Monday, July 25, 2011

A mutiny in the ward or Facebook Andolan

Ignoring the Jan Lokpal Bill proposed by the Civil Society, the government panel has put forward a lame draft of the Lokpal Bill. The government’s version is so riddled with holes that it puts Mysore Masala Dosa to shame. Individual popularity of the leaders and even their past successes do not guarantee that the Jan Lokpal Bill will be adopted. There are many vested interest in India who benefit from the current corrupt governance; ALL of the political parties, the bureaucracy, and the business class and to a lesser extent even the judiciary and the media. These interests have much to lose if the parliament passes the Jan Lokpal Bill. So it is logical that they will do everything in their power to scuttle the bill as they have consistently done for the past four decades.

Even if the Jan Lokpal Bill is enacted verbatim, corruption has a much longer innings to run. While India claims to be the birthplace of spirituality, civic responsibility appears to be missing from public consciousness as is evident by the state of public places in India. A lay person is as much a perpetrator of corruption as a victim. Overpopulation, widespread poverty and shortage of resources force people to find shortcuts to grabbing a service or a resource. The corruption has become primarily a cultural phenomenon as opposed to a legal or an economic one. The same Indians, who would bribe a policeman in India to get out of a sticky situation, quickly learn not to do it when they travel to the western countries. They stop littering on the streets.

A cultural curiosity in India is that people tend to respect those with authority. Perhaps it comes from the British rule of India where the rulers automatically commanded a lot of respect. The end result is that most people are unable to raise their voice against injustice. Couple this with a lack of knowledge of bureaucratic procedures and lack of awareness of their rights as citizens; you get a perfect recipe for governance without accountability. The other side of the coin is that a lot of people are either unaware or unwilling to discharge their responsibilities.

Many of the laws of the land are arcane and enacted during the times when there were no computers or media such as television. These laws and the resultant bureaucratic procedures do not make sense anymore, but they continue to haunt the citizens anyway. Bureaucrats and politicians continue to use and misuse them for their own nefarious purposes. Computerization and automation have increased the transparency to a certain extent, but for the people who are not computer literate, the bureaucracy is still a bewildering labyrinth of procedures and delays.

When India became a republic in 1950, we replaced a system of unelected monarchs with the one of elected monarchs. Every people’s representative is a monarch in his or her own right, not to mention an MLA or MP. Almost every representative and babu in India has a shocking sense of entitlement to public money. They also tend to show utter contempt for the public opinion. For example, it has become commonplace for politicians to declare assets in crores (ten millions) of rupees before the elections. After every term their net worth goes up 200-300%. They brazenly claim that they supporters voluntarily donated those millions. Any major legislation that puts brakes on corruption will hit the very foundation of our current politician-bureaucrat-businessman-criminal nexus. To expect the same set of people to take steps to contain corruption is downright ludicrous.

Corruption is not just a minor inconvenience of having to pay bribes. It also results in a crippling inefficiency in the delivery of services, development of infrastructure and utilization of scarce resources in the public domain. With the widespread availability of social networking tools such as Facebook, there is no reason why Indians should continue to suffer the wholesale injustice. Internet could be used to share information about governance, exchange effective measures used to tackle corruption at the individual and collective levels, to keep track of locally elected representatives such as corporators, MLAs and MPs, and to encourage debates of local and national issues during pre and post election times between various candidates and the public.

Many people are not aware that a municipal ward is the smallest unit of governance in urban India. It is the closest a citizen encounters the government on a daily basis. A representative of the ward, typically a corporator, is responsible for the overall maintenance of the ward. Various local infrastructure and civic amenities are maintained at the ward level. Some examples are: roads and bridges, parks, sanitation and garbage management. These services are very badly managed in most areas, with a few notable exceptions. People are very aware of the poor state of affairs in their ward, but unaware of what to do or whom to contact. I am proposing a Facebook (or a similar tool) based movement (call it Facebook Andolan) that will provide a platform for the anti corruption movement. Such a platform can provide the following:

• List of local representatives, their agenda and biographies
• Local amenities and responsibilities
• Political and policy debates
• On going projects and project details obtained via RTI
• Corruption faced at various levels and resolution
• Local issues and resolutions
• Discussion forums
• Surveys

According to one statistic, some 32 million (as of July 2011) users of Facebook are Indian and growing at the rate of 4 million per month. Such tools provide a great meeting ground for Facebook Andolan. I believe this is a grassroots approach to tackling corruption. It has the following advantages:

• Engages people in taking responsibility for their communities
• Makes people aware of governance and their role in it
• Decentralizes power structure and brings it closer to people
• Addresses corruption at the lowest levels
• Decreases influence of vested interests
• Holds representatives more accountable for their actions or lack there of

Let there be a mutiny in every ward!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Indian Monsoon aka Let There be a Million Mutinies Now!

