Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Global Warming Catch 22

Whichever way you look at it, you can't win with Global Warming.

Scientists seem to agree right now that human beings are responsible for the current increasing trend in world temperatures. And this scientific consensus has spurred Europe (and to a lesser degree, the US) into action. (Well, not into action, but into talking about action). Now, hypothetically, suppose this green rhetoric does indeed become green action - and we do avert the worst of climate change by the middle of the century. Suppose we do save the planet from the doomsday predictions of current scientists by timely action.

There's this old question that people associate with Erwin Schrodinger. If a tree falls in a forest, and nobody's around, does it make a sound? Is a fact a fact if no one observes it happen?

And similarly, if our actions do stop the planet from warming - but we can't ever prove comprehensively that they did - then was the planet warming in the first place? What's to stop some Rush Limbaugh's grandson from going and pontificating on air that global warming was an evil hoax perpetrated by the jealous developing world on America? After all, any global warming control plan is likely to force stringent caps on the emissions of the developed world, not the developing world (because the poor countries don't emit much per-capita). It is very likely that a successful anti-global warming campaign will get a more skeptical government in place in developed countries. And pollution will start again.

On the other hand, suppose we do what is likely: almost nothing. We talk a lot about reducing emissions, but we don't do anything, because a reduction in standard of living for the west is utterly unacceptable to its democratic voters. We don't stop the planet from warming. Whatever is left of the planet will regret listening to Limbaugh's nonsense. No one wins.


My stand on Climate Change

What do you think scientists would do if they were sure that the planet was warming because of human emissions? They would sit down together and form a huge committee and unanimously agree that is indeed happening. That's what they have done. The IPCC report.

To me, based on our current state of the art knowledge, it seems very probable that human carbon emissions are responsible for climate change.

Not one peer reviewed publication argues that the planet is not warming because of man. How many peer reviewed papers argue that tadpoles are human? None! How many peer reviewed papers argue that heat flows from cool areas to warm areas? None.

If you are skeptical of climate change, you are in essence arguing that the current process of peer review is fatally flawed. You are also arguing that the entire scientific community is governed by agendas of developing nations. A ludicrous notion.

If you have a fundamental reason to have such revolutionary philosophical stands, then you need listening to. Perhaps you're the next Einstein.

But if you have these stands just because you blindly agree with the simple minded incentive system that Rush Limbaugh (or James Inhoffe) are trying to sell, then your opinion is not your own. You're an impediment to progress - just like one of those Popes who imprisoned Galileo.

Faith in science is not blind faith. Faith in science is faith in human skepticism.

Monday, January 26, 2009

A few thoughts on poverty and "Slumdog"

Just watched the movie this weekend, and first things first, I thought it was an excellent piece of storytelling. Let me just say that the amount of attention it is getting is justified, and leave it at that. This is not a movie review.

A significant amount of outrage (in India) has been directed at the depiction of extreme poverty in the movie. Newspaper editorials have called it "poverty porn". And, ironically, "slum-dwellers" have held rallies protesting what they call "poverty for sale". They also don't like being referred to as "dogs". (Though it is clear that the film-makers did not mean it in a pejorative way, they should have foreseen that the title could hurt the pride of people in the 'slums'. Is it possible to make a movie about slaves in America with the N-word in the title?). Amitabh Bachan (possibly the biggest name in Indian cinema) protested the depiction of poverty in the movie, contending that it portrays a "negative image" of India.

Correct me if I am wrong, but it is the first movie in a long time (if not the first ever) that focuses on the lives of people living in India's slums. Predictably, making movies about slums is not expected to make money if the target audience is the people that some slum-dwellers encounter at traffic signals. So, few Indian directors have the motivation to make a movie about slums.

