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The Broad Mind | The Arctic and the impact of non-conventional oil on the OPEC

Wed, 01/15/2014 - 20:26

By Adarsh Mathew

Whenever the Arctic does become accessible, the region will throw up a potentially disruptive development in the energy markets with far-reaching implications.

OPEC’s traditional stranglehold over the world’s oil resources has eroded over the past few years. Part of it can be attributed to improved technology resulting in engines that are more efficient, along with the community’s desire to wean themselves off of oil. But a large chunk of this must be attributed to the discovery of other avenues of oil and energy. Brazil’s advanced deep-water drilling activities have provided the market with an alternate option to the parsimonious OPEC. Advancements in off-shore drilling and improvements in shale rock hydraulic fracturing – or fracking – have altered the erstwhile inelastic energy market.

The rise of shale and bitumen

The accelerating growth of shale and other such alternate options have been interesting to observe. Conventional gas drilling deals with rock structures which are porous, allowing the gas to flow freely to the surface after drilling. Shale rock houses gas in a low permeability structure and is located at deep levels, thus restricting their easy flow to the surface. The process used to tap into this involves forcing a highly pressurised chemical mix through land fissures, and rupturing these shale rock formations, releasing the gas. Oil sands – a now booming industry in Canada – contain bitumen, which is a viscous petroleum deposit. It’s mined and chemically treated with a caustic soda mix to release bitumen from the original slurry. Both of these are fairly disruptive processes, and require extensive capital investment, resulting in higher per-barrel costs compared to the extraction of conventional oil.

In spite of the higher production costs involved, shale and bitumen have gained market acceptance. Rising oil prices, coupled with instability in the Middle East and huge advancements in extraction technologies have aided this. Ironically, it’s the high prices set by the OPEC that make shale and bitumen economically viable. They provide a reliable short-term avenue for North America’s energy demands. It also allows consumers to mitigate the variable production policies of the OPEC cartel – albeit to a small extent – while allowing them the romanticized notion of self-sufficiency.

Role of Arctic reserves

The Arctic provides a further alternative to both these sources. With the US Geological Survey estimating in 2007 that almost of a quarter of the world’s untapped and undiscovered sources may lie in the Arctic, companies and governments have begun eyeing the far north as a long-term solution to their energy needs. Large resources coupled with geographical proximity makes it a lucrative option. Also, the influx of Arctic oil will serve to further weaken the OPEC’s oil-pricing regime.

Oil exploration and extraction in the Arctic is a project fraught with difficulties, risks, and a history of expensive failures. Royal Dutch Shell has put its Arctic exploration plans on hold, after spending close to USD 5 bn on a pilot project off Alaska with no results. Russia’s Shtokman oil field has been in the pipeline for over 30 years, and yet there has been no meaningful production on the facility till date. Harsh conditions and unpredictable weather pattern and ice movements are some of the problems faced by companies. But more importantly, setting up an oil rig here is difficult and perilous, with traditional off-shore drilling methods proving to be insufficient for the Arctic seabed.

Experts have also raised questions about the high lead times and transportation challenges that come along with Arctic exploration. The high costs of Arctic operations surely should scare away investors. In spite of this, there is tempered enthusiasm for Arctic exploration, and Russia is leading the way. With reports emerging about the long-term viability and environmental impact of shale fields, countries will turn to the Arctic eventually. This will only be aided by advancements in off-shore drilling and further melting of the Arctic landscape, allowing greater access to the area’s resources. Canada, Norway, and the US have commissioned projects for icebreakers to keep up with Russia’s fleet, and a revival of Arctic forces is on the cards for all these countries. Just like shale, the Arctic will be a viable alternative to oil from the Middle-East, a valuable risk diversification tool against any instability in the region.

