Sunday, December 30, 2007

Height of idiocy, really

An economics professor argues that on the basis of economic logic and cost-benefit relationships alone, virus writers are more worthy of the capital punishment than murderers. Towards the end of the article, he accepts that some of the assumptions in his back-of-the-envelope calculations may be overly simplistic and incorrect, but defends himself saying this.

"But this essential point remains: Governments exist largely to supply protections that, for one reason or another, we can't purchase in the marketplace. Those governments perform best when they supply the protections we value most. We can measure their performance only if we are willing to calculate costs and benefits and to respect what our calculations tell us, even when it's counterintuitive. Any policymaker who won't do this kind of arithmetic is fundamentally unserious about policy."

There are multiple arguments for attaching and not attaching a cost to a human life. That is not what I am talking about here. I have only a couple of observations

1) Why is this man so happy about his ability to add and multiply numbers? Seriously,
everytime I read one of these ' lets do the math' rants I am left wondering about the sanity of the person in question. Dude, unless you're talking about partial differntial equations or probability distributions, you're not talking insight ok?

2) Witness this.

"Executing the murderer means giving you the safety. Executing the vermiscripter means giving you the cash. You'd rather have the cash than the safety. Ergo, executing the vermiscripter is better policy"

I would rather have lesser number of such coloumns than either safety or cash. Does it mean that executing the author is better policy?

A rambling monologue on worldviews

(Or, whatever little sense I have been able to make of the world around me. In no particular order.)

1) When one thinks, one attempts to clear the clutter - grey is a colour that no one is truly comfortable with. The only sensible thing Deepak Chopra has ever said is when he asserted that mythological tales are powerful becuase they have well defined concepts of good and bad. At all points of time in my ruminations I am trying to judge correctness, to ascertain credit and to appropriate blame. Those who claim to not judge are either not thinking at all, or just being polite.

When thought does clear the clutter, it does so with with a brilliant sweep. Things fall into place - one knows exactly why one believes what one believes. Thought is nothing but self articulation. Given that a general proficiency in the tools of communication is achieved, it is easy to be articulate when one in clear.

The problem is that very often one has to make peace with the greys. It is difficult to be undecided when one is not indifferent. It is difficult, also, to be truly indifferent. Sometimes, it is fatal to be undecided. Very often, the clutter is not cleared, nor is there the hope that it will be cleared in the recent future. It is a painful state to be in. The only comfort is that most often, the Cartesian view on one's own existence is reaffirmed.

The single greatest advantage of thought is clarity. The single greatest disadvantage of thought is lack of clarity.

2) Just as mathematics is at the base of all natural sciences, and philosophy is at the base of all humanities, psychology is at the base of all social sciences. A priori enunciations of economic truths are nothing but claims that one has figured out the human mind. Adam Smith, Karl Marx and Ludwig von Mises are authors who fall in this category. It is no surprise that Friedrich Hayek went on to link spintaneous order with the connectionist hypothesis of cognition.

The validity of each enunciation lies in empirical evidence, and empirical evidence is temporal and contextual. What is contextual can never, by definition, be universal. The infinitely long run is an absurd idealization - it is of almost no use.

3) 'Universal human rights and values' is technically, a self-defeating concept. History shows as much. Universe has to be defined across space and time, and no set of human values has ever been consistent across time - not even the right to life. (I am not talking about violations of rights, only about the belief that these rights should exist in the first place. Weak newborns in Sparta were deemed to not have the right to life at all.) Does this mean that an axiomatic specification of a world view is impossible? Not really. One only needs to have the modesty to not pronounce it universal. The axioms of choice are dynamic - a recognition of this is enough.

People, most notably Murray Rothbard, have tried to argue that the right of 'self-ownership' is the one necessary and sufficient human right. Everything else follows. There is, of course, the disclaimer that self-ownership has no meaning unless we respect the self-ownership of others. This is not entirely true. Self-ownership as a concept can exist independent of the equivalence of political rights. There is the more fundamental assertion here, that my political system, whatever it is, will not indulge in any a priori discrimination. This is the zeroth law implicit in almost all political debates of today, and it is also independent of self-ownership or any other such rights. The zeroth law has profound implications. Socio-political equivalence of all citizens is by itself not a very ancient idea. It seemed abhorrent to Locke and Paine that a charter may determine basic rights, and it is extremely seductive to indulge oneself in the concept of natural and universal rights. Yet, a question worth asking is - if these rights are indeed so universal and natural, why did we chance upon them so late? It is a little strange to accept a prophet of human rights.

I am enchanted by the enlightenment age views on liberalism. John Locke was a phenomenal man. But, he was not a prophet. He was a change-maker, one of many. 'Universal human rights' before him and 'universal human rights' after him are different sets, and this difference renders the term 'universal human right' an oxymoron.

4) 3 above forms the basis of one of the strongest arguments in the defence of the communismt end that I have ever heard. I believe that an ideal system will try to ensure, non-coercively, that station in life is contingent not on birth but on ability. Like many others, I am given to believe that the communist utopia is not really a utopia. Even if somebody could magically get communism to work, I would not want to live in a scoiety where everyone has the same outcome, irrespective of ability. It seems natural to me - I won't be surprised if it was proven that this feeling is hardwired into us by evolutionary mechanisms. I do, however, believe that society should try its best to provide everyone with the same opportunity, irrespective of anything. This belief could be a result of evolution. It could also be one of the many 'anti-evolutionary' tendencies that we have developed over time.

Either way, a 1000 years ago the sentiment that station of birth should not ideally be a large component of success in later life wasn't a very common one. It is now. Is it then unimaginable that a 1000 years from now the prevailing sentiment of 'universal human rights' and utopia will include the communist idea of equal outcomes, not just equal opportunities? I had no answer to this question posed by a dormmate after I had summarily destroyed the rest of his commie arguments. It was a useless argument, for it was not debatable and also irrelevant from the perspective of policy-making, but it was a strong argument and one that gains immense relevance the moment we start connecting free market mechanisms to the natural and social evolution of human civilization and positing them as universal truths.

Communism may just be an ideology that came much before its time. It may make sense to qualify 'self-evident economic truths' with adjectives that are temporal instead of 'universal'.

5) Property rights, indeed the very definition of property, are the crux of every major philosphical point of difference in conflicting worldviews. Unless one wishes to indulge in humpty-dumptyism with the meaning of property rights, the deontological position on property is far from settled. I have never heard a convincing argument about the moral philosophy underlying the default heratibility of property. Nor have I ever read any convincing arguments about any given property distribution being considered moral in a non-contextual, universal sense. For this and similar other reasons, property rights have to be separated from other rights that seem to be analogous. The right to life must exist independent of property rights, and the right to free speech can also be evaluated in a framework that need not necessarily build upon property rights.

Random information - I am getting extremely enchanted by behavioural finance these days. Riskless arbitrage does not exist, or so my hedge fund trader friend informs me 2 weeks into the job. The insurance fund market is apparently so inefficient that one can safely claim that market mechanisms don't even seem to work.

I'm also getting enthused by the New Keynesians, not the least because Greg Mankiw is one himself. He can be safely added to Raghuram Rajan and Hernando De Soto in the list of economists I want to read extensively.

As you must have observed already, I am too much of a lazy bum to put up the requisite links. Sorry, but deal with it.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

While I Mug

Heard in macroeco class

"Everything reminds Milton of the money supply. Everything reminds me of sex but I try to keep it out of my papers."

- Robert Solow

Unfortunately, he is no Milton Friedman. Hence, this just seems like a case of 'Look ma! I am so clever. I can think of metaphors and all.'

So long, until I am done with mugging for the term.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The only thing I will ever write about communal violence

is that almost whichever way you look at it, it is quite pointless. Even if one was to evaluate it from a my-community-first 'strategic' perspective (and there are just so many things that are wrong with such an aproach - but let's stick to the logic within the layer), it would fall flat. For the simple reason that those that came at you were not the ones you will go for. And those you go for will not be the ones who will come back at you, in the given phase or later. You will satisfy only bloodlust, not vengeance. And your actions would become the tipping point for some of those that were yet undecided.

Besides, mob violence is one of the only two forms of violence that takes no courage.

Friday, November 23, 2007

From this week's finance and macroeco classes

1) Libertarians with knowledge of the financial markets, it's question time. I'm guessing you know what circular trading is. Explain a ban on circular trading from the first principles of coercion and/or fraud. And if you do not support the ban, explain how you propose to solve the inefficiency in the markets resultant from circular trading.

2) It is fashionable among a lot of theorists to assert that if you are philosophically on the wrong footing, no amount of mathematics will help you out. The example of P C Mahalanobis is given to substantiate this point. Now this assertion has typically been a little difficult to digest, expecially since I am given to romantically believe that mathematics is the only true philosophy. Turns out that in the case of India's five year plans and P C Mahalanobis, I may not have been very off the mark.

You see, the Indian government, pre-liberalization, was an almost entirely fiscal policy focussed administration. The guiding principle of our macroeconomic policy was apparently the IS/LM model. This is, in very general terms, a series of dynamic equilibriums of real national income with real interest rates. But, the interest rates were administered. We had neutered one of the two axes of the mathematical model that we used and yet we hoped to be correct. For decades, we were doing one of the mathematically stupidest things possible.

