling off a Times of India. Nevertheless, as least one ZS reader with a Ph.D., who plans to return to India in the next few months, told me this new law helped him make up his mind quicker about returning. What's very good news for India can't be that great news from America.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Google Maps 

If you haven't already checked out Google Maps, you must. Though it is limited to the US and UK, it has some really cool features and is a great way to kill time.

Patriotism and Religion 

No, this post is not about the current occupants of White House. It's about how religion is sometimes required to sustain the supreme act of patriotism : fight a war for the country. After all, religion has often found its way into government speak during war time, and some of it has remained since. "In God We Trust" was added to US money in the wake of the Civil War. And "under God" was added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954 in order to , according to a New York Times article, `emphasize the antagonism between God-fearing Americans and godless Communists'.

Why might religion in the time of war be so important? Perhaps because patriotism elicits admiration and the enemy then deserves the admiration as well. Might it not then be difficult to kill the enemy? Perhaps it might atleast be difficult to torture and mistreat the enemy? What makes the enemy's patriotism 'false'? Here is where religion comes in and a nice little paragraph, from wikipedia, somewhat fleshes the argument.

In one variant, patriotic participants in a war acknowledge that the enemy worships the same god, but judge that this god is on their own side, thus providing the external justification for patriotism noted just above. This is perhaps a fair characterization of the attitude of many of the participants in the American Civil War or most of the fronts of the First World War. Another variant is for each side to worship different gods, acknowledge that the other side's god exists, and believe that their own god is superior. This may have characterized the conflicts between the ancient Israelites and their Canaanite opponents, as narrated in the Old Testament. Yet another version of religious patriotism is the belief that a god or set of gods is on one's side, and that the god or gods of the other side simply do not exist. This view often characterized the beliefs of the European powers during the colonialist period, when their armies often fought against pagan opponents.

Can the importance of pacifist religions then be underestimated?

Destination of Choice When Sanity Returns? 

BBC reports of two men in the Philippines who might be Japanese soldiers left behind after World War II. What is more interesting is how a similar case ended.

The case was of Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda who, in 1974, was found in the Philippines jungle unaware the war had ended. BBC reports that

When Lt Onoda was found on the Philippines island of Lubang in 1974, he initially refused to surrender. Only when his former commanding officer was flown over from Japan did he agree to leave the jungle.

Now here is the interesting part.

He later emigrated to Brazil. ;-))

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

An inevitable non? 

Seems like Nicholas Sarkozy is admitting defeat already in the EU referendum slated for Sunday, if this report in the Times can be believed. Not good news at all for the EU project, given that the Dutch will probably vote no as well in the first week of April. The Brits will surely follow.

Blogger comments 

Folks, following up on the last post, I have decided to shift comments on Zoo Station from Blogextra to Blogger's own commenting system. I had used Blogextra in the first place because Blogger did not offer any commenting software when I first started ZS, and so, we had to pay to use Blogextra as our commenting software. When Blogger started offering comments software, I did not move immediately because it seemed like I would lose all the comments on the blog as a result. Today, Anand pointed me to an interesting article in the Blogger FAQ that allowed us to insert code that would literally allow us to have our cake and eat it too. It would save all the previous comments in the old format while transitioning all new comments onto Blogger.

Seems like the code has worked for the most part, except that all the comments for May seem to have dissapeared. However, that seems to me a small price to pay for the ability to use Blogger software. What's more, with Blogger commenting, you will not run up against the annoying 1000-word limit that many of you have complained about in the past. To those who posted comments in May, I will try to look through the code to see what has gone wrong in the template and try to fix it. If I cannot, I apologise in advance, but hopefully the ease of commenting will make up? And if you have any ideas on why the comments for one month alone seem to have dissapeared, please let me know.

UPDATE: In the meanwhile, I have dug into the blogextra archives and dug out some of the most interesting comments from the past month and inserted it into Blogger comments. So, Sanjay, all your writing is now safe, I think :)

The Democracy Conundrum 

Virtually every Indian who has an opinion on the subject of economic development has wondered why there is such a difference between the growth trajectories of India and China. Of course, China has a headstart on India in that Deng's reforms began in 1977, while Indian reforms took off only in 1991. Nonetheless, all discussions on the subject eventually come down to the price India pays for having a functioning democracy in place. The reasoning is that it's a lot easier to enact tough reform measures under an authoritarian government than in a noisy democracy. After all, practically every poor country that went through rapid industrailiasation in the post-war period were all under some form of authoritarian government (Singapore, South Korea, Malaysia, China etc). Taiwan may be the exception that proves the rule. In its last issue, the Economist discussed a similar set of issues and presented some interesting ideas.

As with “tigerish” rates of economic growth, the “miracles” in reducing poverty have occurred almost exclusively in dictatorships. But so have the disasters—sometimes in the very same dictatorship. Amartya Sen, an Indian-born Nobel-prize-winning economist, has noted that democratic India, unlike its colonised predecessor, has avoided famine. China, on the other hand, suffered in 1959-61 probably the worst man-made famine in history, in which 30m may have died.

Why might democracy militate against poverty reduction in poor countries? Mr Varshney has two suggestions. First, democracies have a bias towards “direct” methods of tackling poverty, such as subsidies and hand-outs, which, in the long run, are less effective than “indirect” methods—ie, those that generate faster economic growth. In India, this seems undeniably true. Governments have built up whopping budget deficits, thanks largely to subsidies. Many farmers, for example, receive subsidised or free fuel, fertiliser, electricity and water. But little public money is spent on improvements that would do most to lift the growth rate: in infrastructure, primary education and basic health care. Everybody wants better roads, and nobody votes against them. But every politician promises to build them and hardly any do. Cutting subsidies, on the other hand, is a sure vote-loser.

Second, the poor are not necessarily a homogenous group. In a democratic system, they may organise themselves along lines other than economic class and “the shared identities of caste, ethnicity and religion are more likely to form historically enduring bonds”. If you are born poor, you may die rich. But your ethnic group is fixed. In India, with its myriad linguistic and caste-based groups, the upshot is a dispiriting beggar-thy-neighbour politics. Just as subsidies are easier to deliver than are roads and schools, so are affirmative-action schemes, giving jobs to members of specified castes.

