Rational Ignorance: Celebrities or Politics

29 Nov

It is a commonly held belief that people are too busy to be informed about policy issues. The argument certainly seems reasonable given the oft-repeated assertion that people are leading increasingly hectic lives with little time for leisure, except that it doesn’t stand well to scrutiny. Americans, as I corroborate below, have ample leisure time and ample access to informational sources.

An average American child between the ages of 8 and 18 spends about 44.5 hours per week, or six and a half hours daily, consuming media, according to a 2005 Kaiser Family Foundation report. More than half of this time is spent in watching television programs, movies, and other videos. The figures are comparable for American adults, who watch more than four hours of television each day or twenty-eight hours each week on average, according to a Nielsen study. Even if we assume that Americans do other tasks, say cook or clean, simultaneously for part of the twenty-eight hours, it is reasonable to conclude that Americans do have a fair amount of leisure time which they spend primarily watching television.

Given that people have ample leisure time and access to information, why do people choose not to be informed about politics? Some researchers have argued that people don’t care about politics because they are rationally disinterested – they don’t feel that they can make a change hence they don’t care to be informed about it. Inarguably fan support is at best peripheral to whether a sports team will either win or lose, then why do people often times posses close to perfect information on the teams (or sport) they follow and argue passionately over the matters related to sports?

Americans are not information averse; they are surprisingly well informed about things they care to know about like celebrity gossip and football. They also spend a fair amount of time and energy collecting, regurgitating and discussing this information. While talking about sports people show a surprising amount of talent for remembering and accurately interpreting statistics. So why is it that Americans are willing to spend time and energy in collecting entertainment and sports while showing little interest in foreign or even domestic policy?

Admittedly policy issues are generally more complex than celebrity news and perhaps people’s interest in entertainment news is driven by the fact that consuming entertainment news is less cognitively demanding. The explanation seems inadequate given people (perhaps mainly men) do keep track of elaborate sports statistics and present well-articulated positions on why a certain team is better than the other. One can perhaps argue that given the general lack of morally divisive issues, people feel more comfortable discussing entertainment news than say abortion. But then certainly there are policy issues that are bereft of morally divisive issues. It seems though that most political information is presented in identity packets rather than ideational packets as in choices are explained and understood as liberal or conservative choices. Choices marked with identity dissuade analysis and reflection, as research has shown, and combined with the chronic lack of factual information on relevant policy topics on American television, there isn’t much hope that people will get to critically think about the problem.

Movie Review: Independent Intervention

21 Nov

General Tommy Franks described the media as the “fourth front” in his (Iraq) war plan, according to Danny Schechter, an award-winning journalist and documentary filmmaker.
What he meant by that was that winning the “media war” is an important part of winning the war in Iraq. Three years down the line with the US stuck in an ever-worsening situation, we all know what happens when governments win the media war and succumb to their hubris.

Independent Intervention, a documentary by Norwegian filmmaker Tonje Hessen Schei, is superficially an exploration of how the Iraq war was fought on the “fourth front” in US media. On a deeper level, it is a well crafted expose’ of the effects of media conglomeration on the style, topicality, and quality of news.

Schei begins her documentary with a series of heartrending images from Iraq, images that were never shown on mainstream American media. This initial sequence provides the preface to her documentary- the Iraq war shown on the television screens of Americans was a very different from the one being fought in Iraq. Schei, stuck by the jingoistic, bleached (of the horrors of war), video game like coverage of Iraq war in US mainstream media, explores the reasons behind how and why mainstream American media became a willing partner in government’s propaganda machine helping it wage the war for the hearts and minds of American public. Using footage from the war and interviews with people luminaries like Dr. Noam Chomsky, Amy Goodman, and others, Schei persuasively argues that a majority of what went wrong during media’s coverage of Iraq war can be traced to corporate media ownership.

The documentary does a stupendous job in tracing media’s coverage of Iraq war starting with the pre-war buildup by effectively using some well known statistics, for example about how during the two week period around which Colin Powell gave his speech at UN and during a time when more than half of the people opposed war, and– out of the 393 people who were interviewed on the four major nightly network newscasts – NBC, ABC, CBS and PBS only a meager 3% held antiwar views while a stunning 71% were pro war.

Independent Intervention is simply scintillating when it weaves snippets from local morning news shows to convey a point. It is jarring to see archival news footage of anti-war protests highlighting mundane inconveniences caused by protestors – “simply creating chaos during rush hour” or “protestors shut down the financial district in San Francisco” and sneeringly ignore to give time to explaining why protestors were against the war.

Independent Intervention explores how the merger of showbiz and “news biz” has had a damning impact on the way news is covered. In their effort to attract consumers, news shows have ramped up their production values to match those in entertainment. The ever-shrinking sound bite has limited what can be conveyed intelligibly to the audience and hence all that is complicated is left at the curb. So while reporting on the Iraq war, the ethnic complexities are left out.

Schei though is never is able to purposefully include some information in the documentary. For example, we are informed that five corporations – Vivendi, Disney, Time Warner, News Corp, Viacom -own eighty percent of media but yet are left in the dark about how and why it affects media coverage in the way it does. Perhaps the critique is implicit but it is limited to corporate control (economics fudging the news) and not to effects of agglomeration.

Media is an important institution for democracy – a tool through which we understand the world and the world understands us (Goodman). We need to keep the media free and independent for we need good unbiased and uncensored information for a functioning democracy. And lastly and perhaps most importantly, media should never be confused as a tool of war.

Overall, Independent Intervention can be seen as part of the genre of documentaries inspired by Michael Moore – a genre of unabashedly political documentaries with an agenda, but its wider message – that of the need for independent media – would be of interest to both liberals and conservatives.

The DVD of the film is available at http://www.independentintervention.com

What is so Foreign About Foreign Aid?

18 Nov

A khaki-clad Western aid worker is helping unload a truck in a sun-baked dusty barren place surrounded by black (sometimes brown) faces. It could be a scene from any of the countless news clips from the equally countless number of crises that continue to rain down upon obscure parts of the world. The clips are ubiquitous and yet hardly anybody notices the egregious role of the Western aid worker, who ostensibly has flown around from whichever place s/he calls home at a pretty penny to do the readily outsourced job of (un)loading supplies from the truck.

Planners versus “the Searchers”
William Easterly, NYU economics professor and a former research economist at the World Bank, in his book “The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good”, argues that the aid efforts led by the West have failed primarily because their utopian aid plans are based on the assumption that they know what is best for everyone. He argues that the West needs to get away from the model of “Planners”, imposing top-down solutions, and rather adopt the “Searchers” model, that tries to adapt innovations that come from native cultures. That may well be. But it is not clear if that is the primary sin.

Home Aid
Easterly misses the fact that many Western aid programs typically mandate that the recipient country buy provisions (defense armaments to cans of food) from the donor nation. Many times in fact aid is provided in form of products made by donor nation industries. So you can have “2.4 million Kellogg’s pop-tarts” being airdropped in Afghanistan (see Wikipedia which cites the book from which the figure is drawn), while much cheaper staples like rice and lentil are largely ignored.

This better explains why “the West spent $2.3 trillion in foreign aid over the last five decades and still had not managed to get 12 cent medicines to children to prevent half of all malaria deaths. The West spent $2.3 trillion and still had not managed to get $4 bed nets to poor families. The West spent $2.3 trillion and still had not managed to get $3 to each new mother to prevent five million child deaths” (White Man’s Burden).

