Category Archives: stupidity

Top posts: why I like data!

Was just going through the top posts for the past 4 months in my blog, and they were

  1. One dealing with running out of coal or atmosphere
  2. The one about free software
  3. The one which says ‘what role does money play’
  4. The one about conversions

The one about conversions can be ignored since it was a temporary phenomenon. But what is interesting is that a huge number of people seem to be googling for the phrase ‘What do we do when we run out of coal’! Well, they can rest assured that we will not run out of coal before we invent they warp drive. The economic crisis or something more personal seems to driving people to enquire about the role of money in their life!

One set of people seem to be terrified of something that they will lose, another set seems terrified of something they have or are going to gain!! some world we live in.

Sociable sociopaths – is it the system ?

System Analysis is simply another way of looking at the world, trying to look at the structure and composition of an aggregate of anything from computer code to people to machines.

For those unaware of terminology (which would be anyone who has not taken a systems course), a system is an entity with certain inputs and outputs, and which converts inputs to outputs through a certain mechanism. It can be completely defined by its inputs, outputs, external limits and feedback systems. Limits determine the boundaries within which the system must operate, like the size of our parliament is limited by the number of rich and powerful idiots in the country. Feedback systems determine the response of the system to changes in its output or environment, like the elections are a feedback in a democracy.

Another factor which determines the performance of the system is delay in the feedback systems. Scientists have been telling economists to change developmental objectives to include climate change issues for many decades and yet it has come into focus only very recently. Even today, development does not include many environmental issues like deforestation and toxic dumps and species extinction. This can be called as a large delay between output changes and the attendant change in system performance.

Why is systems thinking important ? From a business perspective, it can help analyse the people and objects that determine how a system (company) behaves, and how certain kinds of behavior of these ‘components’ can affect overall system output. For example, car manufacturers should change the specifications of their car according to general consumer tastes. Therefore, there must be some system feature that links car specification with consumer taste. If the person who is in charge of implementing this feature in this system fails to do her job well, system output (which is cars) will fail to make the desired impact.

Therefore, most social systems – religion, corporation, state – come up with a set of desired behaviors that the components that make up the system should have, and this is inculcated by various mechanisms – schools, corporate orientation, religious instruction and so on.

One can, if one has considerable amount of time to burn, apply systems principles to the present situation in India. First, a look at the state. The state is a glorified watchman of sorts, taking money from us taxpayers and giving political, social and economic protection. The recent spate of terrorist attacks have underlined the fact that it is unable to deal with the phenomenon of terrorism which is structurally very different from the normal antisocial elements that it is used to dealing with. Highly motivated individuals, working in small groups, from varied backgrounds, with no monetary motivation causing mayhem is something no state can cope with: it was simply not designed for such a task. And there goes physical safety that we were supposed to have.

Next thing to go was religious tolerance. Talking to random people on the train shows that the average Hindu looks at his Christian neighbor with suspicion and will be more hesitant than before to attend religious festivals. This is due to the sensationalist feedback systems which have been set in place called the media and no doubt supported by a political party that wants to expel Pakistani and Bangladeshi nationals (only those with expired visas, of course, preferably Muslims) since they might be terrorists. Never mind the fact that terrorists will go to great lengths to see that their papers are in order, and are not stupid enough to be in a place where checks are taking place. A system is only as good as the people that make it up, and this is shown well in Karnataka now and Gujarat before.

Before these was, of course, financial security. A global economic system needs global  regulatory agencies, a role which the IMF and World Bank ostensibly play. The present crisis shows that a system designed around rational ordering and behavior of individuals completely fails when greed, fear and panic are the inputs. The subprime crisis surfaced around this time last year and its effects are showing now, a huge delay between input and output. This kind of behavior can only mean worse things in the coming year. IMF and the World Bank probably should stick to bullying third world nations.

All these developments are having interesting effects – terrorism has made grassroot level spying a noble duty in service of the state (Orwellian nightmare!), people belonging to different religious groups are eyeing each other with suspicion, and people with money to lose are running around like headless chickens. If people are taken as a system, and if insecurity is an input, the system moves towards whatever promises stability. Therefore, unfortunately, the State and religious organizations are going to be more powerful than before when the dust settles. The last bastion of reliable information feedback, the internet, is now becoming more prone to State intervention. Wonder what the status of the people will be after this – are we going to be sociable components of sociopathic systems ?

Religious conversions: views

Problems related to conversions seem to be hitting all parts of India, from the poverty-stricken tribal Orissa to the highly literate and affluent Mangalore. Militant Christianity came first, then militant Islam and now militant Hinduism. God alone knows what next, maybe militant scientologists!

