Wednesday, June 29, 2005

The emigration tax idea returns 

Time and again, the idea of taxing emigrants from India enters the public sphere, the logic being that the tax-payer subsidisidised the education of the emigrant and therefore, a compensatory exit tax should be put into place. The latest iteration of this idea, according to the Financial Express, comes in a new book published by the World Bank titled India and the Knowledge Economy. As always, the punching bag of choice are graduates of the IIT system. According to the FE report...

The World Bank says by imposing an exit tax on IIT graduates and other professionals, who leave the country after receiving subsidised education, the government can collect over $1 billion (about Rs 4,400 crore) per annum. This figure is from students going to the US alone. Take into account professionals leaving for the Gulf and other countries, and the total could well exceed the collection from the education cess, which was around Rs 5,000 crore.

Around 100,000 Indians are expected to move to the US this year, seeking work. Assuming these professional earn an average salary of $60,000 per annum, the government could charge two months’ salary or $10,000 from the employee or the firm employing the professional at the time of granting the necessary clearance. The yield: a cool $1 billion.

Although the exit tax would almost certainly face political flak, the benefits would be huge. For instance, the funds would be enough to sustain the mid-day meal scheme, plus there would be cash to spare for building schools in villages and strengthening the elementary education structure. According to UNDP estimates, India loses around $2 billion a year in resources due to the migration of professionals to the US. As the government spends around $15,000-$20,000 in educating a professionally qualified individual, the migration of such an individual virtually subsidises the economies of industrialised countries.

What all these reports forget to take into account, as I've said time and time again on this blog, is the mitigating influence of remittances from these very same emigrants who have supposedly exploited tax-payer resources. As I've said before, even if you assume a higher-than-UNDP-numbers loss to the Indian tax-payer (say $4 billion instead of $2 billion, which is the UNDP number), it pales in comparison with remittances. In 2004, India received over $23 billion in remittances. What's more, remittances beat aid, portfolio flows and even FDI when it comes to quality and stability of funding, since it goes directly to the intended party without any involvement of the government. Now, why on earth would a policy-maker want to turn off the remittances tap, worth $23 billion today (and growing), to make $1 billion in tax revenues instead?

This makes no sense. The reason why I have made more than one post on this is because this is the sort of hare-brained idea that a badly advised Indian government might actually try to implement, which would be the policy equivalent of taking careful aim and shooting yourself in the foot.

PS: In the interest of full disclosure, I need to mention two things here:
a) I worked on the India telecoms chapter of the World Bank book.
b) I haven't read the book yet, so I am going entirely by what the Financial Express is reporting. For all I know, the FE may have got it wrong. It's also possible that the full context may not have been taken into account. For example, the authors may have offered this idea (the emigration tax) as one of many ways to tap the diaspora.

UPDATE: I just came across this IMF paper that disputes my take on the quality of inward remittances.

There seems to be some doubt regarding my stance on the subsidy granted to higher education per se. Don't get me wrong, I think it's a terrible idea to subsidise higher education at the expense of primary education, which creates far more externalities. Atanu has already made the case against subsidising higher education. So has Gaurav Sabnis more recently. I just happen to think the idea of taxing emigrants who make an invaluable contribution to the Indian economy (via remittances) is an equally bad idea.

The House of Tata as a kinder, gentler, multi-national 

The international edition of Newsweek is carrying a profile of the Tata Group, describing them as a new breed of multi-national. Newsweek is right. After all, the Tatas have grown their current size without compromising on some core principles.
In some ways, Tata could exist only in India, where wages of $1.20 an hour make cradle-to-grave corporate welfare far more affordable than it would be even in China. But Tata is unique even inside India, where its rigid ethical standards are so well known that corrupt officials typically don't even bother asking Tata executives for bribes. Though India is a hotbed of labor strife, Tata Steel has gone 75 years without a strike. Tata's car plant at Pune has gone 16 years, and local union rep Sujit Patil says his people work with management daily, a state of labor relations "very different" from that at other Indian companies.

In recent years, as Tata began listing shares in some of its affiliates on Wall Street, Americans often compared the company to the model conglomerate they know best: General Electric. But CEO Ratan Tata, 67 , is no Jack Welch. "Certainly not," he says. Tata executives, many armed with Western M.B.A.s, have all read about Welch, and dismiss many of his American tactics—from mass layoffs to hostile takeovers—as violations of the Tata way. Ratan Tata says his company is not driven to grow "over everybody's dead bodies." This is a company where 66 percent of the profits of its highly successful investment arm, Tata Sons, go to charity. At Tata "corporate social responsibility" is not just a hot buzzword, as it is in the West, with no real money behind it.

Tata is a trend breaker among Asian family conglomerates, a breed whose incestuous flaws were exposed during the regionwide financial crisis of 1998. Even today, other Indian family business empires are breaking up around Tata (sidebar). One reason Tata has worked, says Ratan, is that it has been professionalizing its management for decades: he insists that, if anything, his status as a Tata landed him the worst assignments at "troubled companies," like textile mills, where he honed skills as a turnaround artist.

Ratan Tata would prove tough on white-collar staff. He used growing revenue from TCS, an arm of Tata Sons, to extend the latter's stake in each affiliate to at least 26 percent—enough under Indian law to exert management control. Then he pushed out recalcitrant chieftains, including the managing directors at Tata Steel and Indian Hotels. Today, he says, if Tata Sons has a U.S. parallel, it is Berkshire Hathaway, where Warren Buffett has "a say in the direction" of companies he has invested in.

Scrabble Babble 

Completely Off-Topic Facts:
1. The 2005 World Scrabble Championship will be held in London, from the 16th to the 20th of November this year.
2. The US team for this event will have fifteen members.
3. Eleven of these fifteen have already been selected, using the National Scrabble Association's tournament rating system.
4. The remaining four will be selected via a Qualifying Tournament, to be held in Dallas TX this weekend.
5. There are a dozen people playing in the WSCQT.
6. Two of these twelve are Zoo Station bloggers -- Amit Chakrabarti and Abraham Thomas.

Wish us luck!

Would you like some Fry with that? 

Harry Brighouse at Crooked Timber refers to Stephen Fry as the Greatest Living Englishman, and do you know, I rather think he's right. I can think of very few luminaries who can hold a candle to Mr Fry's multifarious talents -- actor, writer, spokesman for humanism, lover of cricket and voice of the Guide. In recent weeks I've been immersing myself in Fryology (or should that be Fryana?), ever since I acquired the complete Jeeves and Wooster on DVD. Since then I've re-read The Liar and The Hippopotamus, am currently dipping through Paperweight, and plan to re-visit Blackadder soon. Honestly, how can you not worship a man capable of prose such as the following (from Paperweight)?

Lords! The very word is an anagram of 'sordl'. The Headquarters of Cricket. The acre or so of green velvet nestling in the warm folds of St Johnners Wood. The acre (itself an anagram of 'hectare') that is girlfriend, mistress, mother, casual boyfriend, sergeant major, nurse-maid, father-confessor and one-night stand all rolled into one. All rolled into one by the heavy roller of memory, on the square of reminiscence; that square that slopes slightly at one end assisting the deviating swing of recall that causes the ball of thought to cut away from the norm of reality and catch the outside edge of fantasy that is snapped up by the cupped hands of fate.


(via Aditya) What would happen if wikipedia went horribly wrong?

(via Sidharth) Astrology is passe. The new thing is Popstrology -- a revolutionary method for gaining self-knowledge by examining the alignment of the pop music charts on the date of your birth.

(via Martin) Robbie Taylor writes a blog about "Important Events In History That Never Occurred Today". Sort of a Not the Nine O'Clock News, updated for our generation.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Google Earth 

Just when you thought Google could not do any better than its current suite of applications, it has gone ahead and done just that. Google Earth is one of the most amazing technological applications I have seen in recent times and a great improvement over their local mapping. Using satellite imagery, Google Earth quite literally provides a 3-D interface to planet Earth. What you need to do is to download the software to your computer (the assumption is that you have broadband and enough computing resources) and then key in an address. It flies/zooms in to that address, providing you with an incredible view of the neighbourhood. What's more, you can actually ask for dining options, lodging options, ATM's and banks and it will mark all of that too.