Careerism and Bureaucratization
The rise of careerism and increased bureaucratization in the NGO industry are partly responsible for the failure of development assistance to the third world, according to Dr. Thomas Dichter, an anthropologist at The University of Chicago and author of “Despite Good Intentions: Why Development Assistance to the Third World Has Failed.”

Increased bureaucratization has led to a demand for “trained professionals” (air quotes because it isn’t clear what the training is in) to fill the ranks. Paying heed to the rising demand, “entire college programs have sprung up, such as Wayne State University’s Nonprofit Sector Studies Program (NPSS). The NPSS mission states, “The nation’s fastest-growing sector needs administrators, policymakers, program managers, and advocates who will guide them into the future” writes Michael Donnely for Peace Corps Online. One may expect that the rising compensation packages at non-profit organizations would attract better talent, instead, it has largely meant that the organizations are paying more for the same work or/and are led by ever more ambitious dimwits who want to push for ever larger projects at the expense of some little ones that do work.

The NGO-Ivy league Nexus
In the past two decades, an internship at an NGO has become a right of passage for countless Ivy League undergraduates, primarily in social sciences and humanities, interested in pursuing further graduate school education. Experience with a foreign NGO has become the best way for the ambitious ivy educated brats to pad up resumes and impress law and medical school admissions committees of their sociotropic ideals. There is little that these self-absorbed individuals bring to third world countries in terms of talent or ability to help but every year thousands of such students are farmed out to NGOs across the world and there they leech money and time from NGOs to get training to hang their mosquito nets and make their calls to mom and dad and make safari trips and learn the language.

NGO workers — Why do they get paid more?
“Government employees have complained their co-workers employed by some non-governmental organizations are getting high salaries that cause a socio-economic imbalance in the society. The high-paid workers of NGOs have clouded the status and standard of life of the low-paid government employees. Prestigious social status and high income of the NGOs workers have created envies in the poverty-stricken government employees.” South Asian Media Net “Venting her spleen, Torpikai, a government employee, told Pajhwok Afghan News on Sunday despite 18 years experience she was paid 2,000 afghanis (40$) but her younger and inexperienced neighbor with same qualification was getting double than her salary.” And wages are only part of the issue, real bills pour in from conferences at five-star hotels, and extravagant perks enjoyed by foreign aid employees like the use of SUVs, PDAs, and stays in five-star hotels. The sad fact is that majority of the aid money is actually funneled back to pay for the perks and salary of the Western aid workers.

Lack of accountability
The logic that underpins all NGO wastefulness is lack of accountability, both in tallying funds and actual accomplishments. Washington Post a couple of years reported that employees in non-profits often times take loans from the NGO funds at no or ridiculously low-interest rates. Other ethical violations are also rampant within NGOs. For example, Oxfam, an NGO and a 25% stakeholder of Cafedirect, campaigned vigorously against CafeDirect’s competitors, accusing them of exploiting coffee growers by paying them a small fraction of their earnings.

Food for Thought
Here’s an excerpt from a New York Times article that passingly compares aid strategies between the West and China.

“The industrial nations conducted a sort of moral crusade, with advocacy organizations exposing Africa’s dreadful sores and crying shame on the leaders of wealthy nations and those leaders then heroically pledging, at the G8 meeting in July, to raise their development assistance by billions and to open their markets to Africa. Once everyone had gone home, the aid increase turned out to be largely ephemeral and trade reform merely wishful. China, by contrast, offers a pragmatic relationship between equals: the “strategic partnership” promised in China’s African policy is premised on “mutual benefit, reciprocity, and common prosperity.” And the benefits are very tangible.”

Google News: Positives, Negatives, and the Rest

16 Nov

Google News is the sixth most visited news site, according to Alexa Web Traffic Rankings. Given its popularity, it deserves closer attention.

What is Google News? Google News is a news aggregation service that scours around ten thousand news sources, categorizes the articles and ranks them. What sets Google News apart is that it is not monetized. It doesn’t feature ads. Nor does it have deals with publishers. The other distinguishing part is that it is run by software engineers rather than journalists.


1. Copyright: Some argue that the service infringes of copyrights.

2. Lost Revenue: Some argue that the service causes news sources to lose revenue.

3. Popular is not the same as important or diverse: Google News highlights popular stories and sources. In doing so, it likely exacerbates the already large gap between popular news stories and viewpoints and the rest. The criticism doesn’t ring true. Google News merely mimics the information (news) and economic topography of the real world, which encompasses the economic underpinnings of the virtual world as in better-funded sites tend to be more popular or firms more successful in real world may have better-produced sites and hence may, in turn, attract more traffic. It does, however, bring into question whether Google can do better than merely mimic the topography of the world. There are, of course, multiple problems associated with any such venture, especially for Google, whose search algorithm is built around measuring popularity and authority of sites. The key problem is that news is not immune to being anything more than a popularity contest shepherded by rating (euphemism for financial interests) driven news media. A look at New York Times homepage, with extensive selection of lifestyle articles, gives one an idea of the depth of the problem. So if Google were to venture out and produce a list of stories that were sorted by relevance to say policy, not that any such thing can be done, there is a good chance that an average user will find the news articles irrelevant. Of course, a user-determined topical selection of stories would probably be very useful for users. While numerous social scientists have issued a caveat against adopting the latter approach arguing that it may lead to further atomization and decline in sociotropism, I believe that their appeals are disingenuous given that specialized interest in narrowly defined topics and interests in global news can flower together.

4. Transparency: Google News is not particularly transparent in the way it functions. Given the often abstruse and economically constrained processes that determine the content of newspapers, I don’t see why Google News process is any less transparent. I believe the objection primarily stems from people’s discomfort with automated processes determining the order and selection of news items. Automated processes don’t imply that they aren’t based on adaptive systems based on criteria commonly used by editors across newsrooms. More importantly, Google News works off the editorial decisions made by organizations across the board, for they include details like placement and section of the article within the news site as a pointer for the relative importance of the news article. At this point, we may also want to deal with the question of accountability, as pertaining to the veracity of news items. Given that Google News provides a variety of news sources, it automatically provides users with a way to check for inconsistencies within and between articles. In addition, Google News relies on the fact that in this day and age, some blogger will post an erratum to a “Google News source” site, of which there are over ten thousand, and that in turn may be featured within Google News.


