Monday, February 28, 2011

Glimpses of Shanghai

Loushan Road to downtown Shanghai

Talismans for a bus-driver: Chairman Mao and Buddha`s Blessings

Huaihai Road at night...trees festooned with  New Year lights

Metro ticketing machines: Clunky and not-so-user-friendly

Metro Line-1 advertisements

The Oriental Pearl Tower and  flyovers

Bund Sightseeing Tunnel

Huaihai Road crossing - dominated by Western models 

Municipality worker

Popular snack shop

Wedding pics on the busy streets

Roadside vendors in Old Shanghai (former fortified town)

Luwan - the former French Concession zone

Doggies in designer boots :(

Dancing to Marx and Engels

View from the Shanghai World Financial Centre (100th floor)



Renmin (People`s) Park - from one of the government officies

Government officials


`Wall Street English`

Newspaper vendor

Snake cutlets

Pudong Intnl. Airport

Friday, February 18, 2011

Guns, Germs, Steel & Propaganda

Some books seriously alter the way you look at the world...and, for me, over the past one week, there have been two such books: Jared Diamond`s Guns, Germs and Steel (1997), and Jacques Ellul`s Propaganda - The Formation of Men`s Attitudes (1965).

Diamond`s book covers an amazing range of topics - agricultural economics, linguistics, anthropology, history, evolutionary biology - all this, to address  a deceptively simple question: why did wealth and power become distributed as they are now, rather than in some other way? For instance, why weren't Native Americans, Africans, and Aboriginal Australians the ones who decimated , subjugated, or exterminated Europeans and Asians?

A part of his answer lies in the fact that the Eurasian land-mass provided a much more dynamic, competitive environment for the emergence of densely populated zones; of people living in close proximity to domesticated animals and birds. Over time, they grew resistant to diseases acquired from these animals; diseases against which the people of the New World had no immunity. As a result, entire civilizations were wiped out - in Mexico alone, the population plummeted from 20 million to 1.6 million due to smallpox - within a just a few decades after Hernán Cortés and conquistadors waded ashore with their horses, steel swords - and germs.

Close knit societies also developed systems of writing and communication that were accessible to the masses. This in turn enabled them to exchange ideas and improve on technological innovations, and to strengthen social networks through religion, propaganda and ideology. And this is where Diamond`s ideas connect with those of Ellul.

According to Ellul, the prevailing technological society and propaganda are Siamese twins - one cannot exist without the other. He regards propaganda as a sociological phenomenon which aims to intensify existing trends, to sharpen and focus , and, above all to lead men into action (or inaction, by preventing interference) - either towards Agitation (resentment, rebellion), or Integration (adjusting people to desired patterns).

Interestingly, he designates intellectuals as the most vulnerable of all to modern propaganda because they - (1) absorb the largest amount of second-hand, unverifiable information, (2) feel the compelling need to have an opinion on everything, and (3) they consider themselves capable of "judging for themselves"   :)

Now, this makes you take a fresh look at the ongoing world conflicts, and the Twitter-FaceBook revolutions sweeping through the Middle East, and wonder...


Tuesday, February 15, 2011

`Tolstoy of Photography`

A few links to the fascinating collection of photographs crafted by Henri Cartier-Bresson, and to the surrealist painters who inspired him.

 Behind the Gare St. Lazare, 1932 (pic source: Wikipedia Commons)

Henri Cartier-Bresson: Big Picture (Richard Lacayo, TIME, May. 03, 2010),9171,1983814,00.html

Photography Now - Gallery  and Photographs

Link to surrealist painters -  Gauguin in Polynesia and Rimbaud in Abyssinia... Giorgio de Chirico`s `Melancholy and the Mystery of a Street` (and its link to `Torcello, near Venice`, 1953)

Co-founders of Magnum: Robert Capa and David Szymin (aka David Seymour)

Foundation - Henri Cartier-Bresson -

Henri Cartier-Bresson Works Online -

Short Biography -

Sunday, February 13, 2011

C for Chocolates

Out in the markets today, florists and chocolate shops were seen doing brisk business...tomorrow, after all, belongs to them - its Valentines Day.

The rush for tiny bits of sweets packaged like jewelery brings to mind a nagging old question: why is it that West Africa produces over 70% of the worlds' cocoa, and yet, it is the Swiss and Belgians who take all the credit for making the finest chocolates?