Two film greats die in the space of 24 hours 

First came news of Sunil Dutt's death. Now, the BBC is reporting that Ismail Merchant has died, at the age of 68 in London. A truly sad day for the Indian film industry.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Koran Abuse And Imran Khan 

The Bush administration's tirade against Newsweek's Periscope piece on Koran abuse at Guantánamo Bay is not only, as Hendrik Hertzberg puts it, 'nauseating,' but is almost criminal in its intention to bury prisoner abuse at various US detention facilities. While this is a matter that's been debated often enough, I decided to put this post up for two reasons: I think Newsweek's conduct after the ensuing violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan has been admirable. While I think retracting the story may not have been journalistically advisable, I think it was morally correct. Also, the clear sequence of events that are provided by the magazine's Michael Isikoff and John Barry indicate that Newsweek's sources were not wrong about Koran abuse, but that they were wrong about which US Army wing was investigating it.

The other reason I posted this is Imran Khan. It turns out that the violence flared up in the Muslim world post the Newsweek story because of a press conference held by a man who is the sole representative of his party - Tehreek-e-Insaaf, in the Pakistani parliament. That man, Imran Khan, as many liberal Americans believe, is the 'ideal' ally to have in Pakistan.

Five days after the Newsweek story, the former cricket captain held up the pages where the Periscope piece appeared and said 'This is what the US is doing - desecrating the Koran.' It is ironic that a man who holds one seat in the parliament, is looked down upon in that country for pandering to Western interests and lifestyle and is so much fodder for the British tabloids that the little credibility he maintains comes when he talks about cricket or his cancer hospital, is a man who was able to spark off so much controversy in the Islamic world, and is the man credited by writers like Hertzberg as 'alienated potential allies in the Muslim world, like Imran Khan.'

Imran Khan? Potential ally? Give me a break.

Why Indians don't use cameras? 

I promised earlier to write about "Why Indians tourists don't have cameras..." and I'll attempt to offer some theories, with the disclaimer I've only travelled in the south. Zoo Stataion readers can perhaps provide some insight.

I noticed when visiting places around Mysore and Bangalore, that many tourist attractions did not allow for cameras at all. This included Hindu temples, which understandably folks want to keep sacred. However, the same restrictions were at the modern Mysore Palace. This was probably meant to drive sales of their own printed products like postcards and souvenir books. These were very poor, hardly doing justice to the grandeur of the site. At sites like a bird sanctuary or a zoo, cameras were allowed to be brought in, but with hefty "per camera" charges. It was 20 rupees for a still camera, and over 150 rupees for a video camera. Now to me, 20 rupees (US 50 cents) was nothing, so I paid it even if I only snapped a few photos. For locals, it's enough to leave home without it. And forget about 150 rupees. That's dinner for the family.

So when I did look around me, there were very few cameras. About 90% of the tourists at these locations were domestic tourists, and very few, I'd say 1 out of 10 families, had a camera.

I wondered - were there other reasons for this lack of cameras? Certainly the standard of living is a big factor - cameras are rather luxurious items in terms of the cost of consumables. But it still seemed like more middle class tourists should have had them.

When visiting MSN in Bangalore, the head of Marketing and Strategic Business Initiatives said they actually did study the issue of photography market in India. According to Rajnish, for the longest time, the film developing costs were high because it was highly centralized. Most of the film shops simply collected the film where it was sent to a single large developing facility and redistributed out later. This was pretty much the model in the U.S. in the 1970s. However, unlike the US, the advent of 1 hour photo automation and in-house developer machines never really took off, so the costs were quite high for the longest time. With PC ownership low in India, the prospects for digital photography are not great either.

So it is interesting that China also doesn't have a very high standard of living either, but it does have a domestic electronics industry that churns out cheap cameras and digital ones too. Also, they see rich neighbors like the Taiwanese and Japanese with their cameras which drives an aspirational consumer culture for the local Chinese. Indeed, with the slump in the Japanese economy, the Japanese tourist with the camera around his neck has been widely replaced by loud chattering clumps of Chinese tourists with matching baseball caps, snapping photos left and right.

I think there are cultural explanations too. India, despite being under British rule and a conflict with Pakistan, has maintained a rich cultural continuity. China has been engaged in a devastating war on its own soil, has seen families abruptly ripped apart in the aftermath and experienced a Cultural Revolution in the 1970s that destroyed much of its own heritage. It might be that this has motivated Chinese to gather a personal history they can keep and control for themselves. In India, there is much more continuity with history - they are living it, living within an historical continuum. Sometimes it seems there is not much urgency to record it because there is so much confidence that it will be around tomorrow.

Monday, May 23, 2005

The mother of all guest lists 

It's been a while since I've made a random U2 post. I guess the concert at MSG on May 21st is as good an excuse as any to make one. It was not quite as good as some of other U2 shows I have watched. I am sure the huge problem with scalpers must have played a part. This post, however, will pointlessly examine the guest list, the likes of which I have never seen at any concert anywhere. I figured David Bowie was somewhere in the crowd since they did an impromptu version of Bowie's "Jean Genie" and I also figured Jeff Sachs was around since "One" was dedicated to him. Only the tip of the iceberg, as U2.com now informs me. In attendance were Tim Robbins, Julia Roberts, Matt Dillon, Nicole Kidman, Naomi Watts, David Chase, James Gandolfini, Steve Van Zandt, David Bowie, Patti Smith, Phil Ramone, Depeche Mode, Mike D, Sean Combes, Scissor Sisters, Julian Casablancas from the Strokes, Helena Christensen, Christy Turlington, Jeffrey Sachs and Kofi Annan.

And I was stuck between a redneck from Jersey and a valley girl. Oh well.

Time's top 100 movies ever 

(Via Vijay) Richard Corliss and Richard Schickel have put together Time magazine's list of the top 100 movies of all time. There are some staggering holes in the list, including 2001: A Space Odyssey, Fitzcarraldo, No Man's Land and Monty Python and the Holy Grail, while so-so movies like Finding Nemo make the cut. Nonetheless, it's fun to check these lists to see how many movies on this list one has watched. I have only watched about 35 movies from this list (including Finding Nemo, i.e.), which is pretty embarassing. How many have you watched?

PS: Only three Indian movies make it to the list. The Apu Trilogy (obviously), Pyaasa and Nayakan.

A Statistic 

Monthly cost of the US occupation of Iraq : $4.1 billion

Annual cost of all 16 UN peacekeeping missions currently underway: $3.8 billion

With more disturbing reports of prisoner abuse from Bagram, here is a statistic from Harpers (not that we need one!) that reveals how bogus this 'war for democracy and freedom' is!

