Numbers — 2

A few years ago, my college at UC Berkeley was searching for a dean. Prof. Joel Cohen was invited to check out the College of Natural Resources. I asked him about his book How Many People Can the Earth Support? over lunch.

A few years ago, he said, a journalist had called him up saying that he was doing a piece on world population and wanted to know from Joel how many people could the earth support. Joel told the caller that he could not answer that question off the top of his head. It could take him a few days and why didn’t he call back in four or five days.

It took Joel three years to definitively answer that question and a fine job he did, in my opinion. The book was published in 1995. I quote from the introduction:

Though the future is hazy, much that is very clear can be known about the present. First, the size and speed of growth of the human population today have no precedent in all the Earth’s history before the last half of the twentieth century. Human numbers currently exceed 5.7 billion and increase by roughly an additional 90 million people per year. Second, the resources of every kind (physical, chemical and biological; technological, institutional and cultural; economic, political and behavioral) available to people are finite today both in their present capacity and in their possible speed of expansion. Today’s rapid relative and absolute increase in population stretches the productive, absorptive and recuperative capacities of the Earth as humans are now able to manage those capacities. It also stretches human capacities for technological and social invention, adaptation, and compassion.

Like in all other things, humans have a limited capacity for compassion too. When resources are severely limited, the thin veneer of civilization is easily scraped off to reveal the underlying unyielding will to survive at the expense of others.

The Convent and Cloyne Court

As a graduate student, I decided to spend my first term at UC Berkeley at the University Students’ Cooperative Association (USCA). The USCA is the largest student housing cooperative in North America modeled after the Rochdale Principles. The USCA is student run and student owned. In all we had about 20 houses and 4 apartment complexes housing about 2,000 students.

The house that I lived in is called Cloyne Court. It used to be a hotel and is even listed as a national historical monument. Cloyne Court housed about 150 students in about 80 single-, double-, and triple-occupancy rooms.

All household tasks such as cooking, cleaning, washing, and maintenance were done by the residents. In addition to our rent, we had to do five hours of ‘workshift’ every week. Like all other houses of the USCA, Cloyne Court had one common kitchen and one dinning hall for the 150 residents. Food was stocked in a huge pantry and in a walk-in freezer the size of a small apartment.

Under the best of circumstances, cooking is not an easy job. But for college students who can barely cook for themselves, the task of cooking for 150 people is well-near impossible. So dinner time was a real challenge. Around 6 pm, the dining hall would be crowded with students waiting for the food to show up from the kitchen.

The word may go around that there wasn’t much food that got cooked on some day. Perhaps the cooks weren’t very good and burnt half the stuff. Suddenly, there would be rush for the food as it was being brought out. All pretense of waiting for your turn would be dropped and pushing and shoving to get at the food would be so violent that half the food would end up on the floor.

If you were not quick, you were dead. If not dead, at least you’d have to order pizza to avoid starving.

During my one year at Cloyne Court, I learnt more economics than I could have imagined. I saw the tragedy of the commons revealed in all its stark reality. I understood why the Soviet Union collapsed. I learnt the common property problem and the problem of free-ridership.

I moved to a smaller house the next year. It was called the Convent because it used to be one before the USCA bought it. The Convent had 20 people and was restricted to graduate students. It was pretty well organized. Those who volunteered to cook were really into cooking. For 20 people, it was easy to cook enough that there was little chance of food running out. We all sat very calmly at the table while the food was passed around very politely. We had intelligent stimulating conversation at dinner. We had self-imposed rules: not taking any more than what we could eat, and cleaning up after ourselves.

The contrast between Cloyne Court and the Convent was stark and revealing.

HMS Titanic — 2

The HMS Titanic was a giant of a ship. It was doing 21 knots that fateful night.

Now it was 9.40pm, and still the ice warnings came. At no time had Captain Smith or the senior officers ordered a cautionary reduction in speed, or had gone to the trouble of having extra lookouts posted, something which Captain Lord of the Californian had already performed before he called it a day and brought his own vessel to a halt in the ice. When you put-together the ice warnings Titanic had received that day, it revealed that there was an ice-field 80 miles long directly in her path, and only two hours away if the current speed were maintained. Surely somebody in the next couple of hours must realise that Titanic is steaming at full-speed into an ice-field which has already made other vessels to heave-to for the night?

The warning messages kept coming in. Ice ahead. John Phillips was the radio operator in the Marconi room busy at the controls of the transmitters, sending messages to Cape Race in North America.

