Friday, September 30, 2005

The world's fastest growing brands 

Forbes has just published its list of the world's fastest growing brands. Rather than use recall as the key variable, Forbes concentrated on earnings growth (which I am not sure is the right variable) among key brands to come up with this list.

1. Apple
2. Blackberry
3. Google
4. Amazon
5. Yahoo
6. Ebay
7. Red Bull
8. Starbucks
9. Pixar

I guess the only name that surprises me in that list is Coach, which somehow doesn't strike one as a top-of-the-line brand. I would also have expected Google to come out on top, not Apple. The trouble with using earnings growth is that brands like Skype get left out. The other noticeable trend in this list is that 7 out of the 10 top brands are players from the tech/telecom/media space, which is probably due to the resurgence of the new economy in the past couple of years. The balance is somewhat restored if you look at ranks 11-20, which has a lot more old economy firms.

What brands are missing from this list? Who else do you think belongs in the top 10?

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Meet Hellen Tollbert 

Where there is misery, there will also inevitably be a bunch of assholes waiting to take advantage of a bad situation. Witness this e-mail I got today from a Hellen Tollbert, who is obviously trying to pull a version of the 419 on people who might want to help in the wake of Katrina's destruction.
I am Mrs Hellen Tolbert wife of Mr Johnny Tolbert, one family amongst the victims of the Hurricane Katrina who lost their home and all their properties in the Huricane Katrina, rendered us useless and homeless. I live at 17th Street Canal Downtown in New Orleans where the Hurricane Katrina struck took place. My home is one of the Affected houses in the area, and We spent two days on the roof of our house before we were Airlifted to a nearby church in Mississippi where we have been staying for the past two weeks.

[...] When Katrina thundered ashore and breached holes in the city's levees. Water raged in and flooded the bottom floor of our house, crack it and fell it down, Windows were blown out and now we are rendered homeless and stranded in this part of Africa region. Which we are not used to. Many workers and neighbours and residents lost their lifes, homes and all their possessions and even the clothes I'm wearing belong to someone else. But right now as a result of two many people trooping into this particular church, we were moved to somewhere in Africa region and here now we have been ask to leave for another undisclosed place because of too much crowd which I refused and I am now on my own facing my challenges and that of my children myself and I find it dificult to survive now as we have nothing to eat and they only give us water which is not even enough for us to drink.

Huh? Africa region, you say? In New Orleans?

Anyways, so what could Hellen want?
I want you to send any amount of donations of all sort to me either money or clothings or any inhouse property so that we can survive and lived. Especially for the sake of my husband who is now very sick in the hospital And as you do that, the ALMIGHTY GOD will rewards you greatly, (AMEN). I shall let you know how to send those gifts when you reply to my mail message.

The piece de resistance follows...
I look forward to your response with great hope of assistance from your good self Via my private email (hellen_tolbert@yahoo.es)

Err, Hellen, why do you have a Spanish Yahoo e-mail address if you are in Africa region in New Orleans? Just let me know and I'll send you ALL my money. Seriously!

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Indexing Creationist Claims 

(Via Big Picture) Hopefully, none of the readers/writers of ZS will ever have to get into an argument with the creationistas. For those of us living in the United States though, it is becoming an increasing possibility, given the activism of the anti-science lot. For those in need of a one-stop reference spot, Mark Isaak has put together the Index of Creationist Claims, refuting every claim made by creationists, point-by-point and in exhaustive detail.

Public Intellectuals 

Foreign Policy and Britain's Prospect Magazine are conducting a poll to determine the top five public intellectuals around.

The irony of this “thinkers” list is that it does not bear thinking about too closely. The problems of definition and judgment that it involves would discourage more rigorous souls. But some criteria must be spelled out. What is a public intellectual? Someone who has shown distinction in their own field along with the ability to communicate ideas and influence debate outside of it.

Candidates must have been alive, and still active in public life (though many on this list are past their prime). Such criteria ruled out the likes of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Milton Friedman, who would have been automatic inclusions 20 or so years ago. This list is about public influence, not intrinsic achievement. And that is where things get really tricky. Judging influence is hard enough inside one’s own culture, but when you are peering across cultures and languages, the problem becomes far harder. Obviously our list of 100 has been influenced by where most of us sit, in the English-speaking West.

Tom Friedman is on the list.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Indian government masters e-commerce 

(Via Thomas) As we all know, India is a knowledge superpower, waiting in the wings to dethrone every thing/one in Silicon Valley. Who better to lead this charge than the Indian government? Not only have they adapted superbly to the conveniences of internet-enabled commerce, but they've even managed to redefine it.