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Craigs List and Asia 

Someone pointed out to me recently that Craig's List, the pioneering service (which has been responsible for many wonderful concerts I have seen) has opened up websites for Craig's List Mumbai and Craig's List Delhi. Obviously, the site is brand new and there are very few listings as of now. I suppose many of you know that Craig's List Bangalore has been active for a while now. Generally speaking, CL seems to be widening its footprint in Asia with sites dedicated to Hong Kong, Singapore, Shanghai, Tokyo, Seoul and Manila in addition to the three Indian cities.

From Kaifeng to New York 

I consider myself extremely lucky to have lived the past 6 years in what is undoubtedly the most important, culturally vibrant and diverse city in the world -- New York. Unlike a lot of New Yorkers though, I also happen to know it was not always so :) Nick Kristof address this very issue while travelling through Kaifeng, the capital of the Song Dynasty.

Kaifeng, an ancient city along the mud-clogged Yellow River, was by far the most important place in the world in 1000. And if you've never heard of it, that's a useful warning for Americans - as the Chinese headline above puts it, in a language of the future that many more Americans should start learning, "glory is as ephemeral as smoke and clouds." As the world's only superpower, America may look today as if global domination is an entitlement. But if you look back at the sweep of history, it's striking how fleeting supremacy is, particularly for individual cities.

My vote for most important city in the world in the period leading up to 2000 B.C. would be Ur, Iraq. In 1500 B.C., perhaps Thebes, Egypt. There was no dominant player in 1000 B.C., though one could make a case for Sidon, Lebanon. In 500 B.C., it would be Persepolis, Persia; in the year 1, Rome; around A.D. 500, maybe Changan, China; in 1000, Kaifeng, China; in 1500, probably Florence, Italy; in 2000, New York City; and in 2500, probably none of the above. Today Kaifeng is grimy and poor, not even the provincial capital and so minor it lacks even an airport. Its sad state only underscores how fortunes change. In the 11th century, when it was the capital of Song Dynasty China, its population was more than one million. In contrast, London's population then was about 15,000.

So what can New York learn from a city like Kaifeng?

One lesson is the importance of sustaining a technological edge and sound economic policies. Ancient China flourished partly because of pro-growth, pro-trade policies and technological innovations like curved iron plows, printing and paper money. But then China came to scorn trade and commerce, and per capita income stagnated for 600 years. A second lesson is the danger of hubris, for China concluded it had nothing to learn from the rest of the world - and that was the beginning of the end.

I worry about the U.S. in both regards. Our economic management is so lax that we can't confront farm subsidies or long-term budget deficits. Our technology is strong, but American public schools are second-rate in math and science. And Americans' lack of interest in the world contrasts with the restlessness, drive and determination that are again pushing China to the forefront.

More NYT on class 

Amit had posted a link to the first NYT special on class in America. Since then, the Times has published the second, third and fourth parts in the series and it continues to be as fascinating a read as the first installment. The second part addresses health differences, the third part looks at marriage between the classes and the fourth part examines the role of religion. You can also access the entire series here. But do read it. It will in all probability be a front runner for the Pulitzers.

While you're on the NYT website, have a look at the terrific story by Tim Golden on the death of Afghan prisoners (who were being interrogated) at the Bagram base in Afghanistan. It's a chilling story and seems very likely to become yet another Abu Ghraib-type embarassment for the U.S. military.

The Great Wall trumps the Leaning Tower 

According to the Financial Times, China has now overtaken Italy to become the fourth most popular tourist destination in the world. I think it's only a matter of time before China catches up with the leaders -- France, Spain and the U.S. Currently, China receives about 42 million tourists annually, according to the FT.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Education in Kerala 

One of the things that struck me while writing the last post was Logical Meme's comment that third-world countries owed the 'introduction of education' to the colonialists. It reminded me of a post that I've been meaning to make for a long while. During my dissertation writing process, I was investigating the origins of Kerala's educational achievements over the past 100 years and I came across this amazing Royal Rescript proclaimed by the Queen of Travancore in 1817. Yes, 1817! It explained a lot.
The state should defray the entire cost of the education of its people in order that there might be no backwardness in the spread of enlightenment among them, that by diffusion of education they might become better subjects and public servants and that the reputation of the state might be enhanced thereby.

The last time I checked, Logical Meme (or Kimball or Powerline), the Maharani of Travancore did not belong to the House of Hanover or Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Could it be, horror of horrors, that some of the natives hit upon the idea of state-funded universal education even before the colonistas did in their own countries?

Taking down the neo-colonialists 

Some of you may have heard of this truly amazing post by Roger Kimball in which he sings the praises of the British empire. The post included lines such as these:
Had Britain had the courage to face down Gandhi and his rabble a few years longer, the tragedy that was the partititon of India might have been avoided.

Everywhere that Britain went--I cannot think of a single exception--it left better off.

The right-wing Powerline blog thinks Kimball is a bona fide genius.
It's great to see someone standing up for colonialism, especially British colonialism.

I was wondering whether such idiocy spouted by the right-wing in America was worthy of a response. Manish Vij spares me the bother by doing an excellent takedown of Kimball at Sepia Mutiny.

This hapless duffer who calls himself an American patriot is arguing against American independence, which happened precisely because the crown raped its colonies and kept its boot upon the throat of political freedom. And in crediting the Brits with everything, despite their focus on their own economic interests, he falls prey to the classic fallacy of correlation vs. causation. It’s the one made famous by animism and sports superstition: ‘I wore a cap one day, I won, therefore my cap caused the victory.’

For Kimball to give the Brits all credit requires projecting an artificial stasis in India for 200 years. If you flash-freeze hundreds of millions of people and put them into deep hibernation for two centuries, that they’ll end up relatively poor is a tautology. You have to project India along the political, developmental and educational trajectories of similar regions not under colonial rule. Otherwise you’re reduced to a bogus argument: that absent the British, India would never have built a railroad, regional highways, river ports or seaports. Even the smallest and poorest of nations have managed that, if for no other reason than the economic interests of their kleptocrats.

‘Had Britain had the courage to face down Washington, the tragedy that was the Civil War might have been avoided.’ Kimball doesn’t grasp even the basics of history: Britain intentionally divided colonies upon retreat to keep them warring and pliable, and Gandhi was the one against Partition. Divide and rule was the basis of British strategy both coming and going. So where does this argument come from? What modern-day situation could possibly motivate conservatives to argue against withdrawing rapidly from an invaded country? Thinking… thinking… wait, it’ll come to me…

I wonder when these neocolonialists will welcome a Chinese invasion of the U.S. mainland so they can bequeath to us their bullet trains, their high-tech factories and their shiny new cities. I wonder when neocolonialists will send their kids to elite schools in Beijing to learn Mandarin, the dominant language of the 21st century, and look down on English speakers as natives with sawdust for brains. I wonder when neocolonialists will say, ‘If tens of millions are killed under Chinese rule, so be it, it’s for the national good. Who knows how backward we’d be had the Chinese not developed us.’

