Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Bahrain and Google Earth 

The Financial Times has a fascinating story on how Bahraini activists are using Google Earth to highlight the excesses of the royal family and pushing for greater economic equality. True to form, the government reacted by banning Google Earth, which of course led to widespread publicity for the software and ever-greater use of the tool to map land-holdings in Bahrain.
When Google updated its images of Bahrain to higher definition, cyber-activists seized on the view it gave of estates and private islands belonging to the ruling al-Khalifa family to highlight the inequity of land distribution in the tiny Gulf kingdom.
Opposition activists claim that 80 per cent of the island has been carved up between royals and other private landlords, while much of the rest of the population faces an acute housing shortage.
Mahmood al-Yousif, a businessman whose political chat and blog site Mahmood’s Den is among Bahrain’s most popular, says that in the tense run-up to the polls, few Bahrainis have not surfed over the contours of their kingdom, comparing vast royal palaces, marinas and golf courses with crowded Shia villages nearby, where unemployment is rife and services meagre.

For those with insufficient bandwidth to access Google Earth, a PDF file with dozens of downloaded images of royal estates has been circulated anonymously by e-mail. Mr Yousif, among others, initially encouraged web users to post images on photo-sharing websites. “Some of the palaces take up more space than three or four villages nearby and block access to the sea for fishermen. People knew this already. But they never saw it. All they saw were the surrounding walls,” said Mr Yousif, who is seen in Bahrain as the grandfather of its blogging community.
In many ways, this removal of information asymmetries will end up being one of Google's great contributions to modern society, especially as more ideas are articulated in the public realm which make use of Google's awesome search prowess to reduce the asymmetries between the citizenry and the government. Case in point being Barack Obama's superb idea of a Google for Government to account for ALL government expenditure (thanks, Amit).

Saturday, November 18, 2006

An Obervation about China 

Something weird happened in China that I presume is not about to happen to me elsewhere. Normally, when I am with a Caucasian and beggars approach us, it's always the Caucasian that gets harassed. This is as true in India as in most other countries in the world, developing and developed. In China however, the roles were reversed. No matter how many white folks or Chinese I was with, the beggars always asked *me* for money. Pointedly so. I had white guys in expensive suits with me, and I was still the one approached. I could be wearing sandals or fancy shoes, and it would still be me. This is weird because it seems inexplicable. I don't think there are that many Indians visiting China and I don't think Indian visitors have suddenly become generous to beggars in China. I thought for a while it might be the male-female differential, but no, it didn't matter even when white guys were around. So, what could be the reason that the beggars would choose to come to a brownie, and a brownie from a country that has half the per-capita GDP of China? I have no idea. I am not a sociologist, so I will not even go there, but it is something that I found extremely intriguing no matter where I was in China. If any of you Indian readers have had similar experiences in China, I would like to know. Of course, do include the bizarre hypotheses as well :)

R.I.P: Milton Friedman 

I was going to read yet another post about China yesterday when news filtered in about Milton Friedman's passing. That makes it two economic giants who have died in 2006, with John Galbraith being the first. I didn't agree with a lot of what Milton Friedman said, especially when applied to the role of governments in developing countries. Nonetheless, very few people have influenced my thinking as much as Dr Friedman did, especially vis-a-vis my views on the connection between personal liberty and economic liberty (Hayek is the obvious other influence). One musn't also forget that a lot of things we take for granted today, including the importance of monetary policy, earned income-tax credit, an all-volunteer army etc were all not so obvious until Dr Friedman made it so. On the stuff that I disagreed with Dr. Friedman about, I was never entirely sure of myself because of the powerful counter-arguments I've heard him come up with.

I think Brad DeLong says it perfectly for those of us who harboured doubts about Dr Friedman's work from time to time. He starts with a brilliant quote from John Stuart Mill, which I have never heard before but promise to use a lot more.
"Lord, enlighten thou our enemies," prayed 19th century British economist and moral philosopher John Stuart Mill in his "Essay on Coleridge." "Sharpen their wits, give acuteness to their perceptions, and consecutiveness and clearness to their reasoning powers. We are in danger from their folly, not from their wisdom: their weakness is what fills us with apprehension, not their strength."
Read the whole thing. In the meanwhile, there are tributes to Dr. Friedman all over the blogosphere. However, let me point to Naveen's post on the IEB which also has some India-specific links. You could also read the obits at the New York Times, Wall Street Journal (2) and the Washington Post. As I mentioned earlier, you may disagree with Dr. Friedman, but there is no way you could dispute that he was probably the most original thinker among all post-modern economists. And when the definitive history of the 20th century is written, Friedman, not Keynes, may well turn out to be the most influential of them all. Thank you, Dr Friedman, for being such a powerful influence on the lives of millions, only a very tiny fraction of whom even realize it.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Moonrise Over the Great Wall 

This post is way over-due, but I've been spending more time actually enjoying myself to bother with e-mail, web, blogging etc. Nonetheless, I do think I should share the amazing experience at the Great Wall. In the immortal words of Richard Nixon circa 1972, it really is a great wall!! Secondly, it really does go on for ever and ever. Just when you think you've seen the end of it, you see it emerging out of yet another valley and over yet another mountain. Nothing you hear about or see in photographs prepares you for the sheer majesty and grandeur of the Wall. And then you remind yourself that when the Wall was initially built, Rome was still a republic, not an empire. Emperor Chin may have been nuts, but boy, is his work of madness worth visiting. It also reminds you of the stuff that can be done when you have abundant cheap, slave-like labour.