For more proof, head on over to the publications division of the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting and try to order online The Bhuj Story by Rishi Mohan Sanwal. For full impact, you have to fearlessly hit the submit order button. Enjoy.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Mrs G and the KGB 

Christopher Andrew was more than a little puzzled at the Congress Party's reaction to the book The Mitrokhin Archive, Volume II: The KGB And The World. After all, the Mitrokhin Archive was available for years and no one seemed to have anything to say about the KGB trying to cultivate Mrs Indira Gandhi right from when she first visited the Soviet Union with her father in 1953.

In a statement released after excerpts of the book appeared in the London papers, the Congress had this to say: "To state that Mrs Gandhi (Indira Gandhi) became prime minister because of the manipulation by any foreign intelligence agency is preposterous," the statement said. "The truth is that Indira Gandhi became prime minister in 1966, 1971 and 1980 because of the love, affection and trust the people of India reposed in her."

I don't know about love, affection and trust, but going by the Archives, there appears to be clear evidence that, like with many political leaders back home in India, the KGB too had little idea that Mrs G would rise to the top of the political heap - it turns out they wanted to cultivate her to reach Nehru. Later, as Moscow realized her status was far above what the British termed 'Dumb Doll,' the process of 'cultivation' reached a feverish pace.

Oleg Kalugin, who became head of Foreign Counter-Intelligence in 1973, remembers India as “a model of KGB infiltration of a Third World government”. He recalls one occasion when the KGB turned down an offer from an Indian minister to provide information in return for $50,000 on the grounds that it was already well supplied with material from the Indian foreign and defence ministries: “It seemed like the entire country was for sale; the KGB — and the CIA — had penetrated the Indian government. Neither side entrusted sensitive information to the Indians, realising their enemy would know all about it the next day.” The KGB, in Kalugin’s view, was more successful than the CIA, partly because of its skill in exploiting the corruption that became endemic under Indira Gandhi’s regime. Suitcases full of banknotes were said to be routinely taken to her house and one of her opponents claimed that Mrs Gandhi did not even return the cases.

The Prime Minister is unlikely to have paid close attention to the dubious origins of some of the funds that went into Congress’s coffers. That was a matter she left largely to her principal fund-raiser, Lalit Narayan Mishra, who, though Mrs Gandhi doubtless did not realise it, also accepted Soviet money. Short and obese, Mishra looked the part of the corrupt politician. Indira Gandhi, despite her own frugal lifestyle, depended on the cash he collected from various sources to finance her party. Money also went to her son and anointed heir, Sanjay, whose misguided ambition to build an Indian popular car and become India’s Henry Ford depended on government favours.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

What is Google up to? 

Om Malik created quite a stir last month when he suggested that Google may be planning to roll out a nationwide broadband wi-fi network. Om based his prediction on the fact that Google was shopping for a ton of dark fibre.

Well, Om may be right on this one. While it's true that if you type in wifi.google.com, you will be redirected to the main search page, a friend of mine sent me a link this morning to the Google secure access installer. GSAI lets you establish 'a more secure connection while using Google wi-fi,' according to the Google secure access FAQ. Secure access will route you via Google's VPN. Maybe some of you Bay Area ZS readers could check if the wi-fi service is available in San Francisco or not. This is definitely getting curiouser and curiouser.

PS: In other tech news, Opera is now available in an ad-free version. For free.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Yet Another Mobile Phone Landmark 

According to GSM World, the number of mobile phone connections worldwide crossed the 2 billion mark on Sunday, the 18th of September. This means that the number of users has doubled since 2002, when the 1 billion user mark was breached. As you can imagine, most of the growth is coming from the developing world.

In India, the mobile subscriber base has increased to 63 million. About 2.74 million new lines subscribers were added in the month of August, compared to 2.5 million new lines subscribers in July. Amazing, these new numbers. Even the market in Pakistan has been growing at a rapid clip, with the total subscriber base crossing 15.5 million in August.

Meanwhile in Germany... 

The predicted landslide for Angela Merkel failed to materialise as the German elections threw up a tie. There is just about a percentage point seperating the CDU/CSU coalition from the Red/Green Coalition (which translates into a 3-seat difference in the Bundestag). The liberal FDP has about 10% of the vote, while the Greens and the Left have 8% each.

