The Tangled Web – Part 9

Chennai Policy Makers’ Conference Oct 2003

Date: 10th October, 2003.

The digital divide seems to be all the rage these days. Take for instance the recent two days I spent in Chennai. The M S Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) had organized a Policy Makers’ Workshop at their campus in Chennai on October 8th and 9th. The workshop was supported by two “Canadian crown corporations”, the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). (Those two have a budget of about Canadian $100 million.)
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The Tangled Web – Part 8

Jigsaw Puzzles

“Oh what a tangled web we weave, When we first practice to deceive,” lamented good old Scotty (the poet that is, not the guy with his warp drives and dilithium crystals). But I have noticed that in our attempt to un-deceive ourselves, which is what learning is about, we are also forced to weave a tangled web. It is a tangled web of relationships we slowly build in our minds and gradually a pattern emerges if we are lucky. Unresolved variables and dangling references scattered around the edges of our minds wait to be added to the mental construct over successive iterations.
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The Tangled Web — Part 7

Expectation Matters

George Akerlof’s seminal contribution to economic theory is in the area of information imperfection and how it affects markets. His paper, “The Market for Lemons”, is brilliant and an easy read. Information asymmetry between the buyers and sellers of used cars (very poor quality used cars are the lemons that Akerlof talks about) leads to that specific market failure. The role of expectations is critical in that specific case. In fact, I am persuaded that expectations play a very important role in how human systems behave dynamically.
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The Tangled Web — Part 6

The Lumpy Universe

One of the puzzles that cosmologists grapple with is the question of why the universe is lumpy. The universe has structure today – from super clusters of galaxies, to galaxies, stars and all sorts of other objects down to planets and asteroids. But the universe was much simpler earlier in its history. How did all these clumps of matter evolve from an undifferentiated soup of elementary particles and forces that existed in the early universe following the Big Bang?

A lot of very clever people have been doing a lot of hard sums for many years and have been partially successful in explaining why the universe is the way it is. There are inflationary models and there are string theories which attempt explanations. We just don’t know for sure. But the fact remains that the universe is lumpy. And we should be really grateful that it is so because its lumpiness is what makes the universe interesting. Not just interesting, it also makes us possible so that we can marvel at the nature of the universe. We should pause to consider that if the universe were uniform, it would have been sterile and we would not be here. The non-uniformity of the universe which arose for who knows what reasons is what makes for an interesting universe.
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The Tangled Web — Part 5

Rules can be considered the secret sauce in the recipe for a successful society. The biological equivalent to a rule set is the DNA which encodes genes. Like good genes confer reproductive success and ensure the perpetuation of the species, good rules allow societies to succeed in the great game of economic survival. Two societies with equivalent endowments of natural and human resources can end up with different levels of prosperity if their rule sets are not equally good.

The question naturally arises: why do different societies end up with different rule sets? Who’s in charge of making the rules? And there is a follow-up question. Rules have public good characteristics. That is, they are not physical objects that are rival in consumption. If you use a rule, I too can the same rule without depriving you of the use of the rule. So if you have a good rule set, I can costlessly imitate the set and achieve equally good results. Rules are like secret sauces except for that they are not secret. So the question is why don’t people copy good rules. To explore these two questions, let me begin with addressing a personal matter.
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The Tangled Web — Part 4

Survey

For the last couple of years I have been doing an informal survey. Every now and then I ask people a simple question: Have you read the Indian constitution? I may pop that question while addressing a meeting; or in a discussion with a small group; or to the person sitting next to me on a flight. I estimate that I have asked this question to about 10,000 people at random – friends, family, acquaintances, strangers. Not a single person among the whole lot has ever admitted to having read the Indian constitution.

One wonders why. Everyone surveyed was most certainly literate, most even had higher education. Many of them were involved in – or at least had a deep interest in – socio-political matters. All of them were definitely citizens of “the socialist, secular, democratic, republic” of India.
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The Tangled Web — Part 3

TataIndicom

I live in a development called “Magarpatta City” on the southeastern edge of Pune. Like most other recent real estate developments around the country, it is a gated community. It is far from complete and but most services are available, although choices are limited. One service essential to me is internet connectivity. The only service provider within the complex is VSNL TataIndicom Broadband.

It is “broadband” only if you have a sufficiently flexible definition of broadband. (You know, like “2 + 2 = 5” for sufficiently large values of “2”.) It is actually fairly narrowband. But stuck between a rock and a hard place, you takes what you gets and you pays whatever they demands because they are a local monopoly. The choice is simple: take it or leave it. And that is precisely the attitude that TataIndicom takes around here. The system fails fairly regularly and when you call their customer service, you get no service. Your call ends up at some call center. The impression that I get is that these call centers are staffed with people with subhuman IQ. It is a frustrating experience getting them to actually understand what the problem is. But perhaps it is not their fault entirely. The systems that they rely on are pathetic.
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The Tangled Web — Part 2

Talk to Me

You can learn a lot from talking to people. Long train journeys were a prefect setting to have long conversations with perfect strangers, people who have a different point of view, a different set of life experiences. Now that these days there are very few train journeys, long cab rides are the substitute setting for me to conduct an impromptu interview. Books and other publications generally give you a macro-level view of the world. For a micro-level understanding, you have to talk to people who you would not come across in the pages of a newspaper or a book.
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The Tangled Web — Part 1

Death

Someone I used to know in California died rather suddenly. It was about 20 years ago. She and her husband were casual friends of mine. The perfect yuppie couple, they had everything going for them. Then she started having back pain. They were into fitness and perhaps the back pain was due to some sprained muscle while at the gym. A few visits to the doctors, a few more to chiropractors, a bit of muscle relaxants and pain killers, a few more visits to the medical establishments—a few months went by and the symptoms kept getting worse. Finally, it was diagnosed as cancer. She died within six months of that determination. It was later said that if they had discovered what the problem was, she might have had a fighting chance against the cancer. As it happened, she had lost too much time while her misdiagnosed symptoms were being treated.
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