Saturday, July 30, 2005

Introducing Novatium and the $100 PC 

Long-time readers of this blog know of my association with the RISC/Deeshaa project. Working with us actively was Rajesh Jain, who many of you know via Emergic. In the past few years, I've been waiting to see Rajesh's various ideas to come to fruition, and none more so than his dream of a sub-$100 PC. From my own research on mobile phones, I know that the price point was crucial to widespread adoption. I figured the price point would have to be around the same as that of a B/W TV set in India ($100 approx). Of course, bringing down hardware costs in isolation doesn't do a damn thing if there isn't relevant content, or something inherently useful for consumers. The third part, as Andrew always reminds me, is the user interface. Some of the success of the mobile phone can be attributed to its ease of use, partly because it's a single-use device (especially at the bottom-end of the market).

Rajesh tackled the hardware problem by setting up Novatium, along with Ray Stata and Ashok Jhunjhunwalla. Though they've had plenty of glitches to deal with, they've just announced the arrival of the first prototypes of the $100 NovaNetPC. The machine is a thin client, and is designed to be used even with a TV as monitor. I presume the machine is primarily targeted at SME's. For instance, stores which want to do better inventory management could use the Novatium thin client.

This blog may well be the first place you've heard about Novatium, but you will certainly hear a great deal more about the company in the coming days and months. CNet's Michael Kanellos was the first to write about Novatium. Rediff carried a story a couple of days back. But, the best story I've read thus far has been Om Malik's piece in Business 2.0 (subs required).
The $100 PC has long been considered the hurdle to clear in order to reach technology's biggest pot of gold -- affordable computing for the masses in countries like Brazil, China, India, and Russia. Make no mistake, this isn't just altruism. A cheap PC is a great business opportunity for anyone who can build a 10 percent profit margin into each device, as Jain's company is trying to do. That's why chipmaking goliath Intel (INTC) is working on cheaper processors targeted overseas, why Microsoft (MSFT) has begun selling a $20 stripped-down version of its Windows operating system, why giants like Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) and Google (GOOG) have partnered with maverick MIT professor Nicholas Negroponte to develop a $100 laptop.

So what gives tiny Novatium an edge over such high-profile competition? Most of those companies have focused on making traditional desktop PCs or laptops cheaper by using older, slower chips and skimping on memory and hard-drive storage. Novatium, on the other hand, has created a state-of-the-art network computer that mimics a traditional desktop machine at a fraction of the cost -- and that will soon be made to run on any television, anywhere.

The first thing to go was the hard drive; in its place, engineers suggested, a simple USB port would suffice. Users could store data over the network or on ever cheaper USB memory sticks and external hard drives. Engineers also found that a $10 16MB flash memory chip could replace far more expensive RAM. Finding a microprocessor, the engine of any computer, wasn't nearly as simple. If limited to just a handful of tasks and a tiny operating system -- well suited for Novatium's planned device -- a DSP, Stata knew, would work as well as anything made by Intel. The chips also ran on just 5 watts of power, compared with 25 for a Celeron. Not only would that make it possible to keep a Novatium device running on backup batteries -- a common requirement in outage-plagued Indian homes -- but it also meant doing away with the expensive cooling fan. Best of all, though, was the cost: about $10.

As Om mentions in the story, being a thin client, it is crucial that NovaPC tie up with a pan-Indian broadband provider. Beyond that, they have to come up with content/software services that will add to the productivity (lowering transactions costs, income generation etc) of the consumer, since I don't really see the $100 segment using a PC for entertainment. It may also be possible to bundle a suite of services, including VoIP-based telephony, and offering it on a per-month basis. Finally, the GUI is extremely important and Novatium needs to figure out a way to make usage at least as easy as using a mobile phone.

For the time being though, I think we should all wish Novatium and Rajesh the very best. If this works, it could well mark a paradigm shift in the PC market, and also open the doors for many more products aimed at the untapped portions of emerging markets.

Friday, July 29, 2005

2003 UB313 is now the 10th planet 

It has now been confirmed that 2003 UB313, the largest object found in the solar system since the discovery of Neptune in 1846 (it's larger than Pluto), is the 10th planet of the solar system.
It is more than twice as far away as Pluto, in a puzzling orbit, at an angle to the orbits of the other planets. Astronomers think that at some point in its history Neptune likely flung it into its highly-inclined 44 degree orbit. It is currently 97 Earth-Sun distances away - more than twice Pluto's average distance from the Sun. Its discoverers are Michael Brown of Caltech, Chad Trujillo of the Gemini Observatory in Hawaii and David Rabinowitz of Yale University.

Now that 2003 UB313 has been established to be larger than Pluto, what do we do with Pluto? Do we allow it to remain a planet or should we rename it a Trans-Neptunian object? Or classify it as an asteroid in the Kuiper belt, as several people have suggested?

The decline and fall of the Times of India 

There was a time in the dim and distant past when the Times of India used to be an excellent paper. Of course, most of the younger generation would find that hard to believe given that all they've seen is rubbish/tripe/bile pretending to be a newspaper. How this newspaper continues to sell as much as it does will always remain a mystery to me, unless it's used mainly to wrap peanuts or some such. But, I digress. You would expect the TOI to behave a little bit more like a newspaper given everything Bombay has been through in the past few days. No such luck. As Uma of Indian Writing points out, TOI had an entirely different angle to its coverage of the Bombay floods. [ed: The italicized portion is directly from the TOI while the rest is Uma's take]
It was with a stab of disbelief that some seven lakh families woke up on Wednesday morning to find that their daily tonic had not arrived....On July 27, the city woke up without the world's No 1 headlines to tell you that Mumbai was marooned. No top-angled photographs of umbrellas shivering in the rain, no Paolo Coelho stories of how despite it all Mumbai has a heart which is waterproof....There was much grumpiness all around at having been stood up by the Old Lady of Boribunder. Yes the trains were down, and there was no bread or power or water, but et tu OLB? "Only when I didn't get the Times of India on Wednesday morning did I really realise the full fury of the rains," said Ajit Wadekar, residing at Sportsfield Worli Seaface."I've been reading it since I was born, so to say, and I really missed it yesterday," said the former Indian cricket captain.
The article goes on to assure us that the Old Lady "didn't give up without a fight" - that "close to 1.75 lakh copies" were printed at Kandivli, but the 220-odd vehicles which drop off the copies at the vendor depots were incapacitated by the rains. So people like Manisha Koirala, who like their lemon chai with their ToI, didn't get it. We are told that Sachin Tendulkar, however, got his copy. How reassuring to know that.

It isn't often that I get to post something as phenomenally comment-worthy as this, but I am speechless right now. Does this paper have half a clue about what's happened in the city? It's own other pages are filled with reports about people dying as they waited inside their cars; people dying in landslides; people taking shelter in other people's 10x10 tenements; over a thousand buffaloes and thousands of shackled goats being left behind to die. People have been calling and smsing and emailing each other frantically for news of their loved ones. People have spent the night on the roofs of buses and on the streets.

And yet the ToI devotes half a page to sound-bytes about people who didn't realise what was happening until they didn't get their ToI with their morning cuppa. Yeah, right.

Dilip D'Souza adds in comments:
I certainly wasn't able to tell that the city was marooned by simply looking out my window. I needed the Times to come by the next day to find out. Besides, I was very glad to be informed that Sachin T got his copy of the paper. I had spent all day worrying about this, wondering how he would find out that the city was marooned.

Exactly. Rashmi Bansal, though, suggests that the dazzling display of idiocy was not restricted to just the TOI. According to her, Airtel did splendidly well too.
SMS from Airtel: Stuck in the rain? (half of Bombay is , today!). Dial 501 for information on the nearest coffee shop.

As Rashmi herself put it, "would it kill them to provide some useful info instead. Like which train lines are down, when the water is expected to recede etc etc etc?"

Reading Michael Palin 

Michael Palin has been one of my favourite people on the planet since I was first introduced to his stuff sometime in the 80's. If you don't know of him, here are three very good reasons why you should.

1. Monty Python's Flying Circus.

2. Hemingway's Chair.

3. Those delightful travel documentaries and books.

Now Selva of Scientific Indian informs us that all the travel books are now available online for free. I personally like the TV series a bit better, but the books are an excellent place to start, if you're new to Palin. What's more, the website (Palin's Travels) is pretty fab in and of itself. If any of you have watched "Himalaya", please let me know what you think since I haven't watched it yet.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

New comments policy 

One of the best things about writing this blog used to be the extraordinarily high quality of comments and debates. Unfortunately, in the past 3-4 months, the quality of commenting has declined pretty drastically, at least in part because I've consistently allowed for anonymous commenting. As this blog has attracted a higher readership, it has gone beyond its initial niche audience and has attracted a large number of trolls. I thought I'd tolerate it for a while to see if the trolls could be dissuaded. Unfortunately, there's been no let up. So, the first change in policy on ZS is this: NO MORE ANONYMOUS COMMENTS. I understand it will cause a real problem for those of you who aren't registered with Blogger, but would like to comment. But, honestly, the downside is a bit much for ZS. So, if you do want to comment on here and aren't a member of blogger yet, please take a minute to register.