The liberals from the FDP are natural allies for the CDU/CSU combine. Unfortunately, they have only 10% of the vote, which will get the coalition upto 45%, which is not enough to form a government. Schroder's SPD, on the other hand, can go for a coalition with the Greens and the Left, which will get them up to 50%+, a position from where Schroder could ostensibly retain his chancellorship. Trouble is that Schroder had categorically ruled out the possibility of aligning with the Left, who are a bit extreme for SPD voters, if you can imagine that. So, what other options exist for government formation in the world's third-largest economy (and largest exporter)?

Schroder could, in principle, convince the FDP to join the Red/Green Coalition, using the promise of greater reforms perhaps. Trouble is that Guido Westerwelle of the FDP has categorically ruled out a traffic light (red, green and FDP yellow) coalition because he doesn't think Red/Green is committed to serious economic reforms. That leaves us with one remaining possibility, which is that the CDU/CSU combine will go in for a grand coalition with the SPD/Green party with both the FDP and the Left sitting it out, or perhaps the FDP joining the coalition. If I were a betting man, I would bet on this grand coalition. And yes, I will also probably bet that it won't last very long.

However, who will head such a coalition? Once again, I think Schroder has the upper hand since Angela Merkel literally blew a 20-point lead while Schroder's remarkable political skills have earned him the title of the "comeback kid" for the second election in a row. Political Betting, however, tips Merkel to become chancellor. Watch this space.

Natural Disasters: Risk Management and Incentives 

Another natural disaster, another round of recriminations. When the tsunami hit southeast Asia last December, the talk was all about the absence of early-detection systems and/or effective communication between various entities, leading to a complete lack of warning given to those living in the danger zone. When Mumbai was lashed by rains in July, the knives were out for the authorities who failed to recognize how overloaded the city’s power and transport infrastructure was prior to the event, and how vulnerable it would be to an external disruption. And now, in the aftermath of Katrina, there’s been an orgy of finger-pointing and I-told-you-so-ing from all sides of the political spectrum. The Economist summarizes the situation well:

Pundits explained the government's failure in every way they pleased. Anti-war types blamed Iraq, particularly the fact that thousands of National Guard troops had been sent there. Environmental types blamed Mr Bush's lackadaisical attitude to wetlands. Many Democrats saw it as proof that Mr Bush and the Republicans cared nothing for America's poor and black. Liberals argued that Katrina showed why, as James Galbraith, a vocal leftist economist at the University of Texas, put it, the “government of the United States must be big, demanding, ambitious and expensive.” A Wall Street Journal column, in contrast, argued that the hurricane showed the danger of relying too heavily on inefficient government.

All these criticisms are fine and dandy when made with hindsight, but they miss a fundamental point: democratic societies can never be fully prepared for extreme events. This statement may seem like a reckless generalization, but I believe I can back it up. Read on.

Let’s start by putting the situation into a risk-management framework. It’s axiomatic that in a given situation, and without infinite resources, you cannot guard against each and every negative event. So there’s a tradeoff; you have to choose which events you want to guard against, and which ones you’ll leave ‘unhedged’. How do you make this choice? The usual method used in financial risk management is to estimate the loss arising from a particular event, multiply it by the probability of that event, and then compare that figure with the cost of guarding against that event.

A numerical example might make this clearer. Consider two events: event A leads to a loss of $100, while event B leads to a loss of $20. But there’s only a 1% chance that event A will occur, while event B has a 10% chance of occurring. The ‘expected value’ for A is thus $100 * 1% = $1 (loss), while the E.V. for B is $20 * 10% = $2 (loss). If it costs the same amount of money to prevent A and B, then clearly you’re better off guarding against B. On the other hand if B costs $1 to prevent while A costs $0.01 to prevent, then (assuming perfect scalability) you should be guarding against A.

Now, a natural disaster like Katrina is a perfect instance of a low-probability, high-loss event - call it a type A event. But the risk management framework above should be perfectly capable of including such events in its calculations. (One could argue, of course, that the authorities grossly underestimated the ‘true’ probability of massive damage to New Orleans from a hurricane, but that’s a highly posterior argument). The fault in the system is subtler.

The problem is that the decision of which types of events (A or B) to guard against is made by elected officials. And elected officials do not have the same incentives as society as a whole. For an elected official, the payoff structure is strictly binary: either you get re-elected, or you don’t. As an elected official, you can guard against a type A event (like a hurricane), and on the extremely rare (say 1 in 1000) chance of the event happening, you’re a prescient genius. Or you can spend the same amount of money on schools or hospitals or tax cuts, which may have a worse E.V. for society as a whole, but will, 999 times out of 1000, result in your re-election. Which would you choose?