Congress is probably facing the worst crisis since Independence. The monster of corruption has come to haunt them and now they have backed themselves into a corner out of which there are no good exits. In the end, they had sixty years to do something about it and they have systematically erected more and more measures to protect the guilty and keep the status quo. Just as the revolution came to the Middle East via the Arab Spring, it was inevitable that the common man of India will wake up one day a give a jolt to the ruling class. Can we call this the Indian Monsoon?

Clearly our politicians of all hues have failed us miserably. We have seen the traditional opposition come to power and in some ways perform even worse than the usual suspects – the Congress. They had their chances in 1977, 1989 and again in 1999 at the central level and many times over at the state level. Every time they could not get their act together. The looting continues unabated and unabashedly. Almost every politician worth his or her salt is a millionaire if not better. Most people who get into politics do so with the sole intention of lining their pockets, ideologies being just for public posturing. What’s has really hurt India is the unholy nexus of politicians, bureaucracy, judiciary, business and the media. Each one of these is a special interest group and they have every reason to maintain the status quo while the silent majority suffers.

There are several objections to the current movement that range from reasonable to ridiculous. I will try to address one by one.

• It is an anti parliamentary movement; it will damage the very foundation of our democracy.

After six decades of democracy the time has come to question whether the system is in need of some improvement. Any system is good only as long as it serves the people. There is nothing sacrosanct about the parliamentary system. If anything, it has succeeded in protecting the guilty and those entrenched in power have made every effort to keep the status quo. None of the political parties have any incentive whatsoever to disturb the applecart. The only difference between the parties seems to be that of public posturing on social issues. The Facebook and Twitter generation expects to participate more in the political process. Perhaps the days of parliamentary democracy are coming to an end.

• Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev are wading into areas in which they have no expertise.

Writing in a Times of India blog, CP Surendran calls these leaders simpletons and declares them unworthy of our attention. He says the “cattle brigade” has made them too powerful to be ignored by the Congress government. What he fails to mention is that it is the same “cattle brigade” that elected the Congress government in the first place.

Our intellectuals have failed to either lead or applaud a leader who has taken a bold step against the corrupt system. To challenge the establishment, one needs moral courage and that is sorely lacking among our political or intellectual leaders. Hazare and Ramdev have shown moral uprightness that is a rare quantity in India. They have all the power to make people listen, and so now they are taking charge. It is just a desperate tactic on the part of the intellectuals now to wake up and challenge the anti corruption movement. The intellectuals have simply missed their chance to make a difference and have zero credibility with the society.

In case if anyone needs a reminder, we have many cozy political dynasties ruling the country. Sonia Gandhi had zero governing skills and yet got to hold the reigns of power without any accountability whatsoever. It is hypocritical to question the capabilities of the leadership of anti corruption movement. If anything, they have demonstrated a moral uprightness that’s missing even among the media persons lately.

• This movement will lead to authoritarianism

The daemon of corruption is so deep rooted and pervasive in India that there is almost no transaction that takes place without someone getting bribed one way or the other. The insidious nature of corruption is such that a large segment of the population is going without access to basic necessities such as water, electricity, education or healthcare. The loss opportunities and quality of life suffered by the silent majority is beyond measure. Such a state of affairs needs urgent and revolutionary measures. While I don’t support death penalty for the corrupt, these details can be worked out when the final bill is getting readied. The same popular anger against the injustice of corruption can also work against the movement if it turns authoritarian.

• This movement is tainted because of the support of RSS and the likes of Sadhvi Rithambara

So what? Since when did it become illegitimate for RSS to support a worthy cause? Any and every support must be welcome for an anti corruption movement. It is not a fault of leaders that these organizations and people have decided to support the movement.

• A lot of intellectuals are opposed to it

This is just a self serving argument by the intelligentsia. They were caught flatfooted by this phenomenon. Now that it is showing signs of turning into something really big, they want to discredit it, disown it, halt it so that a genuine people’s movement in which they had no part to play does not render them completely irrelevant. Corruption, which affects everyone is not a sexy issue for them. If you notice, none of the leading lights against corruption can be described as armchair philosophers: Anna Hazare, Kiran Bedi, T N Sheshan, Baba Ramdev or Arvind Kejriwal. They have all been in the trenches and actually done something good.