I have also allowed everyone to say just about anything in comments. However, that freedom has led to a great deal of ad-hominem attacks in the past 6 months. I have no problems if you have a functional brain and have something sensible to say, including sharp criticism and disagreement. But the fact is that empty vessels do make the most noise. So, if we perceive anything to be abusive or besides the point, the comment will be immediately deleted. Starting with this post, we are instituting a DELETE AT OUR DISCRETION POLICY with comments.

As I've mentioned in comments several times, this is a blog, not a newspaper of record. By extension, it will be heavily biased because it reflects the opinion of the blogger, not of the reader, a group of readers or the general public. What's more, we are not being paid to blog on here. We are blogging what we can when we can, which may or may not appeal to you. But guess what, you have the choice of not reading ZS. I believe it was Howard Stern who said famously, "If you don't like it, turn it off." Remember, if you consistently read something that you seemingly despise, chances are that it says more about you than about us.

I am sorry if this sounds unduly harsh and at odds with the general tone on ZS. I also apologise to those commenters among you who will now have to register to post a comment. Unfortunately, it is true that all it takes is a few morons to destroy the experience for reader and blogger alike. I also considered other options, for instance, to turn comments off completely or have the blogger not respond at all to comments. But I figured I'd give the less drastic method a try first. Once again, I apologise to the readers of ZS, especially the ones who've stuck with this blog since its inception.

Making money in Africa 

In an earlier post, I had referred to the fact that developing country firms had begun to invest in other developing country markets. Carolyn O'Hara writes a similar story in Foreign Policy on the Indian and Chinese invasion (ed: any similarity to the 'British invasion' is coincidental) of African markets.
Chinese companies are snapping up African oil and gas fields, investing in telecom companies, and funding programs to boost farm output. The value of China’s trade with Africa has jumped from $10 billion in 2000 to nearly $30 billion in 2004. India arrived late but is starting to see gains as well. It is a driving force behind the new African Institutes for Science and Technology, which aim to replicate India’s technology-led economic growth. In 2004, India extended $500 million in credit to eight West African countries to promote the purchase of Indian information technology. India’s state-owned oil firm has invested heavily in Sudan and is exploring options in West Africa. “China is making greater inroads,” says Peter Draper of the South African Institute of International Affairs, “but with its historical connections, India will catch up.”

Why all the interest in the forgotten continent? A goodie bag of exploitable markets and exploitable resources. China has flooded Africa with cheap textiles, rice, and electronics. India has cornered the market in generic pharmaceuticals used to treat HIV and offers the hardware and software needed to get Africa on the information superhighway. Africa, in turn, is feeding the insatiable Asian thirst for energy: Both India and China have negotiated oil, gas, timber, and coal contracts worth billions of dollars.

Of course, Ms O'Hara then feels compelled to ruin a good story by making some really silly arguments about the dark side of it all.
In contrast to Western countries, neither India nor China pesters African governments about good governance or human rights.

Why are India and China any different from western governments that did business with everyone from Mobutu to the apartheid regime in South Africa? Why the different standards for the two countries?
Foreign investment without strings of lectures is enticing, but it has drawbacks. Most African governments are eager to do business with the developing world’s superstars, but their interests do not always align with those in India and China. The rich-country investment dollars that go to Beijing or New Delhi don’t go to Africa.

You mean, if China and India didn't invest in Africa, the rich-country investment dollars would go to Africa instead?
And if foreign products continue to flood African markets, local industries will suffer.

Sounds remarkably like an autarkic argument to me, which I thought already belonged in the dustbin of history. And when you say foreign, do you also mean western goods? Should Africa close itself to western goods as well? Or does foreign only refer to Indian and Chinese goods and services?

When Larry met Sergey 

Wired is carrying a fascinating excerpt from John Battelle's new book, The Search, on the early history of what is now the world's biggest search/media company. Turns out the world's best-known Ph.D. dropouts did seriously consider finishing the degree.
Brin remembers speaking with his adviser, who told him, "Look, if this Google thing pans out, then great. If not, you can return to graduate school and finish your thesis." He chuckles, then adds: "I said, 'Yeah, OK, why not? I'll just give it a try.'"

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Bombay underwater 

I lived through one of the worst rains in Bombay sometime in the early 90's (I can't remember the year) and I distinctly remember seeing pictures of cars floating about in the water. I never thought I would ever see worse flooding than that, which is of course exactly what happened on July 26th. Bombay received the highest rainfall ever (37.1 inches) recorded in India, overtaking the 33 inches recorded in Cherrapunji in 1910. To put that in perspective, London receives about 28 inches of rainfall every year. You could also think about in terms of snowfall in the U.S. The rough calculation is that 10 inches of snow (considered pretty bad in the U.S.) will melt to about 1 inch of water. That puts 37.1 inches of rain into perspective, doesn't it?

PS: The 1:10 ratio does not always hold true.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Beethoven vs Bono 

Following up on Reuben's earlier post linking to Beethoven's nine symphonies which the BBC offered free to download, I came across this piece in the Guardian, which says the Beethoven downloads beat The Beatles, U2 and Coldplay. Personally, I think Symphony #9 beats any composition I've heard so far.

Final figures from the BBC show that the complete Beethoven symphonies on its website were downloaded 1.4m times, with individual works downloaded between 89,000 and 220,000 times. The works were each available for a week, in two tranches, in June.

Sgt Pepper could well end up as the best-selling online track of all time. But its sales figure of just 20,000 online in the two weeks since it has been available contrasts poorly with the admittedly free Beethoven symphonies. (Sgt Pepper cost 79p on the iTunes website.)

To put another perspective on the success of the Beethoven downloads, according to Matthew Cosgrove, director of Warner Classics, it would take a commercial CD recording of the complete Beethoven symphonies "upwards of five years" to sell as many downloads as were shifted from the BBC website in two weeks. The BBC has been stunned by the response - so much so that its director general, Mark Thompson, opened his annual report with Beethoven's inscription on the score of the Missa Solemnis: "From the heart ... May it go again to the heart!"

Private sector and capital markets in development 

A group of us have been organising meetings in New York to discuss the role of the private sector and capital markets in catalyzing economic development, be it in Africa, South and South-east Asia or Latin America. These meetings have been attended by people from a wide variety of backgrounds ranging from private equity and consulting to academics and entrepreneurs. We had our last meeting on Saturday, the 23rd at the Earth Institute at Columbia. We had two presentations: one by Jonathan Hoffman, the director of a new firm called Infraco, which is building core infrastructure projects across Africa, South Asia and S.E. Asia. The second presentation was by Rustom Masalawala, erstwhile portfolio manager at the Acumen Fund and now founder of a new start-up called Tajirika, which aims to provide lighting solutions in parts of Tanzania that are off the power grid.

We will have our next meeting sometime in late August, where we hope to move this effort beyond merely being a networking/exchange of ideas type event to something more concrete. So, if you have a genuine interest in the topic and would like to attend, please shoot me an e-mail (check bio) and we can discuss it further.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Trackbacks enabled 

Thanks to a very helpful tip from Balaji in comments, Zoo Station now has trackback installed, courtesy of Haloscan. I don't know how well it works, but at least it's a start.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

The Argumentative Indian 

Amartya Sen's new book, The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity, I'd imagine, will have a far greater impact than both Sunil Khilnani or Shashi Tharoor's earlier efforts at attempting to explain the idea of India (primarily) to the Western world. This is largely because Sen, unlike Khilnani or Tharoor, spends a large portion of his time either in Shantiniketan, or lecturing and touring parts of India. He is actively involved in engaging both the public and public figures in dialogue, and given this, seems to approach the topic of explaining India - unlike the other two authors mentioned, not with a tone of 'India aggrandization', but a sense of fairness and balanced criticism.

I think a book of this nature was a long time coming, especially since early ideas of socialism have gone through several transformations, have seen governments picking up after Narasimha Rao's initial economic reforms, have been interrupted by the BJP (and to an extent the Left) in power, and are being examined in the light of India becoming the world's 'back office.' Also, the West's reading of democracy in India as a British legacy receives a bit of an 'Amartya lashing': from several readings and re-readings of Indian classics and historical records, he illustrates that the idea of democracy, in some form or fashion, predates the British by centuries.

Excerpts from a review in the Guardian.

In this superb collection of essays, Sen smashes quite a few stereotypes and places the idea of India and Indianness in its rightful, deserved context. Central to his notion of India, as the title suggests, is the long tradition of argument and public debate, of intellectual pluralism and generosity that informs India's history.

