Friday, 29 February 2008

My Collection of Lightbulb Jokes

I've gathered these over the years from various sources (apologies if offence is caused to any group):
How many male chauvinist pigs does it take to change a light bulb? None, make her cook in the dark.

How many jugglers does it take to change a light bulb? One, but it takes three bulbs.

How many dull people does it take to change a light bulb? One.

How many blondes does it take to screw in a light bulb? (pause) I get it! This is one of those light bulb jokes, right?

How many babysitters does it take to change a light bulb? None, Pampers don't come in a size that small.

How many telemarketers does it take to change a light bulb? Only one, sir, but they have to do it while you're eating dinner.

How many help-desk employees does it take to change a light bulb? Hmmmm. The bulb works fine in *my* office. You must be doing something wrong.

How many free-market economists does it take to change a light bulb? None. The demand for light will cause the light bulb to change by itself. The government must not change it!

How many communists does it take to screw in a light bulb? None. The light bulb contains the seeds of its own revolution.

How many mutants does it take to screw in a light bulb? Two thirds.

How many residents of Orange County, Florida does it take to change a light bulb? Nobody knows, they're still counting.

How many evolutionists does it take to change a light bulb? Only one, but it takes eight million years.

How many stockbrokers does it take to change a light bulb? Oh, no! The bulb's out? Sell my GE stock NOW!!

How many dyslexics does it change to take a light bulb? Eno.

How many Zen masters does it take to change a light bulb? Two. One to change it, and one not to change it.

How many Pentium owners does it take to change a light bulb? 0.99987, but that's close enough for most applications.

How many mystery writers does it take to change a light bulb? Two. One to screw the bulb almost all the way in, and one to give it a surprising twist at the end.

How many programmers does it take to change a light bulb? None, that's a hardware problem.

How many software engineers does it take to change a light bulb? Two. One always leaves in the middle of the project.

How many safety inspectors does it take to change a light bulb? Four. One to change it, and three to hold the ladder.

How many chiropractors does it take to change a light bulb? One, but it takes them three visits.

How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb? One, but only if the light bulb really wants to change.

How many Freudians does it take to change a light bulb? Two. One to hold the ladder, and one to change my mother - I mean, er, ah... the light bulb.

How many optimists does it take to screw in a light bulb? None, the power will come back anytime now.

How many women with PMS does it take to change a light bulb? Six. Why? IT JUST DOES, OKAY??!!

How many board meetings does it take to get a light bulb changed? This topic was resumed from last week's discussion, but is incomplete, pending resolution of some action items. It will be continued next week.

How many surrealists does it take to change a light bulb? Two. One to hold the giraffe, and one to put the clocks in the bathtub.

How many senior citizens does it take to screw in a light bulb? One, but she pays a telemarketer $2000 for the new bulb.

How many paranoids does it take to change a light bulb? WHO IS IT THAT WANTS TO KNOW?

How many narcissists does it take to change a light bulb? One. He holds the bulb while the world revolves around him.

How many procrastinators does it take to screw in a light bulb? One, but he has to wait until the light is better.

How many visitors to an art gallery does it take to screw in a light bulb? Two, one to do it and one to say "Huh! My four-year old could've done that!"

How many reference librarians does it take to change a light bulb? I don't know, I'll have to check on that and get back to you.

How many income tax agents does it take to screw in a light bulb? Only one, but it gets really screwed.

How many science fiction writers does it take to change a light bulb? Two, but it's actually the same person doing it. He went back in time and met himself in the doorway and then the first one sat on the other one's shoulder so that they were able to reach it.

One. How many psychics does it take to change a light bulb?

And a variant: How many dogs does it take to change a lightbulb?


Golden Retriever - The sun is shining, the day is young, we've got our whole lives ahead of us and you're inside worrying about a stupid burned out bulb.

Border Collie - Just one. And then I'll replace any wiring that's not up to code and repaint the wall where you scuffed it in the dark, before moving on to the plumbing.

Dachshund - You know I can't reach that stupid lamp!

Rottweiler - Make me.

Boxer - Who cares? I can play with my squeaky toy in the dark.

Lab. - Oh, me, me!!!!!! Pleeeeeeeeeeze let me change the light bulb! Can I? Can I? Huh? Huh? Huh? Can I? Pleeeeeeze, please, please, please pick me!

German Shepherd - I'll change it as soon as I've led everyone from the dark room, made sure no one was hurt, checked to make sure I haven't missed any, and made one more perimeter patrol to see that no one has tried to take advantage of the dark situation.

Jack Russell - I'll just pop it in while I'm bouncing off the walls and furniture.

Old English Sheep Dog - Light bulb? I don't see a light bulb, I don't see a lamp. Where am I? Where are you?

