Saturday, May 17

Blogging WCIT 2008

I will be spending the next week in Malaysia, attending (and speaking at) the WCIT 2008 conference. I will be trying to blog this conference. It will be my first time, so please treat me gently.. :)

Otherwise, see you in Malaysia!

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Thursday, May 15

Brave Men, we salute them

Two Royal Marines from Plymouth who lost legs in Afghanistan yesterday walked across a military parade ground to collect their service medals in front of thousands of supporters.

Helped by their prosthetic limbs, Mark Ormrod, 24, who lost both legs and his right arm, and Ben McBean, 21, who lost a leg and an arm, drew huge cheers as they declined to use their wheelchairs and walked 30 metres across the parade ground to join some 700 colleagues from 40 Commando during a ceremony at Norton Manor Camp in Taunton, Somerset.

Read more here.

Wednesday, May 14

Wittgenstein and market forces and universities

I spotted this article and was chuckling away to myself. So Melbourne Business School has appointed a Philosopher in Residence. And he will be "providing an additional set of intellectual survival skills" to business school students. And this is my basic problem with this argument that only Plato or Kant quoting people can be Philosophers. It is the same argument I had with some people who take off on "intellectuals".

To me, an intellectual is a person who uses his intellect. So if one is taking off and abusing somebody by saying that s/he is an intellectual, all it means to me is that the accuser does not use his own intellect and it is clear that he is a complete dope (he is a dope, but that's a different matter). But the same thing applies in the case of Philosophy. Philosophy is in every subject. Do you think there is no philosophy in statistics? Sure there is, there is an entire school of thought which gave rise to statistics, the school of thought which drives the theory and application of this, the school of thought which drives real world decisions, the school of thought which you will use do judge what is a good (based upon ethical, profitable, reputational...reasons) level of defects in your widget, just to take one small example.

There is a whole question of philosophy and thought in managing international teams, or putting in a bid process, or siting a factory, or putting together the company motto. I have studied epistemology (bloody tough, made my hair hurt!) and ruminating over the presence of black swans, empirical positivism and so on and so forth helped but not sure how much.

So, my gut feel is that this is a marketing gimmick rather than something that will really add value. If you do not believe me, go check out what most of the professors's have in terms of their highest qualification, its PhD, or a Doctor of Philosophy. There are already tons of philosophers in there, my friend, a special philosopher is like saying that that electron in that molecule is special...

What is your skill level?

I sat in on a presentation made by Professor Latreille on how they are helping 1st year students to come up the learning curve so that the dramatic differences in skills levels are smoothed out. These differences arise because of individual differences, differences between people from different countries and technology levels, differences between cultures, and so on and so forth.

But the interesting this is, that he has developed an e-based skills management module which he uses to track his student's progress, links to blogs, photographs, and all the nice web 2.0 stuff, very impressive indeed. I looked at some folders which contained work that his students had created and again, it was quite impressive, I pay about £10 per hour in India for that kind of professional presentation and document creation work while it would be about 5-15 times that much here in the UK, even if you manage to find somebody in the first place... (check out this firm that I have used in a previous firm to do document management and tarting up).

He also circulated a skills evaluation questionnaire, here's a copy. And this is what struck me. I am working in a global financial industry, which effectively attracts the best and the brightest of the world. And, by and large, everybody in the industry has a graduate degree and a fair proportion have a masters and quite a lot of them have PhD's or multiple degrees. So you would expect that they will all ace this questionnaire, no?

No. I do not think so. Even if you exclude the questions relating to technical knowledge of economics (bloody worrying, how on earth can a person employed in a financial institution not know basics of economics?) it is a tough one. If you assume that the scale 1-4 stands for 1 being the person who enters the industry with no experience and just a graduate degree and 4 being say C level executives, I am not very sure that the vast majority of C level executives will rate themselves as 4 (if they are honest). If I had to rate them, they will get rated lower (self obsessed arrogant BSD jerks).

If I tried to be honest and just do the first section relating to Managing and Improving Learning and Performance, this is where I will end up. Out of 10 potential 4's, I will get 4 3's, 5 2's, and 1 1's. Upon reflection, I do not think I have been completely honest with myself. If 4 stands for the ideal state, the self actualised state, then I am way behind on all these factors, perhaps I am overstating this by 20%.

If I think back on my career and the co-workers, the vast majority will say the same, i think (if they were bored enough to bother with this...) :).

So my gut feel is, that this skills questionnaire is not only suitable for the 1st year, but for every year of your life. And you could do worse than to read this on new year's eve and take some of these resolutions! Continuous learning and improvement....