Resultant aphorism - faults of philosophy will manifest themselves as mathematical idiocies. One only needs to try harder.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Nilu's smartest move

was to get Avataram to write for his new blog. Why do I say this? Read on.

This piece gets rave reviews here and here. Now blogger no. 1 unabashedly loves everything that Mint publishes but I was a little surprised to see Aadisht recommending the "Bangalore is Coasian" line. I read the piece, and wasn't interested at all. I tried to figure out why - one obvious reason is that one could replace Bangalore by Gurgaon in the article and it would still remain the same in its substantive claim. Or one could replace Bangalore by Nagpur and have no answers to why Nagpur doesn't fit the claims. The article reduced Bangalore to a syntactic tool, devoid of any semantic significance. It doesn't answer the fundamental "Why Bangalore?".

But I was still searching for THE reason I disliked the piece. Avataram provides the answer, in a short piece that explains the title of my post. Of course, this is it. ALL cities are Coasian, dammit all forms of organization are Coasian. In the memorable words of Prof. Datta, even marriage is an institution that minimizes transaction costs. Thus, an argument along the lines of 'outsourcing is Coasian, Bangalore is all about outsourcing and hence Bangalore is Coasian" is so superficial that it does not even begin to scrape any surface whatsoever.

Avataram also has this sagely advice from Wittgenstein's Tractacus to offer - one which I'll try to follow more often - “Wovon man nicht sprechen Kann daruber muss mann schweigen” - “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent”.

I'm convinced. Recursive Hypocrisy is so much better off with Avataram. Nilu has indeed made the smartest move he would ever make.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Two aphorisms and an observation

Aphorism 1 : There are no infinite recursions, only incomplete base cases.

Aphorism 2: All economic activity tends to an equilibrium, yet the distance from the equilibrium is the primary economic incentive.

Observation : It is universally acknowledged that it is far easier to critique than to construct. Hence, one moves from the critique to the construction. Yet, one notices that the critique invites more attention than the construction. Now one could believe that this is in part due to the inherent unattractiveness of one's construction. But when one has read a bloody 180 page report, gone through the fine print of a diplomatic document, and spent considerable time and energy to develop the construction, a conceited view of reality makes a lot more sense. Hence, one assumes that the construction is so faultless that no one could possibly come up with a contrary viewpoint, and that people comment only when they have contrary viewpoints.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Of child labour, property and worldviews

Blogger no. 1 writes about child labour - please go read. I have a small point to make. One of the reasons why people feel compelled to rescue children despite knowing that many of them start working by their own volition or that of their parents, is this - many children indeed start working due to poverty, but many of them are forced to stay on due to coercion. Even if one does not support the ban on child labour, one has to think about the conditions in which these children work and what can be done to improve them.

Second, and this is slightly more fundamental - poverty forces many parents to make their children work but many of these children do not want to work themselves. If we begin with the moral position that children below a certain age should not be working, does the parent have the right to send the child to work? Where does legitimate parental control end and coercion begin? And if we believe that the child's wish should be honoured, is this a strong argument in support of a welfare state and a safety net? There will definitely be inefficiencies and corruption in any such government initiative. Should the options then be evaluated by a cost-benefit analysis? Or is one of the two options significantly more correct from a first principles, moral point of view?

Apropos this, will any libertarian (or anyone, for that matter) explain to me what is the "moral position" on the distribution of property in the first place. I ask because any discussion on economic freedoms ultimately boils down to philosophical differences on property rights - what existing distribution of property can be accepted as correct and moral? Is there any moral basis for the heritability of property? Does it make sense to talk about economic freedom from a moral standpoint at all?

My worldview is this - the objectives of my ideal society are maximization of utility, liberty and equality of oportunity, in that order. I am right of centre, economically and politically, and a social liberal. I do not mind sitting on the fence on a lot of issues - it is a lot more honourable than it is usually made out to be. I try to work on certain first principles (which are close to the libertarian ideal), but I realize that given the constraints of a non-ideal reality, this is not always the best stand to take. I am wary of extreme positions. I admire balance - one of the biggest learnings from my short life has been that on either extreme of any world-view divide, one ends up contradicting oneself. I am a libertarian-centrist, so to speak. A consequentialist, a utilitarian.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Interpreting the Truth: The Nuclear Deal

The nuclear deal with the US has disrupted public discourse multiple times in the recent past. It is amazing how our public discourse is typically filled with opinions flying left, right and centre – opinions that each one of us fits with our own world views – and the proverbial scratch on the surface reveals that not much exists beneath the surface at all. ‘Too much punditry, too little analysis’ is a description that characterizes the greater majority of our public debates, with even ‘informed’ analyses in reputed publications typically failing to connect all the dots.

There are broadly two axes along which the deal can be analysed - the first is energy economics and the second is strategy and foreign policy. I am convinced that the deal is favourable along both dimensions, but let’s look at the issues one by one.

First, the relevant facts – the duration of the deal is 40 years, and the proposed energy transfer in the period is about an installed capacity of 60,000 MW. Either party can terminate the deal with a notice period of 1 year in this interim 40 year period, and with a notice period of 6 months at the end of the deal. The objective of the deal is to “enable full civil nuclear cooperation with India covering aspects of the associated nuclear fuel cycle”. The resultant business is likely to be of the tune of $150 billion, of which the lion’s share is likely to go to American nuclear power companies.

So what are the implications for India’s energy scenario? To evaluate that, a look at our current position is necessary. We currently have an installed peak capacity of 160,000 MW, including captive generation sources. This implies a peak shortfall of 11.7% or about 21.2MW. (This is just the installed capacity, ignoring the severe T&D losses). The Integrated Energy Policy (IEP) report of the expert committee of Government of India, dated 9th August 2006, shows that even though the elasticity of per capita energy consumption per capita of GDP growth has been falling over the years and is less than 1 now (meaning that if x% is the annual increase in energy demand and y% is the annual increase in GDP, then x < y), the energy needs per capita are still likely to increase at a rate of 6%-7% p.a., averaged over the next 25 years. It estimates that in 2031-32, we will need an installed capacity of 800,000 MW. Where is this 800,000 MW going to come from? From “pursuing all possible fuel options”, in the words of the expert committee. The 800,000MW figure is inclusive of an estimated 63,000 MW of nuclear power, 150,000 MW of hydel power, and thermal power increase of 5.1% p.a. India’s uranium reserves are good enough for only about 10,000 MW, representing the limiting value for our PHWR reactors.

Opponents of the deal have continuously touted the figure of Rs. 11 crore / MW, the estimated costs of the nuclear power generated through imported fuel and reactors. This figure, they claim, is significantly higher than the Rs 7 crore / MW for power from indigenous nuclear sources, Rs 4 crore / MW for power from thermal sources, and the even lesser cost per Mw for hydel power. These figures are a little tricky. It is fair, for e.g., to ask why the relevant power figure for comparison was taken as 30,000 MW and not 53,000 MW (estimated requirement minus indigenous resources). Ventures with higher fixed costs (import of reactors, fuel etc.) become increasingly attractive for higher volumes. The long run marginal cost of producing 1 business unit (1 KWH) of energy through nuclear sources was estimated at about Rs 1.00 for nuclear energy and about Rs. 0.90 for thermal energy, (at 1984 prices) in a 1997 paper by Prof Y K Alagh. The comparison becomes favourable for nuclear power when the distance to which coal has to be transported exceeds a 1000 Km., due to the high transportation cost of coal.

According to the IEP report, Indian uranium is extracted from ore that has 0.1% useful content as opposed to the international standards of 12 -13%. This makes indigenous nuclear fuel 2-3 times costlier than imported fuel. With all these figures, it seems hard to accept the cost considerations that have been drawn for a capacity for 30,000 MW. The dissonance is futher magnified by the fact that the IEP report has suggested that India change its energy policy from “minimum initial cost purchase” to “minimum life cycle cost purchase”.

However, let us for a moment assume that comparison to be absolutely correct. Does that change things? Not really. The inherent assumption that we could use alternative sources to generate the 30,000 MW is itself flawed. The IEP report assumes 150,000 MW of hydel power, which is 100% of the known hydel power potential of India. It also assumes a constant growth of 5.1% p.a. for thermal power, which has been the current trend. India needs those 30,000 MW of nuclear power even after exploiting these alternative options to their reasonable maximum. The scenario that we are looking at, thus, is not one of high cost power vs. low cost power, but one of some power vs. no power. One is reminded of Homi Bhabha’s succinct remark that puts this situation in its proper perspective – “No power is costlier than no power”.

India’s mineable coal reserves are estimated to last another 45 years (at 5.1% growing usage p.a.) and known oil reserves are likely to last 23 years of production and 7 years of consumption. With increasing oil prices and depleting coal reserves all around the world, there seems to be no way except to go for nuclear power. The IEP report says that “Nuclear energy theoretically offers India the most potent means to long-term energy security”. It is true that energy security has to be achieved in the long term through indigenous sources, and that the indigenous thorium-based FBR program is theoretically the best way to achieve nuclear power security. However, to let go of the opportunity of imported uranium based power generation in the hope of an unmitigated success of the FBR program would be extremely damaging in the medium term, and implies continuing peak load power capacity shortfalls.

