A Very Short Essay on Problems — Part 1

A Tentative Taxonomy of Problems

Compared to all other life forms in the known universe, our species can be characterized as the one that consciously solves problems. There appears to be – at least in some specimens of our kind – an inherent drive to not only solve problems but in fact to seek out new problems to be solved. Of course, some would argue that many of our attempts to solve problems in turn create new problems. That in itself is probably not such a bad thing because otherwise we would have little to occupy ourselves with. Confronting challenges – natural as well as artificially created – exercises our faculties and makes us feel alive and lends purpose and meaning to our existence. Continue reading

The Final Word on SSRS and AOL

The time has come for me to bring to a close the matter of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and his Art of Living as discussed on this blog. It began with a simple enough request some years ago from my brother who asked me to check out AOL since he was (and continues to be) a big admirer of SSRS. I checked out the site and I realized that I had indeed heard of SSRS before. It was at an Indian classical music concert in San Francisco. The concert was being sponsored by the Art of Living Foundation (or something to that effect). Before the concert began, there was a fairly long video presentation promoting the AOL program. I recall seeing SSRS images on that promotional video and it seemed to me that the man was central to the movement. Continue reading

Science — Part 2

The post , a quote from Marvin Harris’s book, entitled Science, provoked a few comments that require responding to.

Karthik Rao Cavale objected to the apparent dismissal of Indian scientific achievements of the past by the claim by Harris that “it was in western Europe that the distinctive rules of the scientific method were first codified, given conscious expression, and systematically applied to the entire range of inorganic, organic, and cultural phenomena.” Continue reading

SSRS, AOL, and Devotees

AOL refers not to “America On Line” but rather to “The Art of Living” as taught by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (SSRS, in short).

A simple straight forward piece I wrote some years ago (Is Sri Sri Ravi Shankar a Con Man?) does get a lot of attention. I get emails from people, some of which is the average “I agree with you” type. Then there is the “How dare you even suggest that SSRS is not god almighty himself and that the sun does not shine out of his butt? You are an evil person” type. I would like to share part of one such exchange I had today with one SSRS worshipper (initials “AG”). Continue reading

“Free” Textbooks? Not really.

A particular instance of the general statement that there is no such thing as a free lunch is “There is no such thing as a free textbook.”

This line of thinking was provoked by an article titled “Ads Coming to Textbooks” (thanks to Rohit Malik) which reports that a publisher, Freeload Press, is trying to break into the $6 billion annual US textbook market by offering free PDF downloads of books which have embedded ads.

Ads supported free textbooks make sense only in specific instances and these do not include the particular instance of Indian education. Continue reading

Science

I like to read. Actually, I like to read what makes me think. And that makes me a slow reader. On top of that, I am lazy. So it is a rare book that I read cover to cover. But when I do read a book completely, I usually read it all over again. If it is worth reading once, I believe, it is worth reading a second time. One such book is by a favorite author of mine — Marvin Harris. He is an anthropologist. I first read him many years ago. I loved his book Our Kind so much that I ended up buying a dozen copies to gift to my friends. Another of his books that I enjoy giving is Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches.

These days I going through his book “Cultural Materialism: The Struggle for a Science of Culture” [© Marvin Harris 1979 Random House.] It is a delight. Here are a couple of paragraphs that I would like to share with you. Continue reading

Ethanol and Mr Vinod Khosla

Markets Work

Economists have a mantra which says “Markets work” and mumble under their breath the disclaimer “subject to a bunch of conditions, of course.” By “markets work” they mean that when a whole lot of buyers and sellers get together and buy and sell stuff, magic happens through Adam Smith’s invisible hand, and everyone ends up better off than they were before the trades took place. Each market participant has to be concerned with only his objective (maximizing utility in the case of consumers, and maximizing profits in the case of producers) and the maximization of social welfare is assured.

When you go to buy, say, fuel for your home, you check out the alternatives and buy what suits your purpose cheapest. Basically, subject to the thickness of your wallet, you demand a quantity based on the price which you take as a given and which you cannot alter. You really don’t care how the fuel was produced or mined, how it was transported, how it was stored, and a million other things that went it to the process of getting that fuel to the store. All you care about is the price, and rightly so, because the price encapsulates within itself all the information you need to make the decision.
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OLPC — Rest in Peace — Part 3

Voltaire’s dictum that the perfect is the enemy of the good is fascinating because of the delicious ambiguity embedded in it. The ambiguity arises from what one identifies as the “perfect” and the “good.” If perfection is by definition unattainable, and the good is defined as an attainable “optimal” (again defined suitably), then it is by definition true that an attempt to obtain an unattainable perfection can be a hindrance to an attainable good. Then the only disagreement remaining pertains to what is considered the “perfect” and what the “good.”

Since the “One Laptop Per Child” (OLPC) proposal is being considered here, we have to have alternate proposals which can be considered in contradistinction to it. I propose, for arguments sake, the “One Blackboard Per School” (OBPS), “One Teacher Per School” (OTPS), and “One Set of Basic Facilities Per School” (OSOBFPS) schemes out of many potential candidates. First, we will consider how they stack up against the OLPC proposition. The next thing we do is to figure out which of the alternates is the one that is “perfect” and which therefore poses the threat to the achievement of the “good.”
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