The technology works brilliantly well for the United States and western Europe, but is not that great in India, China etc. Nevertheless, it's a geography buff's dream come true. Just type in Santiago, Chile for instance, and it flies you directly above the city and provides you with a bird's eye view of the city. Not as good as being there, but way better than visiting places in your imagination.

PS: Mac users, tough luck!

The greatest American redux 

Back in January, I had linked to an online poll conducted by AOL and the Discovery Channel to discover the greatest American of all time. Among the names we discussed in the post and comments were Abe Lincoln, Jefferson, Ben Franklin, and Martin Luther King Jr. The results have just been announced and the greatest American, according to this poll, is Ronald Reagan. I suppose it's not surprising since his death last year helped whitewash his legacy. In second place was Lincoln, third place went to King, and fifth place went to Franklin. In sixth and seventh places, two names show up which raises questions about the credibility of the poll -- George W. Bush and Bill Clinton respectively. I am sure there have been chain mails going around advocating partisan voting. There is just no other way these two could have made it ahead of Roosevelt, Einstein etc.

Bruce Riedel on the Kargil conflict 

Patrix points to a Rediff story that explains how close India and Pakistan came to a nuclear confrontation during the Kargil war. Without getting into too many details, Nawaz Sharif was absolutely clueless about what Gen. Musharraf and the army were up to. He was stunned to hear from President Clinton that the Pakistani army had actually tipped a long-range missile with a nuclear weapon to stall an Indian counter-attack. I had heard about this particular episode back in 2002 when someone alerted me to a excellent report written by Bruce Riedel, a special assistant to Clinton, who was present at the meetings at Blair House. Read the full report authored by Riedel to get a hang of how scary the situation truly was and how little we the people knew. And how clueless Nawaz Sharif was about the gravity of the situation. All he seemed to really know was that a coup was probably imminent, and for that reason, he had brought his wife and children along to Washington. Just in case.

Monday, June 27, 2005

China and the oil markets 

Oil futures crossed the $61 mark earlier today, before retreating slightly by the end of the trading day. Some of the uncertainty today has been ascribed to the nervousness surrounding the Iranian elections. In the meanwhile, Washington has gone into a frenzy about CNOOC's bid for Unocal. Even Paul Krugman has jumped into the fray suggesting that the sale of Unocal be blocked. The logic among protectionist interests in Congress (similar to the ones expressed in the 80's about Japan) is that CNOOC's takeover of Unocal will represent a serious national security threat. In an op-ed in the Washington Post, Sebastian Mallaby rubbishes that claim.
The protectionists say the Chinese want to pay for Unocal with cheap loans from their taxpayers, just as Japanese corporations were once denounced for accessing cheap capital from servile banks. But this means that China's taxpayers are offering sure profits to Unocal's shareholders. Admittedly, it also means that Chevron's shareholders stand to forgo a business opportunity, but then that opportunity may not have paid off. From the view of U.S. economic interests, this is a net plus.

The protectionists worry that China will ship all of Unocal's output home to its own industries, thus hogging scarce oil supplies and taking them "offline." Even if this were possible, it wouldn't matter: Unocal's oil and gas would be meeting Chinese demand that would otherwise have to be met by Chinese purchases on world markets. In other words, China would be reducing both the supply and the demand for energy in the open market. Prices paid by American consumers wouldn't budge.

What if there were a real oil crisis? A simulation conducted last week in Washington suggested that a couple of middling terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia and Alaska would be enough to cause a global oil shortage, sending prices above $100 a barrel. Yet Chinese ownership of Unocal wouldn't affect this picture. China could respond to the crisis by routing Unocal's energy to its own industries. But again, oil is fungible, so this wouldn't matter.

You can see why this is not the dominant view in Congress. China is, after all, a communist dictatorship, and we shouldn't assume its intentions are friendly. Equally, the American oil addiction is a genuine problem, and we should strive to break our dependence on potentially unstable suppliers such as Saudi Arabia. But although the Unocal bid seems to yoke these twin problems together, the appearance is deceptive. If you look for a convincing reason to block China's bid for Unocal, you're not going to find one.

In the meanwhile, Econbrowser has been examining whether anything can satiate China's demand for oil.
I am not among those who expect China's real GDP to continue to grow near double digit annual rates for the next 20 years. As a statistician, if I'm trying to predict China's economic growth rate for a long period into the future, I would look not just at the recent past of China but further at the broad experience of any of a number of countries over time. What's been happening in China is quite unusual in a broader historical context, and from a purely statistical viewpoint, you'd have to expect its future growth rate to be less of an outlier than the last 20 years have been.

Furthermore, if the growth rate of China's petroleum demand does not slow down, that would represent quite a different pattern of energy use than we've seen elsewhere. The above diagram compares the average annual growth rate in petroleum demand over 1960-2002 for 11 different countries with the level of GDP per person in that country in 1960. There is a fairly strong correlation-- the richer the country was in 1960, the slower in percentage terms its petroleum use has grown over the last 40 years, with the richest country at the start of that period (the United States) exhibiting one of the slowest growth rates of petroleum use.

Indians are the biggest nerds 

Yes, it's been confirmed that Indians are the world's biggest readers. Apparently, Indians spend an average 10.7 hours per week reading books, almost twice as much as the average American.

The NOP World Culture Score index surveyed 30,000 people in 30 countries from December 2004 to February 2005. Analysts said self-help and aspirational reading could explain India's high figures. Time spent on reading meant fewer hours watching TV and listening to the radio - India came fourth last in both. The NOP survey of 30,000 consumers aged over 13 saw China and the Philippines take second and third place respectively in average hours a week spent reading books, newspapers and magazines. Britons and Americans scored about half the Indians' hours and Japanese and Koreans were even lower - at 4.1 and 3.1 hours respectively.

I will not bother with asking what sort of methodology was used to arrive at this amazing conclusion. I just suspect there's a very large urban bias (perhaps even metropolitan bias) in the sample that's been surveyed. India has a literacy rate of 65% and even that level (of mostly functional literacy) does not necessarily translate into the ability to read books, newspapers and magazines. So, yes subject to the caveat that this survey methodology does not account for about 700 million Indians, it's probably pretty accurate.

Talking about Indians and books though, The Economist reviewed Amartya Sen's upcoming book, The Argumentative Indian, in its last issue.

A collection of essays, lectures and articles written over the past decade, “The Argumentative Indian” reveals the scope of Mr Sen's interests. These extend far beyond the work that won him the Nobel, notably his investigation into the causes of famines, and his elaboration of social-choice theory. The 16 chapters range from an appreciation of Rabindranath Tagore, a great poet of Mr Sen's native Bengal, to an examination of the historic intellectual links between India and China, to a discussion of India's wealth of sophisticated calendars.

Mr Sen has done more than most authors of such anthologies to turn this into a coherent book rather than a random miscellany. It does not avoid all repetition, overlap and incongruity. But it does offer a variety of perspectives that illuminate a central theme: that India has a long and noble argumentative tradition, and that this is worth celebrating. Heterodoxy is, he claims, its natural state.

This seems obvious, as do his memorable opening sentences: “Prolixity is not alien to us in India. We are able to talk at some length.” But the squabbling is often seen as a drawback. India's inability to shut up slows decision-making and seems to condemn the country to a slower march out of poverty than the rush under way in neighbouring China. However, Mr Sen shows that the argumentative gene is not just a part of India's make-up that cannot be wished away. It is an essential part of its survival—and an advantage.

It's not available in the U.S. yet, but it sure looks very, very interesting. Read the complete review, if you can.

It's a plane. No, it's a train! 

Japan has begun testing its new-generation bullet trains, eager to break the speed records currently held by the French TGV, which has a top-speed of 218 miles per hour. The new Fastech 360S bullet train will eventually run at a top-speed of 223 mph, faster than many propeller airplanes, according to CNN. By the time the test ends, it is hoped that the train will top 250 mph.