No one dares contend that what the movie depicts is anything but reality. What the movie shows, is unfortunately all to real in Mumbai's slums. Or the the slums of any city, town or village in India. Arguments that the movie exposes India's underbelly - and that you would find similar stories in other nations if you dug deep enough are probably correct. Except that you don't have to dig too deep in India. 80% of India lives on less that Rs 80 a day. 14% of India lives on Rs 20 a day. And if you earn less than Rs 20 a day, odds are you live in a slum. Therefore, at least 5-10% of India lives in slums (this could be as high as 15%). Now, let's do some math here. 5% of 1.2 Billion is 60 million. Or 8 times the size of Israel. 3 times the size of Australia. 15% of a Billion is more than half the size of the US. If slums are 15% of India's population, then India's slums alone would be the world's 6th most populated nation. India has more slum dwellers than the Population of Pakistan, if we were to take the 15% estimate.

60% of Mumbai's 22 Million are slum dwellers. Mumbai alone has almost as many slum dwellers than twice the population of the entire nation of Israel.

Now, Mr. Bachan. Underbelly. Really?

Prosperous Indians don't empathize with the plight of the slum-dwellers in India. Rich Indians have made themselves numb to poverty (or otherwise, they just can't survive with so much of it all around). People know it exists, but just cannot do anything about it. So they ignore it.

This draws a parallel to former American Vice-President's (Al Gore's) Nobel Prize winning documentary, 'An Inconvenient Truth'. Most Americans know that the planet is warming, but are just not able to do anything about it. It is still likely that Global warming will go unabated - even though a good movie was made about it. On similar lines, slum poverty in India shall continue unabated (until economics sets it right) - even though a good movie has been made about it.

If the movie's masterful humanization of the predicament of the under-privileged arouses some empathy among the more fortunate upper classes; if this movie makes extreme poverty a larger electoral issue; if this movie motivates more youngsters to dream big and work hard, then it also deserves a Nobel Peace prize.

But something tells me that once all the hype is done, it will be back to business as usual in the media. And Dharavi will still be as miserable as ever.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

On Closing Guantanamo

It is heartening to see the Obama Administration take concrete steps towards closing the Guantanamo bay (Gitmo) prison and other secret CIA prisons. Because the whole idea of secret prisons is what one associates with rogue governments - like Nazi Germany. Not the US - the self-proclamied model democracy for the rest of the world.

Gitmo goes against every liberal principle that America prides itself for. In the US, you are presumed innocent unless proven guilty. But in Gitmo, you are presumed guilty unless proven innocent. There's 265 detainees in Gitmo - of which people expect more than a 100 are innocent. (Some 60 are cleared for release already- but their countries won't accept them back!) 470 have already been released without being charged, clearly indicating that they were imprisoned without cause.

Isn't that an egregious travesty? An egregious travesty that 600 innocent people have been detained for no fault of their own in the most depressing place on earth? If you imprisoned one innocent US citizen without giving him or her the right to a fair trial in the US, all hell would break loose.

Commentators have not stressed this point enough. The US government is holding some prisoners arbitrarily (without cause). This is as bad as what Bush killed Saddam for doing. It is tough to imagine such a situation this day and age, especially in an "enlightened democracy". The Bush administration seemed be stuck in the 1400s in attitude. Disgusting. And finally, good riddance!

America has a wonderful judicial system. If you c0mmit a crime in the US, odds are you will be caught and sent to jail. If you murder someone, then you can even be sentenced to death. With this the case, why the hindrance of trying some of the Gitmo detainees here? If there is evidence against some of those terrorists, then it is inconceivable that the terrorists will be released. It is absurd to think that Khaled Sheikh Mohammed will ever be roaming the streets of NYC any time soon. He will probably be living inside one of those maximum security prisons, with (one hopes) a physically abusive room-mate. He might even get the fatal injection. I'm all for that if there's evidence against him.

And if there's no evidence against some prisoners, why on earth should they be incarcerated*? Let the innocents go! Don't mope about them roaming free. You're innocent too (odds are). And you're free. Don't you sense a pattern here? If you don't commit a crime, then ought you not be free?

To me there's no difference between a serial rapist and a terrorist. They're both horrible people. Why does the serial rapist also not deserve the hopeless isolation of a Gitmo, if someone who you think is a terrorist does?

Obama looks like a smart principled man, clearly intent on bringing the US out of the dark ages that the Bush/Cheney arrogance has buried them into. One can only wish him the best of luck. Terrorists are enemies of liberalism. And with Bush and Cheney in power, it looked like the terrorists had prevailed over liberalism. One hopes that Obama turns this thing around.