While talking about Indian democracy, for instance, he cautions: 'It is important to avoid the twin pitfalls of 1) taking democracy to be just a gift of the Western world that India simply accepted when it became independent, and 2) assuming that there is something unique in Indian history that makes the country singularly suited to democracy.' The truth is far more complex and somewhere between these two views.

Sen refutes the facile Western description of India as a 'mainly Hindu country' with the same rigorous scholarship that he demolishes the isolationist, circumscribed view of Hindutva held dear by the Hindu right that ruled India between 1999 and 2004.

Illuminated with examples from the teachings and lives of emperors such as Akbar and Ashoka, with illustrations from the epics, The Ramayana and The Mahabharata, and a staggering range of other references, he propounds a view of Hinduism as an inclusive philosophy rather than an exclusionist, divisive religion. This view of Hinduism is mature enough and magnanimous enough to accommodate dissenting views and 'even profound scepticism'. This is a 'capacious view of a broad and generous Hinduism, which contrasts sharply with the narrow and bellicose versions that are currently on offer, led particularly by parts of the Hindutva movement'.

Listening to the Dec 26th earthquake 

The Earth Institute at Columbia University is known primarily for the work Jeff Sachs and his colleagues do in Africa. But, there are excellent research centers within the Institute dedicated to climatology, geo-physics and the like. The most prominent of these is the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Researchers at LDEO have now managed to create a 'soundtrack' for the Dec 26th Sumatra quake that unleashed the killer Tsunami. But first, some background.
Recently, researchers at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory analyzed recordings of the underwater sound produced by the magnitude 9.3 earthquake. Their unique approach enabled them to track the rupture as it moved along the Sumatra-Andaman Fault.

When an earthquake occurs underwater, part of its energy is released in the form of sound, known as a tertiary or T wave, which travels great distances through the ocean. T waves travel significantly slower than primary and secondary (P and S) waves, both of which are often recorded in an overlapping pattern that can obscure important parts of the seismic record. As a result, oceanic sound energy sometimes provides a more direct look at the entirety of a large underwater earthquake. "It's like the hare and the tortoise" said Tolstoy, "The tortoise is moving a lot more slowly, but it gets the right answer in the end". The T waves for the Sumatra earthquake were captured by underwater microphones located at Diego Garcia, more than 1,700 miles from the epicenter. These microphones are part of arrays known as hydroacoustic stations that are scattered throughout the world's oceans to listen for the telltale sound of an atomic blast.

What is surprising, however, is the fact that the earthquake appeared to occur in two distinct phases. The first phase encompassed the first three minutes of the eight-minute earthquake, during which the rupture proceeded north at about 1.7 miles per second (2.8 km/sec) from the epicenter. During the second phase, the rupture slowed to 1.3 miles per second (2.1 km/sec) and continued north for another five minutes until it reached a plate boundary where the fault changes from subduction to strike-slip, where the two plates push past one another in opposite directions. This suggests that had the subduction continued, this longest ever recorded earthquake might have been even longer.

You can listen to the earthquake here. Turn up the volume to maximum, listen carefully, and give it a few seconds before the rumbling begins.

WSJ online overtakes WSJ. Sort of. 

The Business2Day blog has pretty significant news from the publishing industry.
The publisher of the Wall Street Journal makes more money from online than from its dead tree business. In the June quarter, electronic publishing (which includes Dow Jones Newswires, WSJ.com, and MarketWatch) brought in only half the revenues of print publishing ($128 million vs. $236 million), but quadruple the operating income ($29 million vs. $7 million).

London bombed again!!! 

Far less bloody from the looks of it. Seems more like a botched bombing attempt or a copycat attempt gone wrong. Once again, I hope you Londoners are hanging in there.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Nanotech, meet solar power 

If you've been following VC news closely, you've probably heard of a bunch of leading Silicon Valley VC's and investors making investments in nanotech solar ventures. Investors interested in this space include Vinod Khosla, John Doerr, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Bob Epstein, Bill Joy etc. Over $100 million in venture funding have been raised by firms pushing the technology. So, what's going on? The Indic View points to an SFGate story which deals with the issue. The trick seems to be in developing more efficient light gathering plastics, which can then cut costs down to levels currently being charged by the utilities.
Solar energy ranges between $4 and $5 per watt. The report suggests market expansion will require $2 to $2.50. If the price breakthrough occurs, says Wooley, the report's assumed price structure represents a $6.6 billion annual market opportunity. The Energy Foundation report also says that solar energy could furnish much of the nation's electricity if available residential and commercial rooftops were fully utilized. According to the Energy Foundation, using available rooftop space could provide 710,000 megawatts across the United States, whose current electrical capacity is 950,000 megawatts.

High production costs are among the reasons solar energy hasn't become a major source of electricity. The black, glasslike photovoltaic cells that make up most solar panels are usually composed of crystalline silicon, which requires clean-room manufacturing facilities free of dust and airborne microbes. Silicon is also in short supply and increasingly expensive to produce, so high manufacturing costs are the main reason behind high wattage prices. As a result, the cost of panel installation typically equals four to five years of expensive energy before production costs are recovered and systems begin paying for themselves.

With nanotechnology, tiny solar cells can be printed onto flexible, very thin light-retaining materials, bypassing the cost of silicon production. "Silicon is very capital-intensive. You don't need a clean room for plastic power where capital costs are one-tenth of silicon," said Raj Atluru, managing director at the venture capitalist firm of Draper Fisher Jurvetson in Menlo Park, a major investor in Konarka. In addition to being able to manufacture photovoltaic cells more quickly through printing, the companies also say that manipulating materials 100,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair will provide more light- collecting capabilities. Each printed nanostructure solar cell would act as an autonomous solar collector, and sheets of these products would have more surface area to gather light than conventional photovoltaic cells. The companies also say that the printed rolls of solar cells would be lighter, more resilient and flexible than silicon photovoltaics.

It remains unclear, however, who would install nanotechnology-based solar components if they become commercially available. "There's no channel to the market," said Nordan, who sees a fragmented solar installation market made up of numerous contractors, which makes adoption of any technology difficult. Nordan also sees obstacles in transmitting solar energy from rooftop collection sites back to electrical grids and other buildings not wired with photovoltaics.

"The problem is distribution. Nanomaterials could provide a way to transmit energy as well as capture it." Until the distribution issue is solved, Nordan says, solar energy will not be able to meet its potential of supplying vast amounts of power. Analysts like Nordan and Mints say that while rooftops are the most attractive areas for investors, nanomaterial solar energy may first be implemented on mobile devices like cell phones and laptop computers.

Interestingly enough, a lot of the players in nanotech solar are of Indian origin. This makes a lot of sense for a country like India with sunlight pretty much all year round, if only the unit cost of solar power could be brought down. To me, that sounds like a part R&D and part scale problem, neither of which are particularly insurmountable. As the energy demands in India skyrocket, it will be interesting to see if more investments are made in the alternative energy space, especially in solar.

Beam Me Up, Scotty 

Sad day for Trekkies. James Doohan, who played Scotty on the series, died aged 85 today.

When he first auditioned for the role of ship's engineer with Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, Mr. Doohan read the lines with a variety of accents, including French and German. "They both decided an engineer has got to be a Scotsman," Mr. Stevens recalled.

Mr. Doohan became so closely associated with his character that it was difficult for him to get other parts. But if he resented having taken a role that all but ended his acting career, he did not show it, said Walter Koenig, who played Ensign Pavel Chekov in the original television series and rode the lucrative convention circuit with him.

Google eyes the Moon 

Not content with merely giving you a bird's eye view of planet Earth, courtesy of Google Earth, here comes Google Moon. Today marks the 36th anniversary of the first moon landing, which is excuse enough, I guess, to give you a closer look at all of the moon landing sites.

PS: While you're at it, zoom in as close as Google lets you. Enjoy.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Cheap capital and the lack of investment vehicles 

The world is literally awash in liquidity today. There's far too much money chasing too few investment opportunities. Conventional wisdom suggests that cheap money in the West should be looking for investment opportunities in at least some emerging markets, where returns tend to be higher, even after accounting for risk. In fact, what's happening today is just the opposite. The poor are lending to the rich instead. The U.S. alone is estimated to receive about $2 billion-$4 billion a day, courtesy of the Asian central banks. Why this imbalance?

About $250-$270 billion in private capital flowed into emerging markets in 2004, though most of it went to Asia and Latin America. Africa (including North Africa) received less than 5% of this amount. $250 billion is not a very large sum of money when you consider how large the developing world really is (including India, China etc). I believe what is lacking today are good investment vehicles to match the investment opportunities (especially in the SME sector) in the developing world with the cheap capital of the developed world. Part of this is a pure transaction cost issue, because identifying and evaluating investment opportunities in Africa or small-town India is something that imposes significant costs on the investor. So, in effect, there is a real opportunity waiting to be picked for someone willing to play the middleman (general partner?) and invest sensibly, be it in small town India or small town Mexico.

