Wednesday, August 31, 2005

So, what _should_ you learn in your undergraduate course?

I am working on a Unix course for undergraduate students, sponsored by the company I work for. To aid us in deciding what to teach, we were given the syllabus for the students, from the 3rd to the 8th semester. Reading it raised the obvious question: "What should you (a student) learn in your undergraduate Computer Science and Engg. course?" Infact, I'll ask a more basic question - what should be the goal of your undergraduate education?

Surely, the undergraduate course is but an introduction to your desired field. No one expects a person to be an expert in the field after an undergraduate degree. That said, you are expected to know stuff. Here is my list of what an undergraduate degree should accomplish:

- Enough knowledge of the field.
- Enough English/Language skills to be able to write about what you know
- Enough practical experience...if your 'Major' was Computer Science - you should be able to program. If it was Electrical Engg, you should be comfortable with opening up 3-phase motors. If it was Mechanical Engg, you should be able to tear down an automobile, if not put it back together :) .
- Some ability at feasibility analysis...if you are a Political science student, you should be able to recognize that communism is unfeasible ;)
- If you're in the technical field, Math. Probably the most invaluable tool this side of the border
- If you are in browner pastures (viz the Arts), Language.

Any you want to add? Feel free to use the comments link right below. Hopefully, I'll get around to posting an answer to "What you need to get out of your computer science degree?" soon.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Globalization and Poverty

Recently a friend of mine posted a link to Vandana Shiva's "Globalization and Poverty" on his blog. This post is a response to some of the issues she's raised in the article. Ofcourse, due to the poverty of my ideas, I am forced to retain the same title as hers.

Read her article here

You can't argue with her when she says that our farmers are ruining their crops by excessive use of pesticides. Nor can you disagree when she talks about people growing water-intensive crops because they are profitable.

However, when she blames globalization, you got to sit up and take notice. See the text of what she says:

"...The drought is not a “natural disaster”. It is “man-made”. It is the result of mining of scarce ground water in arid regions to grow thirsty cash crops for export instead of water-prudent food crops for local needs. It is experiences such as these which tell me that we are so wrong to be smug about the new global economy..."

Its funny how the laws of causality never apply to Ms. Shiva's writings. Well, yes, the drought was caused by farmers growing crops like rice and sugar in water-starved regions like Telangana and Hyderabad-Karnataka. But why did they grow those crops? Was it because of the "global economy"? Why do our farmers use more fertilizer? Is it because of Monsanto? Fortunately for Ms. Shiva, no one asks these questions. Everyone is so taken by her form and fury that they forget to ask ... why? Having asked the questions here, let me try and answer them.

Our farmers use more fertilizer because historically they've done so. And they started doing so because of the "green revolution" that encouraged them in this direction. From 0.55 kgs/hectare, the green revolution brought up fertilizer consumption to nearly 20kgs/hectare in the early 70s ( FAO figures). During those days, chemical fertilizers and pesticides were thought of as the solution to the problems of low soil productivity and pestilence. In fact, comics were produced that drove home this fact! So yes, we were mistaken then - but why do we still use fertilizers and pesticides at such high levels? Well, now this has become a permanent clique of politicians and businessmen who take subsidies to manufacture chemical fertilizers and pesticides, so need a market for them, therefore dumping them at our farmer's doorstep - when was the last time you saw an ad on TV or the newspaper discouraging farmers from using chemical inputs? Pray, what do any of these have anything to do with globalization? BTW, the thirsty cash crops for export that Vandana Shiva mentions are rice and sugarcane - and no, they are not exported (at least not in quantities that lets the farmers profit). Farmers grow rice and sugarcane because of our food procurement laws, lack of infrastructure to store value-rich produce like fruits and vegetables, and guaranteed returns for these crops. So, if you want to blame someone, blame the government for not providing the infrastructure or freeing up internal markets, not "the global economy".

This is a typical tactic used by the eco-terrorists, anti-globalists and communists of all hues. Blind your opponent with flashy English (Arundhati Roy) or tragic scenes (almost everybody). Rant about how farmers are killing themselves, particularly to a largely western audience, and then blame it all on Bush, on globalization, on the WTO, on the BJP, on communalism et al.

Watch this space...

Monday, August 22, 2005

Of equality and equal opportunity.

Somewhere earlier on my blog, I had posted a link to Nehru's speech - "A tryst with destiny". As far as I have seen, this single speech sets out the Indian Dream for all of us better than any other. And amongst other things, Nehru mentions "...It (freedom) means the ending of poverty and ignorance and poverty and disease and inequality of opportunity." Note that he says "inequality of opportunity" and not "inequality".

Nehru knew, unlike the communists of today, that an equal society is unsustainable as it has high entropy and deficiency of opportunity, not to mention the fact that it is against the laws of Nature.

What laws? Simple - note that a rat and an elephant are not created equal. The rat is small, has numerous predators and has a short life span. The elephant is huge, has next to no predators and has a long life span. However, nature gives both an equal opportunity to survive. Rats have numbers. Elephants do not. The sheer numbers of rat population give the species a way to survive, and both species thrive (without taking into account wanton destruction of elephants by humans).

How does this apply to the real world? Easy as pie - Tendulkar and I cannot be equal. But both Tendulkar and I should get equal opportunity to become Tendulkar. The results may vary, but the opportunity should be the same. That is what a democracy should guarantee. In terms of governance, what should be guaranteed is that everyone gets an equal quality and quantity of education - be it a rich dalit, a poor brahmin or a 'backward' politician. And this should be a race to the top, not to the bottom.