Why this movement is important?

If you were to ask Indians about corruption, you will probably find that there is an almost a universal agreement that they oppose it. And yet, a big majority of the same people would go ahead and pay a bribe at the drop of a hat. How does one explain this dichotomy? I believe it is a feeling of helplessness that strangles us all when faced with a corrupt babu (government employee). There is also a culture of respecting the authority even if they don’t deserve it. Even though both I and my neighbor oppose corruption, we will not help each other when faced with it. The oppressors have taken advantage of this disunity of the victims and the righteous. They use laws, musclemen or plain harassment by not providing a legitimate service to browbeat the common man. The lay person had no means of communicating his or her grievance and follow up on it to its conclusion.

Well, not any more. The Facebook and Twitter have given a voice to the silent majority. People can now organize in the cyberspace and put into action in real world. People of the world have decided to take matters in their own hands and it is about time!

No one likes to be victimized. However, we need a role model and encouragement to stand up for what is right. Once such an environment is created, it will have a snowball effect on the entire society. There is a rebel in each of us who just needs a little coaxing to come out and fight the wholesale injustice by the establishments. Let there be a million mutinies now!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Health Care: Some Personal Anecdotes

Health Care: Some Personal Anecdotes

Earlier I wrote about the health care crisis and steps I have taken to ensure my family's well being. In this blog I am going to talk about some personal experiences. I am writing this to illustrate that, while conventional doctors and health care is still required, often there are simpler alternatives to every day concerns.

The first incident took place more than three decades ago. My grandma was suffering from wheezing (not sure if it was asthma) for several years and the doctors were not able to provide any relief. She was in her sixties then and relatively good health, but wheezing really upset her. Out of sheer desperation my father borrowed a homeopathy book from a neighbor and after browsing through it, he bought some homeopathic medicine for her. Believe it or not, it was gone within a day. She never had the problem again until her death several years later.

Later during the late seventies, my father developed allergy. Once it was so serious that he had to be hospitalized for a couple of weeks, and the doctor warned us to take care of him so that it does not recur. He was prescribed a continuous dose of anti histamines and he took them for more than 10 years. We haven't been able to identify the environmental or dietary cause of his allergy even now. During the late 80s he started consulting a homeopathic doctor. This doctor had a great reputation and we had to often wait a couple of hours (because he wouldn't give appointments) to see him. I don't know what medicine he prescribed my father, but the allergy pretty much went away after that. Even today, in his late sixties, he develops allergy rashes, may be once or twice a year and the intensity is far less. The same homeopathic doctor also cured my mother of spurs in her feet which otherwise would have required surgery.

When I was younger I never felt the need to consult a dentist. I have mixed feelings about it, but that's for another blog. Anyhow, during the late nineties I developed serious pain in my lower incisors (front teeth). I finally went to a famous dentist in Bangalore (at the time I lived there). He examined my teeth, took some X-rays and then he told me I needed a root canal. At that time I had no idea what a root canal was, so I asked him to explain. Savvy that he was, he showed me a little animation on his computer. He also showed some lighter areas in my X-ray and said that's pus that has accumulated in my gums. I was incredulous. I asked him, “in other words, I lose my front teeth forever and will be condemned to wear caps for the rest of my life?”. He smiled wisely and nodded his head. I was deeply skeptical and said I will think about it. I then consulted an ayurvedic doctor who prescribed some foul smelling liquid as a mouth wash as well as some medicines. He told me not to worry about it and come back after three months. To this day, I have relatively healthy front teeth with even lesser problems than before. Later on when I studied teeth in more detail, I came to realize that it was accumulated tartar (or calcified plaque) that he was pointing to as pus. Was he deliberate in misguiding me? You be the judge.

After moving to the US in 2000, I suddenly had such a severe lower backache that I was bed ridden for one whole day. I had been suffering from lower backaches for more than a decade by that time. I was attributing the problem to my faulty gait, and the fact that as an IT professional I was desk bound all day. I went to see an orthopedics doctor in Los Angeles. After listening to me, he took some X-rays and measured my legs. He came up with a surprising diagnosis: my legs are unequal in length. He then went on to describe a months long therapy and some expensive medications as well. I didn't buy it because I felt perhaps all I needed was a special shoe to correct my less than perfect legs. During my visit to India, I consulted my friend who also happens to be an orthopedics doctor. He measured my legs and assured me that if they are unequal in length, it is within natural variability. He went on to do X-rays and all they could come up with were natural age related (I was in my mid 30s by then) bone degeneration . So I continued to suffer occasional lower backache as before without any remedy for some more time. One day, I suddenly read somewhere that keeping wallets in the back pocket can pinch a nerve and cause a chronic lower backache. Immediately I stopped keeping it there and voila!, no more backache. To this day, it hasn't recurred.

