25 Feb 2007

Mea Culpa

Posted by Oblivion in General | 12:12am


"That meeting changed my life", the cab driver remarked, recounting his decision to consult an astrologer and how that chap's predictions and advice helped change his and his family's fortunes for the better. He also changed his daughter's name as per the astrologer's suggestion. "She has been doing better at studies ever since", he added. I admired his confidence but also wondered why delusions persist. It's easy to live with delusions and that's one of the benefits of abdication of reason.

"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings."

 
Somehow, the wisdom of Cassius (Ref: Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare) never got passed on. Incredible developments in science and appreciable growth in awareness of scientific thinking notwithstanding, astrology seems to have loyalists by the million. It is perplexing how superstitions from pre-scientific times have prevailed and continue to have a hold on human psyche. Yet, the reasons are not tough to guess - such beliefs add to the feel-good factor and convince humans that they are part of the grand scheme of things. Neither is it tough to observe how this obsession sustains - majority don't study science either in earnest or depth, so they take any junk that makes the grand scheme look grander and comes with words energy, force, cosmos, etc thrown in. If a few famous people endorse the idea, it becomes even more popular.

There's more disagreement than agreement among astrologers as regards a simple and measurable parameter, the time of birth. Let's not even talk about more complex parameters. Despite considerable differences among experts themselves, astrology continues to lure multitudes.  

The signs of the zodiac and the tons of garbage that comes about those are very prevalent. First, the signs appear wholly arbitrary and could be nothing more than imagination. There's no logic behind why a set of stars should be connected to form a particular sign. Depending on your knowledge of symbols and objects, you can connect the dots in any way you like to form any shape that appeals to you. Further, this assumes, most illogically, that it's all a two-dimensional canvas out there. If you really connect the dots, the shape would nowhere be similar to the one that the zodiac suggests, for it neglects the speed of light and relative speeds and positions of the stars. For all one knows, a couple of stars may have been dead centuries ago. By adopting the two-dimensional model, it wholly overlooks the fourth dimension - that of space-time. Two-dimensional model works fine for spotting stars and planets, but that's about it. Finding the relative position of a star is a tad more complex than that, and astronomy addresses this fine.

Forecast goes along with signs, and generates good business every year. Let's take a simple forecast: "This week is going to be decisive. A task might prove testing but you will handle it with your characteristic finesse. A surprise visit of an old friend would invoke nostalgia. Put moderation behind and indulge in the callings of your romantic self." This will apply equally to any goddamn person on the planet. All forecasts sound nice because they appeal to one's emotions and self-esteem. And because they use all vague words, interpretation is always open. Yet, millions fall for it!

Although western astrology has come to appreciate the divide between sign and constellation, yet it goes wrong with descriptions. The characteristics associated with these signs are mapped to the shapes and names of objects. So, interchange the names of Mars and Saturn and your personality traits would change! Lows and highs of one's emotions are correlated to energy, a definite term in science. And bullshit becomes appealing stuff. (A friend rightly pointed that energy is a scalar, so quoting it in terms of negative and positive is sheer nonsense.) 

The whole conception seems to have never moved beyond Newtonian mechanics. They still explain it in terms of gravitational force, which is just a mathematical fiction. Consider the concept of warped space-time and it'll challenge astrology's fundamental premises. One has conveniently assumed that every object out there is similar to Earth in form and behaviour. The kind of matter that we are familiar with, but know very little about, forms just 4% of the universe. We know nought about the remaining 96%, of which 21% is cold, dark matter and 75% is cold, mysterious and dark energy. Drawing conclusions without having complete and right knowledge is dangerous.

There's much talk about electromagnetic radiation and its effects. This goes against the fact that Earth's magnetic shield acts as an armour and deflects all charged particles from space. It deflects the most powerful solar wind, forget about radiation from objects light-years farther than the Sun! Not that the radiation doesn't penetrate, but it's very negligible. There's a lot of difference between what is possible in theory and what happens in actuality. The radiation emanated from the bulb in one's room is many times more powerful for the chap than that he is hit upon from a star. A tsunami happens just two-thousand miles away and it has zero effect on me, and someone tells me that position of a select few objects in space affects my personality and life! How more ridiculous can things get than this?

Mars, our immediate neighbour, doesn't have an intrinsic magnetic field as Earth does. Very little is known about other celestial objects. The relation between Moon and tides is a simple phenomenon, and the association of "lunatic" with full-moon is a clear example of selective thinking. Nothing more. The correlation that has been found is nothing better than what chance would suggest. And correlation doesn't imply causality.

A common defence is that there are phenomena that science cannot explain. No denying this. Nevertheless, it's absurd to hold something as credible and definitive just because science cannot refute it. Russell deplored that "Although we are taught the Copernican astronomy in our textbooks, it has not yet penetrated to our religion or our morals, and has not even succeeded in destroying belief in astrology". Freud banished astrology and all other occult disciplines. Vivekananda opined, "Astrology and all these mystical things are generally signs of a weak mind; therefore as soon as they are becoming prominent in our minds, we should see a physician, take good food and rest".

