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Archive for October 2008

Would a socialist economy work?

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One of the perks of working in a university is getting to attend lectures on all sorts of topics which in no way concern the work I do and which in normal life I would never think about. It is one of the natural by products of having a large population who are free to follow their own passions, of course, within reasonable limit. It is with a certain level of curiosity about the topic that I went along to a lecture title “Does socialist planning work?” organised by the Socialist workers party in the University.

The talk was leaning so far towards socialism that it would have tipped over if they had tried to push the topic any more. It was an evening spent in capitalism bashing, claiming how all the ills of the world had their foundations in the greed and profit driven world of today and how if it weren’t for capitalism, we could have been living full, contented and enjoyable lives. The speaker then went on to describe the structure of a socialist economy, based on the “need” and not the “greed” of people and how it would yield a more balanced, just and successful society. He also sort of glazed over examples of how public transport and food would benefit from socialist planning. While they sounded pretty good to start with, a little thought on the matter has left me less convinced of the merit in the ideas.

Free Transport

One of the ideas bantered around during the talk was that socialist planning of the economy would do a better job of public transport than the current capitalistic models do. According to the speaker, public transport should be publicly owned, paid for by taxation and made free. Having free transport will make a few people scuttle around on the network to start with, but then things will settle down and people will make only the journeys they require.

Being an ardent environmentalist, I would welcome any system that provides efficient public transport, but I seriously doubt the feasibility of a system paid for by taxation and which is free to the users. The public transport system of the nation is a huge and complex beast affected by a multitude of factors, which may require swift reactions in the event on any change. A good example is the oil price roller coaster we had in the recent past. As the price of oil (or other energy source) goes up, so does the cost of running a transport network. When privately owned and priced, the price hikes can be passed on to consumers, who in all fairness are benefiting from the service and should pay the cost of it. But a system paid by with taxation and which is free at the point of use will have only a limited amount of money to work with since tax rates are fixed and taxes collected annually. The public transport firms with therefore have to be bailed out by the government, or will have to cut corners by reducing services, laying off workers or doing something of that sort. In order to cushion such a system from these vagaries of the economy, the government will probably have to introduce a “real time” tax rate, which varies on any given day of the year, depending on the global conditions and the cost of providing services. Such a system would be hideously complicated, unworkable and unproductive as no one will really know what sort of money they are going to take home at the end of the pay day. A market structure gives the most nimble way to react to such changes in costs. I agree that the profit motive may not be the optimal solution, but the free transport one does not convince me either.

A second problem with a centralised, publicly owned transport system is the lack of competition and therefore the desire/need to innovate and improve services. If every member of the company feels secure in his job, then he will not take the pains to improve himself and make sure he stays at the top of his game. Some people may strive to improve, out of pure interest, but most would not bother, seeing that they will get no monetary, social or any other benefit from their efforts. Those who are not ambitious would also throttle those who are. Since a transport network would need a very dedicated, committed and motivated team to run it, the lack of motivation by the large percentage of employees is bound to drag the whole firm down.

Food Distribution

The socialist solution to solving the food problem was to serve out food vouchers with which people could buy a certain amount and kind of food. I guess the only way this is different from the capitalistic way is that everyone would get the same amount of food coupons and therefore the ability to buy food will be decoupled from each person’s earnings. That is again an ideal situation, but one that requires the people in charge to be completely non-corruptible. The distribution of food coupons concentrates power in the hands of the few and there will always be people who will offer bribes to get additional food coupons from those in power. When something as fundamental as food supply is left in the hands of the few, there are myriad ways of sniffing out the ones with the weak morals and then corrupting them to an advantage for oneself. I don’t think it is too difficult to create artificial shortages and black markets in such a scenario. While the capitalistic model has multiple agents competing for people’s custom, the socialist one has people competing for the government’s attention and the feeling is not a comfortable one.

My conclusions

The lecture on socialist planning was enlightening in that it gave me an alternative viewpoint to think about, but failed to convince me about the merits and the practicality of socialism. It should work in an ideal world, where people are not corruptible, not very selfish and they are willing to sacrifice their luxuries for the “needs” of others. In my view, the single biggest flaw with socialism is that it fails to take into account the fact that a majority of people will act out of selfish reasons, at least to some degree. The capitalistic model on the other hand embraces this idea and uses it as a foundation, which is why capitalism has outlived its rival. The altruistic(or at least non-selfish) attitude needed for socialism cannot be imposed by the government, but has to develop within each person and impel him/her to act in the non-selfish way. It is already happening to a small section of society in the developed world and maybe in the future we may land up living in a world that appears socialist, but will in reality still be capitalist as it will depend on people making a certain choice and the markets reacting to them.

Written by clueso

October 30, 2008 at 11:48 pm

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Why a omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent God isn’t worth worshipping.

