Things teux deux

Ever struggled with unending, uncoordinated, unwieldy to-do lists?  I certainly have.  I tried all the usual stuff – outlook tasks, yellow/multi-coloured stickies, pen-n-paper, calendar alarms – the works.

I finally discovered to-do  nirvana in a simple web-app called teux deux. I’ve used it for about 6 months now – and I can honestly say that I am not worse organised than before!  I started by listing the reasons it works for me, then realized that it all boils down to the superiority of simple design.  Try it!

The frontiers of outsourcing

Two non-conventional areas of outsourcing discovered:

1.  The Virtual Personal Assistant (VPA) – who among other things helps arrange dates for you through online dating sites.  Hilarious story here, discovered thru Marginal Revolution (who also seems to have a thing against Krugman).  Read the story till the end to get the plot for the next Hollywood blockbuster – Love Story, outsourced (title credits, me)

2. Outsourced wombs – there’s apparently a half billion dollar surrogacy market in India with 350 clinics offering the service across India, at about a fifth of US costs (potentially a more compelling economic proposition than conventional BPOs).  Full story here, discovered via the freakonomics blog.

So, I think we’re gradually getting a slice of the full lifecycle.  From online tutors, to dating assistance, outsourced wombs, medical tourism and religion (eat, pray, love) – India’s got it covered.

An economics catfight

Raghuram Rajan and Paul Krugman don’t see eye to eye.

Paul Krugman won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics for his contributions to New Trade Theory and New Economic Geography.  Krugman favours fiscal expansion and a reduction of interest rates for getting out of the current crisis.

Raghuram Rajan used to be the chief economist at the IMF, is an economic adviser to the PM of India.  More importantly, he studied at IIMA.  He believes that a reduction in interest rates hasn’t necessarily worked in the past, and is a bad solution for the current too.  He believes that a more fundamental approach to improving skills among the unemployed will yield better long term results.

The debate between the two has turned into something of a catfight.  Krugman states that Rajan is making it all up, and has no real economic model to justify his perspective.  Rajan suggests that the Krugman model is flawed and that the latter isn’t really paying attention to the literature out there.

Highly entertaining and educative reads.

Scoring the teachers

The chart above is from a study done by the LA Times on school teachers.  It essentially tracks the performance of a class on standardised math and reading tests over multiple years and correlates that to the teacher involved.  Since the class remains reasonably consistent over a year, the analysis takes care of sample bias issues that normally creep into teacher evaluations.

As one can imagine, the results have caused quite a debate.  The teachers union doesn’t like it (why would they!) and the parents have gotten quite curious about who they’re sending their kids to.  While the dust is still settling, it seems that some form of this assessment is going to become ingrained in the LA teaching structure – and that a lot of the US may end up going this way.

There are obviously merits to this approach.  Parents, tax-payers, government have all got a right to understand just how good the teachers are, or aren’t.  But by focusing on standardised test scores (English and Math only), one can also cause teachers to teach-to-a-test  – something we’ve all seen a lot of in India.

India struggles with coverage, the US with quality, Korea with the cram factories.  No one’s happy, which means there’s a lot of opportunity!

Abject poverty and extremism in India…

In an earlier post, I had talked about the growing Maoist-Naxalite pressure on rural India as a possible Black Swan event. Here is a fantastic article on the subject of growing Naxalite violence in India. This is perhaps one of the best articles I have seen on this subject in the western media. I have some comments on the issue which are below the blurb, so read on…

Fire in the Hole: How India’s economic rise turned an obscure communist revolt into a raging resource war.

But plenty of Indians have missed out. Economic liberalization has not even nudged the lives of the country’s bottom 200 million people. India is now one of the most economically stratified societies on the planet; its judicial system remains byzantine, its political institutions corrupt, its public education and health-care infrastructure anemic. The percentage of people going hungry in India hasn’t budged in 20 years, according to this year’s U.N. Millennium Development Goals report. New Delhi, Mumbai, and Bangalore now boast gleaming glass-and-steel IT centers and huge engineering projects. But India’s vast hinterland remains dirt poor — nowhere more so than the mining region of India’s eastern interior, the part of the country that produces the iron for the buildings and cars, the coal that keeps the lights on in faraway metropolises, and the exotic minerals that go into everything from wind turbines to electric cars to iPads.