Cocker Spaniel - Why change it? If I pee on the carpet in the dark, I won't get caught till you step in it.

Chihuahua - Yo quiero Taco Bulb.

Pointer - I see it, there it is, there it is ..... right there......

Greyhound - It isn't moving..... Who cares?

Australian Shepherd - First, let me put all the light bulbs in a little circle.

Poodle - I'll just blow in the Border Collie's ear and he'll do it. By the time he finishes rewiring the house, my nails will be dry.

THE PARROT - Shhhh! Now that it's dark, its my nap time.

THE CAT - Dogs do not change light bulbs. People change light bulbs. So, the real question is: How long will it be before I can expect some light, some dinner and a massage?
Got any others?

What Causes Heart Attacks (Humour)

I got this in a mail today (Thanks, you know who you are).

After an exhaustive review of the research literature, here's the final word on nutrition and health:

1. Japanese eat very little fat and suffer fewer heart attacks than us.
2. Mexicans eat a lot of fat and suffer fewer heart attacks than us.
3. Chinese drink very little red wine and suffer fewer heart attacks than us.
4. Italians drink excessive amounts of red wine and suffer fewer heart attacks than us.
5. Germans drink beer and eat lots of sausages and fats and suffer fewer heart attacks than us.
6. The French eat fois-gras, full fat cheese and drink red wine and suffer fewer heart attacks than us.

CONCLUSION: Eat and drink what you like. Speaking English is apparently what kills you.
I know this is serious stuff, and not just for the Anglo Caucasians that the joke refers to. South Asian males like myself are at greater risk of a heart attack than males of other ethnicities. But laughter being as effective a weapon against death as any other, perhaps that only confirms the above conclusion...? English is widely spoken in South Asia.

The Earth at Night

NASA has some absolutely amazing pictures of the Earth as seen from space at night. These pictures are astounding both for their technical magic (splicing together photographs taken of different parts of the earth at different times into one complete world map) and for what they tell us about the world.

Click on the image below to see a bigger picture:

I wasn't surprised to see the degree of economic activity in Western Europe, the US, Canada or Japan. I was surprised at what I saw of India and China.

Other than the developed countries, only India has such a uniform coverage of lights. The country is obviously far more developed than even I had imagined (Only the poorer eastern states of Orissa and Bihar show less lighting, which I guess was to be expected). What brings this into even starker relief is the clear demarcation of national boundaries between India and many of its near neighbours. Burma, Tibet, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan - all eerily dark. Pakistan fades away towards the west. Only Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh share in the light. [With Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, I guess that's a natural consequence of being such densely populated countries, so one shouldn't be too surprised.] Even the relatively neglected northeastern states of India are well-lit, showing that India as a whole seems to be balanced in its development.

The other big surprise was China. It appears that only the eastern third of China is developed and densely populated. In other words, even though China is three times larger than India in area, the habitable areas are roughly comparable, and so are the populations (over a billion people each).

More insights:

It's sad to see vast areas of the earth underdeveloped - most of Africa and large parts of South America and Asia.

Urban development in eastern Russia seems to hang off the Trans-Siberian Railway. The railway seems to be the lifeline of economic activity in Siberia, just as rivers were the magnets for human habitation in the past.

I had expected to see signs of development in eastern Brazil, and in Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador. But Uruguay was a pleasant surprise. Likewise the Caribbean. Jamaica I had expected, but Puerto Rico? That's the brightest spot in the Caribbean.

I had read that Pakistan's northwestern region was backward, but now I can see it for myself.

I can also clearly see the difference between South and North Korea.

Finally, Australia is almost as large as the US in area, but alas! We are in fact a tiny country, as the map unmercifully reveals.

This map is "alive". It's not a standard map of the kind we see all the time in atlases. This is real. It gives us astounding insights into how people actually live. I can gaze at it for hours.

Saturday, 23 February 2008

Serves them Right (Insurance should not be a Business)

Here's a great business model: Start a health insurance company. Promise to insure people against all kinds of diseases and keep collecting their premiums every month. Go public, so now you have shareholder expectations to meet. When a policyholder does develop a disease and makes a claim, simply cancel their policy to avoid paying out any money. Your profits stay high, you meet Street expectations and you can pay yourself handsome bonuses for running a successful business.

Health Net tried just that, but a judge wasn't amused. The insurer had to pay $9 million dollars in punitive damages to the policyholder whose policy they had cancelled at the very time she needed the money to pay for her cancer treatment. $9 million dollars! Scratch that business model. It doesn't seem to work, does it?

