Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Evaluating Students

It is my belief that colleges and schools in the US have been spending too much time developing "creativity" in their students. I am not against creativity, however, I believe that every child needs to have a strong grasp of the basic mathematical, scientific, and sociological concepts, before the child can move onto expanding his or her mind. Unfortunately, both as a tutor for freshman math and science at Tech, and a TA for a freshman CS class, I noticed American educated students found it extremely hard to apply fundamental concepts. Now most of these kids were really smart. Once I did teach them how to work a certain theorem, they rarely struggled with that concept again. But the fact is, they were never taught these simple concepts to begin with. And I am not talking about calculus, which many high schools in the US expect colleges to cover. I am talking about simple trigonometry and Newtonian laws.

Of course, there is a slight bias in my tutoring experience, since it being voluntary, only the weakest students would probably show up. Also, non-american education tends to rely on an instructor on a lot more, possibly causing academically stronger non-american students to show up as opposed to american students. However, I have even noticed this amongst my peers in class. They are all extremely intelligent, but lacking fundamental skills an average high school education should have taught them.

Similar to this is an increasing disdain for traditional teaching methods, such as tests. One direct consequence of this is colleges constantly reducing the importance of standardized tests such as the SAT and SAT 2's when reviewing admission applications. Again, I am not saying tests are the perfect teaching tool. However, tests are historically, an effective teaching tool, and most of their replacements, do not have much scientific or historic evidence backing the claim that they are better than simple tests. This does not mean that they are not better, just that there is frequently hardly any reason to believe they are. In fact, as this article in the NY Times shows, the SAT's are a very decent indicator of the quality of the student.

Basically, my point is while it is good to experiment, all experimentation does not need to be preceded by revolution.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Thomas Friedman weighs in

And now Thomas Friedman (The World is Flat) steps into the discussion about clean energy. His opinion piece in the NYTimes shows how the US is completely missing out on what should be the next big financial opportunity.

Honestly, can someone please point out the disadvantages to heavily promoting research in clean energy? I agree that possibly now might not be the time to deploy these technologies on an extremely large scale (the improvement curve is probably still too steep. For example any dollars invested now in a solar cell based power plant would have a lesser output than what much fewer dollars invested a year from now might achieve because improvements are happening rapidly owing to its being a young field). However, this still does not excuse not spending money for that research.

Besides, its not money spent, but rather invested, because the patents earned would be extremely lucrative as global pressures to force companies, consumers and governments towards clean energy keep increasing.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Why oil prices will keep rising...

The chart shows the prices per barrel over the last year.

This New York Times article explores the reasons why oil prices keep rising. Fortunately, they have not mentioned the myth that somehow the Iraq war was responsible for the increase. A couple of dollars increase might be attributed to the Iraq war, but not the 40+ dollars that it has increased in recent months.

In one of my classes this semester, Mr. Jack Guynn, the President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta from 1996 to 2006 told us that there was a widespread belief amongst the previous federal reserve bank (the one headed by Greenspan) that oil would never rise over 60-70 dollars a barrel for a sustained period of time. 100 bucks was unimaginable. Talk about being wrong!

Over and above that, like I said, I think oil is currently underpriced. The futures are being overtly optimistic because they ignore China and India's voracious appetites, and the way their growth is going to drastically affect oil. Also, as the NY Times article explores, producing oil is getting more and more expensive. What a lot of people are missing is that all the easy places to get oil from have already been tapped. When oil production facilities were planned, the first places tapped were those which had the highest probability to contain oil. Now all you are left are the places which had low probabilities of having oil.

The extra cost due to this is partially offset by the fact that new technology makes prediction better, but the fact that most of the politically stable places have already been tapped is still absolutely true. Now you have to bargain with dictators and unstable governments to get more oil which leads to costs besides just money. As I explain in this blog post, this is one of the reasons why China has prevented any real action being taken to prevent the Darfur crisis. The costs in human life is something that will never be reflected in the dollar price of oil.

So really, for a myriad of reasons, it really is about time we start moving away from oil as fast as possible.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Hated the last post...

Wow, I really hate the structure of the last post. Increasing paragraph sizes do not look good at all. I need to work on structure much better next time, but I am gonna let this one slide. I think I can blame it on finals, and spending only 25 minutes on it. Most long posts end up costing me anywhere between 45 minutes and 2.5 hours.