In 1957, when Gold Coast became an independent country called Ghana, it supplied two-thirds of world cocoa. Today the largest exporter is another West African country - Côte d'Ivoire - but still, Ghana continues to hold the second position at 379,000 tonnes (1997/98). And the irony is that even while companies like Meiji-Japan maintain a brand-line of chocolates named "Ghana", its customers are assured (on the wrappers) that a fraction of the retail-price is being sent back to Ghana... as charity.

Why does the second-largest producer of cocoa need charity from chocolate manufacturers?

A part of the answer is that cocoa producing countries are poorly governed, leaving their agriculture-commodity traders rather disorganized. Gervase (2000) points out that it was the planters in tropics who did the most to reduce returns from cocoa exports, through misguided attempts to force up prices in the short term.Their governments worsened the problem through harmful policies which included:
...failing to protect the forest, favoring estates, allowing labor coercion, discouraging savings, restricting immigration, allowing cartels, and interfering in marketing. Over and above all this, many governments taxed heavily and indiscriminately, while failing to provide essential public goods.
Ghana, in fact, figures as a typical case where, in addition to all the above problems, ethnic and tribal rivalries (Akan-Ashanti) killed the proverbial goose that laid golden eggs. Now the country just figures on chocolate wrappers while international commodity traders rake in all the profits.


Saturday, February 12, 2011

Ownership of Egypt

The amazing 18-day showdown in Egypt is finally over today: Hosni Mubarak has quit.

Of all the reports, opinions and commentaries on this issue, one of my favorites has been a column by Thomas Friedman in the New York Times.

Quoting the aphorism that “in the history of the world no one has ever washed a rented car”, he has written about an unfamiliar scene in developing countries -- a group of student volunteers cleaning up the garbage in Tahrir Sqare:
I went up to one of these young kids on garbage duty — Karim Turki, 23, who worked in a skin-care shop — and asked him: “Why did you volunteer for this?” He couldn’t get the words out in broken English fast enough: “This is my earth. This is my country. This is my home. I will clean all Egypt when Mubarak will go out.” Ownership is a beautiful thing.

It is just the kind of attitude which seems to be missing in much of middle-class India today...

Volunteerism, a sense of ownership... can it only come out of thirty years of pent-up frustration?


Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Technological Catch-up

The pre-war industrial transformation of Germany, USA and Japan is often referred to as a process of `catching-up` through technological imitation of more advanced countries. The Japanese model, centered on a strong role played by the government, has served as a prototype for much of rapid development that has been seen in East Asia, South Asia, and now Latin America.

How exactly did the Japanese government manage to “guide” the private sector so effectively? In this post, we try to pick specific examples to see how this was done.

Railways: In the 1920s Japan imported some engines from ALCO (built under license from LNER, UK). These were called Class-8200 or C52, and some of them were completely dismantled and reverse-engineered into a `new`, `improved` model called the C-53. By 1934, a conglomerate, Japanese Imperial Railways in Manchuria (aka Mantetsu) inaugurated the "Asia Express", a high speed train from Dalian to the Manchukuo capital of Hsinking.

Tram Systems: In 1998, when SiemensAG won a contract for supplying Hiroshima city with its latest trams (Combino LF-LRT), the central government made two moves – (1) it passed the Barrier Free Transportation Law (2000) which provided subsidies and sops to local manufacturers, and (2) brought together eight local companies and set them to task of creating an ‘indigenous’ product. Within three years a Japanese consortium brought out the “Green Mover Max” which soon edged out the Combino’s in Hiroshima and elsewhere.

In the early days (1960s), the government’s influence came from its control over forex quotas. Since companies depended on the central bank for this, the government was able to dictate terms and conditions for those who ventured out for technology. Another important factor was the encouragement given to universities and R&D institutions, where strict meritocracy ensured a steady flow of young talent into labs and workshops.

Once the “catch-up” process was accomplished, the private sector was more or less free to do what it pleased with forex. However, the cozy relationship that developed between these companies and senior bureaucrats seems to be at the root of the ongoing decline in Japan’s manufacturing competitiveness.