My final anecdote is about PVCs or premature ventricular contraction. In early 2000s I started feeling breathless. This used to be especially pronounced after a walk on the treadmill or a bit of physical exertion of any kind. Then one day while I was feeling breathless, I measured my pulse. I realized that it was not regular. It would go, lub dub, lub dub, -----, lub dub and so on. The gap was disconcerting and I was really alarmed. So went to my physician who sent me to a cardiologist who was really nice. He did many tests, including a stress test, an imaging test for blocked arteries in the neck and a Holter monitor for 24 hours. In the end, he said it is a benign condition one I could safely ignore. He suggested that I don't stretch myself too much while exercising. He never mentioned PVCs and I had no idea that's what it was. After a few months, I came across a Yahoo group called PeopleWithPVCs and joined it. There someone said that supplement Co-Q10 is known to alleviate some of PVC like symptoms. As Co-Q10 is known to be beneficial for the heart and it is an over the counter supplement, I decided to give it a try. You guessed it, I got rid of the PVCs within a few days after starting the supplementation. Why wouldn't my cardiologist know about it? It is a mystery to me.

My intention in writing this blog is not to say that all chronic problems are this simple or even that every one of them can be remedied. With the internet, today we have no excuse not to explore more than one avenue for many of our everyday ailments. As long as it is not a life threatening emergency, it makes sense to explore other remedies, listen to others' anecdotes. After all the (relatively new) conventional medicine comes with a price – not just monetary but also with serious side effects. Invasive procedures, strong medical concoctions, radiation therapies solve some problems while potentially creating even more problems. They have their place, but mostly as a last resort not as a first line of defence. I am wondering if it would make sense to start a web portal that focuses on collecting and publishing personal anecdotes from people all over the world. Perhaps that would help thousands of people find quick and easy solutions. Obviously it can't replace a physician or proper health care, but at least it may help many people avoid unnecessary procedures or medications.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Health Care at Home

In my previous blog I listed a litany of complaints about the health care system. In this blog, I will talk about some actions I have taken to ensure a healthy lifestyle.

By most standards, I am a health freak. It is not that I always do optimal things nor that I am in perfect health. But I have improved my health considerably in the last ten years or so and this blog is an effort to share my learning.

Over a period of time, I have been consulting doctors and getting lab reports. In order to improve something, one needs a baseline. One measure is to count the number of times a person falls sick. This is very subjective and sometimes deceptive too as major diseases can lurk under seemingly good health. The metrics in the lab reports provide a more objective basis. Based on these metrics I do my own research on possible lifestyle, diet and exercise changes that are needed to get better. I have realized measurable improvements of health over several years.

In my opinion, diet is the primary source of our health issues. After all we are what we eat. I avoid junk food, including all sodas, colas, synthetic additives and preservatives, synthetic sugar substitutes and so on. Where possible I have substituted whole grains for bleached floor, brown rice for white rice, olive oil for peanut oil and so on. I buy organic where I can. About 50% of my personal diet consists of only raw fruits, vegetables and nuts. For example today my lunch consisted of the following (all raw): sprouted moong (green gram), red and yellow bell peppers, Persian cucumbers, broccoli, apple slices, a mango, blue berries, raspberries, almonds and walnuts. I try to consume flaxseed in many different preparations.

Recently I purchased a Vita-mix whole food machine. It is an excellent device for making juices, soups, dips and assorted other things. I highly recommend this product to anyone interested in cooking and especially those who enjoy raw food.

Our teeth play a very important role in our health. It is not just the social consequences of bad breath or discolored teeth; they have a much more profound impact on our lives. Treatments like root canal can do more harm than good in some cases. I have followed a very simple regimen: I make sure to brush at least twice a day and floss after every meal for at least 2-3 minutes. Just flossing alone has made a tremendous difference in my dental health. Recently I also purchased a Panasonic mouth irrigator. This product is available for about $25 at and worth its weight in gold.

As I am an IT professional besides being an internet junkie, it is almost certain that my eyesight is weak. However, I have always resisted wearing glasses and never got a pair. I think eyes are the best optical instruments ever designed and they are capable of working under extreme conditions. I have always relied on eye exercises and yoga to keep them in reasonably good condition. I definitely need reading glasses but don't yet wear any. I also do no wear sunglasses even in the sunny locale where I live. I think sunlight is good because we just don't get enough of it in our home and office bound existence.

