U.S. trying to peddle drones to India. No, thank you!

One of the highlights of the latest Modi U.S. trip was the admission of India in the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). It is important because it opens doors for various defence deals involving missile and drone technology. What is not really being highlighted though, is the fact that US is planning to sell Predator Drones to India, as an immediate consequence of this deal. And this could have huge consequences on the future of India!

Predator Drones have a dodgy history.  Of course this fact is ill reported in the mainstream US Media. No country likes knowing about the bad deeds being carried out by its military. The word of the recklessness of the U.S. Drone program, however, has even got into popular American media. Criticism notwithstanding, Obama has increased the drone strikes 9 times as compared to Bush. Noble Peace Prize winner ladies and gentlemen!. Even with the state of the art capabilities of the US Army, the current surveillance and intelligence is not sufficient to provide good accuracy of drone targets. In the hands of Indian military, one can expect only worse!

Now, the US can afford to experiment with the drones because they are not doing it on their own soil. The civilian casualties are merely collateral damage and more importantly, merely Pakistanis. Pakistani government is heavily compensated and supported for this. We however, could only use the drones in our own country as neither Pakistan nor China is going to allow India to fly armed drones in their territory.

It doesn’t take a genius to realize where would the Indian military use their drones. India is seemingly impressed by the use of predator drones in Northern Pakistan. Probably because of the similarity of the terrain with Kashmir. One could argue how much the drone attacks are responsible for the insurgency and chaos seen in Northern Pakistan, but only a fool will say that they have had zero contribution. Pakistan has been struggling to counter the terrorism emanating from that zone, leading to more drone attacks. It is a vicious circle and it is only getting worse.

This is not to say that all military action in Kashmir should be stopped. That would be a disaster of Iraq proportions. But relying on technology which increases the capabilities of destruction, without guaranteeing reasonable accuracy is definitely not going to solve many problems. If anything, it will create greater problems as seen in Pakistan.

The solution thankfully is simple. We are not obliged to buy the Drones being sold to us. Just like we ‘guarded’ net neutrality through social media, we can tell the government to not waste money on harmful toys. Drones are not deterrents, and their use till now has only led to increasing chaos.

So if you get time off from outraging over censorship, help save some lives from unreliable technology. The money could be used for better purposes. Say #NoToPredatorDrones.

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In defence of PhDs

Contrary to whatever you have been hearing lately, No! We PhD students are not mentally deranged! Well, at least not to begin with. The nature of research and how academia is organized, however, could lead to students facing extreme professional pressures. But that’s just the proverbial ‘tip of the iceberg’. What is often forgotten is the human side of it all.

There is a common belief that genius induces madness. Cantor, Boltzmann, Nash are a few among many such examples. The line between the genius and crazy, is very fine and hazy, they say. It has been popularized further by shows like Big Bang Theory. However, these are just exceptional cases. Most of us in the scientific community are just trying to make our place. We are not all grappling with fundamental laws of the nature. Our struggles are much more real than that.

The most basic struggle faced by PhD students is the rapid depreciation of self-worth. The difference in the average intelligence between your research colleagues and those before PhD is understandably huge. This is the kind of environment where even a student graduated from IIT Kharagpur (reputed Indian institute with one of the toughest entrance tests in the world), and Stanford University can be considered « subpar ». The unrelenting scrutiny and one-upmanship of the scientific community in conferences and seminars, beats down even the best.

To further dent the self-worth, at this age, most of our friends are settling into family lives. While some PhD students do manage to have a family, it only adds to financial troubles and destroys work-life balance. This makes us feel like  a professional, as well as a social, under-achiever. Social stereotyping and the supposed « uselessness » of our work  just amplifies those feelings.

The final nail in the coffin of self-worth is the powerlessness of a PhD student vis-a-vis the PhD supervisor. Being a supervisor is a post of great responsibility and it is rightly given only to a selected few. However, this results in supervisors who are way ahead of students’ in terms of knowledge, experience and scientific standing. A PhD student therefore is almost a dispensable commodity for a professor. We are the minions. The responsibility of the supervisor, just like that of a teacher, is to not give up on the student. However, they have little punishment if they fail to do so. Of course, in most cases, its beneficial for the supervisor to not invest any of his time or resources on the student and concentrate them elsewhere. But this leaves the student vulnerable to abandonment by professor. I was lucky. I had an ideal professor, who helped me out of jams, and invested his time with me without thinking of returns. But many of my fellow PhD students were not..

