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WSJ Asides



WSJ in a story today reports on the boom in the American market for Bibles. Apparently Bibles like personal computers have become customized personal products. To quote:

” "For a long time the Bible was just the Bible," noted Kevin O'Brien, director of Bibles at Tyndale House. "You put it out there and people bought it. They didn't ask about the options, because there weren't any options. But now, especially in evangelical circles, people are seeing their lives not just in color but high-definition color, and they want the Bible to fit in with that. This is not your mother's Bible."

Thus, following the gospel of Seventh Avenue, publishers are displaying their wares in the season's hot colors. "This year alone I've seen four shades of purple," said Ms. Love, whose stores have also done well with two-tone Bibles. The pink and brown model has been particularly popular. Bibles are also available in the colors of your college, with a fur cover, a flower-patterned cover, and to appeal to young adherents, with a camouflage cover, a metal cover and a duct- tape cover. Next spring Tyndale House will be bringing out a paperback Bible in a plastic case that looks like a flattened Nalgene bottle”

I think my modest library has two Bibles, a nice leather-bound King James Version and a pocket-sized Gideon, both gifts, and both of which happily mingle with other “holy” books such as the Koran, Bhagavad Geetha etc. But I am now wondering if I should go out the nearest Christian bookstore, and buy one done up in Amar Chitra Katha style. Being the blasphemer that I am, in such a version I imagine Jesus would dance the bangra after kicking the moneylenders out of the Temple, and the last supper’s menu would be composed of naan, butter chicken, and bottles of Kingfisher beer.

Moving on to a topic related to the “spirit”, happiness, another WSJ story had this to offer:

Limiting options. Having lots of choice might seem like a good thing. But in fact, it can lead to unhappiness. Consider a study conducted by professors Jane Ebert and Daniel Gilbert. Participants were allowed to choose an art poster to take home. Some were told that, if they didn't like the poster, they could exchange it for another. Others were told their decision was final. "Who was happiest with their choice?" asks Prof. Gilbert of Harvard University. "Those for whom the choice was irrevocable. When options are open, the mind generates debate. When options are closed, the mind generates satisfaction.” This insight spurred Prof. Gilbert to limit his own choices. "It made me realize that I ought to propose to my girlfriend," he says. "Sure enough, now that she's my wife, I'm happier."

I personally would like such a happiness study run on a sample of “relationships” based on categories that might include “love” vs. “arranged” marriages; “liberal” vs. “conservative” views on male-female roles, and on divorce etc. I have a hunch that data points that fall in the latter category might report higher levels of “happiness”. This because I think, based on my personal experiences, there is a significant correlation between the “options” (or “features”) people desire in their “romantic” partners and the degree of happiness they might experience from such relationships.

Becoming enlightened in this area, I think, primarily consists of learning to arrive at a necessary set of well articulated and measurable options – not too large, not too small, and to take everything else that might fall outside this set as a gift. While I have been accused on having very utilitarian views towards romance (with the associated bafflement as to how I can write verse given such views!) because requiring options to be “measurable” kicks fuzzy stuff like “chemistry” out of this absolute basic set. Doing this would, perhaps, lead to happier outcomes.




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NYT Musings



This NYT story points to a large scale Gallup poll, first published in Foreign Policy, which showed that there is no marked difference between the Islamic "radicals" and "moderates", and if anything "radicals" (people who tend to end up as suicide bombers) are better educated and more prosperous than the "moderates". Assuming the methodology of the poll is right, the obvious explanation for this would be that education in these nine Islamic countries is acting as an enabler in Islamic radicaliztion; not a hard conclusion to comprehend given that most "revolutionary" movements in the last century have been lead by disaffected college students.

This story on Cingular's moronic attempt to teach adults "text speak" in order to bond better with their teenagers makes my inner "social conservative" go ballastic. Time to take down Robert Bly's "The Sibling Society" to immunize myself against what a historian in that story observed: "“we see this return to this earlier world where kids are not trained to be adults, but where adults and kids mingle and where kids are precocious and adults are childish.”.

This story on prostate cancer is one among the slew of troubling stories (here is the one from yesterday concerning dialysis treatments) that I have read in the recent days, all of which raise issues that lay at the intersection of medical ethics and capitalism. The questions I want answered or to be able to answer are: To what extent should doctors be allowed to be profit-maximizing capitalists when it comes to treating medical conditions that have multiple treatment regimes with similar outcomes but highly variant payoff structure? Are these questions even discussed and debated within the medical community and in medical education, or has it simply become a bleating herd following the money? These issue also tie in with the pervasive marketing practises (soft emotional TV ads, "Mongol horde" sale force tactics etc) of pharam companies, which operate under even severe market imperative of bringing new, and thus even more profitable drugs to market even if the older (and generic) drug regimes are as good if not better. Hard questions to answer, I know, in an economy where disease or illness easily swamps health as a market sector in size.




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Edumacation In The Desh



Today’s NYT had two stories that I thought provide interesting viewpoints to the challenges and problems of education in India, and more generally the developing world.

The first one highlights a knowledge gap between the skills that an average Indian college education equips students with and the employable skills that the back office of the world requires of them. Some of these gaps such as the shortcomings in English and communication skills (the language handicap, which I have seen keep cousins out of software job market for years), college curricula that emphasize rote learning etc are quite obvious who has gotten an Indian college education. Others such as inability to take initiative and think independently are less so. It is these, I submit, that are potentially more dangerous to the continued growth of the Indian knowledge economy, mainly because these have no quick fixes, and need deeper cultural surgery.

Indian education, reflecting the larger socio-economic culture in which it operates in, places an inordinate amount of emphasis on mastery of skills – mathematics and science topping the cake - that are useful to take students to the job market. As someone who has had the benefit of such an education, I can attest that, when it comes to such hard skills Indian students are the best of class worldwide. But when it comes to more subtle and softer skills – how to formulate and synthesize new ideas that might span multiple domains, make plans to transform these ideas into workable plans, how to communicate this stuff to others etc – I think the hidebound Indian education system (and more generally culture) falls far behind the Western education system. Until this is fixed, however much trumpeting one may hear of Indian firms moving up the knowledge chain, it is very unlikely that Indian economy would see anything equivalent to the Silicon Valley anytime soon.

The second one is on Nicholas Negroponte’s hack – the $100 laptop, with its price now jacked up to $150. I am glad the Indian government, after toying with the idea of buying one million of these toys for $100 million, had wisely turned the offer down. This is one of those ideas where a hammer is out transforming everything it sees into a nail so that it can prove what a useful too it can be. While I am not against providing access to the information or letting Indian kids loose on the internet, for this to have any substantial educational value at all, Indian schooling will have to first to equip the potential beneficiaries of Prof. Negroponte’s scheme with working English skills. If I was Negroponte, I would spend all that crusading energy into equipping all those ‘third world’ villages with cheaper pulp based information systems (libraries), and lobbying for a decent wage to reasonably qualified teachers.




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