And there you have it. Politicians will always prefer a small chance of a huge loss, to the certainty of a small loss - even though in E.V. terms such a choice might be sub-optimal for their constituents. And the incompetence on display after Katrina, or for that matter after the tsunami, was thus not the product of political or bureaucratic misfeasance or malfeasance, easy as that explanation would be. No; it was merely the consequence of systematic under-preparation for low-probability outcomes, by rational politicians with short-term electoral goals. A triumph for the dismal science!

Sunday, September 18, 2005

The shorter Jeff Sachs 

If you weren't living in a cave, you've probably heard of Jeff Sachs's new book, The End of Poverty. Generally speaking, it's a book with some interesting new ideas, though it is marred by way of a terrible introduction by Bono. If you can't be bothered with reading the book in full, Scientific American is carrying a piece by Sachs this month that captures the central ideas of the book pretty effectively. It also makes the distinction between poverty and extreme poverty, which I believe is central if Sachs (and Bono) is to win this argument. It might be possible to end extreme poverty (households living on less than $1 a day) using the interventions that Sachs suggests, but the only way to end poverty per se, IMHO, is to encourage sustainable economic growth. More importantly, the piece articulates well the role of geography, disease prevalence, urbanization etc in perpetuating the poverty trap most of sub-Saharan Africa is caught in.

Although economic growth has shown a remarkable capacity to lift vast numbers of people out of extreme poverty, progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. Market forces and free trade are not enough. Many of the poorest regions are ensnared in a poverty trap: they lack the financial means to make the necessary investments in infrastructure, education, health care systems and other vital needs.

Economists have learned a great deal during the past few years about how countries develop and what roadblocks can stand in their way. A new kind of development economics needs to emerge, one that is better grounded in science--a "clinical economics" akin to modern medicine. Today's medical professionals understand that disease results from a vast array of interacting factors and conditions: pathogens, nutrition, environment, aging, individual and population genetics, lifestyle. They also know that one key to proper treatment is the ability to make an individualized diagnosis of the source of illness. Likewise, development economists need better diagnostic skills to recognize that economic pathologies have a wide variety of causes, including many outside the traditional ken of economic practice.

Africa did not experience a green revolution. Tropical Africa lacks the massive floodplains that facilitate the large-scale and low-cost irrigation found in Asia. Also, its rainfall is highly variable, and impoverished farmers have been unable to purchase fertilizer. The initial Green Revolution research featured crops, especially paddy rice and wheat, not widely grown in Africa (high-yield varieties suitable for it have been developed in recent years, but they have not yet been disseminated sufficiently). The continent's food production per person has actually been falling, and Africans' caloric intake is the lowest in the world; food insecurity is rampant. Its labor force has remained tethered to subsistence agriculture. Compounding its agricultural woes, Africa bears an overwhelming burden of tropical diseases. Because of climate and the endemic mosquito species, malaria is more intensively transmitted in Africa than anywhere else. And high transport costs isolate Africa economically. In East Africa, for example, the rainfall is greatest in the interior of the continent, so most people live there, far from ports and international trade routes.
Sachs also provides a counter to people (like me) who believe that the largest poverty reduction measures in human history have been the rapid economic development of India and China. He suggests that economic growth didn't come magically to India, but was part of a process, part of which was donor-funded.
Most of today's successfully developing countries, especially smaller ones, received at least some backing from external donors at crucial times. The critical scientific innovations that formed the underpinnings of the Green Revolution were bankrolled by the Rockefeller Foundation, and the spread of these technologies in India and elsewhere in Asia was funded by the U.S. and other donor governments and international development institutions.
Read the whole thing. If nothing else, it's refreshing to read a differential diagnosis and yes, it's a much quicker read than the book :))

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Exit Galaxy, Fast 

The last time my friend Shami Chaterjee was in New York, we discussed briefly his work on pulsars at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, since I have an amateur interest in astronomy. At the time, Shami told me his team was on the verge of a big breakthrough and that the announcement would probably occur in the next few months. Over to New Scientist, where the discovery (by Shami's team) of the fastest pulsar to escape the Milky Way has just been announced.

Astronomers have spotted the fastest moving stellar corpse to date - and it appears to be headed straight out of our galaxy. A team from the US National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Socorro, New Mexico, and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, US, clocked the dead star at 1100 kilometres per second. The object, called B1508+55, is a rotating neutron star, or pulsar. It is the superdense core of a massive star that exploded as a supernova about 2.5 million years ago. The explosion seems to have ejected the pulsar with such force that it will eventually escape the Milky Way entirely, says team member Shami Chatterjee, an astronomer with NRAO and CfA.