Google News gives people the ability to mine through a gargantuan number of news sources and come up with a list of news stories on the same “topic” (or event) and the ability to search for a particular topic quickly. One can envision that both the user looking for a diversity of news sources or looking for quick information on a particular topic, could both be interested in other related information on the topic. More substantively, Google News may want to collate information from its web, video and image search, along with links to key organizations mentioned in the websites and put then right next to the link to the story. For example, BBC offers a related link to India’s country profile next to a story on India. Another way Google News can add value for its users is by leveraging the statistics it compiles of when and where news stories were published, stories published in the last 24 hrs or 48 hrs etc. I would love to see a feature called the “state of news” that shows statistical trends on news items getting coverage, patterns of coverage etc. (this endeavor would be similar to Google Trends)

Diversity of News Stories

What do we mean by diversity and what kind of diversity would users find most useful? Diversity can mean diverse locations—publishers or datelines, viewpoint—for or against an issue, depth—a quick summary or a large tome, medium—video, text, or audio, type of news—reporting versus analysis. Of course, Google can circumvent all of these concerns by setting up parallel mechanisms for all the measures it deems important. For example, a map/google news “mashup” can prove to be useful in highlighting where news is currently coming from. Going back to the topic of ensuring diversity – conceptual diversity is possibly the hardest to implement. There can be a multitude of angles for a story – not just for and against binary positions and facets can quickly become unruly, indefensible and unusable. For example if it splits news stories based on news sources (like liberal or conservative – people will argue over whether right categorizations were chosen or even about the labeling, for example, social conservatives and fiscal conservatives) or organizations cited (for example there is a good chance that an article using statistics from Heritage foundation leans in a conservative direction but that is hardly a rule). Still, I feel that these measures can prove to be helpful in at least mining for a diversity of articles on the same topic. One of the challenges of categorization is to come up with “natural” categories as in coming up with categorization that is “intuitive” for people. Given the conceptual diversity and the related abstruseness, Google may though want to preclude offering them as clickable categories to users thought it may want to use the categorization technique to display “diverse” stories. Similarly, more complex statistical measures can also prove to be useful in subcategorization, for example providing a statistical reference to the most common phrases or keywords or even Amazon like statistics on the relative hardness of reading. Google News may also just want to list the organizations cited in the news article and leave the decision of categorization to users.

Beyond Non-Profit
Google News’ current “philanthropic” (people may argue otherwise viewing it as a publicity stunt) model is fundamentally flawed for it may restrict the money it needs to innovate and grow. Hence, it is important that it explores possible monetization opportunities. There are two possible ways to monetize Google News – developing a portal (like Yahoo!) and developing tools or services that it can charge for. While Google is already forging ahead with its portal model, it has yet to make appreciable progress in offering widely incorporable tools for its Google News service. There is a strong probability that news organizations would be interested in buying a product that displays “related news items” next to news articles. This is something that Technorati already for does for blogs but there is ample room for both, additional players, and for improving the quality of the content. It would be interesting to see a product that helps display Google News results along with Google image, blog, and video search results.

Understanding Voter Disinterest

15 Nov

Voter indifference in the US is commonly understood as an effect of the media environment. For example negative advertisements or availability of entertainment that had pushed news programming to a distinct second. While the above view may very well be true, it is unlikely that is either the sole or even the major cause of the dwindling number of voters.

To understand voter disinterest fully, one must try to see it in a “personal” context that takes into account the rationale behind why a person chooses to engage in a democratic process. By doing so, one may understand the downturn in voter interest as an artifact of the spatial (nation or culture-specific) and temporal (historical) locality. More specifically, US voter’s indifference towards politics can be seen as a side-effect of living in an era where economic and social conditions are relatively (and in absolute terms when measured as life expectancy etc.) good. Given that an average American voter tends to view government’s role in resolving social and economic issues as rather limited, it is not altogether surprising that a US voter may conclude that s/he have little to gain from voting. The contention is corroborated by the fact that the voter group that does rely upon the government – older adult voters, who need Medicaid and Social security benefits, votes most often in the elections.

The lack of growth in citizen’s level of political knowledge (Delli Carpini and Keeter, 1996), in spite of the increase in the amount of information available, can similarly be explained by lack of motivation in voters. Research by Robert Luskin identifies interest and intelligence as key variables affecting the level of political sophistication also ties into the above analysis. Luskin states, “Education, too, may be motivational in part. In an educated society, the blanket ignorance of politics may be a solecism. We learn about the things we care about.” Education, by making a person more aware of the actual role of government and the services it offers, as opposed to the widely perceived peripheral role of government, can make people more motivated to vote.

Rational self-interest or disinterest cannot fully explain voter disinterest in the US. There is an argument to be made, that aside from the differences that emanate from different school systems and the perceived differences in the importance of government’s role in alleviating social or economic problems, nearly all the other differences can be traced to differences between media environments. One key difference in US media markets and media markets in other countries is the lack of a comparatively large public broadcaster. NPR and PBS fare poorly in terms of budget, viewership and production values when compared to their counterparts in say Britain (BBC) or Canada (CBC) or other developed countries. One may impute from the above that the presence of a large public broadcaster in a media market has an important salutary impact on the way politics is covered.

The effect of a large public broadcaster can be understood in terms of the kind of programming shown by public broadcasters – primarily thematic coverage of news. Thematic coverage of news as opposed to incident oriented coverage of news, the most prominent model on network news, allows citizens to trace the arc of accountability to the government or other social and economic factors, according to Shanto Iyengar, a professor at Stanford University. This, in turn, may make a person more motivated to vote

In all, voter disinterest can be more fully understood by analyzing factors influencing voter’s perception of his/her self-interest and government’s role in helping achieve their interests, whether it be security or employment.

Comments Please! The Future Of Blog Comments

11 Nov

Often times the comments sections of blogging sites suffer from a multiplicity of problems – they are overrun by spam or by repeated entries of the same or similar point, continue endlessly, and are generally overcrowded with grammatical and spelling mistakes. Comments sections that were once seen as an unmitigated good are now seen as something irrelevant at best, and a substantial distraction at worst. Here, I discuss a few ways we can re-engineer commenting systems to mitigate some of the problems in the extant models, and possibly add value to them.

Comments are generally displayed in a chronological or reverse chronological order, which implies that, firstly, the comments are not arranged in any particular order of relevance and, secondly, that users just need to repost their comments to position them in the most favorable spot – the top or the bottom of the comment heap.

One way to “fix” this problem is by having a user based rating system for comments. A variety of sites have implemented this feature to varying levels of success. The downside of using a rating system is that people don’t have to explain their vote for, or against, the comment. This occasionally leads to rating “spam”. The BBC circumvents this problem on its news forums by allowing users to browse comments either in a chronological order or in the order of reader’s recommendations.

Another way we can make comments more useful is by creating message board like commenting systems that separate comments under mini-sections or “topics”. One can envision topics like “factual problems in XYZ” or “readers suggested additional resources and links” that users can file their comments under. This kind of a system can help in two ways – by collating wisdom (analysis and information) around specific topical issues raised within the article, and by making it easier for users to navigate to the topic, or informational blurb, of their choice. This system can also be alternatively implemented by allowing users to tag portions of the article in place – much like a bibliographic system that adds a hyperlink to relevant portions of the story in comments.

The above two ways deal with ordering the comments but do nothing to address the problem of small irrelevant repetitive comments. These are often posted by the same user under one or multiple aliases. One way to address this issue would be to set a minimum word limit for comments. This will encourage users to put in a more considered response. Obviously, there is a danger of angering the user, leading to him/her adding a longer, more pointless comment or just giving up. On average, I believe that it will lead to an improvement in the quality of the comments. We may also want to consider developing algorithms that disallow repeated postings of same comments by a user.

The best way to realize the value of comments is to ask somebody – preferably the author of the article – to write a follow-up article that incorporates relevant comments. Ideally, the author will use this opportunity to acknowledge factual errors and analyze points raised in the comments. Hopefully, this follow-up piece will be able to solicit more comments, and the process would repeat again, helping to take discussion and analysis forward.

Another way to go about incorporating comments is to use a wiki-like system of comments to create a “counter article” or critique for each article. In fact, it would be wonderful to see a communally edited opinion piece that grows in stature as multiple views get presented, qualified, and edited. Wikipedia does implement something like this in the realm of information but to bring it to the realm of opinions would be interesting.