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Monday, May 12

Like China in Africa, UAE is buying up Pakistan

I talked yesterday about how the Chinese are buying up land in Africa and other places. And as it turns out, UAE is now purchasing land in Pakistan for the very same reason. I quote:

One of the Middle East’s largest private equity companies has been quietly buying farmland in Pakistan as part of plans by the United Arab Emirates to increase food security and to damp inflation.

Dubai-based Abraaj Capital says it is working with the UAE government on the strategic agribusiness investments in Pakistan. The government in Abu Dhabi has been holding talks with Islamabad about a framework for investment in its agricultural sector as it seeks to secure cheaper long-term supplies of staples such as wheat and rice.

The Gulf state, which imports 85 per cent of its food needs, has already said it is to consider building a strategic reserve of staple food items, part of a broader strategy to tame inflation of more than 10 per cent, with sharp rises felt in food prices across the entire UAE population.

A senior Pakistani official told the Financial Times the government had agreed in principle to allow the sale of rural farmland to investors from the UAE, setting aside Pakistan’s own domestic concerns about increasing food prices and shortages of important commodities.

Be warned, this is not going to be an easy step for the common farmers in Pakistan, this will hurt them specially since there is no safety net and no good economy to back them up just now! And doing this without having land reform.....

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Sunday, May 11

Run for the barricades, the Chinese are coming

So now the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture is planning to support Chinese firms to purchase farmland outside the Chinese mainland in other countries so that those farmlands can then be used for farming and providing food security to China. Typically beggar thy neighbour approach. Remember when you are talking food security, you are talking factory farming, because that's much more efficient. I quote:

A proposal drafted by the Ministry of Agriculture would make supporting offshore land acquisition by domestic agricultural companies a central government policy. Beijing already has similar policies to boost offshore investment by state-owned banks, manufacturers and oil companies, but offshore agricultural investment has so far been limited to a few small projects.

Other countries are thinking about doing so as well.

Libya is talking with Ukraine about growing wheat in the former Soviet republic, while Saudi Arabia has said it would invest in agricultural and livestock projects abroad to ensure food security and control commodity prices.

I talked about Argentina just a few posts ago. Now refer that story to this quote:

It imported up to 60 per cent of the soybean it consumed last year and the crop would be a focus of policy support for companies acquiring land overseas, along with bananas, vegetables and edible oil crops, said an official familiar with the ministry’s proposal. The ministry is already talking to Brazil about the possible acquisition of land for soybean, according to this official.

In other words, China would want to grow soybeans in Argentina and Brazil directly so that the food prices and issues of availability does not impact the Chinese consumer.

This is getting massively complicated and wars have broken out for lesser reasons. And while all this will happen, the price of soybeans and other agricultural commodities will keep on going up because inefficient country level decisions will be carried out. See here. Argentina is perfectly fine to raise export duties to raise money. Argentinean farmers are perfectly fine to reduce planting because incentives are reduced. Chinese farmers dont have enough land. China wants to increase land acreage. All this means that more people running after lesser amounts of more expensive crops. End result? the whole world loses out....

Where are the food prices going?

I just had a thought and went to check out CME for what the markets are thinking about in terms of what the food prices would be in 1 year's time. For people who do not know, futures are financial instruments which allow you to purchase or sell a standardised contract for a commodity (or anything...) in the future.

See this pdf file. Generally, as you can see, compared to an year ago, prices are way way over, dramatically over, almost doubling in many cases. But when you look down the list for corn, oats, rough rice, soybean, wheat, cattle, hogs, etc, most indices are predicting a rise in prices in May 2009. So the problem isnt going away, my friends, and in many cases, it is actually going to get worse.

For example, the meat prices are going to increase by 10-20% roughly over 1 year. Can you imagine that kind of a hit on a poor family? Do you seriously think their salaries and earnings are going to increase that much?

But if you think the poor dont eat meat, what about wheat? Well, that's also predicting anything around 15% rises in the price of wheat. Interestingly, they are predicting a decrease in the price of rice, I wonder why that is the case? Is it because they will have better supply? Or clamp down on imports? But that's in the future, remember the price has more than doubled since last year so people are hurting very badly NOW.

Very curious and very dangerous. Not sure how or what the governments will do but the markets do not seem to think that they will be able to influence anything!

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Buying and Selling tickets

Here's a good question for you. If you have purchased a ticket to a concert, does the ticket belong to you or to the company which sold it to you? Assuming that there are no other issues (such as safety reasons, you don't want to sell a Manchester United = Arsenal ticket willy nilly otherwise you might have 2 ManU fans stuck in the middle of the bank of Arsenal seats and they will be spat upon at best and could be thumped at worst), there is no issue in selling on your tickets if you don't want to go there.