I have believed for some time now that insurance is very different from other businesses. Insurance is about spreading risk. That's why I'm also against extensive checks before policies are handed out. Why? Just take it to its logical conclusion. Take breast cancer, for example. There are fairly foolproof genetic tests these days that can tell if a person is predisposed to breast cancer or not. If insurance companies begin to use the test and only offer policies to women who report negative on the test, then the very purpose of insurance is defeated. The women who are accepted as policyholders are just wasting their money, because they aren't likely to develop cancer anyway. The women who are in danger of developing cancer at a later stage will have no means of paying for their treatment because they can't get an insurer to cover them. Better to stick to the current model where everyone pays a premium amount small enough not to break their budget, so that the unfortunate few who do develop the disease have the money to pay for their (expensive) treatment.

Certainty defeats the purpose of insurance.

While we strive for certainty in most things, insurance should not be one of them. It is uncertainty that makes insurance work, and we must keep that alive. Yes, it's a form of socialism when we take from everyone to support a few needy individuals, but then, so are taxes.

Insurance works. So does capitalism. The combination doesn't. I believe insurance companies should be not-for-profit mutual societies, not listed corporations.

Attacking NAFTA? Don't Clinton and Obama have the guts to support Free Trade?

So both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are desperately struggling to portray themselves as opponents of NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement). In Obama's case, he is (truthfully or otherwise) alleging that Hillary was once a strong supporter of NAFTA. The reasons for their desperate positioning are simple. The next phase of the Democratic primaries is moving to Ohio and Texas, big manufacturing states that have seen 3 million jobs move to cheaper Mexico.

They're pushing a protectionist agenda to win votes.

Well, I'm not running for US President, so I can proclaim, without fear of alienating voters, that I support NAFTA and other Free Trade agreements. My only complaint about Free Trade agreements is that they exclude countries not in their scope. I want to see a single global Free Trade agreement covering all the countries of the world. I want to see free movement of capital, goods and labour from surplus locations to deficit locations on demand, with the minimum of friction and irrational roadblocks.

Yes, Ohio and Texas lost 3 million jobs to Mexico. But that's the whole point! Jobs need to move to wherever they're done more efficiently. What we need in Texas and Ohio is not public lobbying to "change NAFTA" but people plunging into fresh training to equip themselves for jobs better done in the US. Attitude wanted: Good riddance to those manufacturing jobs! Let's now show the world what America can do!

I can understand that people cannot be reasonably expected to support an economic regime that causes them to lose their jobs, but statesmen must educate the public about the benefits of Free Trade. When you retrain yourself into a profession that your country does better at, you earn more, and you pay less for the goods and services that you need, because they're now produced by countries that do those jobs better and cheaper. Everybody is better off, but the process of adjustment and getting there may not be easy. It's highly personal (more on my personal experience in a moment), and it can hurt. It can also distort judgement and subvert sound economic policy.

Let me explain Ricardo's Law of Comparative Advantage, because it's something most people, even those who have studied economics at high school, probably don't really understand. And in this context, let me recommend this excellent book, "New Ideas from Dead Economists", by Todd G. Buchholz (Penguin Books).

Buchholz's chapter on David Ricardo provides a beautiful and counter-intuitive example to show why Free Trade is good.

Most people have a rather unsophisticated understanding of what Free Trade is about. Some may say that if country A is better at producing shoes than country B, and country B is better at producing butter than country A, then the two countries should specialise, with country A producing shoes exclusively and country B producing butter exclusively, and they should trade with each other.

That is correct, but there's actually more. Ask yourself, if country A is better than country B at producing shoes as well as butter, should it bother trading with country B at all?

The answer from Ricardo's Law of Comparative Advantage may surprise you. Yes, it should.

A little mathematics may make it clearer.

Let's say that country A makes a quantity of shoes for $10 million and a quantity of butter for $20 million. Let's also say that country B is less efficient at either, requiring $15 million to produce the same quantity of shoes and $45 million to produce the same quantity of butter.

Let's also say that country A has a budget of $2 billion, which it can spend on production. Country B has a budget of $3.6 billion.

Let's say that country A haughtily decides not to trade with its less efficient counterpart. Then with $2 billion split evenly between shoes and butter, country A would produce 100 units of shoes and 50 units of butter. Country B, splitting $3.6 billion equally between the two products, would produce 120 units of shoes and 40 units of butter. Together, the two countries would produce 220 units of shoes and 90 units of butter for a cost outlay of $5.6 billion.

But what if the countries had, against all conventional logic, decided to specialise and trade anyway? If country A specialised in butter, then it would produce 100 units of butter. Similarly, country B, specialising in shoes, would produce 240 units. In other words, the two countries would together produce 240 units of shoes and 100 units of butter for the same cost outlay of $5.6 billion.

That's an extra 20 units of shoes and 10 units of butter just because of specialisation and trade, even though country A was more efficient than country B in the production of both products!

Therein lies the genius of Ricardo's Law of Comparative Advantage. It shows why Free Trade is always better.

