Thursday, October 23, 2008

What's wrong with Socialism?

If you listen to the current political rhetoric in the US of A (and it is impossible not to, with elections between two people with almost identical stands on everything so close at hand), you would get the feeling that the ideals of compassion towards the poor are dead wrong - and that poor people should not get a helping hand.

And if the government were to help the poor financially, it would be the worst thing in the world since it would be depriving an angry fat man a jacuzzi in his kitchen (or something equally excessive and ridiculous).

Defenders of capitalism seem to overlook one very fundamental flaw. All people are not born equal. Some are born rich and some are born poor. A person born rich (or at least into a well educated family) is more likely to be more successful in life. Where is the level playing field if a significant proportion of the population can just be born unlucky? Let me get this straight: capitalism as is, is certainly not a meritocracy.

Every principle of Austrian economics, every idea that Raegan's and Thacher's (or Ron Paul, for that matter) people ever had, every "free market" notion that has every come out of the university of Chicago is all brilliantly correct - except for one major, major (some would say existential) flaw. Capitalism is not a meritocracy. All are not equal in a capitalist society. This holds true when one talks about the most prosperous country in the world; the US - and even more so, when one talks about the planet as a whole. Where are the opporunities for 95% of Indians; 80% of Chinese people? I was lucky. I was born into a rich, well educated Indian family. More than a billion other Indians were not so lucky.

Alas, trying to "simulate" a genuine level playing will involve something as utterly ludicrous as the state conficiating every child and teaching them all the same way. That's never going to happen, that never should happen - and that never will happen if one is in a democracy (phew!).

So, what are the options left to equitise capitalism? How does one keep the inherent advantages of capitalism intact? Of course one has to spread the wealth around. Because the poor are poor for a reason - they were unlucky - it is not as if they are lazy. Hell, they work as hard (if not harder) as anyone else.

So, the next time some loudmouth (like Joe the Plumber, say) likes to complain about his taxes, I would like him to stare into the eyes of an impoverished 7 year old from the ghetto and say "It's your bloody fault that your parents can't feed you. I'm not going to pay my taxes. I don't care if your home is cold at night; I don't care if you don't have enough to wear. ".

Perhaps one reason why there are people like Joe the Plumber (who make a big deal out of paying their taxes) is that there's so few genuinely poor people in the US. Living in such a rich land, perhaps, has de-sensetised the average American from poverty. Stands that the average American takes over taxes might seem cruel in any other part of the world - but just rational in America.

And that's why ALL political parties in India are essentially socialist. If they were not, it would be a travesty of democracy. Non-socialistic tendencies (such as Naidu's AP and BJP's "India Shining") are usually rejected outright in India.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Turbulent Natural Convection

A long long time ago, when I was a graduate student at IIT Madras, I had taken a course on turbulence, and pretty much fell in love with the physics of turbulent flow.

I was already in love with natural convection - which I found fascinating - right from my undergraduate years - when our professor did a splendid job in teaching us the same. (Some "good professors" of IIT Madras are probably among the best philosophers in the world!)

Since I was in love with these subjects, in all naivete, I had put in "turbulent natural convection" as field of interest while applying for higher studies (PhD) in the US three years ago.

When I wound up here at Texas A&M, I worked on turbulent flow on the experimental side. As "application engineers", we really don't worry about quantities such as Reynolds Stresses and Turbulent Kinetic energies. We deal with deliverable and tangible quantities such as the skin friction coefficient and heat transfer coefficient. As far as experiments are concerned, the Reynolds stress might as well just go hang itself.

This is, of course, a fascinating line of inquiry. The kind of work we do is so miserably turbulent, it would be foolhardy to even try to predict some of our results analytically. This justifies our existence as experimenters. It is fascinating to note that computational tools are doing a pretty good job of reproducing experimental data.

Now, then, let's not digress. So, here I am, working on high Reynolds numbers. Such right reynolds numbers that Buoyancy does not stand a chance.

We also deal with rotating systems - which are subject to coriolis and Centrifugal forces. The centrifugal force acts like buoyancy - but for the ranges which we were studying, its effect was not that profound.

But a closer examination of experimental data indicated that it is INDEED affecting playing a significant role - we just did not know it. There's probably a nice natural convection boundary layer that set iself up in our test section - but we just did not have the resources to identify it.

