Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Best Poor Joke. Ever! 

(Via Zem)
Q. What do you get when you cross Lee Iacocca with Dracula?

A. Autoexec.bat

Art of Science at Princeton 

If you didn't already know that science is beautiful, in a very concrete visual sense, have a look at the online gallery for Princeton University's 2006 Art of Science competition. Better yet, if you are in or near New Jersey, this is a great reason to visit Princeton to see the real thing.

Monday, May 29, 2006

IPEG Event with Bowman Cutter of Warburg Pincus 

The International Private Enterprise Group (IPEG) will be hosting Bowman Cutter, the Managing Director of Warburg Pincus on June 1st, Thursday at Columbia Business School. As many of you know already, besides his role at Warburg Pincus, Bo is also the chair of Microvest and serves on the board of CARE. He also served in both the Clinton and Carter administrations. The full coordinates for the event are below:

Speaker: Bowman Cutter, Managing Director of Warburg Pincus.

Topic: The role of private capital, capital markets and the private sector in fostering economic development.

When: June 1st, Thursday, at 6:15 pm.

Venue: Venue: Warren Hall, Room 208 (second floor). Warren Hall is located on Amsterdam Avenue, between 115th and 116th Streets

Mr Cutter has an event to go to at 7:30 pm, so we will start on time, so we have some amount of time factored in for discussions as well. Please make sure you are at the venue by 6:15 so we can start without delays. As anyone who has attended these events earlier know, they tend to be very informal and more in discussion mode than just a person speaking. We also tend to catch a few beers/dinner after the event, so please work that into your schedules as well, since that's where a lot of the great connections are made among IPEG members.

As always, feel free to bring along anyone you think might be interested in the subject matter or in interacting with IPEG members after the event. RSVPs will be appreciated, since we need to know how many people to expect.

PS: For those of you who are new to IPEG, you can find more information on who we are, what our members do etc at www.ipegroup.net

Monday, May 22, 2006

The Reservation Debate Summarized 

Before you begin reading this, I must warn you that it is a long post, but one that I believe is justified in its verbosity, given the seriousness of the issue at hand. Thus far, the reservation debate in India has had a range of voices fuelling it: protesting doctors facing water cannons, the Prime Minister in his usually tentative manner, backing the move to introduce reservation for Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in central govenment aided educational institutions, IITians going on hunger strikes, CPM general secretary Prakash Karat calling for consensus, (via Poornima Hatti) Union HRD minister Arjun Singh's increasingly idiotic press statements (his choice of the word 'anonymity' when he actually meant 'unanimity' is telling), and just about every broadcast news maven drooling over the issue during talk shows and from OB vans.
While I think the issue is too complex for stark, cut-and-dry solutions, I think this letter of resignation, from Pratap Bhanu Mehta, the member-convener of the National Knowledge Commission, is the clearest voice of them all. I have reproduced the entire letter here.

I write to resign as Member-Convener of the National Knowledge Commission. I believe the Commission’s mandate is extremely important, and I am deeply grateful that you gave me the opportunity to serve on it. But many of the recent announcements made by your government with respect to higher education lead me to the conclusion that my continuation on the commission will serve no useful purpose.

The Knowledge Commission was given an ambitious mandate to strengthen India’s knowledge potential at all levels. We had agreed that if all sections of Indian society were to participate in and make use of the knowledge economy, we would need a radical paradigm shift in the way we thought of the production, dissemination and use of knowledge. In some ways this paradigm shift would have to be at least as radical as the economic reforms you helped usher in more than a decade ago. The sense of intellectual excitement that the commission generated stemmed from the fact that it represented an opportunity to think boldly, honestly and with an eye to posterity. But the government’s recent decision (announced by Honorable Minister of Human Resource Development on the floor of Parliament) to extend quotas for OBCs in central institutions, the palliative measures the government is contemplating to defuse the resulting agitation, and the process employed to arrive at these measures are steps in the wrong direction. They violate four cardinal principles that institutions in a knowledge based society will have to follow: they are not based on assessment of effectiveness, they are incompatible with the freedom and diversity of institutions, they more thoroughly politicise the education process, and they inject an insidious poison that will harm the nation’s long-term interest.

