Thursday, 17 December 2009

The Four Pillars Policy Has Come Home To Roost

I've been saying this for years to anyone who will listen - Australia desperately needs more competition in its banking sector. The financial crisis only made the Big Four banks the Only Four banks, St George and BankWest having been gobbled up by Westpac and CBA.

And now the other shoe has dropped - onto consumers, hard.
Westpac has raised residential mortgage interest rates by 0.45%, almost double the RBA's rise of 0.25%.

Why? Because they can. No amount of outraged squealing by the Treasurer is any help. This is not a centrally planned economy for the government's opinion to make a whit of difference to the actions of large commercial players. The only thing that can keep commercial players honest is competition, and the Australian government (whether run by Labor or the Liberals) has squandered any chance of having a competitive market through their longstanding and craven Four Pillars policy.

I have always said we need a Ten Pillars policy. Break up the banks and let them compete. All talk of needing to be big to survive is just self-serving talk. In fact, they'll be less wasteful and more profitable as a result. And consumers won't have to put up with the outrageous actions of oligopolies.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Recipe for Potato-Bean Mélange

Potato-Bean Mélange

I was wondering what to do with a can of beans (Four-Bean Mix), and this dish followed.


2 Desiree potatoes (the kind you can cook with the skin)
4 medium-sized red (Spanish) onions
1 tin of beans (I used a four-bean mix, as I confessed earlier)
1 red capsicum
1 small cup of green peas
1 cube of vegetable stock
Chilli sauce instead of chilli peppers (for a change)
Ginger powder
Cooking oil (grapeseed oil is best)

Chop the onions and potatoes separately into medium-sized pieces. (I use this very convenient chopper with a coarser setting. The finer setting chops into smaller pieces, which I don't want for this dish.)

Chop the capsicum into finer pieces.

Steam the potatoes and peas in the microwave for 6-8 minutes using a steaming container and set aside. (Sprinkle a little salt onto the potatoes before steaming.)

Heat 3-4 tablespoons of grapeseed oil in a large pan and then sprinkle ginger powder into it. Add the onions and then the capsicum and sauté both well.

Dissolve the cube of vegetable stock in a small cup of hot water and then pour into the pan. (Vegetable stock cubes tend to have oil, so hot water is required to avoid messy fingers.)

Add the potatoes, peas and beans and stir. I prefer to wash and strain the canned beans because I don't trust the liquid they've been soaking in for months ;-).

Add as much chilli sauce as you like. I like lots ;-).

The potatoes may not have fully cooked. So cover the pan and leave to cook on a low heat for a few minutes.

Serve with naan, roti or bread.

[Secret ingredient: If you're South Indian or through some inexplicable means possess mild idli chilli powder (affectionately known as "gunpowder"), add 3-4 teaspoons of it to the mix along with the potatoes.]

Friday, 27 November 2009

Come Back, Peter Costello, All Is Forgiven

One hardly knows who is doing what to whom in the Liberal Party these days. I like many of the things Malcolm Turnbull stands for (e.g., ETS, the Republic), but I suspect his autocratic and idiosyncratic style will turn off voters just as it's turning off many of his party colleagues. I wouldn't trust either Joe Hockey or Tony Abbott with ten cents, the former because he comes across as somewhat shifty (on TV at least), the latter because he's a religious nut.

I must say I'm fairly satisfied with Kevin Rudd at the moment, although I question his resolve against illegal immigration (Howard was actually much better there) and I have increasing misgivings about his and Wayne Swan's commitment to bringing the budget back into surplus. I don't think these guys really get it on this fundamental economic principle.

So while I don't believe Australia is in a leadership crisis yet, it would be good for the Liberals to get their house in order. It's too late for 2010, because the psephologists tell us the swing to Labor in 2007 was a two-election swing, meaning that 2013 is the earliest the Liberals can hope to make it back. But the earlier they start, the better.

So who do I think is the best leader for the Liberals?

Peter Costello.

I think Peter Costello's journey to the very top has been a series of missed opportunities. He'd been repeatedly stiffed by John Howard who failed (we're told) to honour his promise to stand aside at some stage, and he (Costello) announced his retirement just when things were getting interesting. But who knows, he could yet be persuaded to come out of retirement and take charge.

He's one guy who understands the value of a surplus budget. Heck, he's the only guy in recent history who delivered one. And he took a strong stand in favour of cultural integration as opposed to weak-kneed laissez-faire multiculturalism. I'd vote for him, and definitely if the Labor jokers don't demonstrate serious intentions of fixing the budget soon.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

When Looks Improve With Age

I saw a photo of (Lotus Notes creator and now Microsoft's Chief Software Architect) Ray Ozzie recently, and was struck by how smart and distinguished he looked.

A quick search for other photos of Ozzie turned up this shocker from 1974.

Yes, I know they all looked like that in 1974, but it was still quite a jolt to see.

This reminded me of that other famous person who was known for growing more handsome and distinguished as the years went by - Gianni Agnelli of Fiat.

Here's the young Agnelli...

And the same man after a few decades had worked their magic.

I guess there are advantages to starting off ugly. Things can only go in one direction thereafter ;-).

Monday, 16 November 2009

Recipe for Protein Potato Mash

Protein Potato Mash

Mashed potatoes taste great, but they're very starchy, and in these health-conscious times, starch is a no-no ("No starch for me," said Tom stiffly). Here's a recipe to take some of the guilt off a deliciously salty mashed potato dish.

3-4 Desiree potatoes (the kind you can cook with the skin)
1 tin Cannelini beans (you can use any bean or combination of beans instead)
1 cup hommus (chickpea paste)
1 small cup of green peas
A handful of pine nuts

3 cloves of garlic
1 chilli pepper (Jalapeno)
1 piece of ginger (same overall size as the garlic)

Cooking oil (grapeseed oil is best)

Grind the chilli-garlic-ginger mixture into a paste.

Chop and steam the potatoes in the microwave for 10-15 minutes using a steaming container until well-cooked.

Steam the green peas in the microwave for 3-4 minutes using a steaming container.

Heat 3-4 tablespoons of grapeseed oil, pop mustard seeds into it and wait till they start to crackle.
Add pine nuts and chill-garlic-ginger paste and saute for a few minutes till pine nuts turn light brown. Add the steamed potatoes and stir for a while. Drain the cannelini beans and add to the mix, stirring constantly.
The potatoes and beans should start to get mashed. Add the hommus and keep stirring. Add about a tablespoonful of salt little by little, taking care to ensure that the amount is just right for your taste.
I prefer to let the mixture get somewhat dry and powdery before adding the green peas, but you could add them while the mixture is still "wet" and stop after stirring them in.

Serves 2-4. Will serve as a standalone dish or stand in for a daal.

Oh, and hommus tends to be a wee bit bitter, so I also added a tablespoonful of maple syrup at the end without telling anyone ;-). I know, it's whatever meets my eye...

Recipe for Mushroom Soya Pasta Noodles

Mushroom Soya Pasta Noodles (Satay flavour)

I'm forced to make this combination dish because no one at home likes mushrooms or soya nuggets, and only some like noodles or pasta. So if I'm going to make a dish that most or all others will avoid, I may as well use every hated ingredient at one go and enjoy the dish all by myself!

1 tin of whole champignons (mushrooms)
1 cup of soya nuggets (e.g., Nutrela/Nutri Nuggets or some such)
1 cup of pasta shells
1 packet of noodles (e.g., Maggi)
1 small cup of green peas
5-6 cloves of garlic
1-2 chilli peppers (preferably Jalapeno)
Red chilli powder
1 bottle of Satay sauce
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
2-3 tablespoons of cooking oil (Grapeseed oil)

Boil the soya nuggets with a spoonful of salt and a spoonful of red chilli powder for about 10 minutes. Drain and set aside.

