Saturday, January 30, 2010

Markets in two contexts


The two stories I’ll be linking to in this post have something in common: the attempt to use “markets” to solve big problems. First, PBS Wide Angle profiles the Ethiopian economist Eleni Gabre-Madhin, who recently returned, after a long stint with the World Bank, to her home country to start a commodities exchange. The exchange’s principal focus is to trade grain – sesame, the all-important teff, maize and the like – in an efficient, transparent way. Whether such an idea will work is another question – and the documentary portrays well the immense challenges she faces.

What fascinated me most was that Eleni, in the years she was conducting academic research, tried her best to “follow the trail of grain”. That meant literally starting with the small farmer with the two acre plot who produces the crop, then moving to warehouses, the middlemen and traders, and finally to the actual markets. The lack of information along this chain and the fluctuations of supply and demand can cause wild price variations, which cripples small farmers. One such farmer in the documentary – a quiet, dignified man with a small plot that is in risk of failing this season because of drought – asks poignantly (I am paraphrasing here):

“Why is there variation in prices? Is there not a standard stable way of doing things? If there is a solution, I would like to know about it.”

The bigger context is Ethiopia’s famines: Eleni claims that it is the ideal of elimination of hunger that inspires her. In 1984, the year when famine took a terrible toll in one part of Ethiopia, a surplus existed in the southwestern part. If Eleni is successful -- and that's a big "if" -- her commodities exchange will become the standard way to trade grain throughout Ethiopia; it will ensure the quick transmission of price and quantity information, provide a regulated environment in which the shortages and surpluses cancel out, thus averting the possibility of famines.


An inversion of the shortages-canceling-surpluses concept recurs in another commodities exchange. And this is an unusual one: the carbon market. Here surpluses are excesses in greenhouse gas emissions (and hence a bad thing); the shortages are efforts or the promise of reduced emissions (hence good). The UN regulated market under which this system operates is called cap and trade, a result of the Kyoto Protocol of 1997. The EU and other developed countries – except the United States – are now part of it. In the US, cap and trade legislation is still under debate.

Trading in carbon is big business now: it’s the fastest growing commodity exchange market, already worth 150 billion dollars. The idea is simple: Companies whose emissions exceed a predetermined limit or cap can offset their excesses by purchasing carbon credits from other companies that are below the limit. Or, they can do it by investing in wind farms or biofuels or similar efforts which hold the promise of reducing emissions. These credits or carbon offsets, many of which are from the developing world – the developing world sees an economic opportunity in the rich world’s emissions – are often bundled together and sold in exchanges. This is fueling a "carbon boom" – which, of course, will end suddenly sometime, because it’s hard to measure what is being sold: measurement varies across the world, and the actual impact on emissions cannot be determined with any certainty.

You would think one clear-cut way of earning carbon credits is to avoid deforestation. Preserve a forested region full of trees that store carbon and you gain as many credits as the carbon estimated to be stored in the trees. Each tree has a price in other words (journalist Mark Schapiro is shown a tree that is worth a dollar because it contains an estimated hundred kilograms of carbon). With this in mind, General Motors, American Electric Power and Chevron chose to preserve huge tracts of relatively pristine land in the Cachoeira reserve in the Brazilian state of Paraná. They brokered a deal through Nature Conservancy and the local SVPS (Society for Wildlife Research and Environmental Education). Though the US is not part of the cap and trade system, these corporations presumably estimated that they would eventually earn from these credits, in addition to boosting their reputations as champions of preservation.

Avoiding deforestation, however, does not have a clear cut case for reducing emissions -- indeed the UN has disallowed this option. There’s the chance that the deforestation simply shifts to unprotected areas, creating no overall emissions reduction. And more fundamentally, as Mark Shapiro reports in an essay in Mother Jones,
"when companies create reserves on already forested lands, their contribution to the fight against climate change is limited: "Do they get the credit for simply enhancing what was there already?" José Miguez, one of Brazil's top climate officials, told me that during the Kyoto talks his government opposed using its forests to enable northern industries to pollute more. "The forest is there," he said. "You can't guarantee it will absorb extra carbon. The General Motors plan gives a false image to the public in the United States. For us, they are pretending to combat climate change."
In the short yet revealing PBS Frontline World documentary, Brazil: The Money Tree, Shapiro reveals a deeper problem: what of the people who have been living in these forests and using its products? The commodification of trees by big corporations in the name of preservation has resulted in the use of coercive techniques – arrests and even armed patrols – to keep people, whose livelihood depends on the products they obtain from the preserved lands, off limits. This even in cases where the activities are not destructive to the forest’s existence.