Manish also points to blogs like ADC and Logical Meme which continue to defend the indefensible with lines like these:

The pseuds at Crooked Timber are aghast Roger Kimball dared to blaspheme Gandhi, the diaper wearing, urine drinking idol of the modern Left. A fool and windbag, Gandhi is arguably the most overrated figure of the 20th century, and the 20th century is a century filled with overrated figures.

The great untold story (at least today, anyways) of British colonialism in the third world: the introduction of running water, basic medicine, reductions in infant mortality, education/literacy, infrastructure (railroads), etc.

A Sepia Mutiny reader very generously links to a photograph of Kimball, which begs the question -- what is it with moronic American conservatives and bow ties?

Rounding up a couple of interesting posts 

Every time we make the comparison between India and China, we tend to use economic measures and ignore basic freedoms, especially the freedom of speech. I think a lot of Indians tend to undervalue freedom of speech because they've always had it. Maybe that's why many Indians don't notice that very fundamental difference between the two countries.

A recent TOI story suggested that the Indian government was considering granting accreditation to 'serious' bloggers. The Acorn thinks it's a good idea.

Not that this will be any easier than getting a driving license, but it does present an opportunity for interested bloggers to lurk around the corridors of power and ask uncomfortable questions at official government media conferences. With some luck, Indian diplomatic missions around the world too will extend accreditation to bloggers living abroad.

In sharp contrast, China’s reaction to ‘internet journalism’ has been along predictable lines. Blogspot and Blogger are locked out behind the Great Firewall of China. And as CDT reports, the Chinese government ‘has formed a special force of undercover online commentators to try and sway public opinion’.

On a completely unrelated note, Neha has an interesting photo-post from the Infrastructure and Transort Project sites in Bombay. Using the photographs, she questions some of the widely held beliefs about slum demolition drives in the city.

The paradox that is India 

Dina has a lovely little photo-post from her visit to a small village near Lucknow. She sets up the post thusly.

Am in a taxi driving back from this village 60 km away from Lucknow in UP, India. I just spent the day there - the village has 150 households with a population of 1000. Approximately 4-5 children per household. Five landlines (none work I am told) and 6 cell phones. No electricity since the last three years, although it is deemed "electrified'' by the government. The wires are cut by thieves and sold they say.

Now, have a look at the photographs which reveal wonderfully well the bizarre paradox known as India.

Problem with comments 

There seems to be some issue with the comments software, which is why a lot of posts appear to have no comments beneath. However, if you open up the comments link, you'll find that your comments are all there, just that it isnt reflected underneath the posts. I am trying to resolve this with Blogextra, the comments software provider. Maybe this is an excellent time to transition to blogger comments. I kept putting that off thinking that all the prior comments would be lost. What d'yall think?

Thursday, May 19, 2005

A generation of growth 

Am in Seoul right now and it is quite mindboggling to think that not too long back (1960), South Korea had the same GDP as Ethiopia. What a difference a generation of growth can make!

Here's a picture (thanks to Prof. Morck for the pointer) that summarizes it all. Below is a satellite image of Earth at night. Note how, thanks to darkness in North Korea, South Korea looks like an island!

You can also view a full size image here.

Meanwhile in Kuwait... 

Women have been granted the right to vote and to run for office in parliamentary and local elections. About frickin' time too. I wonder how much pressure the U.S. applied on the Kuwaiti regime to democratize further. Not that the women of Kuwait care. The New York Times has more.

Parliament met Monday to discuss legislation introduced two weeks ago allowing women to run in city council elections. But in a surprise move, members of the cabinet opened the session by proposing a complete amendment of the country's election law, which had permitted only men to take part in the country's powerful Parliament. The government also invoked a rarely used "order for urgency" to push through the legislation in one session, despite heated debate by Islamist members.

By Monday evening, legislators had passed an amendment that removes the word "men" from Article 1 of the elections law, with 35 voting in favor and 23 against. But Islamist legislators, apparently trying to appease their conservative voting base, included a requirement that "females abide by Islamic law." The implications of that clause were not immediately clear, though women's advocates were saying it might just mean separate polling places for men and women.

Keynes online 

Brad informs us that John Maynard Keynes's magnum opus, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, is now available online. What's your excuse for not having read it now?

PS: Have a look at the host website. It's quite funny.

Tsunami fund drive 

The lovely folks at pamie.com, Pamela Ribon and Daniel Blau, started a drive to reach out to the people affected by the tsunami. They had an initial goal of $3500 which they hit in two days [May 15]. They are now trying to hit $7000, or '1400 kids, more than half of the 2400 in need'. And they are getting close! From pamie.com :

I contacted the good people at Asha for Education and asked if we could help. They were thrilled.

I'm proud to announce we're sponsoring the villages of the Kancheepuram district of Tamil Nadu that have suffered from the effects of the Tsunami.There are about 2400 children in fourteen villages who need help with books, school bags and uniforms. The cost of one educational kit, sending one child back to school with everything he or she needs is 200 Rupees. At the current exchange rate, that is $4.61 USD. That's $5.76 Canadian. 2.47 UK pounds (more currency conversion here).

You can send a kid back to school with everything he or she needs for less than your fancy cup of coffee. For a third of a CD. A quarter of a hardcover book. This book drive always makes a huge impact, but this year it could be stunning.

To donate, go here, scroll to the bottom and click donate.

UPDATE : There was a mistake in the earlier version of this post wherein two lines of quotation from the web-site ('I contacted the good people at Asha for Education and asked if we could help. They were thrilled.') ran in with the pararaph I wrote resulting in an unfortunate error. I apologize for the error.

SECOND UPDATE [May 20]: I just checked the site and they have hit their second goal of 7000 as well. And that's just spectacular! To infinity and beyond! :)

Monday, May 16, 2005

NYT on class in America 

For as long as I can remember, I have seen class (specifically, a class hierarchy) as inevitable in any successful society. At least 4000 years of history are on my side. But an email exchange with a friend a couple of years ago made me realise that some people do not just believe that a classless successfully society can exist, they actually believe that present day (2005 CE) America is such a society. I was stunned to learn that my friend actually thinks this way.