Now, there has been a great deal of talk in India about introducing a bullet train system in India. The PM has not been very happy with the idea, and has insisted that the government has other priorities when it comes to spending public money. But, let's assume the hypothetical situation that the Fastech 360S was introduced, new tracks were laid for the purpose and so on. Let's also assume the bullet train can average 160 mph or 257 kmph, rather than run at top-speed. Effectively you could then travel between...
* Bombay -- Delhi in 5.5 hours
* Bombay -- Madras in 5.2 hours
* Bombay -- Bangalore in 3.9 hours
* Delhi -- Calcutta in 5.7 hours
* Bangalore -- Madras in 1.3 hours
* Bangalore -- Hyderabad in 2.2 hours
* Cochin -- Delhi in 10 hours
* Trivandrum -- Agartala in 16 hours

The distance are all calculated based on highway distances. Some train journeys may be longer than highways and some less. Nevertheless, it gives you some idea of how easily we could commute between cities and regions if we made had made the right sort of investments in the railway system and introduced some level of competition, instead of subsidising passenger travel (at the expense of freight travel) to high heaven. Effectively, the railways will lose all of its time-conscious (and price-inelastic) travellers to the low-cost airlines in the next few years, which is not such a bad thing, I guess.

Not with a bang but a whimper? 

It looks like everybody is now talking about the overheated real estate market. Thomas linked to two articles in the Economist in a previous post (1,2). The Atlantic Monthly has a two-page article on the housing market - the article is subscribers-only, but anyhow, it covers much of the same ground as the article in the Economist. BusinessWeek is running as its top story an article on the increasingly hard-to-believe mortgage deals that are popping up all over the place. BusinessWeek also ran several other articles as part of a special report on mortgage financing and the real estate market.

The market is rife with interest-only loans, as well as "option ARMs" that allow borrowers to roll part of the interest they owe back into the principal on the mortgage (see BW Online, 6/16/05, "The Mortgage Trap"). It has gotten so bad that you hear anecdotes of some lenders not even requiring proof of income before handing over a million bucks to a homebuyer.

But it turns out that's just part of the reason lenders are offering such unbelievable deals to their customers. Many lenders are just plain desperate for business, according to some experts. In a bid for market share, mortgage lenders are offering highly favorable terms to borrowers. That's forcing the rest of the industry to match their terms or lose customers.

The industry's underlying problem is simple: Overcapacity and a drop in profitability from its all-time high of 2003.

How will this pan out? The profile of the bust, if it happens, may be quite different from that of the stock market. This is in part due to the far greater length of ownership with real estate as opposed to stocks, and a far higher personal stake in the affair. The Atlantic Monthly says that the boom may not end in a hard fall after all. Prices may merely level off. This is, of course, a prediction of the housing-market nationwide, not locally. Since the market for real estate is primarily local, the profiles of the local markets will probably vary a lot.

Moving locally to the Bay Area, what will be the forward-looking profile of the market out here? For one thing, the market in the Bay Area is super-heated. Atherton and Los Altos are two of the 20 most expensive zipcodes in the United States according to Forbes. Two, jobs in the area don't pay nearly enough for borrowers to be able to weather large downward market corrections. House prices are 300,000 dollars and more, and downward market trends will hit many people hard. Three, by all accounts, the California market is showing many signs of an overheated market - a large number of "innovative" mortgaging schemes, large proportions of low-income borrowers and large proportions of speculative purchasers.

The housing market out here does appear to be ready for a correction. Here is hoping, though, that the boom will end not with a bang but a whimper.

The new Falcon 7X 

The Economist on the new plane from Dassault designed entirely on computer :

The makers of the 7X, however, say that its digital design process went beyond anything that has been done before. Every aspect of the aircraft was modelled in three dimensions, as you would expect, but everything from construction to refuelling and maintenance was also included in the simulation. A single database was used to define the aircraft's design, including all 40,000 of its parts and 200,000 fasteners. This database was shared between workers at the 30 or so firms which contributed different parts of the plane. Before a single piece of metal was cut, everyone involved, from hydraulics specialists to electrical engineers, could walk around the plane in virtual reality and iron out conflicts over what went where. The design extended to the robots that would create the tools to fit the parts of the plane together, and to the aeroplane's maintenance in later years. Can a mechanic actually reach a particular component to replace it, and is it physically possible to turn the spanner? Nothing was left to chance.

As a result, the first plane to be constructed was perfect: there was no physical prototype.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Neal Stephenson on Star Wars 

A little while ago, speculative/futuristic/science fiction author Neil Stephenson wrote a nice little NYT op-ed about his take on the Star Wars saga. Stephenson's take is far more reverent, if less entertaining, than that of New Yorker's Anthony Lane (which Reuben linked to in an earlier post) while still being quite critical.

6 months on: Re-posting on Tsunami relief efforts 

Today marks the 6th month after the devastating Tsunami hit the Indian Ocean. I still remember sitting in Switzerland and watching a breaking story on the Tsunami, without quite comprehending the scale of what was happening. In the first post I made that morning, I had no clue (250 dead in Indonesia, I thought) the death toll would be so staggering. Current estimates suggest that over 300,000 people perished and several millions were left homeless. The re-building has begun to some extent, but there's a long, long way to go. Obviously, six months on, the disaster has faded from media memory for the most part, so it's imperative that we keep the story alive in whatever form we can. To that end, I am reposting our orginal Tsunami relief post, with some minor edits to make it less dated. Please read through it and see if there's some way you'd like to help. By way of clarification, the updates are all from the old Tsunami relief post, and not something new I have added in June.

Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree Tsunami Thread -- you don't need to register to post or respond. UPDATE: LP has shifted Found Persons here to make more room for missing persons on the earlier thread.

Tsunami Disaster Forum

CNN E-Mail Appeals

Asian Quake Disaster is running a very useful thread that helps with information on missing people. They also have a list of emergency contact details.

As Mash has already posted, the best one-stop site for all tsunami related information is tsunamihelp.blogspot.com -- I cannot begin to emphasise how good this blog is. Suhit, Dina etc, you guys are doing an amazing job with the blog.

The best place to get some comprehensive information on the current tsunami along with a comprehensive set of links is the Wikipedia earthquake and Tsunami page. Columbia University has the scientific information on the Tsunami. Finally, Wave of Destruction has the most comprehensive photo/video evidence of the destruction.

List of places you can donate to --

I did think of collecting some money via ZS but have rested the idea temporarily unless someone can provide me with logistical support. The bottom line with donations is to find an agency with low overheads and where you can get a tax deduction. Of course, if you can get matching grants, that's even better. While this list is by no means exhaustive, I have listed every single prominent site on here. In addition, most of the organisations I have listed on here accept online donations which makes giving a lot easier. I have also avoided explicitly religious organisations on here since their agenda is suspect.

The Red Cross and Red Crescent allows you to specifically mark your contribution for 'tsunami and earthquake relief' if need be. You can also contribute to the Red Cross via Amazon which has already raised over $6 million since its appeal went up. Music for Relief is also raising money for the Red Cross. As is Yahoo.

You can also contribute to local chapters of the Red Cross -- India,Thailand, Indonesia, Britain, Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Switzerland, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, China, Holland, Ireland, Norway, Spain, Brazil, Denmark,Sweden, Finland, Russia etc. Needless to say, there are plenty of countries not listed on here. This is just a small sample of countries from where I have noticed Zoo Station readers.

The incredible Medecins Sans Frontieres lets you pay in USD, Sterling or Euros. You could also donate to MSF here. In addition, MSF also provides oppurtunities to volunteer, though you need to contact their offices to find out more.

CARE is an organization that was on the ground in most of the countries struck by the Tsunami and is therefore logistically well suited to help.

Direct Relief International has been helping with health related issues in the disaster struck region about which you can read more.

The World Food Programme, the world's largest humanitarian organisation allows you to make tax-free donations as part of its Tsunami Disaster Appeal.

ASHA for Education, the well known Indian charity that does remarkable work in promoting children's education in India is collecting donations. Several Zoo Station readers and at least one ZS blogger (Anand) are actively involved with ASHA and will vouch for the organization.