Boil the pasta with a spoonful of salt and a teaspoonful of oil for about 15 minutes. Drain under cold water for a couple of minutes and set aside.

Boil the noodles without tastemaker in 1 cup of water for about 10 minutes until no longer "wet", and set aside.

Steam the green peas in the microwave for 3-4 minutes using a steaming container and set aside.

Grind garlic and chilli peppers into a paste.
Heat grapeseed oil, pop mustard seeds into it and wait till they start to crackle.
Add garlic-chilli paste and saute for a couple of minutes.

Add champignons and stir for a while, allowing mushrooms to cook.

Add soya nuggets, pasta and noodles one after the other, stirring all the while.

Flavouring options:

Add Satay sauce to the mix, stir well for a few minutes, then serve. Serves 2-4. Satay sauce is a bit overpowering in its flavour, so although the result is quite delicious, the individual character of the ingredients is sadly suppressed. As a milder alternative to Satay sauce, add any masala or herb powder, with salt as required. In the latter case, some chopped spring onions (with stems) or coriander will provide a colourful garnish.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

The Indian Blind Spot towards Pakistan

I realised today that I have been guilty of the same blind spot towards Pakistan as so many other Indians.
For all their sophistication, Indian elites continue to understand Pakistan primarily with reference to the events of 1947. Anything else is incidental, not essential. The established Indian paradigms for explaining Pakistan, its actions and its institutions, its state and society, have not undergone any significant shift since the Partition. The tropes remain the same: religion and elite manipulation explain everything. It is as if the pre-Partition politics of the Muslim League continues to be the politics of Pakistan—with slight non-essential variations. More than 60 years on, the factors may be different but little else has changed.

That quote by Pakistani journalist Khurram Hussain sums it up accurately. He goes on to say
This view is deeply flawed. It reflects a serious confusion about the founding event of contemporary Pakistani society. The Partition has a mesmerising quality that blinds the mind, a kind of notional heft that far outweighs its real significance to modern South Asian politics. The concerns of the state of Pakistan, the anxieties of its society, and the analytic frames of its intellectual and media elites have as their primary reference not 1947 but the traumatic vivisection of the country in 1971 (emphasis mine). Indians have naturally focused on their own vivisection, their own dismemberment; but for Pakistan, they have focused on the wrong date. This mix-up has important consequences.

I would encourage as many people as possible to read this article, especially Indians. It is an eye-opener, because Indians typically do not realise how traumatic the 1971 war must have been to Pakistan. India's own defeat at the hands of China in 1962 is seared into the collective consciousness of more than one generation of Indians and is responsible for a deep and abiding distrust of China throughout the country. And this is even without an event as traumatic as the vivisection of the country. Indeed, contemporary commentary on the Indo-China border war now pins the blame on Indian foreign minister Krishna Menon's aggressive "Forward Policy" which had the effect of provoking China without actually having the military might to back up that aggressiveness. To the credit of the Chinese, they withdrew to their pre-conflict positions after making their point.

If Indians can be permanently scarred by such a relatively minor humiliation, one can imagine how much deeper the psychological wounds must be for Pakistanis, who lost half their territory (in terms of population). Indians have been naively oblivious to the impact of the 1971 war on their neighbours, and hence the entire approach to Pakistan has been one of righteous indignation - a country under attack from a "state sponsor of terror". But this is a great example of the saying, "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom-fighter." Pakistan sees itself as the wronged party. India is an existential threat to that country because it has dismembered it once before. Never mind that India isn't interested in doing it a second time. What matters is that Pakistanis believe it can happen again.

Looking at how difficult it is for Indians to trust China after 1962, one can readily understand that Pakistanis would be extremely unwilling to trust India after 1971.

And so I have a curious idea for a solution to the eternal India-Pakistan conflict. I don't believe the peaceful resolution of the Kashmir dispute will necessarily solve the fundamental issue, because Pakistan needs something stronger to assuage its hurt. Pakistan will have to wrest Kashmir from India in a war that it wins. That is the only way 1971 can be avenged.

My idea is that the Indian government should apologise (yes, apologise) to Pakistan for breaking up the country in 1971. It has nothing to do with right and wrong and everything to do with emotion and moving forward. If the two countries are to move past the distrust, then Pakistanis must be made to feel India's genuine lack of interest in further harming their country. It would be better still if the leaders of India and Pakistan stood on a stage at the Wagah border and alternately apologised to each other's people for a list of perceived wrongs. That would clear the air and make other problems easier to solve, such as Kashmir.

The prize is a South Asian Federation that will be bigger and potentially greater than China.

Cool Slogan for Troubled Economic Times

I thought of a slogan along the lines of "Make Love, Not War":

Exploit Technology, Not People

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Recipe for Bread Upma

Wondering what to do about that slightly older loaf of bread once you've bought a fresh one? Too much of a waste to throw away, yet a bit dodgy to consume...

Try a bread upma snack. This is another of those offbeat, male-only recipes handed down from father to son :-).

8 slices of bread (you do use multigrain, don't you? That's the best from both a health and flavour perspective)
4 medium sized red (Spanish) onions
1 red hot chilli pepper (preferably Jalapeno, my favourite - slurp!)
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
Any cholesterol-absorbing butter alternative
Cooking oil (grapeseed oil handles heat much better than olive oil, I'm told)
Chopped coriander

Process (two parallel processes, in fact):

Process 1:
Chop the chilli and onions. The chilli pieces should be really fine. We want a pervasive spicy taste, not islands of dynamite.
Heat a couple of tablespoonfuls of cooking oil, pop the mustard seeds into it and wait till they start to crackle. Add the chopped chilli and saute for a while, then add the chopped onions and stir until well-fried.
Add one or two teaspoons of salt depending on preference.

Process 2:
Toast the slices of bread in a regular toaster until nice and brown (that's to ensure that any nasty effects of the mild staleness are burned away).
Apply small amounts of the butter substitute to soften each slice, then cut the slice into 16 square pieces (3 cuts in each direction).

Merge process:
Add the toasted, "buttered" bread pieces to the fried onion/chilli combine and stir well for a few minutes.
Add chopped coriander, turn off heat and continue to stir for a couple of minutes.
Serve hot.

Serves 2-4, depending on appetite :-).

I would have included a photograph because it looks really yummy, but then it was all gone before I could get my camera!

Thursday, 22 October 2009

From Ayn Rand to Antitrust - Alan Greenspan's Remarkable Journey to Enlightenment

Will miracles never cease? Alan Greenspan, Ayn Rand "devotee" and former advocate of laissez-faire capitalism, now favours aggressive antitrust! "Break up the big banks," he says.

“If they’re too big to fail, they’re too big,” Mr. Greenspan said. “In 1911 we broke up Standard Oil — so what happened? The individual parts became more valuable than the whole. Maybe that’s what we need to do.”

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!

I must say it's very flattering when a major public figure reverses position to agree with you! It also invites contempt for the public figure in question.

Is the Australian government listening? We need a Ten Pillars Policy, Mr Rudd.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Neat Slogan for Hindu-Muslim Amity

I saw this comment on a blog today and thought it was cool.

"When Qaynat* has put Ali in Diwali and Ram in Ramadan, who are we to fight?"

* Nature, the Universe

Sunday, 18 October 2009

JDRF Walk to Cure Diabetes 2009

Sunday Oct 18th, 2009: Like we did last year, my wife and I signed up to join the JDRF (Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation) Walk to Cure Diabetes.

This year, the venue was Parramatta Park and not the Sydney Olympic Park. The crowd was decent-sized, but I thought it was half or even a third the size of the turnout last year. Someone told me there were two or three different walks this year at different venues, so the crowd was probably split between them.

The surprise VIP appearance at today's event was NSW Premier Nathan Rees, who said a few encouraging words about Australia being a world leader in several areas of medical research and expressed the hope that Australian research would pioneer a cure for diabetes. He then flagged off the walk, which lasted a little over an hour.