But till now, specially in the west, concerts did not allow tickets be sold on after the first sale, mainly on the grounds that the sell on was usually at a much higher price than the original sale price and the promoters of the event do not get a cut of the second sale. Well, so? You don't expect the iron manufacturer to get a cut of the price of the toaster being sold, do you?

But seems like we have a break in the current industry. See here. I quote:

Madonna is endorsing the sell-on of concert tickets, condemned by some concert promoters as scalping or touting, by making two leading companies in the secondary ticket market official partners for her forthcoming Sticky & Sweet tour of North America and Europe.

She is such a big industry figure that she can, conceivably, drive a stake through the heart of this pernicious practice. Would be quite interesting indeed. I, for one, would be very happy to purchase such second hand tickets, if I can pay for it, then why not? let the markets determine the right price of the tickets, not some poxy promoter.

Nothing will happen in Burma, AGAIN

Remember what I said before about Burma? I said that nobody will help them in their fight against the military goons, only they themselves can. And now, the military is not helping and actively stopping people from helping the cyclone victims. And still the Burmese do not do anything. And here's a prediction, nothing will actually happen again, anything between quarter of a million to a million Burmese will die and still nothing will happen.

All the liberal and conservative hand wringing around the globe is just hot air, nothing, absolutely nothing will happen. China, India, South East Asia, EU, USA, Arab World, OIC, United Nations, nothing, nobody can help on this. Here's a suggestion to the Burmese people, rise and fight for your freedom. Otherwise you will die. Mind you, you are dying anyway, so what do you have to lose?

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Tibet has a better case for independence than Kosovo

Now this should put the cat amongst the pigeons, lol, I warned about this. The EU and USA's frankly stupid foreign policy will get it into major hypocritical and stupid situations. So, the writer, Paul Harris, is a barrister and was founding chairman of Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor and he wrote this article. I quote:

Does Tibet have a right to self-determination under international law? There are strong legal grounds to show that it does and that this right is being denied by China. As the recent protests in Tibet and the disruptions to the Olympic torch relay have demonstrated, Tibet is an international problem crying out for a solution.

Tibet’s status has been given renewed topicality by the recent independence of Kosovo which has so far been recognised by 40 countries, including all of the Group of Seven leading industrialised nations. If Kosovo has a right to self-determination, the right of Tibet is infinitely stronger. The catalogue of gross oppression, the second-class citizen status of Tibetans under Chinese rule and identity of Tibet as a country are all much clearer than in Kosovo’s case.

Hehehe, fun times ahead...

Beef with BA

This was funny to read. I wouldn't take the fun away from you, but go read it yourself. Given the fact that I will be flying around like an idiot starting from next weekend (off to sunny Malaysia), I will be be happy with my beef while shedding a tear for the rest..., hehehe


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Hindu Rage Boys put in place

I really loved this story. Remember what I said before on this? Rage Boys are funny chaps and they are sort of found all over the world. But these guys being Hindu guys, they are obviously close to my heart..

I quote from what the judgement said:

A painter has his own perspective of looking at things and it cannot be the basis of initiating criminal proceedings against him," Kaul said in his 74-page judgement. "In India, new puritanism is being carried out in the name of cultural purity and a host of ignorant people are vandalizing art and pushing us towards a pre-renaissance era," he observed.

The complainants are from Bhopal, Indore and Rajkot (two of those cities are my home towns, which just goes to show how much moronic behaviour has descended on these Hindu rage boys...). Typical stupid behaviour. But then, for those who want to see some kind of polity based upon religion, read this, you turn moralistic and people will laugh at your stupidity. You see, people who bang on about morals are usually immoral themselves. Without exception. I have yet to find one of those foaming puranitical mental morons being god like or being the poster boys for morality. Funny, how amusing.

Hindu Rage Boys put in place

I really loved this story. Remember what I said before on this? Rage Boys are funny chaps and they are sort of found all over the world. But these guys being Hindu guys, they are obviously close to my heart..

I quote from what the judgement said:

A painter has his own perspective of looking at things and it cannot be the basis of initiating criminal proceedings against him," Kaul said in his 74-page judgement. "In India, new puritanism is being carried out in the name of cultural purity and a host of ignorant people are vandalizing art and pushing us towards a pre-renaissance era," he observed.