I have mixed feelings about supplements. If one is deficit in certain vitamins or minerals, it may make sense to take a few supplements until that deficit is overcome. But I am not sure about the effectiveness of multivitamins. Ideally we should get all our vitamins and minerals from our diet. It is almost impossible to determine the action and interaction of so many different nutrients which are present in foods an isolated in a pill form. Our ancestors did not take any supplements but at least some of them enjoyed perfect health. However, I must admit I have taken certain supplements over the years and they have certainly helped. In particular, Co-Q10 which helped eliminate PVC (premature ventricular contraction, a benign heart condition) and Niacin which helped reduce tri glycerides. I have discontinued use of both.

Our ancestors used to rely a lot on the natural and home remedies. As a result they probably lived a much healthier lives than we do, though our life spans have increased during the last century. Invention of antibiotics and vaccines have reduced deaths due to many infectious diseases. That the overuse of antibiotics is now being seen as a leading cause of super infections is the irony of progress. We are born with amazing healing capabilities. And yet we provide crutches and artificial props in the form of concoctions of harsh chemicals in the mistaken belief that intervention is better than letting the nature take its course. As a result we compromise the very body we want to keep strong and fit for a hundred years.

My favorite home remedies are: turmeric, cinnamon, ginger and garlic for simple infections. Home made yogurt, buttermilk with asafoetida for many stomach ailments. There are a few commercial preparations that have become standard faire at our home. These are:

Inflameric as an anti inflammatory supplement
Oil of Oregano as a powerful natural antibiotic
Calendula Ointment (homeopathic) for cuts and bruises
Septilin for colds and flu

As a family, we have almost eliminated consumption of any prescription medicines. Neither of my kids, ten and six years old, have had to take antibiotics, ever.

We do consult doctors on a regular basis, but we tend to pay more attention to their diagnosis and much less to prescription. But once I have confirmed a diagnosis, subsequent course of action depends on my own research. Nobody knows my body, diet and lifestyle better than myself. Best course of action often depends more on these factors and less on a formulaic prescription. An average doctor does not have enough time or patience to take into account all these factors. My source of information:

Curezone – Lot of information, user contributed information, first hand reports etc.
WebMD – Information about diseases, medicines
FDA – US Food and Drug Administration
Allayurveda – Information about Ayurvedic medicines and principles
Yahoo groups – Individual ailment discussion groups

Our modern lifestyle almost ensures that we need to exercise on a regular basis in order to maintain good health. I try to get at least 45 minutes of 3-4 days a week, mostly on a treadmill. I probably need more flexibility and strength training, but I guess I will get there. While my lifestyle and diet do provide major benefits, exercise provides a further boost to it. My tri-glycerides have been high for the last several years. I have noticed that they come down measurably whenever I exercise regularly and go easy on simple carbohydrates and fat.

Yoga and meditation provide benefits to body, mind and spirit. I am still struggling to incorporate these into my daily routine. When I do that, my at-home health care should be complete.

Disclaimer: I am not a doctor and this article is not medical advice. Please do your own research.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Healthcare Crisis

There is a big crisis in the health care system (some would like to call it sick care system). The prices are going up by 10-15% every year, and correspondingly the insurance premiums. There is a tuberculosis epidemic that is threatening to breakout anytime, even in the developed countries. The chronic diseases, such as cancer, diabetes, hypertension continue to plague us with no solution in sight. The pharmaceutical companies and the medical community have managed to find palliative measures that keep a patient alive for a long time, but there is no true cure for many health problems. Every new drug invented, every new procedure developed is costlier than the one before, but with few exceptions, most of them do not cure the patient. Instead they keep him or her dependent on the system for a long time, with attendant expenses and unwanted side effects. Even antibiotics which saved so many lives in the 20th century have become ineffective against increasingly virulent and resistant bugs.

Every spoke in the wheel of health has had its own role to play in creating the mess we find ourselves today. Let's start with the health care professionals. General physicians seldom get to spend enough time to understand an individual patient, his or her lifestyle or diet. More than 50% feel they are overworked. More often than not, it is a quick enumeration of symptoms and some lab tests and a prescription. Physicians are happy to prescribe antibiotics and other strong medications even when they are not strictly called for. The pediatricians are the worst offenders of overprescribing antibiotics. Majority of the cases do not even need them because the infections are viral. This not only creates super bugs, but also weakens the immunity of a child. My reasoning is simple – if you give a crutch to the body, the body stops making an effort to heal itself and comes to rely on the crutch. See this article on antibiotics. Specialists such as dentists and orthopedics doctors are even more culpable. Often they tend to treat individuals like mechanics treat your cars – the more repairs the better – for them. This is not to say that there are no ethical, sincere and loving doctors around. But often they become unwitting part of an establishment that is too hard to navigate and change.

