Archive for May, 2013

Google Play Store houses a number of apps categorised under ‘productivity’. Google’s content editors have classified these as such. It is debatable whether these actually help improve productivity or not. But anyway people think about how small things like predictive keyboards help in their day-to-day lives, to work or complete tasks more efficiently. And so be more productive in whatever they do.

Ironically, when it comes to taking decisions which impact lives of over 1 billion Indians, productivity seems to be immaterial. TOI had printed an article last month which stated that the current parliament has had 1157 hours of sitting. This is deemed to be the lowest number of hours that any parliament (those who have done full terms) has clocked since independence. You would be justified in saying “what do you expect from such ‘leaders’ anyway”? Some would also say that the current government is so corrupt that the opposition is indeed doing a good job to teach it a lesson and stop it from passing any bills. Apparently, this is a strategic move by the opposition.

Parliament of India, Credit: http://www.parliamentofindia.nic.in/

Parliament of India, Credit: http://www.parliamentofindia.nic.in/

The statistics are interesting yes. But is this what one should concentrate on? Even if no time had been wasted would you have called the parliament productive? How do you quantify productivity of a parliament? The keen eyed will note that I have used ‘parliament’ not ‘government’. As far as I know, all representatives, be it from the ruling party or the opposition,  inside the parliament have a task and so can, ideally, be measured against some standard. Agreed that the processes inside the parliament are complex but that does not mean that outcomes can’t be measured, surely?

There was a movie starring Anil Kapoor in which he becomes the Chief Minister of a state for 24 hours. He goes about ‘CMing’ in typical movie style. Imagine that you had been given similar powers and asked to draft a set of rules to define productivity norms for parliamentarians. Boy, “draft a set of rules to define productivity norms” sounds heavy! But bear with me.

Lets start with a simple one – attendance. During engineering we had norms to have at least 75% attendance in classes (which was quite difficult frankly :-)). Now our ‘esteemed’ leaders are supposed to be doing a serious job so 75% won’t really do. Lets make it 90%.  Any shortage would automatically be deducted from their salaries (they will be registering their attendance using a retina scanner of course, both in and out :-)).

Forming and modifying legislation is the primary task of our parliament. So obviously the number of such modifications and introduction of new legislations should be a contributing factor. The number, however, would only be half the story. the quality of these legislations would have some weightage. This ‘quality’ should be determined by crowd sourcing – political experts, accomplished academicians and the like being the ‘crowd’. The formula could be something like

Legislation score = (Number of legislations + Number of modifications to legislations) * Quality factor

The opposition’s duty, in theory at least, is to enable a thorough discussion on various bills tabled by the government. A lot of shouting, standing on chairs and tables or boycotting the sessions are various ways our politicians ‘discuss’. Any serious discussion would be based on facts, figures and a reasoned debate. This would, of course, look quite boring on TV. So its quite understandable that our leaders resort to more creative ways of showing disagreement. Is there a better way? Perhaps. Instead of simply broadcasting sessions on national TV, make these sessions interactive with the public. A instant poll on what people think about various member’s skills, behaviour, and work ethics would hopefully shame them enough to behave like responsible people. If you take this argument to the logical conclusion, then a consolidated drubbing in polls over a year or so would be enough to ‘fire’ a parliament member. Too much you think? If people can put the person in the parliament in the first place, then why can’t they fire the same person?

No doubt this is an amateurish set of suggestions. I like to think that the collective knowledge and wisdom of the public would have much better ways of making our parliamentarians be more productive. What would your suggestions be?

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Why is there such a hue-and-cry about some cricketers getting caught accepting bribes? News channels covered it as though no one had heard about fixing. I don’t think any one should be surprised. The whole point of IPL is to make money. The promoters are making money, BCCI is making money, the sponsors are making money and so are the cricketers. And some of them were stupid enough to do it illegally and get caught.

I am sure most of you know how the IPL auction works. Teams bid for players in an open auction and the highest bidder wins. As in any other auction there is a base price set for each player and bidding starts from that point onwards. The interesting thing here is that the base price changes if an uncapped player plays even one international match. Any match – be it T20, One-day or Test. And the base price increases in direct proportion to which  type of match he’s played. Overnight the base price tends to go up – by an order of magnitude. You can say the cricketer deserves higher remuneration. Yes getting into the national side is no mean feat. But once done he can continue playing in the IPL and make far more money than he ever will at the international level. Goodbye national pride.

The scope of IPL is massive, financially. At the auction itself $ 1,285,000 was spent. But this is only a fraction of the total spend on the ‘extravaganza’. Think about franchisees paying BCCI, advertisers paying franchisees and broadcasters paying BBCI for telecast rights. There is no scope for the entire process to be completely legal. Has anyone investigated where the franchisees source their money from? Is it all ‘white’? It is difficult to believe all the money circulating in IPL has been accounted for by the IT department. I, for one, always find something fishy about where so much money comes from.