Bring money into the picture and all sorts of conundrums pop up – even when the price tag is on something seemingly as innocuous as keeping a tree standing.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Some links

Sadanand Dhume writes about Islam in Indonesia; Chandrahas Choudhury on the importance of translations in Indian literature. And Sidin Vadakut, who graduated a year after I did from REC-Trichy, now has his first novel out -- it's called Dork: The Incredible Adventures of Robin "Einstein" Verghese. An extract can be found here -- it's hilarious. Sidin himself summarizes: "My book is, as it were, a pure crystallized expression of the post-modern dialectic that envelops us all in the modern workplace. It is a startling, unsettling piece of fiction that cuts perilously close to the existential reality that is us. By which I mean you and me. All of us. Firmament."

Friday, January 22, 2010

Moscow's metro dogs: Strays that use public transport

From FT:
Every so often, you would see one waiting on a metro platform. When the train pulled up, the dog would step in, scramble up to lie on a seat or sit on the floor if the carriage was crowded, and then exit a few stops later. There is even a website dedicated to the metro stray ( on which passengers post photos and video clips taken with their mobile phones, documenting the ­savviest of the pack using the public transport system like any other Muscovite.


“The metro dog appeared for the simple reason that it was permitted to enter,” says Andrei Neuronov, an author and specialist in animal behaviour and psychology, who has worked with Vladimir Putin’s black female Labrador retriever, Connie (“a very nice pup”). “This began in the late 1980s during perestroika,” he says. “When more food appeared, people began to live better and feed strays.” The dogs started by riding on overground trams and buses, where supervisors were becoming increasingly thin on the ground.

Neuronov says there are some 500 strays that live in the metro stations, especially during the colder months, but only about 20 have learned how to ride the trains. This happened gradually, first as a way to broaden their territory. Later, it became a way of life. “Why should they go by foot if they can move around by public transport?” he asks.

“They orient themselves in a number of ways,” Neuronov adds. “They figure out where they are by smell, by recognising the name of the station from the recorded announcer’s voice and by time intervals. If, for example, you come every Monday and feed a dog, that dog will know when it’s Monday and the hour to expect you, based on their sense of time intervals from their ­biological clocks.”

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Teaching probability

This semester I am teaching an undergraduate introductory class on probability. I don’t typically announce my courses here, but teaching probability is a special enough task to deserve mention -- for me at least.

As a high school student, I used to dread questions about blue, black and red balls drawn at random from an opaque box. The typical question went like this: if the first three balls are blue, what is the chance a black one will be next? The initial questions were innocuous enough, but they quickly got complicated. They also tested your ability to count – to figure the number of permutations or combinations, without which you couldn't answer. At the incredibly difficult mathematics examination for admission to the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), there were quite a few of these counting questions. Let’s just say that I did not even attempt them.

College contributed nothing to my knowledge about probability (college, to be frank, was a four year vacation and I have no regrets). It was only during graduate school, where I took a number of statistics courses, that I was introduced to the mathematics of randomness. And over the last few years, much of my research has involved probability models – some very sophisticated ones at that, thanks to my colleagues who have majors in math and physics. Even now, my early lack of aptitude for the field and poor undergraduate training comes back to haunt me.

But there’s no better way to drive insecurities away than by teaching. The cliché that the best way to learn is to teach is very, very true. Which is why I am excited about my class this semester. The material itself is not difficult, since it’s an undergraduate class. But even the simplest topics in probability can cause confusion; and what better way to tackle them than at the foundational level.

Last week, I went to check my classroom. It was late in the afternoon and the campus was empty. The classroom was in the Chemistry building, and had tiered, auditorium style seating; the seats were bright red. It was a grand setting, and I could imagine it bustling with sophomore year students -- there are ninety students enrolled at this time. And for the first time I’ll be using what is called the PRS clicker system: I will ask students multiple choice questions during each lecture. Students will choose what they think is the right answer on their personal clickers (they’ll press a button, in other words). A slide will immediately display how many clicked each option, as in a game show. Wouldn’t it be fascinating to have this type of instant interaction – and, importantly, feedback on how well the class is understanding the material – especially in a class about probability, as slippery a topic as any in the whole of mathematics?

Fancy embellishments aside, the real grandness of probability lies in its elusive, mysterious quality. Everything we do in life is governed by chance. Our instinct toward religion partly stems from the uncertainty that always seems to stalk our futures. The theory of probability lends mathematical formalism to uncertainty. But it also makes us think of some very vexing questions: What does it mean when we say things are truly random? Why do things turn out the way they do?

That’s the charm of it: it’s more philosophy than mathematics.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The idea of India: An extract from Aatish Taseer's upcoming Temple Goers

The extract, a very entertaining one at that, is here (Aatish Taseer's website is here). The scene described features a writer, Vijailal, a fictionalized version of VS Naipaul, at a dinner with prominent guests in a Delhi home. What’s more, in the conversation, Vijailal takes the familiar Naipaulian -- and supposedly “Hindu-nationalist” – stance: he berates the loss of Hindu-Buddhist India to the ravages of Muslim conquerors.