One key limitation of most current commenting systems on news and blog sites is that they only allow users to post textual responses. As blog and news publishing increasingly leverages multimedia capabilities of the web, commenting systems would need to be developed that allow users to post their response in any media. This will once again present a challenge in categorizing and analyzing relevant comments but I am sure novel methods, aside from tagging and rating, will eventually be developed to help with the same.

The few ideas that I have mentioned above are meant to be seen as a beginning to the discussion on this topic and yes, comments would be really appreciated!

Making Comments More Useful

10 Nov

Often times comments sections of blogging sites suffer from a multiplicity of problems – they are overrun by spam or by repeated entries of the same or similar point; continue endlessly and generally overcrowded with grammatical and spelling mistakes. Comments sections that were once seen as an unmitigated good are now seen as something irrelevant at best and a substantial distraction at worst. Here below I discuss a few ways we can re-engineer commenting systems so to mitigate some of the problems in the extant models, and possibly add value to them.

Comments are generally displayed in a chronological or reverse chronological order, which implies that firstly the comments are not arranged in any particular order of relevance and secondly that users just need to repost their comments to position them in the most favorable spot – the top or the bottom of the comment heap. One way to “fix” this problem is by using a user based rating system for comments. A variety of sites have implemented this feature to varying levels of success. The downside of using a rating system is that people don’t have to explain their vote ( Phillip Winn) for or against the comment leading occasionally to rating “spam”. BBC circumvents this problem on its news forums by allowing users to browse comments either in a chronological order or in the order of reader’s recommendations.

Another way we can make comments more useful is by creating message board like commenting systems that separate comments under mini-sections or “topics”. One can envision topics like “factual problems in XYZ” or “readers suggested additional resources and links” that users can file their comments under. This kind of a system can help in two ways – by collating wisdom (analysis and information) around specific topical issues raised within the article and by making it easier for users to navigate to the topic or informational blurb of their choice. This system can also be alternatively implemented by allowing users to tag portions of the article in place – much like a bibliographic system that hyperlinks relevant portions of the story to comments.

The above two ways deal with ordering the comments but do nothing to address the problem of small irrelevant repetitive comments, often times posted by the same user under one or multiple aliases. One way to address this issue would be to set a minimum word limit for comments. This will prod users to put in a more considered response. Obviously, there is a danger of angering the user leading to him/her adding a longer more pointless comment or just giving up but on an average, I believe that it will lead to an improvement in the quality of the comments. We may also want to consider coding in algorithms that disallow repeated postings of same comments by a user.

The best way to realize the value of comments is to ask somebody – preferably the author of the article- to write a follow-up article that incorporates relevant comments. Ideally, the author will use this opportunity to acknowledge factual errors and analyze points raised in the comments. Hopefully, then this follow up piece will be able to solicit more comments and the process repeated again helping take discussion and analysis forward.

Another way to go about incorporating comments is to use a wiki-like system of comments to create a “counter article” or critique for each article. In fact, it would be wonderful to see a communally edited opinion piece that grows in stature as multiple views get presented, qualified, and edited. Wikipedia does implement something like this in the realm of information but to bring it to the realm of opinions would be interesting.

One key limitation of most current commenting systems on news and blog sites is that they only allow users to post textual responses. As blog and news publishing increasingly leverages multimedia capabilities of the web, commenting systems would need to be developed that allow users to post their response in any media. This will once again present a challenge in categorizing and analyzing relevant comments but I am sure novel methods, aside from tagging and rating, will eventually be developed to help with the same.

The few ideas that I have mentioned above are meant to be seen as a beginning to the discussion on this topic and yes, comments would be really appreciated.

Playing with Numbers: Coming up with Objective Ratings of a Subjective Reality

1 Nov

Statistics are only meaningful to the extent that people can identify the phenomenon being measured, come up with a sensible measurement scales to measure primary or secondary observable phenomena and then interpret the results and display them in a lucid fashion. Often times that’s too much to ask and our world is now crumbling under the load of heaps of pointless incomprehensible statistics.

Increasingly, we are trying to understand the world around us via numbers. To this end, a host of research centers and organizations now annually release rankings on issues ranging from corruption to democracy to freedom of press. These rankings are then featured on prime real estate across media and used in homilies, laudatory notes and everything in-between; to buttress indefensible claims; and to bring a sense of “objectivity” to a media-saturated with rants of crazed morons.

“Lost in translation” are subtleties of data, methods of data collection and of analysis, and the caveats. What remains, often times, are savaged numbers that peddle whatever theory that you want them to hawk.

Understanding with numbers

The field of social science has been revolutionized in the recent decades with “positivist” approaches using statistics dominating the field. The rise in importance of “numbers” in research is not incidental for numbers provide powerful new ways, particularly statistics, to analyze concepts. Today numbers are used to understand everything from democracy to emotions. But how do we go about measuring things and assigning number to thing which we haven’t yet even been able to define, much less explain?

Let me narrow my focus to creation, interpretation and usage of rankings to substantiate the problems with using statistics.

More Specifically, Rankings

Reporters Sans Frontiers (Reporters without Borders and henceforth called RSF) came out with its annual “Worldwide Press Freedom Rankings”. The latest rankings place USA at 53, along with Botswana and Tonga, India at 105 while Jamaica and Liberia are ranked 26 and 83 respectively. The top-ranked South Asian country in the rankings is Bhutan at 98. Intuitively, the rankings don’t make any sense and a little digging into RSF’s methodology for compiling these rankings explains why.

Media’s fascination with rankings

The rankings received wide attention and made it to the front pages of countless newspapers. There is a reason why rankings are the choice nourishment of media starved of any “real information”. Numbers capture, or so is thought, a piece of “objective” information about the “reality”. Their usage is buoyed by the fact that rankings are seductively simple and easy to interpret. Everyone seems to intuitively know the difference between first and second. All that needs to be done is present the fluff, the requisite shock and horror and the article is written.

On to the problems with rankings or the “rank smell”

How can you measure objectively when you need a subjective criterion to come up with a scale?

This is something I raise earlier when I talk about how we can understand concepts like democracy or say emotions using numbers. Researchers do it by assigning number or related phenomenon – in the case of emotions it may be checking the heart rate or doing a brain scan or counting the number of times you use certain words, while in the case of democracy it can be how frequently the elites change, or how many people vote in the elections. But still numerous problems remain especially when we try to order these relatively hazily defined concepts. Say for example the elite turnover in US Congress has of late been fairly close to 2% and that doesn’t seem fairly democratic to me and how does it compare with somewhere like India, where elite turnover may be higher but where members of one family have held key positions in India politics since inception.

To rank something means to determine the relative position of something. Rankings NEVER tell one about absolute position of something unless of course they are an incidental result of a score on a shared scale. For instance – RSF’s ranking of USA at 53 in the worldwide press freedom rankings doesn’t tell one whether USA’s press enjoys freedom over say a particular bare threshold below which a functioning press can’t be legitimately said to exist. A lot of people have misinterpreted India’s slide from 80, in 2002, to 105. They believe that it is a slide in absolute terms but the rankings only tell us of a slide in relative terms. There may be an argument to made that India is doing better than it is doing in 2002 in absolute terms but not in relative terms to say other countries. In other words, the press freedom in India may have improved since 2002 but as compared to other countries, India’s press is less free today.

