Saturday, 22 December 2007

The Glass is More than Half Full

Four pieces of good news this week:

1. The King of Saudi Arabia bowed to international pressure and pardoned a teenage rape victim who was to receive 200 lashes and a prison sentence.
2. Japan similarly bowed to international pressure and agreed to suspend its hunt of humpback whales this year.
3. The Indian doctor Mohammed Haneef who was wrongfully detained on charges of terrorism and who had his work visa revoked on character grounds won his case in the Australian Federal Court to have his work visa reinstated.
4. New Jersey became the first US state in 40 years to outlaw the death penalty. (Twelve other states and the District of Columbia do not have the death penalty either.)

All great reasons to celebrate the coming New Year. They prove to me that the world is getting better, that moral persuasion works, that the rule of law still holds and that the law itself is becoming more humane.

It doesn't seem proper at this time to quibble, but I do think the glass is less than full.

1. Why does a victim require a pardon?
2. Why can't Japan (and Iceland and Norway) stop hunting whales altogether?
3. Why does former immigration minister Kevin Andrews still insist that the Australian government appeal the Federal Court's verdict? What part of the phrase "travesty of justice" doesn't he get? And why are the Australian Federal Police still pursuing Stephen Keim, the lawyer who revealed details of how the investigation had been botched?
4. Why doesn't the US repeal the second amendment (which protects the "right" to bear arms) and reduce the incidence of violent crimes and suicides? (Heavy sarcasm: or is there still no proven link between smoking and lung cancer?)

[Mohammed Haneef's Australian ordeal forces me to a conclusion regarding the three immigration ministers appointed by former prime minister John Howard, - Philip Ruddock, Amanda Vanstone and Kevin Andrews. All three of them were notorious for having zero empathy for asylum seekers and migrants. A person who is incapable of feeling empathy is called a psychopath. I'm sure that was one of the prerequisite qualifications Howard insisted on for the job. "Minister for Immigration" is probably Orwellian newspeak for "psychopathic person responsible for ensuring that the dirty so-and-sos don't get in and pollute Australia Fair".]

So while I celebrate the world's uneven but inexorable progress towards true civilisation, I realise there's still a ways to go. Sigh.

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

The Ascent of Man

I recently bought the BBC series "The Ascent of Man" on DVD. This is a 13-part series on the evolution of human civilisation, presented and narrated by Jacob Bronowski. What brings back a rush of nostalgic memories is the fact that I saw this series when I was a boy, and I'm thankful for the eclectic, science-oriented upbringing I was privileged to have.

My father was a professor at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bangalore, and I grew up on the campus. It was a small, cosy campus and a teenager could walk from one end to the other quite easily. I've done that countless times, climbing over the back walls of departments in the evenings looking for "treasure". My friends and I (all children of faculty) took great pleasure in raiding the dumps outside the chemistry departments (there were three of them, - Organic Chemistry, Physical Chemistry and Biochemistry, - and Organic Chemistry was our favourite). We would scavenge half-used bottles of benzene and similar chemicals and take them home to do experiments. (Did you know that thermocol dissolves in benzene with a most satisfying fizz?)

My dad was quite indulgent and would chuckle about my "experiments" when he walked into a room reeking of recently-burnt plastic or some such. I doubt if I'd let my son do such dangerous experiments today (we've lost the element of risk-taking in today's world, as I mentioned in another post).

We were a group of nerds, I realise now. I don't know what ambitions normal kids used to have, but my close campus friends and I knew what we were going to do - we were going to become scientists and cure cancer, winning the Nobel Prize for Medicine in the process. And we knew exactly how we were going to do it, too. Just inject cancer cells into squirrels, then extract the cancerous growths, dry them to "weaken" the cells, and inject them into healthy people. Voila! A cancer vaccine! (I think it was better for humanity that the two young geniuses who thought of that ended up in the software industry instead.)

They used to hold educational film shows some evenings in some of the departments, and a whole lot of professors' kids used to turn up at these. One of these educational shows was "Civilisation" by Kenneth Clark, which I found a bit boring at the time, but which I think I would like to see now. Another one was "The Ascent of Man". I remember this series quite vividly. The wireframe computer graphics shown seemed highly advanced in the seventies. Now I have a chance to see the series again, and I'm able to understand it much, much better. Jacob Bronowski is a genius. He can tie together science, technology, history, economics and a bunch of different disciplines and tell a convincing story of how we came about. (He's no more, but I feel like referring to him in the present tense because I'm still watching the series).

I would recommend "The Ascent of Man" to anyone interested in science. And I'm once again grateful for a weird and wonderful childhood spent in the innocence of scientific exploration.

Saturday, 24 November 2007

The End of the Howard Era

Like a guest who has shamelessly overstayed his dinner invitation, John Howard has finally been shown the door. Embarrassing, to say the least. He could have left with grace and dignity had he voluntarily stepped down last year, and he would have departed with an abundance of public goodwill and nostalgia. Now while his electoral defeat today is being hailed as the end of an era, the sentiment is being accompanied by rejoicing.

I feel an enormous sense of relief. I feel as if something has finally happened that was long overdue.

I migrated to Australia in 1998, at the height of the xenophobic hysteria whipped up by Pauline Hanson. Well-meaning friends even asked at the time if I felt safe going to Australia, when it didn't seem to be very welcoming to migrants. Thanks to reassurances from Indian friends already in Australia at the time, my wife and I decided to press ahead.

Sure enough, the Pauline Hanson phenomenon died out soon after, and her party even went bankrupt (financially as well), but what disturbed me was how Prime Minister John Howard seemed to take the wind out of her sails by quietly adopting many of the policies she espoused. She didn't want to acknowledge aboriginal land rights or admit that any wrong was done to aboriginal people. Howard echoed that by publicly refusing to say "Sorry" to the indigenous Australians on behalf of white Australia. (While I have a strong personal distaste for political handouts and believe that communities must lift themselves up by the bootstraps, I can see that John Howard was playing to a certain gallery that was beginning to look Hanson's way).

He took a stronger line on immigration and refugees. The shameful incident when he turned back the MV Tampa carrying 439 Afghan refugees rescued in a shipwreck off Australian waters (and even alleged (untruthfully) that the asylum seekers were heartlessly throwing their children overboard) revealed to me the unsavoury side of his character.

I learnt the term that described his behaviour much later - he was "dog whistling" Pauline Hanson's policy. Without seeming to be the racist that Hanson clearly was, he succeeded in attracting back the redneck voters who threatened to desert his party. He attacked multiculturalism as political correctness. Under Howard, attacking political correctness became politically correct, and it became acceptable to roll back (in word at least) the multiculturalism that was so strikingly in evidence on the ground.

He showed the opportunistic side of his nature once again in the November 2001 elections when he cynically manipulated the fear that September 11 generated to win his third term.