However, current simulations of supernovae have never produced such breakneck speeds. In the models, the newly formed neutron star starts out fast but soon slows down when material from the outer layers of the exploded star crashes back onto it. In 2004, the first 3D model of a supernova found that the blast could send a neutron star flying at about 200 kilometres per second - nearly six times slower than the new record holder. The researchers watched this pulsar for two years with the Very Long Baseline Array - a collection of 10 radio-telescopes scattered from Hawaii to the US Virgin Islands. They determined the pulsar lies 7700 light years away and gauged its speed by observing how its position on the sky changed in that time. From this, they traced its route backwards to its likely birthplace 2.5 million years ago in a region full of huge stars in the constellation Cygnus. The stars are so massive that they will eventually blow up as supernovae, potentially spawning other speedy stellar corpses.

The full press release is here. If you're interested in reading more about these fascinating inter-stellar corpses, head over to the Goddard Flight Center or you could head here, if you'd like to listen to the pulsing of these neutron stars. In particular, listen to The Vela Pulsar.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Compassionate religiosity strikes again 

Just when you thought this month belonged to compassionate christianity (first, Pat Robertson wanting to assasinate Hugo Chavez, followed by the sensitive Rev Shanks of New Orleans), compassionate Islam strikes, proving yet again that no religion has a monopoly on idiots. While most of us were watching Sania Mirza's progress at the U.S. Open with varying degrees of admiration, the mullahs were watching something else: the length of Sania's skirt.

Of course, this is not new. If the mullahs had their way, they would have Sania play in a burkha against Maria Sharapova. Needless to say, this would increase the odds of Sania winning against the likes of Sharapova and Clijsters, now that god would be on her side for being a 'good' muslim. This would have been nothing but a joke that we could laugh about over a pint or two, except the mullahs seemed to have upped the ante. They have actually threatened to 'stop Sania from playing' in the Sunfeast open unless she wore something more in line with Islamic traditions (as defined by the mullahs, of course). The Calcutta police have taken this threat seriouosly enough to increase security both around Sania as well as at the Sunfeast Open. No surprise there, given what other compassionate religionists have proved themselves to be capable of in the past in India (I,II etc).

I have five words for the troglodytes from all religions: MIND YOUR OWN FRIGGING BUSINESS!! If you don't like what you see and prefer sitting around with your fellow beards, switch the TV to a religious channel of your choice. You don't live in a theocratic state. If you have problems with living in a liberal democracy, move to a cave in Saudi Arabia instead. In the meanwhile, please let your countrymen enjoy some excellent tennis. Thank you. Rant over.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

CNN, Clinton, Bono and then some 

I was invited to attend a taping this morning of a special edition of CNN Connects, which featured a conversation between President Clinton and Christiane Amanpour. Or so I thought. In fact, it was an excellent panel discussion consisting of one main panel and a side panel. The main panel consisted of President Clinton, Queen Rania of Jordan, Wangari Maathai (the Kenyan Nobel peace prize winner), Jeff Sachs, Paul Wolfowitz and Bono. I was sitting in the second row waiting for President Clinton to walk in, when instead, a man in a dark blue jacket, black jeans and fly shades walks in. I suppose you could say I was pleasantly surprised, in light of my last post on this blog.

Anyways, the panel was held to coincide with the Clinton Global Initiative meetings taking place in New York this week. What made the discussion special was not just the terrific main panel, but the calibre of people on the side panel. They included Mohammed Younus (of Grameen Bank), Jim Zogby, C.K.Prahalad, Senator John Glenn (also the orbiter), Abdullah Abdullah (foreign minister of Afghanistan), Ted Turner and so on. The discussions ranged from global poverty and economic development to climate change to religious conflict and reconciliation. The main discussions were followed by a half hour Q&A session, which involved questions from the audience and from the side panel.

If you are interested, as I am, in the whole idea of making the private sector, capital markets and technology work towards catalyzing economic development, the Global Initiative might well be a good place to keep track of, if today's discussion was any indication. The investment and enterprise group at CGI also consists of some very interesting cats including President Zedillo, George Soros, Hernando DeSoto and Hank Paulson.

PS: I have no idea when this special airs on CNN, but keep a watchout for CNN Connects, featuring Christiane Amanpour and President Clinton. It's on right now (4 pm EST) on CNN International.

PPS: For some reason, Parmeshwar Godrej was sitting in the audience, unless I am badly mistaken. I had no idea she was interested in this sort of discussion.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Bono on the cover on the New York Times magazine? 