Before anything, let us get one thing straight: these are middle and upper class/caste fights in which lower castes/classes get affected the worst. Religion and culture come to the mind resting above a full stomach. It is quite unfortunate that those affected most are the ones who historically are the ones affected most. Therefore, oppression does not really go away by conversions or Bajrang Dal activism, but merely takes a new form.

Christianity has always been an agressive (or as the Church prefers to call it, evangelical) religion. This seems to flow from Christ’s command to ‘spread the Good News’ . Considering the fact that most Christians do not follow Christ’s other words – like ‘remove the splinter in your eye before pointing to the one in your brother’s eye’, which essentially means getting your house in order before anything else – it is puzzling that they are so fond of spreading the Good News. Similarly, Brahmins who never have given a damn about the lot of Dalits for centuries are now trying to ‘reclaim’ them from the proselytizers. Both stink more than a little of hypocrisy.

In India atleast, religion has been an integral part of a person’s identity from time immemorial. Then why is it that people are so easily converted (which amounts to a drastic change in identity), and why are most of the converts from Hinduism to other religions rather than the other way round ? Consider the following issues:

  • Hindu rituals, for the most part are still in Sanskrit
  • Priests are still Brahmin
  • There are still temples which disallow Dalits
  • Reformation movements like the Bhakti movement have been largely suppressed or sidelined or have corrupted into mainstream thinking
  • Dalits in the hinterlands still suffer systematic deprivation and lack access to schools and healthcare

OTOH, consider features of Indian Christianity:

  • Christian rituals are adapted to the local cultural milieu. Attending a mass in English and in Santhali are radically different experiences
  • Anyone can become a priest. Most candidates who join do not become priests but come out after getting free education upto graduation and a good exposure to social service and philosophy
  • Most schools and hospitals run in tribal areas are either secular or Christian

It must be quite easy to see why religious conversions are quite high from Hinduism. New converts to Christianity get rituals highly customised to their culture, access to education (though there is usually no discrimination for admission – most Hindus would like their children to study in a ‘convent’ school). New modes of Christian worship like Praise and Worship are extremely popular among new converts and this is something that contemporary Hindu worship sorely lacks, i.e, they need to jazz it up a bit! ISKCON does a decent job of this, effecting quite a few reverse conversions, but seems like they want more white people than tribals!

It is hardly surprising that Hindus view conversions as a threat, because they are. But they have themselves to blame for the position that they are in. Any social institution that fails to adapt to changing circumstances will eventually die. Hinduism is nowhere close to this, but tensions are a sign that as a social institution (not as a philosophy : the two are very different entities) has not kept up with the times. If you don’t work for the upliftment of the poorest, don’t hold counselling sessions for youth in these fast-changing times, don’t change modes of worship to suit changing tastes and perceptions and then complain about a Christian conspiracy to undermine HInduism, you are basically missing the point. What people need is not a religion, but a means of upliftment – socially and psychologically. It is no surprise that various godmen like Sri Sri Ravishankar, Ganapati Satchidananda and innumerable others in metros like Bangalore are gaining in popularity – they offer a modern solution to contemporary human problems.

Tensions rooted in conversions to Christianity are not going to go away: like I mentioned, Christianity is quite fundamentally a proselytizing religion. What needs to be done is to adapt and stay abreast of the times – tastes, values, predispositions, culture are quite rapidly changing nowadays. It remains to be seen when Hinduism can address these issues, considering its massive inertia and elitism.

What will we run out of, coal or the atmosphere?

Alternatively phrased, will we run out of sources or sinks?

Before answering the question, it is important to understand why we ask such a question in the first place. It has been a long-standing view of a school of natural philosophy that nature has no intrinsic value, and all value ascribed to it is by humans. In other words, what nature can do for us is the important thing to be considered.

Thus, we take things from nature (say, a rock), convert it to something that is valued by society (say, an iPod) and exchange it for something of equivalent value (say, toilet paper). This process of interaction with other people to determine the value of something and exchanging it for something of equivalent value is what is called the market mechanism. Since exchanging stuff is usually cumbersome, we use a common medium to signify value, and we call this money. Money in itself has no value is indicated that you can find it in so many forms, from solid gold to bits in a database maintained by MasterCard.

To increase the amount of money in circulation, one can do two things: print more money, which makes it lose its value, and this we call inflation (which can happen due to other factors as well), or increase the value of stuff we produce, either by value addition (This instead of this) or simply producing more of it. At the end of the day, the value of an economy (what is called the GDP) reflects the value that society places on the stuff we produce.