These measures will not achieve social justice. I am as committed as anyone to two propositions. Every student must be enabled to realise his/her full potential regardless of financial or social circumstances. Achieving this aim requires radical forms of affirmative action. But the numerically mandated quotas your government is proposing are deeply disappointing, for the following reasons. First, these measures foreclose any possibility of more intelligent targeting that any sensible programme should require. For one thing, the historical claims of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and the nature of the deprivations they face are qualitatively of a different order than those faced by Other Backward Castes, at least in North India. It is plainly disingenuous to lump them together in the same narrative of social injustice and assume that the same instruments should apply to both. It is for this reason that I advocated status quo for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes until such time as better and more effective measures can be found to achieve affirmative action for them.

Some have proposed the inclusion of economic criterion: this is something of an improvement, but does not go far enough. What we needed, Honorable Prime Minister, was space to design more effective mechanisms of targeting groups that need to be targeted for affirmative action. For instance, there are a couple of well-designed deprivation indexes that do a much better job of targeting the relevant social deprivations and picking out merit. The government’s action is disappointing, because you have prematurely foreclosed these possibilities. In foreclosing these possibilities the government has revealed that it cares about tokenism more than social justice. It has sent the signal that there is no room for thinking about social justice in a new paradigm.

As a society we focus on reservations largely because it is a way of avoiding doing the things that really create access. Increasing the supply of good quality institutions at all levels (not to be confused with numerical increases), more robust scholarship and support programmes will go much further than numerically mandated quotas. When you assumed office, you had sketched out a vision of combining economic reform with social justice. Increased public investment is going to be central to creating access opportunities. It would be presumptuous for me to suggest where this increased public investment is going to come from, but there are ample possibilities: for instance, earmarking proceeds from genuine disinvestment for education will do far more for access than quotas. We are not doing enough to genuinely empower marginalised groups, but are offering condescending palliatives like quotas as substitute. All the measures currently under discussion are to defuse the agitation, not to lay the foundations for a vibrant education system. If I may borrow a phrase of Tom Paine’s, we pity the plumage, but forget the dying bird.

Second, the measures your government is contemplating violate the diversity principle. Why should all institutions in a country the size of India adopt the same admissions quotas? Is there no room at all for different institutions experimenting with different kinds of affirmative action policies that are most appropriate for their pedagogical mission? How will institutions feel empowered? How will creativity in social justice programmes be fostered, if we continue with a “one size fits all” approach? Could it not be that some state institutions follow numerically mandated quotas, while others are left free to devise their own programmes? The government’s announcement is deeply disappointing because it reinforces the cardinal weakness of the Indian system: all institutions have to be reduced to the same level.

Third, and related to diversity, is the question of freedom. As an academic I find it to be an appalling spectacle when a group of ministers is empowered to come up with admissions policies, seat formulas for institutions across the country. While institutions have responsibilities and are accountable to society, how will they ever achieve excellence and autonomy if basic decisions like who they should teach, what they should teach, how much they should charge are uniformly mandated by government diktat? As you know, more than anyone else, the bane of our education institutions is that politicians feel free to hoist any purpose they wish upon them: their favourite ideology, their preferred conception of social justice, their idea of representativeness, or their own men and women. Everything else germane to a healthy academic life and effective pedagogy becomes subordinate to these purposes. Concerned academics risked a good deal, battling the previous government’s instrumental use of educational institutions for ideological purposes. Though your objectives are different, your government is sending a similar message about our institutions: in the final analysis, they are playthings for politicians to mess around with. Nations are not built by specific programmes, they are built by healthy institutions, and the process by which your government is arriving at its decisions suggests contempt for the autonomy and integrity of academic life. Your government has reinforced the very paradigm of the state’s relations with educational institutions that has weakened us.

In this process, the arguments that have been coming from your government are plainly disingenuous. It is true that a constitutional amendment was hastily passed to overturn the effects of the Inamdar decision. At the time I had written that the decision was property rights decision that was trying to unshackle private institutions from an overbearing state. But since the state had already displaced its responsibilities to the private sector it decided that the ramifications of Inamdar would be too onerous and passed a constitutional amendment. One can quibble over whether this amendment was justified or not. But even in its present form it is only an enabling legislation. It does not require that every public institution has numerically mandated quotas for OBCs. To hear your government consistently hiding behind the pretext of the constitutional amendment is yet another example of how we are foreclosing the fine distinctions that any rigorous approach to access and excellence requires.

Finally, I believe that the proposed measures will harm the nation’s vital interests. It is often said that caste is a reality in India. I could not agree more. But your government is in the process of making caste the only reality in India. Instead of finding imaginative solutions to allow us to transcend our own despicable history of inequity, your government is ensuring that we remain entrapped in the caste paradigm. Except that now by talking of OBCs and SC/STs in the same narrative we are licensing new forms of inequity and arbitrariness.