Yep, you read that right. It seems like the New York Times Sunday magazine will feature Bono on the cover, for a story titled The Statesman. I have no idea why the NYT is allowing us to access a weekend edition story this far in advance (U.N.Summit perhaps?), but since this is a blog named for a U2 song, I figured this might as well be the first place for you to read about it.

There's very little in there about Bono's day job with U2, but mostly focusses on his role as the most articulate spokesman in the world today for increasing well-directed, conditional aid to well-governed African countries. What is interesting is that Bono comes across as being more hard-headed than his mentor, Jeff Sachs. The other remarkable thing about him is his ability to reach across the aisle to politicians like Rick Santorum (whose support is crucial in lobbying Congress), an ability that has the potential to make him unpopular both with his fans as well as his band-members. And it's not like Bono does not know this; he simply sees his approach as a second-best solution, which is pretty astute for someone who wears his heart on his sleeve.

There's also far too much in this rather long story to excerpt out here, so just make sure you read it before it goes behind the subscription wall. I'll try and make it a permanent blog link once it actually goes live on the NYT site.

Marching Penguins and Family Values 

March of the Penguins is one of the better movies of the year. In fact, it's now the second highest grossing documentary after Fahrenheit 9/11. So, I was very surprised when I read in the New York Times yesterday that some right-wing conservatives had hijacked the movie to promote their mildly nutty agenda. How on earth, you ask?
"March of the Penguins," the conservative film critic and radio host Michael Medved said in an interview, is "the motion picture this summer that most passionately affirms traditional norms like monogamy, sacrifice and child rearing." Speaking of audiences who feel that movies ignore or belittle such themes, he added: "This is the first movie they've enjoyed since 'The Passion of the Christ.' This is 'The 'Passion of the Penguins.' "

To Andrew Coffin, writing in the widely circulated Christian publication World Magazine, that is a winning argument for the theory that life is too complex to have arisen through random selection."That any one of these eggs survives is a remarkable feat - and, some might suppose, a strong case for intelligent design," he wrote. "It's sad that acknowledgment of a creator is absent in the examination of such strange and wonderful animals. But it's also a gap easily filled by family discussion after the film."

Trouble is that Crooked Timber (bless their black hearts!) have pointed to an obvious problem with this whole cute penguins and family values that these conservatives are trying to peddle.
Wendell and Cass, two penguins at the New York Aquarium in Coney Island, Brooklyn, live in a soap opera world of seduction and intrigue. Among the 22 male and 10 female African black-footed penguins in the aquarium's exhibit, tales of love, lust and betrayal are the norm. These birds mate for life. But given the disproportionate male-female ratio at the aquarium, some of the females flirt profusely and dump their partners for single males with better nests.

Wendell and Cass, however, take no part in these cunning schemes. They have been completely devoted to each other for the last eight years. In fact, neither one of them has ever been with anyone else, says their keeper, Stephanie Mitchell. But the partnership of Wendell and Cass adds drama in another way. They're both male. That is to say, they're gay penguins.

And it's not just the penguins on Coney Island.
At the Central Park Zoo, Silo and Roy, two male Chinstrap penguins, have been in an exclusive relationship for four years. Last mating season, they even fostered an egg together. "They got all excited when we gave them the egg," said Rob Gramzay, senior keeper for polar birds at the zoo. He took the egg from a young, inexperienced couple that hatched an extra and gave it to Silo and Roy. "And they did a really great job of taking care of the chick and feeding it."

Of the 53 penguins in the Central Park Zoo, Silo and Roy are not the only ones that are gay. In 1997, the park had four pairs of homosexual penguins. In an effort to increase breeding, zookeepers tried to separate them by force. They failed, said Gramzay. Only one of the eight bonded with a female. The rest went back to same-sex relationships, not necessarily with the same partner. Silo and Roy, long-time homosexuals, got together (or pair-bonded, in official penguin lingo) after that failed experiment.

Over to you, Michael Medved. I am sure you can come up with something kooky (intelligent design?) to explain this deviation, among these gay penguins, from the right-wing conservative family values that you have so cleverly divined from an otherwise great movie.

Technology Update: Yahoo, Google, Gates and Cerf 

There's been a lot of action in the technology sector the past week, besides E-bay's acquisition of Skype. Yahoo just announced it's decision to dip into the world of serious journalism by hiring freelance journalist, Kevin Sites. Sites shot to prominence with dispatches from Iraq and Afghanistan on his well-read blog. The last I heard of him, he was forced to shut his blog down by his then employer, CNN. In his new avatar at Yahoo's Hotzone, Sites will provide multimedia coverage from some of the world's hotspots, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Kashmir, Chad and more. Wonder how Krishna Bharat and Google News will respond to Yahoo's new initiative in the media space?