It was a cloudy day, so thankfully it wasn't too hot. There was a relaxed atmosphere throughout. Families with kids in strollers, on bikes and scooters, and with dogs in tow. There had been some fun events in the morning before the walk got started, but we missed them, having arrived with just minutes to spare for the main event.

Disappointingly, no other families could join us this year. We had about four families in our team last year, so we could enjoy a little picnic after the walk. This year, Diwali happened to be just the previous day, so many Indian families had a late night the previous day and couldn't join us for a morning walk.

Though the walk is over, readers are still welcome to donate to the cause through my collection page. It should be open for a few days more. Here's hoping the money raised helps to find a cure for juvenile diabetes. At the end of the day, it's about finding a cure, which is neither a picnic nor a walk in the park.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

A Schizophrenic View of the Threat from Pakistan

I had to laugh when I read this news item, dour as it was. Here's an unprecedented attack by militants on the Pakistani army's headquarters. It signals a strength and reach of terrorism within Pakistan that should unnerve watchers of the subcontinent. Wouldn't a reasonable person be worried about Pakistani nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists? September 11 has made the US absolutely paranoid, as we all know, and the London bombings have given the UK a similar jolt.

But what do we hear from the top diplomats of the Western world about this latest development? One has to wonder what Hillary Clinton and David Miliband are thinking/smoking. If their statements represent the views of the US and UK governments (as they surely do), they invite utter contempt for the leading Western powers.

"Yesterday was another reminder that extremists ... are increasingly threatening the authority of the state, but we see no evidence they are going to take over the state," Mrs Clinton said.

"We have confidence in the Pakistani government and military's control over its nuclear weapons," she added.


UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband said Pakistan faced a "mortal threat", but there was no risk of its nuclear weapons falling into terrorist hands.

I have to ask - Is there some magic spell that protects Pakistan's nuclear weapons, such that even though the Pakistani state may be in mortal danger from "militants" (read "terrorists"), those weapons will always be safe?

You know what I think? Here's my conspiracy theory. I think the US swooped down on Pakistan in 1998 as soon as that country demonstrated its nuclear capability, and took away all its weapons. After all, what Pakistan requires for its purposes is just the façade of nuclear capability to bluff the world with, not the weapons themselves. I'm sure the Americans assured the Pakistani generals that this would be their little secret. I can see no other reason for the sanguine response of Western countries to what should otherwise be a very worrisome situation indeed.

Corollary: If this is true, and Pakistan is indeed a toothless nuclear tiger, there should be nothing to hold India back from rolling over that country the very next time there is a terrorist attack launched from there. A risky gamble, though.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Nobel Peace Prize for Obama - A Bit Premature?

I was very surprised to read the news of President Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize. So surprised that I at first thought it was an elaborate April Fool's joke (of course it's October, but still).

Now readers of my blog know that I greatly respect and admire the man, so I don't grudge him the prize at all. I believe that by the time he completes his two terms (which he should if all goes well), he would have achieved enough to deserve the award twice or thrice over.

However, he hasn't really achieved anything yet. All we have so far is hope, because he has made a good start on many fronts. He has adopted a more conciliatory, less arrogant tone in public discourse. He treats even his adversaries with respect and tries to win bipartisan support for his initiatives. US foreign policy has suddenly begun to appear almost benign after decades of being a bag of dirty tricks for the rest of the world. And his personal style is magnetic and charming. No one but the most die-hard Republican/Conservative can fail to be impressed. But it's still only a good start. The results aren't in yet.

I think the Nobel Prize Committee jumped the gun. They really should have waited. This year's prize should have gone to the various relief agencies that pitched in to help victims of natural disasters around the globe. That would have been a more timely recognition of valuable work going on right now. What will the committee do after a few years, when Obama actually achieves some tangible outcomes? Award him a second prize?

In short, I don't think Obama's Nobel is undeserved, just premature.

[The Taliban have criticised the award to Obama. That settles it for me. Now I'm fully convinced he deserves it :-).]

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Why Telstra's Shareholders Should Support the Company's Breakup

Even as I write, forces are gathering to pressure the Australian government to back down from its aggressive posture towards the telecom monopoly Telstra that is forcing the company to voluntarily split into two independent entities if it is to remain a significant player in the Australian economy.

Large shareholder bodies, fearful for their own losses, are attempting to bully the government into letting the status quo remain. Which is both shameful and a shame.

The enormous ongoing costs of a monopoly like Telstra to the Australian economy as a whole is well-known. Australian consumers pay higher prices for services than consumers in other advanced economies, and it really shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone. The link between monopolistic markets and high prices is well-known. It should be the duty of every government to crack down on monopolies and keep markets free and liquid. That's why it's shameful that Telstra shareholders are ganging up against Australian society as a whole, brazenly asking to be allowed to profit at the expense of everyone else.

I am a Telstra shareholder too, though admittedly not on the same scale as AFIC. By AFIC's logic, I should be joining the chorus against the government's bold action.

Actually, I believe that I would benefit from a breakup of Telstra, both as a consumer and as a shareholder. That's why I support the government's hardline position. This is the point a lot of shareholders don't seem to get, which is a shame.

When the US Justice Department forced a breakup of AT&T in 1984, one would have expected AT&T shareholders to suffer. And perhaps those who sold their shares in the period immediately following the breakup did sustain losses. But it's instructive to see what happened in the longer term. Each of the 8 "Baby Bells" that were carved out of the single entity went on to become bigger than "Ma Bell" within a decade. The shareholders who held onto their shares and waited a few years reaped the benefits.

In similar fashion, when Telstra splits into two companies, I expect to receive equivalent shares in both. Sure, their combined market value will initially be less than the market value of shares in the undivided company. But rather than sell my shares in a hurry, I intend to wait till they both rise. Then I expect to be sitting on more capital than before.

But wouldn't increasing competition hurt Telstra's monopoly profits and therefore depress share prices even in the longer term? Only if the company has been efficiently harvesting its monopoly so far. On the contrary, like all complacent monopolies, I believe Telstra today is fat and lazy. It charges its customers more than it should, and it pays its shareholders less than it should. The differential evaporates as corporate waste. And why wouldn't Telstra be wasteful? It's a monopoly, after all.

As a Telstra shareholder, I want to see the government deliver a swift kick in the pants to this giant sloth to get it to smarten up, work harder and provide better returns to shareholders even as it drops its prices to customers in a more competitive market. I want to benefit both as a consumer and as a shareholder. Is that realistic? It looks like I'm expecting money to appear from nowhere, but what I'm really expecting is an efficiency dividend. When competition emerges in a market, waste disappears, and both consumers and shareholders see more money in their pockets.

That's why every enlightened Telstra shareholder should write to the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Stephen Conroy (, and urge him not to yield to the shortsighted bullying tactics of fat cat shareholder lobbies.

As I have done.

Update 09/10/2009: I have written to the Senate Standing Committee on Environment, Communications and the Arts ( expressing my support for the government's position. It's perhaps more important for enlightened shareholders to have their voices heard by this body than for them to write to the minister.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Economic Principles that Work

I have had discussions with various friends about broad-brush Economic philosophies such as "Capitalism" and "Socialism", and we have agreed that these labels are largely meaningless because different people understand them to mean quite different things.

We then talked about "goals" being more important than "isms", but again, different people may believe in different goals for a society. For example, is it more important to first eliminate poverty (through government intervention if required) or to set up a functioning market economy without distortions?

The discussions seemed to be getting nowhere, so I decided to take a leaf from the book by Al Ries and Jack Trout, a book called "Bottom-Up Marketing." In it, the authors argue that rather than start with a grand strategy and derive tactics from it, the most successful military and business ventures have taken successful tactics and built strategies around it. The German strategy of Blitzkrieg was based on the observed capabilities of the armoured tank and of newly-improved radio communication. It was not a strategy derived from blue-sky thinking.