The scale of things

To rank something, one has to use a common scale. Generally a scale, especially one measuring a complex concept like democracy, would be a composite scale of a variety of variables. One now needs to think of a couple of things. How does one weight the variables in the scale between time periods and between countries? For example how do you account for higher usage rates of media in one country (and possibly associated higher level of censorship) to say a country with low media usage and possibly lower total censorship? One may also argue that the media penetration is lower by deliberate action (as in limitation for foreign content owners to broadcast) or other factors (poverty). One must also tackle the problem of assigning “weight” to each facet.


RSF ranking are based on a non-representative survey of pre-chosen experts. Hence it is more of a poorly conducted opinion poll rather than a scientific survey. Statistics gets its power of generalizability from the concept of randomization. RSF methodology is more akin to conducting a poll of television pundits on who will win the elections and I am fairly sure that the results would be more often wrong than right.

Secondly, questionnaire includes questions about topics like Internet censorship. No explicit mechanism has been detailed where we know that these scores are weighted based on say Internet penetration in each country. If no cases of Internet censorship was reported in Ghana, and it consequently gets a higher ranking as compared to a country Y whose press is freer but did report one case of Internet censorship – it implies the system is flawed. Let me give you another example. India has the largest number of newspapers in the world and there is a good chance that the total number of journalists harassed may well exceed that of Eritrea. It doesn’t automatically flow that Eritrean press is freer. One may need to account for not only the number of journalists (for more journalists per capita may mean a freer press) but also crime against journalists per capita. In the same vein we may need to account for countries which in general have a high crime rate and where journalists by pure chance, rather than say a government witch hunt, may have a higher chance of dying.

One also need to account for the fact that statistics on these crimes are hard to come by especially in poor countries with barebones media and there is a good chance that they are under-reported there.

On the positive side
Rankings do give one some estimate about the relative freedom of a country. Proximity to Saudi Arabia in the ranking does give us an idea about the relative media freedom.

A lot of the criticism lobbed against India’s low placement in the RSF rankings has been prompted by people’s perception of India as a functioning democracy with a relatively free press. What goes unmentioned are episodes like Tehelka and the one faced by Rajdeep Sardesai of recently. India’s press, especially in small towns, is constantly under pressure from the local politicians who monitor aggressively.

What can RSF do?
I would like to see a more detailed report on each country especially marking areas where India is lagging behind. Release more data. Aside from protecting sources, there should be no concerns regarding release of more data. Release it to the world so policymakers and citizens can better understand where improvements need be made.

Release a composite score index that is comparable across time rather than countries. There are far too many problems comparing countries. Controlling for major variables like economic growth etc., we can get a fairly good estimate of how things changed in the course of a set of years.


Whenever we do use numbers to understand concepts, we sacrifice something in what we understand or our conceptual understanding. Some numbers like demographics are relatively non-debatable. Even there debates have arisen in defining who are say Caucasians etc? More debatable are how numbers are used in say the realm of content analysis. What does it mean when a person says a particular word in a sentence? Does it mean that somebody who uses the word “evil” twice in describing Bush hates him twice as much as the person who only uses it once? The understanding and “counting” of words has largely been limited to simple linear additions. We haven’t yet tried understanding strength of words as an equation of countless variables or more importantly learned how to work with that much data so we use shortcuts in our understanding.

Numbers can give one a sense of false objectivity. The ways numbers are trimmed and chopped to support a particular point of view leave them meaningless, yet powerful.

The problems that I describe above are twin fold – errors in coming up with rankings and errors in reporting the rankings. In all, we need to be careful about the numbers we see and use. It doesn’t mean that we need to distrust all the statistics that we see and burrow our nose but we can do well by being careful and honest.

Closing Thought

According to UNECA, Ethiopia “counted 75 000 computers in 2001 and 367 000 television sets in 2000. Only 2.8 % of the total number of households in the country had access to television and approximately 18.4 % of people had a radio station in 1999 and 2000.” These numbers do inform. They talk about poverty. For the West, obsessed with issues of liberty and running from its own increasingly authoritarian regimes, press freedom is “the” issue. In the hustle, they miss some of the more important numbers coming from other countries that tell different stories.

Strategic perspectives on dealing with a nuclear North Korea and Iran

22 Oct

The following commentary is Chaste and can be seen as a follow-up to my article on the topic.

“I agree with most of your points. And I do understand the strategic value of combating naivete with naivete. After all, there is no strategic value in calling your opponent out on his underlying reasoning. He will deny the underlying motive and simply brand you a conspiracy theorist. On the other hand, one could argue that your opponent adopts naivete self-consciously is simply a front, and as a delaying tactic. Once a particular naive position is exposed, he will adopt another slightly less naive one and thus prolong his contention endlessly. For this, it may be useful to clearly address all underlying reasons up front. As mentioned, I am unable to evaluate the relative strategic merits of the two positions.

So, with that caveat clearly stated, here is what I believe to be the crux of the issue. I do not think that anyone seriously believes that the leaders of DPR Korea or of Iran will use nuclear weapons against another country. What the west objects to, is precisely the acquisition of deterrents by these target regimes. Such deterrents could embolden these target regimes to engage in non-nuclear anti-western activities. Recall for example that Pakistan started openly funding and training groups dedicated to fomenting violence in Indian Kashmir around the same time that it is thought to have acquired nuclear capability. This surely was no coincidence. Such Pakistani activity in the past was followed by Indian invasions. But with a nuclear Pakistan, India has been forced to accept the deaths of thousands of its security forces, an actual invasion in Kargil, and the deaths and displacement of tens of thousands of Kashmiri civilians with little more than a lot of sound and fury. Thus, what the west worries about is not that Iran may bomb Israel, but that it might be emboldened to be a more active supporter of groups like Hezbollah or Hamas.

What the west worries about is the removal of the threat of overwhelming force as a factor in their dealing with target nations like Iran or DPR Korea, and the possibility of having to rely primarily on diplomacy. Successful diplomatic outcomes generally require either diplomatic pressure which can deliver total victory in a zero-sum game, or normal diplomacy which delivers a compromise settlement. Diplomatic pressure requires the building of a multi-national near consensus, which in turn can dramatically alter the stakes consequent on the different choices made by the target nation.

The west faces problems in exerting diplomatic pressure on both counts. The first problem is the building up of a multi-national near consensus. No one outside the area cares much about DPR Korea (this may actually make a consensus more possible), and a majority of nations oppose the western agenda in the middle-east. The second problem lies in the difficulty of dramatically altering the stakes for the target nations. This will be inherently difficult in the case of an isolationist country like DPR Korea. In the case of the broader middle-east, this is difficult because of the middle east’s reserves of precious oil.

The West’s best shot with DPR Korea is that of an aggressive investment in the “sunshine” policy. This will make DPR Korea less isolationist, and allow multi-national players to dramatically alter the stakes consequent on its different choices. There is no appetite for such a policy in large part because DPR Korea does not appear to be particularly interested in anything beyond self-preservation. Therefore, the west can substantively ignore DPR Korea’s nuclear deterrent, beyond its opportunities for political posturing.

Iran is a different case since it does have interests beyond mere self-preservation: subversion of Israeli policy at least concerning Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and its aspirations to being a regional power in an oil-rich region. With the difficulty in forging a multi-national consensus against Iran on these issues and the difficulty of dramatically altering the stakes for an oil-rich nation, the west will have no choice but to use normal diplomacy, which can only deliver a compromise settlement. But the west has no interest in compromising either on Israeli policies or in arriving at an agreement that respects Iran’s aspirations to be a regional power. Because of the West’s refusal of any diplomatic compromises and the difficulty of building up diplomatic pressure, the west is very keen on retaining overwhelming force as a factor in its dealings with Iran. As I have mentioned before, the last option will be neutralized if Iran acquires a nuclear deterrent.”