Sustained, meaningful production in the Arctic might be some ways off, but if current rates of melting persist, the region should be just about ready by the time production from shale fields plateau and begin to decline. And there’s enough incentive to do so too. Russia – whose dominance in the energy market has been hit by the shale boom – has a large claim in the Arctic. They have several projects already underway, and have acknowledged the Arctic being a cornerstone of their strategic future. Putin’s grand strategy for Russia’s revival on the global stage will be funded by revenues from the oil industry, and the success of Arctic resource exploitation is integral to this plan. Canada aims to augment its growing shale and bitumen industry with off-shore Arctic drilling. Norway’s Statoil is already a partner in Gazprom’s Shtokman project, and has enlisted China as a partner for exploration in the Barents Sea. Realising the potential of the region, interested parties are trying to form partnerships with existing players to develop capabilities to try and tap into the region’s vast resources in the future, when nature allows them. All of this indicates to the evolution of a counter-balance to the OPEC’s oil pricing mechanism.

What do these developments mean for India? Geopolitical implications aside, this might result in a period of great flux for India’s energy security objectives. It is projected that as the US turns internally for its energy demands, India and China will be the OPEC’s biggest customers. With large populations and growing energy-guzzling economies, any increase in global demand will be fuelled by these two players. And thus, by extension, their dependence on the cartel. But the influx of oil from the Arctic will serve to disrupt these calculations. While India and China will look to explore their respective shale reserves, they should also work to establish mutually beneficial agreements with Arctic governments and oil companies, by leveraging their position on the Arctic Council. China has already announced a China-Nordic Research Centre in Shanghai along with Norway, Denmark, and four other Nordic nations. China also has significant leverage over Rosneft and Gazprom, ensuring its future presence in their Far East exploration projects. Japan – another big consumer of Middle East oil – has been eyeing the Arctic, both for the resources the region holds, and the new shipping options it presents. India has yet to make any meaningful move to establish or preserve its interests in the Arctic.

Predictions over when the Arctic will be completely ice-free vary significantly – some say 2020, some say 2050. But whenever the Arctic does become accessible, the region will throw up a potentially disruptive development in the energy markets with far-reaching implications. An oil rush seems inevitable, and interested parties are already moving in to ensure a piece of the resource pie for themselves. Here’s to hoping that this disruptive development doesn’t upend the whole system.

Adarsh Mathew is an intern at the Takshashila Institution and a student at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur. 

Varnam | Indian History Carnival–72: Aryan Invasion Theory, Buddha, Ramayyan Dalawa

Wed, 01/15/2014 - 18:55

Painting of the parinirvana of Gautama Buddha. Sanskrit Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita Sutra manuscript written in the Ranjana script. Nalanda, Bihar, India. Circa 700-1100 CE.

    1. Koenraad Elst writes about the Vedic Conference that happened in Kozhikode in January and how the Aryan Invasion Theory still lives on

      Having spent time in the real world, interacting with real scholars, I know the real situation, which is that the AIT is still taught from all the important platforms. People who tell you diferently, live in a fantasy world and only interact with village bumpkins who accept their word for it; so as feedback they ultimately only hear their own opinions. Fortunately, we can ignore recent history including these Hindu will-o-the-wisps, and start work on the really available testimonies to ancient history.

    2. GeoCurrents has the third part of the series of posts on the Vexatious History of Indo-European Studies. The latest one has a section on how it is dealt in India.

      Meanwhile, the legacy of Müller and his peers have came under increasing attack from another quarter altogether, that of Indian nationalism. This school is epitomized in D. N. Tripathi’s edited collection of 2005 entitled A Discourse on Indo-European Languages and Cultures. The various contributors to this volume understandably object to the old narrative of the Aryan invasion of the sub-continent, a story that emerged in the 19th century from a combination of philological inquiry and racial science. According to this account, superior Aryans invaded South Asia in the Bronze Age, conquering and ruling over the indigenous dark-skinned people and then creating the caste system to ensure that the two groups remained distinct and unequal. Support for this theory was supposedly found in the Rigveda, one of humankind’s oldest text. Yet as Trautmann shows, this neat and simplistic narrative of Aryan invasion had actually been opposed by most of the leading European Sanskritologists of the 19th century. It has also been rejected by modern mainstream scholars, who deny stark racial divisions and tend to posit plodding infiltrations of Indo-European speakers into the Indian subcontinent, along with a gradual and complex development of caste ideology. And regardless of the seemingly clear division of South Asia into an Indo-European north and Dravidian south, it has long been recognized that the entire region shares numerous linguistic features, making it a Sprachbund or linguistic convergence zone.