It was in this context that I spoke with Rob Fogler last week. Rob recently founded a very interesting U.S.-based venture fund called the Thousand Hills Venture Fund. THVF hopes to make investments in what a friend of mine described as 'industrial micro-finance' or investments in the $50K-$500K range in the SME sector. What makes this venture truly interesting is that it's looking to invest in Rwanda. Yes, you read that right. Rwanda. For obvious reasons, I can't go into too much detail on this blog, but suffice to say that THVF is expecting to make decent sized returns, are looking at technology ventures and will probably close the fund by the end of the year. So, if you're an entrepreneur in Rwanda or know someone who is, this is one avenue for you look at. If you're an investor and are looking for an interesting emerging market play, I cannot recommend THVF enough. I certainly hope they succeed in this venture, because I think it will serve as an eye-opener to the west on all the untapped opportunities in Africa, Asia etc. And if Rob and THVF could raise money in the U.S. to invest in Rwanda, the potential for doing something similar in India or Indonesia or Ghana has to be substantially higher.

Why Rwanda, you might ask. After all, the only reason why anyone really knows of Rwanda is because of the horrific genocide in 1994. Well, Rwanda has been on the mend since. President Kagame (with generous western assistance) has been trying to put the economy back on track, and in particular been trying to reinvent Rwanda as a technology hub in the region (the density of population in a small area helps), as this BBC story indicates. If it does succeed in becoming a tech hub, obviously the opportunities for investing in promising entreprenurial ventures will go up dramatically. Hopefully, at that point THVP will reap the benefits of having made the first move. Watch this space.

Unnatural Selection 

(via Rajan) The Guardian reports on how poaching is changing the gene pool of the Asian Elephant:
Male elephants usually grow tusks, but typically around 2%-5% have a genetic quirk that means they remain tuskless. By killing elephants for their ivory, poachers make it more likely that tuskless elephants will mate and pass on the quirk to the next generation. Zhang Li, a zoologist at Beijing Normal University and a member of the World Conservation Union's Asian elephant specialist group, studied herds in China and found that up to 10% were tuskless.

The illegal trade in ivory has also skewed the sex ratio of the elephants in China, with females now outnumbering the males by four to one.

(Nitpick Alert) It seems to me that one doesn't have to invoke natural selection to explain Prof Li's observation; a horrendously high poaching rate could also do the trick. For example, if a herd starts out with 5% genetically tuskless males, and 50% of the tusked males are subsequently killed by poachers, then 10% of the remaining population would appear to be genetically tuskless. Of course, if the 10% tuskless ratio referred, not to observed herd populations, but to newborn males instead, then that would indeed be proof of evolution in action. (Unfortunately, the Guardian article doesn't go into detail about this, and I was unable to find the primary research). But I'm skeptical; large-scale poaching has simply not been in action long enough for natural selection to kick in. (End Nitpick Alert).

Either way, it's a terrible thing.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Preventing confusion, Indian govt style 

Alex Tabarrok has the dirt.
India receives 90% of its rain during monsoon season so forecasting monsoons is critical for productive farming. Fortunately, according to an article in Nature (subs. req.), the Indian Meteorological Department has found a way to make its forecast better than any other available - they have suppresed publication of the other forecasts. The Indian government says this is necessary to prevent "confusion."

The main competitor to the government's statistical model, which has not reduced its forecast error in 70 years, is from an Institute based in Bangalore which uses a climate model. The Institute and government forecasts can differ dramatically. The Institute, for example, forecast that rainfall would be 34% below average in June and 12% below average in July while the government forecast "normal or above normal rains."

The rainfall in June? 35% below average. No confusion about that.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Steve Levitt needs your help 

This is the ZS public service message of the day. Rogue economist, Steve Levitt, needs your help, especially if you're a poker player. He is on working on a research project which aims to understand what makes a person good or bad at poker.

I couldn't find the kind of data I needed, so I am assembling my own data set. What I'm looking for are online poker players who have been tracking their hands using Poker Tracker software. I've set up a website for people who are interested in contributing their own poker hands to the database. It is http://www.pokernomics.com/. It gives you all the details.

You are probably thinking to yourself, "what is in it for me?" First, you will be advancing science (or whatever it is you call my research). Second, we will analyze your data and hopefully give you some ideas about how to be a better poker player. Third, while supplies last, we are giving out Freakonomics t-shirts and signed copies of the book to people who provide us with big hand histories.

If you want more information on the project, go here.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Celebrating Admiral Zheng He 

The implicit euro-centrism in the world we grew up in/live in today is a subject we've turned to time and again on this blog. How else do you explain the fact that most of us have never heard of Admiral Zheng He, the great commander of the Ming Imperial Navy, without question the greatest navy in history before Britain began to rule the waves. Admiral He was making epic journeys into India, Indonesia, East Africa etc about a century before Columbus or Vasco da Gama. This month marks the 600th anniversary of Admiral He's journeys. Obviously, lots of people have marked the occasion with very interesting articles. The Economist has written a 'what if' story.
Between 1405 and 1433, Zheng and his men beat their way down through all of South-East Asia, to both coasts of India and finally to Africa's eastern coast, at least as far as Ethiopia. His journeys towards the Cape of Good Hope took place almost a century before Bartolomeu Dias first rounded it in the opposite direction, and the mightiest of his ships, at close to 500ft long, was four or five times the size of anything the Europeans could build at the time. His fleets were up to 300 strong, carrying 20,000 men.

Equipped with such technology and organisation, China might have discovered Europe long before Europeans sailed into, and in time came to dominate, China: one recent author, indeed, argues that it did so. But Zheng's seventh voyage was his last. The sea-going eunuchs fell from favour (Zheng's missions were staggeringly costly) and by 1500 it was a capital offence to go to sea in a two-masted ship without permission. China had embarked on a long period of isolation like that imposed on Japan by the Tokugawa shogunate in the 17th century. With the mothballing of Zheng's ships, just as Europeans were beginning their own voyages of discovery, came the beginning of the end of China's centuries of superiority. Had Zheng been allowed to continue his voyages, might the advantages of trade and discovery have come to seem more obvious? Might China have avoided decline? Or was, instead, the recall of the fleet a symptom of a deeper malaise in Chinese society?

The July issue of National Geographic also did a terrific story on China's Great Armada. Unfortunately, the article is not available in full online, so you'll have to buy the magazine to read it.
Exactly 600 years ago this month the great Ming armada weighed anchor in Nanjing, on the first of seven epic voyages as far west as Africa—almost a century before Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas and Vasco da Gama’s in India. Even the European expeditions would seem paltry by comparison: All the ships of Columbus and da Gama combined could have been stored on a single deck of a single vessel in the fleet that set sail under Zheng He. Its commander was, without question, the most towering maritime figure in the 4,000-year annals of China, a visionary who imagined a new world and set out consciously to fashion it.

Our friends at Sepia Mutiny had also linked to this National Geographic story a few weeks back, in particular transcribing a few lines about the stela he erected in Sri Lanka.
The stela’s three inscriptions addressed respectively, to Buddha, Siva, and Allah, offering thanks for their compassion and moral virtue, and seeking their protective blessing for the voyages’ aims. The chief Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim shrines of Sri Lanka, the stela recorded, were to be presented with equal offerings of gold, silver, silk, and other precious gifts. Elsewhere in Asia this is the epoch when entire cities were put to the sword in the name of Buddha, Siva, or Allah. It is the epoch of the Inquisition in Europe, when thousands of Muslims and Jews were burned at the stake. In the context of his century’s religious fanaticism, Zheng He’s Dondra stela was an ecumenical manifesto far ahead of its time—indeed, ahead of our own fanatic times—a plea for tolerance, articulated in three languages.

I was particularly fascinated by some of Admiral He's impressions of Kerala, the main destination for the Ming fleet during all seven voyages, and a place he called home. There is also some fascinating detail on spice transactions in Cochin, which Nat Geo describes as 'history's first description of a futures market.' The Sepia Mutiny folks also link to a Time magazine story from 2001 that describes the voyages of the great admiral.

PS:Not that you should need an excuse to go read this story in Nat Geo, but they also have a fascinating story on stem cells.

Bio-diesel cheaper than diesel 

Indic View informs us that the cost of Jatropha-based bio-diesel has now gone below the cost of regular diesel. The Indian Railways have been experimenting with bio-diesel on several trains, including the Shatabdi Express, with surprisingly good results.

In the past Indian Railways would pay as much as Rs 70-80 for a litre of bio-diesel to meet its trial requirements. For a pilot in 2003, BEST and HPCL paid as much as Rs 78 per litre to Lubzoil India Ltd for 20,000 litres. Now with the price of jatropha seeds down to Rs 5 a kilo, from Rs 30 a kilo earlier, bio-diesel cost has come down to just Rs 24 a litre.

