Thursday, August 17, 2017

Presidential v. Parliamentary System

The US Constitution predates the Indian Constitution by 160 years. This is one thing in which we cannot claim, “…been there … done that etc.” But, we surely can claim that the writers of our document were wiser than the so-called Founding Fathers of the US. But, we can say this for sure only now. All thanks to Donald Trump.
When a nuclear war came within the realm of at least a plausibility, like the Cuban missile crisis in the early 1960s, Americans thought that if the then available procedures and protocol were to be followed in retaliation to a nuclear missile attack on the US, it would be a dead man attacking. They then handed over that decision, launching missiles against a hostile power, to one man, the President of the United States. But, they never foresaw Donald Trump occupying the White House, even if only between his golfing activities (by the way, do you think Trump claims a handicap? I am sure he does – take advantage of any and all situations, however serious or silly it may be, being his motto).
Now, you go to any “False Media”, what you find is Americans shuddering at the thought of their unstable president repeatedly reaching for the nuclear button and accidentally setting it on the course of destruction.
Whatever you may say about the parliamentary system, giving us all kinds of personalities at the top, none has descended to the level of Trump.  Our system has given us Modi, quite belligerent, I will admit, but he has never given reasons for us to fear India being annihilated. Can’t say the same for the world, with Trump as the US president. Now, I am ready to blame the presidential system of the US for such a situation coming to pass.
Even while giving credit to Modi the person, I would also raise my thumb for the system we have in place. We may not have a rigid system of checks and balances that the US claims it has, but which, alas, has a hole through which the huge and elephantine ego of a Trump can just rustle through.


Tuesday, August 15, 2017

University Convocation Address – What it should not be.

I am one of the lucky/unlucky few who, despite having 3 degrees to my (dis)credit, have never attended his convocation.
Over the past three years, I have had the unfortunate opportunity to attend two convocations and heard an academic and an entrepreneur delivering the addresses. Oh, how I feel for the graduates, for whom that must have been the highest of the highlights of their life thus far.
In the first of the two addresses, this one by the academic, the focus was on how teaching must be done. There was not a word about the kind of world the new graduates will be facing or how different the new phase of life would be compared to what they have been exposed thus far. No, not a single word. The “Orator” (yes, that is how pompously he was addressed), for all he cared could have delivered in full Mark Antony’s speech and the audience would have been none the wiser.
The second address, this one by the entrepreneur, was all about how people are “funneled” away from their soil. The point was that the students are “escaping” the rural ambience (outside of the compound walls of the institutions) to reach out to greener (money, prestige, status etc.) pastures instead of making rural pastures greener. He went on to talk about how his company is doing this and that. It was much about his company and very little about anything else, including the new graduates.
It was when the useless segment “Vote of Thanks” was being delivered, the orator ostensibly felt the serious omission of focusing on the students in his speech. He signaled to the speaker at the lectern and rushed to it and said a sentence or two of how, when he comes back the next time (arrogance personified or self-invitation, your choice), he would hear that at least a few from the current student audience would have become entrepreneurs. I felt that he should have kept quiet and no one (excepting yours truly) would have noticed his omission. But such thoughts are far from the blinders-on thinking of those who have “made it”. Unfortunately, it is this same set of people who are called to deliver convocation addresses.
A Trumpian “SAD” is not out of place here.
Raghuram Ekambaram
P.S I do not know who delivered the convocation addresses for my graduating classes and I am unable to decide whether I was lucky or unlucky