Next, we move on to the strategic and foreign policy implications. The opponents of the deal have raised four main considerations on this front, namely
1) The deal does not guarantee assured nuclear fuel supply, and only promises to “seek to amend domestic laws” to ensure the same.
2) The Hyde act is likely to prove a major bug-bear, and the necessity of “congruence” of Indian foreign policy with that of the US impinges upon our autonomy and will be interpreted as strictly as possible by the US.
3) In the event of a unilateral termination of the agreement by the US, we will be left with unusable nuclear reactors that will impose maintenance and safety costs for no benefits at all.
4) IAEA safeguards will continue in perpetuity even though the deal is terminable.

Let’s deal with the last consideration first, because the first three are closely inter-linked. What exactly are the IAEA safeguards that we have to adopt? Simply that any reprocessing performed on the nuclear fuel imported through this deal will be in a newly created reprocessing facility that will be open for IAEA inspection (typically, these inspections are inventory checks of weapons-grade nuclear materials). Any reprocessing done in this facility will be open for IAEA inspection. But do these safeguards extend to all reprocessing performed in India’s reactors? Not at all. It is perfectly possible for India to strike similar deals with other NSG nations and reprocess the fuel obtained through those deals at separate facilities with separate safeguards. Even if the US is likely to put pressure on most NSG nations to have similar safeguards, the option of Russia remains perfectly tenable.

The first three considerations all become relevant only in the event that the US goes ahead with a unilateral termination of the deal. Since large US business houses are going to have a stake in the profits generated by the deal, their pressure and lobbying is going to act as a deterrent to the possibility of this scenario. More significantly, the information and technology transfer is going to aid India on the path of creation of indigenous reactors that can process higher grade uranium that can be imported from non-US NSG countries. This acts as a genuine buffer to the shock of a unilateral termination.

Interestingly, this is what Article 5.6(b) of the deal reads like
(i) The US is willing to incorporate assurances regarding fuel supply …. which would be submitted to the US Congress
(ii) The US will join India in seeking to negotiate with the IAEA for India-specific fuel supply agreement.
(iii) The US will support an Indian effort to develop a strategic reserve of nuclear fuel to guard against any disruption of supply over the lifetime of India’s reactors
(iv) If despite these arrangement a disruption…occurs, the US and India would jointly convene a group of friendly supplier countries to include countries such as Russia, France and the UK to pursue such measures as would restore the fuel supply to India.

The language is ambiguous, but not by diplomatic standards. Please find me another instance where India has been able to negotiate a deal with a superior power with such major concessions. Is it at all possible for the US to guarantee fuel supply in contravention of its domestic laws? Can the UPA, for example, promise the US that the deal will definitely go through?

And what about the Hyde act? Without delving into legalese, the essence of the matter is that the act is definitely restrictive, but as explained by Dr. G Balachandran of the IDSA, four prominent exemptions have been granted to India. The first one was the exemption of the requirement of IAEA fullscope safeguards. The second was an exemption that made sure that India’s detonation of a nuclear device after the passage of the Atomic Energy Act (1978) of the US does not hinder the deal. The third waived the sanction on exports to India. The fourth exemption ensures that India’s unsafeguarded nuclear activities that are independent of the nuclear transfers as part of the deal cannot be invoked as a reason for termination. The Hyde act remains an issue of contention, but seems like one that has to be negotiated with, rather than something that can be made a reason to ditch the deal.

The arguments in favour of the deal are many, the detractions few. It would be a great loss to India if the left succeeds in its attempts to stall the deal.

I'm still alive

and kicking.

Just to stay in the game, a couple of mini-fisks, of bloggers whom I otherwise look up to.

1) Ravikiran, theorising about Indian democracy, says (among other things)

"
If we are honest with ourselves, we will have to admit that no one has a clue about which way the Indian voters vote, and once they have voted, the process of translating the votes to seats makes it pretty much impossible to draw a causal chain between the intention of the voter and the “Popular Will” as expressed via the seat position in the legislature.

If pollsters and pundits cannot call an election a month in advance, it is very likely that those in the government will be unable to take a guess as to which policies will win them the next election five years away. If democracy means that rulers govern according to the will of the people, then India’s democracy is broken.
"

Now this statement rests on the assumptions that
1) Politicians are not significantly more competent in knowing the popular mind than pollsters, and do not understand the votes to seats translation better than the average citizen.
2) Policy making and implementation in the government are a fucntion of five-year (or similar medium term) strategies of political parties, strategies optimized to give them votes.

Both are wholly unreasonable assumptions. Pollsters survey people, extrapolate data and make predictions on that basis. The sample sizes are typically so small as compared to the size of the elctorate that statistically the interval of confidence should prevent you from making any estimates. However, the TV demands a number. Hence, the pollster quotes a mean, neglecting the variance. Political parties have teams of workers working at multiple levels - they do not need to understand the scientific model or the mean or the variance for their data is far more representative and most parties know what is going to happen in the election, irrespective of what they may claim on TV. Plus, a Brahman+Dalit combine in the Up sweeping the legislature elctions there was pretty much predicted by everyone, wasn't it?

Anyone who has any close relative working in the steel frame will tell you why assumption no. 2 is false. On a daily basis, the work of the government is largely independent of the strategy of the party. The issues and stands that highlight the ideological(?) differences in the parties and become controversial are largely tactical in nature, and far lesser bearing on policy formulation and implementation.

2) Shruti Rajgopalan talks about how the market itself corrects market failures far better than governments, even in the case of public goods. The crux of the matter - people used to crowd in to listen to tour guides in Prague, even those people who hadn't really paid for their services. This is a nuisance because it is free-riding, and it can even cause legitimate tourists to miss the guide's detailing due to crowding. To solve the problem, tour guides now use small microphones and headphones are given to the touring group, thus preventing the free-riders from listening in.

Shruti believes that this is a wonderful example of a market corecting a market failure, and shows us the following dystopian situation as the government's possible solution

"How would the government deal with this problem? They would regulate the number of tourists each guide can have in a group. Furthermore they would regulate the distance each group must maintain and each individual must maintain from the groups. Then they would issue licenses to guides and have Tourist Inspectors for enforcing the regulations and ensuring the correct distance is maintained."

Oh dear god.

She calls the tourist guide's service a public good because it is "non-exclusive" and rival.

"It is difficult to exclude other tourists who are also at the monuments and the consumption may be rival as those who paid for the guide get crowded out"

Three points

1) Excuse my pedantism, but the term is non-excludable, and not non-exclusive(trust me, there's a significant difference)
2) A non-excludable, rival good is called a common property resource, not a public good.
3) The fact that a tour guide finds it difficult to physically exclude the non-paying tourists does NOT mean that his services are non-excludable. He is charging a fee for his services, and can easily deny his service to anyone. This by definition implies that his service is excludable. The problem, thus, is one of logistics (the fact that denying the service is physically difficult), and not economics and market failures(where denying the service is practically impossible, for example fishing in a sea).

The tour guide's service is in fact rival and excludable, a pure private good if there ever was one. It is a smart solution to a problem of business logistics, and not a romantic success of the market against its own shortcomings (atleast not in the free market vs government context that Shruti tries to provide her text).

I am now convinced of two things. One, ideological extremism, of any form whatsoever, is such an over-riding factor that it can totally impinge upon reason. Centrism is pretty much the only way out. Two, very few people have truly internalised what they learnt in their microeconomics course. People choose convenient bastardizations of a sound theory to criticise at will. I am reminded of Prof Deodhar's remark to us about trying to avoid the abuse of terms like moral hazard and adverse selection.

p.s : Some problem with blogger. Wll put up the links to their respective posts a little later.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Of Thought & Articulation

So the last post spoke about how the first great in a field is not its greatest exponent ever, and how many people frequently confuse the two. It's amusing to know the other things that people often confuse.

Yours truly is an eternal optimist. I am even optimistic about Indian politics, so I don't think I need to further explain my case. However, it appears that some of my classmates have no hesitation in calling me a pessimist. On deeper thought and exploration, it turns out that this is so because I am generally hard to please, especially with respect to the level of CP (class participation, usually semi-sensical things uttered by MBA students who are in peretual GD mode) in class. Ok people, let's clear this - cynical and critical are not synonyms.

Similarly, abstract and absurd are not the same. What is abstract need not be absurd. What is absurd need not be abstract. The proof of the first part is recursively contained in itself. For the proof of the second part, let's think of an absurdity that is definite - "The sun will rise in the west tomorrow" - for e.g.

Q.E.D and all that jazz.

Tarana-e-Watan, slight reprise

Reference to Context : this

Gaurav asserts that a lout, a thief who believes strongly in the idea of India and stands up for Vande Matram is a better Indian than an impeccable, polished, law-abiding citizen who doesn't care too much about the nation. In the dictator's world, a nation is nothing but an idea, and thus anyone who refuses to believe in the idea is actually detrimental to the national identity. The second half of his post is largely something that one agrees with. But this initial assertion has to be rebutted.