He won his fourth term having wrapped himself in the national flag by going to war in Iraq alongside the US. In those days, when Iraqi weapons of mass destruction were a theoretical possibility and Western civilisation seemed under threat from the Islamic world, it must have seemed unpatriotic to white Australians to oppose Howard's policy. (In Western countries, who knows the difference between Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, or between Arabic, Farsi, Pushtu and Urdu?)

In the latest election too, he tried the same tricks of fear and xenophobia (of which a bit more in a moment), but it didn't work this time. His opponent Kevin Rudd was every bit as smooth and unruffled as himself, and played his game with the same degree of skill. I like to think that the Australian people ultimately saw through Howard's lies and showed him the door.

If I had two words to say to John Howard today, they would be "Mohammed Haneef." What angered me the most in the current election campaign was the character assassination of this doctor of Indian origin who was practising in a hospital in Queensland. In the run-up to the 2007 election, the government needed a bogeyman, and what better one than a Muslim who was related to one of the Glasgow bombers? The immigration minister, Kevin Andrews, has a lot to answer for regarding the utterly shameful treatment of Dr. Haneef, and if I were a religious man, I would say there is a special place in hell for cynical men who think nothing of destroying others' reputations and lives for their own political survival. Even after the charges against Dr. Haneef were proved baseless and he was released, Howard's immigration minister had his visa revoked "on character grounds", and the poor man had to leave Australia. I don't believe Kevin Andrews was acting on his own on such an important and explosive issue. John Howard was "dog whistling" again in the background. Getting Dr. Haneef out of Australia was a PR coup, because once the scandal dropped out of the headlines, the problem was over.

Ah, but not quite. In many people (myself included), the Haneef incident evoked deep and lasting anger. Mohammed Haneef is a Muslim and I am nominally Hindu, but I can recognise unfair treatment when I see it. I choose my words carefully here, but even if John Howard is not a racist, he is certainly anglocentric in his attitudes. And one of the real reasons why he has lost touch with Australia is that this country, at the grassroots level, is no longer anglocentric. Anyone can see the sheer ethnic and cultural diversity in Australia today by just walking down a Sydney or Melbourne street. No politician will cut ice with the contemporary Australian electorate by demonising minorities. The system of compulsory voting in Australia means that you cannot even count on minority alienation to keep hostile voters away from the polling booths. John Howard angered me, a voter. He's now history.

The election of Kevin Rudd is a fundamental generational shift in Australian politics. Whether it's merely symbolic or not, Kevin Rudd can speak Mandarin. How many anglophones can speak another language, much less a non-European one? When Rudd's family took the stage in Brisbane today during his victory speech, his Chinese son-in-law was on stage with him, dramatically illustrating the changing face of Australia.

I have no idea whether Kevin Rudd will make a good prime minister, but I do know that this country's future has no place for John Howard in a leadership role.

The end of an era? Thank goodness.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

My Favourite One-Liner

"Don't waste your coffee. There are people in India sleeping."

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Is the Age of Heroic Achievement Over?

If you read Peter Bernstein's book "Against the Gods", the major argument he makes is that Risk Management is the hallmark of the modern age. Sophisticated risk management techniques distinguish an advanced society from a less developed one, but I would like to explore the downsides to this advancement.

The first is cost. As a migrant to Australia from India, I can see some stark differences in the cost of goods and services in the two countries. Everything is so much more expensive in Australia, especially where human labour is involved. A prime reason is insurance. When I briefly had a company of my own in Sydney, a major part of my expenses came from Workers Compensation Insurance, even though I was my company's only employee. Had I taken out Professional Indemnity Insurance, my costs would have been even higher. (Incidentally, I was warned against taking out Professional Indemnity Insurance, because I was told the chances of my being sued for professional malpractice were greater if it was known that I had such insurance!)

In India, a lot of the labour employed by the middle class belongs to the "unorganised sector", and insurance is unknown. I remember being at a friend's place when an electrician came over for some repairs. I was amused to see the electrician also being asked to refix the chain on the family bicycle and also run a shopping errand. He was paid a modest sum for his bundle of services and he never thought the non-electrical requests were out of line. Contrast this with my experience in Australia when I ordered some furniture and had it home-delivered. The delivery guy brought a set of boxes in and left them there. When I asked if he was going to assemble it, he replied, "That's your job, mate."

When a society formalises job roles and risk-manages them to the nth degree, I think costs go up. It may be progress, but there's a definite downside.

The other, perhaps more important aspect of a sophisticated society is the intolerance for failure. It has been pointed out that if NASA had adopted today's attitudes towards risk and project management, the Ranger program would have been aborted after less than 4 attempts. As it happened, the Ranger program suffered no fewer than 6 successive failures before Ranger 7 finally made it to the moon.

What happened there was faith and dogged determination, hallmarks of a less civilised society with less sophisticated risk management in its collective DNA. I think we have lost something that needs to be mourned.

Monday, 8 October 2007

The Intellectual Property Pendulum has Swung Too Far Right

The opening paragraph of this news item says it all:
"In the first US trial to challenge the illegal downloading of music on the internet, a single mother from Minnesota was ordered to pay $US220,000 for sharing 24 songs online."

And the public mood is adequately captured by the comments after it -- definitely not happy.

True, violating copyright is illegal. As in "against the law of the day". I'll say that again. Against the law of the day. And that's why the RIAA may want to go easy on the champagne.

The right to intellectual property is not a fundamental right. It isn't enshrined in any constitution. Intellectual property ownership, in the form of trademarks, patents and copyrights, are given to private parties at the pleasure of the government. Laws governing intellectual property are passed by legislatures, as bodies like the RIAA and the MPAA well know. That's how they've been getting the terms of copyright extended time and again, well beyond the original intent of the American Founding Fathers. One of these people went so far as to say, entirely seriously, that people skipping ads while watching TV were "stealing".

Things have been going your way for a few years now, big boys, but as they say, be nice to people on your way up, because you may meet them on your way down. And I mean people, as in "we the people".

Even the few defenders of this week's verdict are doing so because they believe that "intellectual property rights help artistes make money". Poor sods. Little do they know, as industry insiders have often pointed out, that very few artistes actually make money from recording industry contracts. The music industry has been described as "middle-aged men getting rich off young boys and girls". It's the fat cat recording labels who make money off music, not the songwriters or the musicians.

Paradoxically, I'm happy about this verdict. Because it's a sign to me that the music industry has pushed its luck too far. Common people are frightened, angry and outraged. This legal nightmare could have happened to anyone.

If enough people get angry enough, legislators will have to listen. And laws can be repealed. As I said before, intellectual property legislation has no constitutional protection. Intellectual property rights exist at the pleasure of the government. They can be taken away when the government withdraws its pleasure. And the government exists at the pleasure of the people. The very people being targetted by the intellectual property lawsuits. Get it?