You might say, hey, its the same everywhere. Everyone has a boss, and most of them are pricks. Unlike normal organizations, however, a PhD student cannot change his PhD midway. Its a contract which only ends after the PhD is defended, and the thesis supervisor has a big role to play in it. An abandoned student could thus be stuck in a limbo of self deprecation for a long time before being put out of misery. And it only gets worse as time passes.

There are no solutions to this. Its the natural equilibrium, because its efficient, at the expense of a few students. That’s the working model of the world! Thankfully we have PhD comics to let us know we are not alone.

As a society however, we need to cut some slack for PhD students. And please, stop calling us ‘mental’ just because we’ll kill for a PhD! It has nothing to do with our religion or origin as some trump supporters might like to believe.

 

 

 

Promoting Home-makers to Society-Shapers

Indian middle class is rising. This rise brings with it the comfort of outsourcing household work fairly cheaply. That has left one of the most common profession of the last generation, home-maker, with little left to do once the kids grow up. The increasing popularity of Ekta Kapoor, and daily soap operas in the past 15 years is testimony to this fact.

Meanwhile, the educational infrastructure has shown itself incapable of providing even basic education in a sound manner. While education is free in government schools, the quality of education is often very poor. The major reason for the bad quality is insufficiency of teachers, leading to large class sizes. Indeed, even children attending affluent schools usually complement their learning with tuition and coaching classes.

In the quiet corners of Vadodara, in Gujarat, an NGO has discovered the hidden social potential of housewives, especially in providing education to those who need it most. Pathshala, a brainchild of ex-educator Juin Datta, currently provides school-like education to 130 kids of all age groups. All kids are from families dwelling in footpaths and slums, most of whom are not enrolled in any school. To succeed, Pathshala relies heavily on its army of volunteers which comprises mostly of urban housewives. In a short span of 3 years, it has had commendable impact, leading to the government supporting the initiative by providing premises, transport and food to the students.

There is no surprise that it works! It provides the volunteers a sense of fulfillment and worthiness, with an opportunity to contribute tangibly to the society. My mother is a volunteer in the organisation, and I noticed a clear rise in her self confidence and self-worth post teaching. She is far from the only one. Talking to other volunteers, I realized that most of them were very serious about the endeavor, and went about their work in a professional manner. It works because the volunteers receive in terms of love and gratitude, more than they give. This synergy is what makes the model sustainable.

The important question though is, is this model scalable? If we implement the Pathshala model as it is, there is still scope of doing much more. Majority of the women in cities still do not work. Even in Bangalore, for example, only 25% women work. Even accounting for the fact that most volunteers would likely be over 45 years old, there is still a large number of potential volunteers. One pitfall of the model is higher education, as housewives are generally ill equipped to teach at that level. Nonetheless, for primary and lower secondary education, Pathshala experiment has proven its potential.

The important cog however, in scaling up the solution to its full potential, is technology. There has been a spurt of edu-tech startups in recent times, Khan Academy being the most notable and unique success. By providing free and high quality courses online, and organizing the content in a relevant manner, Khan Academy has 10 million users worldwide already. It can thus play a big role in creating a virtual community of teachers and students, by providing the platform and the necessary tools to students,teachers and parents.

With the use of analytics, it is possible to provide quality and personalized educational content automatically. A teacher remains indispensable however, since they can answer questions immediately, and follow up with the students to ascertain timely learning. Artificially intelligent course assistants are already a reality. While they are yet to be deployed on a large scale in education, it would not take long. The bots obviously cannot replace the humans, they can reduce their workload considerably by responding intelligently and correctly to the standard queries. This helps teachers handle more students at a time.

Here is how it all comes together. The problem with scaling the Pathshala model is not the lack of volunteers, but rather the need for a physical school. This requires considerable investment in terms of time and money for students as well as volunteers. The progress made is thus slow. On the other hand, if one were to use the same model online, one could make considerable gains in efficiency. One volunteer could handle upto 100 students as opposed to a handful. With relevant analytics, we can even find the most effective teacher for every student and match accordingly. It would also help recruit volunteers who prefer avoiding the hassle of moving. For students, not only will they have world-class education at their disposal, they would also have a personal teacher to clarify doubts.

The social potential of the urban housewife is yet to be fully unleashed. With predictable advances in technology, the time might not be that far away. And it could make a radical difference in many lives.

 

 

Why India needs Rajan.

One cannot understate the importance of the Chief of the Central Bank. Just look at what Alan Greenspan did to USA and consequently the world. Subramanian Swamy, a BJP leader, in all his wisdom, recently said

« In my opinion, the RBI governor is not apt for our country. His move to increase the interest rates, so as to cut down inflation and stabilize the economy, has backfired and has badly affected the nation,…,All the industries have collapsed and as a result unemployment has increased. In my opinion, he should be removed as early as possible, »

While Swamy is a known BJP leader, his views do not necessarily represent that of his party, but nonetheless, the general mood seems to be that Rajan will not be given an extension due to bad performance.