Regardless of all that, it's megalomaniacal to believe that celestial phenomena affect our fucken lives. Affect they do, for we are very much a part of the universe, but there's a clear limit to what can and what cannot affect us, and, importantly, in what way. It's the bent for believing in conspiracy theories, coupled with insecurity, that compels people to think that things exist for a purpose. As a result, belief derives more fuel and becomes stronger with time. Hence, so many takers for astrology, God, ghosts, vaastu, hell, heaven, etc. Of course, one can take any stand on murder, reincarnation, adultery, prostitution, justice, etc and it's nobody's business to ask him for explanation. However, these belief systems get passed on, and that's the real danger. It, then, is not wrong to sit back and reflect. 

Belief defies logic; even twenty hours of discussion cannot undo twenty years of conditioning. It's next to impossible to make a fundamentalist see the flaw in his perspective. Try questioning the stand of a chap as regards his belief in astrology, and he'd dismiss all explanations simply by saying, a la the classic philosopher's joke, "That's what you think". All discussion is futile beyond that point.

The choice is always unto the individual - whether to live easy and with clarity, or colour everything with attractive delusions and carry tons of useless baggage in the brains.



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3 Feb 2007

India Poised

Posted by Oblivion in General | 1:01pm


For the past couple of years, one has been hearing a lot about India being up and ready to become an economic superpower, the 9% growth rate and how it means a better India. India ranks 10th in the country brand index 2006 (source: Futurebrand), FDI is on the rise and more cities are getting wired. Total trade in goods and services has leapt to 45% of GDP, from 17% in 1990. Behind the euphoria and hype, however, the real picture continues to be bleak. Majority, though, are content to buy the optimistic speculations by media and push reality below the carpet. Some important facts (courtesy, The Economist)  that should help us appreciate the status quo better and more objectively:

What media don't tell
A recent study from Goldman Sachs, which forecast that India could sustain 8% growth until 2020, was widely trumpeted in Indian newspapers. However, the bank's report clearly stated that this would require better education, labour market reforms and less red tape. Oddly, most newspapers failed to mention that.

India v China
They point to new mobile-phone subscriptions, which are running at a higher monthly rate than in China, as evidence of their economy's vigour and modernity. But look again. Perhaps the only thing really growing faster in India than China is hype.

India spends 4% of its GDP on infrastructure investment, compared with China's 9%. In absolute dollar terms, China spends seven times as much on its infrastructure.

The total deficit is closer to 8% of GDP, the biggest among the main emerging economies. India also has the highest ratio of public debt to GDP, at 80%.

The road taken
Recent visitors to Delhi were greeted by a poster campaign by The Times of India announcing “India poised”. But poised for what? The economy is displaying alarming symptoms of overheating. This implies that demand is outpacing supply and hence the pace of growth is unsustainable.

How good is 9%
Most standard methods of estimating the trend—or potential—rate of growth (the maximum at which an economy can expand without triggering a rise in inflation) arrive at figures of around 7%. Given widespread signs that India is already exceeding its speed limit, there is a high risk that if the economy continues to grow at 9% or more, it will get ever hotter. Inflation will climb higher and financial imbalances will widen, running the risk of a hard landing.

The left options
Economic commentators tend to confuse India's long-term potential (what is feasible provided the best policies are put in place) with its current potential (ie, non inflationary) growth rate. That India has huge long-term potential is undeniable, but without reforms the country cannot fully exploit it.

Obstacles
An obstacle to growth in manufacturing is India's labour laws, which are among the most restrictive in the world. Firms employing more than 100 people cannot fire workers without government permission, which discourages expansion. Today's central government cannot scrap these laws because it relies on the support of the communist parties.

Hard facts
Half of urban households lack drinking water within the home; one quarter have no access to a toilet, either public or private. Many public services in cities have worsened in recent years. In Bangalore water is now available for less than three hours a day, compared with 20 hours in the early 1980s.

The awkward truth is that although the economy is sprinting ahead, most people are only crawling. Although the educated middle class has enjoyed big salary increases and a surge in the value of their homes and shares, the 60% of the population close to or below the poverty line have not yet seen a material gain.

India has less income inequality than China or America. But it has much more poverty. Some 260m people still live on the equivalent of less than $1 a day.

Action plan
An alternative to slowing demand is to boost supply by speeding up reforms and attacking the many bottlenecks caused by inadequate infrastructure, dreadful public services, skill shortages and rigid labour laws.

World Bank put it in a report last year, “when systems are failing, it is not enough to fix the pipes, one needs to fix the institutions that fix the pipes.”

(Source: The Economist)



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