Tuesday, September 30, 2008

social networking

I don't pretend to be an expert on Internet businesses. But I can't help but wonder why I keep getting invites to join new social networking sites like hi5.com so late in the game. Once in awhile I'll join one of these (otherwise useless) networks because I'm looking for the email address of a potential source, and that's the only place I can turn up through a google search. But otherwise, I don't see the point. Why would I want to monitor a dozen different web pages for mostly redundant functions--email, instant messaging--and nonsense info that I don't really care about. I've experimented with facebook, and I can see the appeal (a little). If nothing else, you can see what your old acquaintances look like now that they're old. And you can obsessively endeavor to one-up your rivals with more friends, better trips abroad, more attractive photos of yourself and your kids, etc. But facebook is a colossal waste of time, and most of the time I'd rather go out and have a beer than poke somebody or send them a virtual pint. And any network I establish on Orkut, hi5, etc. is bound to be even worse.

One email inbox, free of spam, and occasional missives from people I like. That's really all I want. Maybe some kind of efficient, all-encompassing professional directory with the work phone numbers & email addresses of every conceivable bureaucrat, corporate flack, and university professor. But I'm not holding my breath for that. Perhaps I'm unlike the usual "consumer" of this crap because I'm not stuck in a cubicle, and if I don't have any work I can just switch off my machine and go read a book or see a movie or whatever. Or perhaps I'm just an old, over-the-hill Luddite.

But please, stop inviting me to join your network. If you want to tell me something, send me an email. Or if worse comes to worst, I'm on facebook, waiting for google to integrate it with all their virtual photo albums and what have you. But I'm drawing my line in the sand there.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

the new space race is in asia

As China tries to catch up to the United States and Russia, its regional neighbors are fast on its heels.

By Mary Hennock, Adam B. Kushner and Jason Overdorf
From the magazine issue dated Sep 29, 2008

If the weather holds, China plans to celebrate another milestone on its long march to the moon this week in a PR extravaganza that will rival its Olympic performance a few weeks ago. Fittingly, a Long March II-F rocket will take off from the Jiuquan launch center in Gansu province carrying three astronauts on China's third mission to low Earth orbit. After a live broadcast of the launch and heartwarming made-for-TV linkups between the crew and their families, the ruggedly handsome Zhai Zhigang will open the hatch and emerge into outer space. It will be China's first spacewalk and another step in its ambitious plan to build its own space station by 2015 and—if the rumors are true—to put astronauts on the moon by 2020.

The display will no doubt be lauded as yet another indication that China is ready to join the ranks of the world's space titans, Russia and the United States. But are these missions cause for worry in Washington and Moscow? The Soviet Union performed the first spacewalk in 1965 when Aleksei Leonov stepped out of a Voskhod II capsule, and the United States did it later that year when Ed White left his Gemini capsule. Although the ability to launch payloads can also be used to lob bombs, the military implications of a manned program are virtually nil: nobody has yet figured out what humans can do in space that robotic weapons can't do better.

China sees its spacewalk as a way of proving that it belongs with the United States and Russia in the top tier of space-faring nations. But its true opponent in this space race is not the West so much as its Asian neighbors—India in particular. India has in recent years transformed its space program from a utilitarian affair of meteorological and communications satellites into a hyperactive project that seems designed to make a splash on the world stage. Its robotic-exploration program is scheduled to launch a probe on Oct. 22 that will orbit the moon for two years. And Japan is considering expanding its well-established (if less ambitious) space program—which includes research on the International Space Station and a respectable commercial satellite business—and exploring military applications. Against this backdrop, Beijing's dominance is not unshakable. Just as the Soviet Union's launch of its Sputnik satellite back in 1957 was only a fleeting victory, China's recent accomplishments have provided merely the opening salvos in a modern-day Asian space race.