The Knowledge Economy of the twenty-first century will require participation of all sections of society. When we deprive any single child, of any caste, of relevant opportunities, we mutilate ourselves as a society and diminish our own possibilities. But, as you understand more than most, globalisation requires us to think of old objectives in new paradigms: the market and competition for talent is global, institutions need to be more agile and nimble, and there has to be creativity and diversity of institutional forms if a society is to position itself to take advantage the Knowledge Economy. I believe that the measures your government is proposing will inhibit achieving both social justice and economic well-being.

I write this letter with a great deal of regret. In my colleagues on the Knowledge Commission you will find a group that is unrivalled in its dedication, commitment and creativity, and I hope you will back them in full measure so that they can accomplish their mission in other areas. I assure you that the commission’s functioning will suffer no logistical harm on account of my departure.

I recognise that in a democracy one has to respectfully accede to the decisions of elected representatives. But I also believe that democracies are ill-served if individuals do not frankly and publicly point out the perils that certain decisions may pose for posterity. I owe it to public reason to make my reasons for resigning public. I may be wrong in my judgment about the consequences of your government’s decisions, but at this juncture I cannot help concluding that what your government is proposing poses grave dangers for India as a nation. On this occasion I cannot help thinking about the anxieties of a man who knew a thing or two about constitutional values, who was more rooted in politics than any of us can hope to be, and who understood the distinction between statesmanship and mere politics: Jawaharlal Nehru. He wrote, “So these external props, as I may call them, the reservations of seats and the rest, may possibly be helpful occasionally, but they produce a false sense of political relation, a false sense of strength, and, ultimately therefore, they are not so nearly important as real educational, cultural and economic advance which gives them inner strength to face any difficulty or opponent.” Since your government continues to abet a politics of illusion, I cannot serve any useful purpose by continuing on the Knowledge Commission under such circumstances.

With warmest personal regards.


Friday, May 19, 2006

The DVC Reviewed in Code 

Peter Bradshaw, one of my favorite writers at the Guardian, inserts a code in this review of the Da Vinci Code:

"We none of us are entirely sure that you, the reader, are not just ignoring our elegant devices; it is really dangerous to be over-confident about this, or over-analytical, as we can never simply assume that exquisitely crafted codes work - yes, they are often wily and very often I have discovered a lurid symbol which is likely to be a buried message, secret or even a completely and totally clandestine image which has within it an eccentrically ordered and complex nucleus of visual clues, even including some weird xylophones, bizarre yes, but these could be the paintings which will disclose or unveil the most perilous truths to have existed."

The preceding sentence, I can now reveal, has been written in the Priory of Sion code. You take the first letter from every fourth word, starting with the first: so the first word, then the 5th, then the 9th, the 13th, and so on. It spells out a message about the future of western civilisation that is too terrifying to be stated openly.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Shame on the Catholic Church in India 

In India, every major religious community has to necessarily lose its marbles from time to time. The leaders of the Christian community are proving they are no exception to this rule by calling for a ban on the movie version of "The Da Vinci Code." What is it about FICTION that these people don't understand? Get a life, people. The DVC is just a story, just like the Bible is a collection of second-hand stories and parables. And if you don't like it, don't watch it.

Of course, instead of standing up to this sort of religious bullying and upholding the constitution which guarantees freedom of speech and expression, the Indian government has instead decided to screen the movie to the Catholic church to see if they approve of it before deciding on a general release. Since when did the church supplant the censor board in terms of what should or should not be screened? When did the church become the arbiter of what Vikram Public can or cannot watch? When will someone in the Indian government develop a pair of gonads to stand up for what is right instead of what is expedient, which in turn of course encourages more religious bullies to call for banning this and banning that.

Shame on you, so-called leaders of the Indian church. I was raised as a Christian in India and I feel utterly embarassed that these people are claiming to speak on behalf of all Indian Christians. No, they are not!

Seems like some sense has prevailed and the movie is being released without any cuts to please the religious bullies. Now, if only the same sense would prevail the next time the Shiv Sena or some random Muslim outfit calls for the ban of this movie or that. In the meanwhile, Rotten Tomatoes has the movie with a freshness rating of 21%, which is a much, much better reason to not watch the movie.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The MBA's Get Creative 

Creativity is not something that's generally associated with MBA types. Well, the students of the Columbia Business School utterly demolish this assumption in this video taking the piss (in a good humoured way) out of their dean, Glenn Hubbard. The backstory runs thusly: Dean Hubbard was formerly chair of President Bush's Council of Economic Advisors and was one of the leading candidates to replace Alan Greenspan at the Fed. So, the joke is that Dean Hubbard is still bitter at being passed over by Ben Bernanke. Ergo, this amazing take on his bitterness, with a little help from a Police track we all know and love. Go watch.