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Modier than Modi

At first read, the title may make no sense (I hear you saying, “... as if the rest of what you write makes sense!”, and I will let go at that).
You have heard many anglophiles being described, with undisguised contempt, as “More British than the Brits”. I have heard this said of Naipaul, a transplant Brit, no more. It is in this sense the title needs to be understood.
I know of a food court type of place where you bought tokens at one centralized counter and bought foods of your choice at the appropriate vendor and got on with your eating, drinking, watching TV etc. Some months ago, this food court lost that character. It was each vendor for his/her own, but with a twist. You could not pay in cash at any of the vendors and what more the centralized billing was done away with it. If you suspected that this was in response to Modi’s call for cashless / less-cash economy (I have never understood the meaning of either of these) in the wake of the demonetization exercise, you could not be more right.
Then, there were some murmurs and perhaps in response to them, the old cash counter was open, but designed for limited transactions only. Now, people had a choice – cash or cashless. But, my thoughts strayed slightly far away from the prime minister. It reached into the office of the Governor, Reserve Bank of India. You see, the currency notes we use have no inherent worth. They are merely promissory notes, IOUs, underwritten by the Government of India.
Now, by not accepting the currency notes I am ready to tender at the individual vendors, they are saying, implicitly yet loudly, “Go, keep your IOUs to yourselves!”
I know the following to be true: Governor of RBI is beholden to the Finance Ministry, who, of course is beholden to the office of the prime minister. This is how the demonetization was promulgated by the prime minister himself, sidelining the finance minister, and of course, down the pecking order, the governor of RBI. First, it was the finance minister who twirled his baton to put all kinds of spin on the government’s effort to wring out black money, stop funding for terrorism and ... later on, the RBI governor added his two bits. After a month or two of chaos, we are back to some kind of normalcy.
But what I saw at the food court was some local bigwig currying favour with the Government of India. There has been no ordinance from the prime minister saying no cash transactions for everyday items. Have you? I guess not.
The near normalcy is being stirred by the local honchos in their own universe. I cannot see any logic beyond this for the food court to go from cashless/ less-cash to no cash economy. Even Modi did not promulgate an ordinance demanding no cash economy. But, here the powers that be who control the food court have done precisely that.
Now, I hope you understand the title – Modier than Modi.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

“No deal is ...” – Theresa May

Theresa May repeats, “No deal is better than a bad deal,” talking about her preference to exit the Euro zone, come what may.
What May may mean is that even without any deal with the EU, Brexit is OK for UK as compared to a bargain that gives Britain the short end of the stick. But, the phrase does not necessarily mean only that.
In one way of reading, the saying is OK, that Britain would exit without a deal and would be none the worse for that. But, the more nuanced reading is, a bad deal to Britain is the best deal that Britain can hope! That is, whatever the deal may be, it cannot be better than the bad deal! Bad deal is the best.
Perhaps, this is what May means! Let Europe give Britain as bad a deal as possible and May maybe happy with it, as nothing else could have been better, as she herself claimed.
When we were taught to convert a sentence between the comparative and superlative adjectives, this is how it was to be done! I am just going back to my roots.
Raghuram Ekambaram  

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Where is James Bond, when we need Him?

The cyber-security establishments across many countries (at the last count, 12) are in search of, not Superman who is all brawn and hardly brains, James Bond who prefers blondes, though not lately.
Yes, I am referring to the stolen NSA software that is stopping cyber-ops around the globe, as per New York Times, an “audacious global blackmail”. Golden Eye, anyone?
Golden Eye foretold the current crisis, someone attacking the cyber-financial system for personal gain (I am kind of, perhaps, stretching it; please excuse me). Golden Eye was a one-hit job. Here, it appears to be death by thousand cuts. I do not know when I would be asked to pay up a billion dollars ransom to get access to my account that does not cross five figures in dollars! But, that is audacity, howsoever in vain (I ain’t gonna pay!) it may be.
I am wondering whether Trump has tweeted yet on this (it must be the time in Washington D.C Trump starts tweeting!). I guess not, as he must be in the so-called Situation Room, along with Ivanka and Kushner,  not handling the global crisis but protecting his personal assets.
To something more serious.
The above is a graphics taken from New York Times, showing the computers across the globe that have been hit (a snap shot at 6:05 AM on Monday 12th May, 2017). 
The image below is from NASA, a composite image of how the earth looks at night. The intensity of lights that a satellite captures at night over various regions of the earth, a nicely completed jigsaw puzzle, if an analogy is warranted.