What is the potential for this sunrise industry?
India uses about 45 million tonnes of diesel every year. So with 20% bio-diesel, which the government will likely mandate as a target under the National Biodiesel Policy in August, about 9 million tonnes of bio-diesel produced within India will mean an India bio-diesel industry as big as Rs 250 billion, or $6 billion. That is only about 7 years away. But is that just another number for the future that is thrown at us?

There are already indications of huge commitments from corporates in India. For example a single Mohan Breweries-D1 Oils JV in Tamil Nadu is into contracting farmers for Jatropha production, and is already working on an immediate aim of 120,000 tonnes of jatropha oil annually. This could go up to 300,000 tonnes based on the plantations targets for this year alone. In Mysore, Labland Biotech is in a deal with D1 Oils to procure upto 50,000 tonnes of jatropha oil a year, from contract manufacturing farmers.

I don't know the economics of the industry well enough. However, if it does become popular and demand increases, can supply keep up quickly enough to keep the prices down? After all, even assuming that they grow fast, Jatropha still takes time to grow to a stage where they can harvested. So, effectively, a supply response to today's demand will still take time to get to market, by which time demand may have gone further up. Or down. Does anyone deal in Jatropha futures yet?

Rogue economist gets the pat-down 

The roguest of all rogue economists, Steven Levitt, author of Freakonomics, got into a spot of bother with the TSA while changing his flight to one that actually left on time. His current topic of research did not help him any.

Of course, the last minute purchase of a one-way ticket sets off the lights and buzzers for the TSA. So, I'm pulled out of the line and searched. First the full-body search. Then the luggage. It didn't occur to me that my latest research was going to get me into trouble. I've been thinking a lot about terrorism lately. Among the things I had in my carry-on was a detailed description of the 9/11 terrorists activities, replete with pictures of each of the terrorists and information about their background. As well as pages of my scribblings on terrorist incentives, potential targets, etc. It also was the first thing the screener pulled out of my bag. The previously cheery mood turned dark. Four TSA employees suddenly surrounded me. They didn't seem very impressed with my explanation. When the boss arrived, one of the screener says, "He claims to be an economics professor who studies terrorism."

Thankfully, it all worked out in the end.
Finally satisfied that I was playing for the home team, he allowed me to board a plane to Chicago. Thank God I left my copy of the terrorist handbook that I blogged about on June 9th at home, or I would have instead been flying straight to Cuba.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

The top 10 economies 

The World Bank has recently updated its development indicators. Among the indicators updated are the GDP figures and the per-capita figures. According to the updated numbers, India's $691 billion economy has just overtaken South Korea to become the 10th largest economy in the world (and the 3rd largest in Asia). China has moved into 7th place now with its $1.6 trillion economy. India's share of the world economy has gone up to about 1.7%, while China's has gone up to about 4%. The U.S. still dominates the world economy with a 29% share. A look at the top 10 also reveals why the G8 is an anachronism. Russia is not in there. China will probably overtake Italy in the next couple of months. Spain has a larger economy than Canada. And India ought to enter the top 8 in the next couple of years. Among developing countries, Mexico, Russia, Brazil and Turkey also feature in the top 20.

You can also check out where these countries stand if you used PPP to compute GDP. Also online are the per-capita income figures using U.S dollars and PPP methodologies. India does abysmally in both cases with rankings of 159 and 146 respectively, while China ranks at 132 and 119.

Mammatus Clouds 

Ever hear of Mammatus Clouds? I had not until I saw these unbelievable photographs. It still took me sometime to convince myself they weren't doctored. For more information on these strange, strange clouds, go here or here or here.

Meanwhile in China... 

Foreign exchange reserves have surged to $711 billion, increasing by about $100 billion in just the first six months of the year. Apparently, the increase is fuelled by the trade surplus and foreign investment rather than speculative hot money betting on a revaluation of the renminbi. While we watch for inflation in China (which has the potential to cause real social unrest), U.S. consumers can continue to shop.

The Asian consumer conundrum 

Andy Mukherjee has written a column at Bloomberg.com that addresses why the U.S. and Europe seem to have failed to notice both the $9 trillion Asian economy and its increasingly prosperous consumers. This may seem strange given the amount of newsprint being consumed by stories on India and China, but the fact is that when it comes to strategic planning, Asian concerns are probably still peripheral to the giant multinationals.
Asian nations' $9 trillion gross domestic product grew 5.2 percent last year, the fastest since 1990. After rising for five straight years, the region's current account surplus now exceeds 4 percent of its GDP, the UBS study said. Asian countries in general aren't importing enough goods and services to compensate for European and U.S. purchases of Asian- made items such as trousers and TV sets. ``This isn't what you would expect from a region expanding faster than the U.S. and more than twice as fast as the EU,'' Anderson said. "A booming Asia should be pulling the rest of the world along with it -- resolving U.S. imbalances and promoting EU growth by purchasing more goods and services." Since Asia is running a current account surplus, demand in the rest of the world is pulling up Asian growth. The gap also implies that Asian nations are exporting capital, typically through their central banks' accumulation of U.S. securities.

India, the world's second-fastest growing major economy after China, last week announced a reversal of three years of current account surpluses with a small $6.4 billion deficit. So it's doing its bit for world growth. However, with a $661 billion economy, of which trade accounts for just 27 percent, India doesn't help much yet, UBS said. Unlike India, China's $1.65 trillion economy is in a position to help. Re-exports of imported components account for about half of China's overseas shipments. It's this "processing" trade that's grossly tilted in China's favor. Only considering China's "domestic" trade -- exports of what it makes locally minus imports of what it consumes within the country -- China ran a trade deficit from 2002 until mid-2004, the UBS study said. Right now, China is in a bind. Its "processing" trade is accelerating. At the same time, "the combination of surging excess capacity in overheated sectors has turned a rising trade deficit at home into a strong surplus," UBS's Anderson explained. China had a $30 billion trade surplus in the first five months of 2005, compared with a $9 billion deficit in the same period last year.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

A pilgrimage 

Ladies and gentlemen, please take a look at this very special place I visited a couple of weeks ago.

This is no ordinary ground. This is the Melbourne Cricket Ground, known to all cricket fans as "The MCG" and to Melburnians as simply "The 'G". This is where it began; this is where the first ever international Test Match was played, between Australia and England in March 1877. This view is from as high in the stands as possible: the topmost row of the members' stand.

Melbourne is a terrific city to visit and I recommend it highly. I wanted to post random little observations about the place while I was there in June, but work and sightseeing kept me a tad too busy. I may yet get around to posting some memories over the next few days. The executive summary is that it's very food-loving and sports-loving. And, of course, the water in the toilet bowls drains clockwise and the people walk with their heads downwards.

As a parting shot, I leave you with a glimpse of the batsman's view of the ground. Standing in the middle was the pilgrimage moment.

Comfortably numb in my dotage? 

The human brain is one mysterious and fascinating system. Everytime I learn something new about it I realize that I hadn't until that point realized just how mysterious and fascinating it is. And so it will continue forever, I'm sure. Anyway, what prompted this musing is an NYT Science article titled "Neuron Network Goes Awry, and Brain Becomes an IPod".

According to the article, some people experience musical hallucinations in their old age, with their brains repeatedly playing some of the songs they've heard during their lifetime. The likelihood of experiencing these halluciations is greater in people who are hard of hearing and people who live alone and are thus exposed to fewer external stimuli.

Kinda scary and makes me wonder if I'll be hearing "Comfortably Numb" again and again some future day.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

The Business Experiment 

Via the Business 2.0 blog, I found the Business Experiment, a project by Robert May to see if the principles of the open source movement can be put to work in setting up a brand new business. Confused? May offers a short explanation.
The Business Experiment is a site meant to explore three concepts: wisdom of crowds, open-source business, and the distributed nature of work. The goal is to have the registered users of this site collectively start and run a real business. Business plans will be written. Financing will be sought (if needed). Employees will be hired. Systems of accountability will be put into place.

All major strategic decisions will be voted on by the registered users, and must be implemented by the employees. This will test to see if "the crowd" is really wise or not. Who do we hire? The crowd will vote on the candidates. What is our marketing strategy? Vote on it. How do we price our product or service? Vote again. It could be cool, or it could be foolish. But either way, it's definitely different.

Employees will be required to keep blogs. Eventually I hope to podcast some meetings. For the most part things will be done out in the open. People can see what goes on inside a real company because this will be a real company. At least sixty percent of the business (and possibly more) will be owned by the registered users. Ten percent will go to whoever submits the idea that we decide to pursue. Ten percent will go to this site, so that we can run other business experiments in the future. The rest will go to sponsors or investors, unless they are deemed unnecessary.

At the very least, it's an interesting idea. Have a look and decide if you want to participate in one of the more curious projects I've seen take shape on the web. If it works, it'll be quite amazing. If it doesn't, oh well.