    3. Few months back, there was a popular news article which claimed that new clues from Lumbini pushed back the date of Buddha. Jayarava, after reading the original paper, writes

      There is no doubt whatever that the find at Lumbini is significant and fascinating. But Coningham et al (and Coningham himself) have overstated the claims for what this find signifies. In particular it tells us nothing whatever about the dates of the Buddha. What it tells us about is the dates of human occupation and use of the site at Lumbini. This is intrinsically interesting, but is only an outline that requires considerable filling in. Specifically it tells us nothing about who the occupants were. The authors of the article seem to have been carried away by the minutiae of the discovery and the assumption that all archaeology on an Asokan site is ipso facto Buddhist.

    4. A while back I did a post on the origins of Aviyal. Maddy writes that in Travancore it was also known as Ramayyar kootu and has a post on Ramayyan Dalawa, who was Chanakya and Shakuni rolled into one.

      If you were to study the successful reign of Marthanda Varma, you will quickly notice that there was one person who faithfully tended to him and guided him through those hectic days. In fact that person had been around even before MV took the throne, rightly or wrongly, from his uncle Rama Varma. The shrewd man was not only a Shakuni and Chanakya rolled in one, but also a very able administrator. Krishnan Raman or Ramayyan, that was his name, of Tamil Brahmin stock, was a good cook and a person of stern behavior, great logical outlook and acute intellect. Well, if you were to look at his story, you would be surprised at the involvement he had with the illustrious king, and not only that but you will also come across a large number of anecdotes attributed to him and retold even today. He is also considered to be the inventor of the Malayali dish Aviyal or what is sometimes termed as Ramayyar kootu in Travancore.

That’s the 6th anniversary of the carnival. If you have any links that are to be featured, please send them by any of these channels. The next carnival will be up on Feb 15th.

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  1. Indian History Carnival – 51: Aryan Invasion Theory, Chennai, Jim Corbett, Subhash Bose, Sir C P Ramaswamy Iyer An often neglected aspect in the Aryan Invasion-Migration debate is astronomy and Vedic chronology. TRS Prasanna, a Professor at IITB has a paper on this. Prof. Prasanna has published an...
  2. Romila Thapar: No Aryan Invasion – II “Few days back”:http://varnam.nationalinterest.in/archives/000346.html Romila Thapar in a letter to the editor to The Hindu said that all along she had maintained that there was no Aryan Invasion. I am currently...
  3. Indian History Carnival – 39: Aryan Invasion, Carnatic Music, Victorian Holocausts After attending a lecture on the latest in Harappan excavations, Koenraad Elst writes that there is still no trace of an Aryan invasion. So, a very simple question would be: did...
  4. Romila Thapar: No Aryan Invasion For the many of you who think it was people like Romila Thapar who maintained the Aryan Invasion Theory, here is some news: She was “against it”:http://www.hindu.com/2004/03/22/stories/2004032201661001.htm all the time....
  5. Indian History Carnival – 43: Sree Padmanabhaswamy, Vasco da Gama, Buddha, Indus Script manasa-taramgini has an interesting post which goes into the question of illiteracy of Indo-Aryans. This TED talk will provide a good introduction to the subject. Indeed when one analyzes the...

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Varnam | Volcanoes: Mount Sinabung, Toba, Hasan Dağı, Pompeii

Mon, 01/13/2014 - 18:36

 

Mount Sinabung, Indonesia

The above picture shows Mount Sinabung in  Indonesia’s North Sumatra province which has been erupting since last September. The Atlantic has 30 stunning photos of the January eruptions which show in detail the damage a volcano can cause and how it impacts human and animal life. Around 74,000 years back, there was a major volcanic explosion in Indonesia which caused a nuclear winter and a massive reduction in population. Though the destruction it caused was significant, people in Jwalapuram in Andhra Pradesh survived.

Though no one drew pictures of that eruption, one has been found of another one which happened in 6900 BCE, in the Hasan Dağı twin-peaks volcano located 130 km northeast of Çatalhöyük. A contemporary site to Mehrgarh, Çatalhöyük is one of the best preserved Neolithic settlements.