Global Warming/Sustainability solutions make good economic sense...

I am a true capitalist. I dont believe it is ALWAYS the answer, but I will always first look for a capitalist solution to a problem before trying regulatory or government imposed solution.

The problem is that today's capitalism is not true capitalism but rather methods to make the rich richer and keep the poor poorer. A prime example is the treatment meted out to the Carbon Tax issue. There are several variations of this idea, but the basic idea is that people and organizations pay for the carbon they put in the atmosphere. This makes good capitalistic sense, and is a very good way to solve the global warming issue.

The reason why capitalism has failed us seems to be a revulsion to Malthus, who was the guy who told us that we would run out of food (and other resources) because they grow linearly, but humans increase multiplicatively. As Dr. Krugman points out, Malthus was right until his own time. Since then, most economists have consistently believed that natural resources are infinite. Which is why oil is priced as low as it is (although this is changing). Without this false belief, oil would have been priced much higher increasing investment in other greener alternatives. The last generation, and our generation is getting by with the exploitation of resources. Essentially, we are tapping into the the future generations' college funds to pay for our energy inefficient habits.

We wrongly account for natural resources as operating income, rather than capital, which is why a country's GDP increases by a billion dollars when it sells a billion dollars worth of raw iron ore to another country, rather than remaining constant (or possibly increasing by a few million dollars, assuming it was sold at a premium to its natural current worth). A billion dollars of iron ore given away to another country, might be a billion dollars more in cash-in-hand, but is still a billion dollars less in natural resources. It is like you selling half your house for a million dollars, and saying that your personal value has increased by a million dollars. Assuming that your house's worth is worth 2 million, this is not true, because the 1 million you gained in cash was lost in the 1 million of your property worth. Now, if you were to invest that 1 million in Google stock, and sell it a few months later at 1.5 million, you earned .5 million, and your net worth actually increased by that amount. This is analogous to converting the raw iron ore to steel, and making and selling utensils to another country for 2 billion dollars. It is only now that the country earned an extra 1 billion, and the GDP should only increase by that amount under this condition.

Another issue is the complete lack of value attached to property owned by everyone. By this I am referring to things like the atmosphere, and the ocean. If someone were to reroute their sewage system so their crap was dumped in your backyard, rather than through normal public works, you would surely have raised quite a stink (no pun intended) about it. At the very least, you would have charged them for it. So why are companies charged zilch for dumping crap into the atmosphere? The only difference between this and the personal example earlier is that in the former problem the rights to the property belong to an individual (or a few individuals) and in the latter, the rights belong to ALL individuals. It is a classic case of the Tragedy of the commons. Basically, most polluters get away by freeloading on you, me and everyone else. The solution is to charge them for what they take from us and for what they dump on our property. Charge them for dumping carbon, and charge them for destroying the ozone layer, and charge them for leaving our kids with a warmer world. This will establish the true price of driving a 100 miles in a hummer, and will make most sane people reconsider their decision to purchase one. There will then be tons of incentives to invest in alternative (and better) sources of energy, and the true cost of alternative energy will be shown (as it is) to be less than the true cost of oil energy.

Just in time for finals...

...comes this video to make it all seem so much worse!

Presenting the M-train (i.e. the Management-Train)

Monday, November 26, 2007


Leadership is an elusive quality, but one which makes the world go round. Until a couple of days ago this post was supposed to be about personal leadership, and how not having practiced it for a while, I have done a poor job in a leadership position. I have learnt much from this experience, however, and expect nothing less than much better things from myself next time. However, like I said, this post will have to wait.

Last night I watched a documentary on the Genocide in Darfur. It exposed the ridiculous situation that has been unfolding in the Western part of Sudan, where the government has armed nomadic arabic tribes to kill and get rid of the native african people who were the original inhabitants of that place. And all for oil. However, more than the massive humanitarian crisis, what is even more galling is the absolute lack of leadership displayed by the world's leaders, if i can even call them that. The bloodshed began in 2003, and the UN was made aware of it not too much later. In 2004, the US after a fact-finding mission said that there was no word besides Genocide to describe what was taking place. Yet, until a few months ago, nothing was done about it. The reason? The UN's ridiculous veto system.