  • Abramovitz, Moses (1986). Catching Up, Forging Ahead, and Falling Behind. The Journal of Economic History, Vol.46, No.2, The Tasks of Economic History (Jun., 1986), pp. 385-406.
  • Calestous Juma and Norman Clark (2002). Technological Catch-Up: Opportunities and Challenges for Developing Countries
  • Goto, Akira (1993). Technology Importation: Japan’s Postwar Experience in The Japanese Experience in Economic Reforms, edited by Teranishi J and Kosai Y. St. Martin Press, London, 1993.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Tree-Care in Japan

I never cease to wonder at the meticulousness with which tree's are 'managed' in Japan. Here is a collection of photographs of Japan's arborists and their art:

'Walking-sticks' for a 300-year-old Pine at Hamarikyu Garden, Downtown Tokyo

A conical snow-cap protection for a carefully manicured tree (Tea house at Hamarikyu Garden)

"Kamo-maki" (Straw-mat wrapping). Winter protection for trees. Harmful insects are encouraged to make their home in the warmth of this straw wrapping rather than the tree itself! (Hamarikyu Garden)

A tree being pruned at Hibiya Park, Tokyo

 Stilts to support Maple trunks until they can handle the wind-storms on their own (Tsukuba University Hospital)


Saturday, February 05, 2011

Exporting Norms

A Chinese colleague is working on an interesting topic for her PhD thesis: EU's attempts to 'export' its values and change China's 'behaviour'.

The main idea here is that values form the basis for norms (shared values), and by setting norms you try to control behavior. The EU has a set nine stated values which it wants other countries to accept - inclusive equality, social solidarity, sustainable development, good governance, associative human rights, supranational rule-of-law, social liberty, consensual democracy and sustainable peace. It is being argued that China, on the other had, does not try to spread any of its values to the rest of the world. While this part may be debatable (after all, Chinese pragmatism is also a value - "if you want to do business, please spare us your moral lectures"), the issue of values presents a study of contradiction in the prevailing Western world-view.

There is actually no shortage of trade-related decisions that are based on values and norms. For eg.,  the ongoing sanctions on Myanamar 'in support of democratic reforms' and the EU threat to withdraw trade concessions to Sri Lanka for 'human rights violations'.  Schimmelfennig (2001) calls this form of collective bargaining behavior "rhetorical action" - the strategic use of norm-based arguments.

Yet, the fact remains that such strategies are used only when it suits EU's convenience. They would not dream of banning imports of oil from OPEC countries just because some autocrat violated human rights!


Thursday, February 03, 2011

Lipsius, Grotius & International Law

Today evening, I was walking down the 3K corridor for a cup of coffee when I heard the words "East India Company" and "International Law" from one of the classrooms. Prof. Klienschimdt was halfway through one of his sessions, and I wondered if I could just drop in... The lecture sounded really interesting, so I slowly sneaked in (nothing ventured, nothing gained!) and settled on one of the  rear seats.

On the boards, there was ample evidence that the session had been on for a while. On one side there was a list of trading stations along the coast of Africa, South Asia (Goa, Daman, Diu) and East Asia (Malacca), and, on the other, names of European kings of the late 1500s and early 1600s - Philip-II of Spain (aka Philip-I of Portugal), the House of Orange (Holland) and Elizabeth-I of England. The discussion had now reached an interesting juncture: how did little Holland manage to win the trade wars against the big boys - Spain & Portugal?

A part of the answer, apparantly, lay in the University of Lieden (est.1575!). Here, a professor named Justus Lispius (1547-1606) wrote two best-sellers that were to form the bedrock of Dutch pragmatism, as well as International Law and the Modern State. The two books - On Constancy and Politics - put forth, for the first time, a set of guiding principles that was not based on religious texts. These guiding principles (Natural Law) essentially said that any action should be such that its rationale is self-evident, without the need for enforcement by external agents.

The practical outcome of this was that while Spain and Portugal looked up to the Church for legitimacy, approval and guidance, the Dutch were driven purely by profits. Any trade venture that yielded less than 400% profit was not worth the trouble.

So, when the Tokugawa Shogunate in Japan imposed a simple condition on the European traders ("don't mix trade and religion"), the Spanish and Portuguese opted out while the Dutch landed a monoply for the next 100 years! The Dutch quietly raked in the profits by following the rules set by the Shogunate, but while their ships were on the open seas, they followed the "Free Seas" (Mare Liberum) principle of Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) and stoutly attacked any Spanish blockade.

Both these principles continue to be at the foundation of International Law, in its present form....Now that is someting to think about - over a cup of coffee! :)


Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Decoding URLs

Why is it that some web-addresses carry a long tail while other do not? How much does a web-address reveal?

For instance, a Yahoo mail-page has the following code:

While  Facebook pages come up with something a lot simpler, like-!/

Even though most web-addresses (aka URLs - universal resource locators) follow the format, << transfer protocol://servername.domain/directory/subdirectory/filename.filetype>>, they contain clues that tell you a number of interesting things:
  • <~> - a tidle: Usually indicates a personal folder -- perhaps the customer of a Web host, or a student at a university, etc.
  • <?> - a question-mark: Typically means that behind the scenes, a script will call information from the server or a database. Eg.,
  • <=> - the equal-to mark: Indicates use of stylesheets
Some gurus recommend the use of CURL-tools to dig out more information from URLs...


Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Victims, Tormentors & Schools

What is it that turns erstwhile victims into tormentors? This is a question that has often crossed my mind whenever I read about caste-politics or the Hindutva diatribe in India, the treatment of Palestinians by Israel or the Roma`s in Europe.

In India there seems to have emerged an entirely new `super` class of people who, having benefited from the affirmative-action policies for over 50 years, are not only loath to give up their privileges but also actively discriminate against communities that are worse off than their own. Similarly, the Israel-Palestine problem seems less of an international dispute than a caste-conflict that blew out of control. Once you get what you always wanted, its your turn to kick the ladder and prevent others from climbing up.

The irony here is that the erstwhile victims - the new `super` castes in India, Jews of pre-war Europe and Russia, Romanians & Bulgarians freed from Nazi occupation - employ exactly the same methods used by their former tormentors. Pick a label that suits your convenience - `thiefs`, `vermin`, `rats`, `traitors` - and then use it to tar an entire group of people, then push them to the `other` side. Once they are living out of sight beyond high walls, in restricted quarters or cramped ghettos, deprive them of  basic necessities until they fit your label of choice and then, the only final solution that remains, is to get rid of them all.

In the book `Maus`, Art Spiegelman illustrates the harrowing story of his father, a Polish jew, during the second World War. Forced out of his comfortable middle class existence into ghettos first and then into the death camps of Auschwitz/Birkenau, he manages to survive it all and then migrate to USA. And once there, he has no qualms about viewing American blacks exactly the same way the Nazis saw the Jews - only the label is different. To him every colored guy is a `Shvartser`, fit to be treated as thieves and scoundrels.

Perhaps a part of the answer to this question lies their renewed insecurities and a desperate instinct for survival. To an erstwhile victim, their own survival is proof enough that nobody is to be trusted. To quote Prof. Amos Oz, a self-proclaimed Judeo-Nazi:

I want to survive. And my intention happens to be that my children will survive, too. With or without the blessing of the Pope and assorted Torah sages from the New York Times. If anyone raises a hand against my children, I'll destroy him - and his children - with or without your vaunted 'purity of arms.'. And I don't give a damn if he's a Christian or a Moslem or a Jew or a pagan. Throughout history, anyone who thought he was above killing got killed. It's an iron-clad law.

Tell me yourself, do the bad guys really have it so bad in the world? Do they lack for anything? If anybody tries to lay a finger on them, they cut off his arms and legs. And sometimes they do the same for people who haven't even tried anything. If they feel like eating something, and they can catch it and kill it, that's what they do. And they don't suffer an upset stomach afterward or any divine retribution. So from here on in, I want Israel to be a member of this club. Congratulations! Maybe the world will finally begin to fear me instead of feeling sorry for me.

...When you're fighting for survival, anything goes. Even what's forbidden is allowed...a people that let itself be slaughtered and destroyed, a people that let its children be made into soap and its women into lampshades, is a worse criminal than its tormentors. Worse than the Nazis. To live without fists, without fangs and claws, in a world of wolves is a crime worse than murder.

...It's a crying shame - we could have put all that behind us and by now become a normal nation with prissy values, with humanistic neighborly relations with Iraq and Egypt, and with a slight criminal record - just like everybody else. Like the English and the French and the Germans and the Americans - who've already managed to forget what they did to the Indians - and the Australians, who almost totally eliminated the aborigines. They've all done it. What's the big deal? What's so terrible about being a civilized people, respectable, with a slight criminal past? It happens in the best of families.

The rhetoric is disturbing...but  it makes some sense when you examine it in the context of  New York 9/11 and Mumbai 26/11. Yet, it makes you wonder if the problem is being blown out of proportion. After all, how far you can push this siege mentality across generations? What would have happened if Mandela too was convinced that it was a crime to `live without fists, without fangs and claws, in a world of wolves`?

Any which way you look at it, the only long-term solution to divisive politics seems to be the vigorous implementation of an Ethnic Integration Policy, as is being done by Singapore Housing & Development Board. Children of diverse backgrounds, who grow up together, seem a lot less likely to join the ranks of suicidal jihadists, jingoists and other assorted, disgruntled radicals.