Rendering of a wall painting discovered at Shrine 14 during the original excavations of Çatalhöyük by British archaeologist James Mellaart in the 1960s and said to depict Hasan Dagi erupting. Image: John Swogger (Flickr, used under a CC BY-NC 3.0)

Though the interpretation that this was a depiction of a volcanic eruption was controversial, new studies have shown that the the painting was drawn during the time of the eruption and the artists may have witnessed the event.

Now if you want to experience a volcanic eruption in 3D, all you need is wait for the upcoming disaster-adventure movie, Pompeii

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The Broad Mind | Manifesto Ideas for AAP

Mon, 01/13/2014 - 02:52

The Aam Aadmi Party is still preparing its manifesto and has invited suggestions, so here are a few that would appeal to its core platform:

  1. Since Arvind Kejriwal loves making concrete number driven promises, why not promise to take India from an abysmal bottom ranking in the Ease of Doing Business to within the top 50 in all categories. A ranking of 182 of 183 in taking a construction permit must surely be on account of procedures encouraging corruption. This can be the number one corruption reduction contribution by AAP. Also, lack of ease in doing business creates a unfair playing field in favour of large companies that have the wherewithal to handle cumbersome procedure. This is totally against Aam Business Wallahs. If new entrants can’t challenge incumbents, it reduces market efficiency and increases prices.
  2. Promise expedited defence procurement. India is one of the largest defence buyer in the world but the snails pace of procurement due to fear of kickbacks and corruption is hurting the functioning of armed forces. AAP could claim that its corruption free practices will speed up defence procurement by 50%. This could be its first major promise on the national security front.
  3. Completely transparent eProcurement portal for all government tenders. This is a no-brainer since it is totally aligned to AAP’s platform of transparency and corruption free government. AAP could promise to make sure that tender terms will not load the tender in favour of only large companies.
  4. Implement the equivalent of the Paperwork Reduction Act. This is inline with its promise in Delhi to simplify VAT compliance. Less paperwork reduces corruption and makes life for the Aam Aadmi much simpler.
  5. Promise a reform of Labor Laws after consultation to give a boost to manufacturing in particular and number of jobs in general. Giving any specific proposals here is risky but even an announcement of intent will be a huge positive. AAP also has the right consultative ethos to navigate this tricky set of laws and regulations.

None of the above suggestions can be objected to by the wide spectrum of people joining AAP and will allow AAP to set the agenda for other political parties to react to.

Saurabh Chandra is a Bangalore based tech entrepreneur with an interest in public policy. You can follow his tweets on @saurabhchandra

Pratyaya | The Private versus Public schools debate

Fri, 01/10/2014 - 17:54

Both public and private participation is essential for reforming our education ecosystem. Both need a root-and-branch restructuring.

While responding to an audience question on Public Vs Private schools, Prof Karthik Muralidharan explained the phenomenon with a joke. It is worth reproducing here in full :

Two men are walking through a forest.  Suddenly, they see a tiger in the distance, running towards them.  They turn and start running away.  But then one of them stops, takes some running shoes from his bag, and starts putting them on.

“What are you doing?” says the other man.  “Do you think you will run fast than the tiger with those?”

“I don’t have to run faster than the tiger,” he says.  “I just have to run faster than you.”

While studies repeatedly indicate that the learning outcomes (in absolute terms) in both public and private schools are shockingly low, most of our discussions on education policy are about which system is less awful than the other. Instead of focusing on designing a good school system which benefits the children, we are more interested in winning ideological battles.

The champions of private school theory first declared that the private schools were doing exceedingly well and then went on to explain that accountability, competition, consumer choice and other market based factors were the secret mantra behind their success. They argued that private schools are cost effective and government should fund them through vouchers instead of running a broken public education system. This theory was uncontested will 2005. Pratham revolutionised the education policy space with their Annual Status of Education Reports (ASER) and Prof Karthik Muralidharan of University of California enriched the policy space with much needed evidence based analysis on various interventions like vouchers and performance based pay for teachers. These reports for the first time revealed that most of the children in both public and private schools are unable to read simple text and perform basic arithmetic.