The two biggest forces driving the race between China and India are their insistence on self-reliance and the idea that space exploration feeds national prestige. Naturally, the two ideas work in tandem. India was shut out from NASA and European space missions for years after testing its first nuclear bomb in 1974; now many technologies for its space program have been developed by Indian engineers with little outside help. (India has agreed to carry U.S. and European payloads on its moon launch.) Beijing has watched U.S.- Russian cooperation on the International Space Station rise and fall with their diplomatic relations. "The most important thing is that China has developed and formed its own system for space aviation independently," says Huang Hai of the China Aviation Science and Research Institute. Ouyang Ziyuan, a space expert at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, summed it up to People's Daily: China's program "suggests comprehensive national strength …, increasing China's international prestige and the cohesive power of the Chinese nation."

Beijing's space program electrified the competition when astronaut Yang Liwei orbited the earth in October 2003. Last year China shot down an aging weather satellite, adding an arms-race quality to the battle for prestige. It is now constructing its fourth launch base, on Hainan Island, for a new 25-ton booster rocket that will carry aloft modules for its space station, which will be permanently staffed. Also ahead: robotic moon landings (a data-gathering probe is already in orbit) and even a rumored manned trip to the lunar surface—a prospect that provoked a minor crisis in Washington, culminating in President George W. Bush's State of the Union promise in 2004 to establish a permanent U.S. moon base. Despite technology export controls imposed by the United States, China's commercial satellite business is thriving. It has launched 79 satellites altogether—10 of them in 2007. This year India has launched 11 satellites, including nine from other countries—and it became the first nation to launch 10 satellites on one rocket.

The United States and the Soviet Union were racing in the context of a cold war, but India and China are vying for leadership in a competitive marketplace of people and knowledge industries. It's about developing technology, talent and markets. All of which has stimulated Chinese technology: sensors built for space have ended up in GPS systems, washing machines and other products. The Chinese hope to spin out their rockets and orbiters into inventions and products they can patent. And "they're now right up in the world class of robotics," says British scientist Martin Sweeting, CEO of Surrey Satellite Technology, which built Beijing a pollution-monitoring satellite for the Olympics and does work on China's moon rovers.

None of this has gone unnoticed abroad. China's manned space program "shook up all the neighbors because the Chinese asserted, 'We are the dominant regional power'," says Jim Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. After China used a ballistic missile to blow up the aging weather satellite in January 2007, scattering debris into low orbit, Japan's Parliament overturned a law isolating its space program from military uses, and its space agency is trying to capitalize on the new mood by requesting a 29 percent budget increase at a time when the general science budget is growing by only 1 percent per year. The public, however, worries more about the social problems of an aging population than beating China to the moon. As a stable democracy and charter member of the world's most advanced economies, Japan simply has less to prove.

The repercussions of China's program were felt most strongly in Delhi, where the 36-year-old space program is now ramping up its moon project at launch speed. China first sent a man into space in 2003, and India won't achieve that goal until 2015, but according to unofficial schedules, China will beat India to a moon landing by only a year. Reaching the moon is the childhood dream of Madhavan Nair, chairman of India's space program, which is now spending about $1 billion per year, compared with an estimated $2.5 billion a year in China. If all goes well, at the end of October India will launch the $100 million Chandrayaan-I, its first lunar orbiter, using the workhorse Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle. The orbiter will fire a probe at the moon's surface, kicking up a cloud of lunar dust that scientists will analyze from afar—and it will plant the Indian flag in lunar soil. Its successor, Chandrayaan-II, a cooperative effort with Russia (and, therefore, one looked down upon by Chinese analysts), is expected to land a rover on the moon by 2012. The space agency, if it can persuade Parliament to fund all its dreams, aims to put a man on the moon by 2020, followed by robotic missions to Mars, a nearby asteroid and the sun—an agenda even more ambitious than China's.

The Indian space agency is careful to defend the program as more than an ego competition with the Chinese. It argues that its space program has earned a return of $2 on every dollar invested by the government, according to Nair. For example, its remote sensing satellites, which map the Earth's surface at a resolution of close to one meter, have helped find well water in dry regions, saving the government's drill boring program $100 million. And, while only a few years ago Indian space officials ruled out manned missions as too expensive and of dubious scientific value, they now speak—just like the Chinese—of mapping the moon for deposits of aluminum, silicon, uranium and titanium, probably with an eye to lunar mining. "I don't think we're in any race as far as the space program is concerned," says Nair. "We have our own national priorities, and based on those priorities we try to concentrate on developments which will benefit the people."

