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RIP Sir Arthur Clarke

20 March 2008 12:33 am

Pins and Labour

That the new 20 pound note would feature Adam Smith is old news. What I hadn’t known is that his pin-manufacturing ‘case study’ would be immortalized on banknotes as well:

New Twenty Pound Note - Adam Smith

1 Comment

13 March 2007 5:39 pm

Prahalad v Karnani re Fair and Lovely

Aneel Karnani and CK Prahalad lock horns on whether hawking Fair and Lovely cream to India’s poor constitutes socially responsible selling (argument, counter-argument, counter-counter-argument) (via Salon).

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22 February 2007 7:16 pm

India’s Research Gap

The Telegraph writes about a recent scientometric exercise comparing India’s and China’s science & technology workforce. The results are eye-opening for anyone who still believes that China and India can still be compared at roughly the same level. If I were an Indian policymaker I’d give up the organized S&T stats game as lost for the medium term and focus on other things instead.

  China India
Research Workforce 850,000 115,000
Fresh doctorates per year 40,000 4,500
Per Capita Research Spending $12.15 $3.53
Share of global research publications 5% 1.9%

1. Re-architect the education system starting at the primary level. China’s education push in the late 1970s is really paying off now, while India is bedazzled by its IITs and IIMs that service a vanishingly small fraction of its population. Merely rebranding other institutions with the IIT rubric isn’t helpful, what’s far more essential is a commitment to good universal primary education — something we have just not seen in the past.

2. Promote private research and entrepreneurship. India’s free-er society ought to produce world-class companies — and India’s large conglomerates are doing well in this regard. What’s missing is a systematic effort to encourage start-ups as low-cost test-tubes of innovation. It’s great that the SEZs are trying to cut red tape and aiming at a 7-day approval cycle for new companies, but why can’t a similar time-frame be applied across the country?

3. Stop complaining about talent being poached away. (which is what the PM’s scientific advisor is doing in the Telegraph article.) Instead figure out what how you can network with the poachers and use their help to help you grow the economy to the point where you’re less worried about poaching.

The communication in Current Science can be found here.

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20 February 2007 9:17 am

Quick Bits: Violence, English, Solar

Some of this is old news, but I had to flush my bloggable bookmarks queue, so here goes…

  • Solar Cells reach 40% efficiency. Slashdot notes that this means a sunlit area 265 miles square could meet the world’s energy needs. More practically, developing but energy-poor countries like India may have just found a way out of their energy trap. Solar panel infrastructure on roofs and two-way metering are just some innovations that would let Indian cities improve their residents’ quality of life in an environmentally friendly way.
  • “…In the end, America may be stronger for it.” Anti-offshoring lobbyist Scott Irwin shuts down his lobby group. (via)
  • Patent laws stifle drug innovation (via)
  • The Decline of Violence (via)
  • A Middle Ground on Climate, from the NYT. And reaction from RealClimate. (via)
  • English: a Celtic language with Germanic words?
  • “Extraterrestial Intelligent beings do not exist.”

1 Comment

22 January 2007 12:22 am

Quick Bits: Concrete, Bollywood, Piercings

2 Comments

10 November 2006 12:46 am

The Church of Gaia

In 2003, Michael Crichton aroused some indignation from largely-nonreligious environmentalists with his Environmentalism as Religion speech at the Commonwealth Club of California:

Today, one of the most powerful religions in the Western World is environmentalism. Environmentalism seems to be the religion of choice for urban atheists. Why do I say it’s a religion? Well, just look at the beliefs. If you look carefully, you see that environmentalism is in fact a perfect 21st century remapping of traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs and myths.

There’s an initial Eden, a paradise, a state of grace and unity with nature, there’s a fall from grace into a state of pollution as a result of eating from the tree of knowledge, and as a result of our actions there is a judgment day coming for us all. We are all energy sinners, doomed to die, unless we seek salvation, which is now called sustainability. Sustainability is salvation in the church of the environment. Just as organic food is its communion, that pesticide-free wafer that the right people with the right beliefs, imbibe.

Eden, the fall of man, the loss of grace, the coming doomsdaythese are deeply held mythic structures. They are profoundly conservative beliefs.

Fast forward to 2006 and the Anglican church has decided to become eco-friendly. Richard Chartres, the Anglican Bishop of London, was recently quoted in the Sunday Times as saying “Making selfish choices, such as flying on holiday or buying a large car, are a symptom of sin.”