The big boys are playing with fire. I look forward to seeing them get burned in the very near future. Expect to see a grassroots backlash starting to organise itself anytime now.

Wednesday, 25 April 2007

The Baby Kangaroo Rescue Centre in Alice Springs

I was on holiday last week in Australia's "Red Centre", visiting Uluru (Ayer's Rock) and the town of Alice Springs (immortalised in Nevil Shute's novel, A Town Like Alice).

Alice Springs is home to some uniquely Australian institutions, such as the School of the Air (i.e., students in the far flung Australian Outback taught by teachers through radio and now the Internet) and the Royal Flying Doctor Service.

But one of the unofficial tour attractions that I had the pleasure of visiting was Chris "Brolga" Barns's Baby Kangaroo Rescue Centre. For a $5 donation, Brolga lets you into the compound to share a very unique experience - learning to look after baby kangaroos.

Central Australia is extremely dry, not quite a desert, but a kind of savannah. In this arid country, the exhaust fumes from automobiles, funnily enough, are a major source of moisture, and so there is rich vegetation growing along the sides of the highways here. Vegetation attracts grazing kangaroos, and unfortunately, this leads to large numbers of kangaroos being hit and killed by passing vehicles.

Brolga advises that if you pass a dead kangaroo, don't just drive past, because even dead marsupials may often be carrying live young in their pouches, which could perish without timely rescue and care. Stop your vehicle by the side of the road (if it's safe for you to pull over, of course), then examine the dead kangaroo's pouch.

If you find a baby kangaroo in the pouch, make a bag out of a T-shirt or cushion cover, then help the baby into it. (Baby kangaroos often need no encouragement to enter a bag. They somersault into it.) Then, holding the bag against the warmth of your body, take it to a nearby town and ask around for a person who looks after baby kangaroos. There are such kind souls in almost every town. Give the baby kangaroo some water, but avoid giving it cow's milk, as this will not agree with it.

Also, before leaving the scene, try and move the carcase well away from the road, as otherwise, scavengers like the wedge-tailed eagle also become roadkill in turn.

Brolga's work is well-known around Alice Springs. The cabbie who drove us into town from the airport told us about him, which is how we walked into his little centre. One of our tour guides also turned out to be a friend of his and a regular contributor of rescued baby kangaroos.

Unfortunately, the Northern Territory government doesn't seem to be very helpful in supporting Brolga's work. The nearby national parks, surprisingly, don't have any facilities to look after orphaned baby kangaroos, and unpaid volunteers like Brolga are treated with suspicion by the bureaucracy. Brolga says the donations he gets from visitors allow his kangaroo rescue efforts to be self-sustaining, but the effort needs more institutional support, which isn't forthcoming.

If you're ever in Alice Springs, pay the centre a visit. It's very heartening to see the little critters being well looked after, and there's a steady stream of visitors trooping in, having heard of the centre by mere word of mouth.

Update Jan 2013: Brolga seems to have acquired a 90 acre wildlife reserve in Alice Springs, and also has a website, www.kangaroosanctuary.com. His new email address is brolga@kangaroosanctuary.com

Donations may be made by PayPal or by electronic transfer. The link to PayPal is on the website.

For bank transfers, use the following details:
Bank name: National Australia Bank
Account Name: Baby Kangaroo Centre Pty Ltd
BSB: 085-995
Account: 89 344 3860
SWIFT code (required from outside Australia): NATAAU3303M

Give the man a hand. He's doing great work.

Friday, 13 April 2007

Typing in Hindi

Blogger now supports Hindi (more correctly, the Devanagari script), and I'm curious to try it out.

मेरा नाम गणेश प्रसाद हैयह मेरा ब्लॉग है और मैं यह जांच करना चाहता हूँ कि यह software कितना स्मार्ट होता है
(My name is Ganesh Prasad. This is my blog and I want to find out how smart this software is.)

Not so cool. Either I'm missing something, or Blogger still doesn't know the conventional way to type 'pra', 'ki' or 'smart'.

But I guess I shouldn't be churlish. I didn't have to use the mixed case spelling that has evolved as the de facto Roman script standard to represent Devanagari letters. It'll get better, I know it will.

आज अच्छा है, कल और भी अच्छा होगा
(It's good today, and it'll get better tomorrow.)

Update 23/05/2008: I see that the fonts have suddenly changed, and the words look correct now. The only thing I can think of is that I upgraded to Ubuntu 8.04 (Hardy Heron) 3 days ago. So maybe it wasn't Blogger that was to blame after all.

Tuesday, 10 April 2007

Subtle Design - My alternative theory to Intelligent Design

I'll make no secret of where my sympathies lie. My father was a scientist with (still) very ambivalent feelings towards God and religion. I've had too much of a science and engineering background to believe in superstition.

So I'm surprised to see the resurgence of the creationist argument in the form of Intelligent Design. I've dismissed it as another American religious cult phenomenon. But in recent weeks, the Evolution versus Intelligent Design argument doesn't appear to be "either/or" to me anymore.

To the proponents of literal Creationism first: Let's accept that there is a God. Let's also accept that God created the known Universe. Did He really have to go around creating each and every single creature individually? "Here's a Himalayan Panda. Here's a Golden Pangolin. Here's a Boll Weevil. Here's a Reticulated Python..." A really smart God would probably find a more subtle way to achieve the same result.

All that a Really Subtle GodTM would have to do is create an amoeba and a mutation mechanism that created slightly different offspring in each generation. Natural selection would take care of the rest. Vary the environment slightly, and some of the mutations would find themselves slightly better suited to it than others. They would survive in larger numbers, while less-suited individuals would die out without producing offspring. Over time, the species would evolve. There, I said the e-word. That doesn't sound too blasphemous now, does it? Because God could have created Evolution! Evolution is therefore the mechanism that God thought up to ensure that creatures ended up perfectly adapted to their environment.

I know that Intelligent Design says that evolution is possible, but that God is guiding it and it's not a random process. But what if the process was so ingeniously designed that it needed no guiding? Doesn't that reflect even better on its Creator?

I can see God nudging any onlookers and going, "Hey, look at what I did! All I did was create this little amoeba, see? And I made it capable of changing itself a teeny bit at a time, see? Now you see what happens when I up the temperature a bit? Did you see all those little critters appear all of a sudden? Now watch when I make the place more wet. Did you see that? Did you see that? A whole lot of new ones, swimming in the water! The best part of it is, I didn't have to go around creating each one of them by hand. I didn't even have to do any tweaking to help it along. Would've been too much trouble, anyway. So, am I clever or am I clever?"

I'm quite taken by this theory. In fact, I think God didn't even have to create an amoeba to start with. He might have gone, "OK, here's some amino acids, right? Heaps and heaps of 'em. Watch what happens when they combine. There's billions of pools here, OK? Most of them don't do anything interesting, but watch this pool here. See that thing moving? What d'you reckon it is? It's doing stuff on its own, like it's not just a bunch of chemicals. I think I'll call it Life. Yes, life! Hey, I created Life! Am I a genius or am I a genius?"