Things have a bizzare way of coming true. I wanted to work on turbulent natural convection. I am working on something more complex turbulent natural convection: turbulent "mixed" convection. Just not in the way I would have visualized earlier.

(In another bizzare irony, the wife, incidentally works on transitionary natural convection all the time as she tries to clone her DNA in her lab).

My two cents on Economic Stimulus plans

I'm no Economist - and perhaps that isn't such a bad thing - if all economists do is dream up stupidities like the economic stimulus plan. (I allude to the $600 check that Bush and company sent every resident earlier this year and are threatening to do something similar again this year).

Because, as an engineer (and mind you, not an economist), I see that what got the whole world into this mess was, basically, Americans spending more than they could earn. (This is pretty much an American Mantra - just look at the US' fiscal deficit - which is more than India's GDP).

So, basically, America does not produce as much as it consumes. If America were a family, here's what an analogous scenario would look like:

Dad and Mum earn enough money to pay for groceries, but not enough to bankroll trips to the mall every week. But the daughters love going to the mall and buying their high fashion dresses; the sons like going to the sports shops and purchasing rifles to go hunting every week. The family likes to go on long vacation getaways and cruises to Bermuda in winter and Alaska in summer.

If they were living on a fixed income, this would never do. But what they do do is take loans, sink themselves deeper in debt. They were considering taking loans ad-infinitum to bankroll the said excesses.

If you are a family, you run into one problem: your credit history is well known. You just can't keep taking loans ad-nauseam. The lenders will know when to stop giving you money - because the lenders will lend only if there is reasonable a probability of getting the money back. The Mum and Dad are in for a rude shock one day.

But if you're the world's pre-eminent super power, things are a little different. You can keep borrowing money until ... well, until, probably, you're no more a super-power - but that's going to take a lot more time.

America is currently cutting taxes, spending like crazy on a war it it had no business starting (killing more than a million innocents (this tally includes 5000 odd coalition troops) - but let's not get started on that now). The American government is also bailing out companies such as AIG, Goldman Sachs and Freddie Mac (companies which contribute nothing directly to society) - swallowing all their sins, so to say.

On top of all that, America wants to send some more money to its citizens to spend. Given that the problem was essentially created by hedonistic overindulgence, the American government wants to rescue people from this mess by more hedonistic overindulgence. After all, alcholism has only one cure: alcohol. Or that's what Bernanke thinks.

To me, currently, the whole west is grossly unsustainable - both from an economic perspective and even more so from an environmental perspective.

What keeps me optimistic is that the current western model is so hopelessly inefficient that there's almost (almost) infinite room for improvement if prices of certain inputs go up. Suppose real "gas" prices go up from and stay at $5/gallon in the US - then the economy can adapt by becoming a little more efficient - increasing the number of hybrids, for instance and using more rail road transit. With little or no sacrifice on the standard of living front, Americans can live more "efficiently". I am sure they can do without all the useless junk mail in the mailbox, excesses as times square.....

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Bible dictating policy in India?

You can't get more ridiculous than this.

There's some crazy stuff going on in the Delhi high court. I'm talking about gay sex - or at least discussions regarding the legality thereof.

Delhi's Additional Solicitor General, Mr. PP Malhotra was defending the government's stand - that gay sex should stay illegal. And what did he quote defending this point of view? A passage from the holy Bible. I am not kidding. This is real. A passage from the Holy Bible.

You can read the news report here. (Why does the writer of the article use "homosex" as if it were a real word? Maybe it ought to be.)

The holy Bible is not literally used as law in almost all liberal democracies. Even George Bush's policies are not in complete agreement with the Bible. To quote the Bible to justify a ban on Homosexuality is retrograde - and just plainly out of touch with ground realities.

The Delhi high court, thankfully, would have none of this. The judge pretty much thew the Solicitor general's defense out and asked him to cite reports from UN (and other credible sources - not scripture or opinion). The courts seem sensible.

Which brings me to another question. Was the judge doing the legistature's job? Should the judge be deciding the legality of a constitutional provision? Does he have the authority to do this? If he does, then what makes him different from a ruler - and a dictator? Just because he seems more in touch with reality does not mean that he ought to impose his ideas on people. Surely a mere judge does not have the authority to amend the constitution.

I would love to hear your take on this.