In the meanwhile, Google provides the perfect panacea for all of us who have been cribbing about Technorati's dreadful performance over the past year: Google Blogsearch. IMHO, this is yet another piece of software from Google that brings back the 'wow' factor that was missing the last time around. A simple search revealed 640 results in 0.09 seconds, which was way, way, faster than a similar search on Technorati.

I suppose some of you have also read about Google hiring Vinton Cerf as Chief Internet Evangelist. This is on top of Google hiring Adam Bosworth, Louis Monier and Mark Lucovsky. I, for one, would give an arm and a leg to find out what Google is planning at the big-picture level and where they see themselves 10 years from now. For the time being though, I'll just have to satisfy myself reading John Battelle's new book. In the meantime, you can head over to CNet, which features Vint Cerf musing about his new role at Google.

Finally, the Seattle-Post Intelligencer has an interview with Bill Gates, in which he lays out what all of the above means to the software industry's 800-pound gorilla. For starts, he admits Google, Apple etc are better than MSFT at what they do. But then, he delivers notice.
At any point in our history, we've had competitors who were better at doing something. Novell was the best at file servers. Lotus was the best at spreadsheets. WordPerfect was the best at word processing.Right now, because of the breadth of what we do, we have that in many areas. Nokia is way ahead of us in phones; we're closing the gap. Sony is ahead of us in video games. We're just on the verge of something (the Xbox 360) that will help us close the gap there. In Web search, Google is the far-away leader. Big honeymoon for them. Even if they do "me, too" type stuff, people think, "wow." And Apple in music has done a fantastic job.

In those areas where somebody else has done well, that's great. We'll match what they do, we'll bring new things to it, do it better and integrate it in with other things. And so it's very healthy for the consumer. We see that in search, we see it in music. It's not new at all that that's out there.

PJ du jour: Katrina meets the Supreme Court 

From Boing Boing:
Q: What's George Bush's position on Roe v. Wade?
A: He really doesn't care how people get out of New Orleans.
In the immortal words of Wayne Campbell and Garth Algar, we're not worthy! We're not worthy! Xeni Jardin, you win!!

Apologies, blogging dogs and all that 

Sorry, folks, for the tardy blogging the past week or so. I have just been extraordinarily busy and haven't had time to sit down and do some writing. I am a bit freer now, so I figured I might as well post, for your amusement, one of the better cartoons I've seen in the recent issues of the New Yorker.

For those who came in late, the New Yorker has some of the best cartoons in the business. Read it for the cartoons, you know, like some of us read Playboy for the articles.

Monday, September 12, 2005

One man's take on BSNL ADSL in Bangalore 

I finally found something that I had been looking for (with apologies to U2). An online article about broadband internet in Bangalore from a consumer's point of view, written coherently and well. Clicking around a little brought forth a more complete story, all from the diary of one Atul Chitnis.

Watch him generously praise BSNL and its ADSL service, which he has newly subscribed to, here.

Watch him crash hard against sad reality here.

Read about the resolution and subsequent BSNL shiftiness here.

My summary: It's one person's experience and opinions, YMMV, but this is very useful information to have if you live in India (esp. Bangalore) and are thinking of getting yourself broadband.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

EBay ⊇ Skype? 

The NYT picks up on a bit of gossip: EBay is reported to be making moves to acquire Skype. Wonder if this will have any effect on Skype, which is by far my favourite computer-as-phone application. The article also mentions Google Talk and Teleo.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Compassionate Christianity strikes again 

Following in the glorious footsteps of Jerry Falwell after 9/11, Rev. Bill Shanks, pastor of New Covenant Fellowship of New Orleans, draws a surreal lesson from the havoc in the wake of Katrina. One of the very few people to see the bright side of all this tremendous destruction, Rev. Shanks thinks Katrina has wiped out sin from New Orleans.
“New Orleans now is abortion free. New Orleans now is Mardi Gras free. New Orleans now is free of Southern Decadence and the sodomites, the witchcraft workers, false religion -- it's free of all of those things now," Shanks says. "God simply, I believe, in His mercy purged all of that stuff out of there -- and now we're going to start over again."

If there really is a god, all I can say is that s/he had better start to exercise more discretion about earthly representatives like Revs Shanks/Falwell/Robertson, who seem to combine spectacularly the lack of a heart with the lack of a brain.