Come to think of it, God probably didn't need amino acids either. He could have started with just carbon, hydrogen and oxygen and just watched the fun as He whacked them with lightning. He'd have got the amino acids and then proceeded from there.

We can keep backing this up right up to the Big Bang.

In sum, it's possible to imagine a God right at the start of Creation, and a process that He created that required no further intervention from Him ever again. I think I'll call that Subtle Design. Really Subtle Design.

And so the existence of God is once again just a philosophical question best unanswered. It's just too subtle for Creation to understand. Or creationists.

The world - improving by fits and starts

I'm an optimist. I believe we are alive at the best time in history. The world has seen unrelenting progress since the dawn of human civilisation. Yes, there has been dramatic backsliding as well, such as the Nazi holocaust and the Chinese cultural revolution, each claiming millions of lives.

Still, on the whole, our lives have only improved. Slavery, colonialism, apartheid, -- all gone. Women's equality and voting rights, increased awareness and protection of minority rights, increased awareness of child abuse and consequent steps to protect children, a hundred different ways in which our world has improved.

But from time to time, something occurs to remind me that as much as the world has improved, it still has a long way to go. The latest event to my mind has been the hanging in Iran of two gay youths. This was not the work of a homophobic gang. This was the execution of the law of the land, carried out by officials of the state. A quick check of the calendar: This is 2007.

I'm not gay, but I'm not homophobic either. People don't harm others by being gay. Why can't they be left alone? Social opprobrium is bad enough, but legal punishment? And punishment by death? For juveniles? Have people gone mad?

The key to social advancement is education. Little by little, the world needs to understand the value of individual liberty and human rights. Of the humane wisdom behind Voltaire's words, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

I'm an optimist, so I believe that one day, the world will learn. I only hope that day comes sooner rather than later.

My Economic Philosophy - 5 (The Greater Freedom, redux)

It looks like the debate about which is the greater freedom (a freedom without restrictions or a freedom that cannot be taken away) is taking place again in the context of blog netiquette.

The incident that triggered this latest debate concerns technology persona Kathy Sierra. (I owe a personal debt of gratitude to Kathy for her excellent book "Head First Servlets and JSP" that helped me achieve my Sun Certified Web Component Developer for J2EE certification. I have also read and enjoyed her other books "Head First Java", "Head First EJB" and "Head First Design Patterns").

A few people left disturbingly graphic insults and death threats on her blogsite, and the pattern of intimidation continued, with similar comments appearing on other blogsites, until she began to fear for her own life. The freedom of speech exercised by those who made the death threats resulted in a very real loss of freedom for Kathy, who felt compelled to cancel a speaking engagement and stay at home out of fear. My heart goes out to Kathy. I hope she recovers from the trauma soon and continues to contribute to technology and the world in general.

I guess this incident mirrors how a laissez-faire market can result in some players losing their freedom through the aggressive actions of others, even though those others may technically be playing within the rules.

Following the Kathy Sierra incident, Tim O'Reilly proposed a blogger's code of conduct, which I think is a good thing. One of the proposals in it concerns banning anonymous comments.

I have been a bit laissez-faire about comments so far, but (inspired by Tim's guidelines) I will ban anonymous comments on both my blogs from now on, and delete uncivil ones (but not comments that merely disagree with my views), in order to be consistent with my philosophy of the greater freedom. Because these are related concepts, after all.

According to a news report, Tim said the guidelines were not about censorship.

"That is one of the mistakes a lot of people make — believing that uncensored speech is the most free, when in fact, managed civil dialogue is actually the freer speech," he said. "Free speech is enhanced by civility."

Amen to that.

Friday, 6 April 2007

Where I support (gasp) John Howard

I'm no fan of John Howard, but I do support his controversial WorkChoices plan which tries to reform Industrial Relations.

I'm an employee, not an employer. I want a system that makes it easier for employers to fire employees. That's not a typo. I'll repeat it: I want a system that makes it easier for employers to fire employees.

Wait, come back! I'll explain why this actually makes better sense for employees.

Most people tend to think too literally about economic systems, because we're conditioned by the physical world and the pervasive laws of Physics. In Physics, if we want a body to move in the positive x direction, we simply apply a force in the positive x direction, and presto! The body moves as expected.

But Economics works very differently to Physics. If we want a "body" to move in the positive x direction, we must often make it easy for that body to move in the negative x direction! Then the body will move in the positive x direction, of its own accord. Any attempt to apply a force in the positive x direction will in fact cause the body to move in the negative x direction!

Let's say a country needs hard currency (e.g., US dollars). If it passes a law preventing US dollars from being taken out of the country, will that achieve the intended result? More likely, the flow of US dollars into the country will abruptly stop, because there is no way to take the money out again. Plus, the US dollars already in the country will probably get smuggled out. The net result is that the country will end up with even less hard currency than before.

But if the country instead relaxed all constraints on the outward movement of US dollars, that could paradoxically encourage its inflow, because investors would be confident of being able to repatriate their profits back out whenever they wanted.

So when dealing with economic systems, it's better to allow bodies to move in the direction we don't want them to go, so that they move of their own accord in the direction we do want them to go.

That explanation probably makes my support of a hire-and-fire labour market seem less like lunacy. If employers know they can freely fire workers when they don't need them anymore, they'll be more willing to hire in response to short-term demand. Aggregated across the economy, all this additional hiring and firing (which wasn't there before) will contribute to a more liquid labour market (and by now, if you've been reading my blog diligently, you should know my weakness for liquid markets).

So as an employee, I want to see a hire-and-fire regime, because that increases the number of opportunities available to nimble and agile people who keep their skills up to date. The perceived increase in uncertainty doesn't scare me -- I'm a migrant :-). Hire-and-fire gives me a greater chance to up my remuneration.

WorkChoices is not hire-and-fire. It's a compromise, but it narrows the criteria applicable for unfair dismissal and makes it harder to get a tribunal to overturn one. It's a step in the direction of a liquid labour market, and I hope it leads to bolder legislation dismantling the remaining labour market controls that continue to constrain the economy.

Tuesday, 27 March 2007

Protectionism's insidious appeal to decency

I had a minor argument with an Aussie colleague at work today. We were discussing no-frills brands in supermarkets such as Woolworths' Home Brand and Franklins' (what else) No Frills. I'm all for these brands, by the way, because they give me commodity functionality at a lower price than traditionally branded products.

My colleague stiffened visibly. "I don't buy these brands because I believe in supporting Australian producers," he said, and there was an undertone of reproach in his voice. I should have bitten my tongue, I guess, but I couldn't help expressing my preference for Free Trade. That got me embroiled in an argument with another Aussie co-worker who also believed in supporting Australian producers.