Though I am skeptical of handing any money over to the mangy Indian bureaucrat, the Prime Minister's Relief Fund is accepting online donations and is a place many of you might consider. Apparently, Anil Ambani trusts the Fund enough to personally contribute over $200,000. Gopal suggests that you could also contribute to the PM's relief fund via Citibank.

The Tamil Nadu government has set up the Chief Minister's Relief Fund. The problem of the Indian bureaucrat remains.

In light of the fact that over one-third of the victims of the disaster are little children, UNICEF is accepting donations. So is Save the Children. So is Vibha. Meanwhile, PLAN USA has already raised $1.5 million towards helping affected children, but will need a great deal more. Child Relief and you (CRY), the well known Indian children's charity has launched a Tsunami Relief Fund.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has launched an appeal even as they launch operations in Aceh, southern Sri Lanka, Thailand and also in East Africa, which has been hit pretty badly too.

SEEDS is a voluntary organisation in India that has launched relief operations in the hard-hit Andaman and Nicobar Islands where I suspect we will see a substantial increase in the death toll once rescue teams do a proper assessment.

The America India Foundation, set up in the wake of the Gujarat quake with Bill Clinton as honorary chair, has set up the Tsunami Relief Fund with the stated goal of raising at least $2 million in the next 90 days. AIF plans on matching dollar for dollar the first $1 million received in contributions. UPDATE: Just got an update from AIF. They have raised $120,000 in the first week, meaning there's another $880,000 to go. AIF promises that 100% of your money will be used for Tsunami relief.

Habitat for Humanity, an organisation known for its rebuilding efforts will be involed in rebuidling homes in the affected areas. They estimate that for between $50 and $150, a house can be made habitable again, depending on damage. Needless to say, they'll need a great deal more to rebuild from scratch as seems to be the case in a lot of southern Sri Lanka.

The Hindu, South India's leading English newspaper has launched the Hindu Relief Fund. Given that they're based in Madras, they are probably well suited to help people severely affected in Tamil Nadu. The Times of India too has launched an appeal, though they're not online yet.

The Association for India's Development (AID) has also set up a rehabilitation fund for families in Southern India. Sulekha.com has set up a matching fund with AID with donations from its members and corporate clients/partners worldwide. The matching fund has currently raised a little over $110,000.

AmeriCares is a disaster relief and humanitarian aid organization providing immediate response to emergency medical needs.

Sarvodaya, the largest civil society organisation in Sri Lanka with a large presence on the ground is trying to collect food and medical supplies. I have heard from several people now that Sarvodaya is doing excellent work on the ground in Sri Lanka. Folks looking to contribute to the Sri Lanka relief effort (and I hope that includes a LOT of you), please have a good look at the Sarvodaya website.

*NEW* Seva International, the charity known for its work in eye care has also set up a fund to help with relief efforts in Sri Lanka and India. In Sri Lanka, they are working with IMPACT Sri Lanka to set up health camps while in India, they are working with the Aravind Hospital system and is focussing on relief efforts in Cuddalore district.

*NEW* SOS Children's Villages is an organisation that I forgot to add on here initially. They were on the ground in both India and Sri Lanka before the Tsunami hit and are logistically well prepared. For whatever its worth, this is an organisation people in my family have worked with in the past and have an excellent opinion of. UPDATE: My mum informs me that SOS has plans of adopting as many children orphaned by the disaster as their resources will permit. So, once again, please have a look at how SOS adopts children and provides them with the closest thing resembling a real family in both Sri Lanka and India.

*NEW*: Some of you know that I did my dissertation research among the coastal fishing communities of southern India -- precisely the communities that have been utterly devastated by the Tsunami. During the course of my research, I had the opportunity to meet with officers from SIFFS, the South Indian Fishermen's Federation. According to an e-mail that I received, SIFFS constituents have been very badly hit and SIFFS is now looking to raise funds rehabilitate and rebuild within these communities and especially to restore destroyed fishing equipment so these fishermen can get their livelihoods back in the long term. I have nothing but the highest regard for this organisation and if any of you are looking to make a contribution that will have an immediate impact on the ground in south India, I would urge you have a look at SIFFS. The details on their fundraising are outlined here. UPDATE: SIFFS now has a dedicated page for its relief efforts.

*NEW* Give2Asia, a U.S. non-profit established by the Asia Foundation has started the Tsunami Recovery Fund. With offices in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and India, the fund aims to help with mid to long-term reconstruction efforts.

*NEW* The UN Foundation has set up the UN Foundation Tsunami Relief Fund which lets you make tax-deductible contributions to the UN's relief efforts in the region.

*NEW* The well known Helen Keller International has joined in on the relief efforts, focussing on assisting people in Indonesia. HKI is distributing vitamin A, iodized oil and dispersible zinc tablets, which constitutes one of the most cost-effective ways to save lives and prevent disease in disaster situations, to children under five years of age. HKI is also distributing a monthly supply of multivitamins suitable for cooking or non-cooking conditions to enhance health. You can find more information and donate here.

Oxfam lets UK taxpayers increase their gift by 28% under the Gift Aid scheme. UK residents can also contribute directly to the Tsunami Earthquake Appeal. Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD) offers UK tax payers the same deal as Oxfam.

International Medical Corps is on the ground in Aceh. Donate here. The International Rescue Committee is also on the ground in the Aceh province. In fact, their offices in Aceh are said to have been devastated and two of their aid workers are missing.

Give World has set up a tax-deductible Rehabilitation Fund to support initiatives to help those affected by the disaster in South India, in association with GiveIndia and ICICI Communities (with the largest private bank in India). You can also check how they managed the money they raised during the Gujarat Quake.

Swiss Solidarity, the Swiss NGO which supports emergency programs for people suffering from the consequences of natural disasters has already raised 11 million CHF as part of its relief efforts, of which 7 million came in yesterday. They are working with 10 partner organisations including Caritas Sri Lanka and MSF.

Jiva Institute, the pioneering organisation founded by my friend Steve Rudolph, has launched the Jiva Relief Fund. They have created low-cost Health Packs for tsunami survivors. The packs will prevent and cure diseases like cholera, typhoid, dysentery, diarrhea, and gastroenteritis. Each pack costs USD$10 and provides a week’s medicines for one person.

Project Concern is targeting its efforts in Nagapattinam district of Tamil Nadu.

Project Hope is on the ground in Thailand and working on prviding health care and supplies.

Operation USA is a privately funded organisation with extremely low overheads with administrative costs running at a mere 2%.

Northwest Medical Teams have already dispatched doctors and medical professionals to Thailand.

Relief International provides emergency, rehabilitation and development services.

Action Against Hunger tells you exactly how your contribution will be used and also provides the option of matching funds from your employer.

World Emergency Relief is donating food and blankets and will focus on Sri Lanka and Thailand.

Catholic Relief Services plans to raise $25 million for humanitarian services.

Mercy Corps is collecting money for emergency disaster relief.

American Friends Service Committee -- all contributions are tax deductible.

International Relief Teams (IRT) has made a commitment to send a substantial shipment of medicines – enough to sustain 20,000 people for 3 months.

Tsunami Victims provides an exhaustive list of donating and volunteering opportunities in India.

Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation of Sri Lanka has put out an appeal for donations. So has Lanka Page.

The Sri Lanka Academic Network are also collecting online donations. Here's how they use your money.

The Sri Lankan govt has details on the sort of assistance they need immediately.

Akanksha, an organisaton I knew well during my college days in Bombay is collecting clothes, tarpaulin, bed sheets, utensils, dry ration, candles, match box, torch & batteries, water purifier tablets, medicines etc at collection centers in Bombay.

Muslim Hands is sending emergency response teams to Malaysia and Indonesia.

KARUNA Trust of Sri Lanka is collecting money towards relief efforts.

NETAID has set up an Asian Earthquake Crisis Fund.

Architecture for Humanity is another organisation that will be involved in rebuilding efforts. You can read more about their reconstruction efforts here.

GOAL, the Irish humanitarian organisation has set up a major feeding operation in Tamil Nadu and wants to expand to Sri Lanka.