The complainants are from Bhopal, Indore and Rajkot (two of those cities are my home towns, which just goes to show how much moronic behaviour has descended on these Hindu rage boys...). Typical stupid behaviour. But then, for those who want to see some kind of polity based upon religion, read this, you turn moralistic and people will laugh at your stupidity. You see, people who bang on about morals are usually immoral themselves. Without exception. I have yet to find one of those foaming puranitical mental morons being god like or being the poster boys for morality. Funny, how amusing.

Games earn more than movies

When a computer game ends up taking more than the double of the first week's takings of any movie, then you need to wonder what's happening to the world's idea of entertainment. I quote:

Grand Theft Auto IV, the latest instalment of the video game franchise published by Take-Two, racked up sales of $500m this week after seven days on release – more than double the record weekly take for any movie. Rival Activision had exceptional results on Thursday, with sales of Call of Duty 4 pushing profits well above estimates. While music companies and movie studios grapple with piracy, games publishers are in a sweet spot. It is much harder to copy software for the new generation of consoles. New instalments in a games franchise tend to be a technological and an artistic leap forward. On a cost-per-hour basis, a $60 game may be better value than a $20 CD. And, unlike the “dream factory” movie studios of the 1930s, there is no risk stars will defect to a rival producer or, even more inconveniently, die.

I keep on speaking at various conferences and with senior people and the fact that they are missing what's happening at the bottom is frankly frightening. Do you know that most of the 18-25 year olds, the feedstock of our future business, work and society spends way longer online than watching tv or films?

Do you know that the youth of today do not know how to value their online work any more because of rampant copying of films and music? I was at a board meeting recently and one of the board members (he has a private equity background) was talking about how people have no idea about how much to ask for, what's the funding requirement, etc. etc. They have no idea how to determine what costs are and what to charge for. I had to add to that, in my experience and what i have been seeing in banking and hearing, people who are coming into work have no idea about Intellectual Property and how to price it.

You are a spotty young chap, sitting in a dark bedroom, spending your time online. You get fed and watered. Then online, somebody asks you to code something, or translate something, or use your avatar to man a info stand on Second Life. These boys cannot make the link between the effort expended online, the time spend on the effort and the value of that. Also, how much should they ask for to simply exist.

Look at the numbers above, this weird economy is now in such a state that these spotty youths are spending more money on a game than a film!. Wake up folks, the world is changing under our eyes.

The economics of a university

Universities are very complicated beasts to run. Just how complicated came to me when I attended a board meeting of a university business school today. I finally managed to get a bit of a picture of the financial's which underlie a university's operations and many things became clearer to me.
You know I keep on moaning (see links here) about student fees and how universities have to be properly funded and so on and so forth, so this note will give you a bit more detail on how that works.

Also, please understand that this model has some peculiar British characteristics. My other experiences with and knowledge of universities in India, Australia, New Zealand, France, Belgium, USA, Canada, Sweden, Netherlands and Ireland unfortunately has led me to believe that every country has a different way of funding its universities. But, if you are a typical average university (if such a beast exists...), you will be spending money on the following main things

  • Buildings, estate, campus and their maintenance
  • Salaries and other expenses of current salaries
  • The huge and gigantic overhang of pensions to be paid for the    ex-employees of the universities, all of whom are on final salary pensions
  • The consumables (chemicals, paper, pens, computers, and so on and so forth)
  • Library and laboratories and stuff that goes into them (equipment, books, etc. etc.)
  • Other bits which come in are like advertising, marketing, public relations, local taxes (while they are charities and generally tax exempt, they still get hit by taxes),
  • services such as electricity, water, sewage, etc.
  • Depreciation and other financial treatments such as fines, penalties, provisions, reserves, tax, etc. etc.

So add it all up and very simplistically speaking, that's your cost of running the university (I am sure I have missed out on many things here...), feel free to add them here. So where do they get the money from? Well, they get the money from the following places

  • The government grant per student which is embarrassingly minute compared to the economic cost
  • The fees that are paid for by the Home / EU student (roughly 3k per year for undergraduate students, can be very high for say business masters students )
  • The fees that are paid for by non EU students (roughly anything between 2-5 times the home fees depending upon the course, level and university) (see this for a giggle)
  • The consultancy fees that professors get in
  • Research grants from government and industry bodies
  • The rental amount or some other amount from external institutions which are based on campus or use univ facilities for academic and research purposes
  • The professional education and post experience fees for company specific programmes
  • Some other blobs of dosh which local, regional, national or EU governments might give out in return for training long term unemployed people for example.
  • Outsourcing revenue, so they outsource a canteen to company XYZ, the company pays a rent / amount to the univ, same with running hostels, etc.