Prof Muralidharan recently came out with a comprehensive study which involved more than four years of planning and execution to implement vouchers among a target group and then continuously monitoring their performance with respect to a control group. The findings of this study can be read here. It concludes that, after adjusting for socio-economic conditions, the performance of private schools is only marginally better than public schools. To quote:

However, in spite of the superior performance of the private schools on most measures of school processes, we find at the end of two and four years of the school choice program that lottery winners do no better than lottery losers on tests of Telugu (native language of AP) and Math. Our data from school time tables suggest that a likely explanation for these results is that private schools spend significantly less instructional time on Telugu and Math, and instead spend more time on English, Science, Social Studies, and Hindi. We conduct tests in these subjects at the end of four years of the program and find positive (but insignificant) effects of winning the voucher on test scores in English, Science, and Social Studies (of around 0.1σ each), and positive (and highly significant) effects on test scores in Hindi (of 0.5σ).

It is indeed true that private schools are cost effective and are producing the same learning outcomes at much lesser cost ( the cost of a voucher is 40% of the cost incurred per student in public school according to this study). If private schools spend as much as public schools, will they be able to significantly outperform public schools? As Prof Muralidharan explains, the relationship may not be linear and more research needs to be done to ascertain this. However, If teacher absenteeism, lack of accountability (teachers cannot be fired easily in public schools), lack of school choice are the reasons for the failure of public schools, the advocates of private schools fail to explain why private schools did not perform significantly better than public schools since they do not face any of these drawbacks. Ironically, that did not stop some columnists to invent evidence from this study to establish a “conclusive case for school choice

Abhijeet Singh did a similar study on the lines of what Prof Muralidharan’s research, and the results are the same. According to his study too, there is no significant private school effect in urban areas. This finding is in line with what Pratham observed in Mumbai.

This conclusion is not drawn from just one or two studies. Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) did a comprehensive review of school choice programs among OECD countries and concluded that:

Overall, only a few studies find a link between increased choice and enhanced student outcomes, and when they do exist, the effects are quite small and not always statistically significant, partly due to methodological difficulties. However, cross-country correlations of PISA do not show a relationship between the degree of competition and student performance. Among schools systems in the OECD countries, the proportion of schools that compete with other schools for student enrolment seems unrelated to the school system’s overall student performance, with or without accounting for socio-economic background (OECD, 2010a; OECD, 2011).The majority of the evidence suggests that different schemes of school choice (open enrolment, charter schools) do not, through the competition they create for local schools, induce them to improve, nor does it improve the student achievement of those who take advantage of more school choice and opt out of their local school as the evidence reviewed shows.

Andreas Schleicher, Division Head and coordinator of the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) recently echoed the same views:

My organisation [the OECD] is very strong on choice, enabling citizens to make choices, and you would expect that systems with greater choice would come out better. You expect competition to raise performance of the high performers and with low performers put them out of the market. But in fact you don’t see that correlation… Competition alone is not a predictor for better outcomes. The UK is a good example – it has a highly competitive school system but it is still only an average performer.

If competition and accountability is sufficient to run educational institutions, then how does one explain India’s TET results? In India, 85% of the B.Ed colleges are private but only 1% teachers qualify the Teachers Eligilibility Test (TET) every year. Similarly, most of the Engineering and Management colleges in South India are run by private management but not even a single institute can claim to compete with NITs/ IITs or IIMs. Why are market-forces not bringing the best out of these institutes?

This is not to say that public education system is the better alternative. As research suggests, both the systems are completely broken and need root-and-branch restructuring. The point that needs to be underlined is that both public and private participation is essential for reforming our education ecosystem. Given the resource constraints (both financial and human), private schools can play an important role in primary education space, but not in their present form. There is very little evidence that school choice or performance based pay or accountability or standardised testing has transformed school education. We should try to understand how countries like Finland reformed their primary schools to achieve equity and excellence. If we are just interested in ideological positioning, we can carry out even more experiments to drum on the same issue, but then, as Einstein famously said, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is insanity.

PS – In the next blogpost, I will list our some of the reasons why school choice did not increase the learning outcomes as much as its votaries had hoped for. I will also try and look at some of the features of the best performing school systems.

Terra Nullius | My lord, don’t preach

Wed, 01/08/2014 - 18:52

We need impartial, precise, logical and reasoned judgments that can with time reflect in the society.