Switzerland based Medair is sending emergency medical kits and water drilling equipment to Sri Lanka.

In Singapore, you can make contributions via SMS using the Singtel Donation Hotline.

The UK-based Hindu Forum is collecting money, clothes and medicines.

Lutheran World Relief

International Orthodox Christian Charities.

Islamic Relief.

American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

World Concern.

International Relief and Development Foundation.

Adventist Development and Relief Agency International.

B'nai B'rith Disaster Relief Fund.

Tear Fund New Zealand.

BAPS Care.

The Ramakrishna Math.

Most places are currently seeking cash contributions though I am sure volunteers will be needed soon (Indiserve would be a good place to look), especially medical professionals and individuals who have experience getting the infrastructure back in order. Until the call for non-local volunteers is made by the specialists, let us make sure there is enough money to fund whatever relief effort is necessary. I will post whatever information I come across on here.

Some people have asked me what a good contribution would be. The simple answer would be that no amount is enough for a disaster of this magnitude. That said, you could use some simple parameters. For example, you can donate the amount of one dinner foregone or of one night out on town avoided and spent reading a book instead. Better still, you could donate a couple of hour's pay or even a day's pay. Those who can afford it should donate a great deal more. Trust me, it doesn't take much to put this in perspective.

I have no intention of asking any of you to donate to any one set of organisations, but since many of you asked, here are the criteria I would use. As I have mentioned earlier, it would be good to contribute to someone who has low overheads. In addition, they must also have the logistical capabilities to deliver aid, have the ability to coordinate with other relief agencies and have been around for long enough to be credible and know hard this is going to be. You could also search the database on Charity Navigator to see how efficiently your funds will be used.

On a personal note, we have donated money to MSF and Save the Children though we plan on donating some more money in the coming week. Please do not let our opinion bias your choice though. You must donate to what you think is most appropriate. That said, if you know of someone personally who is doing good work on the ground, I would certainly urge you to help fund them over everything else and let us know at ZS in case we haven't linked to them already.

PS: I urge Indian readers of ZS to contribute not just to Indian aid agencies, but also to aid agencies based in other countries. In some ways the Indian (and the Thai) economy can probably cope with this disaster, but Sri Lanka and Indonesia will need every ounce of help they can get.

PPS: Please send these links along to as many people as you know. In addition, if you know of any links that have been missed here, please let me know and I'll add.

UPDATE: Tsunami Help has a call for volunteers here if you happen to be anywhere near Madras. They also have a specific set of contacts to help Aceh, where the toll is really going to be mind-numbing.

UPDATE: Mercy Corps has an excellent website that lets you find whether your company will match your charitable contribution. For example, a search for Microsoft tells you that MS will match your donation 1:1 to a maximum match of $12,000.

UPDATE: Via Tsunami Help, I found Kapruka, where you can directly purchase products like Paracetamol, Ciproflaxacin, Aspirin etc which will directly be delivered to the Red Cross in Colombo. What's more, the medicines are bought in local Colombo pharmacies, so you are paying local rates, not much higher western prices. Seems like a great site for those among you who are concerned about how your money is put to work.

UPDATE: (Via Subhashish) ICICI Bank, India's most prominent private bank has announced a new initiative to help with relief efforts. ICICI Bank is doing the following : First, demand drafts to any NGO for Tsunami relief work will not be charged. Also, they are ready to provide, at par facilities, for specific cheques for the NGOs involved in the relief activity. Anyone who wants to avail of this facility write to surabhi.gupta@icicibank.com.

UPDATE: In Bangalore, these folks are collecting stuff (no cash).

Prakruti Mudrana
Contact Person - Sashi Kumar/ Uvaraj
Phone: +91-80-26713894/ +91-93412 12691 / +91-94483 71389

If anyone is interested to do rescue work for affected people in Madras please contact Shihan Hussaini +91-98411-618386. You could help with old clothes,water bottles, blankets, food packets. People willing to do rescue work in Nagapattinam there please contact the following numbers - +91-4635 242 999 and 4635 248 777

UPDATE: The South Asian Journalists Association (SAJA) has put up an extensive list of tsunami-related resources. In particular, this site will be very useful for anyone in the media looking to cover the situation in South and South East Asia.

UPDATE: MSF is looking for volunteers with medical experience in Indonesia. Here's who you need to contact --

Medecins Sans Frontieres Belgium (MSF B) - Indonesia
Jln. Kemang Utara No. 32
Tel. + 62 - 21 - 719 5947
Fax. + 62 - 21 - 719 5948
E-mail : msfb-jakarta@msf.be

UPDATE: ACEH IT-Media Center has set up a comprehensive site to help with relief efforts in Aceh. It includes a missing persons billboard, list of needs and links to Indonesian media. Folks, we need as much information as possible about Indonesia since its woefully under-represented here. If you have information on aid agencies working in Indonesia, please sent it along.

UPDATE: AID is collecting a list of volunteers who want to work in India. Australian Volunteers is looking for just that.

UPDATE: I forgot to add yesterday that you can also help by donating your unused air miles. Tsunami Help has the details. For example, Continental accepts miles for the Red Cross and AmeriCares, Delta accepts miles for CARE, Northwest for Oxfam and UNICEF besides the ones mentioned above and so on. Have a look.

UPDATE: The folks at Tsunami Help have now launched the Tsunami Help Wiki, which categorises information much better than the blog does. You can drill further into the categories listed on the right navigation bar. Their hosting and bandwidth needs have been met by Wikinews, so I am taking down the bandwidth appeal for now. On an unrelated note, the US govt has upped its aid for the affected areas ten fold to $350 million with promises of more aid. Kudos to the Bush administration for announcing this increase even if all of us know a great deal more will be needed. UPDATE: Japan has upped its aid to $500 million, making it the single largest donor so far.

UPDATE: Folks, if you find an organisation on here that you like but cannot find on the Charity Navigator database, you might want to consider submitting the organisation for evaluation.

UPDATE: Feroze Jamal has a pretty exhaustive list of ways you can help on the ground in India. This is a good place for those looking to volunteer in India to pick up some ideas.

UPDATE: Kauai Aerospace Institute is willing to donate helicopters to aid agencies involved in the relief effort. The Bell 206 Jet Ranger features dual VHF communication and navigation radios and 5 place intercom for relief/search/rescue and utility equipment for delivery of supplies, reconstruction efforts and repairs.

*UPDATE*: The Wise Giving Alliance has an excellent watch-list for donors. I would urge every one of you to go through it begore deciding which organisation to donate to. Highly, highly recommended.

UPDATE: Indonesia Help is a new blog that's trying to help the disaster victims in Aceh. I can only hope these guys can swing more resources Aceh-wards. The bloggers among ZS readers should consider linking to this site to give it as much visibility as possible.

UPDATE: The Sri Lanka Medical Association of North America is accepting donations to buy water purification tablets and medicines. Besides the paypal system, they have also organised several collection points in the New York and New Jersey region with details on what they're looking to collect.

*UPDATE*: An urgent appeal for aid from Indonesia. Please see if any of you can help. It seems to indicate that there were parts of Indonesia (the islands off the coast of Aceh close to the epicentre) which were much harder hit than anything we have seen or heard in the media.

UPDATE: Organisations looking for volunteers in all of the affected areas should go to Tsunami Help Offered.

UPDATE: The Daily Record is reporting that a massive Live Aid style concert is being organised in the third week of January to be held at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. It appears the concert will be headlined by U2, Coldplay and Robbie Williams. In addition, a charity single is also being planned by Cliff Richard and Boy George. This is yet another channel for those of you in the UK and Europe to donate money.

UPDATE: MSF has apparently made a most surprising announcement -- that donors stop sending money, saying MSF had collected enough money for its Tsunami relief effort for now. Mind you, this holds true ONLY for the MSF. The other agencies are in desparate need for donations to fund relief efforts. As someone from the UNICEF said, the MSF tends to concentrate on emergency relief work while others like the UNICEF stay on longer for the rebuilding effort. So, this is merely a FYI to those of you considering donating money to MSF. You may want to donate money elsewhere for the time being.