Perhaps in similar fashion, we can find examples of economic principles (shorn of ideological "isms") that work, and these can be put together into a coherent economic policy for a country. I admit that I have cheated a bit. I'm fortunate to be living in a country (Australia) that has enjoyed about 20 years of uninterrupted growth even as the rest of the world has undergone boom and bust cycles. The two striking features of the Australian economy are a near-constant budget surplus throughout this period, and a stated policy by the independent Reserve Bank of Australia to manage interest rates so as to keep inflation in the range of 2-3%. So finding economic principles that work has been largely a matter of describing the features of the Australian economy, but of course it wasn't just that.

So here goes. This is my list of principles, some of which have been proven to work, some of which could work under certain conditions, and some of which have been discredited. Obviously this has serious biases. It's my opinion, after all ;-).

1. Principles that are known to work and should no longer be controversial:

Principle: Prudence
Lay description: Don't spend more than you earn.
Label(s): "Fiscal conservatism"
Features: A balanced or surplus government budget, cost/benefit analysis of projects, sound project management
Notes: The Australian federal budget has been in surplus for many years until the fiscal stimulus of 2008-2009 and is projected to be back in surplus by 2014-2015.

Principle: Accountability
Lay description: (1) No one is above the law. (2) Deliver results to stakeholders, or else.
Label(s): "Democracy", "Rule of law"
Features: Institutionalised checks and balances, regular elections, power of recall, strong opposition, independent judiciary

Principle: Transparency
Lay description: Eliminate corruption, build faith in the system.
Label(s): "Transparency"
Features: Formal processes, Right-to-Information laws, office of auditor-general/public ombudsman, free press, legislative review

Principle: Market efficiency
Lay description: Ensure that no buyer or seller (or small group thereof) can skew the market.
Label(s): "Free market", "Liquid market", "Competitive market", "Efficient market"
Features: Competition watchdog (with teeth), strong antitrust law
Notes: Perhaps this is the one area where the Australian economy is wanting. The lack of competition in the banking sector is only just being realised and discussed. At the same time, the telecom monopoly is finally being addressed and will hopefully be dismantled.

Principle: Stable growth
Lay description: A central bank manages interest rates to contain inflation in the 2-3% band.
Label(s): "Responsive monetary policy"
Features: Independent central bank, stated inflation target
Notes: This focus of the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) together with a near-constant budget surplus has delivered 20 years of consistent growth even during periods of global recession.

Principle: Risk management
Lay description: Systems to identify and protect against various kinds of risks (mainly economic).
Label(s): "Diversification", "Risk regulation"
Features: Markets with breadth and depth, multi-skilled workforce, demographic diversity, risk management regulation, culture of risk management
Notes: There are many aspects to risk management, but its existence is generally a hallmark of a sophisticated economy.

Principle: Basic education
Lay description: Compulsorily educate all children.
Label(s): "Compulsory universal primary schooling"
Features: Fee-free public schooling upto and often including high school
Notes: All children must be afforded at least primary education, because literacy and numeracy are life skills and uneducated adults are a cost to society.

2. Principles that are controversial but can work provided they don't violate the first set:

Principle: A fair society
Lay description: This is one of the most misunderstood and variously interpreted principles, attracting a number of labels depending on the aspect being highlighted or criticised.
Label(s): "Meritocracy", "Affirmative action", "Equal opportunity", "Welfare state", "Social Security", "Egalitarianism"
Features: Constitution, bill of rights, independent judiciary, unemployment benefits, universal healthcare, tolerant society
Notes: As long as the budget stays balanced, these need not have downsides.

Principle: A skilled workforce
Lay description: Working age people have skills of a high quality that are productive in the economy.
Label(s): "Knowledge society",
Features: Universities, polytechnics, culture of higher education, incentives for higher education
Notes: Higher and technical education help a nation compete, but should not come at the cost of a deficit budget.

Principle: A healthy populace
Lay description: Affordable health care (prevention as well as treatment) for all.
Label(s): "Welfare state", "Universal healthcare", "Socialised medicine"
Features: Various mechanisms - single payer, compulsory private insurance, Medicare, etc.
Notes: Universal healthcare is an emotive issue, but should not be sought at the cost of a deficit budget. Prudence pays better long-term dividends.

Principle: A world market
Lay description: Free trade based on the principle of comparative advantage of nations.
Label(s): "Free trade"
Features: Low tariffs, low administrative/bureaucratic barriers to trade
Notes: Governments need to ensure both competitive/liquid markets and adequate diversification to maximise gains and reduce risk.

Principle: A regulated economy
Lay description: Government intervention in the functioning of the economy through a variety of mechanisms.
Label(s): "Mixed economy", "Public sector"
Features: Government ownership of enterprises, regulation of commercial activity (antitrust, price-setting for utilities, etc.)
Notes: Often criticised by advocates of a "free market" (itself a vague term), government intervention, if done well, can aid market liquidity by keeping commercial players honest, and can also provide much-needed services not provided by commercial players.

Principle: Wealth creation
Lay description: Tax incentives that benefit the well-off rather than those of more modest means.
Labels: "Supply-side economics", "Tax breaks for the rich", "Regressive taxation"
Features: Relatively low tax rates, modestly progressive tax slabs, tax-deductibility of investments, high income disparities
Notes: Taxation can often be a disincentive to wealth creation, but winding back taxation should not result in a deficit budget.

3. Principles that sound great but are observed not to work in practice:

Principle: Job security
Lay description: Legalised protection of jobs.
Label(s): "Socialism", "Protectionism", "Trade unionism"
Features: Strong trade unions, strict labour laws, no hire-and-fire, high import tariffs, tight immigration controls
Notes: Minimising unemployment has instinctive appeal, but the goal may be better reached by focusing on other targets, e.g., low inflation. The direct approach often has the opposite effect.

Principle: Unregulated markets
Lay description: Government stays out of the market altogether.
Label(s): "Capitalism", "Free market", "Laissez-faire economy", "Libertarianism", "Small government", "Monetarism"
Features: Limited government interference/intervention, unchecked market distortions (oligopolies and monopolies)
Notes: Recent failures in several economies with unregulated markets have shown the folly of this principle. Some regulation seems to be necessary, especially around keeping markets open and competitive and subject to risk management discipline.

Principle: Equality (as opposed to equal opportunity)
Lay description: Ensure that incomes, lifestyles, etc., are not too divergent.
Labels: "Socialism", "Communism", "Classless society", "Egalitarianism", "Tall poppy syndrome"
Features: Disincentives to wealth-building, limited private ownership, demonisation of "elites"
Notes: Fairness and equality of opportunity are more pragmatic principles that lead to an egalitarian society, where even the lowest-paid have an adequate standard of living to maintain their dignity and all have equal rights. Force-fitting an entire society into a mould of artificial equality only succeeds in making everyone equally poor, as the example of the communist countries has shown.

That's the lot, as far as I can tell. The question I have for the rest of the world is, if Australia can do it, why can't you?

Saturday, 3 October 2009

How Brakes Can Make a Car Go Faster

I recently attended a talk on Governance, Risk and Compliance at which Forrester analyst Tim Sheedy said something interesting and original.

He likened the Risk Management function in an organisation to the brakes in a car, and asked the audience what brakes do. The answer of course was that brakes slow down or stop a car. He agreed and said that's how organisations have seen the Risk Management function, i.e., as something that slows down business.

He then asked the audience how fast they would be willing to drive their cars if they knew the brakes weren't working. The answer was "very slowly indeed".

And so Sheedy pointed out that brakes actually make it possible for cars to go faster! In similar fashion, Risk Management helps business do more rather than less.

This reminds me of a couple of similar ideas I have heard.

One is around a way to prevent deaths due to car crashes. The conventional solution is to place an airbag in the steering column to protect drivers. The unconventional solution is to place a sharp spike on the steering column, with the effect that drivers will then drive very carefully indeed!