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Ever since I was a little kid, I have heard of how God is omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. Accompanying this tidbit of information is how God has control over our destinies and how we should pray to him so that we get to lead comfortable lives. It is also necessary to do good things during one’s life, as at the end of it all, we are all held accountable for our actions and by doing good we (or rather our souls) go to heaven, where all is fine and dandy. If we don’t be good people, then bad things happen, varying from not getting “liberated” from the material world to going to this place called hell, where we learn what it feels like to be on the wrong side of a barbecue.

The above few lines were repeated to me often, usually without further explanation. It therefore summarises my theological training and expertise. Over time I have developed new views which more closely match the title of this post and here is some of the reasoning behind it. If there is anyone who can punch a hole in any of my arguments, I would love to hear their ideas…

Why do it?
One of the first questions that come to mind when thinking of an omniscient and omnipotent God is why would he go through the trouble of creating the universe and us humans and animals as we have been, are and will be?

There can be multiple reasons why anyone would create something so elaborate. One reason for building things their utility. We build houses because it beats living in the rain, snow, wind. Some animals sharpen their claws because it helps in getting food. People invented cars so that they could travel around. So maybe God has a use for the universe as it is, like helping him achieve some goal, or keeping an enemy at bay. That means that God needs us for some purpose and he is therefore not omnipotent, because if he were, he could have just created what he wanted or driven away whatever threatens him without going through this whole rigmarole.

Maybe he is in the process of creating whatever he needs and we are the means to the end. But then the moment we concede that, we are seriously jeopardising his claim to omniscience as well. The fact that he needed to create the universe to get the object X means that he does not know the answer to the question “how to get X without creating the universe?” and he is not omniscient any more. If there are some factors that prevent him from getting what he wanted without creating the universe, then the claims to omnipotency look even weaker and suddenly God realises that he isn’t really having a good day.

Sometimes people do things simply for the mental challenge of it(think jigsaws, crosswords etc) without any specific benefit to oneself. Unfortunately, things can only be mental challenges when we initially do not know how to solve them, but then try to figure out. But we all know what happens if we said that God did not know how to create the universe and wanted to try out a method don’t we? Yep, that’s right, omniscience gets flushed down the hole again.

Very often, things are built to do experiments. Once again, that implies a lack of knowledge and once again, we have omniscience taking a belting.

Which leaves us with just one option, that God created the universe and everything in it just for the heck of it. He knew how to create it. He also knows how to make it perfect, but for some reason he will not. He prefers to just sit back and watch everyone kill, cheat and lie to each other. He enjoys watching the injustice, the violence and the hatred go unchecked for the billions of years before he steps in and one day and decides to make things all right. If he enjoys doing that, then plainly he is a sadist. If he doesn’t care about it, then he is just a shoddy workman who can’t be bothered to do the job right. If he cares about it, but does not do anything about it even when he can, then he is plain lazy.

Either way, it becomes increasingly difficult to look up to him as the paragon of excellence, doesn’t it?

As I wrote this up, I realised I have quite a lot to say on this topic, so more on this later…

Written by clueso

October 27, 2008 at 12:08 am

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Proclaiming Atheism.

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Here is the latest in Prof. Richard Dawkins war against religion. Quite an interesting concept wouldn’t you say? 🙂

Written by clueso

October 22, 2008 at 9:11 am

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And you thought humans invented the moon walk?

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If anyone thought Michael Jackson or any other human being were the first to do the Moonwalking thingy while dancing, heres proof that nature had it going long before us(as usual)

Written by clueso

October 12, 2008 at 12:11 am

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Weekly food consumption.

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Here is an interesting photoblog about the weekly food consumption of families from around the world. In addition to the most obvious message of how some countries consume a hell lot more than others, there are other interesting things that the pictures convey about diets across the world. The variation in the amount of junk food, fruits and vegetables is just one of the interesting ones.

Go on and see for yourself 🙂

Written by clueso

October 7, 2008 at 11:44 pm

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Free textbooks for all!

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It was an annual routine when I was in school. At the beginning of school term, all children and parents would go on a high alert and stake out the nearest shops that sold the school textbooks. There were some who were fortunate enough to get some off people they knew in the classes above them, but the rest had to go stalking like a lion does a deer and for quite a while we all the same share of unsuccessful hunts. If someone got a textbook in any shop, news spread like wildfire and probably half an hour later, the status quo of everyone being out of stock was restored.

Obviously this was happening because the government had the bright idea of monitoring the number of students enrolled in different classes across the state and then ordering the exact number of textbooks so that everyone can get one for a decent price. Noble intentions, I concede, but a project of such huge magnitude that there were great chances of failure, which usually materialised.