I was a bit saddened by the exchange because these are people I like and respect very much. They're decent blokes, and if they've been conned by the protectionist argument, then it sadly means that protectionism is a tax on decent and patriotic people, just as lotteries are a tax on people who are bad at maths.

So what I understand from this is that it doesn't matter how inefficient and uncompetitive I am as a producer. All I have to do is wrap myself in the national flag, and patriotic people can be counted on to bail me out. Their well-meaning patriotism becomes its own punishment. And they don't seem to realise that their support of products on non-economic grounds does the country a disservice by taking away the incentive to improve efficiency and competitiveness. Over time, the country loses its ability to compete in the world market. Protectionism always hurts those it is meant to protect.

I remember a similar situation in India, where I spent the first thirty years of my life. There was a popular nationalistic slogan that I saw everywhere as I was growing up - "Be Indian, Buy Indian." (Not that it was possible to buy foreign goods, heh. The import tariff on foreign-made electronic goods, for example, was 400%! A pox on Indira Gandhi and her mean-minded, wealth-destroying mindset!)

The only cars available in India for many years were the Ambassador, the Premier Padmini and the Standard Herald. These were based on European designs of the fifties. The Ambassador was based on a British design, while the Padmini was based on a Fiat model. I don't know what the Standard Herald was based on. The interesting thing was that these models never changed over 40 years! Indian car manufacturers didn't even bother to try the old Detroit trick of "innovating" larger tail fins. They just kept making the same models year after year and sold them at exorbitant prices. Only rich people could afford cars in those days. And the cars were gas-guzzlers to boot.

Finally, in the late eighties and early nineties, the Indian economy began to liberalise. Indian companies began to tie up with foreign manufacturers to bring out newer models. Within 15 years, the landscape was transformed. Today, the old models are nowhere in sight on Indian roads, except as taxis (for some reason, taxis are still stuck in nowhere-land). All private cars are now based on modern designs and international brands. What's more, many of the models are affordable by middle-class people. They're also more fuel-efficient.

I feel anger whenever I think of this and similar stories. These car manufacturers took the Indian consumer for a ride for four decades because they were shielded from competition and never felt the need to innovate and compete. They remained stuck in the fifties while the rest of the world passed them by. It was only when the Indian economy was opened up did change happen.

So what did being Indian and buying Indian achieve? Limited choice, stagnant designs, ugly, gas-guzzling monstrosities and high prices. All these problems magically disappeared when the economy opened up and competition appeared (which ties this back to my earlier piece on Liquidism).

Why should we buy a product just because it is Australian-owned or Australian-operated? What is the message we are sending to these people? That it doesn't matter how uncompetitive they are, they can still have our money?

As an obvious aside, I wasn't "Made in Australia" myself, but a free-ish market in labour was responsible for my migrating to this country under Australia's Skilled Migration Program and adding my talents (meagre as they may be) to the Australian pool. At a visceral level, I cannot agree with the "Buy Australian" sentiment, because it would have kept me out. In fact, I find that sentiment personally offensive.

Saturday, 17 March 2007

My proposal for a new Australian flag

Yes, I'm proud to be an Australian citizen, but I don't much like the current Australian flag (below). To be specific, I don't like the Union Jack in the flag's canton. It looks like we're (still) kowtowing to the British.


Lots of Australians share my sentiment, and there have been lots of new design proposals that appeal to Australians' sense of self-respect.

I quite like the rest of the flag, I must say, but merely ripping out the Union Jack from the flag would leave it a little bare. So I've been thinking up my own design.

Now, I have a theory about flag design. I have observed a strong correlation between the colours in a national flag and how well-off the country is. In general, countries with only red and white in their flags' designs tend to be rich, or at the very least, middle-income. This rule also applies to countries with blue, red and white, but only if the white is used as a buffer between the blue and red areas. Without white as a buffer between blue and red, countries tend to slide dramatically down the economic ladder. Blue and red with no white at all is deadly (e.g., Haiti).

White seems to be essential. But countries with only blue and white in their designs tend to be low-to-middle-income countries. So blue doesn't seem to attract wealth as well as red.

"Red and white", or "red, blue and white (with white as a buffer)" seem to be the way to go.

Yellow, brown, green and black are the "kiss of death" in economic terms. Countries with these colours in their flags are predominantly from the Third World (135 in all), with only 11 exceptions.

If you don't believe me, check these out for yourself.

Red and white only:
Rich countries: Austria, Bahrain, Canada, Denmark, England (not UK), Japan, Qatar, Monaco, Singapore, Switzerland (10 out of 19 - 52.6%)
Middle-income countries: Georgia, Latvia, North Cyprus, Poland, Turkey (5 out of 19 - 26.3%)
Poor countries: Indonesia, Peru, Tonga, Tunisia (4 out of 19 - 21.1%)

Red, white and blue (white acting as a buffer):
Rich countries: Australia, France, Iceland, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, UK, US (9 out of 16 - 56%)
Middle-income countries: Panama, Serbia Montenegro, Slovakia, Thailand (4 out of 16 - 25%)
Poor countries: Liberia, North Korea, Trinidad and Tobago (3 out of 16 - 18.8%)

Red, white and blue (white not acting as a buffer):
Rich countries: None! (0 out of 9 - 0%)
Middle-income countries: Cuba, Czech Republic, Russia, Slovenia (4 out of 9 - 44%)
Poor countries: Cambodia, Chile, Laos, Myanmar, Samoa (5 out of 9 - 56%)

Blue and white only:
Rich countries: Finland, Scotland (2 out of 8 - 25%)
Middle-income countries: Greece, Israel (2 out of 8 - 25%)
Poor countries: Honduras, Micronesia, San Marino, Somalia (4 out of 8 - 50%)

Red and blue only:
Rich countries: None! (0 out of 1 - 0%)
Middle-income countries: None! (0 out of 1 - 0%)
Poor countries: Haiti (1 out of 1: 100%)

Other colours (especially yellow, green and black):
Rich countries: Belgium, Brunei, Germany, Ireland, Kuwait, Liechtenstein, Oman, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Sweden, UAE (11 out of 146 - 7.5%)
Not-so-rich countries: Too numerous to mention (135 out of 146 - 92.5%)

The correlations are quite dramatic. Obviously, as a patriotic Aussie, I would like my country to remain rich, with the highest probability. So I'll go with one of the "safe" colour schemes, red and white only, or red, white and blue.

After trying out a few designs, here's the one I feel most comfortable proposing as my candidate for the new Australian flag. It has the Federation Star and the Southern Cross, just like the current flag, so that takes care of the continuity bit.



This is a national flag I could unreservedly be proud of. It's the flag of a sovereign nation, not a former British colony. The only thing left is for the country it represents to become a republic. But that's the topic for another post.