UPDATE: Propoor.org, the South Asian organisation working on sustainable development initiatives has launched a Tsunami blog which attempts to match volunteers, resources and ideas with opportunities. For those of you looking to volunteer, this might be an excellent place to start.

*UPDATE*: The Times Foundation (set up by the Times of India group) has set up a Tsunami Relief Fund. In addition to soliciting donations for immediate relief and rehabilitation, the Foundation also provides concrete information on volunteering opportunities in India with contact persons and so on. Once again, a great place for volunteers to have a look.

UPDATE: Sara makes a valid point in the comments section. Those of you making donations to the big international aid agencies should consider giving them carte blanche on where and how they can use the money. I really worry that this tremendous outpouring of support may completely displace huge problems like the crisis in Darfur, AIDS etc off people's radars. If you'd like to read more on this, please read this column by Nick Kristof where he touches on the problem. UPDATE: Timothy Garton Ash too touches on some of these issues in the Guardian.

UPDATE: A note of caution -- According to the FBI, several donors (especially those using Internet Explorer) are liable to be open to cyber attacks involving Trojans, 419's and so on. The best way to avoid this is to donate only to reliable organisations (leave those bleeding-heart stories you get in your inbox alone) and by using any browser but Internet Explorer (Firefox, Opera, Safari etc) while making secure online donations.

BREAKING NEWS UPDATE: The U.S. Congress has passed a resolution to extend the last date for claiming tax deductions for charitable contributions from Dec 31 2004 to Jan 31 2005 providing an additional incentive for the Americans among you to donate. To claim the exemption, you need to donate to registered tax-exempt organisations. In passing the resolution, members of Congress asked the American public to donate generously to help Tsunami victims.

*NEW* Rough Guide, of travel guide fame, has launched the Rough Guides Tsunami Appeal Fund. All donations made through the Rough Guide before Jan 31, 2004 will be matched by the Pearson Group (effectively doubling your contribution) which owns the Rough Guide. All donations made this way will be sent to CARE International.

*NEW* The World Health Organisation (WHO) has launched an urgent appeal to raise $66 million to address the public health needs in the badly stricken areas over the next six months. The WHO also has details on how exactly your money will be used.

UPDATE: Smart Travel Asia has an update for probable travellers about the situation on the ground in all the Tsunami hit areas. Vijay Verghese, the editor of STA lists a bunch of reasons why you will be contributing to the rebuilding of the hard-hit local economies and doing the region a favour by not cancelling your travel plans.

Largest gas find 

Indic View reports on India's largest gas find ever.

The Krishna-Godavari Basin, that threw up the 14 trillion cubic feet (tcf) gas field for Reliance in 2003, has done it again - this time for relatively puny old Gujarat Petroleum. To be honest, GSPC has been attracting a lot of media interest of late, but nothing can beat this $50 billion addition to its asset list. The gas find is worth about 20 tcf, which is two thirds of Bangladesh's proven reserves.

Ahmadinejad in Iran 

Well, the Iranian electorate threw up yet another surprise in the run-off elections. Though most analysts expected Rafsanjani to win pretty handily (the moderate forces would coalesce around him, the logic ran), the ultra-conservative mayor of Teheran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, surprised everyone by coming out in front. And by a margin (62%-32%) that leaves absolutely no room for error. With this victory, the hard-liners have complete control over all the institutions of government. I don't think this bodes well for Iran's external relations and it certainly doesn't bode well for those Iranians longing for change from their 25-year nightmare. I hope for their sake I am wrong.

Paul Frankenstein has a round up of the reaction to Ahmadinejad's victory in the Iranian blogosphere. C. Raja Mohan analyses how the hardliner's victory will make India's delicate balancing act between its special relationship with Iran and it's other interests that much harder.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

A second birthday for Zoo Station 

Well, it's been two years since this blog was born. Quite unbelievable really, since I really did not think it would last 6 months, leave alone 2 years. I just figured I would blog as long as I could, and then ZS would go the way of many an orphaned blog. Instead, we now have a fairly readable blog, 8 writers and an increasing readership. I have personally made some great connections and met some very interesting people via this blog.

Obviously, thanks go out to the rest of the team at ZS, who have played a big role in expanding ZS's readership and also the range of issues being discussed. Thanks also to all of you out there who take the time to read this blog, comment on it, link to it etc. Your comments and participation have made it so much more fun to blog on here. To the large majority of non-commenters among regular readers, why not join the fray? :)

I don't know if ZS will survive to celebrate its 3rd birthday. We'll just have it play it by ear, won't we? In any case, thanks folks, for reading.

Judas's reward, adjusted for inflation 

Tyler Cowen points to Torch bearer, who has worked out how much Judas earned to betray Jesus. In today's dollars, i.e.
The answer (with some help from ebible’s weights and measurements section).

* 1 Roman denarius is equal to one’s day wage for an agricultural worker. As most people in the ancient world were farmers, we can make some basic judgement about the standard of living a denarius could provide.
* 1 denarius = 1/4 Hebrew shekel. Thus, 1/4 Hebrew shekel was probably the going rate for your basic Jewish in Roman times (give or take).
* Judas was given 30 silver shekels to betray Jesus (Matt 26:15)
* 30 x 1/4 = 120. Thus, Judas was paid 120 days of an annual laborer’s wage.
* 120 days is approximately 1/3 of a year
* The average annual income for the American worker is $36,764 (according to a 2002 report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)
* 36764 * 0.333 (i.e. one third of 36764) = 12254.66.
* Therefore, Judas betrayed Jesus in exchange for what is approximately $12,254 in today’s currency.

Tyler adds a caveat.
A purchasing power parity calculation should be much lower; one-third of an annual income back then simply didn't buy much. Or for a classroom exercise, imagine a strangely long-lived forward market in ancient shekels and dollars.

The Crucible Business quiz 

This post is aimed at those of you in India looking for an alternative to the Brand Equity quiz. The house of TATA has set up Tata Crucible -- The Business Quiz at both the regional and national levels. Each regional finalist will qualify for the national finals. The regional rounds begin on June 30th in Madras. The prizes at the national finals include Rs. 200,000 in cash and tons of gifts. Still not quite as lucrative as the Brand Equity quiz, but not a bad start at all. Pseumo, Martin, Kiddo, Anustup, Rajiv, Vikram and the rest of you quizzers in India, what are you waiting for?

Friday, June 24, 2005

The last of the Mughals 

Who was the last of the Mughals? If you had paid attention to your history text books, you would have instantly said "Bahadur Shah Zafar" - and you might have been wrong. Although the Mughal monarchy ended with Bahadur Shah Zafar, the dynasty did not.

Yaqub Habeebuddin Tucy has recently claimed that the old king had 49 children from various wives, 46 of whom died. The great grandson of one of the survivors, is none other than Mr Tucy himself! So what would you do if you were a descendant of one of India's most famous ruling dynasties? Mr Tucy has decided to regain some of his lost heritage by applying for custodianship of one of the family estates - the Taj Mahal no less! He says:

"I never thought of coming forward so far because the Taj was being looked after by the ASI. But I got concerned when I learnt that a state government run body and another individual were staking claim to the monument. After all, I am a true descendent of the Mughal lineage,"

In this news article, we learn that he has filed a formal petition (including a copy of the family tree post-Bahadur Shah). Will this most famous of monuments be given to its claimant? Whatever the outcome, in Rabindranath Tagore's words we hope that this teardrop (the Taj) will continue to glisten on the cheek of time!

I ♥ America 

And there I was rooting for Trieste. The Economist has the full story.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Watch, marvel, learn: Infinite Vision 

Last month I was fortunate to watch one of the most uplifting films I have ever seen: a documentary titled "Infinite Vision." Thanks go out to the Allwin Initiative at Tuck for organising a screening of this film. Allow me to quote from their email announcement:
Infinite Vision is the incredible story of Dr. V, a legendary eye surgeon
from South India who has revolutionized eye-care around the world.