If you're flummoxed by this and suspect there's some mathematical sleight of hand here, the logic is actually quite simple. Country A is 1.5 times more efficient than country B in the production of shoes ($15 million to $10 million per unit), but 2.25 times more efficient than country B in the production of butter ($45 million to $20 million per unit). Therefore country A should concentrate on the production of the product in which they have a greater efficiency advantage, - in this case, butter. [Note that if the two countries had specialised differently, they would have produced only 200 units of shoes and 80 units of butter, worse than in the no-trade case. So it's not about Free Trade alone, but also Free Markets that decide where efficiencies lie.]

Let me once again inject a personal note into this debate. I was able to migrate to Australia because of a relatively free market in labour. Ironically, my job is under threat today from cheaper sources in my native country, India. You may say I straddle both sides of the Free Trade debate. On the one hand, I have benefited from Free Trade, because I have been able to move myself and my family to a country with a better standard of living (and many other attractive features). On the other, I am more threatened in terms of job security because of the same Free Trade regime. Now that I am an Australian citizen, should I turn around and vote for protectionist economic policies? (We're in now, shut the door!)

I know what it's like to lose one's job. I was unemployed (for a thankfully brief period of 6 weeks) when the dot-com crash occurred. So I will not gloss over the very real hardship that unemployment causes. My wife and I went through some pretty severe mental stress because of it, and can imagine the effects on our lifestyle had my unemployment continued. But I still say protectionism is a cure that is worse than the disease. For long-term global prosperity, there is no alternative to Free Trade - Free Trade in goods, capital and labour. Free Trade promises us all greater prosperity, but demands from us greater agility, - a willingness to adapt, learn and change.

It's a pity that neither Democratic candidate is willing to stand up for that. Instead of attacking NAFTA, they should be proposing schemes to help US citizens retrain themselves for other, better professions. Governments should protect citizens, not from competition, but from stagnation.

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

How to Deal with Telemarketers and Junk Mail

I got these wonderful tips in the mail today (thanks, you know who you are) and just had to share them.

(1) The three little words: "Hold on, please..."

Saying this while putting down your phone and walking off, instead of hanging up immediately, would make each telemarketing call so much more time-consuming that boiler room sales would grind to a halt.

Then when you eventually hear Telstra's "beep-beep-beep" tone, you know it's time to go back and hang up your handset, which has efficiently completed its task.

These three little words will help eliminate telephone soliciting.

(2) Do you ever get those annoying phone calls with no one on the other end? This is a telemarketing technique where a machine makes phone calls and records the time of day when a person answers the phone. This technique is used to determine the best time of day for a "real" salesperson to call back and get someone at home.

What you can do after answering, if you notice there is no one there, is to immediately start hitting the # button on your phone, 6 or 7 times, as quickly as possible. This confuses the machine that dialled the call and it kicks your number out of their system. Gosh, what a shame not to have your name in their system any longer!

(3) When you get those "pre-approved" letters in the mail for everything from credit cards to second mortgages and similar type junk, do not throw away the return envelope.

Most of these come with postage-prepaid return envelopes, right? It costs them more than the regular 50 cents postage IF and when they get them back.

It costs them nothing if you throw the envelopes away! In that case, why not get rid of some of your other junk mail and put it in these cool little, postage-prepaid return envelopes?

Send an ad for your local chimney cleaner to American Express. Send a pizza coupon to Westpac.

If you didn't get anything else that day, then just send them their blank application back!

If you want to remain anonymous, just make sure your name isn't on anything you send them.

You can even send the envelope back empty if you want to just keep them guessing! It still costs them $1.00.

The banks and credit card companies are currently getting a lot of their own junk back in the mail, but folks, we need to OVERWHELM them.

Let's let them know what it's like to get lots of junk mail, and best of all they're paying for it... Twice!

Let's help keep Australia Post busy too since they're saying that e-mail is cutting into their business profits, and that's why they need to increase postage costs again. You get the idea!

If enough people follow these tips, it will work ---- maybe you'll get very little junk mail.
I guess this advice is tailored to people in Australia (especially the part about hitting the # button on your phone), but there should be something in this for everyone pestered by telemarketing and junk mail.

Friday, 15 February 2008

The Perverse Consumer

There was a new cake of soap when I stepped into the shower the other day. My wife had obviously changed brands during her latest shopping trip. A nasty surprise, however, awaited me as I began to apply it over myself. The thing positively reeked of rotten coconut!

After the shower, I picked up the box in which the soap had come. It proudly proclaimed the soap's distinguishing ingredient - shea butter. I had never heard of shea butter before, but had the manufacturers actually taken the effort to smell this most wondrous of nature's products, I daresay only sheer sadism or a desire to make a loss would have compelled them to then put it into their next product.