For the few(?) readers of this blog who do not also read NYT regularly, I'd like to note that the paper is running a fascinating series of articles on the issue of class in America. The introductory article in the series is titled "Class in America: Shadowy Lines That Still Divide" and includes this interactive graphic which, by itself, makes for pretty fascinating reading. The series is not complete yet; there are more articles to come later this week. But I suggest you read the articles ASAP, before they're moved behind a subscription wall. It is worth noting that the series is more about perceptions of class differences in society than about the hard numbers of economics, but that is precisely what makes it interesting.

Now I'm neither a sociologist nor an economist but I can recommend Jared Diamond's excellent book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies to readers interested in reading more about one theory of how class arises in societies as they get more sophisticated, from near-egalitarian tribal societies to hierarchical modern industrial ones.

UPDATE (May 18): Abraham Thomas points out, in the comments, that The Economist recently ran a rather good article on class and interclass mobility in America. Their article is a nice companion to this NYT series and has some hard numbers for your consideration. Thanks for the pointer!

Friday, May 13, 2005

Reality Check. Testing, Testing. 

On May 1st, the New York Times had carried a story called Bowling for Democracy, which pondered among other things, why cricket did not take off in North America as it did in other parts of the empire. In response, a Frank Deford of Westport, CT wrote a letter to the editor. I reproduce it here in full for your amusement.

To the Editor:

When looking at Americans' rejection of cricket, it's useful to look at why they also rejected soccer for their own brand of football. What baseball and American football have in common is the high level of skill required. Granted, the cricket bowler and batsman must possess approximately the same level of skill as baseball's pitcher and batter. But there is nothing in cricket remotely like the breathtaking, split-second cohesion required for a double play.

In soccer, we marvel at what players can do with their feet, but these are still, alas, feet. God gave us thumbs for a good reason. Any run-of-the-mill adolescent football player can do more with his hands than the world's best soccer player can manage with his boots, no matter how nimble his toes.

For whatever reason, late 19th-century Americans of all classes chose the more difficult team games to play. Maybe it had to do with the fact that the United States was really beginning to feel its oats then, and we were looking for greater challenges. Or maybe we just had the good sense to like baseball and football better than the rest of the crowd.

Frank Deford
Westport, Conn., May 3, 2005

This is ground control to Major Tom. Your circuit's dead, there's something wrong. Can you hear me, Major Tom? Can you hear me Major Tom?

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Second tier Wireless - WLL in China and India 

My second dispatch from India has been delayed. Apologies, but it appears Bangalore didn't have quite as many open Wifi networks to sponge off of as I had thought. So here I am in a cybercafe in Bangkok trying to catch up.

An email item caught my eye today which shows how differently WiLL (wireless in the local loop) is faring in India and China. The news - UT Starcom, a big provider of xiaolingtong services in China, announced big layoffs as a result of the slowing market. Xiaolingtong is roughly the equivalent of PHS in Japan or corDECT in India - inexpensive wireless in the local loop, with limited mobility.

While travelling in Bangalore and Chennai, I was struck by how much Reliance Infocomm has been advertisting its CDMA-based Fixed Wireless Phone (FWP), starting at 150 rupees rental (less than US $4) per month. Talking to folks in Bangalore, this (and fully mobile Reliance CDMA phones from LG and Samsung) has brought a whole set of new subscribers from the lower income brackets to the telecom table, and they're all Internet-ready to boot.

So though India and China were very similar just a few years ago with two types of service - GSM for high end users and limited mobility systems in corDECT/xiaolingtong for low end users - things have changed quite a bit. China's WiLL users are graduating to GSM, facilitated by the numerous GSM hardware manufacturers now in China like Bird, TCL, Haier, etc. They are also looking towards 3G in WCDMA, CDMA2000 and/or TD-SCDMA, even though no one is really asking for it. Lots of this has to do with the 3G choice directly helping the domestic handset and telecom manufacturing industry. Hence the attention paid to homegrown TD-SCDMA.

India has chosen to ignore the official 3G race for now (probably a smart move) and squeeze more out of CDMA, both for fixed wireless and for low cost mobiles from Korean manufacturers. It seems in India, corDECT still has momentum, but if Reliance's marketing push is any indication, it might take a big slice of that pie.

Blog du Jour: ContentSutra 

Rafat of Paid Content has launched an excellent new blog called Content Sutra. Here's what Rafat claims will be covered on Content Sutra:

ContentSutra is aimed at digital media professionals in U.S., Europe and around the world, looking to expand, invest, or better understand the Indian market -- media executives; content producers; technology vendors; entrepreneurs; venture capitalists; attorneys; policy makers; the works.

Among the topics we cover:
-- Mobile Content;
-- Piracy;
-- Digital Bollywood;
-- Digital Content Business Models;
-- Digital Media-related Technologies;
-- International Partnerships;
-- Digital Media Successes, Failures, & Challenges;
-- Internet/Broadband Content;
-- Related Government Policy

Among the interesting posts up already are coverage of the India 3G summit, projections on the Indian entertainment industry, DTV in India etc.

Upgrade Firefox : "Extremely critical" vulnerability 

Hope you guys have upgraded your Firefox browser. From Yahoo News :

The Mozilla Foundation has released a security patch to plug two security flaws in its popular Firefox browser.The flaws were found last week by security firm Secunia who deemed them "extremely critical." Mozilla recommends users upgrade to the latest version, Firefox 1.0.4, which is primarily a security update.

From Secunia :

Two vulnerabilities have been discovered in Firefox, which can be exploited by malicious people to conduct cross-site scripting attacks and compromise a user's system.

The fix : download and update to Firefox 1.0.4 from here. Updating is quick and simple.

The Art of Science 

[From Crooked Timber] Check out the wondrous online exhibition at Princeton University entitled the Art of Science . What a freakin' amazing world we live in!

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

The Witness blog 

Back in 2000, Andrew and I (while we were both at the Interactive Design Lab) were involved in a very interesting technology upgradation project with Gillian Caldwell and Witness, the human rights outfit founded by Peter Gabriel. Gillian has just left for Sierra Leone to present the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and get the president to act on it. She is blogging her visit to Sierra Leone on the all-new Witness blog. Given that both Andrew and I were involved with Witness in the dim-and-distant-past, I thought it appropriate to link to what may potentially become a very interesting blog.

Three PhDs, One Blog 

You have seven chances to guess who the latest inductee (congrats!) is.