The brighter or more dense the sources of the lights, we learn economics from it. These are the places (typically conurbations) where economic activities are concentrated – the eastern half of the US, Brazil, Chile (conurbations), whole of western Europe, the North African coast of Africa, Egypt (River Nile, particularly), Johannesburg in South Africa, Sydney, Perth, Melbourne in Australia (New Zealand cut out), the Tran-Siberian Railway Corridor, the eastern seaboard of China, much of India except for the central regions, the desert of Rajasthan, the more dispersed yet evenly spread population of Kerala – just a crash course on economic geography of the world.
Now compare, pixel by pixel, even the route of the Trans-Siberian Railway. This is the obvious takeaway from the comparison – development is connectivity. First, there is electricity – generation, transmission, distribution – spreading like locusts; then, telephones – exchanges, undersea cables, satellites; then, computers – again individual, networks, satellites, truly global, indeed trans-global.
And then, catastrophe, nay, a series of catastrophes – Stuxnet, Conficker, Wanna Cry, Wanna Decryptor …
That is precisely why I Wanna James Bond on my side! I know he would do it. Destroy the blanket of satellites orbiting the earth that connects all the computers. Dig up all the underwater cables across the oceans. World would be dark, the ultimate Skyfall. The earth at night will be fully dark, just like how Africa was called in the old days – the Dark Continent. Now, it would be the Dark Earth. No communications, no economic activity, no human life, earth ceases to exist because humans do not exist on the earth.
And, if you recall, that is exactly what Drax planned for the earth, in Moonraker! Bond did not know that in future he would be asked to reprise the role of Drax, which itself was a reprise of Noah’s Ark, by Drax’s telling.
Now you know why I asked the title question.
Raghuram Ekambaram


Sunday, April 30, 2017

Ratcheting up the racket

If only the following were true, it would be disquieting. But, this is merely a scenario, one that has been ratcheted up. It should make for a good read.
Recently I was involved in an “International Conference ...” at the interface of technology, economics and development, on the side of the organisers. The name of the conference, let us just say, was ambitious; something about infrastructure improvements in the countries of the so called developing world.
The response to the call for papers – I am sure multiple calls, and pleadings, and getting down on one’s knees were part of the efforts - was more than enough for the time allotted, say 2 days, with 1/4th of one day taken up by the Inaugural Session, almost devoid of technical content. Indeed, the response was so good; a session of about 2 hours had to accommodate 13-16 papers, giving each speaker effectively no more than five to six minutes. So, you can understand what sort of a technical content one could expect in these dos. Such conferences do not disappoint – as you cannot go any lower.
It appears that the promoters had sort of indicated that the papers that would be presented would also be published in a journal, to be sure indexed so as to give a leg up for the researcher. That was the bait. And, many people, most of them students in post-graduate programmes in engineering streams whose curriculum commit them to publishing a technical paper in an indexed journal. You must understand that the organizers of such conferences sort of commit without really committing (you sort of figure out what I am sort of saying). This sort-of-committing gives the organizers a real reason to make a real demand of a registration fee which is not unsubstantial.
Now, let the stage turn around and show the other side, the university to which the department that organized such an event. The university demands are this many papers need to be presented at this rate of registration and the upper limit of expenses. Bottom line. Of course, there must be international contributions. This can be easily achieved given the networking strength, of the university and the department and the readiness of these foreign experts who can write-off their expenses in their tax returns!
The point here is, you would be hard pressed to find any mechanism that can rewind the wheel by which all those involved would be truly benefitted.
The time frame for organizing a conference should be enough to communicate seriously and repeatedly with professional peers, meanwhile expanding one’s network. Get away from using fancy words in the title, like “Nano-“, “emerging-“ etc. and let the initial invitation be written carefully to indicate the topics in mind. Make sure the final invitation hews reasonably close enough to what was in the initial invitation. I have also seen the following dichotomy in Indian conferences: Conference supported by academic institutions would have as sponsors/co-sponsors other similar institutions and government research departments. There will be no interest in inviting industry experts. This trend is repeated in the opposite direction, I have to assert.
Paper presentations should be given enough time for meaningful transfer of knowledge. Every session must slot for Q&A from the audience. The sessions must be organized in such a way that if indeed there are parallel sessions, the topics in these parallel sessions must be distinct enough that a participant would not feel that she had to miss an important paper being presented as she had to choose between two.
I know the current ecosphere that includes an active beehive organizing conferences is helpless in removing the ratchet in the mechanism. The one-way movement, towards the abyss, is written in the genetic code of the institutional set-ups.
Though the above is an imaginary scenario, I am afraid it is not too far that it would be realized.
That would be a sad day for the profession, whichever one it is.
Raghuram Ekambaram