Various people have written alarming (for some anyway) pieces about the death of IPL. May be the old adage of ‘one bad fish spoils the pond’ stands here. But in all probability it does not. IPL is too big to affected over the long-term by something like this. Its sheen may wear-off (hopefully!) but in cricket-crazy India there will always be people who will follow this come what may. For a short while they will be cynical. Whenever someone drops a catch, the reaction will be “pata nahin kitna liya hai drop karne ke liye!!” (don’t know how much he’s got to drop that catch!!). Likewise if a team loses miserably there will be arguments on whether they were paid to throw the game away. They will be angry but again for a short while. As it always happens things will die down and TRPs for broadcasters will return to their normal levels.

Besides the franchisees and sponsors have invested too much to dial it down now. There will be investigations, committees, piece meal action. There will be action against some, some will be let go due lack of evidence. New laws may get enacted. The BCCI itself can only ban players from playing ever again. But that’s about it. Unless there is solid proof like phone records, even this may be improbable. Another set of blogs will be written (like this one :-)) stating why they are for or against the actions taken. But death of IPL, naah!

However, it will not clean-up the game or the organisations involved (come on, do you really think BCCI is not part of some nexus here?). Notice that there is no doubt or guess here. It won’t happen. Perhaps this a very bleak outlook but there it is. People involved in IPL are a cross-section of Indian society. There is no point trying to think IPL and cricket are immune from the plague called corruption which infects this society. Unless the society as a whole says  no to corruption, IPL will not be clean.

In one of the episodes of the Big Bang Theory, the protagonist tries to garner support and a research grant for some experiments in advanced physics. He is successful but in a rather twisted way. This example shows that even popular culture knows that any project in advanced physics will be very expensive. Proving any hypothesis requires loads of money which certainly does not guarantee success. Corporations and governments spend billions in aid to various such projects in the hope of a breakthrough. So how much do you think the most expensive project undertaken costs?

Thirteen billion Euro. Yes the figure is correct. This is the estimated cost of the ITER project (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor). This is a collaborative attempt by 34 countries to prove that energy can be produced using thermonuclear fusion outside a laboratory  Its aim is to produce about 500 MW of power with an input of about 50 MW. When you have the time visit their site. The numbers are astounding. Astounding because this is essentially a proof of concept. When this is complete (should I also say ‘if”?), scientists involved will have categorically proven that it is possible to build commercially viable nuclear fusion reactors. Next someone will have to actually build a reactor so that countries can buy one. It will have to be a country, I guess, given the likely cost of such a thing.  All this will take decades. The earliest date for the prototype to start producing energy is in 2026.

fusions-missing-pieces_1

Image: ITER Lego sculpture by Sachiko Akinaga, Photograph by Hironobu Maeda, Credit: Scientific American

So is this the right thing to do when the world needs solutions for its energy problems quickly? Its naysayers would simply dismiss it as a colossal waste of money whereas the scientists involved will hail it as mankind’s saviour. Scientific American had a recent article about various problems it was having (funding of course is talked about). There is no question, however, that fusion once domesticated will be our main source of energy. Till that point the world should be looking at alternatives.

Easier said than done that. And yes most countries are looking at other energy sources. Batteries, more efficient solar panels, hydrogen fuel cells and new deposits of natural gas to name a few. Hang on, something’s missing from this list! Where is nuclear fission? The world seems to have lost faith in fission it seems. New fission reactors are a big no-no nowadays, after Fukushima of course (but warheads are obviously multiplying). This is more of a knee-jerk reaction. Something similar would have happened after Chernobyl or Three Mile Island. There are people thinking about making fission safer, cheaper and less damaging to the environment. The most noteworthy example is Taylor Wilson. You might say – who? I would have if not for a recent talk on TED which I saw. Wilson, then 18, won the Thiel Prize in 2012 as an Applied Nuclear Physicist. And he’s built a fusion reactor in his dad’s garage! In the talk, he talks about a design for a modular nuclear fission reactor capable of producing 50-100 MW. If the design works, it may not be as expensive as a conventional reactor and probably not as complicated. This means it will be easier to build and maintain, especially in the developing economies.

Someone should be looking at a comprehensive plan for energy. Someone with the reach of the World Bank or UN. And they should take a leaf out of Agile and start showing quick results for the almost-panicking world.

PS: Here’s my 4-point plan for energy (go ahead, laugh :-))

  1. Reduce energy consumption. Any which way. See this post by T K Arun (Times of India blogs) as an example of the lengths one can go to.
  2. Develop hydrogen fuel cell infrastructure for vehicular usage. Period.
  3. For the near term, look at fission, solar, wind and hydel energy solutions. Move away from burning anything having carbon in it.
  4. Make fusion cheaper. If a teenager can build a working prototype of a fusion plant in a garage, why does one need to spend gargantuan sums of money elsewhere to build a different one?