Suketu Mehta on the passage from India 

Suketu Mehta, author of Maximum City has written an interesting op-ed in today's New York Times. He uses the recent news of IBM creating 14,000 new jobs in India as backdrop to build his story.
Stories like these have aroused a primal fear in the Western public: that they might soon need to line up outside the Indian Embassy for work visas and their children will have to learn Hindi. Just as my parents had to line up outside the American consulate in Bombay, and my sisters and I had to learn English. My father came to America in 1977 not for its political freedoms or its way of life, but for the hope of a better economic future for his children. Mobility, we have always known, is survival. Now I face the possibility that my children, when they grow up, will find their jobs outsourced to the very country their grandfather left to pursue economic opportunity.

I have a vested interest in seeing America prosper. But I am here because the country of my ancestors didn't understand the changing world; it couldn't change its technology and its philosophy and its notions of social mobility fast enough to fight off the European colonists, who won not so much with the might of advanced weaponry as with the clear logical philosophy of the Enlightenment. Their systems of thinking conquered our own. So, since independence, Indians have had to learn; we have had to slog for long hours in the classroom while the children of other countries went out to play.

The rich countries can't have it both ways. They can't provide huge subsidies for their agricultural conglomerates and complain when Indians who can't make a living on their farms then go to the cities and study computers and take away their jobs. Why are Indians willing to write code for a tenth of what Americans make for the same work? It's not by choice; it's because they're still struggling to stand on their feet after 200 years of colonial rule. The day will soon come when Indian companies will find that it's cheaper to hire computer programmers in Sri Lanka, and then it's there that the Indian jobs will go.

Of course, it's heart-wrenching to see American programmers - many of whom are of Indian origin - lose their jobs and have to worry about how they'll pay the mortgage. But they are ill served by politicians who promise to bring their jobs back by the facile tactic of banning them from leaving. This strategy will ensure only that our schools stay terrible; it'll be an entire country run like the dairy industry, feasible only because of price controls and subsidies.

Another Question of Sport 

My post on Garry Kasparov's retirement prompted a few comments about who the greatest chess player of all time was. Subjective opinions always make for a fun discussion, but it's also worthwhile to do some rigorous statistical analysis, and this is precisely what Jeff Sonas of Chessmetrics has done. Jeff has written a fascinating series of four articles for Chessbase, in which he looks at various measures of dominance:

Longest period as world champion: Emanuel Lasker was world champion for 27 years, though that span was artificially extended by WWI. Alexander Alekhine reigned for 16 years, but his stay was similarly extended by WWII. Kasparov was at the top for 15 years (and retired when he was still demonstrably the best player in the world). Finally, depending on when you consider his reign to have started, Wilhelm Steinitz was world champion for either 8, 22 or 28 years.

Largest ratings gap between first and second: Steinitz in 1876, Fischer in 1971, and Morphy in 1859 are the top three in this category. Fischer's 1971 achievement is especially striking when you reflect that the overall strength and depth of the chess world has (almost certainly) increased considerably since the 19th century. Steinitz's dominance of the 1870s was equally total: he won 25 straight games between 1873 and 1882 (no draws, all wins).

Longest period (non-consecutive) at top of ratings list: Lasker, 24 years, closely followed Kasparov, 22 years. Again, Kasparov could well have overtaken Lasker had he stayed in the game a bit longer.

Longest period (consecutive) at top of ratings list: Kasparov, 20 years, is streets ahead of Lasker, 13 years, and Karpov, 8 years. And for 19 of those 20 years, no other player came within 10 points of Kasparov's rating.

Highest peak rating (adjusted for comparisons across eras): The Chessmetrics ratings list for Oct 1st, 1971 had Fischer at 2895, after he won 19 straight games against strong opposition (including identical 6-0 annihilations of world #9 Mark Taimonov and #3 Bent Larsen). The second highest peak rating of 2886 belongs to Kasparov, after he took Linares 1993 (one of the two strongest tournaments of all time) with a stunning +7 score.

Highest match rating: Not surprisingly, Fischer's 6-0 demolition of Larsen was the strongest match performance of all time. Lasker's +8 win in 1896 over Steinitz (no slouch himself) gives him 2nd place on this list.

Highest tournament rating: Karpov's 11/13, +8, 2899 performance at Linares 1994, against a field including 9 of the top 11 players in the world, was simply astounding. It was the strongest performance by any player in any event in the history of chess.

Best tournament performances: Karpov may have had the single best tournament performance ever (at Linares 1994), but Kasparov was by far the best tournament player of all time. He had 5 of the top 10 tournament performances ever, and no less than 17 tournaments with performance ratings above 2820 (next best on this list is Lasker with 6). Kasparov also won 3 clear 1sts in category 20/21 tournaments (nobody else has won even 1). And he won more tournaments involving each of the top 5 players in the world (6) than everybody else combined.

Best annual performances (aka the Chess Oscar method): wherein we award gold, silver and bronze medals to the best three ratings performers each year, starting every year from zero. Kasparov has 16 golds and 5 silvers; Karpov has 11 golds and 12 silvers. Between them they won all 15 golds and 14 of 15 silvers in the period from 1981 through 1995. The duopoly also won 27 of 30 golds between 1973 and 2002.

This raises an interesting fantasy question. What would have happened if Garry Kasparov had never become a serious chessplayer? Jeff Sonas answers:

If Anatoly Karpov had still maintained his same ability and same overall results that he did in real life, then I think it would be a foregone conclusion by now that Karpov was the most dominant chess player of all time. He would have far surpassed almost all of the accomplishments of Emanuel Lasker, except those that were artificially extended due to the infrequency of play during Lasker's time. In fact, had Karpov defeated Kasparov in their first world championship match, it would almost certainly have eclipsed Fischer's main claim to all-time fame, which was his 6-0 match scores against Mark Taimanov and Bent Larsen ... I don't think it seems right to penalize Karpov for happening to be a contemporary of Kasparov. So I would actually place Karpov above both Lasker and Fischer in the all-time annals of who was most dominant.

And of course, once we stop the pretending, and acknowledge that Kasparov did in fact compete, and dominated even the mighty Karpov, then I think it's a no-brainer to answer the overriding question of these articles. If I had to hand out medals for who were the most dominant players of all time, I would give the gold medal to Garry Kasparov, and the silver medal (fittingly) to Anatoly Karpov. And then the bronze medal goes to either Emanuel Lasker or Bobby Fischer, depending on the fine print about whether the most important timeframe is their whole career or their peak year.

And there you have it.

Post Script 1: Kasparov, Karpov, Fischer, Lasker, Steinitz. Could 2005 be the year in which these names are finally superseded on the "strongest ever" list by the name of a computer chess program? Hydra's recent demolition of top-10 player Mickey Adams would certainly seem to imply so.

Post Script 2: How does Hydra work? Like most computer chess programs, it has a position evaluation function (Q=+9, R=+5, P=+1; control of centre is positive, doubled pawns are negative, and so on), and it does extensive (brute force) tree searches to calculate the "expected value" of any candidate move, averaged across all possible paths (with minimax pruning of course). This is somewhat similar to what most human GMs do, except that humans are much better at seeing which lines are important and which can be ignored (ie, their pruning is much more efficient). With one exception: Jose Raul Capablanca was once asked how many moves ahead he looked. He replied, "One move, the best one". In other words, his position evaluation function was so good that he didn't need to do a tree search to simplify the calculation. Amazing.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Jeff Sachs on the G8 summit 

Jeff Sachs has written an interesting op-ed in the Financial Times, offering his analysis of the Gleaneagles summit, especially the increased aid to Africa. I'll cut straight to the numbers.
Roughly four-fifths of the $50bn increase will come from the European Union, though Europe represents but two-fifths of the GNP of the donor countries. Notably, the pre-enlargement EU-15 have set a bold timetable to reach 0.56 per cent of GNP in aid by 2010 and the internationally agreed target of 0.7 per cent of GNP by 2015. ­Canada and Japan gave a nod to 0.7, but refused to commit to a timetable. The US did worse, denying repeatedly in recent weeks it had ever pledged 0.7, although Mr Bush signed on to the March 2002 Monterrey Consensus to “make concrete efforts towards the ­target of 0.7 per cent”. Instead, the US cobbled together some small programmes backed by big spin. The new US effort against malaria is welcome, but $1.2bn over five years is paltry when $3bn each year is needed to fight the disease in Africa. The US five-year effort is less than one day of Pentagon spending, and two cents of every $1,000 of US national income.

The IMF and World Bank have a responsibility to help mobilise the required aid. Rather than tell Ghana to keep its health budget low to preserve macroeconomic stability, the IMF should tell donors to honour their commitment to Ghana, so that it can save its children and break free of the disease-hunger-poverty trap. The $50bn a year in official aid for Africa translates into around $75 to $100 per African, depending on each country’s needs and commitments to use the aid effectively. Donor support for African health should be reaching $20 or more per capita per year, not the typical $5 or so on offer now. Donor support for agriculture and rural infrastructure should reach roughly the same amount. With suitable investments in farming systems, African food production can be tripled in a 21st century African green revolution.