Friday, September 02, 2005

New York Times feed 

I have added a New York Times feed to the bottom right of the blog. Now, you can follow NYT front page stories directly off Zoo Station.

More excuses from government 

Not content with blaming the ones who got behind in New Orleans for their misfortune, there are some elements within the U.S. government who insist they had no forewarning that a hurricane like Katrina could be so devastating. What a load of horse manure!! What is it with governments (be it in India or the U.S.) lying through their teeth to save their arses?

As it turns out, sometime in early 2001, FEMA had assessed the three most catastrophic disasters that the U.S. could possibly face. They were -- a terrorist attack on New York, a category 3-5 hurricane in New Orleans and an earthquake in San Francisco. So, that's two out of three in the 4 years since the report was written. What's more, several reputable newsmagazines and newspapers had outlined exactly what the nightmare situation would look like. This is from a Scientific American issue from October, 2001.
If a big, slow-moving hurricane crossed the Gulf of Mexico on the right track, it would drive a sea surge that would drown New Orleans under 20 feet of water. "As the water recedes," says Walter Maestri, a local emergency management director, "we expect to find a lot of dead bodies."

New Orleans is a disaster waiting to happen. The city lies below sea level, in a bowl bordered by levees that fend off Lake Pontchartrain to the north and the Mississippi River to the south and west. And because of a damning confluence of factors, the city is sinking further, putting it at increasing flood risk after even minor storms. The low-lying Mississippi Delta, which buffers the city from the gulf, is also rapidly disappearing. A year from now another 25 to 30 square miles of delta marsh--an area the size of Manhattan--will have vanished. An acre disappears every 24 minutes. Each loss gives a storm surge a clearer path to wash over the delta and pour into the bowl, trapping one million people inside and another million in surrounding communities. Extensive evacuation would be impossible because the surging water would cut off the few escape routes.

This is from a Houston Chronicle article published in December, 2001.
In the face of an approaching storm, scientists say, the city's less-than-adequate evacuation routes would strand 250,000 people or more, and probably kill one of 10 left behind as the city drowned under 20 feet of water. Thousands of refugees could land in Houston.

This second report is almost eerie in its clairvoyance. More importantly, it robs the government of their excuse that they did not expect it to be this bad. No, this was no Tsunami that crept in from nowhere or a sudden terrorist strike. This was a hurricane that had been tracked since August 25th. The preparation for the aftermath was so godawful, it would put just about every third world country to shame. There are no excuses, and I certainly wish the powers-that-be would stop making them or making things look rosier than they are. As Anderson Cooper put it yesterday, it's tough to listen to bullshit when there are bodies lying on the street being eaten by rats. In one of the major cities of the richest, most powerful country in the world!

: Mark Fischetti, the author of the Scientific American report wrote an op-ed in the NYT today titled, They Saw it Coming.

Here is yet another prescient article, this one from the National Geographic, published a year or so ago.
The storm hit Breton Sound with the fury of a nuclear warhead, pushing a deadly storm surge into Lake Pontchartrain. The water crept to the top of the massive berm that holds back the lake and then spilled over. Nearly 80 percent of New Orleans lies below sea level—more than eight feet below in places—so the water poured in.

Thousands drowned in the murky brew that was soon contaminated by sewage and industrial waste. Thousands more who survived the flood later perished from dehydration and disease as they waited to be rescued. It took two months to pump the city dry, and by then the Big Easy was buried under a blanket of putrid sediment.

So, yeah, never mind the excuses the various branches of government are proferring. This stuff was foreseen by everyone who had studied it, and yes, the government was completely unprepared. How and why remains to be seen.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Putting things in perspective 

I've seen more than one person in the U.S. government suggest that the people caught in New Orleans without food, water or shelter were responsible for their plight in a way, since they refused to obey mandatory orders to evacuate. Are the people who make these sort of statements completely unaware of this concept known as poverty? Or is that they live in a universe where they don't have to come to terms with it? One of Josh Marshall's readers puts things in perspective.
Lots of people in that area - the poor and the old and the sick - get checks from the goverment on the 1st of the month. They spend for the month with that money, so by the end of the month they are broke.

The storm hit on the 29th. Many people could not afford the $50 to fill their gas tanks to leave.

Yes, it's hard to imagine the richest country in the world having this level of desperation-inducing poverty. But yes, this kind of poverty does exist and pretending otherwise doesn't make it go away.

The real question that needs to be asked is why the government did not provide buses or some such to help the poor (caught without cars or the money to buy gas) evacuate?