A nation is indeed an idea. But ideas have no independent existence - they are solely dependent on the people who hold them. The idea is glorious, nay, even credible only if the people who believe in it are taken care of. A nation is an idea, but it is not just an idea. One could speak of the common culture, food, geography, language, etc. but in a nation like India, these are so distinct and numerous that they are superficial and inadequate proxies. There is exactly one concrete marker of a nation, and that is its current constituents. India is a lot of things to a lot of people, but to me it is primarily the people who inhabit the nation today, and more pertinently, the people who identify themselves as Indians. The strength of their belief in the idea of India is of low consequence to me.

One could argue that the individual's safety is dependent upon the group's, as Gaurav does. Or one could argue that the group's safety is nothing but the safety of each one of it's individual members. This top-down vs bottom-up approach to individuals and groups can be discussed ad infinitum. I believe there is one critical aspect that such a discussion ignores. An individual and his/her freedom are well defined, and often, static entities. A group is only a template. A nation is a group, so is a gender, so is a religion, a caste, a state, an ethnicity, an instiution, and even a dorm within an insitution. An individual, as Amartya Sen beautifully explains in the first few pages of Idenity and Violence, is at the very least an intersection of these various groups. I am an Indian, a Hindu, a Bihari etc. Which one group's safety is most important for my safety? What is the correct level of granularity at which it becomes undesirable to express one's allegiance to a group virulently? Every group has contributed to my identity - which ones have the right to demand a compromise on my freedom? What is the priority order of these groups in their claims on my freedom?

One could also argue that status quo dictates that believing in a strong nation has near universal acceptance, and hence a nation has the first claim. That would be an argument hard to beat on the basis of current data. But to argue that it is this aspect of the status quo that needs to be perpetuated would take either a leap of faith, or a rational justification on some grounds. Would it be possible to evaluate essentially irrational choices on the basis of utilitarian grounds?

I am a liberal, and I am a nationalist. India has the first claim on my freedom. But there is no rational reason for this choice. I would be hard pressed to explain why it is not Hinduism, my religion, or Bihar, my native place, or Gujarat, my state of domicile, or the Kayasthas, my caste, or indeed, the entire male 'brotherhood' of the world. If one regards the ' I do not want to sing Vande Matram ' Indian as a threat to the idea of India, should one also regard the ' I do not want to sit for the Satyanarayan Pooja ' Hindu as a threat to the idea of Hindusim?

A nation is not just an idea, it is primarily the people who identify with the allegiance to the idea. The thief, when he commits a crime against an individual in the nation, an act that the nation does not permt him to commit, betrays the nation. No amount of symbolic respect to the nation's idea absolves him of this betrayal. To me as well, there is no dilemma. The man disrespectful of the Indian flag but respectful of her citizens is a far better Indian than the Vande Matram loving lout. One does not disrespect a nation only by disrespecting the flag. When one spits where one is not supposed to, one disrespects the nation too. Somebody else, a fellow country man, will have to come and clean it. It would be rather fraudulent then, to claim that one's respect for the national anthem makes up for the lack of respect for another Indian's dignity, and a lack of respect for the conditions required for the country's efficiency.

It amuses me that the dictator proudly proclaims to be a Hindutva Fascist. It would be interesting to know if he also subscribes to the following descriptions - Male Chauvinist, and Kayastha Supremacist. Reverse snobbery is the easiest game to play.


p.s - People who are wondering about the obvious Jimi Hendrix reference in the title of the post must know that I'm not exactly the man's greatest fan. I mean, sure, he was great, revolutionary blah blah. But to claim that he was the greatest guitarist ever! One might as well say that W G Grace was the greatest batsman ever. First great != greatest.

p.p.s - Which is not to say that he wasn't great either. If you are not a fan of his rendition of All Along The Watchtower, you haven't the foggiest idea about hard rock guitar.

p.p.p.s - With reference to the last line of the p.s, yes I am a computer engineer by training.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

On Theism and Proofs

Someone needs a course in binary logic and proof theory.

It all sounds so wonderful. I do not believe that god does not exist. I just don't believe that god exists. I am all rational, but also do not have any burdens of proof. Act of faith vs rationality, and all that. Amazing, right?

Wrong. Let this be cleared once and for all. All scientific/logical theories are by definition only explanations/observations of the truth and not the truth themselves (the map is not the territory and all that jazz). Thus, the statement that "Gravity exists" is logically the same as "I believe that gravity exists". The reasons for your beliefs and your ability to justify them will qualify the strength of this belief. Hence, a rational person will have no qualms stating that "gravity exists" but will need to qualify his belief in god by saying that "I believe that god exists". "Belief" is a qualifier to the strength and justification of your theory - it doesn't change your assertion of the truth value of your theory. Knowledge is only a representation of the truth, not the truth itself.

Hence, I believe that god does not exist and I do not believe that god exists are logically one and the same. Any attempts to try to prove otherwise miss the important distinction between the truth and the representation. What is wrong with these modern day atheists? Don't they even have the balls to say "God is dead, and has always been" (or something like that)? Come on people, you have Richard Dawkins as your intellectual fountainhead. Show some bloody guts.

There are exactly three major logical positions to take w.r.t the existence of god. "I believe that god exists", "I don't know and the world will in all probability never know", and "I believe that god doesn't exist". (Actually there are four - one can always say "I don't bloody care".) There can be variants within these major positions, but to try and get out of committing yourself to one of them broadly is just intellectual dishonesty.

If all you want to talk about is the burden of proof, here's how you frame it - proofs are either constructive or by contradiction, but can never be by assumption. A positive assertion ("God exists") will typically need to have a constructive proof or a strong reductio ad absurdum. As long as you can thrash the positive proof, it will be considered a good enough negative proof. An example of this is the god of the gaps rebuttal given by atheists.

When it comes to God, or the final explanation, the absence of evidence is pretty much the evidence of absence, irrespective of what Carl Sagan says in the preface to A Brief History of Time. All we need to remember is that the evidence need not necessarily be a positive empirical observation. Counterfactual reasoning is often the only way of determining causuality.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Of inductive logic, perceptions, and natural languages

He reads this and hates all men. Frivolous as it seems, I am tempted to ask, why not just Pakistani men?

The problem is, of course, central to all of inductive reasoning. How strong is the inductive link in your generalization? The solutions are very context-specific. And the interpretation of context is very experience-specific. One of the main irritants with life is that statistical inference is not readily obtainable. Hence, one's experience becomes one's truth. And we all have different versions of the truth - each one, a priori, as true as the others. Post-modernism suddenly seems attractive.

Given the sentence "Rand is popular in the girls' hostels", how do you interpret it? Does the speaker want to suggest that Rand is more popular than unpopular in the girls' hostels? Or does he want to say that Rand is more popular in the girls' hostels than in the boys' hostels.

Mathematically, let's define a threshold of popularity, say x% readership, and denote the reader base of Rand (expressed as a percentage) among hostelite girls as P(h-girls), among hostelite boys as P(h-boys), and among non-hostelite girls as P(nh-girls). What does the speaker want to say by "Rand is popular in the girls' hostels" ?

A) P(h-girls) > X : Rand is popular on an absolute scale, the dictator's interpretation)
B) P(h-girls) > P(h-boys) : Rand is more popular among hostelite girls than among among hostelite boys
C) P(h-girls) > P(nh-girls) : rand is more popular among hostelite girls than among non-hostelite girls.

The above question is not rhetoric - all readers are encouraged to answer A, B or C in the comments, along with reasons if they have any. The results, as we shall see in the next post, will probably have some insight for Statistical Natural Language Processing, which, incidentally, is roughly the field I worked on in my undergraduate final year project.

p.s. : Of course I was kidding about postmodernism. It's a pile of garbage, worth only our collective contempt and ridicule.

Friday, September 14, 2007

The value of a socio-economic argument

is exactly equal to the value of the way in which it has been presented. Ravikiran says here that " this kind of fisking, where you quote the article and try to rebut it point by point. The problem with doing this is that there is a high risk of missing the overall point the article is making " is "unfair".

Right. So can I now write an article that goes something like this -

1. Remove poverty : ( some illogical substantiation about how it can be removed)
2. Solve the Kasmir issue : (some more illogical substantiation about how it can be solved)
3. India has to win the cricket world cup (no substantiation, the passion will suffice)
4. World Peace ( no substantiation, a flying kiss should be enough)

and claim that my article was great and those who rebut my substantiation point by point are missing the 'overall point' and being patently unfair?

Socio-economic arguments are not independent of the people who make them and the way in which they have been made. They are unlike the laws of physics, which are true, quite literally, even in vacuum and do not need human observation to be true.