Blog du Jour: Broadband Blog 

Dr. Abhishek Puri writes the Broadband Blog, which tracks news from the Indian telecom industry, especially developments in the broadband space.

Guns, Germs and Steel: The TV adaptation 

Most ZS readers have either read or know of Jared Diamond's magnum opus, Guns, Germs and Steel. Now, PBS has made a television series based on the book. The three-part series, produced by National Geographic, begins airing tonight at 10 pm in most U.S. markets (do check your local listings). In the New York region, you can watch it on WNET Thirteen.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Bloggers or Journalists? 

Joi Ito points to a piece by Dennis Howlett, who asks a very pertinent question: Do U.S. immigration authorities require bloggers entering the U.S. to have a journalist visa? Howlett argues that bloggers may be considered journalists under U.S. immigration law.
A comprehensive analysis of what's going on can be found at Slate. Although written in 2004, the article shows that America is using its immigration policy to restrict entry by certain journalists. The rules are broad enough to cover bloggers. So while the blogosphere may be considered a great thing for freedom of expression, there is always the risk that high profile, non-US bloggers will be refused entry to the US. Especially if they make what US immigration officials consider anti-American comments on their sites. You can argue that blogging isn't journalism but a personal expression of opinion. If my experience is anything to go by, that won't cut any ice with immigration officials.

Without getting into the freedom-of-speech angle to this, it is still a very interesting question and one that I have never considered before. Do any of you have an informed opinion on this? Come to think about it, India requires all journalists to have a journalist visa too. I wonder if the Indian authorities will take it upon themselves to harass some bloggers too, especially if some others are given accreditation.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Google Toolbar for Firefox 

One of the big downsides of Firefox was that Google did not have a Firefox-compatible version of its awesome toolbar. No longer. Google has just announced the beta version of the Google Firefox Toolbar. Quick download. Easy Installation. What's your excuse now for not running Firefox?

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Mobile phones and economic development 

Some of you know that I did my doctoral work on the impact mobile phones could have on productivity and economic development, especially as it smoothed out information asymmetries inherent in undeveloped and rural markets. So, I've been quite pleased to see story after story that corroborates my thesis about mobile phones. First came the Economist story on the real digital divide (which I have blogged about earlier), then came Vodafone CEO Arun Sarin's op-ed in the Financial Times.

Africa is now the fastest-growing region for mobile telecommunications in the world, having lagged behind the developed world for decades. The number of African mobile subscribers increased by over 1,000 per cent between 1998 and 2003 and, although this was from a low base, the continent is closing the gap with the rest of the world. This stunning progress has been achieved almost entirely through private investment. The mobile experience offers lessons on the broader challenges of infrastructure development. Typically, governments and donors focus on infrastructure such as roads and ports. But efficient communication often plays a more important and often overlooked part in economic development.

The business case for investing in telecommunications in Africa is compelling but it will only be fully realised when private investors are confident of the political, regulatory and business environments. African countries differ widely in the extent to which mobiles have been adopted. For example, there were 36 mobiles per 100 people in South Africa at the end of 2004, compared with an average for the whole of sub-Saharan Africa of fewer than three mobiles per 100. Governments' different approaches to the liberalisation of the markets, the introduction of private competition and their regulatory and institutional frameworks go a long way towards explaining this difference.

A thriving business sector, led by capable and highly motivated African entrepreneurs, will lie at the heart of spurring economic growth and reducing poverty. Vodafone has found, in the mobile telecommunications sector, that the emergence of private resellers has acted as an economic stimulus even in very poor rural communities. For instance, some entrepreneurial people with mobiles will, for a very small fee, receive and relay text messages for other people in their community or recharge handsets from their car batteries. On a large scale, companies such as Vodacom (Vodafone's South African partner), MTN (also from South Africa) and Orascom (from Egypt) are not only thriving in their own countries but also investing throughout the continent. They are developing innovative business models and creating in their own ranks talented African leaders.

Now, the current issue of the Economist revisits the issue in a piece titled Calling an end to poverty.

Kai Oistamo of Nokia, the world's largest handset-maker, notes that people in poor countries have to spend a far larger proportion of their income than those in the rich world to buy even the cheapest handset. “So looks and brand are highly important—it is much more of a status symbol in those societies,” he says. And it is wrong, points out Mr Prahalad, to assume that consumers in poor countries will not be interested in fancy features such as music-playback. Since they cannot afford multiple devices—an iPod, a PC, a PlayStation—they may want more from their mobiles. As handset-makers respond to this new market, prices will continue to fall. “We will give you the volumes so that you can continue to drive down prices,” promised Sunil Mittal, boss of Bharti, a big Indian operator.

Lower prices will make a second barrier ever more apparent: high taxes and duties imposed by many governments on handsets and services, often just as growth in the sector starts to take off. “It does seem strange for countries to say that telephone access is a public-policy goal, and then put special or punitive taxes on telecoms operators and users,” says Charles Kenny, an economist at the World Bank. “It's a case of sin taxes on a blessed product.”

PS: If anyone is interested in discussing this issue or any part of the research I did, just back-channel me via e-mail. You'll find the address on the bio page.

Africa: A continent or a crisis? 

In the wake of the Live8 concerts and the G8 debate over Africa, Ethan Zuckerman has been doing some prolific writing. But first, some context. Ethan first wrote a post called Bono and Brad Pitt need your help, expressing his frustration with the Live8 concerts and the misplaced idealism behind it. Black Star Journal responded by saying that all publicity is good publicity and that raising awareness about Africa's development problems was critical. In response, Ethan wrote an entry he called Africa’s a continent. Not a crisis.

I’m having trouble sharing Brian’s view that the attention generated by Live 8 is neccesarily a good thing. Yes, millions of people are paying attention to “Africa” today… but I’m having some trouble recognizing the “Africa” they’re talking about. In several of the interviews I watched on CNN and MTV, concert performers and fans referenced “the issue of Africa”, “the African cause”, or “the problem of Africa”. Africa’s not an issue. It’s not a cause or a problem. It’s a continent - a complicated, confusing, beautiful continent, with wealth and poverty, peace and strife, success and tragedy. When Africa becomes a cause, we tend to see only one side of the continent - a helpless, dependent, starving side that “needs our help”.

To actually accomplish the goal of Live 8 - the elimination of poverty in Africa - Americans and Europeans have to get a great deal smarter about this other Africa. This Africa needs investment and trade, rather than just aid and debt forgiveness This Africa is open for business. This Africa is as important and as real as the Africa that needs help. Aid dollars don’t eliminate poverty - integration into a global economy does. (South Korea and Ghana had approximately the same per capita income when Ghana gained independence in 1957. South Korea’s income per capita has increased roughly fifteen times in constant dollar terms, while Ghana’s has fallen slightly. You may notice that we buy a great deal more from South Korea than we do from Ghana.) If the goal of Live 8 were to help people see the African continent as a place they want to visit, a place they want to open businesses in, a place they want to engage with, as opposed to a place they want to save, I’d be more likely to share Brian’s hopes.

But that would be a very different concert. It would be one that celebrated the cultural richness of the continent by putting African artists on stage, rather than inviting them - after Geldof was shamed by Peter Gabriel - to perform at a parallel event a hundred miles away from the main action. It would be one that put African leaders, entrepreneurs and innovators on stage, rather than using a silent young Ethiopian woman as a stage prop for Madonna and Geldof. It would be one that was more focused on changing the global image of Africa than on somehow changing the minds of the eight guys sitting around a table in Scotland.

Read the whole thing. Though I am very conflicted about this awareness issue, I think Ethan raises some excellent points. If people stopped seeing Africa as a hopeless problem and instead of thought of it in terms of potential investment opportunities and markets, I think we'd come up with a better solution than Live8. After all, we can look at a village of 2000 people who don't wear any footwear as an impossible market for a footwear company to crack or we can look at it as a virgin market with 2000 potential customers, assuming the right price point and selling strategy can be found. We must keep in mind that the single greatest poverty alleviation measure in the history of humankind has been the rapid economic development of India and China. Why should Africa be any different?

The good news is that large developing country firms have begun to see the potential lying untapped in these markets with burgeoning middle classes. So, Tata is bidding for a license to become the second network operator in South Africa, South Africa's MTN is fast becoming the largest telecom player on the continent, China is improving its foot print all across Africa, Videocon is setting up a greenfield project in South Africa and so on. Hopefully, this is only the beginning and there will be plenty more investment into Africa. You may also want to read an archived story in the Economist from April, which outlined how developing countries were attracting FDI from each other.