It reminds me of Dove soap. On the rare occasions when I'm forced to use Dove soap, I feel I'm applying a generous layer of slime over myself, slime that doesn't wash off easily and leaves me feeling slimy even after I finish my shower. I'm sure Procter and Gamble thinks people like being covered in slime (I heard mudpacks are popular too), and they may be right, since the blessed product has been on the shelves as long as I can remember, and the company hasn't folded yet.

I can't believe people would actually pay money to cover themselves in slime or rotten coconut, but at least they could claim deceptive advertising. They were told it was cream or shea butter, as the case may be.

What I can't understand are the products with upfront outrageous names. As a teenager just starting to shave in India many years ago, I was confronted with ads recommending Savage shaving blades and razors. Hint to customer: If you want to look like a savage, the last thing you need is a shaving product.

And what about Brute aftershave lotion (the Indian brand, not to be confused with Brut)? Further hint to customer: If you want to smell like a brute, you don't need aftershave. You don't need to do a thing on the odour front. For several days.

After coming to Australia, I've seen at least two more products of this kind.

Dirty Dog sunglasses are one. (Listen mate, I can suggest far cheaper ways to look like a dirty dog if that's the look you want.)

And who eats at the Hog's Breath Café anyway? Does the waiter tell you, "Here's your order, Sir. I just pulled it out of the garbage bin. I saw a pig sniffing at it, but it didn't want to eat it. Here, you eat it!"

Is that the profile of an ideal consumer, then? Someone who is groomed like a savage, smells like a brute, looks like a dirty dog and eats stuff that pigs wouldn't touch?

Well, the franchises in question are reportedly doing well, so I'm sure I'll see lots of people fitting that description walking about...

[Update: I saw a tin of "Foul Medammas (cooked Fava beans)" at Harris Farm Markets last weekend. Talk about brutal honesty.]

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Australia says Sorry

I saw the 11:30 am replay of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's speech to parliament today, on a big screen at Martin Place. It was a really moving and inspiring speech, and Rudd was absolutely impressive, with his strong, clear voice and sincere tone.

Speaking of sincerity, I'm now glad that John Howard refused to say Sorry during his four terms. The man has been long outed as a cynical politician. If he had made today's speech, he would have cheapened it with his pained expression of fake sincerity. (I can't resist putting the boot into Howard. He inspires loathing.) Kevin Rudd is still fresh and unspoiled. He came across as sincere and committed to making a difference.

I won't dwell on the actual Stolen Generations issue. I think that's covered well enough elsewhere. I just had a couple of observations. There was a point in the prime minister's speech where what was left unsaid weighed more heavily than what was said.

Describing the hurt and brutality in the way children were separated from their mothers, Rudd said, "These stories are crying out to be heard. These stories are crying out for an apology."

He left the logical third sentence unspoken.

These stories are crying out for compensation.

I don't believe reconciliation will be complete until some form of compensation is made to the many thousands of Aboriginal people affected by the government's policy. The Stolen Generations have a cast-iron case for a class-action lawsuit against the Australian government.

My second observation is that in all the backslapping over the Labor government's laudable achievement, it is possible to overlook the many valid points made by opposition leader Brendan Nelson in his speech. I can agree with his statement that in many cases, good was sought to be done, that "removal from squalor led to better lives with children fed, housed and educated".

But I can also readily believe that the establishment of the day was complex and many-faced. Some of those responsible for taking away Aboriginal children from their parents may genuinely have believed that they were giving the children a better life. But there were undoubtedly others of a more "final solution" bent of mind, who apparently wrote about the "Aboriginal problem" and how, with the policy of forced removal, the indigenous races would soon perish and the "half-breeds" would be reabsorbed into white society. A chilling thought.

More than Rudd, it was Nelson who pointed out in detail the problems of contemporary Aboriginal people - "lower life expectancy, alcohol abuse, welfare without responsibilities, corrupt management of resources, nepotism, political buckpassing, lack of home ownership, under-policing and tolerance by authorities of neglect and abuse of children." He called this, evocatively, "existential aimlessness". Nelson also pointed out the endemic sexual abuse of children in Aboriginal societies.

But it was Rudd who set out hard targets:
  1. to halve the gap in literacy, numeracy and employment opportunities for indigenous Australians within a decade
  2. to halve the gap in infant mortality rates between indigenous and non-indigenous children within a decade
  3. to close the 17-year life expectancy gap between indigenous and non-indigenous people within a generation
  4. to have every indigenous four-year-old in a remote Aboriginal community enrolled in and attending a proper early childhood education centre and engaged in proper pre-literacy and pre-numeracy programs within 5 years
  5. to build new educational opportunities for these children, year by year, following the completion of their pre-school year
It's a mammoth task, but it was reassuring to observe the bipartisan support for this in parliament. The leaders of both the government and the opposition have pledged to work together to achieve these outcomes. I believe these targets will be reached, because I believe, from what I have seen of him, that Kevin Rudd is a good manager and a no-nonsense taskmaster. I just know he will make all of this happen.