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

The “What” question

I work in a Deemed University, and being a university of whatever kind, it acts independently to a large extent. One of the things you can feel in which it acts independently is in the conduct of the semester examinations. Till about a couple of months ago we had a Dean of Examinations who did all the controlling of the end semester examinations. He was truly a well-meaning professional and people respected him.
Whether he was given the mandate or not, he was intent on making the examinations meaningful. That is, in his view, exams must not only test whether the student has learned the subject (and, consequently be “exam ready”) but also that the questions must enable differentiating students among themselves. Perhaps he never mentioned it explicitly but the undercurrent of all his beseeching was that questions must avoid rewarding memorized responses. His way of saying it was, avoid asking “What”, “Define”, “State” type of questions. As I said, he meant well. But, in my humble opinion, he did not understand where the problem lay.
The problem is not in the structure of the question, the “What” factor, shall we call it. It is in the structure of the expected answer and also in the mandated reward system. For a question that starts with, “What”, “Define”, "List" etc. it is drilled by the teachers into the minds of the students that the answer must be straight forward and say what the thing is. The thing is, of course, what the text book says the thing is (Justice John Marshall of the US Supreme Court comes to mind). Simply put, “The answer is what has been said in the class or written on the board, nothing more.”
The student senses that he is home free by merely memorizing the stuff. Then, how can the teacher evaluate the proficiency of the student in the subject or make an effort to differentiate among students – the students are all equally good in memorizing, after all, after being instructed to do so for 12 years. They are so good at it, one may even suspect they are autistic (remember Rainman!). Just joking.
I will give you just one contrarian example. “Define a conservative force.” The answer, as given in the text book, “The work done by a conservative force as it goes around a closed loop is zero.” This, of course, is a correct answer. Note the emphasis on “a”, to mean that there are other equally, indeed perhaps more fundamentally revealing and explanatory, correct definitions; like the work done by a conservative force is path independent; a conservative force can be derived from a potential; in terms of thermodynamics, a state function …  
It so happened that a student gave the “path independent” answer. Lucky for him/her I marked his/her answer sheet and he/she got the credit. Had I been allowed, I would have given more than the maximum because he/she went beyond what was taught in the class. That is the measure enabling differentiation. Alas, I could not, rule bound as I am. What happened subsequently is more interesting. Another teacher, when asked whether she would have given any credit for this answer, the response was in the negative. Get this – a student exposed the ignorance of a teacher through a “What” factor question! The power is in the response.
Now, it is evident that the problem lay not in the question but in the expected response. That particular student took the initiative but could not have been rewarded. Would you blame the student for deterring himself/herself from taking that extra effort the next time round? If I were in that position, I would not.
Now, I will tackle this ticklish question about the “What” factor from a different angle. It comes straight out of a small book, only 80+ pages, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics. The book is wonderful; such fun to read yet packed with deep insights brought to the surface.
Per the author, Carlo Rovelli, a physicist working in quantum gravity, the question that ended with the understanding of probabilistic nature of heat and temperature, that is to say, thermodynamics, was “What is heat”! The stunning “What” factor question! The magic is all in the answer, obtained by boldly going “where no man has gone before” – Ludwig Boltzman doing the trekking!
That was the beginning of the confluence of statistical mechanics and thermodynamics. Just a simple “What” question!
Again, per the author, there are at least a few more such “What” questions, answers to which are being sought. “What is hot gravitational field?” What is a vibrating time?” “What exactly is the flow [emphasis in the original] of time?”  “What is the ‘present’?”
I rest my case. The problem is not in the questions, even the ones that start off, “What …?”
Raghuram Ekambaram