Why North Korea wants nukes? and How to live in a nuclear world?

21 Oct

The testing of a nuclear device by North Korea has drawn the ire of US, South Korea, and Japan, among others. Countless penny-a-quote pundits have come forth with their opinions as to why North Korea developed nuclear weapons, with most “analysis” limited to understanding North Korea’s development of nukes as an act of villainy by the autocratic “thug” ruling the “hermetic” kingdom. That the puerile minds of non-analysts bloated on clichéd Hollywood fare will offer such trash is expected but the relative lack of other explanations is stunning.

Why does North Korea want nuclear weapons? I argue that North Korea wants nuclear weapons for the same reason India and Pakistan wanted them, and that is as a deterrent against hostile action from other states. Walter Pincus, of The Washington Post, traces North Korea’s initial interest in nuclear weapons to the threats made by US presidents Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower to use nuclear weapons against North Korea during the Korean War.

"In 1950, when a reporter asked Truman whether he would use atomic bombs at a time when the war was going badly, the president said, " That includes every weapon we have."

Three years later, Eisenhower made a veiled threat, saying he would "remove all restraints in our use of weapons" if the North Korean government did not negotiate in good faith an ending to that bloody war.

In 1957, the United States placed nuclear-tipped Matador missiles in South Korea, to be followed in later years, under both Republican and Democratic administrations, by nuclear artillery, most of which was placed within miles of the demilitarized zone." N. Korean Nuclear Conflict Has Deep Roots (N. Korean Nuclear Conflict Has Deep Roots (WP) )

Aside from the initial nuclear threats, today over forty thousand American troops man the Korean peninsula and another thirty thousand stay on a base in Japan. Stack on to this the fact that Japan is widely acknowledged to have the capability to produce nuclear weapons at a short notice, and we can begin to understand North Korea’s motivations for developing nuclear weapons as a response to its threat perception.

One may argue that understanding the motivations behind North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear capability does not fundamentally change anything for either U.S.; South Korea or Japan, all of whom still see a nuclear-tipped North Korea as a threat. I believe differently – understanding North Korea’s actions in terms of its threat perception can inform our policy in multiple ways. Firstly, if you look at North Korea’s actions as a primarily defensive measure then one may argue that North Korea will probably only use nuclear weapons if attacked. This posit is most likely to hold true because U.S. owns an arsenal of over 10,000 nukes and any usage of nuclear weapons by North Korea will evoke a swift, debilitating response.

Secondly, the lessons learned should inform US diplomacy in the future – especially towards Iran, Cuba, and Iran. Threats from the US will only hasten these countries attempts to develop a nuclear arsenal.

Lastly, we all need to adjust to the idea of a nuclear-capable world. Nuclear weapons, as recent past has shown, are not particularly hard to develop or acquire – this is I say given three third-world countries, namely Pakistan, India, and North Korea, have been able to develop them. Aside from this, a slew of countries, including Israel and Japan already have nuclear weapons or can easily make them. In short, nuclear weapons technology will continue to proliferate, and there is very little we can do to stop this process.

This brings us to question of the repercussions of such a world. The fact remains that the probability that anyone will use a nuclear weapon is remote given that it will bring universal international castigation and a swift response from other powers. Secondly, given the rapid rise in ability of non-nuclear weapons like say MOAB or cluster bombs to afflict harm and destruction, and the comparatively less vocal condemnation on their use will bias countries towards using these “conventional” weapons. Thirdly, possession of nuclear weapons doesn’t equate to the capacity of reliably delivering them and even if one possesses the technology for delivery, the threat of universal condemnation and a swift response limits the probability of their use to nearly zero.

There are a few legitimate concerns about a nuclear-tipped world, and they have been dealt with below. Possession of nuclear weapons by a nation does limit U.S. choices against that nation, but the concern is largely theoretical for any use of nuclear weapons will result in a very strong response from the US. The second concern is about the ability of nuclear weapons to annihilate civilization. This concern stems from our understanding of the severity of the nuclear threat from cold war days when a nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union could have produced complete annihilation.

The scenario today is a bit different, and war between the U.S. and Russia, the only other power capable of delivering a similar nuclear response, is remote. Of course, conditions can change, but it still seems unlikely that we will reach such a scenario. Another facet that has garnered a lot of attention is the threat of terrorists using dirty nuclear bombs. There are two parts to the issue – one is state-sponsored terrorism which will be dealt in much the same way as response to conventional attack, and the second is threat of terrorists acquiring nuclear weapons from stockpiles of nations. This second threat must be dealt with the US trying to provide infrastructure and monetary assistance to countries to help them secure their stockpiles of nuclear material.

In all, we can take two things away from this discussion – the threat emanating from nuclear proliferation is greatly exaggerated, and that clichéd panic button responses of putting blanket sanctions against nations are unlikely to work.

Muslim Issues, Humanitarian Issues

4 Aug

The latest Lebanese crisis—I cringe at using the word crisis for it seems news organizations use it all too frequently to condense all human suffering and all other news into this pointless pithy—has been covered in the Arab media as a predominantly Muslim affair where a Jewish state is attacking Muslims. While the thrust of the statement remains true, the fact of the matter is that what is happening in Lebanon is a humanitarian crisis, a human tragedy if you will and has little or nothing to do with people there being Muslims or non-Muslims. The portrayal is all the more bankrupt given the fact that Lebanon has about 40% Christian population. Kashmir, Chechnya, Palestine, Lebanon or Bosnia are and should be treated as a humanitarian crisis and not as Muslim crisis by the Arab media. There is a subtext in all the coverage in the Arab media that a Saudi resident or an Arab should feel more about the Lebanese than say someone sitting in EU. There is subtle and not too subtle racism that accentuates the us vs. them schism that has opened up between the world and Islam as a whole. There are mitigating reasons that are offered including the fact that Arab press is deliberately framing it as a Muslim issue to demand action from their ostensibly Muslim governments but then again I think it is giving too much credit to the Arab media for this deep-rooted problem that finds its face in all major Muslim media from Indonesia to Pakistan.

Of course, the Western media can’t go scot-free either. Western media outlets eager to portray Hezbollah as a Shiite militia backed by Iran and eager to portray Lebanese as a bunch of ‘enemy terrorists’ have overlooked the fact that “Hezbollah is principally neither a political party nor an Islamist militia. It is a broad movement that evolved in reaction to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in June 1982” NY Times

Roger Pape, in his NY Times op-ed piece, adds,

“Evidence of the broad nature of Hezbollah’s resistance to Israeli occupation can be seen in the identity of its suicide attackers. Hezbollah conducted a broad campaign of suicide bombings against American, French and Israeli targets from 1982 to 1986. Altogether, these attacks, which included the infamous bombing of the Marine barracks in 1983, involved 41 suicide terrorists.

In writing my book on suicide attackers, I had researchers scour Lebanese sources to collect martyr videos, pictures, and testimonials and the biographies of the Hezbollah bombers. Of the 41, we identified the names, birthplaces and other personal data for 38. Shockingly, only eight were Islamic fundamentalists. Twenty-seven were from leftist political groups like the Lebanese Communist Party and the Arab Socialist Union. Three were Christians, including a female high-school teacher with a college degree. All were born in Lebanon.”