Now, all we need is a more humane (although not naive) immigration policy. Then we can hold our heads up as Australians and also get Amnesty International off our backs.

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Do Ethnic Minorities Volunteer Less?

This Monday's Sydney Morning Herald carried a disturbing news item titled "Fewer volunteers in migrant suburbs". This is a study carried out by a researcher at Monash University and concludes that suburbs with high levels of ethnic diversity have lower levels of volunteering, and this challenges the conventional wisdom that diversity leads to a stronger, more cohesive society. It's disturbing to me because I believe there is more than a little truth in it. Most volunteers I have come across in my 10 years in this country have been white Anglo-Celtic Australians. So from a purely unscientific, personal observation, I would have to painfully accept the findings of the study, although its conclusions around social cohesion may still be arguable.

I looked into my own mind to understand why I have myself never volunteered. [I participated in a walk in aid of juvenile diabetes research once, I do donate blood once or twice a year, plus I donate to charities once in a while, but I don't think any of that counts as "volunteering". To my mind, volunteering is the regular sacrifice of one's time and effort towards some community activity.]

I can think of some reasons for the study's findings:

1. First, the nitpick. The study says that 18% of Australian-born middle-income earners aged 25-64 were volunteers, but only 13% of those from non-English speaking countries were. Is this really much of a difference? Are we merely comparing 'low' and 'lower'?

2. Speaking for myself and my wife, both of us work full-time to pay off a mortgage. We're painfully aware that we came to this country in our mid-thirties with hardly any assets, and we have a lot of catching up to do, monetarily speaking. We could not afford to buy a property in Epping, and we used to envy the Australian-born residents of that suburb who were sitting pretty on expensive properties on which the mortgages were long since paid off. Perhaps we unconsciously view volunteering as a luxury that only people with a more comfortable financial situation can afford. When a family can get by comfortably on one partner's income, the other can afford to volunteer and thereby keep themselves occupied as well. New migrants simply don't have the time to spare. They're too busy catching up. The weekends go towards kids' activities, grocery shopping, houseful chores that couldn't be done during the week, social engagements and just plain, much-needed relaxation. If a volunteer activity is going to take a 2-4 hour bite out of a weekend, it's a pretty big chunk of one's spare time. Moreover, if it's an ongoing commitment every weekend, it constrains many of one's own activities.

The flaw with this theory is that migrants from English-speaking countries tend to volunteer, according to the study. It's only migrants from non-English-speaking countries who don't. Perhaps the former come into Australia at a much higher level of financial comfort? I'm not sure.

3. Perhaps non-English-speaking countries (read: poorer countries) have less of a culture of volunteering, which translates into migrants from these countries not exhibiting this behaviour. Speaking unscientifically again and from memory, the India I remember had, per capita, fewer volunteers than I see in Australia. I certainly don't remember my parents, relatives or friends volunteer for anything. I interpret that to indicate that we were too busy struggling to get ahead in a country with limited resources and severe competition for everything. Poor people don't volunteer, and neither do middle-class people. The only volunteers I saw in India were well-to-do housewives - "social workers", as they were called. Of course, my experience is limited and not an indication of the true state of affairs.

4. The study mentions that English proficiency seems to have a small impact on people's inclination to volunteer. I can second that. I consider myself fluent in English (as are many other people from the Indian subcontinent), but the job of volunteering in any people-facing role seems to require the ability to keep up a steady, cheerful banter and an unending series of humorous comments. I'm not sure I could measure up. Most subcontinentals, however proficient their English, come across as too serious at work for this reason. We tend to ask a couple of businesslike questions and then process things silently. If a person with decent English language skills can feel intimidated in volunteer settings dominated by humorously articulate Aussies, what about migrants with poorer English skills? This is not a mere excuse. These social situations can create real feelings of inadequacy. Can you blame migrants for not seeking them out more enthusiastically? Perhaps we need to prime the pump with a few ethnic volunteers first to tease out more participation from other ethnic migrants. That way, they won't feel outnumbered and "outarticulated". That will take a concerted effort on the part of many people.

5. The study acknowledges that migrants' altruism may likely be directed to friends, families and neighbours, not through organised civic, sporting and welfare organisations. Again, I can second that. I see a lot of mutual assistance being rendered within the Indian community here. Newer migrants get a lot of help in settling in, with free furniture and other second-hand goods, plenty of tips and helpful suggestions, and a general feeling of warmth that makes them feel welcome. We ourselves have very good relations with our next-door neighbours on either side, (neither of them Indian, by the way), and have often exchanged favours. But that wouldn't count as "volunteering".