One day, psychology and the cognitive sciences may just provide THE definitive theory(ies) of human behaviour and interaction - a few theoretical attempts have already been made, most notably by Friedrich Hayek who proposed the connectionist hypothesis of cognitive science. Until then, we will just have to consider each theory case by case, assumption by assumption, and implication by implication. The worth of every argument, every article on the society and economics, then, is simply the way in which it has been substantiated, point by point, by the author. One does not have the liberty of saying 'you may be right in your rebuttal you're missing my overall point'. The overall point is nothing but the sum total of all the substantive points, and if each one of them has been attacked, the overall point has been attacked as well. Anyone who wishes to make only the overall point should go easy on the not-so-solid substantiation.

p.s : I find it quite amusing that the one who was criticized is a lot more appreciative of the point by point analysis than the zealous defender. May be he is just modest.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Personal Notes - I and II

1 - People in my institute, when they prepare for an economics exam, read Pindyck and Rubinfeld. I, on the other hand, indulge in this. I am so bloody screwed.

2- One needs to measure one's tone. There's only so much egotistic vitriol that one can justify to oneself. Every once in while, something will happen that will raise guilt pangs about having spoken/written in a certain way.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Choice and Specialization in schools, contd.

Reference : We're fisking this article

Context : We've already seen why the economic logic is rather contrived.

Now, we move on to the empirical. Witness this paragraph.

Now comes the other reason why I think children should be allowed to settle into subjects and activities that they are good at. We often ask each other why there is such a weak correlation between those who top the board exams and those who actually succeed in life. Most of us have also gone through the almost mandatory shock of being told at a school reunion that the class duffer is now a famous doctor or a CEO. My friend Avinash was a known troublemaker in school. Later, he struggled through junior college before dropping out. He is today one of the most successful photographers in the Hindi film industry.

The old technique of singular anecdote as evidence. Actually, sir, we don't ask why there is a weak correlation between those who top board exams and those who succeed later in life because in our experience, there is a rather strong correlation between those who top board exams and those who later succeed in life, assuming that we're both measuring the same parameters of success - money, power and prestige (in any order that you want it). You see, if someone tops board exams, it implies certain things. One, that she is no stranger to hard work. Two, that she probably managers her time well. Three, that she has learnt and has imbibed atleast something from her formal education. All three will go a long long way in ensuring success as we perceive it publicly. The class duffer will not really become a famous doctor. To do that, he will have to get into a decent medical college. To secure this admission, he would have to either maximise performance in the board exams, or maximise performance in an entrance test. To do either one of those two things, he can't really afford to be the class duffer. Top notch CEOs will typically come from one of the better B-schools. To get into one of these schools, one has to maintain good academic performance throughout. It is reasonable to assume that many of my batchmates here at IIM-A will go on to occupy several top positions in firms around the world - very successful by the public defintion of the word (which is what we're discussing anyway). If he took a look at the number of board toppers/school toppers in this place, Mr Rajadhyaksha would have had to eat his words. If your class duffer made it conventionally big, I would have to conclude that you did not have a good idea of what the word 'duffer' means when you were in school.

And as for the photographer friend, what kind of evidence is that? What formal education system at the school level will ever be able to measure how talented a student is at photgraphy? How many students even develop an interest in photography when they are in school? How will a student figure out in school itself that he/she has a comparative advantage in photography? Photography workshops are definitely organised in the bigger cities and lots of people enrol and learn from them - why at school? What would be the curriculum of a 'photography' subject at school? What would be the evaluation system? Sachin Tendulkar failed at his 10th standard board exams. Are we to conclude that the Indian education sytem needs a dose of Ricardo and 'comparative advantage'?

Then, there are the practical issues involved. Mr Rajadhyaksha has argued for choice and specialization. More choice is a better scenario than less choice - this is almost a truism. But how does one provide more choice in subjects at school? By offering electives. A school will then need to have teachers, infratsructure, pedagogy etc. for each of the electives that it offers. How many schools, even well-heeled ones, will be able to manage to find and/or fnance these resources? At the 12th boards level, that much hated government body called CBSE actually offers 600+ subjects, and allows a student to choose a combination of any 5. Most schools still teach only 5-7 and have well defined science, commerce and arts streams. If you blame the education 'system', you're basically ignoring the prevalent constraints of a non-ideal reality.

Of course, Mr Rajadhyaksha realizes the absurdity of a school education that is very specialized from the very begining. Witness this

So, does this mean that our children should be allowed to do just as they please? That would be another extreme. Clearly, we send them to school to develop certain basic language and numeric skills. That (to draw yet another analogy from economics) is the basic infrastructure that the school system must provide so that students can make the most of life’s opportunities, just as public provision of good roads or legal protection is a building block of economic success.

and this

Given the basic intellectual infrastructure of the three Rs—reading, writing and arithtmetic—our children should be allowed to seek their comparative advantage.

The 3R funda is one of most shallow and outdated formulations to ever grip academic imagination. First, is it really three R's? Is it possible that someone who is taught how to read will eventually not figure out how to write? In my book, numerical and verbal skills are just 2 dimensions, not 3. Second, I am completely convinced that a fixation with these two dimensions of human intelligence has stunted development along a very important third one. There's a reason why an aptitude for mechanics does not translate into a natural flair for mechanical engineering, and that reason is a little something called the ability to think in three dimensions. I would argue that developing a basic level of capability or familiarity in 3-D thought, through some courses in the visual arts, is just as important to this "basic intellectual infrastructure".

More importantly, by saying 'arithmetic' do we mean to say that the other mathematics taught in school till the compulsory (10th standard) level is not essential? Can a "basic intellectual infrastructure" be devoid of the knowlegde of parallel lines, circles, triangles, spheres, cylinders and cones? (Digression - I also believe that an understanding of mathematics and logic through set theory is actually the most essential of all basic intellectual infrastrutures. This claim shall be justified in the promised post on propositional logic). I doubt if anyone has ever been able to justify this particular choice of the level of granularity for essential education. Does arithmetic include or exclude the concept of exponentiation and compounding? Is it truly not essential to know and understand a baisc minimum level of science, history and geography? 3Rs is, in my opinion, a convenient rationalization - what it says is a truism and what it doesn't say is truly important. A soundbyte is not an argument.

Lastly, we move to the social and the philosophical. What is the purpose of education and an education sytem, especially at a level as fundamental as school? The problem with trying to define a 'comparative advantage' for students at the school level become clear when we see that we often lament the lack of a liberal arts education for our engineers in India. Essentially, what we are saying is that tangibly and intangibly, it pays off to be well rounded in life. Of course, one cannot be a generalist throughout one's life and needs to start focusing after a particular time. If 18 is seen as the normally accepted age of adulthood, 18 seems to be about right for taking such a decision. If we encourage our children to specialize in school, Mr Rajadhyaksha's daughter may just be happier, but given the current trends in the country, I foresee a much larger cross section of parents pushing their children to concentrate only on physics, chemistry and mathematics right from the age of 10 (or whatever is the age that Mr Rajadhyaksha feels is right to begin specializing). This system will end up producing scores of JEE stud, intellectual dwarf type students who were never given the chance to realise their actual aptitudes and interests because the system encouraged specialization and market demand started ruling their lives much before it does now.

Inspite of the arguments presented in the article being wrong or underdeveloped on almost all counts, why is it that one still feels that Mr Rajadhyaksha's daughter should not have to worry about flunking her arts exam? The problem is the fact that school is unable to think beyond the control mechanism of pass/fail to encourage interest and competence in art. The problem is the school's presumption that it will be able to judge artistic performance through a limited time examination. The problem is not the concept, but the failure to look beyond conventional pedagogy. All this indicates design inertia. Inertia of design is not a flaw of philosophy.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The Trouble with Economics

Is that too many people misuse its theories. Actually, that's the trouble with people and their habit to pass off overly stretched analogies as arguments. However, 'the trouble with people' is a little too cynical for my tastes. Misanthropy is best left to Nilu and the dictator. (I'm repaying your link love in kind, dictator). Hence, the title of the post.

So why do I say this? Exhibit 1. Niranjan Rajadhyaksha argues that school children should have more choice and specialization in the subjects that they study. He brings in David Ricardo and the theory of comparative advantage in the picture. He draws his conclusions by presenting an analogy with the situation his daughter faces at school.Why is this analysis and analogy flawed? Many reasons - economic, empirical, educational, practical and philosophical. Let's deal with the flaw in the economic logic of the argument in this post.

What does the theory of comparative advantage say? Essentially, that firms/countries should focus on what they do best. The classic example that Ricardo considered is that of the trade of cloth and wine between England and Portugal. England produces cloth more efficiently than wine and Portugal produces wine more efficiently than cloth. Also, Portugal produces both the products more efficiently than England. The result from the analysis is that Portugal should produce enough wine to meet both countries' demands and no cloth at all and England should produce cloth for both countries's demands, but no wine at all. It is a very strong argument in support of free trade and specialization. Mr Rajadhyaksha argues that similarly, his daughter, who his apparently not too keen on art, should not be made to study art as a compulsory subject and should instead be allowed to specialize - possibly to leverage her comparative advantage. (some B-school jargon was bound to creep in).