The interpretation is a vicious flash point: India is yet to come to terms with this part of its history. In Latin America, the Spanish conquest of indigenous empires -- the Aztecs, the Incas and countless smaller groups -- was similarly brutal (the similarity may not be a coincidence: it is important to remember the Spanish fought the Arabs immediately before sailing to the Americas). Yet countries such as Mexico, Peru and Bolivia have reconciled with this painful history. Unlike India, indigenous cultures in these places were trampled and destroyed to such an extent that there is nothing to do but to acknowledge this nadir of history and move on. Strikingly, most Pre-Columbian religious sites of Latin America -- those that survive -- are now archaeological sites. They are secular spaces; they no longer hold the same cultural or religious meaning.

In India, however, the past, though not fully accessible to everyone, has survived despite the invasions of the last millennium; the traditions continue and have even been strengthened, albeit in an altered, modern form; the religious places still remain religious places, they are held in reverence, even if they are archaeological sites. While this continuity is astonishing, the wound inflicted by Islamic invasions still rankles.

Two excerpts from Taseer’s extract, I felt, were striking. In both, Vijailal – the character resembling Naipaul – argues that there did exist such a thing as India: not the modern nation-state of course, but a culture that understood itself through the prism of religion:
“You ask the average Indian, and he would not think of himself as an Indian. He would think of himself as a Gujarati, a Punjabi, a Tamilian, an Assamese. He wouldn’t have the faintest idea of India, ‘the land’.”

The writer [Vijailal] seemed caught between the interruption and Shabby’s raised voice, and what he was going to say next. He lowered his head and muttered, “Not the temple-going Indian, not the temple-going Indian.”

Then raising his head and voice at once, he silenced Shabby. “Not the temple-going Indian. People like you perhaps, but not him. He knows this country backwards. He forever carries an idea of it in his head. For him, it possesses a sacred topography. He knows it through its holy places. He knows it from the mountains in the north where the rivers begin, and from where the rudraksh he wears around his neck come, to the special place from where the right stones for the lingas come. He knows the rivers when they widen and the great temples and temple cities, with their stone steps, that have been set along their banks. He knows the points where those rivers meet other rivers, and their confluence becomes part of the long nationwide pilgrimages he will make several times in his lifetime. In fact, it could be said that there is almost no other country where the countrymen are as acquainted with the distant reaches of the land through their pilgrimages as in India; perhaps no country where poor people travel more. They think nothing of jumping on a bus or train, for two or three days, to journey to Tirupathi in the south or Jagannath in the east. And in this way, the religion itself is like a form of patriotism.”


“You know,” he began, looking deeply into the room, where illuminated foliage could be seen beyond darkened windows and the orange coils of an electric heater burned steadily, “they say that Benares is a microcosm of India. Today, most people take that to mean that it contains all the horror and filth of India, and also, loath as I am to use these words, the charm, the beauty, the magic. But Benares was once a very different kind of microcosm; it was a very self-conscious microcosm. The streams that watered the groves in its Forest of Bliss were named after all the rivers of India, not unlike the avenues in Washington, DC, being named after the American states. All the princes from around the country had their palaces along the river. And they would come and retire there after they had forsaken the cares of the world. The Indian holy points, the places of the larger pilgrimage, were all represented symbolically in Benares. It was said you could do the whole pilgrimage in miniature in Kashi. And Kashi too was recreated symbolically across the country. It wasn’t a microcosm; it was a kind of cosmic capital.

“And on certain days the moon would appear in the afternoon and the water from those symbolic Indian rivers would run through the groves and flood the Ganga, which at one particular point curls around the city. The ancient Hindus, with their special feeling for these cosmic changes, would gather at high points in the city to watch, like people seeing a fireworks display. That was how people, common people,” he added pointedly, “were brought in touch with the wholeness of the place, in just the same way as someone crossing a street in Manhattan might feel when, looking to one side and seeing the sweep of the avenue, he says, ‘I’m in New York!’ It’s my dream to see that wholeness restored in India.”