… under the immense pressure of sending commercial traffic, and at the same time having to cope with incoming warnings and messages, he snapped, as the nearby Californian sent an ice warning to Titanic. “Shut up, shut up. I am busy. I am working Cape Race.” Phillips’ now infamous snub highlighted how the commercial traffic had priority over the warnings. Perhaps if the Marconi men had not been so busy sending messages, the Titanic would never had foundered. But all of the previous warnings didn’t stop that happening either, so a last minute aversion was unlikely.


Exponential growth can be a terrifying thing. We all know the story of the king who was foolish enough to grant a boon to one who was familiar with the concept of exponential growth. To recount, the king said, “Ask and I will grant it to you.”

The man said, “All I want is a few pennies. I want one penny on the first square of a chess board, two pennies on the second square, four pennies on the third, eight pennies on the fourth, and so on till we reach the 64th square of the chess board.”

The king, like our present day innumerate kings, was immensely relieved. Here was this idiot asking for pennies when he could have asked for a ton of gold. “Done,” said the king and asked his minister to make the arrangements.
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The HMS Titanic

Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

What an absolutely evocative expression. I cannot get that out of my head every time I muster up enough courage to read the newspapers. Most of those out there on the top deck are busy with something trivial while below decks the situation is dire.

It was a cold and dark night on the 14th of April in the year 1912. The dead calm seas were lit only by moonlight as the HMS Titanic made its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York across the North Atlantic.

Ice is a seasonal hazard in the unforgiving winter seas of the North Atlantic, and in the couple of days since leaving Southampton, many ships had reported ice in the exact area into which Titanic would be sailing. On the 11th April, she received 6 warnings from ships stopped in, or passing through, heavy ice, 5 more on the 12th, 3 more on the 13th, and 7 on the 14th. All of these messages would have been written down as they were intercepted, logged in the radio book, and passed on to the officers on the bridge. There was now no way that the Captain, along with the officers, would have been unaware of the huge field of ice that now lay directly in front of Titanic.    Source.

Perhaps other matters occupied the Captain’s mind, such as the need to retire with a big bang. This was his last command and perhaps he did not want the ship to be late on its maiden voyage. Perhaps the owners of the White Star shipping lines did not want to let ice interfere with their grand ship.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied . . .

I don’t know if Leonard Cohen is right about that. Not everybody knows.

The Rationality of Underdevelopment

Dorothy L Sayers took a rational view of the world and stressed the causal nature of the universe. She wrote:

War is a judgement that overtakes societies when they have been living upon ideas that conflict too violently with the laws governing the universe…Never think that wars are irrational catastrophes: they happen when wrong ways of thinking and living bring about intolerable situations.

It is important to understand the nature of war — that it is a rational response to intolerable situations which have been brought about by wrong ways of thinking and living. Please bear with me for dwelling on that quote.
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Please Visit India in 2020

This is from the NOT A VERY BRIGHT IDEA Department. Mr. Ram Narayanan sent out an email reporting that a US Congressional delegation was going to visit India. Quote:

Congressman Crowley said, “…With over 300 million citizens considered middle class and with a burgeoning economy and geo-political role, strengthening US-India relations is more important now than ever for trade and security. I commend the Confederation of Indian Industries for putting together this exceptional program to give the delegation a well rounded overview of the political, economic and cultural vitality of India.”

Congressman Crowley’s delegation includes Congressman Steve Israel (NY), Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy (NY), Congresswoman Denise Majette (GA), Congressman Jim Marshall (GA), Congresswoman Barbara Lee (CA), Congressman Anthony Weiner (NY), and Congresswoman Linda Sanchez (CA). Congressman Gregory Meeks (NY) will join the delegation in Mumbai. Except for Congressman Crowley, no other member of the delegation has previously visited India.

None except Crowley has ever been to India?

The last thing one should do to people who are favorably inclined towards India (from news reports and such like) is to bring them to India. The disillusionment cannot be but a total reversal of opinion.

If all I knew about India was from hyped-up news reports that claim that India is an IT superpower, from pictures of the Taj Mahal, pictures of regal Royal Bengal tigers, pictures of pretty village women dressed in colorful ghagras carrying shiny pots on their heads, and other such advertizing copy, it would be a total shock for me to arrive at any of the international airports and find that it is so dilapidated that it beggars imagination, and from then on, it would be a downhill run when I see the unimaginable crowds and abject poverty amidst the filthy rich of any city of India.

I think the best thing for friends of India is to stay as far away from India as possible and to use their time reading the articles by President Kalam and other visionaries. I recommend they put off their visits till — shall we say — 2020.