Moon shots for the masses? "If you ask people [in the space agencies], they will never acknowledge there is a competition," says Pallava Bagla, the author of "Destination Moon," a book about India's moon mission. "But subliminally there is a definite race there." The two sides don't talk about it because, says the Stimson Center's Michael Krepon, "for Beijing, you don't want to put New Delhi on the same playing field. For New Delhi, you don't want to acknowledge anxiety." Krishnaswamy Kasturirangan, a member of Parliament and Nair's predecessor, says that in addition to luring Indian engineers from the high-paying IT divisions into astrophysics, the space program will "establish our credentials in the international community." It makes India a player.

The benefits of manned missions for the military are only somewhat clearer. Beijing's satellite shoot-down last year demonstrated the potential vulnerability of objects in space. Its space program—which is ultimately run by the Army—got its start when engineers took military rockets and stuck capsules on the tip. And despite Delhi's claims to the contrary, Western analysts suspect that booster technology developed for India's civilian space program is used by its military arm. But the quick way to strengthen military rockets is to fund them directly, not to fly moon missions. By the same token, ground-based and orbiting lasers would probably make better antisatellite weapons than missiles. "The U.S. military and the Russian military searched for years for good reasons to put military people in space and never found any," says John Logsdon, senior fellow at America's Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

Still, a space race is a risky way to boost national status: after all, a catastrophic accident while attempting merely to repeat this step for mankind would be a historic humiliation. But the risk is not without rewards. Successful space flight is a kind of national advertisement for satellites and, more broadly, quality control. "[China's] manned space program has gone a long way to proving to potential customers that their products are safe," says Theresa Hitchens of Washington's Center for Defense Information. In these days of global competition, that's a message both China and India desperately want to send.

With Akiko Kashiwagi in Tokyo

URL: http://www.newsweek.com/id/160037

Saturday, September 20, 2008

india's police

In the midst of the hoopla surrounding the killing and capture of several men suspected of involvement in last week's terrorist bombings in Delhi--discussed here in the Hindustan Times--I had a frank discussion about India's police forces and their preparedness for today's sophisticated criminals with a senior police officer with whom I've developed a passing acquaintance.

Interestingly, he was more critical than even I have ever been (in my practiced India-basher mode). Apart from being poorly trained, poorly equipped, and undermotivated, he said (not in those exact words), the police sees itself as "against" the army, the intelligence bureaus and the various other security forces. One reason for this is that these other outfits are better funded, and enjoy a better reputation in the press and among the public--a phenomenon he attributed to the fact that nobody knows what they do and they have little interaction with regular folks. Adding to their troubles, they are very poorly paid (I think this is the general consensus), which contributes to the problems of corruption and laziness that account for their poor reputation among the public.

Several years ago, I read an interesting essay by longtime India hand Trevor Fishlock (in his book Indiafile) that presented some interesting arguments for how to reform the police forces. I'm frequently guilty of the "foreigner trying to fix India at the cocktail party" fault, I confess, and sometimes this blog falls into that category. But I won't go too deeply into my two-drinks-down solutions now. However, I would like to venture the question: What administrative policies / practices separate the Indian Army and the Indian police? By most accounts, the army enjoys a good reputation with the public, and is generally considered to be honest and competent (except in militancy-plagued areas). The services supposedly are still able to attract fairly skilled & educated recruits, and supposedly they're free of much of the religion-and-caste based animosity that causes problems in other organizations.

If there are any obvious reasons for this apart from the nebulous "tradition," perhaps there's something to be learned that can be applied to the police.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

quiet revolution

While Asia reels from a food crisis, India is benefiting from three years of investment in farming.