On a related note, let me quote Sandeep, a popular Bangalore based blogger and columnist – and a vociferous defender of Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism). Sandeep has an impassioned piece on how the subcontinent's oldest religion has been the victim of concerted attacks over the last two and a half millennia and has yet managed to adapt. He begins the piece, though, on a less confrontational note, using the example of the recently passed Makar Sankranthi, to show the cultural unity of India:
Today is Makara Sankranti, celebrated across India to both herald the beginning of longer days, and reap the harvest of months of backbreaking work in the fields. But the greater significance of Makara Sankranti like most Hindu festivals, is to highlight another living instance of the amazing cultural unity of India. People in Karnataka exchange a mixture comprising sugarcane blocks–artistically moulded into various forms and figures and shapes of Gods, Goddesses, flowers, fruits, animals–white sesame seeds, jaggery, and a piece of sugarcane. In Andhra Pradesh, sugarcane is replaced by the jujube fruit (Regi Pandulu) and sweets and delicacies are prepared and offered to God. Assamese are more creative: they have on offer at least 10 different varieties of Pitha, a kind of rice cake. Gujaratis wait for this to zestfully fly kites all over and make Undhiyu and Chikkis (sweetmeat made of sesame, jaggery and peanuts). Maharashtra feasts on tilgul (sweetmeat made from sesame) and Gulpolis, and wish each other peace and prosperity. Tamil Nadu gorges on varieties of pongal–thai pongal, mattu pongal and kannum pongal, each variety of pongal as a way of offering gratitude to the Sun, cattle, and friends and relatives. Every state and place–Bundelkhand, Rajasthan, Punjab, Bengal, Goa, Kerala, and Orissa–has its unique way of celebrating Makara Sankranti but contains a subterranean thread that ties all of them with India.
The full essay, with the more accusatory bits, is here. Feel free to discuss and debate the validity of these viewpoints.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Coordinating disaster relief -- what are the best practices?

The tragedy in Haiti brings to light again the difficulty of coordinating relief in a place that has been crippled by a natural disaster. The completely unpredictable nature of these disasters means that relief planning begins amid chaos. I have always wondered if collecting stories of rescue operations, short term and long term, efficient or otherwise, from various parts of the world that have experienced similar tragedies would help in future cases. Perhaps there is already a repository of such knowledge?

Monday, January 11, 2010

Where did the time go?

How the brain processes the passing of time is a mystery. There is of course the objective passing of time, but our perception of it is very different. Some days can seem like months, but at other times weeks can slip by rather quickly. The last twenty days, when I traveled to new places (more on that in the coming weeks), seemed like a long time – two months, say – probably because of the number of things I did within a short period. Here’s a recent article that discusses new research on this topic. Excerpt:
In fact, scientists are not sure how the brain tracks time. One theory holds that it has a cluster of cells specialized to count off intervals of time; another that a wide array of neural processes act as an internal clock.

Either way, studies find, this biological pacemaker has a poor grasp of longer intervals. Time does seem to slow to a trickle during an empty afternoon and race when the brain is engrossed in challenging work. Stimulants, including caffeine, tend to make people feel as if time is passing faster; complex jobs, like doing taxes, can seem to drag on longer than they actually do.

And emotional events — a breakup, a promotion, a transformative trip abroad — tend to be perceived as more recent than they actually are, by months or even years.

In short, some psychologists say, the findings support the philosopher Martin Heidegger’s observation that time “persists merely as a consequence of the events taking place in it.”

Now researchers are finding that the reverse may also be true: if very few events come to mind, then the perception of time does not persist; the brain telescopes the interval that has passed. [link]
This year will be tenth that I have been abroad in the United States -- I came to study in the United States in August 2000, a few days before my twenty first birthday. A decade seems to have slipped by quickly, but then if I think of what I have experienced in that time, ten years seems about right.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Realism -- lifeness

The last paragraph of How Fiction Works -- one of my all time favorites now -- by the brilliant literary critic, James Wood:
Realism, seen broadly as truthfulness to the way things are, cannot be mere verisimilitude, cannot be mere lifelikeness, or lifesameness, but what I must call lifeness: life on the page, life brought to a different life by the highest artistry. And it cannot be a genre; instead, it makes other forms of fiction seem like genres. For realism of this kind –lifeness – is the origin. It teaches everything else; it schools its own truants: it is what allows magical realism, hysterical realism, fantasy, science fiction, even thrillers, to exist. It is nothing like as naïve as its opponents charge; almost all the great twentieth century realist novels also reflect on their own making, and are full of artifice. All the greatest realists, from Austen to Alice Munro, are at the same time great formalists. But this will be unceasingly difficult: for the writer has to act as if the available novelistic methods are continually about to turn into mere convention and so has to try to outwit that inevitable aging. Chekov’s challenge – “Ibsen doesn’t know life. In life it simply isn’t like that” – is as radical now as it was a century ago, because forms must continually be broken. The true writer, that free servant of life, is one who must always be acting as if life were a category beyond anything the novel had yet grasped; as if life itself were always on the verge of becoming conventional.
There’s some synergy between this and what Naipaul has to say on the writer’s biggest challenge: finding the most original form to express his experience.