The Indian judiciary needs reforms. These range from reforms in the overall infrastructure, employment and appointments, increment in pay scales, mandatory retirement age of judges among others. But prior to that, to uphold its augmented stature in the nation, the judiciary needs to reform its rationale behind many of the judgments that it passes.

Of late, we have seen multiple judgments that have been passed, stained with an illogical moral code stemming from flawed pride in a dead national culture and value system. Take for example, the recent judgment on Section 377 that criminalises “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”. Section 377 is based on the archaic IPC dating back to 1861, designed when India was still under the auspices of colonial (and Victorian) Britain. The fact remains that in our contemporary reality, homosexuality and bisexuality are as much a way of life for an individual as heterosexuality. Sexual orientation, like religion is a matter that is in the private space of an individual, directly and primarily impacting his or her own life. A judiciary, out of all the institutions in the country, is expected to respect and protect this fact. Criminalising an act between two consenting adults, in their own privacy, shows that our judiciary is unable to keep up with the realities of the Indian society and is in denial about the individuality and freedom of its citizens. It also shows that it lacks the maturity to evolve with the times.

Recently, with regard to a case of rape, filed by a girl in a Delhi court, while acquitting the accused, the judge said  “When a grown up, educated and office-going woman subjects herself to sexual intercourse with a friend or colleague on the latter’s promise that he would marry her, she does so at her own peril. She must be taken to understand the consequences of her act and must know that there is no guarantee that the boy would fulfil his promise …

“He may or may not do so. She must understand that she is engaging in an act which not only is immoral but also against the tenets of every religion. No religion in the world allows premarital sex,” the court said while acquitting an employee of a multinational company of the charges of rape.”

It is fatuous judgments such as these that reduce the gravity of the Indian judicial system. Among other things, the main problems with such a judgment are:

One, it assumes that ‘rape’ is not a criminal offence if the woman knows the man and has had consensual sexual encounters with him before. The idea of ‘consent’ and ‘force’ is discounted in the assumption for what constitutes a rape or that each case and each incident is different from the other.

Two, the reasoning for the acquittal primarily stem from paternalistic and parochial notions of gender, society, religion and morality. Had the primary reasoning been on the lack of concrete evidence against the accused, or the inability of the victim to prove her complaint, such an acquittal may have made sense. The judgment would have concluded on rational grounds. But here the fact that stands out is that the judgment blatantly shoulders the idea that premarital sex is ‘immoral’ and then explicitly puts the onus of this immorality on the woman. It ignores the fact that in such a case, there are two parties involved- one male and one female. The onus, if any, of morality (which within itself is flawed) should thus be equally shared.

Three, it assumes that ‘marriage’– a legal contract signed between two consenting adults in the presence of witnesses– makes the biological act of sexual intercourse (something, not yet criminalised for adults in India prior to the marriage contract) ‘moral’ to a judiciary. This judgment also indirectly emphasises on a more problematic idea– that a court deems post marital sex OK for a woman. However, if a married woman is forced into it against her consent, by her own husband, it is not legally recognised as ‘rape’ or a criminal offence.

The judiciary is an institution responsible for upholding law and order in the country outside the ambit of societal morality and other dictates. If something is not legally criminalised or banned in the country, then all moral code attached to it should be immaterial to a court of law. The array of judgments passed with irrelevant complementary opinions from those in the highest institutions governing the country, along with the emphasis on a shaky code of morality, grossly dilute the significance and stature of the judiciary. That aside, laws and judgments define the code of conduct for a country. We do not need preaching, lectures and moral epigrams in judgments. Neither do we need enforcement of culture, traditions and values, irrelevant to the ambit of a case. What we need are impartial, precise, logical and reasoned judgments that can with time reflect in the society. That can portray the sophistication and maturity in the interpretation of laws governing the country. These judgments become the foundation stones of a slow, evolving and pragmatic change in a society in transition.

Varnam | A Course on Mathematics in India (From Vedic Period to Modern Times)

Tue, 01/07/2014 - 18:19

In 662 CE, a Syrian bishop named Severus Sebokht wrote

When Ibn Sina (980 – 1037 CE) was about ten years old, a group of missionaries belonging to an Islamic sect came to Bukhara from Egypt  and he writes that it is from them that he learned Indian arithmetic. This, George Gheverghese Joseph, writes in The Crest of the Peacock: Non-European Roots of Mathematics shows that Indian math was being used from the borders of central Asia to North Africa and Egypt.