This, while Raghuram Rajan probably wants another term as RBI chief, as he deems there is more to do. We should not just go by Rajan’s impressive résumé, for as Swamy rightly points out, his international stature and knowledge does not make him automatically fit for the Indian job. The argument usually thrown against foreign coaches who dont understand the Indian team ethos. Just that Rajan is Indian. He studied in IIT and IIM. That is the Indian dream!

Such an important decision for the country deserves more analysis. A good point to start would be the criticism of Rajan offered by Swamy. He claims the unemployment has increased in Rajan’s term as RBI chief. This is factually incorrect (Bureau of Labour statistics, latest quarterly report).  Moreover, loss of jobs is also a failure of the BJP government. The economy of a country is a shared responsibility of the government and the Reserve bank of India. So is Mr. Swamy criticizing his own government too? The other points made by him are no secret. Indeed one of the main goals of Rajan as RBI chief was to contain inflation, and prevent bubbles like the ones observed regularly in US. To that effect, even Swamy agrees that Rajan has been successful. Also, Swamy, and indeed many Indians, do not give enough credit to the soundness of Rajan’s economic knowledge. To claim that he will not understand the economics of a developing economy is to grossly underestimate Rajan’s calibre, his ‘Indian-ness’, and indeed the entire economics community.

While Rajan, admittedly has not done enough to get the economy off troubled waters, there are many reasons (not exhaustive) why he is the most suited for the job:

  • Continuity of Reserve Bank policies – An economy is a complex system. The effects of the policies are seldom well understood, and there is never a clear consensus on the correct action. What is however agreed upon is that a policy must be given time for the market to adapt to it, and rapidly changing policy directions would obfuscate the sources of change due to the policy. 3 years is too small a timescale to judge a policy. What can be objectively evaluated is : whether it has caused a massive crash, or lay into motion an unending recession. Neither of those things happened, so the policy has not yet failed.  Who better to continue the policies to their fruition than the one who implemented them?
  • Protection of the Economy from International Forces – Rajan has been going around the world explaining the need for international financial body to monitor the monetary policies of countries, which at times can be destructive, almost war-like. His stature also helps India push through its views to the international stage, where he also gives his perspective as the Central banker of India. He is thus the best placed economist currently to understand the dynamics of international trade on the economies and plan accordingly.
  • Success as RBI Chief – Rajan has till now succeeded in his modest goals in office. He has successfully curbed inflation. Inflation and growth go together, and this means he has willingly sacrificed some growth, just like China did few years back. By not lowering the interest rates, he has ensured that no major bubbling occurs, and the economy consolidates. By pushing the government, he ensured that the fiscal deficit is kept low, so that we do not entail crippling debts. By pushing the banks, he has ensured that bad loans are brought to books, instead of carrying them over till a crisis happens. Yes, he may have been a little overcautious, but its better to err to the cautious side, once you have seen the American model falling into one crisis after another. To be fair to Rajan, if all goes right, we are doing the hard yards, and when its all in order, we’ll step on the pedal.
  • Long term thinking – I think the essence of the debate really is, should we adopt policies which give us profit in short term but provides a higher risk in the long run (American Model) or instead make long term policies which provide lesser profit in short term, but is solid to make profit for a long time. It is clear what is Rajan’s strategy. Its also natural that this is frustrating BJP who wants to show impressive results after 3 years, and they fear that Rajan might postpone the party.

In short it would be incredibly foolish of India to let go of Raghuram Rajan when he is willing to ably serve the country. If we do, we will lose parity in the Indian economy, and will give a free rein to the government, which will look to gain short term profits at the expense of risking the future. India cannot afford a crisis, unlike USA. Rajan knows all about it.

Above all, if we let go of Rajan now, we can never complain about ‘Brain Drain’ without a sense of irony.

Ki & Ka – A new business model for movies

This is not a review of the movie. If it was a review, I’ll probably harp about how heavy-handed the movie was; something not expected from R. Balki of Cheeni Kum fame. I’ll probably also complain about the innumerable and unsubtle product placements. Instead, I think this movie is onto something, even-though it failed to make the final leap.