Another idea I have discussed on this blog earlier is about how Economics differs from Physics. You often make something happen by enabling its opposite. If you want to conserve hard currency within your economy, then you don't prevent people from taking it out (that will have exactly the effect you don't want). You should in fact make it easier for people to take hard currency out. That will ease the fears of investors who will then more readily bring hard currency into the economy, because they are assured that they can take it out whenever they want.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

The New Vegemite is Quite Nice

I guess one of the items on the Australian citizenship test ought to be "Do you like Vegemite?", with anyone answering "No" not only rejected but also deported. It seems to be one of those items that definitively differentiate Australians from non-Australians.

I've learnt to sort of like Vegemite. It's an acquired taste. I can tell why a lot of people do like it, but while I can eat a vegemite sandwich without wincing, I must confess it's not my favourite spread either.

That's why I was interested when Kraft came out with a New Vegemite with a lighter taste.

I tried it and was hooked. I've finished my first bottle within a week of buying it, and replenished the kitchen shelf at once.

How do I describe the taste? It's like vegemite mixed with cheese spread. The harsh salty taste of classic Vegemite is softened, so much so that one can eat a spoonful of the stuff straight. Did I say I was hooked?

Kraft had a "Name Me" contest but I saw the notice too late. The contest had already closed, and we have to wait a while to see which name won. I was going to suggest "ButterMite" to suggest a much smoother Vegemite.

I'm sure "real" Aussies will turn up their noses at this imposter and call it "un-Australian". I don't care. I'm a first-generation migrant and my tastes are an unabashed mixture of the Australian and the un-Australian :-). Perhaps the ones who take to the new Vegemite and make it a success will be others like myself. In which case, the morphing of Vegemite will reflect in microcosm the larger demographic changes happening across Australia. The old Vegemite isn't going away. Both brands will co-exist, and that again seems to me symbolic of the peaceful integration of the new with the old.

Update 29/09/2009: I just learnt that Kraft has decided to call the new Vegemite "iSnack 2.0".

With all due respect, Kraft, I think my idea of "Buttermite" would have been better.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Book Review: Stranger to History by Aatish Taseer

I just finished reading Aatish Taseer's "Stranger to History" (subtitle: A son's journey through Islamic lands). I read it over two nights, and it got more and more gripping as it went along.

I won't waste space discussing what the book is about. Amazon has a good description of it. And Amazon's reader reviews can give you more insights.

By the way, the young man on the cover is not the author. This is what Aatish Taseer really looks like:

Here are my impressions from the book.

This is a book from which I think Western readers especially can learn a lot about Islam, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. [I come from the subcontinent myself and I believe that I have a better understanding of many of the things the author is talking about than most Westerners, and there was a lot here that was new to me.] In many ways, reading this book was like wading into a real-life soap opera, and I enjoyed the many thrills of recognition that it generated. Although the author never mentions his mother by name, I learnt from the web that she is none other than the famous Indian journalist Tavleen Singh, many of whose columns I have read off and on over the last twenty-odd years. And his father Salmaan Taseer has recently taken over as governor of the Pakistani province of Punjab. [Update 04/01/2011: Salman Taseer was assassinated by his own bodyguard for opposing the death penalty for a Christian woman accused of blasphemy.] What better soap opera background than for the author of a book to have parents from two traditionally "enemy" countries?

As I ploughed through the first few chapters, I formed the unfair impression that the author was something of a "Western person's Muslim", telling them what they wanted to hear about himself and about the Muslims (the equivalent of what African-Americans call an "Uncle Tom"). However, those early chapters were about countries alien to both the author and to myself. And I hadn't learnt to trust him enough at that stage. By the time he came to Iran and then to Pakistan, I began to understand him much better. I realised that like me, he was at heart a Westernised Indian with liberal-humanist sensibilities. He may be Muslim by virtue of having a Muslim father, but his sensibilities are every bit progressive, modern and intolerant of sham and injustice. As I warmed to the author, I began to enjoy his style and to see things from his point of view.

The chapters on Turkey, Syria and Saudi Arabia left me somewhat cold. That's not the author's fault. I guess I'm just too emotionally distant from those countries to care very much. My interest picked up when he described Iran. And the excitement reached fever-pitch when he began his travels through Pakistan. I couldn't put the book down from that point. I therefore won't make apologies for concentrating the bulk of this review on the latter part of the book.

There are two currents that this book deals with through the mechanism of the travelogue, and one can take them with a feeling of despair, triumphalism or sorrowful resignation.

One is the larger dilemma of the Muslim world vis-a-vis the world as a whole, the latter now being dominated by Western thought and Western invention. If I may crudely paraphrase what the book tries to say, Islam enjoyed a seemingly inexorable rise since the 7th century, constantly conquering and advancing. But five centuries ago, that growth faltered. Europe took off from that point on, and its power and its reach grew to eclipse that of Islam. So today, the overweening theme of the average Muslim's reaction to the modern world shaped by European civilisation is one of dismay. The conquering hero has been cheated of his prize. World domination by Islam, which once seemed inevitable, now seems equally inevitably never to be. Islam's glory is all in the past. This is not an easy reality for many Muslims to accept.

The second is the subcontinental drama of India and Pakistan (and to a lesser extent, Bangladesh). Again, to crudely paraphrase the book, Pakistan in its own eyes is the un-India. It defines itself in terms of what it is not, which is perhaps why the resolution of the Kashmir dispute will probably not address the core problem in the relationship. India's success will always be seen in Pakistan as Pakistan's failure. For Pakistan to succeed, India must fail, or if it does not do so on its own, must be made to fail. One may bluntly call such attempts terrorism or cloak this in Islamic terms like jihad, but it is essentially a cry for relevance. But the age has passed when violent attacks on India were condoned by the world. That option is no longer available. And so Pakistan is left to drink from two bitter and poisoned chalices, its own spiralling destruction and the growing success of its self-characterised enemy. This is not an easy reality for most Pakistanis to accept.

Intentionally or otherwise, Aatish Taseer has done an effective hatchet job on three groups of people - (1) His father and father's family, (2) Pakistan and Pakistani society and (3) doctrinaire Muslims in general.

(1) From Aatish's description, Salmaan Taseer does not come across as a nice person at all. Even if we take Aatish to be biased, we have the incontrovertible facts of Salmaan's behaviour. A married man with children who cheats on his wife with another woman only to turn his back on her and her child, can't be anything but a schmuck. And the comments of Aatish's siblings about "little black Hindus", "ugly Indians" and how they hate them shows them up as colour-conscious racists. It's a pity Aatish must have burnt his bridges with his father and paternal relatives with this book. But from the picture we gain of them (as bigoted individuals), I don't think he's worse off for it.

(2) I don't think anyone has done as good a hatchet job on Pakistani culture since Om Puri in East is East. With anecdote after anecdote, Aatish exposes the deep insecurities of a society that arrogantly set out to be better than India and ended up being far, far worse. Perhaps understandably, the attitude of those who left India for Pakistan at the time of Partition is even more hardline than that of people who were always there. They seem desperate to avoid buyer's remorse. The reported conversation with a muhajjir in Sind is pathetically funny. The poor man tries hard to tease out every way in which India could possibly be worse than Pakistan. The attitudes of educated people don't seem very different, regrettably.

(3) I hope no outraged cleric issues a fatwa against this young author whose only crimes have been honesty and candour. He has clearly exposed the problems of various types of Muslim societies. The desire for purity in those that went by the book (no pun intended) has led to ugliness and violence. And authoritarian states have abused the religion to consolidate political power, robbing people of the spiritual comfort that it could give them. The Muslim world seems to suffer from a deep inferiority complex. They must rule the world. They cannot coexist as equals with other cultures. It's going to be a long and painful adjustment process for them to accept the fact that equality is the best they can ever hope for. If the failed and failing states across the Middle East and South Asia are any indication, Islamic civilisation is self-destructing before our eyes, thanks to unbending pride and ideological rigidity.