* It could (and has been) agrued that evidence is not usually gathered by troops who do capture terrorists - because the troops are not trained policemen. This is clearly an impediment to a proper trial. There will always be a scarcity of evidence against these "enemy combatants" for this very reason.

In my opinion, this ought not be a reason to deny them of a trial. Because, one must honor the possibility that the suspect in question is actually innocent. Judges are smart. They can make a case-by case judgement, trusting witnesses rather than docmentary evidence.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

How rich is the average Indian?

The recent trip to India was an eye-opener of sorts. I had always been cognizant of there existing a significant parallel economy in India. But this current trip, I interacted with people familiar with the tricks of the trade. Presenting a few thoughts that I feel are pertinent:

Black money is undeclared money, money that has never seen a bank account, money that the government does not know exists; money that has not been taxed. Almost all Indians who deal in real estate have a secret stash of black money hidden under a mattress somewhere. And this is perhaps a reason why you don't see Indians use cards and checks while doing their groceries; they use cash.

Incidentally, some speculative articles in the popular press (not peer reviewed, mind you) contend that black money is saving the Indian economy from a US economy type fate in this credit crunch. Anecdotal evidence talking about Sony Bravias (worth a few lakhs) still selling despite hell having broken loose in other markets seems to corroborate this notion.

The size of the Indian black economy defies quantification. It is unanimously agreed that India's black economy is at least 20% of the size of its GDP. Some estimates hold that a conservative estimate of India's unofficial economy is around 50% of the GDP. And I have it from a few personal sources that the black economy is roughly equal in size to the actual GDP.

When we consider the annual per-capita income of India (or annual per-capita GDP, for that matter), do we also factor in the black component? We quote that the per-capita income of India is $2600 per year (based on PPP) - and we lament fact that we are living in a poor country. But, if 50% of the economy is black, then the per capita income would turn out to be $3900 per year. A significant change. Maybe Indians are as rich as Sri Lankans, it looks like. And If the economy were equal in size to the black economy, then India's per capita income would be $5200, almost on par with that of Egypt. (Of course, Egypt and Sri Lanka probably have under-reported their economies too, but not as badly as India).

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Stop Attacking Civilians in Gaza Now

Penalizing innocent public for sins of their leaders is unacceptable.

Shame on Bush for attacking Iraq and Afghanistan. But that' s another story altogether, because the US is a superpower, and there's nothing anyone can do to stop the US in these situations.

But Israel is a minute country on the scale of things (with a population slightly less than the Hyderabad metro area). I think the weight of international public disapproval and scorn can make the shameless, barbaric Israeli leadership relent. (Especially, if the American public who are Israel's patrons, indirectly, disapprove of this)

I implore all readers of this blog who agree with me to sign this petition. Though this petition probably won't stop anything, at least it will help pile the scorn on Israel's shameful actions.


Friday, January 09, 2009

The first post of 2009

Had very wholesome and satisfying trip home to India. Back in the US now, in a BA flight from London - which was mostly empty. Another sign of the recession.

2009 looks like it won't me much fun for the investor. India shell shocked by the disgusting Satyam fiasco. US bleeding jobs all the time. And with cheap fuel, looks like all those "green" initiatives have died. Like the dinosaur.

The US is planning to spend its way out of a crisis it spent its way into. Cannot but be pessimistic about the whole idea. Common sense tells me that this crisis will shock the US to economy contract (per-capita) and curb its over-indulgence and focus on efficiency, for a change. (This will happen when the Chinese investors who are financing the US deficit realize that the US is no more a good investment).

2009 does not look like a good time for doves. Israel inflicting shameless and ruthless attacks on Gaza with an eye on its own local elections. Just why this is not termed terrorism is beyond me. And India and Pakistan seem to be exchanging heated invective every moment. But I don't see that turn into full scale war - because India's interests are in line with those of the government of Pakistan's - and most of the Pakistani people's (much as they would had to admit). Getting rid of the terrorists.