April 30, 2007

A word on World Cup.

It is tempting to fatuously ask: Why bother to have it at all? It saves a lot of trouble if we just hand the cup to Australia every four years.

Seriously, Australia prove their allround skills again, and we get to see how far ahead they are of every other team. They are taking the game to new heights. We talk a lot in India about how things can improve, what steps need to be taken etc etc. We usually have a vague vision of where we want to go. The thing is that Australia exhibit all those qualities right now. I don't know if we will ever see India play "outstanding" cricket, but we are fortunate we can watch Australia do so. It doesn't matter if there are no close matches, it is a joy to watch them anyway. As Amit writes, it is better than watching two mediocre teams in a close game.

I have a particular fondness for Adam Gilchrist, and his innings was highly enjoyable. Surely one of the best one-day innings I have seen.

Sri Lanka joined their subcontinental neighbors by losing to Australia in a WC final. But they gave a better fight than Pakistan in 99 or India in 03.

New insight into public spending (or lack of it).

It is common knowledge that the US spends less on public welfare programs than many of the advanced countries in Europe. As a fraction of national income, US spends a third less than Italy, France or Belgium, and half as much as Sweden. Public welfare programs include health, unemployment benefits, social security etc. It is widely assumed that the reason is a stronger libertarian current in American way of thinking and the consequent suspicion of government's ability to do things.

It is impossible to deny this, but there appears to be another reason which is quite interesting. As this article in NYT details, there is a growing body of research suggesting that a major reason for American skepticism of welfare is its rich diversity.

The basic idea is simple enough: one is less likely to be willing to give money for the benefit of "others". This is further supported by the fact that Americans contribute much more than other countries for private charity. That is, Americans are more willing to give money away to specific beneficiaries. One example cited in the article is the following.

In a 1997 study, [the authors] looked at the relationship between social spending and ethnic diversity in 2,700 cities, counties and metropolitan areas across the United States.

They found that in more diverse cities and counties, the share of local government spending on public goods — in this case, roads, sewage treatment, trash clearance and education — was generally lower than it was in more homogeneous localities. “Our results are consistent with the idea that white majorities vote to reduce the supply of productive public goods as the share of blacks and other minorities increases,” they wrote.

Another study calculates that about half the discrepancy between American and European public spending can be attributed to "America’s more varied racial and ethnic mix".

This is a really interesting idea. At one level, this reveals the efficacy of democratic politics in these advanced countries. A majority of the citizens can, it seems, influence these decisions, which is what a democracy strives to do.

Comparison with India is irresistible. Surely India is diverse in more significant ways. But we were never half-hearted when it came to public spending. The interventionist impulse of Indian politics was way too strong, I suppose, for this factor to have any influence.

April 26, 2007

Good writers and English departments.

Kurt Vonnegut once said:
Good writers don't come from English departments because they teach you great taste very early there.

That is a brilliant observation, particularly if it is true.

April 25, 2007

Finally, the Final!

For the fifth consecutive time there is a team from the subcontinent in the World Cup final. For the fourth consecutive time their opponent is Australia.

Fittingly enough, Australia's opponents now are the only team to have beaten them in a WC final, other than the West Indies in 1975, and the only team, moreover, who appear even remotely likely at this stage to be capable of doing so.

Predictions are not easy (as I should know) and more so with a final. This time I am not going to make them. All I ask for is a better match than either semi final.

April 24, 2007

Far from the madding crowd.

This article in Guardian talks about the emerging "social crisis" in Buenos Aires where newly successful middle class increasingly live in idyllic, affluent neighborhoods far removed from the squalor of the city itself. Evidently this is a cause for concern: it promotes the chasm between classes and prepares the ground for potentially dangerous social unrest. That is not my point however. It just prompts me to comment a bit on a more general topic, which has only a passing relevance to the above.