As you can appreciate, the British government is cutting costs rapidly and the grants from the government is rapidly reducing. The main cash cow are international students and postgraduate students. So if an undergraduate student is paying 10k per year, that's just about perhaps paying for his education, a bit of a domestic student and an even smaller bit of a staff member.

As I keep on saying, there is nothing free in the world. So if you do not want to pay for your fees, somebody else has to pay. Its either the shareholder, taxpayer, citizen, myself or my (grand) children. If you jack up the fees too high, then the international student can simply go to Ireland or USA or Australia. Then you are stiffed because he has not only walked away with his fees, he has also walked away with a potential future investor in Britain... If you want more research money, then you have to hire more qualified staff. Who will pay for them? How about getting industry grants? In this day and age of recession? What about government grants? Well, government is trying to get its spending under control. Why?
because if it doesn't, then it has to raise taxes and raising taxes in the middle of a recession is very bad. More importantly, companies and high earners can move countries very easily. I can nip over to Ireland and work from there very nicely, for a equal if not better quality of life and keep on doing the same job (ish)... or go to Switzerland..., So they cannot raise their taxes that easily. Lets not forget that these universities are having to pay for pensions for a very long period in time, and that's very expensive...

So, I am simply not surprised that the chancellors are screaming for more money, they simply cannot afford to educated unfunded students. So what do they do? They simply close down unremunerative departments which do not bring in extra money such as geography, physics, and other departments.
Smaller universities or universities which cannot compete on research therefore go for the volume business. Get more students in, and since their revenue is dependent upon simply number of students, out come courses like film studies or surfing management. Cheap staff, cheap to teach (the sea is free and you don't have to pay for film tickets) and bob's your uncle.

There are a huge number of politicians and ministries studies and committees and groups and industry bodies and and and who have worked on this before, and the current situation is the sum result of all those deliberations. I don't have an answer but I know this. To improve the current situation will require God, Allah, Ganesh, Zeus, Imhotep and Walt Disney, till then, I will keep on wondering how on earth do we finance a university.

BJP complaining about morals?

This made me giggle like mad. This is a Hindu right wing party, ok? And it is stuffed full of people whose morality (relating to murder, tolerance, love, fairness, consistency...) is rather suspicious (mind you, most Indian political parties are like this).

So when they start complaining about the dress code of cheerleaders at cricket matches, I just think, oh! you idiots, you just proved yourself to be utter morons. I mean, just who comes up with these ideas? Do they not have any brains?

So, this chap, BJP's state president Bandaru Dattatreya, is clearly somebody who is hypocritical. It is clear that he is more interested in the political posturing rather than actually working towards the improvement of women. I googled his statements and frankly, nothing much. What's his point? What has he done to improve the lot of women? How about this? He has basically and very explicitly pandered to woman's glorification by fielding a film actress in elections. If he had done it on the basis of having more women on his party list, I would have said fine, he is a women's right's defender, but as usual, he is a hypocrite, moaning about cheerleader's dresses while being a total cynical git.

He complains about corruption, but what has he actually done against corruption when he was in power? Again, happy to hear if he has actively kicked out somebody for corruption. How about this case? How about this complaint? How about him associating with shady characters? And this huge defender of women's rights refuses to let women join his organisation while moaning about women's rights.  See what I mean by being a hypocrite and a utter blot? Disgusting, but actually very amusing. Now what happens? Every time he gets on his high horse and talks about morals, I will chuckle at this man who is speaking out of his... As for his knowledge of Hinduism, that's another chuckling matter.

Nobel win in 2007 a 'bloody disaster': Doris Lessing

How amusing and so cute. 

London : Nobel Prize-winning author Doris Lessing has said that winning the award for literature in 1997 has been a "bloody disaster", reports said Sunday.

"All I do is give interviews and spend time being photographed," Lessing said during a BBC radio interview to be broadcast Monday.

Lessing, 88, said that she has been constantly in demand since her win last October and that her writing had stopped as she didn't "have any energy any more".

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Pakistan finally belling the cat?

You cannot violate the laws of economics for too long. The giant sucking sound that the Pakistani Army makes when it is the parasite on the Pakistani State, People and rest of the world seems to be diminishing by a small amount. I quote;

Pakistan’s new coalition government has ordered a “massive cut” in budget expenditure across the board, including military spending, to cope with the rising cost of fuel and food subsidies

How much do you want to bet that nothing will be cut on the military expenditures and the brunt of the spending cuts will fall, as usual, on the poor disenfranchised Pakistani citizen? But, the fact that a finance minister had the temerity to say this (well, he said this in London, another sad fact, I rather doubt that he would have had the gumption to say this in Isloo).

See some of my previous essays. Here and here.

Still lets see...