Next come the insurance companies. They show no interest in ensuring that an individual gets proper health care. For them every medical expense is another expense and it is their stated goal to reduce this expense. For example, most insurance policies do not cover preventive measures such as multi vitamins or supplementation. Most policies won't cover the membership of a health club or give discounts if you are an active member. Most often they are not interested because the employers who provide the biggest chunk of insurance policies, keep changing the insurance companies frequently. Thus insurance companies have zero incentive in keeping an individual healthy.

Then come the pharmaceutical companies. While they have done some wonderful work in the past in developing life saving drugs, now they are in a rat race. Their credibility lies in tatters due to recent scandals. Peddling drugs that are of dubious efficacy, suppressing research that shows negative aspects of their drugs, bribing doctors to prescribe more medicines, encourage doctors to use the drugs off label, you name a perversion, they have indulged in it. The scandal goes on and on and with no end in sight. What is worse, there is hardly any liability for the individuals who consciously swindle the society. At the most they get a slap on their wrists.

This brings us to the fourth spoke – the regulator – FDA in America. For all practical purposes they do the bidding of the pharma companies. It is a revolving door at the FDA, often professors and researchers with deep connections to pharma industry head the FDA. While there is a process to certify and monitor drugs, FDA uses its big stick to beat back any attempt by alternative medicines to address a market need. In the States, no supplement or food producer can make a claim that his ware can cure anything. There are many such instances where a traditional (really traditional like an Ayurvedic preparation) can and does alleviate a certain condition, but they are not allowed by FDA to make that claim or at least FDA won't certify them. According to FDA, something is a drug only if it has gone through certified clinical study. No matter that these clinical studies are conducted by the interested parties, and that the traditional medicines have gone through millennia long trials. A lot of the funding for FDA comes from the pharma industry itself.

The final spoke is the consumer. This is where the biggest blame lies in the whole system. People tend to believe that a doctor knows everything. We are ultimately responsible for our own health – failure to recognize this simple truth often results in fatal consequences. People go to doctors with their mundane problems and accept prescriptions which are often not necessary. Doctors have become very defensive because of the ever hanging threat of malpractice lawsuits. So they will choose the strongest measure even when a wait and watch method will work just as well. We are too lazy to choose a careful diet that's suitable for our lifestyle, genes and body. We do not exercise enough. We eat and drink a lot of junk food. In the end is it any surprise that we are at the mercy of harsh chemicals and - at best - indifferent professionals?

In the second part of this article I will write about some of the methods we have adapted to ensure a healthy lifestyle.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

A limitation of the scientific method

Scientific method

"Scientific method refers to bodies of techniques for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge. To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on gathering observable, empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning. A scientific method consists of the collection of data through observation and experimentation, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses."

I often hear from scientists and wanna-be scientists (like me) that the scientific method is the only way possible forward in understanding the universe. Logical reasoning and the scientific method have their place in the scheme of things. But to say that they are primarily responsible for all progress is putting the cart before the horse. In the definition above, formulation of a hypothesis is taken as a part of the scientific method. However, this formulation is often mysterious, and no one can really explain how a "productive" hypothesis is arrived at. Most of the times logic and reasoning have nothing to do with it.

The anonymous Indian genius that conceived zero, Kepler, Newton, Kekulé, Marie Curie and Einstein all have one thing in common: they created a paradigm shift in our understanding of nature. The paradigm shift was not in the proof they offered but the hypothesis itself. While proof is important, it is secondary to the hypothesis. I doubt if anyone of these giants have explained how they came up with the hypotheses. Given a "productive" and viable hypothesis, someone can and will come up with a proof eventually just as Fermat's last theorem demonstrated.

The modern scientists spend their lifetimes perfecting the scientific method. But they probably do not spend enough time understanding how the hypotheses are made. It is assumed that a good scientist "knows" how to arrive at one. There is no process, no class (that I know of) and no "formal" guidelines to come up with a good hypothesis. No good hypothesis no significant progress. That's a limitation of the scientific method.