Ricardo's theory is one of the most insightful in the entire field of classical and neoclassical microeconomics but it makes certain assumptions, namely

1) There is free trade of goods (explicit)
2) There is no trade of labour or capital, i.e factor inputs (explicit)
3) The demand for the traded products is reasonably similar (implicit, because what is actually being measured is the opportunity cost)

Here, the 'good' that his daughter will specialise in is a certain level of competence in a field or a subject. It is thus safe to assume that the free trade assumption holds true. However, the second and the third assumptions are not true. The factor inputs in this case are aptitude and capital (the investment into the education to gain these skills) and on the individual level, capital can easily be traded. The situation will hence move towards absolute advantage. The product that her daughter, or anybody for that matter, will get in return for their skills is money. Money has a high demand almost universally. The same is not true for the product traded in return - i.e skills.

Mr Rajadhyaksha is fortunate that his daughter has a disliking for the visual arts and a preference for the more conventional subjects. What if it was the other way round? What if, in addition, Mr Rajadhyasha belonged to a less privileged socio-economic segment. The economy places a high premium on numerical and verbal skills and lesser on the visual arts. It then makes more sense for his daughter to focus on math and science rather than pursuing the visual arts, even though her 'comparative advantage' lies in the visual arts. If you are a better artist as well as a better computer engineer than I am (absolute advantage), in the given economic environment it makes more economic sense for you to become a computer engineer even though you are a better artist than you are a computer engineer (comparative advantage). In terms of economic opportunity cost, the area in which you have a 'comparative advantage' may be very different from the area in which you have a comparative avantage in terms of pure aptitude or skills. The unnecesary introduction of Ricardo shows a failure to 'think it through' at best, and shallow intellectual show-offism at worst.

With reference to the misuse of economic theories, everyone would do well to remember what a cetain Mr Neelakantan Rajaraman once said - and I quote him verbatim - "Economics is the result of the human condition, not the other way round." Instead of superficial impositions of economic theories by presuming their a priori correctness in all situations, one must strive to fully analyse the actual situation and see if it has any implications on the nuances and assumptions of the theory itself. At the very least, one must strive to avoid this tendency to name-drop when one writes. Ricardo may have been right Mr Rajadyaksha, but if you ignore the foundations on which his theory is built, you may turn out to be absolutely wrong. And you will not fool us simply because because you mention Ricardo.

For the other reasons detailing why that article says too little too callously , readers must wait with bated breath for the next post.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Of Readers and Apologies

Dear regular readers,

Sincerest apologies for the prolonged gap. As soon as time permits (which means after the end terms), you shall be treated to a series of discourses on randomness, probability, determinism, propositional logic, free will, quantum mechanics, Advaita Vedanta, and theism and atheism. Until then, do hang on.

Dear new reader from math department at TIFR,

You click on my blog so often that my stat counter is pushed up by a large number everyday, even though the blog has seen deplorably low activity in the recent past. This is most fascinating. If it's not too much of a problem, please identify yourself. Do I know you by any chance?

Thursday, July 19, 2007

WIMWI fundaes I - How to make an easy subject 'challenging'

Method 1 - Set surprise quizzes with humanly impossible time limits.

See it's very simple. A small problem that is modelled on a longer exam problem and is about one fourth its size requires about one fourth its time to solve. This much should be obvious. If the longer exam is 3 hours, the shorter one should be 45 minutes. This is simple division. If you give 15 minutes, nobody will be able to complete the paper. This is common sense. What does not make sense is why people so capable would choose to forego simple mathematics and common sense when trying to test students.

What exactly did you test today, WIMWI? My writing speed? Or the speed at which I can push numbers into my calculator? It couldn't be calibre, but maybe you don't even want to test that. It couldn't be learning (which is what you should ideally test) because apart from one minor detail, there was nothing in the case that could possibly involve any of us in any amount of thought. You aren't even trying to test us on our reactions to time pressure. Time pressure exists when one has to make a choice and prioritise - there was hardly a choice to be made today. Time pressure exists when you pose something that is possibly doable in a certain time with some extra effort and hence you can separate those who will put in that effort from those who won't. Today, the paper was not attemptable in 15 minutes. There was no time pressure - everyne knew that everyone would leave an incomplete answer sheet. Oh ya, the answer sheets. Financial statements teen or sheet keval ek. Bahut nainsaafi thi.

Granted, Financial Accounting is not rocket science, as people here are so fond of repeating. In fact, addition and subtraction based around one fundamental concept does not even match elementary physics, forget about rocket science. Yet, there have to be better ways of making a quiz more challenging than simply keeping a ridiculously low time limit. Yesterday, in the Quant test, you posed me a challenge I could be proud of solving. You posed us a challenge that drove many to desperation. Today, in FinAcc, you have caused no desperation - only indifference. I won't be happy if I do well, I won't be sad if I underperform. And to be sure, I am no believer in Karma Yoga or in the idea of the stithapragya man.

It's been a great four weeks WIMWI. But today, you have left me disappointed. I have no bile. I only have a smirk.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Two kinds of arguments

Ladies and gentlemen, presenting to you, the Argument by Assertion. (Emphasis mine)

I used to tell them that the inherent “inconclusiveness property” of science doesn’t apply to my theory because free market fundamentalists are not so complicated like nature. I used to tell them that free market fundamentalists are “trivially simple” and there is only one property that defines them (unlike nature where you need to consider several parameters). This property is their stupidity. So, as I used to tell them, the essential “inconclusiveness property” of science need not apply to my theory about them. Today I came across an article by Czech Republic President, Vaclav Klaus, on Financial Times

The dictates of political correctness are strict and only one permitted truth, not for the first time in human history, is imposed on us. Everything else is denounced.
The scientists should help us and take into consideration the political effects of their scientific opinions. They have an obligation to declare their political and value assumptions and how much they have affected their selection and interpretation of scientific evidence.


Here you go guys and gals, reading this blog, this is (yet)^(infinity)th proof of the inherent stupidity of free market fundamentalists.


Decoded, this paragraph reads as follows.

I used to tell them I was right. So, as I used to tell them I was right. Today, I came across a POV that disagrees with mine. This is clear proof that I am right. I am right. Because I am right. So, I am right. You are wrong. Hence, I am right.


Also, presenting, the Argument from Ignorance. (Emphasis original)

I don’t know much about economics but even I know that you cannot make cross border comparisons of GDP because it doesn’t account for the local differences in the quality of food and other stuff (Update: lemme add here that it is true even with PPP considerations). Also, it is a known fact that India’s overpopulation is a big reason for the poor economic growth (refer to Thomas Malthus on this topic).

Yes, and hence we cannot conclude that the US is more prosperous than India because you know, cross border comparisons of GDP are not possible, because of differences in quality of food and stuff. I had heard of the phrase that every living man is the slave of some dead economist. I never knew that dead doomsday economists would however be invoked to assert that 1+1 is actually 2.

I have now re-decided. No more fisking, even. Unless it's on a matter of science, where this man presumably knows something at least.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Of Free Speech & Bloggers

A very lazy vacation has meant some heavy philosophical theorising, and some blog-debates tht can only be considered splitting dead hairs (Don't tell me that I'm mixing metaphors, I know what I'm writing). For the benefit of the uninitiated, a short recap, in the order of chronology.

It began in all seriousness, with blogger no.1 calling the events in Baroda fascism, using the Wikipedia description of the term.

Sandeep naturally took offence, and took the fight to him. He replied with a post questioning Amit's choice of terms, and also the basic logic behind his(Amit's) criticism of the Baroda events. A lively discussion ensued in the comments section.

As that discussion was getting a little overlong, Sandeep continued that debate on another post of his blog. Here, crash- bang- drumroll, yours truly made an entry. Proving that we're all argumentative Indians, that debate reached 144 comments. Yessir, a dozen dozens. And it had already acquired philosophical nuances, with people questioning the basic notions of free speech and of freedom itself.

Gaurav then riled about how people should stop mangling quotes from his fave comic book. (Dude, Spidey? Seriously? ) He also did a little pattern finding, and found similiarities between Sandeep and D-cube.

D-cube then joined the fray, using the crutches of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes who had once declared that freedom of speech did not include the right to scream fire in a crowded theatre. There was some action in the comments section.

Our man Amit then posted a rejoinder describing how the above formulation was flawed and how every human right must be seen as a property right. True to a phenomenon that I can only call libertarian link-o-mania, he invoked Murray Rothbard.

Blogger no.1 was not done yet. He then expanded on his views further, and claimed that all rights should derive from self-ownership, which at its heart is itself a property right.

And then, it happened. Nilu puked. Not that he hasn't puked on Amit before, but this time his puke just added clarified butter to the fire (Yes I translate from Hindi. Yes I am a vernie. Yes the specific 'clarified butter' is a billion times cooler than the genric, unimaginative 'fuel'. Yes Nilu pukes clarified butter.) Much to Nilu's chagrin, this fire was not in a crowded theatre that Amit sat in, but spread to his own comments section.

And then the unthinkable happened. After having chastised Amit for taking himself too seriously, Nilu, for a change, took himself seriously. This resulted. An excellent mix of oblique abstractions, pseud-effect and deep philosophy, Nilu even ended his post with a QED. I love QED.