The first signs of things improving when the internet came along was when the NCERT textbooks appeared online for people to download and use. This was a wise move by the NCERT but the state boards(except maybe the Tamil Nadu and Karnataka boards), which still set the curriculum for a majority of children in the country are lagging behind. Also, while the availability of the textbooks online may ease the burden for those who have access to the internet, those without access to a computer still have to stalk the local booksellers and hope to get lucky. I am also not sure if NCERT is willing to allow local businesses to print and sell their books, something which will not only create a faster response to the local shortages but will create more local jobs, eliminate the need to transport and in general help the environment and the local economy.

The next step in the right comes from an organisation which calls itself the FHSST or the “Free high school science texts”. I read about this movement and went exploring their website. These guys are like the linux of textbooks. they create science textbooks through a large collaborative approach. These texts are then made available in the digital format to whoever that wants to use them. It could be students who use it for classwork, local businesses who decide to print copies to fill the shortage in the market or teachers from a different place who tailor it to their own syllabus.

The FHSST movement is currently tailored to the South African syllabus, but it could be easily duplicated for the Indian education scene, as the whole effort in setting up the collaborative infrastructure has already been done and tested. It would be a good idea to make sections of the textbook as school projects, with the students in the senior classes writing for the textbooks of the junior classes. I am sure there will be students who will react with great enthusiasm, especially if they are granted some sort of recognition in terms of their names mentioned in the credits or something. It will serve the purpose of creating the textbooks as well as giving the students some experience in formal textbook writing, a skill which will be useful in their future careers. When the books are made easily available for people to freely examine, use, print and sell, they will go down the same kind of route that all the Linux has, with quality improving steadily and whole load of businesses spawning from the growing body of knowledge.

Wouldn’t that movement be a worthy accompaniment to the open source software one?

Written by clueso

October 6, 2008 at 11:48 pm

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Liberating research.

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Here is a story of how Australia is at least thinking of making some of it’s publicly funded research fully available to anyone who wants to use it.

Being currently based in a University campus with a University subscription to the largest journals can spoil a person, because we get used to simply clicking on a link and getting to view the article. But it is surprising to encounter the number of hurdles which one has to go through to gain access to this information while outside university environs. A look at some of the prices makes me shake my head with incredulity, as I have seen journals charge something like $30 just to view a 3 page paper online.

The general mechanism of a paper getting published in a journal is that the author(s) send their manuscript to the journal editor, who then removes the names (and probably other identifiable marks) and sends it to some reviewers whose opinion he trusts. The reviewers go through the paper, try to punch holes in it and send it back with their comments to the editor. Depending on the comments, the editor will either accept the paper, or will send it back to the authors asking for corrections or will reject it. It is a fairly involved process, but a necessary one given that findings have to rigorously examined before they can be marked as trustworthy. It also means that in the days when all this happened with printed sheets of paper and snail mail, there was someone who had to take the effort of mailing the manuscripts back and forth, keeping tabs of who can review what etc. Obviously this is where the publishing companies stepped in and being the capitalistic setup that we are, they extensively tried to control the content so that they could then make their money by charging for subscriptions and for sale of individual articles. The great thing for the journals was that they practically gained ownership of the published article, despite the fact that the work was done by a researcher and paid for with public money. Even more hilarious was that the journals did not pay for these articles, they got them for free, but sold them for a price.

That was probably justifiable given the cost and the effort of sending manuscripts for review, printing journals and then again sending them to subscribers but given the presence of the internet, this model of a select few (publishers) having complete control over the results of publicly funded research sounds quite ludicrous and I guess some governments are waking up to the fact. The internet allows the whole operation to be done almost free of cost. A network of academics/industrial researchers could easily be built on a model like any of the social networking sites where everyone can list their areas of expertise. A soft copy of every new paper desiring publication can be put up on a forum, where anyone who is interested can read and make comments. The person doing the job of the editor can then consider the comments and make a decision on whether to allow the paper to be published or not. “Publishing” the paper will involve making a soft copy available for download and probably updating the RSS feed letting subscribers know that there is a new article up. The whole thing can be done completely digitally with no need of any kind of printing and mailing necessary and therefore can probably run by a few people from their garage using a storage service like Amazon’s web services. The printing is now done by the readers who like to read from paper, while others(like me) who prefer soft copies can read directly from the screen, Either way, it sure has the potential to save a hell lot of resources.

The hiccup to this has as usual been the paranoia of the group which would look their control-advantage from such a move, namely the publishers in question. There have been reports of a similar move being stymied by the publishing lobby in Britain and though I cannot substantiate the claim, the fear behind the publishing companies motives for doing so is quite understandable. No one would like to lose control of their cash cow, but for the betterment of society, I think such moves are necessary.

Written by clueso

October 2, 2008 at 11:37 pm

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