The ancient Indian sages approached the process in a different manner. Many of them were true yogis and attained samadhi by meditation. The claim is that when one attains samadhi, the knowledge about the true nature of the universe arises spontaneously. Perhaps this is the source of all hypotheses. They made seemingly amazing leaps in understanding the nature. Often they didn't explain how they arrived at that knowledge, but only stated it with authority. Frequently one hears the phrase "self evident" with such statements. It is left for the later commentators to comment on that statement and expound it. Some commentaries on Patanjali's Yoga Sutras say this: if all the books are burnt and all knowledge is lost save the Yoga Sutras, then rest of the knowledge can still be developed by accomplished yogis.

I know that there will be some scientist types on DC who will grill me on this one (where is Commonsense?), but I will make this claim: scientists will do much better in their disciplines if they include meditation in their curriculum. Have you noticed how often multiple scientists come up with the same new idea that miraculously solves a difficult problem that mankind has grappled with for ages? In my opinion this phenomenon is not magic or coincidence, but it can be explained by our spiritual nature. We are all connected by an underlying thread and that manifests itself in these mysterious ways. In fact someone even conducted a maze running experiment on rats that showed that once a particular maze is solved by one rat, other rats find it easy to solve.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Bubbles and the current financial crisis

Bubbles! Bubbles!... My bubbles!
... a cartoon character from Finding Nemo

Is there an end to the current financial bloodbath that is plaguing the world markets? Like a recursive nightmare, you wake up from one nightmare to find yourself in the middle of another. I am still in the middle of my productive career, and I don't find it amusing that my life savings go down 5% everyday. I just can't imagine what it must be for those who are staring retirement in the face or who have already retired. The only light I see at the end of the tunnel is the proverbial headlight of an approaching express train.

Folding banks, closing auto dealerships, collapsing companies, massive layoffs, government defaults; the looming specter is stunning. Many pundits are saying that this will be a mild recession and we should be back on track in a couple of years. In particular let me quote the following:

'Standard & Poor's chief economist David Wyss expects a mild recession that ends next spring. "Gradually we will regain confidence in the market. Lower oil prices and a falling trade deficit will help," he says. "This is a financial panic, not an economic one." '

I don't know what weeds these people are smoking. A lot more bad news awaits us. What we are seeing today is a result of 60 years of unbridled growth and reckless spending. The dominoes are falling and there is no telling when or where they will stop. They blame it on many factors: corporate greed, extreme leverage, wall street excesses, mortgage crisis and so on.

I remember reading this article by S Gurumurthy of RSS. Though the article itself has been ridiculed by the economists and intellectuals in various forums, and there are some factual errors in the numbers quoted, I felt there was an element of truth in it. This article was written in 2002 or thereabouts. Common sense tells me that I can not continue to spend more than I have. A day will come when the bill collectors come calling. This is true for individuals and also true for institutions. But there is a white elephant in the room everyone seems intent on ignoring.

I laughed out loud when President Bush doled out money to people as a stimulus package. The trouble with the economy was not that people were not spending enough; it was that people have spent way too much and they can no longer finance their profligate ways. During the last several years rate of personal savings by Americans has turned negative. The so-called stimulus package only inflated various bubbles a little more. Besides it encouraged people to be even more reckless with their money.

Since the 1940s, America has managed to build a huge economy based on consumer spending. It starts with how money is created (primarily through bank lending, see here). Every time someone borrows money (say to pay for a new car), the system creates a little bubble and new money is injected into the system. This money is supposed to be taken out at a later stage when the loan is paid off, but people keep spending money all the time so the money is never really destroyed except during serious economic contractions. This is not specific to the US economy, most of the modern economies have grown in this way.

This bubble creates other bubbles. Consider this: when there is more economic activity, the governments have more tax revenue and therefore bigger budgets. The current political wisdom tells us that the money should be spent immediately on populist and not-so populist schemes such as the earmarks. After all, one must get elected again in a few years. Once a particular expense head has been created by a government, it seldom goes away. Many economists argue that deficit financing is good for the economy. Wars and natural disasters have contributed by further expanding the budgets. Among certain quarters, there is almost a macabre glee whenever natural disaster such as an earthquake or a hurricane hits.

Without intervention this unstable system will seek some stability through cyclical economic downturns and many of the bubbles will gradually deflate. There have been downturns in the American economy, such as the recession of 80s and 90s, hyper inflation of 70s, stock market crash of 1987 and dotcom crash of 2000. Every time the government intervention has been short sighted with no attention paid to long term consequences of these actions. None of these events convinced the political leaders, financial leaders and individuals that they must spend less than they have or else...