Here is the radical idea – ‘What if movies paid the viewers money to watch their film?’. I dont mean this as a ‘this movie was so bad, they should have paid me to watch it’ jibe. I think that it is not only a feasible proposition, it in fact makes great business sense. Product placement in movies is an age-old marketing trick. Filmmakers use it mostly to recover some of the production costs. Online video makers like AIB, TVF etc. finance themselves almost entirely through this. More recently, it has also been used to promote films by tying up with various brands, creating an advertising loop of sorts. Viewers generally do not mind this, as they expect higher production values as a result.

Ki-and-Ka.jpg

 

Watching Ki & Ka, I realized that the production costs of the movie must have been far lower than the amount of disproportional  product placement that went in. As a viewer, I was forced to gulp down advertisements which did not necessarily fit the narrative of the story, which in fact even influenced the story for no apparent reason. However, it didn’t help improve the movie’s quality in any way. Still, I paid the same money to watch this, as I did to watch the far more subtle and engaging Kapoor & Sons which was made at similar costs (35 crores as opposed to 30 crores for Ki & Ka).

Now, I might be proven wrong, but I am willing to stick my neck out and say Kapoor & Sons will be seen by many more people, and more number of times than Ki & Ka. However, if Ki & Ka gave some money it made off the product placements back to the paying customers, this could have easily been the opposite. It would have also meant greater viewership for the product placements in the movie, a perfect win-win situation. The viewer must be compensated for the discomfort of watching advertisements by either increasing the production value of the movie, or by simply giving some benefits to the customer. Marketing teams are smart enough to find rewards to the viewers which would result in greater engagement with the brands and products advertised in the movies.

If this idea seems like ‘pie-in-the-sky’ to you, just take a look at the new marketing plan for Pepsi. Instead of having big ‘stars’ endorse their brand and bombarding the TV with advertisements, they chose to instead pass off the benefit to the customer by giving them PayTM credits and other prizes. TVFplay also used a similar strategy by offering cashback and Uber vouchers for their paying subscribers.

As paying customers, we need to demand more from the industry than springing lazy product placements on the hapless customer who goes to a cinema to watch a movie and ends up watching advertisements instead! If nothing, at the very least, give us some freebies of the things you are advertising!

Before you type away in the comments section, No, I did not receive any money from any brand mentioned in this post, and hence will not be able to pass on the benefits to you.

Work less, Live more – A hybrid model of economy

In his essay ‘In Praise of Idleness‘, written in 1932, Bertrand Russell writes:

« Modern technique has made it possible to diminish enormously the amount of labor required to secure the necessaries of life for everyone. This was made obvious during the war. At that time all the men in the armed forces, and all the men and women engaged in the production of munitions, all the men and women engaged in spying, war propaganda, or Government offices connected with the war, were withdrawn from productive occupations. In spite of this, the general level of well-being among unskilled wage-earners on the side of the Allies was higher than before or since. The significance of this fact was concealed by finance: borrowing made it appear as if the future was nourishing the present. But that, of course, would have been impossible; a man cannot eat a loaf of bread that does not yet exist. The war showed conclusively that, by the scientific organization of production, it is possible to keep modern populations in fair comfort on a small part of the working capacity of the modern world. If, at the end of the war, the scientific organization, which had been created in order to liberate men for fighting and munition work, had been preserved, and the hours of the week had been cut down to four, all would have been well. Instead of that the old chaos was restored, those whose work was demanded were made to work long hours, and the rest were left to starve as unemployed. Why? Because work is a duty, and a man should not receive wages in proportion to what he has produced, but in proportion to his virtue as exemplified by his industry. »

We have come a long way since. What Bertrand Russell considered ‘essential’ then can now probably be produced by everyone doing only 30 minutes of work. On the other hand, what is now considered ‘essential’, has changed. Smartphones, Internet, Cars are some examples of the newest additions to the ‘essential’ list. However, the argument put forth by Russell remains valid. Basically, if one reduces the wastefulness induced by competition and consumerism, one can better optimize the distribution of leisure which should by itself be seen as an important goal of individuals. Moreover, one can reduce the unemployment in one stroke and use the extra man-power to compensate for the eventual reduction in efficiency induced by the new system. And come-on, who hasn’t dreamt of working fewer hours everyday, officially! Keynes in his essay ‘Economic possibilities for our Grand children’, predicted that the income would increase 4-8 times in the next hundred years and our grandchildren will have to essentially not do any work. The income has increased 6 times already (with 15 years to go for the prediction), but we are still working like bitches dogs! Why? Essentially because of wealth disparity and hunger for ever faster growth. [Raghuram Rajan speech]

Meanwhile, the ever-increasing consumerism fanned by hypercompetition in the innovation age is making us deplete resources and destroy the planet at a rapid rate [Insert COP21 reference]. Essentially, all this mass-scale destruction is to fill the pockets of the richest as evidenced by increasingly lopsided wealth distribution. [Insert some report reference]. Everything till now is reminiscent of the old Capitalism vs Communism debate. However, to strike a balance between the two, socialism was invented. Socialism is a way of imposing communist structures as add-ons on free-market economies, as is the case of France. However Socialism is willingly too restricted in its scope due to justified apprehension about communism and efficiency of state-run companies. Indeed, one sees in a country like India that state is highly inefficient in providing services. Yet, the services it provides are accessible to all. Since state-run companies usually survive through monopoly, people do not have alternatives for free-market solutions.