However, all said and done, it's important for migrants to be seen as fitting into their adopted country and making a positive contribution. Merely being law-abiding is not enough. We need to do something positive.

I'm stung by the report, and I'm determined to do something about it. One of my co-workers at work is a volunteer with the State Emergency Services (SES) and another volunteers as a surf lifeguard. They're both Australian-born caucasians, of course. No rigorous physical activity for me, please, I'm South Indian. But once my son's Selective School exam gets over next month, I'm seriously going to look at doing some volunteering in some mild, sedentary occupation.

I guess the truth hurts.

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Coincidences in My Life

Something happened at work yesterday that took my breath away. In my free time, I've been studying a particular technical concept and struggling to understand it. I blogged about it just a couple of days ago, saying I just couldn't "see" it. When I walked into the office yesterday, a colleague asked me a question about some other technical concept and casually mentioned that it was similar to the one I had been struggling to understand. In a flash, I understood the concept, because the analogy was so clear. And this happened just the morning after I had blogged about my inability to understand it.

It reminds me of a really amazing set of coincidences that happened to me almost twenty years ago.

When I was studying at management school back in India, I did a summer internship in 1986 with a company that sent me on a market survey. During the course of the survey, I met an alumnus of the same institute who was working with an organisation called IFFCO (Indian Farmers Fertiliser Cooperative Ltd). His name was Ashok Tyagi. It's not a very common name in India, and I wasn't likely to forget it.

After I graduated and began to work as a developer with CMC Ltd, I was at the office of one of CMC's clients, NABARD (National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development) in 1991 doing some requirements analysis. I finished interviewing one of the officers, then noticed that the desk next to him bore the nameplate "Ashok Tyagi". At once, I asked my contact if this person was a graduate of IIM Ahmedabad. It turned out he was. I was now certain it was the same person. After all, I knew no other Ashok Tyagis, and the only one I knew was an IIM graduate. Plus, IFFCO and NABARD both had to do with agriculture, so it was highly plausible that my old acquaintance had made a related career move.

But when the occupant of the other desk returned, it was a complete stranger. Nevertheless, I introduced myself to him as a fellow IIM alumnus, and we got to talking. I told him about the remarkable coincidence of his having a namesake who graduated from the same institute and worked in a very similar line. Ashok Tyagi II then smiled and told me, "I heard that there is a third Ashok Tyagi. He graduated from IIM Ahmedabad this year and joined FCI (Food Corporation of India)"

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Kevin Rudd's First Mistake

It couldn't last. Up until this week, the new Labor government of Kevin Rudd has managed to earn admiration for the surefooted, no-nonsense way it has set about governing Australia. Preparations are already underway for the government to say Sorry to the stolen generation of Aboriginal people and take a step towards reconciliation, something that John Howard remained churlishly unwilling to do. A good deal of imagination has been shown in including a thousand Australians from outside the political circle to discuss solutions to 10 strategic problems facing the country. Regardless of how well that works in practice, one must laud the innovative spirit behind it.

But alas, the government has disappointed me this week with a piece of flawed economics that will harm the very people it is projected to be helping.

That's the package aimed at solving the housing affordability crisis for first home buyers. Regardless of the mechanisms used to do this (e.g., a special savings account, a cheque from the government, etc.), the net result is that the government is going to end up pouring cash into the overheated housing market, to the tune of either $65 million or $850 million over 4 years (depending on which news report you read). That's pouring fuel into a fire.

The last time the government did this (thanks for nothing, John Howard), the government was paying first home buyers $10,000 ($14,000 during one period) to "help" them with their purchase. What happened? House prices went up even further. Is it surprising? It's simple market economics. If the government starts throwing money around, the market will gratefully raise prices to compensate.

It doesn't matter how it's done. Yes, the special savings account will encourage people to save. But the net effect is still that a huge amount of extra cash is going to find its way into the housing market, and that will push prices in exactly the direction the government claims it doesn't want them to go - up.

Well, what can the government do? Housing affordability is a crisis, isn't it? Well, the first thing to do is stop feeding the fire. I'm sure the economists in the government's employ know that. But I guess the political pressure was too great to let common sense triumph. No, in terms of direct action, all that the government should have done was wring its hands and offer soothing words.

But there's plenty the government can do (can still do!) to ease pressure on the real estate market. And that's to make other residential areas attractive (counter-magnets). Yes, the government will end up spending even more money in terms of urban development and public transport, but it will ease the concentration of demand that drives prices up in the best, most convenient living areas. There is affordable real estate available. The problem is that such areas are poorly connected or underdeveloped. If the government's policies result in the creation of a high average level of quality in the country's urban and suburban real estate, that will solve the affordability crisis. There will be more places to choose from. With the increase in supply, prices will go down. (The measures just announced, on the other hand, strengthen demand and hence raise prices.)