Wikipedia and India 

Some of you might find this article on Wikipedia interesting - the Geography of India was recently selected as a "featured article" on the front page, and is pretty comprehensive. Of course, because it's a wiki, feel free to read and correct anything in the article.

That got me to thinking. There is currently no article about the "head bobble" we've discussed here before, and is so famous in India. In fact, if you do a Google search on "India head bobble" the first hit is a Yahoo India store selling Bobble Head dolls, and the second hit is the forementioned Zoostation post.

So here it is - I've started the India head bobble article on Wikipedia, so feel free to add your knowledge to it. (And if you've never used a wiki before, now's a good time to try.)

The media being the media 

Reproduced in full, from Simon World Blog:
Watching CNN just now, the reporter was interviewing an eyewitness who had been on one of the bombed trains. After the usual inane questions of a clearly rattled but nevertheless composed man, the following transpired:

CNN: Do you suspect terrorists?
Witness: As a barrister I do not want to jump to conclusions. We need to wait for the evidence. We can't be too hasty.
CNN: Can you tell me what you think of the people that did this?
Witness: I feel pity.
CNN (incredulous): Pity?
Witness: Yes. You can only feel pity for people that do these things.
CNN (throwing back to studio): Clearly a shocked and confused man. As you can hear, there is much confusion among witnesses here...

FFS. The man has just been in a bombing and still managed to string together not just sentences but cognent thoughts. Don't patronise the man just because he didn't give you the answers you thought he should. There's something vile in this desperate need for immediate reaction by news networks, shoving microphones in the face of victims.

Meanwhile, the Brits are being stoic as ever. Here's Tim Worstall.
Yes, we’ll take an excuse for a day off, throw a sickie. But you threaten us, try to kill us? Kill and injure some of us?

Fuck you, sunshine.

We’ll not be having that.

No grand demonstrations, few warlike chants, a desire for revenge, of course, but the reaction of the average man and woman in the street? Yes, you’ve tried it now bugger off. We’re not scared, no, you won’t change us. Even if we are scared, you can still bugger off.

Andrew Sullivan has been posting quite a bit about the bombing. The Guardian blog has great coverage too.

The London blasts 

There are several ZS readers I know of who live in London. I hope all of you are safe and weren't hurt in the bombings this morning. If this is yet another Al-Qaeda attack, it brings into sharp focus why the whole world must co-operate in putting these barbaric sons-of-bitches out of business.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Shanghai Cooperation Organization 

Right before the G8, another group, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, met in Kazakhstan to discuss issues related to Central Asia. The members, China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan welcomed current observer Mongolia, and new observers Pakistan, India and Iran. What started originally as the Shanghai Five, has suddenly created an interesting Asia-based alliance and power center. It's not all peaches and cream, though.

One of the urgent issues they addressed was the presence of Western troops in member states, and pushed for the US and France to have a timetable to get their troops out of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. After 9/11, the war in Afghanistan and Iraq saw these countries provide airbases and logistical centers for Western troops. This obviously concerns folks for which this is their backyard, like Russia and China. The US, unsurprisingly, rejected the idea of a set timetable.

But there is tension within the alliance too, with China basically reinforcing its stand against the "G4" plan for more permanent seats on the United Nations Security Countil. That doesn't make India a happy part of that group.

There is also the prospect of the central Asia countries going it alone, something Kazakhstan's president has in mind. From the right-wing Washington Times:
Mr. Nazarbaev would like to create a Central Asian Union, which would include the five post-Soviet countries of Central Asia: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. Such a union, long encouraged by the U.S., could serve as the springboard toward a common market and diminish the region's strategic dependency on China and Russia.
As we've seen before, the US just can't seem to keep its fingers out of any place where there's oil to be had. Surely the US is watching very carefully the possible chumminess developing in the middle of Asia.

Live8 on demand. On AOL. 

There's plenty of ZS readers who seemed to have missed the Live8 show. Help is at hand. AOL has put pretty much the entire concert online. You can choose from concert highlights, the London show, the Philly show or the Toronto show. Each show is available song-by-song, which is excellent. If you have to choose one, watch the London show. It's the best, by quite a distance.

I've been watching some of the performances all over again and I think I can narrow my top 5 favourites down to Bittersweet Symphony by Coldplay and Richard Ashcroft, Comfortably Numb by Pink Floyd, Driven to Tears by Sting, Beautiful Day by U2 and the rocking version of Helter Skelter by Macca. Agree?

PS: Though the on-demand version does not seem to work well on Firefox, I still give AOL credit for putting together an amazing online experience.

The Penguin Classics Library Complete Collection 

If you have $7,989.99 to spare, go out and buy this set. I think it's totally worth it.

For the first time, the entire line of Penguin Classics is available in one complete collection for home, office, or institutional libraries. For 2005, the Penguin Classics Library Complete Collection consists of 1,082 titles, all great works of literature totaling nearly half a million pages. From Renaissance philosophy to the poetry of revolutionary Russia, from the spiritual writings of India to the travel narratives of the early American colonists, from The Complete Pelican Shakespeare to The Portable Sixties Reader, there are classics here to educate, provoke, entertain, and enlighten reders of all interests and inclinations.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

The Ayodhya Attack 

At 8.40 am on Tuesday, six heavily armed terrorists drove a Jeep into the outer perimeter of the Ayodhya Temple in UP, ran into the complex towards the disputed structure and began hurling explosives and firing at Central Reserve Police Force and police troops positioned inside the complex. After a sustained firefight which lasted about two hours, all six terrorists were killed.

The incident has been played and re-played on television channels in India all day, but there are three things that I think require perspective. One is how the United Progressive Alliance government tackled the crisis, the second is how the Opposition and the Hindu marginalists reacted, and the third, what the citizenry did.

I think this was Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh's first real crisis - the hike in fuel prices didn't have the potential for nationwide damage that this one did, and he handled it remarkably well. When he delivered his message, he spoke with equal amounts of force and restraint. There was no doubt that the attack was being accorded the seriousness it merited, and equally, no question that India would react like it did to the carnage in Godhra in Gujarat.

What was troubling, and this is something that has begun creeping into the BJP's machinery with alarming frequency, is the way the opposition immediately chose to make this a political issue. They were quick to call it a security failure, asking for the home minister's of both the Centre and UP to resign, and, as is usually the case, a nation-wide bandh. The BJP is fresh from party leader LK Advani's 'secular Jinnah' remarks in Pakistan, and over the past few weeks, has been trying everything possible to deflect the nation's attention from Advani's surprising attempt at an image change. The fringe reacted with unusual restraint, the RSS asking the country to protest peacefully. The rabble rouser Praveen Togadia, who, it appears can now safely be replaced with a recorded voice, demanded that India stop all peace talks with Pakistan.

Fortunately, going by the public reaction, this has not worked - at least not yet. Ayodhya was completely peaceful a few hours after the attack (this is usually the time it takes for mobs to work up a froth). Apart from a token protest by the faction-ridden Shiv Sena in Mumbai, and Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi's usual inanities, nothing much has happened. We'll have to see what happens by the end of today, but going by how well the Centre has contained damage, how weak the oppositions attempts at politicizing the issue have been, and how stoically the citizenry has behaved, I think this is a crisis well averted.

More on Live8 

I guess everyone knows that appearing at a mega-concert like Live8 gives a huge boost to album sales of the artists involved. In some cases, some bands are literally *made* by the concert. For instance, U2 was just an Irish band with a unique sound until it performed at Live Aid to great acclaim. The Joshua Tree followed. I also think Queen reached their zenith at Live Aid. So, it's no surprise then that Live8 would be just as beneficial to the artists who performed, never mind that charity and awareness was the stated goal of the concert. According to Reuters, album sales of most of the bands rocketed after their performances at Live8. Pink Floyd saw a staggering 1343% increase in album sales (over the last week), followed by The Who with a 863% increase and Annie Lennox with a 500% increase.

How do you deal with these increased profits and sales from a charity gig? I think Pink Floyd has done the right thing. David Gilmour has promised to give every extra cent from these increased album sales to charity and called on other bands to do so as well.
"Though the main objective has been to raise consciousness and put pressure on the G8 leaders, I will not profit from the concert," he said in a statement. "If other artists feel like donating their extra royalties to charity, perhaps then the record companies could be persuaded to make a similar gesture and that would be a bonus."

At a pragmatic level though, it does not matter even if the band were being cynical, since it serves both Bob Geldof's (and Africa's??) interests and it serves the band's interests too. The bad PR is a different issue altogether. The last thing a rock band wants is for critics to trash their Live8 appearance as a publicity stunt meant to generate sales for themselves.

In other Live8 news, it seems like I wasn't the only person pissed about the TV coverage in the U.S. So was Tom Johnson. So was the Chicago Tribune. So was the Daily News in Philly. In a way, it'll be ironic if Live8 marks the moment when Internet coverage of live events blew TV coverage away. Ironic because Live Aid played a critical part in the global emergence of the then fledgling MTV.