Though there is a such a rich history, we rarely learn about the greatness of Indian mathematicians in schools. Even our intellectuals are careful to glorify the West and ignore the great traditions of India. A prime example of that was an article by P. Govindapillai, the Communist Party ideologue, in which he lamented that the world did not know about the contributions of the Arab scientist al-Hassan. In response, I wrote an Op-Ed in Mail Today in 2009.

Thus it is indeed great to see that NPTEL ran a course on Mathematics in India – From Vedic Period to Modern Times. The entire series of around 40 lectures is available online. It is there on YouTube as well. It starts with Mathematics in ancient India with the Śulbasūtras and goes past the period of Ramanujam. It goes through various regional scientists including the members of the Kerala School of Astronomy and covers the difference between the Greco-Roman system of proofs and how Indian mathematicians did it. Kudos to Prof. M. D. Srinivas, Prof. M. S. Sriram and Prof.K. Ramasubramanian for making this available to the general public.

PS: @sundeeprao points to this course on Ayurvedic Inhertance of India

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The Broad Mind | A test of conviction

Sun, 01/05/2014 - 19:14

Now that AAP has passed the test in the assembly and is guaranteed at least 6 months in Delhi government, the next steps from all parties will demonstrate the conviction they have in what they themselves have espoused.

Starting with BJP: their reaction on AAP has been of the proverbial khisyani cat that couldn’t get the mouse. The complete discourse has become reactionary to the agenda that AAP has set. By choosing to raise trivial issues such as Arvind Kejriwal’s CM residence, it is diluting the ‘Good Governance’ message that was being projected till now. It is fairly easy to counter AAP at a policy level and BJP could present alternate water, electricity policies to showcase the superior governing experience that it has. BJP still controls the MCD and could show action at the ground level in urban governance if it wants to.

For a moment it seemed like BJP was running a final victory lap but perhaps memories of 2004 are coming back haunting. Obviously, the AAP phenomena has put a major spanner in the works. Its own conviction in the message Mr Modi has been spreading in speeches throughout 2013 suddenly seems weak. By announcing ‘Modi for PM’ as the main campaign slogan, it has revealed that it would rather project Mr Modi as a personality who means different things to his various fans – good governance to some and viraat hindu to others or a combination thereof. The lack of conviction in the ‘Good Governance’ plank despite successful chief ministers in multiple states who enjoy this reputation, will create a lot of mistrust. Many folks will now be able to claim ‘Good Governance’ as a convenient facade on top of the real agenda of ‘Hindu Majoritarianism’. BJP’s dream of forming the government is in real danger if it doesn’t course correct.

Congress Party’s convictions seem to be a mystery even to themselves. However, their slogan ‘Congress for the Aam Aadmi’ has been totally usurped by AAP now. The fact is that they would still be the second largest party in 2014 elections but more because of inertia rather than anything else. Their challenge is to find a conviction other than sycophancy.

AAP has stormed into politics without an ideology or dogma guiding them. Even though a lot of the leadership is leftist, Arvind Kejriwal’s message has been about policies that work with a theme of decentralisation. This involves breaking the clutch of existing vested interests and disrupting many gravy trains in operation. However, his convictions will now be put to test when some of the policies put forth don’t stand the scrutiny of time and facts. It is easy to stay put on policies guided by ideology but by definition policies that work best have to evolve and iterate. The initial proposals may all turn out to be incorrect. The true test of Arvind Kejriwal’s political acumen will be in being able to shape public opinion such that it is not a political suicide to modify proposals once they don’t work. He has repeatedly said that all he says may not be correct but his intentions are honest. Honest intentions will want to course correct when new facts come to light and that will be test of his convictions.

[to paraphrase Ravi Shastri] Whichever party wins the elections is immaterial but if the nature of the debate evolves to issues, policies, and ability to experiment with and iterate policies to get to what works then the Indian public would surely be the eventual winner.