The system of veto that made the UN completely ineffective during the Cold War reared its ugly head again. Apparently, China has a major interest in Sudan, buying most of its newly found oil, and being a permanent member of the UN Security Council, vetoed any resolution for action that its buddy in Africa resented. Finally, it relented, and did not veto a resolution to allow UN troops to enter the country, however, it ensured that a clause was added that said that these troops would only go if they were 'invited' by the Sudanese government. Not surprisingly, this gold plated letter of invitation never made it to the UN's desks. I guess they lost it in the mail. However, things look far more upbeat now, with China finally allowing the UN to take actual steps towards resolving this situation, such as allowing a large contingent of African Union troops to enter the country. No small role was played by the efforts of the activists, and their campaign to brand the '08 Olympics in China as the "Genocide Olympics". If there is one thing China REALLY wants, it is to host an awesome olympics games, and they will do a lot to avoid any blemishes to these games. Unfortunately for China, telling a country it has a lot of sway on, to stop slaughtering its citizens by the thousands is indeed a lot.

My own country India is not without its own skeletons in this department. When the Myanmar government ran rough-shod over the peaceful protests by Buddhist monks, there was nary a whimper from our government. How can we claim to be a superpower, or on the way to superpowerdom, if we are not willing to take up the responsibilities that come up with this position? Even the cheesy writers of the Spiderman movies have this down better than us, saying "With great power, comes great responsibility".

However, this is not an article about these countries' failings, but rather an article of how despite the horror of 2 world wars, and a prolonged period of cold war, and thus realizing the necessity of having a powerful world body to help maintain peace, we have not done anything concrete towards attaining this goal. While the UN is easily 1st on the list of the 7 wonders of the bureaucratic world, as the situation in Darfur shows, it is completely toothless when even a small part of it disagrees with its actions. And what is the point of even having the UN if it only takes actions when EVERYONE agrees that action is to be taken? I mean, if everyone agrees, wouldn't they do it independent of the UN anyways? However, the UN has become a convenient "pass the buck" agent, with developed countries using the UN action (inaction?) as an excuse not to engage in humanitarian efforts. And then when they dont like what the UN says, they ignore it and go ahead and do what they wanted to anyways. (Iraq War aka "Daddy, I have bigger balls than you. Mommy, I pooped my diapers. Waaaahhhhhhh!", anyone?)

We have seen all this happen before in the Rwanda and Bosnian Genocides, after which, the UN apparently promised multiple times "never again", which they must have said in one of the 5 official languages besides English, because as past incidents have shown, it translates to "sure, why not". So, in the absence of an effective multinational body that can help prevent conflict, what are the chances that there will be a 3rd world war? Up until now this has been a remote possibility because there is only one indisputable power in the world, the USA. However, this is changing quickly, with China's growth (accompanied by a growing ambition whose rate is only second to its military growth), and America's boneheadedness, and rapidly diminishing international support. (Thanks once again, monsieur Bush). Without a clear top dog, many countries will be emboldened to fight for what they want. The grand democratic experiment of the last half century is breaking down rapidly (Pakistan/Iran/Venezuela and company) and we have enough religious fanaticism on every side to embarrass the Crusaders. Add to that a desire for nuclear weapons, and the impending water and environmental crises, and you have a potion for true apocalyptic mayhem.

In such a situation, will anyone step up to the mantle of world leader? And by world leader, I dont just mean the country with the largest arsenal of WMD's or the biggest collection of foot soldiers, but rather, a country which has the power, and the desire to affect change in the world, at a political/economic loss to its own self, to ensure fairness in the dealings of nations, and prevent man-made catastrophes that maim and kill humans for miniscule monetary gain, thereby reducing each and everyone of us to less than our weight in oil? Or will the 'superpowers' as defined in the mid 1940's let go of their ego's and massive persecution complexes, and actually let the UN function as a useful body by giving up their veto power? Will they accept the realities of the day, and recognize that France and the UK are nowhere near China in terms of importance in this world? Will they let smaller nations have a level playing field, or will continue bullying them through the deliberately unfair political bodies such as the UNSC and the WTO? Only time will tell, however, I am extremely doubtful that either scenario will play out effectively.

Hope I am wrong though!

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Buzz needs to get to the game....

This was a great clip that was played on the big screen during the Samford game (a 69-14 blowout, btw)...

Few pointers: GT's mascot is Buzz (a yellow jacket, and winner of numerous best mascot awards) and the bulldog is the mascot of our hated rivals UGA (i.e. University(sic) of Georgia, also referred to as simply "Georgia").