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Archive for March 2011

Privatised education vs. Mobile Telephony

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Proponents of the free market and private profit driven schools and universities often cite mobile telephony as an example of how markets cost effectively produce high quality service. While the success of private enterprise is undeniably true for mobile telephony, I am a bit sceptical about how well it will translate to a market of privatised education.

My first doubt emerges after considering the components required to service these two markets. Mobile telephony is extremely automated. When someone makes a call or sends a text message, the next human contact in that transaction will probably be the recipient. Everything in between is done by computers/electronics, with no qualms about working 24/7, no need of pay or vacations and who can be replaced, with no serious financial or legal consequences, in 5 minutes if things go wrong. Education on the other hand, relies primarily on smart, driven human beings to perform the role of good teachers. While technology is making inroads, the primary drivers are still humans who are disproportionately responsible (compared to technology) for the success or failure of the system. Juxtaposed with computers, humans are poor workers. They have to be paid, become less productive with long hours, tend to be on the lookout for better career options, demand vacations etc. Consequently it is more expensive and risky to hire and retain them and no amount of privatisation of education will be able to match the success of mobile telephony in lowering costs while maintaining standards.

A second doubt arises from what economists call the price elasticity of demand (PED) which is simply the change in demand of a particular product/service per unit change in its price. Many factors affect PED but a crucial one is the availability of substitutes. In this light, as long as schools remain tied to physical infrastucture, a school building for instance, mobile telephony will always have a higher PED than education. Being in direct competition with other communication methods such as fixed line telephony, instant messaging and email, mobile companies are aware that if prices go up beyond a certain threshold, customers can and will shift to other communication technologies without batting an eyelid. It would take extraordinary cartel building skills to raise prices of ALL forms of communication and hence this will probably never happen.

On the other hand, it is extremely difficult to switch schools. The children attending school will not like to leave old friends behind. The new school may not have the sports/music facilities the child enjoys using. It may be inconvenient to travel to. The school timings may not match work schedules very well. Parents may find part of the curriculum distasteful. The ties to physical infrastructure and the presence of human relationships result in a significantly lower PED for schools and parents may be willing to put up with higher prices/poor service just to avoid these complications. The inability or lack of desire to change will mean that the market will never be as efficient as that for mobile telephony.

The barrier to entry for education is also significantly higher than mobile telephony, again due its physical nature. A “good” school needs a building, maybe some sports fields, possibly computers and science labs. Some music and arts facilities will be nice. “Good” teachers have to be found and recruited. Mobile operators may have to bid for air spectrum and put up some mobile towers and control centres, which is the only physical infrastructure. In today’s world, where the trend is towards separate infrastructure management and service provision, mobile operators may be able to lease air spectrum and physical assets from an infrastructure provider, while schools cannot really share classrooms very efficiently. It is therefore much easier for a new mobile operator to enter an inefficient market than it is for a new school to do so. Obviously this results in a more efficient mobile telephony market.

While I think the example of mobile telephony to promote the virtues of a free market in education is unsuitable, it is hard to debate that a shift to privately run, profit driven schools will not lead to an improvement in standards compared to schools under government control with tightly prescribed rules. Profit driven schools will accomplish what most profit driven frameworks do; high inequality with an average level better than the idealistic scenarios. It would be good to have schools run as charities or non profit organisations, so that they can maintain comparatively lower running costs and maybe allocate more funds for deserving and needy students. Tight government control with rules trickling down from some education minister to a classroom hundreds of miles away does not inspire confidence at all.

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Written by clueso

March 19, 2011 at 1:14 am

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Removing the “System Tool” malware

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A friend of mine got scared witless when her PC screen suddenly filled up with large red letters claiming it had been infected by just about every known virus/malware in the universe. In addition, a window popped up in the foreground showing a long list of viruses, trojans and worms that had purportedly made their home on her hard drive. Very helpfully she was allowed to “buy” a program that would get rid of all of them. She was prevented from launching any other software and even the task manager which made things tough indeed.

Apparently, this is a “System tool” malware (it has the same name as the helpful program). Removal was fairly simple, simply boot into windows XP safe mode with networking then download and run Malwarebytes’ Anti-Malware to get rid of it. Possibly any other anti malware program will do the job as well, but I am listing this one as I got the name off McAffee forums and it worked.

Hopefully this post will help someone who is stuck with the same issue.

Written by clueso

March 13, 2011 at 6:32 pm

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Shopping for luurve…

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As I logged out of Yahoo mail this evening, I was served up with the Yahoo homepage, a corner of which was filled with the usual “Now Trending” list. My eyes flicked over the list and noticed something different. So out of the ordinary in fact, that it made a curious bugger like me actually click the link to find out.

It appears that ASDA (Wal Mart’s branch in the UK) has just launched a dating site. The tagline on the site is…wait for it…”Compare your baskets…find love”. I understand and appreciate that everyone and their uncle wants a piece of the mega business that is online dating, but “compare your baskets…find love”? That had me in absolute stitches.

After startling everyone around me, wiping away the tears and massaging my sides till the pain had died down, I got thinking about how ASDA can implement the dating site on the basis of shopping habits. It is none of my business, but it seemed a lot more interesting than trying to figure out how electrolytic solutions behave when in contact with semiconductors. So here is what I think…

A detailed listing of all purchased items would be extremely helpful. Can you imagine how useful it would be to know shopping habits before asking someone out? Someone who has never bought meat or alcohol will probably not look too kindly on an invitation to the sunday roast at a pub. Before asking “would you like to get a coffee?” it would be very useful to know what sort of coffee they usually drink. If it was one of the organic fair trade ones where a farmer in Colombia gets a house for each bag he sells, it is probably best to suggest a different beverage. If you usually read the Financial times and the Economist, it is probably best to stay away from the person who buys The Sun and Hello magazine, no matter how cute they look.

It is also imperative to have data on shopping habits available for the past 2-3 years at least, to help people separate the liars from the truthful. That way anyone claiming to “enjoy an occasional drink with friends” but buying five bottles of vodka every week will set the alarm bells ringing. Same goes for “athletic” people who buy size 68 trousers, people with “beautiful hair” who buy hair growth stimulants and “tall” women who buy six inch heels. The long term data storage is crucial to avoid rigging the system by doing one shop full of carrots and peas and organic green tea so as to appear extraordinary.

A section on books would be another important source of clues about potential success. A woman buying books titled “How to find your dream guy in 10 days” or “He may be fat and ugly, but he is yours” is probably going through a dry spell and may not resist an invitation for dinner too much. On the other hand, if the person who has caught your fancy has just bought books like “Why men are lying thieving cheating ba****ds” and “Self defence made easy: How to maim and cripple in three easy steps”, it may be advisable to delay approaching them for a while. Unfortunately, I have no clue what sort of clues women can get from men’s literary shopping though. A variation in the quantity of porn magazines perhaps(?)

Finally, they should integrate this system with the loyalty card scheme. That way when you hand over your loyalty card at the end of the shop, the cashier can tell you that your dream man/woman is now finishing their shop a couple of aisles down and maybe you should wander over. It would give a whole new meaning to “check out” counters.

It is possible that ASDA have stumbled onto something big. Every new idea draws some laughs the first time it is suggested. Now I will wait and watch with bated breath if this idea is a success or if it lands up being a “basket” case.

Written by clueso

March 8, 2011 at 12:26 am

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With or against the grain?

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My friend KG is capable of some amazing feats of focus and perseverance. One of the latest can be found here. It is well written and informative so reading it is time well spent.

Written by clueso

March 4, 2011 at 12:34 am

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