From Satellites to Streets

11 Jul

There has been a tremendous growth in satellite-guided navigation systems and secondary applications relying on GIS systems, like finding shops near the place you are, etc. However, it remains opaque to me why we are using satellites to beam this information when we can easily embed RFID/or similar chips on road signs for pennies. Road signs need to move from the ‘dumb’ painted visual boards era to electronic tag era, where signs beam out information on a set frequency (or answer when queried) to which a variety of devices may be tuned in.

Indeed it would be wonderful to have “rich” devices, connected to the Internet, where people can leave our comments, just like message boards, or blogs. This will remove the need for expensive satellite signal reception boxes or the cost of maintaining satellites. The concept is not limited to road signs and can include any and everything from shops to homes to chips informing the car where the curbs are so that it stays in the lane.

Possibilities are endless. And we must start now.

In India, Reforms Don’t Reach the Rural Areas

6 Jul

Pankaj Mishra, writing for the New York Times, takes on the myth of “New India,”

“Recent accounts of the alleged rise of India barely mention the fact that the country’s $728 per capita gross domestic product is just slightly higher than that of sub-Saharan Africa and that, as the 2005 United Nations Human Development Report puts it, even if it sustains its current high growth rates, India will not catch up with high-income countries until 2106.

Nor is India rising very fast on the report’s Human Development Index, where it ranks 127, just two rungs above Myanmar and more than 70 below Cuba and Mexico. Despite a recent reduction in poverty levels, nearly 380 million Indians still live on less than a dollar a day.

Malnutrition affects half of all children in India, and there is little sign that they are being helped by the country’s market reforms, which have focused on creating private wealth rather than expanding access to health care and education. Despite the country’s growing economy, 2.5 million Indian children die annually, accounting for one out of every five child deaths worldwide; and facilities for primary education have collapsed in large parts of the country (the official literacy rate of 61 percent includes many who can barely write their names). In the countryside, where 70 percent of India’s population lives, the government has reported that about 100,000 farmers committed suicide between 1993 and 2003. ”

A related article in the BBC talks about how the recent economic growth in India and China has meant little reprieve for those living in the rural areas.

What Does it Mean to be Literate in India?

3 Jul

A country hailed internationally for its engineers is also home to about a third of world’s illiterates (UNESCO, 2000).

Indian government defines literacy as the ability to read and write, which is similar to UNICEF’s definition. The 2001 census put India’s literacy rate at 65.4%, leaving over 250 million (counting only people older than 7) people who can’t read and write. The female literacy levels were worse. “In 1991, less than 40 percent of the 330 million women aged 7 and over were literate, which means [then] there are over 200 million illiterate women in India.”

While these figures are bad enough, the picture looks distinctly worse when one surveys the literacy attainment of people classified as literate.

“A recent study by ORG-CSR (2003) conducted in rural villages across five states – Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, and Gujarat – confirms the low skill attainment levels of many literates in India. To share some key findings on reading, print awareness, writing, and functional aspects of ability with the written word in Hindi: 68.2% perceived themselves to be literate.

  1. Based on their reading of an extremely simple paragraph from textbooks at 2nd to 3rd grade level, the field surveyors classified the sample as: 12% who can read with ease, 36.3% who made mistakes or read with a range of reading difficulties, and 51.7% who could not read at all.
  2. Faced with a square block of Hindi text printed centered on a square piece of paper with no other graphical indicators of beginning, ending, or page orientation, 37.4% could not hold the printed matter in the proper orientation for reading. After this was shown (or known), 42.5% could not point to the end of the text. Half the sample could not move their finger to delineate the left to right direction of print and a nearly equal proportion could not move from the end of one line to the beginning
    of the next line immediately below.
  3. Only 37.5% could write their full name correctly, 15.1% could write it partially or with mistakes, and 47.4% could not write it at all.
  4. Reading the bus board, one of the most common encounters with print in village life, was, by their own admission, not possible for 51.9%. Self-reports on other functional aspects inform us that 56% could not read a newspaper, 54.8% could not read letters, and 56.7% could not write a letter themselves.


“A nation’s literacy rate is determined, to a great degree, by the definition of literacy and the method used to measure it. Countries struggling to achieve higher rates often tend to lower definitional bars, which then makes progress that much easier. India is no exception, and this raises simple but unanswered questions. How many of India’s literate people—literate according to the Census—can read the headlines of a newspaper?

If a demonstrated “ability to decode the simplest of passages were operationalized” as the definition of literacy, not necessarily with understanding, then only 10–15% would be fully literate.”

Source: Brij Kothari and others

In short, there are near half a billion people who cannot decode simple passages. Given the importance of literacy in improving important things like health and access to jobs, it is critical that India invest more money in literacy programs. But where to invest? Brij Kothari believes that literacy can be increased by providing Same Language Subtitling (SLS)—subtitling the lyrics of popular song-based television programs like Chitramala in the same language as the audio. Initial tests of SLS in Gujarat have been successful. The novel approach to increasing literacy leverages the fact that a lot of Indians have access to television and watch a bunch of it.

Voice technologies such as speech recognition, text to speech, and auto-correction make the ability to write and read the written word increasingly optional. Thus, one way to move forward is to make such technologies more widely available. Another way would be to make essential information more broadly available in a non-textual format. Until now, these ideas have been considered as fallback options. But to continue to think of them as that would be a mistake. They may simply reflect the future of humanity.

p.s. An article on inequality in achievement in maths in India: India Shining, Bharat Drowning: Comparing Two Indian States to the Worldwide Distribution in Mathematics Achievement (pdf) by Jishnu Das et al.

Piracy—the Real Mantra Behind Indian Success

9 May

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) ran an opinion piece yesterday arguing that India is “rapidly evolving into Asia’s innovation center” and “leaving China in the dust” because of its famed intellectual property regime.

Not only is the claim patently bogus, but the opposite—that the Indian innovation is surviving primarily through piracy—is very likely true. It is, of course, clear that the authors of the article have never ventured to Palika Bazaar or Nehru Place in Delhi or the countless other entities that use and sell pirated materials in India. Nor have the authors ever read an Indian science book, for all they will find are hasty copies of works by foreign authors on poor paper. Nor have they ever been to an Indian store in the US. For they won’t be able to spot a rightfully purchased Bollywood movie at these stores.

Yes, India has a wonderful copyright law. At least so the gentlemen would like us to believe. However, it is rarely enforced. The article points out that in 1994 the copyright act was amended to explain the rights of holder and penalties for infringement. “In 1994, the Indian Copyright Act was amended to clearly explain the rights of a copyright holder and the penalties for infringement of copyrighted software.” Nowhere does the article mention that the act itself was rewritten to make it tougher. The only effect of the law, which the article mentions has been called one of the “toughest in the world” (without quoting sources), was to create this handbook.

Since the implementation of a copyright law that was “one of the toughest in the world,” a government study on copyright piracy in India done in 1999 concludes, “The total value of pirated copyright products sold in India during 1996-97 was about Rs. 1,833 crores which formed 20% of the legal market. Segment wise, the piracy rate is found to be the highest in computer software (44%) and lowest in cinematographic works (5%).”

Let me finish by focusing on how piracy has helped India innovate. Without the countless street level computer training centers which mostly rely upon pirated software, there wouldn’t have been an IT revolution in the country. Without the lax patent laws on Pharmaceuticals, which patented only the way in which a medication is produced and not the mix of ingredients itself, there would have been no Indian success story in Pharmaceuticals. Without the cheap knock-off science books that are abundant for poor Indian students, there wouldn’t have been the countless educated Indians with a high level of understanding of fundamentals of science.