Crooked Timber, watch out.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Big Green cooking-oil-powered bus 

Some Dartmouth undergrads have combined fun, experimentation and awareness-raising in a particularly nice way: they will drive across the country in a bus whose engine they have modified to run on vegetable oil. The linked-to article introduces their cool project best:
These are not your run-of-the-mill, Frisbee-loving hippies with lofty ideals but a vague handle on the specifics; these Ultimate Frisbee players have made tangible the goal of sustainable, environmentally-friendly travel. This summer, when the rubber hits the road, fifteen Dartmouth students-cum-Ultimate Frisbee players will drive cross-country and back in a converted school bus powered by waste vegetable oil fuel. In English, that's used french fry grease.
For those unfamiliar with Dartmouth, we note that "Big Green" is a nickname for the College and also neatly connotes environmentalism.

Wireless in Bangalore 

As some readers here might know, I'm currently in Bangalore, India, to see the recent boom firsthand, but also to give talks to some schools in the south. So here's my first dispatch, on my wireless trials and tribulations. First, I'm staying with good friend Madanmohan Rao in Koramangala 3, which has a spectacular 7th floor view towards the north, with the lake in the distance. On the way here from the airport, I saw the offices of Yahoo, Reuters and Dell. Sparkling nice complexes, but adjacent to dusty and rocky roads, with an occasional cow or goat wandering around. Folks I've met so far said that's a big Achilles heel here - infrastructure is not well developed, and with contracts being abandoned halfway because of either government elections shifting favored contractors or money problems with price of steel or other materials. Zoning is also haphazard, so an old apartment block sits next to a high tech glass cube building next to an abandoned concrete skeleton.

For one week's travel, I wanted a mobile phone number. Easiest way was to buy a prepaid SIM chip for a GSM phone, and pop it in. Three main operators Hutch (Hutchison), Airtel and Spice were available. (Reliance, a CDMA operator, doesn't use a SIM chip system.) Now I'm used to prepaid SIM chips in Hong Kong and China. For HK, they give them out nearly like breath mints. You can pay HK $98, no ID, no questions, pop it in, working within minutes. China is not much different, though on the "books" they're supposed to ask for ID. None of the SIM chip sellers actually asks for it.

I never realized it would be such an ordeal in India. Airtel was our first option, at a Nokia store in town. They required a passport photo, copy of my passport, where I was staying. Fortunately I always carry two photos of myself in my wallet for situations like these. But then they needed a cosigner of someone living in India, including proof of this person being a resident. On top of this, the card would not be activated until 7pm, when a representative of Airtel would zip by and pick up all application forms from the store. Even with all this, we bough the card, Madan went to get ID as my cosigner. But when we came back an hour later, the representatives said his apartment residence card and his current postpaid Airtel bill wasn't enough. They needed "harder" evidence. Flummoxed, we demanded a refund, so we got our 450 rupees (about US $10) back.

Next stop was Airtel's official office, because certainly service would be better there. No. They required the same type of proof, and even worse, they could only activate it in four days! Four days? This is the actual Airtel office, and it would take longer than a reseller? Yes, they said it was indeed the case.

So next stop that evening was for a Nokia store to buy a Hutch account. They said it would be activated right away. Now at least they didn't need the ID and information for a cosigner. My passport and a photo was enough. But they had no paper copier machine. So I had a photocopy of the passport, but not of the India visa which they required! So off we went, no SIM card. We passed a Hutch store, but right as it was closing. The kind sir there could not sell us a card, but was willing to make a photocopy of the India visa that would could bring back to the Nokia store to complete the paperwork. Good man. Copy made, we went back to the Nokia store, and after a whole day's saga, we finally got a Hutch prepaid SIM card, working right away.

The upside to this is that the rates are quite inexpensive, and from what I've seen, the same as postpaid (0.5 rupee per SMS). At a meeting the next day, the CEO of a mobile gaming company said that 75% of mobile users in India are prepaid, largely due to unreliable information (or none at all) about credit ratings for users.

Mobile coverage is quite good, though it still managed to drop out a few times on the road between Bangalore and Mysore. Still, it's no worse than the US, and probably better.

Next time: Why Indian tourists don't have cameras...

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Purnendu Chatterjee as petrochem czar 

In a quiet deal relatively unnoticed by the Indian media, The Chatterjee Group (led by old-time Soros buddy, Purnendu Chatterjee) bought Basell, the world's largest plastic polypropylene manufacturer from Royal Dutch-BASF in a deal worth $5.7 billion. This TCG deal, the largest corporate deal ever by an Indian entity, dwarfs all other buy-outs by Indian entities except perhaps L.N. Mittal's takeover of the International Steel Group last year. It'll be interesting to see what role Haldia Petrochemicals (part-owned by TCG) gets to play once this deal goes through and whether the West Bengal government will offload its stake in Haldia. Interestingly enough, it is being reported in some quarters that Marvin Bush (GWB's brother) and Winston Partners are among the financiers behind this takeover.

The Freakonomics blog 

I bought Steve Levitt's Freakonomics a couple of weeks back. Levitt's work has intrigued me since the first time I heard of him, when he won the John Bates Clark medal. I haven't had much time in the past few weeks, so all I've done is to leaf through the book briefly. What I've seen so far, I've liked. Here is a guy who takes economics out of its dismal domain and makes it genuinely interesting, not to mention controversial. Levitt now has his own blog, which might be a great introduction to his work for those of you who aren't familiar with him yet.

Friday, May 06, 2005

The Burka Blues 

Via RConversation, I found this crazy story/link about the first all girl band in post-Taliban Afghanistan. I can't decide though whether the burkha is worn out of necessity or for effect. Atatak has the background story.

In the course of the workshop Saskia gives some drumming instruction. A young woman called Nargis who just happens to be present is so enthused, she decides to learn the drums. Played on a drum, which had been hidden from the Taliban for over 6 years by another indigenous musician, the Burka Blue beat is the result. The vocals are written to the track’s rhythm and are recorded on a cassette recorder in what usually serves as a kitchen in the Institute. Nargis reads the vocals aloud and realizes a name for Afghanistan’s first woman’s musical group, the ‘Burka Band’ as the Afghan answer.

You can listen to their most popular track, Burka Blue or even listen to the remix version (by Barbara Morgenstern). Okay, so it's not Exile on Main Street, but at least you'll smile. And yes, Rebecca, the Internet is a wonderful thing :)

Investors discovering third-world markets? 

I read with some surprise the news that Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is planning to invest $1.6 billion into Bangladesh, mainly to build power and fertilizer plants. This is Bangladesh's second largest foreign investment, the largest being the $2.5 billion the Tata group is investing in the energy sector.