…and another from the same article…

In a sense, however, India has already lost this war. It has lost it gradually, over the last 20 years, by mistaking industrialization for development — by thinking that it could launch its economy into the 21st century without modernizing its political structures and justice system along with it, or preventing the corruption that worsens the inequality that development aid from New Delhi is supposed to rectify. The government is sending in Army advisors and equipment — for now, the war is being fought by the Indian equivalent of a national guard, not the Army proper — and spending billions of dollars on infrastructure projects in the districts where the Maoists are strongest. But it hasn’t addressed the concerns that drove the residents of Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand into the guerrillas’ arms in the first place — concerns that are often shockingly basic.

So, as ultra-educated and semi-resident Indians, what are we to do about this? I used to think earlier that this was a propaganda war, and it was just a question for the Delhi Sarkaar to build out an outreach and communication program. After all, what could be wrong with progress in the form of mining jobs and development? Who would argue with that, and why would people come in the way of progress in such a violent manner.

Damage caused by mining: If you want to read up on the damage caused by mining, check out this latest article in Wired Magazine, which brilliantly outlines the problems faced by a Superfund site after the mines have dried up. It’s not online yet, but I will post the link when it’s live.

My views have changed. Unfortunately, this is an armchair expert’s view, formed by watching movies like Avatar, Peepli [Live] and Hazaaron Kwhahishen Aisi. It is clear that development and industrialization has asymmetric benefits. People who “donate” their land rarely get much good out of the exercise. Does that mean I support the Naxals? No! But I can understand them better.

Online Schools

This post on the LA Times (replicated almost in its entirety):

The Los Angeles Unified School District is opening its first ever virtual high school this fall.

Los Angeles Virtual High School Academy is a full-time, online school enrolling 650 9th and 10th graders during the 2010-11 school year.

The district hopes to have a K-12 online school in the near future, according to Themy Sparangis, LAUSD’s chief technology director.

District officials say a full-time online campus gives students another alternative to learning, and opens a door for nontraditional students, like those who have been home schooled.

In 2007, some 300 students were enrolled in at least one online course. By 2009, that number had soared to 2,500.

Nearly 1,000 LAUSD students enrolled in online courses this summer, part of a growing number making the shift from traditional to virtual classrooms

Is this an idea who’s time has come?  Given the constraints on physical infrastructure and teachers (both availability and quality – more on that soon), combined with the easy and low cost availability of computers and broadband connections – should we be looking at more online education?

Talking to education-entrepreneurs in India, I get the sense that there is still some skepticism about the growth of online education.  There are some success stories – but all of them are still small.  It may be that the sector needs some serious government support and a willingness to break away from the existing thought process.  If we are to achieve quality education for all, we need to be more serious about the use of technology.

The quest for good colleges

How bad is the education system…

“There’s no confidence in the state schooling, hence the reason so many send their children to evening tutoring classes. For the families who can’t afford the extra tuition, the likelihood of their children passing the entrance exams into the top schools, colleges and universities is close to zero. It really is a snobby prestigious concept that better families get their kids into better schools.”  Many see the divide between the rich and poor as a catch-22. For the poor, regardless of their child’s potential and intelligence, it is unlikely their offspring will get the top spots in the universities.

“…education is more important than anything, including childhood.”

In cram schools, the tutors teach us carefully how to get better scores technically and efficiently. Then we can double-check what we studied at school on the day. My parents sent me to a cram school to pass the entrance exams. The reason for attending is simple; to get a better score than before,” he said.  Unfortunately all this hard work comes at a price: “Of course, the studying was very, very stressful. We barely had private time and I couldn’t chill out with friends as I would have liked. Some just dropped out because they could not handle the pressure.”

Sounds like an IIT coaching class?  No, we’re talking about the cram schools that are increasingly prevalent in South Korea, Japan and China – where tuitions are now starting for children at the age of 4.  Full story here.

Meanwhile, the US seems to think that it needs to take a leaf out of the educational system of India and South Korea.  The grass is always greener on the other side!

Our demographic responsibility

Posting [Live] from Peepli

Amma (Grand Mother India?) is one of the special characters from Peepli [Live] – and unfortunately represents one of many elder Indians who will be forced into dependence on their increasingly nuclear families.  The average life expectancy of Indians has increased from 42 in 1960 to about 65 in 2008.  Unfortunately, we’re nowhere close to geared for this.