What I have recommended is not a solution that will provide results in a year or two. It may take a decade to start having an impact. But it will be real and lasting.

If the government is serious about finding strategic solutions to Australia's problems, they should look into this suggestion. I hope at least some of those 1000 people in the planning group stand up and tell the government to stop hurting first home buyers with expedient measures that are just bad economics.

Monday, 4 February 2008

Obama's Right - The US Should Lose its Militaristic Mindset

"I don't want to just end the war. I want to change the mindset that got us into this war in the first place."

Breathtaking words. Spoken by Barack Obama. I think I said before that Barack Obama doesn't need "detail" when he talks about change. His vision is so broad, so far ahead of the rest of the field, he has the potential to transform the US and the world. Details can be worked out in time. But if you don't have vision, your mastery of detail qualifies you to be nothing more than an accountant, certainly not the next President of the US.

Of course, talk about changing the American militaristic mindset probably resonates so well because it just hasn't delivered. A superpower, and every time it goes to war on its own against a small country, it gets its nose bloodied. Most embarrassing. Yes, time to change that mindset. It's making the US the laughing stock of the world. To paraphrase Pyrrhus, one more Vietnam or Iraq and the US will be finished as a world power, with smaller countries going into convulsions of laughter whenever the Seventh Fleet sails into view. ("Hit me, hit me! Ha, ha, ha!")

Less dramatically than Vietnam or Iraq, has aggressive US support for pliant military dictators won it anything?

They supported Batista in Cuba. It's been staunchly communist ever since.
They supported Somoza in Nicaragua. Nicaragua went on to elect a communist government.
They supported the Shah of Iran. Iran is now part of the 'Axis of Evil', seemingly lost to the US forever.
They supported dictator after dictator in Pakistan. Pakistan is now a "front-line state in the war on terror", but it's not very clear on which side of that line it sits.
They supported Marcos in the Philippines. They lost Clark airbase and Subic Bay naval base when a more independent government came to power.

You can surround yourself with weapons, but that won't buy you security. You will be far more secure if you just surround yourself with friends. That holds just as true at the level of the individual American (who doesn't realise that the Second Amendment has probably caused more deaths than all their wars combined) as it does at the level of the US vis-à-vis other countries.

My word of advice to US policy makers: Stop thinking that countries that disagree with you are your enemies. France, for instance, will disagree with you at every turn, but will never do you harm. Your dictatorship friends, on the other hand, will never say a word to displease you, but when the dictator inevitably goes, you will find a bitter enemy in his place.

Super Tuesday is nigh, and it remains to be seen if Obama's latest visionary gem will win him the votes required to clinch the Democratic nomination. And if he wins in November and carries through on his promises, the world may finally drop the 'hate' part of its love-hate relationship with the US.

Saturday, 2 February 2008

Why Bollywood Movies are not "Musicals"

Having grown up in India watching Indian movies (Bollywood/Hindi as well as other regional language movies), I find it strange and amusing that Westerners refer to them as "musicals" just because they have songs in them. It's very hard to argue with that logic: Movie with songs = musical! What's wrong with that?

I've been struggling to find a good analogy to explain why this simplistic reasoning is wrong. Let's see...

Imagine that an alien has landed on Earth and struck up a conversation with you. He/she/it comes from a world where vehicles may or may not have wheels. Let's say that wheels are the exception there rather than the rule. This alien might then look at our world and go, "Hey, a car with wheels!" "Oh look, another car with wheels!"

After a while, you might feel like pointing out gently, "Look, you don't need to say 'with wheels', OK? All cars have wheels."

And the alien might go, "I do not understand your logic, human. This is a car. It has wheels. Therefore, car-with-wheels!"

And you go, "No, no, no. All cars have wheels. That just makes them cars. In fact, if someone tries to sell you a car without wheels, they're ripping you off."

(The alien looks extremely puzzled and decides to travel to a less confusing world.)

That's the best analogy I can think of. All Indian movies have songs in them. That does not make them "musicals". They're just movies. Still confused? Look, it's a different genre, OK? Just leave your preconceptions at the door before entering, because you're the alien here.

Indian movies are often referred to as masala movies because the best ones are a blend of different "spices" - some drama, some humour, some action, some romance, some songs and dances, some family values, a moral, etc. There's something in it for everyone. That's how you enjoy Indian movies - savour the entire mix of spices that they offer. Songs are absolutely de rigeur. The masala is incomplete without them.

So remember, if you've just seen an Indian movie without songs in it, ask for your money back.