Vulcan will spend $900 million of Allen's $21 billion fortune building a number of gas-run power plants with a total 1,800 megawatts (MW) of capacity -- equivalent to almost half of existing national capacity. The new plants will help meet new demand that is set to double to 7,000 MW by 2007, and make up a power shortfall that already stands at between 500 MW and 700 MW. Vulcan will also build two plants with the capacity to produce 140,000 tonnes of carbon-based organic fertilizer at a cost of $200 million, and set up a $500 million project to capture methane gas for power production from coal mines.

Does anyone know what is going on in Bangladesh's power sector? It seems like it is being liberalised in a way that is attracting large amounts of FDI. What is Bangladesh doing right that India isn't?

Thursday, May 05, 2005

India's Telecom Story 

Some of you may have noticed that India's phone subscriber base has now crossed 100 million. I remember the mobile subscriber base in India being about 1.5 million when I left India in 1999, compared with 55 million now. The telephone was introduced into India in 1881, and in the 118 years between 1881 and 1999, India added about 25 million phone lines. In the six years since, the country has added 75 million new phones, driven mostly by spectacular growth in the private-sector dominated cellular sector. I don't really need to say much more about liberalization, do I? The graph below (compiled from my own research) illustrates the point even better.

For the record, China's subscriber base is in excess of 600 million. That and India's teledensity of 9.13 (compared with China's 50-ish) are sobering statistics indeed. There's clearly a great deal more to do, but for now, 100 million is a number worth savouring.

PS: I fully expect the civil aviation sector in India to take off in a similar fashion if two conditions can be met -- 1) the caps on FDI in the aviation sector are removed or at the very least liberalised and 2) planes are available to cater to the additional demand.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

America's U-Turn on Iraq's Oil Policy 

In an interesting article over at Harpers, Greg Palast confirms my suspicion on why Iraq is still a part of OPEC (which plays a key role in increasing oil prices that is estimated to have cost US 1.2% of its GDP - around a fourth of its total growth), its system of oil production is still along the lines originally laid out by Saddam Hussein and the neoconservatives who initially favored privatizing Iraq's oil are conspicously silent: Corporate Lobbying .

The initial idea, articulated by Cohen in "The Road to Economic Prosperity for a Post-Saddam Iraq", was to break up Iraq's oil fields and sell it to competing operators, who he argues would then raise production beyond Iraq's current quota (3.96 million barrels a day). This extra crude (estimated at 6 million barrels a day), the argument goes, would floor oil prices especially as OPEC would break down. This, by the way, would end Saudi Arabia's political and economic clout. Infact, this argument was part of the offcial policy by February 2003!

Of course, the US oil industry, which recently has - thanks to the high price of oil - posted very high profits, wouldn't want this. After all, IOC's (International Oil Companies, who typically operate on state owned assets) interests are not too far from OPEC's. It is then not suprising then that the industry has played a role in Iraq's unchanged oil policy.

A question that Palast does not consider is why, in the scenario of privatization, wouldn't the companies simply collude and act like Iraq already does? In other words, all that would change would be replacing Iraq by a coalition (had to use that!) of oil companies. Perhaps the security problems with maintaining these oil assets doesn't make this an attractive alternative to the oil industry.

Incidentally, Palast also has a book on similar theme. The title says it all: The Best Democracy Money Can Buy: The Truth About Corporate Cons, Globalization and High-Finance Fraudsters.

New blogroll 

It's been a long time since I overhauled the blogroll on Zoo Station. I took down some of the defunct blogs linked from ZS. To replace the few defunct ones, I have added about 50 new links to what I consider to be excellent blogs, with a special emphasis on blogs from Asia or by Asians. Have a look at the new blogroll and read them at your leisure. I think you will find many of these blogs very enjoyable, if you haven't read them already. Do let us know if you have suggestions on other blogs that are missing and ought to be in that list.

Fake news heaven 

Fans of Jon Stewart's Daily Show rejoice. Fake news is about to get better and last the full hour. The New York Times is reporting that Stephen Colbert has landed a show of his own, which is tentatively titled the Colbert Report (to be pronounced co-BEAR ra-PORE to make Jacques Chirac happy).

Comedy Central said yesterday that it was giving Mr. Colbert his own show: a half-hour that is expected to follow "The Daily Show" on weeknights and will lampoon those cable-news shows that are dominated by the personality and sensibility of a single host. Think, he said, of Bill O'Reilly and Chris Matthews and Sean Hannity. Where "The Daily Show" and its host, Jon Stewart, generally spoof the headlines of the day (and the anchors and reporters who deliver them), Mr. Colbert's program will send up those hosts who have become household names doing interviews and offering analyses each night on the 24-hour cable news channels.

Asked if there would be musical interludes on "The Colbert Report," Mr. Colbert said, "That's safe to say." He added, "You can't hide that light under a bushel, to quote Jesus for comic effect."

Monday, May 02, 2005


I didn't expect the Cream Reunited concerts to only offer a bunch of great musicians playing a good set. I expected some amount of acrimony - especially considering Clapton, Bruce and Baker were on stage, but The NYT reports that the first show was anything but acrimonious, with Baker and Bruce actually yielding to Clapton on some of the songs. If any of you passed through London or met someone who caught the show, I'd love to know how it went.

Yet the neatness and order of the music were precisely what made Cream's first return engagement underwhelming. It wasn't unity that made Cream one of the great 1960's rock bands. It was the same friction - of personalities, methods and ambitions - that would soon tear the band apart.

Mr. Clapton, at 60 the youngest member of Cream, was the most reluctant to reunite the group, and on Monday night, the reunited Cream deferred to him. Lately, his albums have circled back to the blues he has loved since the beginning of his career, and Cream's concert set leaned toward blues. There were borrowed ones, like "I'm So Glad," "Rollin' and Tumblin'," "Spoonful" and "Outside Woman Blues" along with Cream's own blues, like "Politician," and a Clapton showcase that's not part of the Cream discography, "Stormy Monday Blues." When Mr. Clapton took a guitar solo, he played the kind of long-lined, melodic leads, moving from symmetrical phrases to wailing peaks, that he unfolds with his own bands, while Mr. Bruce and Mr. Baker carefully nailed down the riff and the beat. They didn't challenge him much.

Journalism at the cross-roads? 

Earlier today, I came across a Newsday story that reported that circulation at major U.S. newspapers declined by almost 2% in a six-month period ending in March. This is in keeping with a broad 20-year trend of declining circulation, especially since newspapers faced competition from cable news and the Internet. Add new forms of grassroots journalism like blogging and wikis into the mix and you have to wonder whether journalism as we know it is in real trouble. The Economist commented on this trend in its last issue.