Jason Overdorf
Updated: 11:24 AM ET Sep 13, 2008

The food crisis earlier this year hit developing countries particularly hard, but India has fared surprisingly well. That's partly because India had already gone through a crisis of its own, three years ago, when surpluses were depleted; agricultural output was hardly growing; and farmers were committing suicide in record numbers. For this reason, agricultural productivity has been a hot-button issue for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. To keep his party in power, Singh needed not only to increase food production, but also to increase farmer incomes and end a debt crisis. Despite these gains, India lags behind China and Vietnam in productivity. P.K. Joshi, director of the New Delhi-based National Centre for Agricultural Economics and Policy Research, spoke with NEWSWEEK's Jason Overdorf about the challenges India faces. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: India produces only about half as much rice per hectare as China, the world's largest producer, and just about a third less than Vietnam. Why are India's crop yields so low?
P.K. Joshi: We need not compare China's yield and India's yield, because of several reasons. The first reason is that India is a very heterogenous country, from irrigated area to rain-fed area and rice is also grown in very marginal areas. So the average productivity seems to be very low. If we look to our irrigated areas, the yields are very high compared to any part of the world, and in rain-fed areas they are low because of less water and other factors. In China, they are using more than two-and-a-half times [the fertilizer that] Indian farmers are [using]. And China is growing hybrid rice, which has very high potential, and because of their governance system, they distribute the seed, and the farmers have to produce that variety.

In India, we have a democratic society, and the farmer is free to choose any variety or any hybrid. If the farmer has enough money to buy good seed, he does. But if not, he uses his own seed (from the year before). Another reason is the length of growing season. You know, in China, they take one crop per year. If you see our farmers, in Punjab they are growing rice and wheat in one year. In Haryana, rice and wheat. In some parts of West Bengal, the entire Indo-Gangetic Plain, three rice crops are being taken up per year. So if you compare the double crops, it will be on par with the Chinese one crop per year.

Should India be doing more to encourage farmers to use hybrids?
Yes, definitely. If we are speaking particularly about rice, then I would say that in rice, the hybrids have very high potential. There's a difference between high yielding varieties and hybrids. A hybrid is a cross between two different male and female plants, but the varieties are self-pollinating, so the hybrid has higher potential.

One issue for India's agricultural productivity appears to be water scarcity. Does India need more irrigation projects?
We do not have a water scarcity. But the issue of water management is important. We need to harvest water; use it more appropriately, use it more judiciously.

Has India invested sufficiently in agriculture, or has it fallen behind China and other Asian nations?
These countries are investing huge in agricultural research and also in agricultural development programs. In India, we [used to have] a huge surplus--if you go only six years back we used to have a huge buffer stock [of food grains]. [Unfortunately] we wanted to get rid of that buffer stock, either by subsidizing food or through many different social safety net programs. We started reducing poverty through these distribution programs, so investment in agriculture was reduced. And I would tell you that right now, this government has started increasing investment in agriculture, but it's still lower than what it used to be in 1970, if we compare in terms of percentage of agricultural GDP.

Why hasn't India been able to boost agricultural investment further? Singh has talked about this as a big issue since he came into office.
During the last three years, a lot of investment has been done in the agriculture sector because there was a serious crisis in Indian agriculture three years ago. Everybody was talking about agrarian distress. Farmers were committing suicide. And agricultural growth was less than 2 percent, while the target was 4 percent and more. The government [made] agriculture [a top] priority. Investment started increasing. Programs were tuned to increase agricultural production. [Prices were controlled] so they didn't rise as quickly as they did in the global market. The result was that when there was a serious food crisis around the world this year, India was almost comfortable. We were importing wheat two years ago, but for the past two years we have not thought about importing wheat. We now have a surplus in rice as well as wheat.

For several years, the growth rate of India's agricultural output has been slow. Apart from more investment, what does India need to do to rejuvenate the green revolution?
We expect the same kind of green revolution, which we witnessed in the mid 60s and early 70s. But we have an unnoticed revolution in Indian agriculture. If you look at sugar production, if you look at cotton, or dairy milk production, poultry or fish, or horticulture--which is vegetables and fruits, even maize--you see that the production of these commodities has remarkably increased. Also, you will notice that this year we had record food grain production--230.5-million tons. We have not seen that kind of food production during the green-revolution days. At that time, the reason we realized it was a revolution was that we were hungry. There was a famine in 1966, and suddenly production increased. Now that kind of hunger is not there, so we are ignoring the increase in production.