Ramesh just posted a link to another CBS video worth watching: a cover of Ice, Ice, Baby...

Monday, May 08, 2006

More on Bio-Fuels 

I have been making several posts in the last month on alternative fuels and energy. As crude oil prices shoot through the roof, this space becomes more and more attractive. Specifically, I have been following Vinod Khosla's interest in the space, including his investment in Praj. Khosla has clearly become the leading proponent of bio-fuels in the United States and his op-ed today in the New York Times, with ex-senator Tom Daschle, is yet another example of his advocacy for bio-fuels.
The CAFE standard does nothing to encourage that change. It requires American automakers to build cars and trucks that meet a minimum standard of average mileage traveled per gallon of gasoline. But the current standard for minimum mileage traveled per gallon of gas consumed is both too low and focused on the wrong challenge. We need to upgrade to a new CAFE: Carbon Alternative Fuel Equivalent. This new CAFE will measure "petroleum mileage" and give automakers incentives and credits for increasing ethanol consumption as a percentage of fuel use of their vehicles, not least by promoting flex-fuel vehicles, which can run on either gasoline or E85 fuel, a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. This approach promises several significant benefits.

First, it could set America free from its dependence on foreign oil. As Brazil's "energy independence miracle" proves, an aggressive strategy of investing in petroleum substitutes like ethanol can end dependence on imported oil. Second, switching from gasoline to ethanol produced from perennial energy crops like switch grass can slash our carbon dioxide emissions. Third, it could build on a comparative advantage of American automakers. American auto manufacturers are churning out hundreds of thousands of flex-fuel vehicles. Their foreign competitors make far fewer. Promoting these vehicles will help our automakers build on their already strong market share. And fourth, by encouraging the production of ethanol and new renewable fuel technologies, this new CAFE standard could invigorate rural communities in America's heartland and innovation and research centers along its coasts.

That said, here are sobering statistics from CERA, courtesy of The Economist.

No, it doesn't look that good, does it? Well, as the fine print says, the cost of bio-diesel in there does not take into account tax credits and subsidies, which you can almost automatically assume when it comes to bio-fuels. And I suspect that the initial subsidy (land, water, power etc) will allow the business to scale to a point where the business becomes truly attractive. The question then is what OPEC will do, because if they can drop the prices to $30 a barrel, bio-fuels are a non-starter. However, I somehow suspect oil prices aren't going below $50 ever again because if OPEC could drop prices, they would have before the idea of bio-fuels got so much currency.

VC/PE Funds for Development 

I was browsing the World Bank bookstore in Washington D.C. last week when I came across a little book called Venture Capital and Private Equity Funds for Development. Here's what the blurb says.
Entrepreneurs face a multitude of challenges when setting up and growing their business venture. This is even more so for entrepreneurs in emerging markets and developing countries. Access to finance is often the main challenge. The Venture Capital and Private Equity for Development Index gives access to the major funds financing business in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. This practical guide has an easy to use index with funds listed by key fund attributes such as regions, sectors and company size financed. It lists over 270 funds investing in developing countries. The Index is compiled by the Business in Development program of Dutch National Committee for International Cooperation and Sustainable Development (NCDO) in cooperation with the Adapppt Foundation in The Netherlands.
The index, in particular, looked like a useful tool for those of us interested in the role of private capital in economic development.

In addition, the folks who put this book out also have a very interesting website up called the Bid Network. The Bid Network is an online community which lets entrepreneurs submit business plans, which are then routed to investors and partners. I have no idea how efficient or successful the network is, but a web-based model could certainly remove a lot of the transaction costs. Have a look.

Pythagoras Meets his Match 

Via Martin, I found this most elegant version of Pythagoras' theorem. Definitely made my day.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Felten on Newsweek's HS Rankings 

Ed Felten reveals that Newsweek is getting into the business of comedy — for what else can you call its criteria for ranking the top American high schools?

Incidentally, many ZS readers, especially those interested in tech policy, would find Felten's blog consistently interesting. For those who haven't heard of Felten before, here a neat Wikipedia page.