Moving on to the authors’ contention that India is leaving behind China in the dust. The authors use the following line to support such an exaggerated claim, “The number of Indian patent applications filed has increased 400% over the past 15 years.”

Aah, the wonders of statistics.

Let’s put the numbers in perspective. “According to the World Intellectual Property Organization’s (WIPO), the number of international patent applications from Japan, Republic of Korea, and China, has risen by 162%, 200%, and 212%, respectively, since 2000. These growth rates reflect the rapidly growing technological strength in northeast Asia.” More instructively, China in 2004 filed for 1,705 patents while India filed for 689. [PDF – WIPO statistics]. One more comment about China. Chinese economy (and innovation) with annualized growth rates of upwards of 9% and with high tech stalwarts like Lenovo is flourishing. Any comments as to leaving China in the dust aren’t just wrong, but also dumb or dishonest.

Lastly, I would like to address the question of why this poorly researched article trumpeting fake achievements and rationale for India’s success has made it to the Wall Street Journal. My guess is that this is a deliberate piece, produced after much deliberation with the businesses. It comes as no surprise that one of the authors of the article, Mr. Wilder is a lawyer representing the euphemistically named IP lobbying Association called the “Association for Competitive Technology.”

Ditty for Bush

6 Dec

Seldom has a country reached such levels of obsequiousness that Pakistan reached when officials chose to include a rhyming poem titled, The Leader, praising George W Bush in its English-language course book for 16 year-olds. The poem spells out George W Bush in addition to coming up with lines like – “Strong in his faith, refreshingly real” and “Bracing for war, but praying for peace”.

Patient and steady with all he must bear,
Ready to meet every challenge with care,
Easy in manner, yet solid as steel,
Strong in his faith, refreshingly real
Isn’t afraid to propose what is bold,
Doesn’t conform to the usual mould,
Eyes that have foresight, for hindsight won’t do,
Never backs down when he sees what is true,
Tells it all straight, and means it all too.

Going forward and knowing he’s right,
Even when doubted for why he would fight,
Over and over he makes his case clear,
Reaching to touch the ones who won’t hear.
Growing in strength he won’t be unnerved,
Ever assuring he’ll stand by his word.

Wanting the world to join his firm stand,

Bracing for war, but praying for peace,
Using his power so evil will cease,
So much a leader and worthy of trust,
Here stands a man who will do what he must.

Highway to India

5 Dec

Amy Waldman recently wrote a series of articles about the socio-cultural impact of highways and the burgeoning number of cars.

Here are the links:

The articles include interactive features with audio commentary and slideshows. While the photographs are well shot, Waldman’s hurried narration leaves much to be desired.

Brief comments and caveats: Waldman puts far too much emphasis on the posited transformative cultural power of both the highways and the increasing number of cars. And she repeatedly paints “old India” in stereotypical terms like, “the land of dharma”, etc.

The Art of Reading

27 Nov

The value of reading is constrained by how one chooses to read aside from what one chooses to read.

Reading is anti-evolutionary. Neither our brains nor our eyes were designed to excitedly decipher small symbols printed on a paper. But then reading is much more than deciphering symbols. Words provide wonderful abstract worlds in which we can embody the characters that are described in the book. But to live with them, in them and empathize with them, we need to spend time with them and nurture them carefully in our minds. A character in a novel is truly subjective (it is often left deliberately open to manipulation). The emotions, the pitch of the scream, rationality of action and the sinister atmosphere are all amplified or mellowed, tampered with or abandoned in our minds. The true pleasure of reading lies in reading slowly to go over the nuances and the phraseology. Of course, not all novelists and all passages invite this cohabitation. In fact, some novelists will go out of their way to create atmospheric dread that pushes you away from the analysis but then you are living through the temporary paralysis of emotions that comes when environment overwhelms you. But then you need to pause and introspect for that is when you can empathize with the character.

Reading slowly can help one introspect and come to a better understanding of oneself and the world around us. If one chooses to look at a novel merely as a teleological progression towards the resolution of some quibble, then it merely becomes a tool for entertainment.

Perhaps a more important virtue, as compared to reading slowly, is reading critically. A novelist imposes his or her worldview on you and you need to be able to critically think through the points that s/he makes, and separate out the chaff from the wheat.

The Lost Art

Today, reading slowly is a lost art. Leisurely reading a passage and then mulling over its contents seems archaic. Doubtless, pointless drivel camouflaged as writing has taken much away from the pleasure (and motivation) for reading slowly. The other obvious villain is the television with its increasingly crazed editing. Once upon a time, a shot lasted 90 seconds. Now it lasts for less than 6 seconds on average. The reader today needs a more action-packed story that relentlessly moves across scenes, countries, and emotions—all in a hurried progression to the end. So not only are novelists concocting stories that encourage hurried reading, readers are actually reading books the same way as they watch telenovelas or sitcoms—mindlessly.

Let me end with a caveat. I am not saying that speed reading is necessarily bad. In fact, there is good reason to believe that it is a very important tool for academics and few other people who need to consume a lot of information in a very limited amount of time.

End of Information Hierarchy

11 Nov

Today, people have a variety of ways to explore a collection via the Internet as opposed to carefully orchestrated explorations in a brick and mortar museum with a curated exhibition.

A curator comes up with a story along with other contextual information about the exhibit and arranges the exhibition so that the person exploring it has only a few chosen entry points and few ways of exploring the collection. Some of the impediments are put in deliberately while others are a result of hosting an exhibition in the real world where the design of building etc. still matter.

Cut to the online world and the user is untethered from most of the curated connivances. This, in turn, may be a result of the fact that people haven’t really understood how best to present a virtual museum but that is not the point I want to get into. The result of the untethered experience is that these cultural objects are seen in a twice removed setting -e.g. a pot taken from an archaeological site and then photographed and put on the Internet. So what is the result of all this? It is hard to give an objective listing but one can see that some of the “meaning” is lost in this journey of an artifact from the ground to the Internet.

What happens when information that was once tethered in a context or a story is made available virtually free of context over say Google. Is storing information in hierarchical networks or associations obsolete? How do you maintain the integrity of information when context-free snippets of information are freely available?

Say, for example, once upon a time people learned about history via a scholar who chose carefully the specific issues about history. Today, a teen gets his/her history by searching on the web often encountering a lot of miscellaneous information. I would argue that the person then can come away, from such a scattered exploration, with a bunch of miscellaneous trivia and no real understanding of the major issue at hand. The key idea here is that for transmission of “knowledge”, the integrity of information is of prime value.

War and Sex

11 Nov

War is deadly for both sexes. A missile doesn’t differentiate between a man and a woman. Then, what is the role of gender in war?

Nearly all active militaries in the world have substantially more male soldiers than female soldiers and far more men die on the battlefields than women. But the impact of wars is never limited to artificial battlefields. War enters civilian life through hunger, inadequate health care, the decline in availability of potable water, rape, pillage, and many other ways, reducing life expectancy drastically for both men and women. For example, life expectancy in Afghanistan is 46 years (men), 46 years (women) according to UN figures. The figures hide an important fact that on average women will live longer than men. These figure mean that more women are dying as a result of war than men. These figures still don’t take into account the large number of crimes like rape that are committed predominantly against women.