Producing things essentially means taking things from a natural source, modifying it to a form useful to humans and then sending it to a sink when its utility is over. Therefore, the throughput of resources from source to sink is what (roughly) determines the size of an economy. The rate of change of this throughput is what is rate of change of GDP (8%, in our case).

A source is a stock of some resource, generated by natural processes, like coal. A sink is what breaks down what we dump into a form that is absorbed by natural processes (like decomposition for organic matter, and oceans for CO2). These processes are not usually under our control, and this puts fundamental physical limits to the throughput of material or equivalently, the size of world GDP. We cannot use a stock of material faster than nature can replenish it, for obvious reasons, neither can we dump stuff  ‘somewhere’ faster than natural processes can break it down. These natural processes are known as biogeochemical cycles. If we do change the throughput to greater that what can be sustained, we get effects like eutrophication and global warming.

Many of  the early environmentalists stressed on the finite sizes of the sources like coal, oil, metals which made up our economy and said that we will run out of it soon. Unfortunately, the were proved wrong. Newer and larger stocks were found, and all environmental concerns were brushed off as alarmism. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that what ever the size of the sources may be, we may actually be running out of sinks to dump our garbage in. Over and above this, many artificially manufactured substances (especially from chemistry, and nuclear waste) have no known natural sink, and therefore they persist in our ecosystems for large amounts of time, gradually increasing in size of stock. The problem lies in the fact that not many toxicology studies have been done on such chemicals, and we have absolutely no idea how they work in conjunction with each other.

Sources of raw materials have developed over millenia, and will in all likelihood last us atleast another century (in case of fossil fuels). Sinks, however, are usually biological systems which have slow rates of flow. The chain is only as strong as its weakest link, material throughput is usually limited by sink flows. Thus, we find the classic sign of sink overflow everywhere: pollution.

Can humanity conform with natural processes ? Yes. One way is to find technological advances which make it possible to increase value without increasing throughput, which is happening everywhere. The main problems with this approach is how fast will humanity react to physical limits – will it be too little too late ? Another is to reduce consumption, accepting a smaller GDP with more equitable distribution of wealth so that all may live better. The problem with this is that it is politically impossible (well, almost!). Ignoring limits that are put on us will result in devastation, like what is happening to the fisheries of the world today. Hope we can garner enough moral strength to preserve our physical strength.

Independence and all that.

61 years and counting! The nation that was never meant to be has managed to pull off a minor miracle (If we consider that we are among the few newly independent nations that have not gone under military rule, a major one ;) A nation with already stark contrasts which are growing all the time, and we have not yet, god forbid, seen the equivalent of a French Revolution. Credits and kudos.

On some issues however, we have seen increased dependence. Globalization has ensured that your daily rice can come from Vietnam or Mandya, your wheat from Australia or Haryana, your toilets from Bangalore Industrial area or Italy. We are increasingly dependent on everyone else for our needs. Economists tell us that this is A Good Thing, so leave it at that.

We don’t know where the Electricity company is, since someone else pays our bills for us (at a small commission, of course). We no longer know how to bargain, since prices are decided for us, too.

What with bombs dropping from the skies, we are dependent on our co-passengers in the bus not to kill us. If you are by some unfortunate turn of events a pedestrian, then you are dependent on everyone in vehicles to stay alive, regardless of their possessing bombs.

We are dependent on Robin Sharma and APJ Abdul Kalam for inspiration. We look upto (increasingly white American) comedians for laughter (which is a poor substitute for happiness). We need discotheque-pubs to unwind, shopping malls to relax, Wonder-La to drive adrenaline into our blood stream and Karan Johar (or this blog) to make us cry.

We need employers to give us money, and employment to give our life purpose. We need deadlines to keep us sharp and soap operas to keep us dumb. We need coffee to keep us awake and whisky to put us to sleep.

We need Sri Sri RaviShankar and Osho to fill spiritual voids, girl/boy friends to fill psychological ones, Orkut/Gmail to fill social ones and Times of India to fill mental ones.

We need schools to parent our children and old age homes to parent our parents. We then need Agony Aunt columns to parent ourselves. In chronological order, we need a financial consultant to do our finances, marriage consultant to get married, interior designer to choose our beds, and a legal consultant to keep the person who shares our bed in check.

We need college to get a degree, a degree to get a job, and smooth talking to retain it (hard work can usually help, but is not as fun!). We need classrooms to exercise our voices (and humor) and exams to exercise our eyes. We need teachers to teach us discipline and decency and prime seats in Cafe Coffee Day to unteach it.