Discussion on issues like the above tends to be maddeningly narrow. Criticism alone goes only so far. Incisive criticism is analytical criticism. In other words, it must include an analysis of the choices involved and their differing potential outcomes, and crucially, a prescription of a different choice from the one being criticized, together with a demonstration that the alternate choice would lead to a "better" outcome.

Society is a complex thing, with a variety of forces acting in a variety of ways to produce a variety of phenomena. On the face of it, analyzing any particular phenomenon is very challenging. Some simplifying assumptions will naturally be made, but the digging has to be deep enough to uncover the treasure of truth. Am I wrong if I observe that there are too-many false treasures uncovered after digging too close to the surface?

April 9, 2007

Welcome Develpoments.

The recent decisions by BCCI in wake of the world cup disaster are commendable. If carried out completely they will have very positive consequences for Indian cricket.

Greg Chappell's continuation was made impossible given the existing conditions. The powers that be were clearly favorable to him, but the situation deteriorated so much that it was not possible for him to continue as a coach. Chappell was hired specifically so that he could bring in his Australian methods to the team. To criticize him for not being sympathetic to Indian ways is unfair. It is another matter that the team was not able to adjust to him. We will never know what went on behind the doors but it seems clear to me that the seniors in the team were more interested in continuing their ways even at the cost of team's success. Chappell's failure is Indian cricket's failure. Another matter that is easily forgotten in all this is: coach's role is secondary to the role of players. As S Rajesh correctly pointed out Indian batsmen failed when it mattered in the last 12 months or so, and this was the single most important reason for the team's failures.

Continuation of Dravid's captaincy is a also good move. There was a sense before the meeting that Sachin Tendulkar could be made the captain. Given his stature and unprofessionalism of the board it was surely possible. But the fact that he was not and the surprise decision to issue him a notice, suggest there is a fresh air of fairness. All too often cricket in India is managed by underhand deals and cronyism. It's good to see that things might be changing.

Another important decision is to scrap the regional structure of the selection committee and constitute a paid body of responsible selectors. If carried out, this will be a remarkable change. Presently the selectors, being sent by their respective zones, have dual loyalty, and often this leads to conflict of regional and national interests. A capable body of individual men acting without the pressures of zonal politics will surely be more likely to unearth new talent, as well as pick the best team out of available talent. It remains to be seen however when this will actually happen.

The decision to require international players to play some domestic matches will work only if there is some relief from the hectic schedule. It's not clear BCCI would want this. Commitment to make sporting pitches sounds stale now.

Ravi Shastri's appointment as manager, Venkatesh Prasad as bowling coach and Robin Singh as fielding coach will make some difference, but they will not lead to any lasting qualitative improvements. Indian cricket (at least in ODIs) has missed the trick in the last couple of years. Batting and bowling are no longer the overwhelming factors. Agile, fit teams which are capable of saving lots of runs on the field, run smartly between wickets are going to dominate one-days. Of course batting and bowling are very important, but not nearly like they were 10 or 15 years ago.

Chappell is dead right when he says India needs a new crop of fit talented young players. When Vengsarkar says that India has no outstanding talent outside of the visible faces, it sounds scary. But it also can't be true. The talent is simply not appearing at the level the board/selectors are looking at now. They need to look deeper, and simultaneously the system which brings the talent to the top has to be made more efficient.

April 1, 2007

Commode-based wireless and Google Paper.

Google usually comes up with ingenious ideas for the April Fool's Day. In the past they promised to improve our love life, came up with a drink to maximize our surfing ability, revealed that the secret behind Google's success is pigeons.

This year there are announcements for two new Google products.

First, they figured out how to provide wireless internet to anyone with a toilet connected to municipal sewage system. TiSP is a wireless service introduced by Google which works through your plumbing system. There are detailed instructions on how to install. Second, Google introduces a service called Google Paper, through which you can request paper copies of any email you get in Gmail. There is no limit on how many mails you can request. Of course, as always with Google, both the above services are free.

Incidentally here are ten of the best April Fool's Day hoaxes.

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