The introduction of genetically modified crops has been a controversial topic in India. Why are Indian farmers and activists concerned about GM foods?
Among activists, the apprehension is that [GM crops] may adversely affect [human] health. There's no evidence so far, globally, that it will. But activists [worry about] playing with nature and using genes from other organisms to change another species. The proponents feel that the future lies with these genetically modified crops, because the [cultivation] area is shrinking for crops, and you have to increase production. Production can be increased only by increasing productivity.

Even during the green revolution period, when high-yielding varieties came, there was a lot of apprehension. I still remember in 1967-1968 activists saying that it would create [stomach ulcers and that] the taste is not good. From the health point of view, the nutritional point of view, there was no negative effect during the green revolution. So may be the case with genetically modified commodities.

A lot of farmers seem to be shifting from essential grains to horticulture and cash crops to take advantage of the end consumer's higher spending power. Is it a concern from a food security standpoint that they're switching away from food grains?
As our incomes are increasing, as urbanization is taking place, as globalization is unfolding, the demand of the consumers is shifting away from cereal based diets to high-value commodities or processed commodities. Horticulture crops like fruits and vegetables have increased, milk products have increased. You now see lots of ice cream parlors--demand for processed dairy products [is rising]. Farmers are responding.

All these commodities are perishable in nature. If there is a sudden increase in production, there is a flood in the market and prices crash like anything because farmers cannot store these commodities. So what we need are good cold-storage facilities, we need the cold chains [to refrigerate products on the way to market]. And I feel that the government alone can't develop so many cold storage facilities or these cold chains. The participation of the private sector is very important, in this context, to integrate the markets.

Why does so much of India's agricultural production spoil on the way to market or in storage? I've read some estimates that peg the waste as high as 40 percent.
Largely, it is the perishable commodities. In the case of grains, it is only through rats and rodents and some storage problems. But in perishable commodities the waste is extreme. This is because the markets are not well integrated; there are missing markets; the roads are not good.

URL: http://www.newsweek.com/id/158566

Saturday, September 13, 2008

terror fatigue

Oddly enough, I'd just written a note to my editor in NY saying, "...I'm getting to the point where I don't care who blows me up, as long as I don't have to read about it anymore." And then they go and throw bombs in my backyard. It's enough to make you a wee bit paranoid.

narendra modi's best friends

It's hard to guess what India's homegrown terrorist cells want. The series of low-intensity bombs that have disrupted daily life (briefly) in several of the country's major cities this year--most recently yesterday evening in Delhi--have hardly stricken terror into the hearts of the average Indian. Yesterday, for instance, gawkers rushed to the site of the attacks hoping to get on TV--big grins pasted on their faces as though it was the next best thing to bungee jumping.

So, too, the likely result of the bombs seems to be the direct opposite of what the Muslim community would like to see happen in India. First off, the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) -- which is the Indian equivalent of the US Patriot Act, and very prone to abuse by law enforcement -- becomes more certain to return with each new blast.

But worse than that, Narendra Modi's star shines brighter with every explosion. Now with the BJP convention getting ready to kick off, his role as the successor to LK Advani (whom he just might manage to eclipse BEFORE the next election) is set in stone.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

no no no no no no no no no

I can't believe the bump that McCain is getting from Palin. Or that Obama seems to have fallen asleep at the wheel. Are my fellow Americans really that stupid? McCain is Bush with a slightly higher IQ, and a bit less enthusiasm for Christianity. What criteria are the respondents to the latest polls using, anyway?

I knew that the media (of which I don't really consider myself a part, sitting here in India) was exaggerating the degree to which America had moved beyond race. There's still a bunch of white folks out there who are looking for any excuse (OK, maybe subconsciously) to avoid voting for a black guy.

Unfortunately, the black guy in question seems to be the only politician in America with his finger on the pulse of what's happening, in big picture terms, in international relations. I.e. that the rest of the world is soooo over us.