BBC Radio 4’s Today programme had a short but interesting chat (mp3) with the man today, and I thought some of what he had to say was particularly apposite to the environmentalism-as-Faith (capital F) thesis:

Q: … You’re a bishop, and what gives what you say particular force is when you give it a moral dimension, which is why I’m trying to establish whether you’re saying … whether the language of language of sin is appropriate to use in the context of these decisions [flying on holiday, buying a large car].

A: … The language of sin is absolutely right as we look at our responsibility as people living in what we believe to be a creation… the responsibility to their neighbours especially the poor of the world and our responsibility to our wellbeing so I think it is very proper to put these questions in the context of our moral responsibility … and that’s what a Christian understands sin to be … sin is living a life that’s turned in upon itself that’s unaware of responsibility and connections.

Q: So we should think about things like the sort of decision we take about the car we buy in the same context and in the same way as we think about decisions we make about relationships with other people, sex, all those issues which perhaps have been more traditionally the area in which people have used terms like, particularly like, living in sin?

A: Well that’s absolutely right because our energy use is something that has an impact on the creation and on other people. And seeing that it is a really important moral issue is one of the ways in which the church has to respond I think to the conditions of today [...]

(The rather hurried transcript’s mine.) It is fascinating to see the environmental movement’s message of ecological responsibility being co-opted as a religious message, turning the non-compliers into sinners, with all the heavy connotations that word contains (would people who enjoy driving end up with the gluttons in the third circle of Hell?).

I’m sure the intention behind these interviews, and of the bishop’s recent booklet on environmental matters circulated to every diocese, is noble — to appear to be a church that’s up-to-date with the current scientific consensus. And yet in doing so, Bishop Chartres has harkened back to one of the oldest devices of organized religion (and a particularly Puritan device at that) — control and prohibit the things the masses might like under threat of damnation and bring them back to a life less filled with luxuries and presumably closer to God. Me, I’m betting technological innovation (examples 1 2) will before long make such sinning unncecessary: a culture of environmentally inspired privation is no more necessary than a culture kept in privation by vested religious interests or poor state planning.

1 Comment

25 July 2006 1:44 am

Blondes are an Endangered Species

Blondes are an endangered species: too few people now carry the gene for blondes to last beyond the next two centuries. A study by experts in Germany suggests people with blonde hair are an endangered species and will become extinct by 2202. I suspect gene therapy and designer babies will make the problem moot by then.

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26 February 2006 9:54 pm

The Digital Bourgeoisie

Instapundit talks about how easily accessible bits are changing the fundamentals of several industries, and finds the creeping hand of Karl Marx. For example in computer software

the first indication came when the falling price of computers crossed the point where the average programmer could afford to own a computer capable of producing the code from which he typically earned his living. This meant that, for the first time since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the ownership of the most critical tool of production in the most critical industry of the world’s leading economy was readily affordable by the individual worker. Throughout the first three decades of the Information Age, the individual worker was still dependent on his employer for his means of production, just as any textile worker in Manchester or Lawrence was in 1840.

Suddenly, this changed. Now it is as if a steelworker could afford his own blast furnace or rolling mill, an automobile worker his own assembly line.

It is hardly surprising that the nascent free software movement exploded in the early 90s, especially after Linus’ success with Linux — powered by cheap x86 processors and a cheap data network (the Internet) the share-alike academic ideal of MIT AI Lab became a practical reality for millions of users.

As pointed out, there are lots of interesting implications for webloggers (free news/opinion creators) and audio- and video-casters (free broadcasters): the entreched media will find it hard to compete in an environment where one-man shops can reach out as much as they do. Like the computer software industry, entrenched media will not die, but it will have to change.

2 Comments

27 November 2004 11:45 am

Partisan Hats and Academic Hats

Joshua Allen notes that Tanenbaum — in his current incarnation as the Votemaster — does not seem to be too rigorous about statistics.

I was struck by this as well, while going through the Votemaster FAQ, where he accepts the statistically questionable Lancet study without question: Over 100,000 Iraqi civilians have died in the war, mostly women and children, he says.

Of course, given that he is a declared partisan in this contest, it is likely that Tanenbaum abandoned academic rigour for more effective rhetoric. However it also underlines why academic enquiry and politics don’t mix; to do either effectively, putting on one hat requires putting down the other.

2 Comments

2 November 2004 5:55 am

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