I also toyed with the idea of solidarity with Canada. Australians have a healthy dislike of both the US and the UK, but Canada and New Zealand seem to be OK in our books. So here's another design inspired by the Canadian flag.


And here are two designs inspired by the South African flag (which looks fantastic but uses an economically unwise colour scheme).



P.S. For China to really arrive, all they need to do is change the yellow stars on their flag to white!

Update 04/02/2015:

The Facebook site "Jack Off - Get the Union Jack off our flag" has a number of design suggestions. I have modified the designs of some contributors to produce flags conforming to the colour scheme I support.

This is based on a design from Brian Nedic:

Thursday, 15 March 2007

Security pact all right, but to protect whom?

I just read this news report about a US proposal for Australia and Japan to include India in a four-way security pact with the US. This is believed to be aimed at containing China by getting powerful democracies in the Asia-Pacific region to encircle the evil dictatorship.

Good idea? Bad idea?

As an Indian-born person who grew up in India just after the Indo-Chinese border war of 1962, I might be expected to welcome this development. That's right, we need to contain the Chinese. They can't be trusted. As a democrat too, I should be happy at the increasing pressure being brought to bear on an illegitimate communist dictatorship.

But something gives me pause, and it's not just the fact that Dick "Trust me, I'm a rat" Cheney wants the deal to happen.

Historically, China and India have been rich countries. In fact, for most of the history of human civilisation, China and India have been richer than the West. In the 16th century, Western explorers were not trying to find routes to the East in order to exploit cheap labour for their rich economies. They were trying to trade with rich economies!

Viewed in this historical context, the last 500 years have been an aberration, and all of us have been caught up in the thinking that China and India are poor countries, always have been, always will be. Nonsense! If anything, the next 50 years are going to see these two countries returning to their position of economic pre-eminence in the world.

There is a power shift happening in the world, and it is happening in this generation. It has a lot of people in the West scared. Globalisation no longer means the comfort of sampling Hokkien noodles or Tandoori chicken in the comfort of a multi-cuisine food court. It means that your children may have to learn Mandarin or Hindi, that they may have to relocate for a while to Shanghai or Calcutta to advance in their careers or even to keep their jobs, that their bosses might have surnames like Chang or Chaudhury, or that they may be spending their working hours making Baoding balls or Saris. It could be viewed as exciting, but to many people, that spells scary. Face it, the scariest thing that can happen to you is that you may change! Change cannot be allowed to happen. If it can't be prevented, it must be delayed for as long as possible.

Now look at the proposal for the security pact from this historical and psychological perspective. What I'm reading is that the Waning Powers are trying to drive a wedge between two Emerging Powers. Should India be flattered by all the attention? Should India view this proposal as just the ticket to help allay its fears of China since 1962? In short, should India rise to the bait?

New Delhi would be wise to ask itself some questions. Whose security is this pact meant to preserve? Who gains by pitting one emerging power against another?

Economic development is not a zero-sum game. A richer East means a richer world. It means a richer West as well. However, suspicion is worse than a zero-sum game. It can escalate into a debilitating spiral that will be self-sustaining. After a while, the Western powers can safely disengage from the security stand-off they have created, because India and China will be helplessly caught in an ever-escalating cycle of suspicion and can be trusted to contain each other.

I think the most appropriate response is for India and China to sign a Free Trade agreement. It will be a snub to the West, but not a destructive one. Because economic development is not a zero-sum game.

Sunday, 11 March 2007

"The One-Minute Rain Test"

This came to me in a dream, which shows that I've been reading too many motivational, success-oriented books lately.

Someone in my dream asked me what the One-Minute Rain Test was, and I found myself answering, "It's been observed that when a game of football is temporarily suspended due to heavy rain, the team that continues playing with the ball even off the field tends to win the game."

Obviously, that's meant to hide some deep wisdom about the importance of motivation, focus and determined effort in pursuit of a goal. It also sounds plausible enough to form an urban legend.

The mind is a wonderful thing...

My Economic Philosophy - 4 (Liquidism as "Extreme Economics")

(This is the fourth of n pieces on my emerging economic philosophy called Liquidism.)

In spite of its seemingly revolutionary approach, Liquidism isn't really a radical departure from current "best practice" in economics. The three schools of macroeconomic thought I referred to in my third post on this topic do not really contradict each other, either.

Those who assert that governments must not run deficit budgets are in fact agreeing with those who claim that inflation needs to be kept in the vicinity of 2-3%. Government budget deficits are known to be inflationary, so balanced or surplus budgets greatly assist central banks in their task of controlling inflation through the manipulation of interest rates.

Similarly, those who believe that the most important parameter is low unemployment, and therefore clamour for growth-oriented economic policies are not disagreeing with the other two schools of thought. Growth occurs best in an environment of stable and low inflation. Witness the example of Australia, the clever country (not the lucky country, by the way, because Australia's prosperity is the result of smart management, not undeserved good luck). Australia has enjoyed an unprecedented 15 years of nonstop growth, while the rest of the world has seen periods of both growth and recession. Unsurprisingly, during this period, the Australian federal government budget has been largely balanced or in surplus, and inflation has been vigilantly maintained in the 2-3% range by an alert and active central bank.

So we seem to have stumbled upon the magic formula that reconciles seemingly different schools of macroeconomic thought. Keep inflation low by constantly tweaking interest rates, avoid contributing to inflation by running budget deficits, and you will achieve steady growth that will keep unemployment low.

Liquidism only carries this argument one step further, because all the above techniques, impressive though their results may be, do not succeed in driving inefficiency out of the system. Inefficiency, in the terminology of modern software development, is a "smell" that suggests that something is wrong somewhere.

Lest anyone think that I'm a blind devotee of The Australian Way, take a look at the Australian banking sector. It's an oligopoly, with only four major banks. I have a unique inside view into the functioning of these organisations, having worked in two of them. I will not jeopardise my current employment by going into specifics, but most activities in these organisations are highly wasteful, compared to similar activities in organisations in more competitive industries. And yet the big four banks remain highly profitable! If organisations can show huge profits year after year while being extremely inefficient and wasteful (as is obvious to an insider), it's a "smell". Something is rotten in the system, and it's not a problem with the banks themselves. Their inefficiency is a symptom, not the problem. The problem is with the competitive environment. Less competition, less efficiency. Wealth is vanishing from the system, being eaten by the friction of inefficiency between its wheels. In the case of the banks, customers are picking up the tab and paying more than they should, while shareholders are earning less than they should.

What do we do? Let's take a leaf from the software development industry, specifically, a recent methodology called "Extreme Programming", called XP for short. The father of XP, Kent Beck, explains the technique in these words:

"When I first articulated XP, I had the mental image of knobs on a control board. Each was a practice that from experience I knew worked well. I would turn all the knobs up to 10 and see what happened. I was a little surprised to find that the whole package of practices was stable, predictable, and flexible."

