Ask Me Anything — The Silicon Valley Founders Edition

Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard

This is inspired by  my friend Rajan Parrikar’s post “Portraits of Success.” He references Carolyn Caddes‘s book, Portraits of Success – Impressions of Silicon Valley Pioneers (1986), which is a photographic tribute to the pioneers of Silicon Valley.

Among those featured in the book is Prof Terman (1900 – 1982) of Stanford University who is identified as “the Father of Silicon Valley.” Two of his students, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, were the first to follow his advice to start up their own electronics company. Thus was Hewlett-Packard Company formed in 1938 in a garage in Palo Alto, CA.

As it happens, I worked at HP in Cupertino, CA for a few years starting in the mid-1980s and even saw Bill and Dave in the facilities.  Continue reading

Economic Principles and Immunity from Silly Ideas

A reasonable way to think about any subject — science, engineering, technology, economics, etc etc — is to base the analysis on fundamental principles. It’s like using maths, starting with axioms and logically deriving theorems that can then be said to be true within that axiomatic system. If you know the underlying bits, you can work out the rest yourself — or rely on the work of others who have worked out the maths.

We know that there are fundamental principles, whether we know them or not. Some people do know, and they use that knowledge to make stuff that we find useful. I know precious little fluid dynamics but I know that those who design airplanes understand fluid mechanics, and I fly around in airplanes that are the result of various people’s understanding of various different scientific principles or truths.

Economics also has discovered certain “truths”. These relate to property, division of labor, exchange and subjective theory of value. These ideas are not generally known by people, and understandably so. They don’t need to. They get by very well without knowing them, thank you very much.
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The Decline and Fall of Bengal

A long time ago, maybe a thousand years ago but certainly a little over a hundred years ago, Bengal was remarkably prosperous. Something happened that led to its transformation from past prosperity to present destitution. What was it? A natural disaster, meaning something that was not humanly caused but something had natural causes? Or was it something that humans brought about by choice?

Let’s be very clear about one feature of this universe we inhabit. That is, nothing stays the same. Ceaseless change is unavoidable. The great, the seemingly invincible invariably decline and are replaced. The Buddhist call it anicca — impermanence. If you expect a changeless world, you are guaranteed to be disappointed.

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Role of the Government in a Free Society

Merely because governments routinely undertake to do a large number of things, most people tend to assume that it is not only legitimate for governments to do so but also believe that only governments can, should and must do them. This is a mistaken attitude that has enormous social costs that in the worst case impoverishes nations, and in the best case prevents nations from being as rich as they are capable of.

Free Society

Why do we need a government in any case? The answer could lead us to an understanding of the proper role a government in a free society. But what do we mean by a free society? A society is a collective comprised of individuals, and a free society is one in which every individual is free to do what he or she pleases provided that he or she does not impinge on the corresponding freedom of other individuals.

This freedom of the individual comes with a constraint, namely, that the individual does not initiate force against others, and respects the private property of others. The primary injunction can be stated as, “Do not harm others, and don’t take their property.”  Continue reading

Inequality, the Universe, and Technology

One of the more distinctive features of the universe is that it is unequal. It is unequal in the sense that it is not one mass of undifferentiated goo. It has differentiated features, starting with the distinction between inanimate and animate matter. A lump of coal is quite distinct from a squirrel even though at the most basic level, both are collections of atoms, each atom a composite of protons, neutrons and electrons–which reduces to two types of quarks and electrons.

In this essary I consider the matter of inequality and what it implies about the human condition and what therefore are its normative implications.[1]


What’s technology? I define technology broadly as “know how” — the knowledge of how to do something. The products of the technology have “know how” embodied in them. Every human artifact and process of production is, in that sense, a technology product. How to convert ore into metal, how to communicate using writing, how to transmit information using wires, or wirelessly, how to build a transistor, how to put 21 billion transistors on a tiny silicon chip, how to build a commercial jetliner starting from materials that are provided by nature, … ad infinitum. Continue reading

Government and Education

In a comment Ram wrote, “What are your thoughts on governments (or quasi government bodies) deciding what subjects should be taught in schools. For physical and social sciences, yes, I could think of market deciding it. But specifically what about languages? Can a government decide? But again, if we leave it to the market, some languages may not survive. I find it abhorrent that in some Indian states one could complete schooling all the way until Grade 12 without learning the local language.”

TL;DR version: Government should never get into any aspect of education — funding and running schools, dictating content, etc. That’s the job of parents, and if necessary, the job of society. Regarding languages, people decide what survives and what doesn’t. It’s a pity when a language dies but the use of force to keep a dying language alive cannot be morally justified.


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