Amit came back, armed with latin phrases of his own. And then much fun was had in the comments section. Avatram's venerable grandfather was discussed, as was Ronald Coase.

Neha Vishwanathan stumbled upon the entire episode and found it "incredibly amusing and interesting". Desipundit link was duly established. She mentioned Amit Varma, Recursive Hypocrisy, 54 comments and even Avatram's grandfather, but failed to take cognizance of the man who had in no small measure helped in taking that discussion to 54 comments. Rookie bloggers get no respect. Blogging superstardom thus still eludes me.

theothernilu, however, was suitably impressed. She made it a point to compliment my absolute mastery of propositional logic, though in a backhanded manner. I say I like backhands. (Much to Gasquetfan's chagrin, Federer easily has the best backhand.) A weekly Brahmeboodha Suryanarayana Iyer memorial coloumn was also established over at Recursive Hyposcrisy.

Last heard, Gaurav and Amit were furiously discussing over e-mail how best to cover up for Rothbard's theoretical holes when they next present the 'free speech as a property right' angle to the rest of us. D-cube had managed to find examples of speech that could be considered 'criminal intent to intimidate', reminding us of another boundary of 'free'.

The rest of the world, in the meanwhile, found time to do the usual things. Like getting laid. Bleh. I say discussing the philosophical origin of human rights is much more fun.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Shootout At Lokhandwala

I will not review this one. I will simply list ten reasons why you shouldn't watch it.

1) First of all, they got the tagline wrong. There's nothing called 'true rumours'. A rumour is, by definition, a story that may or may not be true. A true rumour is then, by definition, a true story. In fact, I believe that this usage of 'based on true rumours' instead of 'based on true stories' is itself a lame way to get out of the burden of realistic portrayal that a true- story based concept imposes. It sets the tone for everything that follows.

2) When one wants to portray real-life gangsters and the cops who fight them or collude with them, with a personal touch, one tries to go inside the lives that they have lived, the causual functions that made them the way they were, the dilemmas that they may have faced, and the rationalizations that helped them overcome these dilemmas. One does not go the 'ooohh look at him - walks like that, talks like that, dangles cigarettes, makes cool statements, recites Urdu poetry' way. When one goes that way, one aims to make a stylised timepass movie, like Dhoom 1 for instance. Realism and glamour mix like sugar and gasoline, with the same sputtering results. (quote courtesy, an Oct 1998 issue of Sportstar) Let's get this straight - encounters, moral dilemmas, divorces, job frustration etc are serious issues and when handled well can lead to great cinema. When reduced to 'I wear Ray Ban and keep two buttons open' style machismo, a movie bcomes mediocre forever.

3) When one wants to portray realism in cinema, one tries to get good actors. Suniel Shetty, Rohit Roy, and Arbaaz Khan are not good actors. There's only so much that Tusshar Kapoor can do. Sanjay Dutt and Amitabh Bachchan cannot elevate a movie by simply being there.

4) Ohh did I talk about acting in point 3. Vivek Oberoi must have the dubious distinction of the only actor who could never exceed what he did in his first performance. The man who excelled as Chandu in Company is such a pain as Maya Dolas that at times it became difficult to look at the screen. Doals was, by all accounts, a flamboyant gangster. With some gravity and attempt, it can be a career defining role for most actors. One does not even need to cut down on the stylistics. However, by focusing solely on the stylistics, Mr poodle-hair has devoided Dolas of any real on-screen menace. What a shame.

5) The license-quota-permit Raj is over. We get to see phoren films. And if you lift from them directly, we will call your bluff. For heaven's sake bollywood, stop filching. One does not lift the 'bite the pavement' scene from American History X directly. In fact, one (Hollywood or Bollywood) does not lift anything from an Ed Norton movie directly, simply because 99% actors are not worth the guy's pubic hair. Please refer back to Ajay Devgan's pathetic attempts at playing a fraudulently schizoid cold-blooded murderer in Deewangi. Go watch Primal Fear after that. You'll know what I mean.

6) Any Hindi film director who believes that roping in a couple of foreign chicas for one of the song/dance routines is a must, should be jailed for lack of imagination.

7) Someone needs to tell 'realistic' action directors that TV sets cannot be lifted and smashed that easily, and that residential houses do not have neatly arranged sets of five sharp impalers that you can use as a hangar for the villain's neck to delver final poetic justice. Also, the nonchalant lighting of a cigarette after fighting crime seems like a neat uidea, but is actually quite laughable.

8) When you get everything else incorrect, atleast get the fashion right. The fancy coloured canvas shoes that people wear these days is a recent phenomenon, en vogue for the last 2-3 years. So there's no way the gangster buwa could have been wearing the blue adidas canvas pair that he wears in the movie.

9) In a movie that is supposed to provide you edge of the seat thrills, if by the end all you can do is check out the shoes of the dead gangsters, the filmmaker's vision and execution have gone seriously awry.

10) I reserve the worst for the last. Emotional sentences do not make for great courtroom defence scenes. Good courtroom dramas are some of the best movies ever made - one only needs to look at A Few Good Men to see that this statement is objectively true. A defence lawyer who chastises his clients throughout his preparation and then launches a brilliant fact and analysis based defence makes for a great character. With tight editing, such an episode can even prove to be the focal point of a movie. Unfortunately, this movie was made by Apurva Lakhia, the guy who made Mumbai Se Aaya Mera Dost. I should have kept that in mind when I went to watch this. Shootout has got a terrible climax. Fortunately, it's short.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Back to the Blogosphere

Apologies, for the rather extended break. Among other things I was away to my home state, Bihar, for 10 days. Random fundaes and insights about that will follow soon. In the short time that I've been back, I've been drawn into a rather prolonged, and now boring, blog-debate here.

It is about the Baroda art controversy, and because of its inherent nature, the debate easily metamorphosised into one on freedom of speech and the validity of 'giving offence' as a yardstick of jurisprudence. There has been tremedous back and forth, and quite often the debate has descended into nothing more than name-calling, with me being guilty of the same. The basic positions are -

The Proposition : Freedom of speech cannot be absolute. Such derogatory portrayals with obvious malafide intent to offend cannot be left unprosecuted. Not everything is art - a judiciary guided by community standards should decide what is art and what isn't. Laws cannot be independent of the prevalent social mores - hence if something is offensive to most members of the community, it should be banned. There has to be deterrant, civil or criminal, against such abuses of freedom of expression.

The Opposition (represented in part by yours truly) : Offence is subjective, and hence cannot (should not) be a valid plank of jurisprudence. Wherever possible, laws should proceed from axiomatic definitions of morality - otherwise all we'll be left with is tyranny of the majority, which is unacceptable in a liberal democracy. It doesn't matter whether you or I think of something as art or not, or whethere we are offended by a particular portrayal - the artist in question cannot be jailed for this. The current social standards in India would mean that all nudes would have to be banned, something that even the proposition does not agree with. India's FoS laws are too vague - something like the First Amendment to the US constitution is required.

As an aside, I have now decided that whenever I wish to discover new things about my identity and personality, I should post a comment on something controversial on that blog. This time, among other things I have been told, or it has been insinuated, that I am -

1) A communist woman in her 30s.

2) A pseudo-secular IT professional with too much time to kill.

3) A 45 year old man who pretends to be a student about to start grad school and also likes posting under the pseudonym Spartacus.

4) Someone whose knowledge of Hinduism is extremely weak.

5) A pseudo-liberal who fears that opposing Muslim bigotry will lead to loss of life or limb.

If you feel you need to ponder over the freedom of expression deal a little more yourself, do think about a couple of questions that I posed over there which did not get consistent or satisfactory replies.

1) I often wear a T-shirt of a metal band called Venom (the band that gave the Black metal genre its name through a song of theirs, though in my opinion most of their music was proto-thrash metal, not black metal). This T-shirt has an upturned cross with the number 666 written across it, signifying the loss of sanctity of the cross and the overpowering of god by the devil. (As a digression, the art-work is quite cool and subtle, not the in your face 'hell yeah, motherf****** metal rulezzzz satan rulezzzz' kinds.) This depiction would be blasphemous by orthodox christian standards. Technically, under section 295 of the IPC, I can be arrested for wearing this T-shirt. To quote from Arun jaitley's article in the Indian Express

Section 295 of the Indian Penal Code penalises any person who destroys, damages or defiles any object held sacred by any class of persons, with the intention of thereby insulting the sentiments of such class, or with the intention of such defilement being regarded as an insult to religion.

Do you think that I should be arrested for wearing that T-shirt? Do you think a legal system should have provisions under which I could be prosecuted for wearing it?

2) Given that the average Indian is likley to find ANY nude offensive, should we ban all nudes?

If your answer to both questions is yes, you would be consistent, but clearly in your society there would be zero artistic freedom. If you answer yes to one and no to the other, your stand is rather inconsistent and you need to check if by 'offensive to the average person' you simply mean 'offensive to me'. If you answer no to both, welcome to my side of the divide.