I found this piece on Iran cute, funny and sad at the same time:

"On certain nights cars would collect in a line along the avenue and car-flirting would begin. It was a Tehrani activity in which carfuls of boys rolled past carfuls of girls, looks were exchanged, smiles, paper chits, and if the bearded men showed up, the scene scattered."

There seems to be a pattern with many Islamic societies. In practice, Islam in these societies seems to be all about "bearded men" interfering in people's personal lives and telling them what to do and what not to. It's the very opposite of a free society that I (and the author) believe in.

However, my impression of Iran from this book is one of hope, of a country on the edge of a new chapter in its history, a more tolerant and modern chapter. The next generation is waiting in the wings, and they are as far from Ayatollah Khomeini as can be imagined.

I have wondered about how Iranians identify with Islam, when Persian culture pre-dated Islam and was so obviously rich and proud. I also wonder about whether Egyptians take similar pride in their ancient (pre-Islamic) civilisation. This book doesn't talk about Egypt, but does compare Iran and Pakistan in this regard.

I was gratified to read that Iranians do take pride in their pre-Islamic culture and are aware of their identity as something more than just Muslim.

It's a reasonable question the author asks - Why don't Pakistanis take similar pride in their ancient Hindu past (with its many achievements since the Vedic age)?

There's a telling statement by a Pakistani:

"If all India became Muslim, we might have been able to identify with the Hindu past. We would have modified something. But since it didn't happen that way, we can't choose something that goes against our taste. You won't wear a T-shirt you don't like."

In other words, the very presence of Hindu (or more correctly, multicultural) India hangs in front of Pakistan like a taunt, preventing Pakistanis from seeing themselves as being from the same culture. They would rather identify with Muslim invaders who converted their Hindu forefathers (at swordpoint) than admit their real ancestry and heritage. The loss is theirs, as it is with all those who attempt to rewrite history to make it more palatable.

It's a sad point the author makes that the youth of India and Pakistan have drifted further apart than even their grandparents. The reason is that Pakistanis have not known diversity for two generations now and have been indoctrinated against India and Hindus from their childhood, whereas Indians grow up with diversity in their subconscious.

[I can't help thinking wistfully of a South Asian Utopia, one where Partition never occurred and where the Muslims of undivided India adhered to the mild Sufi brand of Islam rather than the hardline Deobandi or Wahhabi strain. This India would be the world's most populous country, larger even than China. It would not have known its four internecine wars. Perhaps it would have been militarily softer and weaker as a result. Or perhaps not. At any rate, things wouldn't be the way they are today. If Pakistanis can swallow their collective pride and admit that the basic idea of Pakistan was wrong, they can still enter into a mutually beneficial relationship with India, even if not outright union (I don't think India now has the appetite for union with Pakistan, anyway!) Bangladesh can do the same, and South Asia will be an economic and geopolitical powerhouse to rival China. But I'm not holding my breath. Pakistani pride will never let it happen. To paraphrase Z.A. Bhutto, they will eat grass but never accept a subordinate role to India.]

To return to the book, the writing is good, although not great. I can think of greater writers and thinkers who could have moulded these experiences into a white-hot narrative with far deeper insights. But it is still authentic. The personal angle is interesting in itself. The study of Islamic societies is topical. The two when intertwined make rivetting reading. I think this book deserves recognition through an award (the Booker, the Pulitzer, anything) for the much-needed light it shines on Islamic societies and the fresh angle from which it shines it.

I like the way the author intersperses chapters. The narrative periodically takes a break from the present journey to either talk about something that happened much earlier, or to muse about a concept. It gives the reader an opportunity to pause and digest what the author has experienced.

The moral of the book seems to be simply this: Diversity is difficult to handle - diversity of religions, cultures, thought. But the nations that nonetheless manage to nurture diversity evolve into rich, beautiful and tolerant societies. The ones that shun diversity in favour of ideological purity, whether Islamic, Marxist or any other kind, end up with a grotesque, ugly and violent society that is hell on earth.

Islam in the Indian subcontinent was once capable of synthesising cultures, of morphing to a gentler form (Sufism). But in recent times, that trend has withered in favour of a harsher, purer strain (Wahhabism or the Deobandi school). The loss is that of the societies that have taken this path.

The author's impression of Pakistan at the beginning of his very first visit says it all.

"We drove away from the border in his air-conditioned car. The country that opened up, of mud chimneys, canals full of bathing children and small, congested neighbourhoods, with bright-coloured Urdu writing on the walls, might have been a Muslim neighbourhood in India. It seemed so familiar that one expected the diversity of the Indian scene to reveal itself. And when it didn't, it was unsettling. It really was an India for Muslims only."

Aatish Taseer went to Pakistan with a positive attitude, but for all the Pakistanis' sense of cultural superiority, India's soft power ultimately prevailed. Pakistan may have fascinated him, but could not win him over. And no wonder. India's mongrel culture, much as its detractors may deride it, is in fact its greatest strength. Pakistan's (aspired-for) purity is in fact its downfall. In Harry Potter terms, India is a mudblood country; Pakistan is a Slytherin ideal of purebloodedness. If that makes one shudder, that was my reaction when I read this book. And I believe that's the impression the author intended to convey.

Friday, 31 July 2009

Corazon Aquino Passes Away

It's with sadness that I read of the passing of former Philippine president Corazon Aquino.

It was 1986. I was a student at management school in faraway India when she became President of the Philippines after an epic struggle against a dictatorship. I shared the revulsion of many around the world at the cowardly way in which Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos (allegedly) ordered her husband Benigno Aquino to be murdered just as he stepped off the plane on his return to the Philippines to challenge the dictatorship. Like so many others, I watched and cheered as Corazon bravely took up her husband's mantle even though she had no political experience at all. She became the focal point of the revolt that represented the people's intense frustration with Marcos's tyranny and misrule. If she had failed to step up at the right time, the movement may well have fizzled out. Step up she did, and it must have taken enormous courage to do so.

In those days, there was no World-Wide Web to follow events in real-time. Time and Newsweek were my two main sources of information, and I devoured them voraciously. Now, when I read reviews of her life, the old familiar names come rushing back - Juan Ponce Enrile (Marcos's defence minister who precipitated the revolt by being the first to break ranks with him), General Fidel Ramos (who lent crucial support to Aquino), Cardinal Jaime Sin (the head of the Roman Catholic church in the Philippines who called on the people to support the uprising against Marcos), Gregorio "Gringo" Honasan (a weird serial mutineer who led coup attempts against Marcos, Aquino and reportedly now against Arroyo), etc.

I think Corazon Aquino faced more than her share of challenges during her term, with both natural disasters and man-made ones confronting her on a regular basis. (She faced down 7 coup attempts in 6 years!) She could not solve all the problems of the Philippines, but I believe she made the greatest contribution of all - not just in deposing a dictator but in systematically dismantling the institutions of that dictatorship in order to make the country safe from a similar dictator in future. In the process, she became a powerful symbol of democracy and "People Power" throughout the world.

At a human level, she symbolises something equally important. From whatever I read, I gather that she never lost her egalitarian touch and did not let power corrupt her. Till the end, she remained modest and unassuming.

Such leaders are very rare. I mourn her passing.

[Update 04/08/2009: It was touching to see that two of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos's children came to pay their respects at Corazon Aquino's funeral. Life's too short for familial blood-feuds.]

Monday, 18 May 2009

The Nehru-Gandhi Dynasty

I'm not a fan of India's Gandhi family (no relatives of Mahatma Gandhi), much less a fan of the Gandhi dynasty. I think a democracy doesn't need to look to a single family to provide continuing leadership. [Of course, I'm also against reverse-discrimination, so if members of the Gandhi family choose to stand for election and win, I don't see why they shouldn't be allowed to rule.]