His work turned an eleven bed eye clinic into what is today, the largest
and most productive eye care facility in the world. Each year Aravind sees
over 1.4 million patients, it performs more operations than the entire
National Health Service of the UK, and serves two-thirds of its patients
for free. The Aravind model is now being replicated in hundreds of
programs across more than twenty different countries. It is the subject of
a Harvard case study, featured in business schools across the country
including Michigan and Tuck, and is a chapter in CK Prahalad's latest book
'Fortune at the BOP'. 86-year-old Dr V has been honored by several awards
from the United Nations, Helen Keller International and other prestigious
international communities working for sight

The film traces the inspiring journey of Dr. V, tracks the evolution of
the Aravind model of eye care, and affords glimpses into the spirituality
that has guided both for over fifty years in the quest for sight.
You are encouraged to learn more about the Aravind Eye Care System, watch a trailer of the documentary, and get in touch with the people from whom you can order a copy of the film for yourself or for a screening organised by you. I was unable to find detailed information on the Web for the U.S.-based nonprofit Friends of Aravind that partially funded the production of this film; I'll be happy to post an update if someone can get such information to me.

The "Harvard case study" referred to in the quoted email announcement is this one. It is a bit dated (May 1994) but is quite rich in relevant facts and figures.

P.S.: There is a brief mention of the Aravind hospital system in Zoo Station's tsunami post from a while ago.

Blair, on Europe's future 

Yesterday, Blair told the EU Parliament something it probably didn't want to hear:
Tony Blair, Prime Minister, has told the EU Parliament that Europe's social model needs to be modernised.

Blair said, “What type of social model is it that has 20 million unemployed in Europe, productivity rates falling behind those of the US, that is allowing more science graduates to be produced by India than by Europe, and that, on any relative index of a modern economy - skills, R&D, patents, IT, is going down not up?”

He added, “India will expand its biotechnology sector fivefold in the next five years. China has trebled its spending on R&D in the last five. Of the top 20 universities in the world today, only two are now in Europe.”

The first comment, in terms of "relative index" is a wash. Other countries can raise their standards without harming Europe's. But the second, about science graduates should concern Europe and the US. Both have lived high in the "value chain," and without more careful nurturing of that pool, there could be problems.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Open letter to the Kansas board of education 

(Via Boing Boing) If you haven't been living on Mars, you've heard of the renewed fight between the creationists and evolutionary biologists on how it all came to be. Yes, most of us cannot comprehend what there is to dispute about the theory of evolution, but clearly they think differently out in Kansas. Bobby Henderson felt concerned enough to write an open letter to the Kansas board of education. In it, he expresses genuine concern that only one theory of intelligent design will be taught.

Let us remember that there are multiple theories of Intelligent Design. I and many others around the world are of the strong belief that the universe was created by a Flying Spaghetti Monster. It was He who created all that we see and all that we feel. We feel strongly that the overwhelming scientific evidence pointing towards evolutionary processes is nothing but a coincidence, put in place by Him. It is for this reason that I’m writing you today, to formally request that this alternative theory be taught in your schools, along with the other two theories. In fact, I will go so far as to say, if you do not agree to do this, we will be forced to proceed with legal action. I’m sure you see where we are coming from. If the Intelligent Design theory is not based on faith, but instead another scientific theory, as is claimed, then you must also allow our theory to be taught, as it is also based on science, not on faith.

Some find that hard to believe, so it may be helpful to tell you a little more about our beliefs. We have evidence that a Flying Spaghetti Monster created the universe. None of us, of course, were around to see it, but we have written accounts of it. We have several lengthy volumes explaining all details of His power. Also, you may be surprised to hear that there are over 10 million of us, and growing. We tend to be very secretive, as many people claim our beliefs are not substantiated by observable evidence. What these people don’t understand is that He built the world to make us think the earth is older than it really is. For example, a scientist may perform a carbon-dating process on an artifact. He finds that approximately 75% of the Carbon-14 has decayed by electron emission to Nitrogen-14, and infers that this artifact is approximately 10,000 years old, as the half-life of Carbon-14 appears to be 5,730 years. But what our scientist does not realize is that every time he makes a measurement, the Flying Spaghetti Monster is there changing the results with His Noodly Appendage. We have numerous texts that describe in detail how this can be possible and the reasons why He does this. He is of course invisible and can pass through normal matter with ease.

I’m sure you now realize how important it is that your students are taught this alternate theory. It is absolutely imperative that they realize that observable evidence is at the discretion of a Flying Spaghetti Monster. Furthermore, it is disrespectful to teach our beliefs without wearing His chosen outfit, which of course is full pirate regalia. I cannot stress the importance of this, and unfortunately cannot describe in detail why this must be done as I fear this letter is already becoming to long. The concise explanation is that He becomes angry if we don’t.

Read the letter in full. Henderson even provides evidence by way of realistic graphic sketches of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

The Translation of the Mahatma 

Over half a century after his death, Mahatma Gandhi continues to influence peace processes the world over.

Sponsored by the Skoll Foundation and the Global Catalyst Foundation, the film 'Gandhi', winner of Academy Awards in 1982, was recently dubbed into Arabic. As stated in this news article, the film's producers:

'hope to bring the legendary Indian revolutionary's message of non-violent resistance to Palestinian towns, villages and refugee camps by offering free screenings throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip and to distribute DVD copies to local civic groups to show to youth. The film also will be shown to Palestinians in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. '

Jeff Skoll (the co-founder of eBay) and Sir Ben Kingsley (the actor who portrayed Gandhi) hope that viewing the movie will help smoothe the peace processes in the Middle East. Gandhi is a highly respected icon in Palestine, but some of the viewers of the movie were skeptical about the applicability of the principles of non-violence to their own struggles.

A very interesting project indeed, but will it work.....?

Home Sweet Home 

Mortgage financing is a wonderful thing. The idea is simplicity itself: you take out a loan from a mortgage lender, and use it to buy a house. The house serves as collateral for the loan; this reduces the risk that the lender will be left high and dry if you default, and as a result, he or she (or it) can offer you a dramatically lower rate of interest on your debt.

On the other side of the transaction, the mortgage lender packages several home loans into a single mortgage-backed security or MBS, which can then be sold to an institutional investor (such as a pension fund or university endowment). This MBS offers a rate of return above that of T-bonds, since in theory it's more risky than government debt. In practice, however, the magic of diversification (across many different home-owners and prepayment tranches) means that the MBS investor is shielded from the worst effects of default risk.

So everyone's happy -- the home-owner has borrowed money at a lower rate than would otherwise be possible, the institutional investor has lent money at a higher (risk-adjusted) rate than would otherwise be possible, and the mortgage lender has made a few bucks through securitization fees. If this seems like getting something for nothing, well, that's precisely what it is: when borrowers and lenders are matched efficiently, the system as a whole reaps enormous benefits. And there's no denying that the growth of the mortgage market has been in large part responsible for the dramatic increase in home ownership rates in the US over the last 50 years or so.

Now consider the situation in India. The availability of housing finance has certainly increased in recent years, but it's still not as universal as it is in the US. As a result, the vast majority of wage-earners between the ages of 25 and 40, people with good jobs and steady incomes, who would like nothing better than to own a place of their own, are stuck renting; they have to wait till they've saved a major chunk of the price of the house before they can even consider buying. And on the other side of the ledger, lots of people in their 50s and 60s keep the lion's share of their savings in fixed deposits, in jewellery, even in cash; they would (or should) leap at the chance to earn some extra returns without taking undue risk.

This is an enormous opportunity, just waiting to be seized. Complaints about India's physical infrastructure -- poor roads, unreliable power, dodgy water -- are nothing new, but it seems to me that there are equally big gaps in her financial infrastructure. (Not to mention her legal infrastructure, under which I include clear title to land, efficient dispute resolution, better protection for consumers, less onerous regulations for small businesses, and so on. But as usual, I digress.). Financial intermediation could be the next big thing; the simple mechanism of freeing up dead capital and giving it to those who most need it could, if done right, release a huge amount of prosperity. All you entrepreneurs out there, what are you waiting for?