We now know that certain economic practices work well. Keeping inflation low is one of them. We also know that competitive (liquid) markets are efficient, while oligopolistic or monopolistic (illiquid) markets are inefficient. How do we, in Kent Beck's words, turn all the knobs representing good macroeconomic practice up to 10?

1. Turn the fiscal knob up to 10 (manage spending and income to avoid a deficit budget at all costs)
2. Turn the monetary knob up to 10 (actively manage money supply through the interest rate vehicle and keep inflation within 2-3%)
3. Turn the market efficiency knob up to 10 (aggressively enforce antitrust and keep markets liquid)

I believe that Liquidism represents the "complete" macroeconomic philosophy, with its inclusion of the final leg in the triad of macroeconomic policy.

It's not a rejection of current economic thought, but merely the next necessary step in our thinking.

It's "Extreme Economics", if you will. And if the vaunted results of Extreme Programming are anything to go by, it could be wildly successful.

Friday, 9 March 2007

My Economic Philosophy - 3 (Les droits inaliénables)

(This is the third of n pieces on my emerging economic philosophy called Liquidism.)

Pardon my French, but if we're going to talk about two distinct definitions of freedom, and the first is called laissez-faire (a freedom without restrictions), what do we call the second (a freedom that cannot be taken away)? Droits inaliénables (inalienable rights)? Quite a mouthful, so I'll tell you what. We'll call it Liquidism.

Why? Because as any student of economics knows, the system where no individual player has the power to force any other player to act against their will is called Pure Competition. A market that demonstrates Pure Competition is said to be liquid. Oligopolistic and Monopolistic markets are highly illiquid.

Want a system where players' rights can never be taken away? You're basically asking for Pure Competition. Is that too idealistic?

Look at the Free Software/Open Source ecosystem. The GNU General Public License (GPL) guarantees a freedom that cannot be taken away. Most other licenses (BSD, MIT, X11, Apache, etc.) represent freedom without restrictions. Which is the more successful in practice? About 68% of all software projects on SourceForge (the world's largest repository of Free/Open Source software) have adopted the GNU GPL, which shows that most Free/Open Source software developers seem to believe that a freedom that cannot be taken away is in fact the greater freedom.

I think this latter view of freedom is an idea whose time has come. Economists of every shade have been brandishing their single favourite economic parameter. Some claim that a balanced government budget is the holy grail, with government controlling both spending and taxation to achieve this goal. Others claim that inflation must always be contained within 2-3%, with the central bank flicking interest rates up or down to keep inflation in its place. Yet others claim that full employment is the state to be aspired to, with all economic parameters primed to encourage constant growth.

So let me throw my hat in the ring. I want a free market, and I don't mean a laissez-faire free market. I mean a free market whose freedom cannot be taken away. And that means an activist government unafraid to wield a powerful instrument - Antitrust.

Liquidism's distinguishing feature is a highly competitive market, maintained if necessary, by aggressive antitrust enforcement on a hair-trigger.

I know it sounds radical, and it conjures up a vision that may be deeply disturbing to some.
See an emerging monopoly or oligopoly? Break 'em up!
Receive a merger proposal between major players? Deny permission.
Detect a pricing cartel? Throw the bosses in jail and ban them from holding similar office in future.

It may seem like a wild-eyed, revolutionary and ultimately impractical idea, but is it? In the fourth piece on Liquidism, I will argue that this is merely the next evolutionary step in modern macroeconomic thought.

My Economic Philosophy - 2 (The Limits to Rand)

(This is the second of n pieces on my emerging economic philosophy called Liquidism.)

I was a latecomer to the philosophy of Ayn Rand. I completely missed reading her novels in college, when everybody else seemed to have their noses stuck between the pages of "The Fountainhead" or "Atlas Shrugged".

Then one day, when I was almost 40, I stumbled upon the website "www.capitalism.org", and the ideas I read there almost blew me away. This site is dedicated to spreading the philosophy of Ayn Rand, Objectivism, which Rand believed was the capitalist ideal.

I was gobsmacked as I read the material on this site because I had till that point always thought of Capitalism as an economic system, as something to do with money and who controlled it. Wrong, it turned out. Capitalism is a political philosophy, and the economic system that is often confused with it springs naturally out of this philosophy.

And what is this political philosophy?

In two words, individual freedom. That's the core value of Ayn Rand's capitalist ideal. At this level, she doesn't talk about money. She does talk about "wealth", but wealth at this level means much more than just money. It is the sum total of all the kinds of satisfaction that one can derive.

There's more.

Reason is the source of all "wealth", and everyone is entitled to the wealth generated by the exercise of their reason. The only thing one may not do is restrict the freedom of others. The initiation of force is prohibited, and one may only acquire the wealth of another by one of these means - willing gifts by the other, through persuasion (not coercion), or through trade. Of these, trade is the best. Coercion and deception are taboo.

To say that I liked this philosophy would be an understatement. It resonated deeply within me. It struck me as the fairest of all possible systems. I even wrote an article defending the Capitalistic credentials of Free/Open Source Software called "The Capitalist View of Open Source", demonstrating the software model's scrupulous adherence to the principles of Ayn Rand.

But even at the height of my admiration for Rand, I was never completely in agreement with her.

She claimed animals had no rights, and I beg to disagree. I in fact expected her to extend her philosophy to include any living creature, not just humans.

She stoutly upheld the right to life as a fundamental right of every human being right from their birth, that no one had the right to take, but instead of expressing honest ambivalence about abortion, she glibly claimed that foetuses were not human and therefore had no such right. The mother, according to her, had the "right" to abort her foetus and this freedom could not be denied. I found this sophistry a little intellectually dishonest. Abortion is a tricky subject and I'm not sure there are any "right" answers. At what point exactly does a foetus with no rights turn into a new-born baby with full rights? For Rand to proclaim one viewpoint with an air of moral certainty didn't do much for her credibility in my eyes.

And then there was the ultimate "What was she thinking?" moment. When I read about Ayn Rand's essay "America's Persecuted Minority - Big Business", I knew that she had either lost her marbles or been coopted by that persecuted minority into advocating their cause.

So I remained stuck with an intellectual model that was almost perfect, but not quite. Until I read the other article, the one that posed the question about the two types of freedom.

My Economic Philosophy - 1 (The Definition of Freedom)

(This is the first of n pieces on my emerging economic philosophy called Liquidism.)

I won't lay claim to the following piece of wisdom - I remember reading someone's article (dashed if I can remember who it was!) where he asked a most profound question:

"Which is the greater freedom? A freedom without restrictions, or a freedom that cannot be taken away?"