Well, at any rate, since the international press is going on about Rahul Gandhi being the son, grandson and great-grandson of former Prime Ministers, I thought I'd put together a photo collection of the dynasty, and just for kicks, I've used postage stamps wherever available. We still don't know if Rahul Gandhi will be PM. Maybe his sister Priyanka will. At any rate, here's the clan:

Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister (1947-1964):

He's the only prime minister from the family whom I actually admire. The man was a true democrat. It was thanks to his idealism that India survived as a democracy during its difficult infancy. So many other "great" leaders of newly-independent European colonies went down a very different path (e.g., Nkrumah of Ghana, Soekarno of Indonesia, etc.) Lots of people today criticise Nehru for taking India down a socialistic path (more correctly, a mixed economy), but I think that was the right choice at the time. Government was the only agency with the funds and the vision to develop the country. It was also correct for India to liberalise and move to regular market capitalism after a few decades, once basic economic stability and depth had been established.

Indira Gandhi, Nehru's daughter, India's third and sixth prime minister (1966-1977, 1980-1984):
(I'm not counting Gulzarilal Nanda, who was twice stopgap PM)

I never liked her. Unlike her father, Indira Gandhi did her best to destroy India's democratic institutions. Fortunately, by then, Indian democracy was mature enough to withstand her attacks and ultimately outlast her. The postage stamp is from the former USSR. The Indo-Soviet love affair was at its height during her reign. Again, I think that wasn't a bad thing for the time. Better Brezhnev than Nixon.

Rajiv Gandhi, Indira Gandhi's son, India's seventh prime minister (1984-1989):

I didn't think much of him either. Indira Gandhi was undemocratic, but she was at least competent. Rajiv did not even have competence to recommend him. I was sorry, though, when he was assassinated by a suicide bomber of the Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers. [It must be doubly satisfying this week for Rajiv's widow Sonia Gandhi. Her party won re-election, and the Tamil Tigers were finally defeated and their leaders killed.]

Rahul Gandhi, Rajiv's son, future prime minister?

Priyanka Gandhi, Rajiv's daughter, future prime minister?

I don't know much about the Gandhi children. They seem decent enough. But then, so was their father Rajiv, until he became PM. In a few short years, he had turned from "Mr. Clean" into a cynical politician like all the rest.

Now we'll see if PM Manmohan Singh turns out to be a mere seat-warmer for Rahul or Priyanka. Well, the people get the government they deserve.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Notes on the 2009 Indian Election

So the exit polls have been proven wrong, and India has ended up with a more decisive election result than predicted. The ruling Congress party and its allies will probably be able to stitch together a relatively stable coalition government without having to rely on support from ideologically different groups such as the communists. Perhaps in the present economic climate, India needs decisive leadership more than it needs checks on the government's power.

A few quick observations on the election and what it may mean:

1. Dr. Manmohan Singh was much more impressive in his earlier incarnation as India's Finance Minister under former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao (1991-1996) than as Prime Minister himself in the last 5 years. I'll be charitable and attribute the relative lack of pathbreaking reform during the last five years to the fact that a dependence on leftist coalition partners tied his hands. Now that that excuse is no longer available, the new government had better deliver.

2. The election seems to have strengthened the centrist parties and weakened both the left and the right. I think this is a good thing given these troubled times. Governments need to be pragmatic and relatively unencumbered by ideological baggage. Let's hope the new Congress government is able to do what's right for the country without being caught up in endless ideological debates.

3. Shashi Tharoor, the former (unsuccessful) candidate for UN Secretary-General, said in a speech after his record win in Thiruvananthapuram that these were the "accountability elections". Where governance was good, incumbents won. Where it wasn't, they lost. Tharoor was gracious and honest enough to point out that this was as true for his own party as for others. I agree with his analysis. The Indian electorate certainly seems to have voted for good government.

4. I wonder if there will be pressure on Dr. Manmohan Singh to step aside partway through his term to make way for Rahul Gandhi, the scion of India's "democratic dynasty". Although I'm against dynastic rule, I think this may in some ways be an improvement. I'm no longer young, so I probably shouldn't be accused of ageism when I say India's political leadership is a generation older than the demographics of the country would justify. The old need to give way to the young. Plus, I think Dr. Manmohan Singh would be far better as an advisor than as a leader. As the old saying goes, academics should be on tap but not on top.

5. Lastly, a moment of unabashed gloating in the achievement of my native country. India has shamed all the countries in its neighbourhood with yet another smooth election, all the more remarkable for its sheer logistics and relative absence of violence. These neighbours have a hard act to follow. India has also shamed many western countries that continue to rely on paper ballots. The 2004 and 2009 elections have shown that electronic voting machines can and do work even in large and diverse countries with significant numbers of illiterate voters. The actual voting process necessarily took time to organise (5 voting days spread over a month to cater to over half a billion voters), but the tabulation and announcement of the results got over in less than a day.

What next for India? It's very, very early days yet, with the results having just been announced. The days that follow will show how things unfold.

Friday, 15 May 2009

Wisdom Dawns on the Importance of Market Liquidity

I've been crying myself hoarse for years about the need for liquid (i.e., competitive) markets. A free market does not mean a laissez-faire market. It means a market that is guaranteed to be liquid, with plenty of buyers and sellers, and with no player large enough to influence prices through its actions alone.

The recent noises emanating from the Obama administration are a welcome indication that this lesson has been learnt. The world has paid - is continuing to pay - a very heavy price for the state of market illiquidity that has resulting in some players becoming too big to fail.

Someone rightly said that if a company is too big to fail, it's too big to exist.

We need aggressive antitrust, not just in the interests of fairness, but in the interests of our very survival. I hate to argue by pandering to practicality over principle, but that seems to be the only argument that works. Monopolistic and oligopolistic markets are unfair, but that doesn't seem to bother people. Monopolistic and oligopolistic markets can lead to systemic collapses that end in a deep recession - that probably gets more people to take notice and act.

The European Union recently acted boldly in fining Intel over a billion Euros for abusing its monopoly in computer chips. We need more such action against all monopolies, not only other IT monopolies like Microsoft but its counterparts in every industry.

By keeping markets liquid, we keep them healthy and our livelihoods safe.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Star Trek Review

(Warning - spoilers ahead)

I saw Star Trek over the weekend at Castle Towers Megaplex.

In short, the only thing that prevented me from being wowed by the movie was the fact that all the reviews I had read had prepared me to expect something pretty good. The fact that the movie lived up to the hype was ironically a bit of an anticlimax.

I've been a Star Trek fan since the early eighties, when the series started showing on Indian TV. The only thing that managed to knock Star Trek down my list of favourite TV shows was Star Trek - The Next Generation, which began airing in the mid-nineties :-).

The new movie directed by JJ Abrams takes us back to the original story and provides us a newly-minted background to the characters of the Enterprise crew. It's very slickly done, although I do have a few quibbles. I would hardly be a Trekkie if I didn't ;-).

I don't have to provide a standard synopsis of the movie. There are plenty of others available. Here are my quibbles alone, but keep in mind that they in no way detract from the impact and appeal of the movie. You should go and see it on the big screen, even if you aren't familiar with the genre. It's very beginner-friendly.

On to nitpicking, then.

1. A prequel should try and be consistent with its future history. To a large extent, Star Trek succeeds in "backporting" its future characters' idiosyncrasies back to their newly-presented roots, but there are glaring exceptions. In Star Trek IV - The Voyage Home, the crew lands on Vulcan, and Spock has a conversation with his mother. JJ Abrams's prequel not only kills off Spock's mother but all 6 billion denizens of Vulcan, along with the planet itself. It's going to be hard to watch The Voyage Home again without feeling acutely uncomfortable. Abrams shouldn't have done this to us.