Further reading: Hernando de Soto's "The Mystery of Capital" is an excellent and thought-provoking study of the immense benefits of having a sound financial infrastructure, especially with respect to property ownership.

Caveat: Mortgage financing is a wonderful thing, but it can also be taken too far. Consider the current state of the housing market in the US. Low long-term interest rates have precipitated a speculative boom in real estate; the availability of cheap financing has prompted significant numbers of people to buy houses they can't really afford, in the expectation that "prices can only go up". Home equity loans and mortgage refis have also helped the US consumer spend ever-increasing sums of money in recent years. How long can it last?

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

PsyOps - Chant OM 

This post has nothing to do with Team ZS's stated intent, but I thought bizarre as it is, it might just pique the interest of You Who Store Random Furniture In The Attic Of Your Mind.

My first encounter with US PsyOps was when I heard Kilgore in Apocalypse Now say, 'We use Wagner. My boys love it. It scares the hell outa' the slopes.' I found that hilarious, and since then I've been intermittently tracking PsyOps techniques used during various real-time situations. Some are downright weird - the FBI used the sound of screaming rabbits in Waco, Texas. Some are humiliating - interrogators used banana rats in Gitmo to show Detainee 063 he enjoyed none of the freedom the rats did. And then I came across this well-researched book by journalist Jon Ronson. Apocalypse Now Redux.

Ronson has brought new depth to the account by carefully tracking down leads, revealing connections, and uncovering previously undisclosed stories. For example, Ronson convincingly connects some of the bizarre torture techniques used on prisoners at Cuba's Guantanamo Bay and at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison with similar techniques employed during the FBI siege of the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas. FBI agents blasted the Branch Davidians all night with such obnoxious sounds as screaming rabbits, crying seagulls, dentist drills, and Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots Are Made for Walking." The U.S. military employed the same technique on Iraqi prisoners of war, instead using the theme song from the PBS kids series Barney and Friends--a tune many parents concur does become torturous with repetition.

One of Ronson's sources, none other than Geller (of bent-spoon fame), led him to Maj. Gen. Albert Stubblebine III, who directed the psychic spy network from his office in Arlington, Virginia. Stubblebine thought that with enough practice he could learn to walk through walls, a belief encouraged by Lt. Col. Jim Channon, a Vietnam vet whose post-war experiences at such new age meccas as the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, led him to found the "first earth battalion" of "warrior monks" and "Jedi knights." These warriors, according to Channon, would transform the nature of war by entering hostile lands with "sparkly eyes," marching to the mantra of "Om," and presenting the enemy with "automatic hugs." Disillusioned by the ugly carnage of modern war, Channon envisioned a battalion armory of machines that would produce "discordant sounds" (Nancy and Barney?) and "psycho-electric" guns that would shoot "positive energy" at enemy soldiers.

Here come the Chinese 

A few days back, I had made a post about a possible Haier takeover bid of Maytag. The bid has now been confirmed, according to Bloomberg News, though Haier faces competition from Blackstone and Bain Capital, who are bidding for Maytag as well. The biggest China-related news of the day though is China National Off shore Oil Corp's (CNOOC) $20 billion bid for UNOCAL, beating a $16 billion bid by Chevron. Though I could be wrong, this is the biggest takeover bid I can remember from a developing country-based company.

Why are the Chinese on a buying spree? Paul Kaihla had some thoughts on the subject back in May.

Because Americans have spent $390 billion more on Chinese goods during the past three years than China has spent on U.S. imports, China is flush with dollars. And by 2010 it will surpass Canada as the largest U.S. trading partner. Meanwhile, the world's fastest-growing economy wants to lighten up on U.S. bonds and load up on corporate assets. The prime targets? American brands and manufacturers, as well as distributors that peddle Chinese goods. "The Chinese want to cut out the middleman by buying him," says John Rogers, a Chicago lawyer and investment banker.

Often, it's name recognition that Chinese companies crave, since a history of communism has left them relatively clueless about building brands.Shandong-based appliance maker Haier may be eyeing Maytag or GE's (GE) white-goods division, Straszheim says. Last year Hong Kong's Li & Fung bought New York-based Ralsey Group, which makes teen apparel labels including Rocket Girl; M&A specialists think the company might go after Bill Blass next.

How's India faring?

Tata Chemicals, whose bid for the Egyptian Fertiliser Company I had written about earlier, has now been outbid by the Egypt Kuwait Holding Com which bid $601 million to beat Tata's $519 million bid. In the meanwhile, Matrix Labs has acquired Belgium-based Docpharma NV for $263 million, making this the biggest acquisition by an Indian pharma company. And India's new bio-technology strategy will probably help this sunrise industry reach the ambitious targets it has set itself for 2010.

A Question of Sport 

A few weeks ago, there was a fairly lengthy discussion on ZS comparing the merits of various sports. As usual, the Economist got there first. First, it demolishes the protests of those lobbying in favour of gridiron and basketball:

Sport is about heroes and the attempt to emulate them, and so these protests camouflage a sadness, namely that there is no point in the average-sized person even dreaming of success on a basketball court or an American football field. By contrast, most normal-sized people can spend their childhoods nursing dreams of hitting a home run or scoring a goal worthy of Pele—hence our assertion that, in this democratic age, the best sports are those where freakish size or shape are not prerequisites for success.

Athletics (including track and field, swimming, gymnastics and so on) misses out because:

... there is one item that it crucially lacks: a ball ... Surely the most complete sportsman is the one whose movements—both of limb and of eye—are the most finely co-ordinated, and surely the best test of co-ordination is the ability to hit a moving ball.

By the same token, golf and snooker, though they may be fine tests of temperament, do not quite make it, involving as they do mere stationary objects to be hit or nudged.

How about the "beautiful game", soccer?

Soccer is an obvious candidate, with the demands that it makes on ball-skills, tactics, speed and endurance. So, too, baseball, field hockey and racket sports such as tennis, squash and badminton. But none of these sports is quite right. For all that they can be played by men and women of average shape and size, they do not demand the element of physical courage which in rugby—or for that matter American football—can compensate for a lack of inches.

So does rugby meet our definition of sporting perfection? Traditionally, it has catered for all shapes and sizes—big prop forwards, small and wiry scrum-halves, tall and elegant wing three-quarters. The trouble is that the tradition is under threat, not so much from giants such as Jonah Lomu as from an evolution of the rules that has made the sport as fast and furious as its cousin, rugby league. The result is that while heights may still vary, the weight and speed of the players is converging.

What does that leave? Hmm, it's funny you should ask.

Only one sport confirms the truth of our heresy while still testing the athlete to the limits of both physique and personality. The game is cricket, played to the highest level (and into middle age) by all shapes and sizes, and from Sri Lanka and South Africa, to England and Australia—indeed, almost anywhere that was once part of Britain’s long-lost empire. The ball is hard and comes off the pitch at speeds and angles determined by the skill of the bowler and the state of the turf. When the bowler is someone like Pakistan’s Shoaib Akhtar, the ball is also coming to the batsman at almost 100mph (161kph). In other words, batsmen like Sachin Tendulkar have to react in a split second—and have to have the courage not simply to duck out of harm’s way. Moreover, they may need to defy the bowlers for a day or more with only brief respite for meals and drinks.

But Mr Akhtar is no giant, nor is England’s Darren Gough. Like the best batsmen, the best fast-bowlers are as much the product of technique as of physique. And yet it is not only fast-bowlers who win matches by swinging the ball through the air or angling it off its seam; there are also slow-bowlers, spinning the ball this way and that or deceiving the batsman with flight.

So we will choose cricket as our paramount sport. Our only regret is that when America won its war of independence, it foolishly discarded its right to play a sport of such skill and temperament. Baseball is indeed a great sport, but by comparison with cricket it is, well, simple stuff.

Hear, hear!

PS: Some of you may already have noticed the striking coincidence that Economist's criteria lead inevitably to the two sports most closely associated with an upper-class English upbringing. Fortunately, we at ZS are not cynical enough to entertain the unworthy notion that such an outcome was in any way planned or pre-determined. Your mileage may vary.