He was asking this in the context of a big argument among advocates of Free Software and Open Source. Though Free Software/Open Source software is "free" (and I mean freedom, not price), there are actually two very different kinds of freedom implied by the term, and the two major categories of software licences tend to reflect this dichotomy. One set of licenses grants users full rights to do anything at all that they want with the software. The other set allows them to do anything except make proprietary enhancements to it. That's because such a right will give a one-way benefit to those making the proprietary enhancements and always place the users and developers of the original, free version at a disadvantage.

[I won't discuss the software issue in greater detail because this is not a technical blog, but I can't help citing another brilliant document at this point. This one is a highly technical software critique, by the way, which may go over the heads of even techies (I had to read it a few times to understand it), but the best thing it did for me was introduce me to the phrase "usefully contrary trade-offs" (See the section titled "The API Fallacy").]

The two definitions of freedom we talked about make usefully contrary trade-offs in what they offer to recipients of such freedom, but my eyes didn't open until I read the question posed in this way.

A freedom without restrictions is a laissez-faire system. Anything goes, as long as fundamental rights are not violated. One side-effect of giving freedom to all players is that, through entirely legal means, some players will ultimately end up with much more power than others. Then those others will find that they have very little freedom, after all. They are left with only their fundamental rights, but without much economic freedom, they must pretty much agree to any conditions imposed on them, "of their own free will".

Contrast this with a situation where basic economic freedom is guaranteed to all, so that no one can be forced to do anything against their will. This goes beyond fundamental rights, by the way. Obviously, to protect such freedom, restrictions must be placed on all players to prevent an aggrandisement of power such as what would happen under a purely laissez-faire system. So some freedom is being denied to all, in order to preserve a minimum of freedom for all. By way of example, most countries have a Restrictive Trade Practices Act or the equivalent, which limits what market players can do, in a bid to protect the freedom of others.

That's the crux of the issue. Both systems claim to value freedom, but they are talking about subtly different concepts. One is a freedom without restrictions (with the risk of that freedom being taken away by other players through entirely legal means). The other is a freedom that cannot be taken away under any circumstances (with some consequent restrictions being placed at all times on what players can do).

We will return to this dichotomy again and again, because understanding the philosophy of Liquidism requires an understanding of these two usefully contrary trade-offs. Before you read further, think for a moment about the difference. Which do you think is the greater freedom?

Wednesday, 7 March 2007

Should the coalition withdraw from Iraq?

I thought I had the answer to that one.

We never had an excuse to invade Iraq in the first place, so we shouldn't stay there a second longer. That's obvious. Bring our boys home!

But now I'm not so sure. If you walk into someone's house, trash everything in sight, blast their doors and windows wide open, restart some old family feuds, burn their money and grocery supplies, you can't suddenly say, "Oops, sorry, wrong house," and leave.

Who's going to pay for the damage? Who's responsible for the safety and running of the household after you leave? Can you just dust your hands and walk off? Or do you have responsibility for ensuring that everything is put back together the way it was (well, almost) before you go?

To put it very mildly, George Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard have led their countries down a morally suspect path. We (as citizens of these countries) will be compounding their offence if we blindly insist on a withdrawal from Iraq. We were wrong to go in, but now that we've ended up totally destabilising that country, we can't just walk away and let it completely collapse. It's our moral responsibility now to stay as long as necessary and set things right.

Call it the morality of sin, if you're religiously inclined. If you get your girlfriend pregnant, you stand by her. You don't run away and leave her to face the consequences alone.

So I'm surprised to see my own position on this issue -- Send more troops to Iraq!

Sunday, 11 February 2007

Why isn't chiropractic more popular?

When I posted that I've just got back from India, I neglected to mention in what shape. I suffered an acute muscular spasm while in India (not my first, by the way), and was in absolute agony for a couple of days (and continuous pain/discomfort for the next two weeks). Indeed, I was starting to worry about whether I'd be able to travel back home as scheduled.

In Sydney, I visit a chiropractor regularly once a month, and I've managed the last 4 and a half years without a back problem. But travelling to India with heavy suitcases, hauling them off airport conveyor belts and stuff must have taken their toll.

My first thought when my back gave up was to call for a chiropractor, but I then remembered with dismay that the species is unknown in India. I did manage to get the next best thing - a physiotherapist. He promptly came home, and carried in tow a most impressive kit. It was for "IFT" (or Interferential Therapy), I was told. I underwent almost an hour of ultrasound or short wave massage, which was quite soothing, but when the physio tried to get me on my feet and walking, the pain was so acute I couldn't suppress some high-decibel screaming, much to the poor man's shock.

I had about 10 days to limp back to a semblance of normalcy, during which time I underwent more sessions with the physiotherapist. Mind you, I have no complaints about the man, his clinic or his methods, which were all exemplary. However, the point remains that my recovery was slow. I was still standing crooked, my slightest movements could give me twinges of pain, and I was dosed to the eyeballs with painkillers and muscle relaxants.

I finally got back to Sydney (after a 14 hour flight back from Mumbai), and after the weekend, got to see my chiropractor at last. A quick examination, a gentle massage of the affected area, and then the trademark "click" of spinal manipulation, and I was free. I could move without pain. I walked back from his clinic with the proverbial jaunty stride.

My question is just this: Why did I have to suffer almost two weeks of painful recovery following best practice according to the medical establishment, when there's a far superior approach that could have had me back on my feet in a day? Hasn't anybody heard of chiropractic? Is it a bad word? Does it threaten the livelihood of the doctor-physiotherapist alliance so much that there's a conspiracy of silence around it? I really want to know.

And oh, as a side note of interest to the armchair economists out there - I underwent 5 physiotherapy sessions in Chennai, India, each about an hour long. Two of them were house calls. The physio also gave me an orthopaedic belt to support my back. The total cost? 1150 rupees, or less than 40 Aussie dollars! A single session with my chiropractor in Sydney costs me 55 dollars, which brings home the cost differential between a First World country and a Third World one.

But then again, a single session with my chiropractor achieved what all those physiotherapy sessions couldn't :-/.

India is visibly less poor today

I've just got back to Sydney from a month-long visit to India. I saw signs of affluence everywhere - new car models, mobile phones in the hands of autorickshaw drivers and vegetable push-cart vendors, etc., etc. But does that really mean less poverty?

The penny dropped after I returned home to Sydney. I hadn't seen a single beggar on the whole trip! As a child (more than 30 years ago), I remember travelling around a fair bit, and the one constant feature of every stop were the outstretched arms of beggars. They would throng around our bus or car as it stopped and the passengers alighted. We had learnt the folly of paying any of them. Once we were seen as potential "givers", there would be no peace from the rest.

But all that seems a thing of the past. We travelled a fair bit on this trip as well, and - no beggars! And it's not as if the beggars were physically removed by officials, Potemkin village-style. You can't do that in messily democratic India without creating an instant scandal, anyway.

There's no escaping the conclusion - there's still a lot of poverty in India, but it's no longer as severe.