“The basic notion is that if people have the tools to create their own content, they will do that, and that this will result in an emerging global conversation,” says Dan Gillmor, founder of Grassroots Media in San Francisco, and the author of “We the Media” (O'Reilly, 2004), a book about, well, grassroots journalism. Take, for instance, OhmyNews in South Korea. Its “main concept is that every citizen can be a reporter,” says Oh Yeon Ho, the boss and founder. Five years old, OhmyNews already has 2m readers and over 33,000 “citizen reporters”, all of them volunteers who contribute stories that are edited and fact-checked by some 50 permanent staff.

With so many new kinds of journalists joining the old kinds, it is also likely that new business models will arise to challenge existing ones. Some bloggers are allowing Google to place advertising links next to their postings, and thus get paid every time a reader of their blog clicks on them. Other bloggers, just like existing providers of specialist content, may ask for subscriptions to all, or part, of their content. Tip-jar systems, where readers click to make small payments to their favourite writers, are catching on. In one case last year, an OhmyNews article attacking an unpopular court verdict reaped $30,000 in tips from readers, though most of the site's revenues come from advertising.

But it remains uncertain what mix of advertising revenue, tips and subscriptions will fund the news providers of the future, and how large a role today's providers will have. What is clear is that the control of news—what constitutes it, how to prioritise it and what is fact—is shifting subtly from being the sole purview of the news provider to the audience itself.

In the meanwhile, a recent cover story of Businessweek declared that blogs will change your business. The issue coincided with the launch of Businessweek's own blog, called Blogspotting, written by Stephen Baker and Heather Green. In some ways, it's good to see at least some journalists get their heads out the sand and recognize that the fundamental rules of their profession are being altered. Of course, the mainstream media will catch on about 5 years from now.

The Economist special on Oil 

The current issue of the Economist has a special section on the oil industry, written by Vijay Vaitheeswaran. It is an absolute must-read for anyone with an interest in economics, energy, geo-politics etc. For an overview, you could also read the leader, presumably by Bill Emmott.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

The Guide: Mostly Harmless 

If there is one thing that all the bloggers at ZS have in common, I'd dare say it's a shared love of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. That said, I was a little worried about a movie adaptation of the book, much more so than I was about the movie adaptation of the Lord of the Rings. On paper, it seemed like it would be impossible to translate Douglas Adams' absurd and deadpan humour into a movie. The early reviews did not look promising either. So, I went to see the movie on Friday (yes, first day and all that) with considerable skepticism.

The movie was a pleasant surprise. No, it is not about to break box-office records like LOTR did, though it did top the box-office in its opening week. Yes, it comes as no surprise that the tone of Adams' humour is caught better in the written word than on screen. If you haven't read the book, don't bother with the movie. The in-jokes alone with frustrate you. If you are familiar with the book though, I think you'll really enjoy the movie. Marvin the Paranoid Android (voiced delightfully by Alan Rickman) was, for me, the highlight of the movie. John Malkovich plays Humma Kavula (a character not in the original series, but created by Adams for the movie) with aplomb.

At the movie theatre I watched the movie in, about 50% of the audience were laughing throughout the movie. The remaining 50% were wondering why. I think that about sums up the movie. If you get it, you'll laugh. If you don't, maybe you should treat yourself to the book. It's May Day after all.

Hinduism and the hotel room 

Hotel rooms in Japan often have a copy of the book "The Teaching of Buddha" in addition to a copy of the Bible. Now, if you had to put one book, just one book, in a hotel room for a religion of your choice, what would it be? You are welcome, of course, to pick any religion of your choice - Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism or any other religion - although there are clear choices for Islam and Christianity that I am aware of. This could be an introductory book to the religion, its beliefs and practices. Or it could be a way of introducing people to the religion. Or to the traditions. (Check out, for instance, Prashant Kothari's recommended book : Sources of Indian Tradition)

I am interested in people's responses to Hinduism in particular myself. I have sometimes been asked for a recommendation for a good introductory book to Hinduism. There are a couple of approaches to Hinduism, as I have mentioned in my previous post : one devotional, the other scholarly. The introductory books also fall under the two categories.

I read Kim Knott's "A very short introduction to Hinduism" by Oxford University Press to get an idea of what is out there, and to provide my own comments on introductory books. Kim Knott's is a book that definitely falls under the latter category. From "A very short introduction to Hinduism" :

So how might my account differ from those of other authors of introductory books on Hinduism? As this is 'a very short introduction', a great deal has been left out. For example, I have chosen to write more about contemporary forms and expressions of Hinduism than the history of the religion and its early beliefs and practices. As a woman scholar, I have tried to ensure that Hindu women and those from other poorly represented groups are given sufficient attention. As a white British person, I am historically related to the colonizers of India. I can't change my heritage, but I have tried to think critically about the impact of the British on modern Hinduism. Additionally, I am a Quaker by religion, not a Hindu: what I have written is not intentionally influenced by own religious identity, but neither is it motivated by a Hindu viewpoint. As an outsider, I offer a different perspective. I can't draw upon an internal Hindu source of knowledge, so I depend instead upon listening to many Hindu views and opinions for my understanding of the religion in all its complexity. I hope this will come across in the account which follow.

I asked for suggestions for an introduction to Hinduism of a few other friends. Their comments and mine in a follow-up post.

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[From Sepia Mutiny] The BBC reports on the plans to create a theme park based on Hindu mythology. Sounds like an interesting idea.

Its backers describe it as the "world's biggest ever mythological theme park". Hindu gods such as Ram, Hanuman and Krishna will be the central attractions for a 'Disneyland on the Ganges' in India.

The aim of the 25 acre park, called Gangadham, is to recreate great moments in Hindu mythology through hi-tech rides, an animated mythological museum, a "temple city", food courts and a sound and light show.

I am concerned, as Abhi is, about the possibility of controversies related to the park, and the fallout thereof. I am just a little worried about what that could imply for Hinduism as a whole. Plus, I have certain problems with marketing the theme park as 'A spiritual theme park', but anyway, there are bound to be cross-cultural issues in the business side of things for a project like this. The park will be in India, but the promoters are counting on non-resident Indians to raise a good chunk of the funds. An article in the Indus Business Journal mentioned that they were planning to raise a third of the initial funding, or about 2 million dollars, from non-resident Indians, so it might be a good idea for promoters to address their concerns as well.

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