* Retirement ages have barely changed.  People will still be productive at the time that they retire, but with little to do (we blogged about this earlier)

* Accumulated savings are often inadequate.  One black swan event can wipe out 20 years of savings.  There is no social safety network worth talking about

* Families are increasingly nuclear.  Baghbaan (the movie) is not an exaggeration.  The traditional family fall-back is falling apart

Amma’s situation in Peepli is not unreal.  We need mechanisms to address the new demographic.  And this must go beyond the traditional “senior citizen” discounts.  Some thoughts:

* A longer time to retirement (65, at least)

* Tighter laws on employment discrimination (against the elder)

* Creation of jobs for the elderly (BPOs?)

* Re-skilling programmes

* A re-thinking of our social security structure – esp for those over 60

* Old age homes

* Improved design of public facilities and infrastructure

The government doesn’t have to be the one doing all this.  The old-age economy can be quite attractive to a private player too.

While we continue to obsess over the demographic dividend, maybe it’s time we also woke up to our demographic responsibility 🙂

The funda of farmer suicides

Posting [LIVE] from Peepli.

In recent years, there has been an increased awareness of the unfortunate rise of farmer suicides in rural India. By most estimates, about 200,000 farmers have committed suicide in the last 20 years, with the recent years averaging more than 17,000 a year. Grim statistics indeed. These suicides have largely been concentrated in the Indian agrarian states of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Goa.

India lives in her villages“, as Mahatma Gandhi didn’t say. About 73% of the Indian population still lives in India, and a large majority of the folks are dependent on agriculture for subsistence. Many of these farmers are poor, manual workers and uneducated- very poorly equipped to compete in the world economy as they are.

The base post on farmer suicides was written by P Sainath, who is the editor for The Hindu, a big and respectable Indian newspaper. Through his award-winning reporting, he brought attention to this subject. Here is a great update post from Sainath on this.

So why are the farmers committing suicide? I am going to focus on two competing, yet reconcilable, narratives that have been put forward. One represents the extremely successful activist community, spearheaded by Vandana Shiva, and the other representing the views of a broader “economist” community.

Simply put, the activist viewpoint is that the greedy multi-national seed and chemical companies have colluded to create monstrous patented and genetically modified monoculture of seeds that cost the farmers their livelihoods, land and, ultimately, lives. Meanwhile, the global trade in seeds creates conditions that allows heavily subsidized American grain to rush into the market, lowering the effective rates. In other words, the rapacious Americans are to blame. This viewpoint has been very eloquently articulated by Vandana Shiva, who has appeared Al Gore-like in her presentations to a shamed-western-media. Here are a couple of great reads: Vandana-on-HuffPost, and here’s an audio post.

Rapid increase in indebtedness is at the root of farmers’ taking their lives. Debt is a reflection of a negative economy. Two factors have transformed agriculture from a positive economy into a negative economy for peasants: the rising of costs of production and the falling prices of farm commodities. Both these factors are rooted in the policies of trade liberalization and corporate globalization.

The other viewpoint takes a more scholarly approach to the grim data. The best point of view I came across was this research published by International Food Policy Research Institute. I initially assumed that this is an industry-funded-one-sided piece, meant to allow greedy seed and fertilizer companies to assert their point of view. I was wrong. This is a well researched and balanced piece of work. It combines a meta-analysis of several other lines of research. The truth, in their opinion, is more nuanced, though no less grim. The multinational seed companies are, indeed, selling patented and GM seeds that are terribly expensive.  The seeds give much higher yields with a careful selection of chemicals, and under irrigated conditions. In India, the farmers are uneducated on their proper use, and still depend on the monsoons for irrigation. This means that the farmers take debt to buy seeds that are essentially a gamble. The yields turn out to be poorer than the costs would justify. Crop failure results infrequently. This created a vicious cycle which ends, sadly, in the farmers committing suicides. Here is the 64-page report, which I recommend highly. Here is the chart that lays out the situation brilliantly on page 45. Too bad they aren’t as eloquent as Vandana Shiva!

Posting [LIVE] from Peepli the next few days

Posting [LIVE] from Peepli!

Over the next week or so, Amit and I will be posting about issues that came up in the new movie “Peepli [Live]”. This isn’t a movie review site, so if that’s what you’re looking for, please check out these fine reviews here, here, here and here.

All you need to know is that the movie is a fantastic satire from the house of Aamir Khan. The issue they tackle is farmer suicides, and the story wheels around other modern Indian issues. The media circus, caste politics, general apathy and perverse incentives. Great stuff, put together in a great movie.