We need security guards to feel safe, packaged drinking water to drink safe, the nearest chips packet to eat safe, and generator sets to work safe.

What exactly are we independent of ?

Point and counterpoint

Finished two books of essentially opposite characters, One was ‘One Straw Revolution’ and the other was ‘In defense of Globalization’ by Jagadish Bhagwati. Was interesting to read one after the other, since it covered the extremes of the globalization spectrum.

To be fair, Fukuoka was not trying to flagellate globalization as much as he was trying to point out an alternate way of life. Bhagwati, OTOH, was quite focused, as the title itself suggests.

One Straw Revolution

The book claims to be an introduction to natural farming, but is definitely far more than that. Though most of the book deals with Fukuoka’s method of ‘do-nothing farming’ (where you let nature take care of most of the work, with minimal intervention from the farmer), it also puts forward a way of life derived from the method of farming itself. Like the author says (paraphrased)

Once I realised that man knows nothing … Instead of talking about my philosophy, I tried to show the same to others by practicing agriculture.

He derives an alternate type of agriculture which uses the variety and complexity of nature to do most of the hard work, like controlling weeds, pests and manuring, with the farmer himself doing very little. Someone who knows a bit of community ecology will be fascinated by the practical usage of the same to make life easier. Like I mentioned in an earlier post, humans spend most of the energy they harvest/mine to modify ecosystems. However, given the complexity of ecosystems, this is usually a ham-handed approach which leads to other issues which need to be patched up, and so on and so forth. Fukuoka essentially tries to observe natural patterns and see how it can be used to his benefit, rather than fighting it. Of course, he builds his method around his philosophy of ‘man knows nothing’, but the method is useful even if you do not agree with his thinking. This book definitely lies in the ‘inspirational’ category and will leave the reader invigorated, if nothing else ;)

However, given modern logic of efficiency, this method is highly inefficient along the time ordinate, since gradually observing and adjusting to natural rhythms is extremely site specific (for obvious reasons) and iterative (Fukuoka himself took close to 2 decades to reach his level of expertise). NPK fertilizers and pesticides win out on this measure while losing out on practically everything else. Natural food is cheaper (those who buy from organic shops in Blore might find this shocking!), easier to grow and maintain while growing, and does not cause farmer riots all the time. Fukuoka also mentions the variety of problems farmers face when growing cash crops for a global market, especially when they are not sophisticated like corporations to hedge against the inherent risks.

In Defense of Globalization

Bhagwati is quite of the opposite character. Man can sufficiently control nature to increase welfare of all, any lapses are just because science is not yet perfected, and this implies the Western nations – given their superior science and technology – must help developing countries to grow faster. His idea to support growth is that

I noticed that the economic profile of all countries, developed or developing is pretty similar. Therefore, the obvious choice is to make the pie bigger.

As opposed to distributing the pie better. One cannot doubt that he is quite concerned with the welfare of all, just like Fukuoka, but supports globalization of trade as the best way out, in direct opposition of Fukuoka’s way out. Judging by the present scenario, Bhagwati has definitely been more influential!

Leaving aside fundamental differences in opinion, I found it quite instructive to read this book since Bhagwati makes a cogent argument about the various faults in the anti-globalization movement, most of which centre around them being more about good intentions rather than solid research. He concedes that globalization does not mean complete deregulation but needs to be ‘managed’ to cope with what he calls its ‘occasional downsides’. The problem that I have seen reading newspapers and such is that these downsides seem to be quite frequently ‘occasional’. One can hardly agree with Bhagwati that culture are environment are not affected, but rather helped by globalization, and that one should eat genetically modified foods because there is not scientific evidence that they cause any problems. There was no evidence that atmospheric pollution was bad in the 1800’s – the only lamenters being poets and artists – but no one disagrees now. Precautionary measures are something that Bhagwati dislikes saying that ‘anything and everything can be disallowed using moral arguments and this is bad for global trade’. If that is the price for precaution, so be it.

One consistent strain throughout the book is North-South relationship and how developing countries must learn from the big boys how the game is played (technology, management practices, financial aid, the whole nine yards!). USA uses 30% of the world’s energy. If everyone in India consumes like the average American, we would need to mine not only Mars but the Asteroid belt near Jupiter as well. If we concede that all cannot be Americans, then why should we follow the path of development that they did is not very clear. Our 9% growth is essentially creating brown-skinned Americans within a sea of poverty. India, like what we did with NAM, needs to chart its own path of development which is not infinitely optimistic about mining asteroids but takes a more realistic and cautious approach which increases the welfare of all.