Saurabh Chandra is a Bangalore based tech entrepreneur with an interest in public policy. You can follow his tweets on @saurabhchandra

Varnam | Kon-Tiki (2012)

Sun, 01/05/2014 - 18:53

Painting of the Kon-Tiki raft

One of the most dreadful accounts of people stranded helplessly in the ocean that I have read is in Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand. In this true story, Louis Zamperini, whose performance in the 1936 Olympics caught the attention of Adolf Hitler, crashes into the Pacific on a search mission during WWII in a B-4. While the crash killed eight of the eleven men on board, Zamperini and two of his colleagues float in the open ocean on a life raft. For 47 days, they caught fish, evaded sharks and Japanese bombers and miraculously survived (One of them, Francis McNamara, died after 33 days) to wash up into a Japanese POW camp in Marshall Islands.

Five years after Zamperini’s unplanned voyage across the Pacific, a Norwegian explorer and writer named Thor Heyerdahl, set off on a voyage from Peru to Polynesia. Heyerdahl had a theory that Polynesia was populated not from Asia, but from South America. The early explorers to Polynesia had found pineapple, which was indigenous to South America. Also, certain sculptures found in Polynesia resembled the ones in pre-Columbian Peru. Though his theory was dismissed by academics and the National Geographic Society, because people at that time did not have boats required for such long distance travel, Heyerdahl believed that the rafts they had were sufficient and the ocean current would have favored such a travel; he believed that ancient Peruvians did not see water as a barrier.

To prove this, he decided to travel 5000 miles in the Pacific, on raft made of balsa wood and assembled using the same materials the ancient explorers would have used. With private funding, supplies from the United States Navy, and with a crew of six people, he set off to prove this theory. This Norwegian movie is about that voyage and was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Oscar at the 85th Academy Awards. Heyerdahl did not go full commando on this voyage; the crew carried radio equipment, watches, charts and sextants, but that did nothing to minimize the dangers of the voyage.

There was the possibility that a storm would wash them back into South America or taken them into Galapagos. They survive few storms and soon encounter giant sharks which swim below the raft; there is some stunning photography at his point as the camera goes below the waves. They survive the shark attacks, even going as far as harpooning one and bringing it on board. While there were concerns that the wood was absorbing water and becoming heavy, they eventually figure that they are along the right path. Soon they spot land, and just few days before India got independence, they land at Raroia.

Though Heyerdahl proved that you could travel 5000 miles in the open ocean in a balsa wood raft the his theory that Polynesia was populated by South Americans never found acceptance. The dominant theory seems to be that Polynesia was populated from South-East Asia.

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Catalyst | The Growth of Bangalore

Sat, 01/04/2014 - 22:39

The city of Bangalore grew from about 5.7 million people in 2001 to 8.7 million in 2011. Earlier, the official city area was 226 square kilometres under the erstwhile Bangalore Mahanagara Palike (BMP) which expanded to 716 square kilometres in 2007 with the creation of Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike.

However, these area numbers only reflect the official administrative boundaries, and are not always reflective of the organic growth of cities in various directions. Below are two land use images from ISRO’s Bhuvan portal of Bangalore from 2005-06 and 2011-12. Built-up area in the region is marked in red.

Source: Bhuvan

In the period of five years, Bangalore has grown in area mostly only on the southeastern side. It has grown considerably along Hosur road, forming a continuum between the city, spanning Electronics City until the edge of the state boundary. The bulk of the rest of the growth has happened along the southeastern section of the outer ring road.

We can rail against ‘unplanned’ growth all we want, but this misses the point that people and companies are essentially free agents who move to places conducive to their requirements. Urban planning in India often centers around rigid control in things like land use, where the state has little capacity to enforce anything, and gets subverted. If instead urban planning favours nudges and incentives (the setting up of electronic city in Bangalore in the late ’70s is a great examples of the latter) then it might have a better chance of working. Official actions are largely unresponsive to the housing needs of incoming migrants and increasing wealth of our cities’ residents. “Irregular” colonies and housing but spring to meet the legitimate need.

Besides, as Karthik Shashidhar finds, Bangalore’s fastest population growth rates were actually in the 1940s and 1970s.

This was a part of my lecture on an ‘Introduction to the Bangalore Municipal Ecosystem’ to B.CLIP students on December 7, 2013.

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