2. Captain Pike is in a wheelchair at the end of Abrams's movie, and has already become Admiral. The Cage and The Menagerie are still ahead of him. Is he demoted, does he get out of the wheelchair only to go back to it in time for The Menagerie, or is this another Pike? Highly illogical.

3. The human-Vulcan quandary affecting Spock seems to be resolved too soon. It's not until The Voyage Home that Spock is supposed to "feel" fine.

4. Spock designed the Kobayashi Maru test. I'm fine with that. But the point of it was for the cadets to learn fear? Spock wants Starfleet officers to learn lessons through an emotion? Illogical again.

5. And what's with the Uhura business, anyway? There's not a hint of anything between Spock and Uhura in any of the original episodes, so how are they going to explain the cooling off that surely must have happened after the Abrams movie? Perhaps there will be sequels to the prequel that will resolve this. Advice to the director: don't start anything you can't finish.

There were many nice touches I did enjoy. Bones gives us another variation of his "I'm a doctor, not a " with physicists duly lining up for the honour this time. On the other hand, there were many opportunities for him to say, "He's dead, Jim," but he passed them all up.

Jim Kirk can't resist anything in a skirt, even as he's about to pass out in sickbay. It's pretty hilarious, though I've often wondered if that isn't a fatal character trait for a ship's captain. (Picard, by contrast, is a gentleman who will even carry his guests' bags and he gets my vote over Kirk every time.)

Spock's reluctance to say "Live long and prosper" to his own past self on the grounds that it would be "self-serving" is pretty wry and shows that Vulcans understand humour after all.

The villain Nero is very casual whenever he hails Federation ships. He's so informal you'd almost expect him to go, "How'ya doin'?"

One final nitpick. I would have appreciated an explanation of why there are no seatbelts on starships in the twentythird century. I was hoping the prequel would explain that. Oh, well.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Obama and Nuremberg

I'm simultaneously admiring and critical of President Obama this week over his handling of the Bush-era policy towards torture.

I'm glad he released documents revealing the extent of torture practised by the CIA, but I'm not happy about his desire to move on without affixing responsibility and culpability for the same.

CIA director Leon Panetta is believed to have told his operatives that "the interrogation practices had been approved at the highest levels of the Bush administration and that they had nothing to fear if they had followed the rules."

“You need to be fully confident that as you defend the nation, I will defend you,” he said.

Someone needs to tell these people that the Nazis' excuse of Befehl ist Befehl (orders are orders) was emphatically rejected at Nuremberg.

No, Mr. CIA Director, your operatives cannot be excused because they "merely" followed orders. Human rights violators must always be punished, from George Bush and Dick Cheney down to the cretins who did the dirty work.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Another Government-owned Telco?

It's strange how the Australian government has shelved months of effort that went into a tendering process to finally announce that it would be setting up its own company to build a next generation high-speed broadband network for the country.

Part of me rejoices that the Telstra monopoly has suffered a major kick in the groin. Part of me (heck, all of me) always rejoices when monopolies get a well-deserved kick in the groin (When will you double over in agony, Microsoft?).

But I don't know if this was a well thought-out plan or an oh-forget-it act of exasperated desperation. Has Communications minister Stephen Conroy finally done something right after committing gaffe after gaffe? Others are confused too.

Time will tell whether this gargantuan initiative will turn out to be a waste of money or a wise spend that will keep the economy ticking during the global recession and will also provide a much-needed force-multiplier for the smart, networked nation that will arise after the recession.

But I guess the bottomline is that the privatisation of Telstra was a mistake in the first place. If you must privatise a government-owned monopoly, at least break it up into a dozen pieces so there's no more monopoly. If there's anything worse than a government-owned monopoly, it's a privately-owned monopoly. Will history repeat itself with this new incarnation of Telstra?

Friday, 3 April 2009

Education is Cool

Socialism (beyond the point where it rights historical wrongs) is the great leveller - downwards.

In contrast, I've always believed that education is the great leveller - upwards. One of the saving features of Soviet-era socialism was that it educated its citizens.

Hats off to Michelle Obama for putting this into words. Mrs Obama visited a girls school in London this week and said this:

If you want to know the reason why I am standing here, it's because of education. I never cut class. I loved getting A's, I liked being smart. ... I thought being smart is cooler than anything in the world.

Judging by the news reports, the girls at the multicultural school were inspired by that, especially in the days before their GSC Exams.

Smart behaviour should be seen as cool. Self-destructive behaviour should be seen as something for losers. These are lessons that teenagers need to be taught. As a teenager, I too tended to glorify negative behaviour to an extent, although I thankfully didn't go overboard and ruin my life.

It's great to have positive examples like the Obamas in this world. Youngsters need to see for themselves that working hard to build up one's education and communication skills is something to be admired and emulated, because honest success is not nerdy but cool.

Excerpt from Wodehouse's "The Small Bachelor"

It'll soon become obvious why I'm posting this excerpt from P.G. Wodehouse's novel.

"Ouch!" cried Mrs Waddington.

She had not intended to express any verbal comment on the incident, for those who creep at night through other people's kitchens must be silent and wary: but the sudden agony was so keen that she could not refrain from comment. And to her horror she found that her cry had been heard. There came through the darkness a curious noise like the drawing of a cork, and then somebody spoke.

'Who are you?' said an unpleasant, guttural voice.

Mrs Waddington stopped, paralysed. She would not, in the circumstances, have heard with any real pleasure the most musical of speech: but a soft, sympathetic utterance would undoubtedly have afflicted her with a shade less of anguish and alarm. This voice was the voice of one without human pity: a grating, malevolent voice; a voice that set Mrs Waddington thinking quiveringly in headlines:


'Who are you?'


'Who are you?'


'Who are you?'

Mrs Waddington gulped.

'I am Mrs Sigsbee H. Waddington,' she faltered. And it would have amazed Sigsbee H., had he heard her, to discover that it was possible for her to speak with such a winning meekness.

'Who are you?'

'Mrs Sigsbee H. Waddington, of East Seventy-Ninth Street and Hempstead, Long Island. I must apologize for the apparent strangeness of my conduct in...'

'Who are you?'

Annoyance began to compete with Mrs Waddington's terror. Deaf persons had always irritated her, for like so many women of an impatient and masterful turn of mind, she was of the opinion that they could hear perfectly well if they took the trouble. She raised her voice and answered with a certain stiffness.

'I have already informed you that I am Mrs Sigsbee H. Waddington...'

'Have a nut,' said the voice, changing the subject.

Mrs Waddington's teeth came together in a sharp click. All the other emotions which had been afflicting her passed abruptly away, to be succeeded by a cold fury. Few things are more mortifying to a proud woman than the discovery that she had been wasting her time being respectful to a parrot: and only her inability to locate the bird in the surrounding blackness prevented a rather unpleasant brawl. Had she been able to come to grips with it, Mrs Waddington at that moment would undoubtedly have done the parrot no good whatsoever.

It's interesting that I came upon this passage just days after the news item about the parrot that saved a little girl's life. Knowing what we now know about the intelligence of parrots, perhaps Wodehouse's avian character was having a good laugh all the time.

Truth is stranger than fiction.

The Intelligence of Parrots

When I was at school, we were taught that parrots had no real intelligence. One could not carry on an intelligent conversation with a parrot because the birds only repeated sounds without understanding their meaning.

However, later research seems to show that parrots are in fact highly intelligent creatures that understand what they're saying.

The recent case where a parrot repeatedly cried, "Mama, baby!" to draw the attention of a babysitter to a choking child is just the latest evidence that parrots do not just "parrot" what they have heard. They probably understand the meaning of the words, too.

It takes significant intelligence to recognise that a child is in distress, to understand that an adult human must be alerted to save the child, and a particular combination of words is the most appropriate to describe the situation. Also, it speaks highly of the emotional quality of empathy, to want to save a fellow living being. It makes us pause to think about what it means to be human.