If you remember the dotcom bubble of the 1990s, many people believed that the stock market will never go down. Ditto with housing markets of early 2000s. Similarly for too long, investors all over the world have nursed a belief that dollar is a safe haven and Americans will never default. This has caused them to send money to America in unrealistically large amounts of money through real estate investments, government bonds and lately purchases of assets of large financial institutions. This has significantly contributed to the financial bubble.

To keep this bubble inflated, governments and institutions have to spend more money and foreigners have to keep pouring their savings into American economy. To encourage these events, the lowest pillar that is bearing the weight of all these bubbles, our friend Joe, must keep spending. The trouble is that Joe can't spend any more money because his account is overdrawn. Nobody is willing to lend him either.

The credit crisis is a sign that people have understood the true nature of our economy. Money in my pocket is better than money in yours. Nobody trusts the bogus credit ratings of individuals and institutions anymore. At some level one can blame the banks for lending to one and all, but the blame must be shared by everyone; legislators for not providing enough oversight; bankers for not ensuring the borrowers have capacity to repay; borrowers for being greedy.

Americans have a total debt of about 120% of the GDP. The companies collectively have a debt of 160% of the GDP. Total American debt reached 53 Trillion dollars. That's about $176,000 of debt for each resident of the country. People and institutions have leveraged way beyond their means to pay back. To paraphrase Nouriel Roubini, now “the housing bubble, the mortgage bubble, the equity bubble, the bond bubble, the credit bubble, the commodity bubble, the private equity bubble, the hedge funds bubble are all now bursting at once in the biggest real sector and financial sector deleveraging since the Great Depression”.

The casino culture has taken over the American financial markets. Short selling of stocks is the most obvious and glaring example of the gambling that savvy stock market players indulge in. There is also the futures market for commodities. For example the much maligned speculators who have presumably driven up the price of oil and other commodities. In the 1990s new instruments of financial trade called derivatives were created. These are the CDOs, the CDSs and many others from the alphabet soup, which Warren Buffet famously called financial instruments of mass destruction. That bubble is now worth 55 Trillion dollars. To put it in perspective, it is more than the annual gross product of the entire world. This is nothing but suicidal gambling by large financial institutions hedge funds, and wealthy individuals with no added benefit to the society at large. This is another bubble that is waiting to burst and who knows what happens then.

If my hypothesis about the economy is correct, then there are three ways this crisis will resolve itself. Firstly the obvious one, in which there will be a catastrophic crash of markets and institutions all over the world. This will be too chaotic for anyone to predict the sequence of events accurately. The consequences are too horrific even to contemplate, but humanity will survive. It may take a decade or two to recover to some semblance of normalcy.

Second way is that the current patchwork of interventions will work and somehow the world markets will be stabilize. However, I think this only be temporary and we will come back to the same situation sooner or later, perhaps with a bigger bubble, because we not really addressing the underlying causes.

Third way is when our leaders act responsibly, the markets respond in a sane manner and people correct their ways. Government will stop wasteful spending, wall street will stop being greedy and people will start saving more responsibly for their retirement and their children's education. If by some miracle this sequence of events comes to pass, then it will still take a couple of decades for us to come back to stability. The reasons are obvious, the the bubbles are simply too large and they can't be deflated in a short time. However the likelihood of this happening are extremely remote. Consider:

- Law makers are short sighted and often ignorant
- Government likes to keep borrowing to spend even more money and has zero credibility with
the main street having spent all of its political capital waging pointless wars
- Washington is full of wested interests, but none protecting Joe's interests
- Wall street has short memory and within a few years it will retrace the history
- Regulators have no credibility as they are either corrupt or ideological but almost never right

This problem is not unique to America. I am only using American example because I have lived here for the last 8 years or so and seen what is happening first hand. I am sure similar things are happening in many other countries as well.

The situation is rather bleak, but people change only when there are catastrophic events that overtake them, or a JFKesque leader guides them. Is Obama the JFK of our generation? I sincerely hope so, but I am very skeptical.

What are the lessons for India in this crisis? Unfortunately I don't believe India will escape it unscathed. The only silver lining is that India is not yet that highly leveraged that it will suffer as deeply as the US. However, India is following the path that US took in the '50s and '60s. We can yet avoid it by ensuring that the truly important issues are addressed and never compromised in the name of capitalism. These issues are, savings for retirement, ensuring universal health care and providing good education to all those who want it. Most importantly we should not build our future on bubbles.