My claim is, if we provide people with two parallel systems; one with a commonly decided social goal, and another a highly capitalistic version of free market economy, we can dilute many problems currently inflicting us like unemployment, wealth disparity*, unsustainable development, immigration etc., if not solve them. We know that the extreme communist or capitalist systems fail, throught experience, and now even in theory. The solution to that is different ways of combining the two extremes. This has given rise to various degrees of socialism. However, the main problem of socialism is that it mixes two contrasting objectives into one optimization problem. Thus, the solutions found are average with respect to each general objective. I argue that instead we should create 2 parallel systems, each with a single objective, and let people individually choose the combination they want.

Noam Chomsky (Modern Bertrand Russell) in a recent interview claimed that increasing anger over the current dysfunctional systems is manifesting itself in increasing support for the extremes. Rise of Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, UKip and other such extreme right-wingers, as well as left wingers like Bernie Sanders, Justin Trudeau are some recent examples that can be cited. I believe this is the right environment to propose parallel systems as it helps people choose their kind of economy and not be forced to follow the majority. This is to mitigate the negative side-effects of democracy. This is simply because in a democracy, one has to accept and abide by the majority. Parallel systems give a real choice to the people with everyone being able to choose and follow their system. We can even go a step further and let people choose a certain combination of the two parallel systems depending on their needs and wishes. If I am satisfied with a basic smartphone, I should have the choice to not be contributing towards the resources wasted for making even better smartphones.

Of course, the question is, ‘why would anyone not want a better smartphone?’ My claim is that if people realise the real price associated with the negative effects of competition, some might choose to not participate in the wastage induced by unregulated capitalism. The price of competition (or Price of Anarchy as it is known in Game Theory) is an important parameter which measures, in essence, the price related to the selfish behaviour of all the agents. The agents here could be considered as companies and financial systems. Clearly, the motives of each company is not completely aligned with what would be optimal for society (Assuming we manage to all sit down and agree on the goals as a society).

If one manages to quantify this price of anarchy, for example by creating indices for similar products produced by the two parallel economies, one could even tax the people opting out of the co-operative system proportionally. A sort of ‘competition tax’, or if you want to hit the message harder, a ‘destroying the planet tax’. This will help sustain interest of people to opt, atleast partially, to the co-operative system. It also leaves the choice for someone to opt out in case they think they have a much higher value in the competitive economy, enough to compensate for the damage it does to the society as a whole.

Yes, all this is very vague. The mechanisms for it to work are not clear immediately. Predicting the impact of the global economy on the sustainability of such a system in a local region is non trivial. The two biggest challlenges for co-operative economies would be; maintaining the incentives, which is always considered as the raison d’etre of capitalism, and avoiding concentration of decision making power, which numerous examples have shown to not work. The latter is a difficult problem as it implies that a robust and adaptable set of rules have to be established beforehand, with emphasis on decentralized decision making. A mechanism for incentivizing could be reduction of work hours in cases of greater efficiency, for the same minimum ‘pay’ guranteed. The objective for the co-operative economy is the utopia of all work being done by robots, with everyones’ basic need fulfilled . The mechanisms and policies could be shaped with this single objective, so as to have a clear direction which would also incentivize people. It helps reduce the otherwise very complex problem of optimal policy making.

Its clear how unemployment, and excessive consumerism would be tackled if one manages to implement such a system. I think the time is right for debating dramatic changes in how economies and politics are structures. Many mechanisms need to be tested as its always difficult to predict side effects of economic changes. Otherwise the increased anger of people might push the world to an unsustainable brink, where countries would have to wage wars to continue on path of development. We all know where that ends this time.

* Interesting thing to note is that wealth disparity is a good indicator of world events. Every increase in disparity is followed by wars (1915 and 1938), or economic crisis (1930 and 2008), and yet we are at dangerously high and increasing level. Doomsyear prediction : 2030. We have 15 years to get our shit together. Co-incidentally its the case with climate change too!