Now, blogger no. 1 and I were on the same side of the divide, with our man Amit coming under considerable fire for his ostensible hypocrisy. Now, anyone who reads his blog would know that this isn't true. However, today Amit linked to what he called an 'excellent' piece by some dude called Salil Tripathi. That piece contained this one mind-numbing paragraph

Indeed, Husain has painted several goddesses from the Hindu pantheon in the nude, including Saraswati, the goddess of learning, Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, and Durga, a martial goddess who slays demons. These are bold works that reshape our thinking about Hindu myths, revealing them in new light; they are not lewd drawings meant to titillate. His nudes delineate the body in sharp lines, elevating it to an abstract realm, suggesting the formlessness of divinity

Excuse me, but what? This paragraph, ladies and gentlemen, defines the term pseudo-secular. Look, I believe in nearly absolute freedom of expression. In my legal system, Hussain's works will not be banned, he will not be legally prosecuted, and those who vandalized his works will be behind the bars. That does not however mean that Hussain is not a bigot. The man did not take down any of the nude paintings of the Hindu godesses, yet took down Meenaxi from theatres simply because some Muslim groups made some noise about how Allah being referred to as the-divine-light in some song or sequence of the movie was against Islamic beliefs. A friend recently informed me that when MFH was asked by Shekhar Gupta in Walk the Talk if he would ever be able to draw an offensive portrayal of the Prophet Mohammad, the old man had to nearly be physically restrained from reacting violently.

Also, Mr Tripathi, "they are not lewd drawings meant to titillate" is a subjective judgement, as subjective as the judgement of those who claim that the portrayal is malicious and offensive to Hindus. If Mr Tripathi was a true FoS believer, he would have said that EVEN if Mr hussain's paintings titilate or offend some pople, they should not be banned. In that piece, he(Salil Tripathi) comes out sounding like nothing but an apologist for M F Hussain who claims to understand Hindu culture better than anybody else. The deal is very simple - I have no doubt in my mind that Maqbool Fida Hussain, whtever his artistic merit may be, is a bigoted man. His works should still not be liable for criminal (or civil) prosecution.


Saturday, May 05, 2007

Of conspiracy theories & two rupee coins

Surely you've heard about the controversy surrounding the two rupee coin. No, I don't mean the controversy that since it resembles the 1 rupee coin so much in shape, the blind may not be able to figure out the difference. Such details are piffling - we must concern ourselves with something of far greater impoartance, namely the communal agenda that the Congress is apparently pursuing. Yes, a communal agenda through a goddamn metal coin. As the great philosopher of Bollywood, Anand Raj Anand, once sang - "It happens only in India".

So, one gentleman found that the new coin resembles the coin issued by St Louis the Pious in the Ninth century - cross with four dots et al. He wrote an article expressing his views. The article included this little gem

It’s the ruling Congress which is pursuing communal agenda in virtually every sphere, from social, political, economic, military to now in national currency.

Our blogger no. 1 posted something about the silliness of such claims. He was taken to task by another blogger, who accused him of being politically correct, and a heated discussion ensued in the comments section. So when I stumbled upon this controversy, I decided to finally take a closer look at the damn coin.

I could see no cross. I saw two parallel lines close by, intersected at a 90 degree angle by two other close parallel lines. Sure, the cross looks something like that too. However, I know of only two crosses that are exactly the same on all four sides (i.e., they do not have an extended leg section) - the Maltese cross, and the aforementioned St Louis the Pious cross. Both of these crosses, like other crosses, have closed ends on the four sides, and the ends bulge a little. The motif on our coin has no such ends. My engineer mind saw a figure that was symmetrical with an angle of symmetry as 90 degrees. My I've-been-reading-too-much-postmodernist-feminist-crap-these-days-and-I-want-to-be-funny-about-it mind saw four phalluses about to penetrate a centre. (You do know that any linear/cylindrical structure is a phallus right? If you don't, shame on you. You are a stooge of the patriarchy) My Hindu mind saw four dots and was reminded of the Swastika.

Now, as I see it, the opposition to the "communal nature" of the coin has only two arguments.

1. The coin is indeed communal - For this to be true, one would have to assume that the RBI has absolutely sold out to the government, the government has absolutely sold out to Sonia Gandhi, and Sonia Gandhi is a fanatically zealot christian. One would also have to assume that such a motif could actually enable conversions or truly offend another religion. In my book, that's one assumption too many.

2. The coin may not be part of a communal agenda, but a secular country has no business involving itself with a religious motif. To which I say, I see no damn religious motifs. I was not even aware of a cross with four dots before this but I was aware of the Swastika. Hence, I saw the dots as the Swastika dots. I could see pure geometrical figures. With some imagination I could also see four roads and a cross-road, and like I've mentioned before, four penises. But a christian cross, not really. Not unless we assume that every figure with a line intersected at the centre by another perpendicular line is a christian cross.

I could have tried to explain points 1 and 2 above to those worthies debating the communal agenda of the cross. I could have explained how perceptions colour observations, how motifs and symbols are largely in the mind, how one sees what one wants to see. But that seemed too boring, not to mention futile. Hence, I wrote this -

The four dots on the four sides of the cross suggest something else to me - I see the Shubh-Labh swastika dots. I also see four phallic structures, all heading towards a common centre that is about to be penetrated against its own will. Clearly, this cross is the evil design of the Hindu patriarchy.

The responses were brilliant. The only guy who seemed to get the joke replied with a brilliant post about how it was the evil design of patriarchy, but the Muslim one and not the Hindu one. Others concluded that I was a "typical wannabe contrarian bong" and someone who has 'learnt Hinduism from American Indologists" and hence "holds his penis when he crosses a temple". One sentence revealed more about the prejudices of these guys than hours of debating would have, and how much they actually knew about India and Hinduism was unnravelled beautifully. I was mighty pleased.

And so, in the spirit of conspiracy theories, I decided to do a little more pattern finding. I had another epiphany. Dear readers, I hereby announce that mathematics is a christian conspiracy. As Nilu would say - think deeply.

Random Wow : Speaking of foreign Indologists, there's only one I would recommend. Anyone with the least bit of interest in ancient Indian history as told from an unbiased, non-patronising, wonder-eyed, yet rational, objective and scientific perspective would get hold of A L Basham's magnum opus 'The Wonder That Was India' and read every word of it.

Friday, April 06, 2007

In Which I Am Disappointed

Annie Zaidi has finally lost it. There goes one of the few hopes I had from the feminist side of affairs.

I think that men have a right to 'look' if we happen to be in their line of vision. But they do not have a right to assume that a woman is available (even if she is stark naked), or open to insults, or that she will appreciate their admiration and attention. Unwelcome attention will simply provoke defensive-aggressive behaviour. And every woman has the right to define her own boundaries of (un)acceptable behaviour, and to defend those boundaries as she sees fit.

Indeed. And every man has the right to blow off the head of any other guy who calls him a prick. As also the duty to divine the limits of acceptable behavious for any woman he might see anywhere. There is no need for any kind of consensus on this - on differentiating between name calling, lewd comments and groping. No, it must be absolutely left to each individual. And a man has the right to look only in his "line of vision". Incidentally, all people , at all times, look only in their line of vision. Or is she suggesting that a man's "line of vision" be static?

It had been happening for some time. Ever since the attempts to replicate Arundhati Roy in form and content started happening. One-word paragraphs. Stream-of-consciousness images. I kept reading her - because she knows the heartland, because she writes about things people don't bother about. But this ??

Apologies to the sisters I offended by my opinions earlier. I stand corrected, and wiser.

References to "sisters" should be disallowed unless you're Beyonce in a hot music video. (Lil Kim would do too, it's just that she doesn't make any music worth tolerating even for the video.)

Aman feels this one is a great blogger. I've read her - erudite but far too biased. And, over-reliant on the term "dehumanizing". As well as on caricatures of typical desi grad students who have probably stopped existing outside of low-budget NRI movies. She finds the concept and the activity of strip clubs "dehumanizing". My thought process about this is -

1) Even if one doesn't know the term "dehumanizing", everyone has an instinctive understanding of what counts as "dehumanizing". The fact that strippers prefer stripping to some other profession they could have gone into says something(I am not talking about those who are being forced to do anything against their wishes - that is coercion and is a crime under every legal system in the world).

2) A stripper may then choose stripping to one or more of the following reasons - a) she enjoys that b) it makes her good money, or c) it makes her a moderate amount of money but she doesn't have the skills to make better money elsewhere. Case a is a no-brainer. Case b and c imply that the stripper chooses the option of getting touched by unknown men over choosing poverty. Which is to say that in her value system, poverty is more dehumanizing than random male contact. Why should anyone call a strip-club dehumanizing then?

Random plugging - Aman has begun writing. Have you checked him out yet? Crisp style, intelligent humour, tangy opinions. I likes.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Keywords

Was too lazy to hyper-link to various sources of my information for the last post. Most of it was stuff I already knew. But search for the following keywords on Google and Wikipedia - you should come across what I did.

1. Hunting ranches
2. Endangered Species Act
3. Game Reserves
4. "African Parks"
5. White rhinos + Africa
6. National parks + Africa
7. Wildlife conservation + US
8. Bison
9. Masai Mara
10. Nature Reserve
11. Hunting Safari
12. World Conservation Union