Let's begin with a damn good tip though for anyone who wants to visit the Wall, which came my way courtesy Andrew and Mei. As I mentioned earlier, I was staying with former ZS blogger, Andrew Lih, in Beijing (in a crazy coincidence, yet another former ZS blogger, Mash, was also in Beijing at the same time). Andrew first advised me against going to the Wall at Badaling, which is a mind boggling tourist trap with hardly a pin drop of space. He took me instead to the Commune by the Great Wall run by the Kempinski group, where we had an astoundingly good Sichuan meal. From the commune, you get these fabulous views of the Shuiguan valley and the Wall. The complex is also architecturally splendid. I took some pictures of the commune, but nothing beats the photographs here.

We decided to climb the Wall closer to the commune towards evening. Turned out to be a really smart move, because we had that section of the wall entirely to ourselves without a single other tourist. After much huffing and puffing, we did climb to what looked like the topmost portion of the wall in that area, but it turns out the taller portions were simply hidden. Once we got to the top though, we were treated to one of the most spectacular things I have ever seen: the moon rising over the great wall of China. I will rank it as one of the top 3 most spectacular things I have seen. I understand full well now why moonlight raves at the wall are such a big deal. No photograph will ever do justice to what we saw (twilight and lenses are always tricky), but here's a try:

The climb up the wall left all of us in shambles given our peak physical fitness, so off we went to a Chinese foot massage place, which really worked wonders for the feet. That, however, didn't prevent me from waking up the next morning with a hamstring strain and a limp. Or from having some of the best food I've ever had, or from going clubbing, for that matter. More on that in another dispatch from Beijing.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

The Shanghai Skyline 

I had heard from lots of friends about the Shanghai skyline, but even so, I wasn't prepared for the grandeur of what I saw. There are only two skylines that can compete with Shanghai IMHO: New York and Hong Kong (and perhaps Tokyo, but I've never been). I guess what is unique about Shanghai is not just the skyline but the elevated road system silhouetted by the amazing skyline, which really does give the city a Bladerunner-like look, which I love. If I remember right, the movie sets were inspired by Tokyo, but I think Shanghai is even closer to that vision than Tokyo. Though no picture can do justice to the elevated road system, I am gonna try.

The thing is these elevated roads just go on for ever and if I remember right, there are entire ring roads that are elevated. These roads also go on to show what a determined government can do in terms of improving the lives of its citizens, even in extremely crowded cities. The other truly impressive thing about Shanghai is that instead of abandoing the inner city and going for a suburban sprawl ala most of America, the city has decided to go vertical instead. And anyone who thinks vertical building is ugly should visit Shanghai (and New York). Here's a couple more pics of old Shanghai and Pudong across the Huang Pu at the Bund to illustrate my point.

This whole vertical building vs sprawl is of particular interest to me because it seems like Hyderabad and Bangalore, for example, seem to be going in for the urban sprawl model. As someone who currently lives in the sprawl of Hyderabad (Gachibowli feels like something lifted straight out of Silicon Valley, right down to the cookie cutter homes), I can tell you it's boring as hell, with millions of miles between you and civilization. So, why anyone would advocate sprawl when you can build an incredibly impressive skyline like Shanghai completely beats me.

Before I go, there's just one last update about the night life of Shanghai. It's fab. I was planning to go to the Rojam, the location of Paul Oakenfold's amazing two-hour set for Radio One from Shanghai, I never made it there. Instead, I was checking out the clubs in the Maoming area. In particular, I spent a terrific Halloween night at "Judy's", a wonderfully decadent club which had a super crowd with the right mix of expats and local Chinese. The DJ played excellent electro-house music, had some truly insane expats, some totally random dancers on the bar-counter, a hooker or two who seemed to have completely run out of luck, and just a very nice and friendly bunch of people that seemed in no mood to stop the party even at 3 am (no, China does not seem to have a moral police, unlike India). I will recommend that entire strip on Maoming to anyone who's look for some non-pretentious partying in the city.

Well, that's it for now. The Beijing dispatch will follow, especially about a lovely trek up the Great Wall and watching the moon rise over the wall.