7 Jan

Limited Time Only

Lifespan ~ 80 years*52 weeks/year ~ 4k weeks

If you are 40: 2k weeks to go.

If you are 70: another 500–700 weeks.

Interpolate for rest.


If you read a book a week for 50 years, you will read ~ 2500 books.

Approximately 130M books have been published.


India’s PPP adjusted median per capita income was $1,497/yr in 2013. So ~ 550M people < $1500/yr.

  • Since it is PPP wage, think about living on $1500/year in the US
  • Another way to think about it:
    Wage of median American working for a year ($26,964) > wage of 18 Indians working for a year
  • Yet another way to think about it:
    Avg. career ~ 35 years (30–65)
    What median American will earn in 2 yrs = lifetime earning of an Indian earning median income
  • Yet another way to think about it:
    median CEO/median worker wage ~ 4x
    median US Worker/median Indian worker ~ 18x
  • Yet another way to think about it:
    From a company’s perspective, median American has to be more than 45x productive (where shipping 0, as in lots of digital products) than median Indian or outsourcing or automation makes more sense.

Reducing the Nuclear Threat by Reducing Local Threat Perceptions

12 Jan

The drive to acquire nuclear weapons is thought to stem largely from local threat perceptions. The point becomes all the more clear when we take stock of the countries where the nuclear weapons activity is limited to.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) nuclear weapons program initially started as a response to the not-so-veiled nuclear threat from Truman during the Korean War. During a press conference on November 30, 1950, Truman acknowledged that using the nuclear bomb was part of the contingency planning. (Bruce Cummings, Korea’s Place in the Sun: A History, multiple other sources) and during 1951 active hints – moving Mark IV nuclear capsules – were dropped to convey that the usage was imminent. Beyond 1953, US’s continued presence in the Korean peninsula and in the Sea of Japan is seen as a key reason as to why North Korea assiduously followed its nuclear program. Iran’s drive for acquisition of Nuclear Weapons can be similarly understood as a response to guard against the US threat.

It is, however, hard to imagine what particular use the smallish stockpile of nuclear weapons would be to DPRK. Any nuclear escalation by it will surely be met by an ‘overwhelming’ US response. Simply put, there is no deterrent against a super-power. Except for perhaps an alliance with another superpower. (I will come to this point later.) However, nuclear weapons provide a country with the capability of making an assault on it costly for the superpower by attacks on its key allies (Japan and South Korea). So while North Korea is held in check by the incredible US military power, the US, in turn, is held in check (to some degree) through North Korea’s ability to inflict damage on its allies. The same goes for Iran, which feels vulnerable to unprovoked US attack, given its inability to inflict damage on its ally (Israel) in the region.

Strategy toward DPRK until now

The strategy to contain DPRK nuclear weapons program has consisted of the Agreed Framework signed in 1994, the multilateral ‘six-party’ agreement signed in 2007, and a multitude of covert Sun Tzuian attempts to effect regime change. All these strategies have ended at different levels of failure.

The Agreed Framework, which required the DPRK to “dismantle its nuclear facilities and dispose of all its weapons-grade plutonium, only temporarily interrupted production – the fuel rods, with weapons-grade plutonium embedded in them, were stored in a pool awaiting reprocessing, and never removed from North Korea – as DPRK simply re-prioritized its efforts to construction of delivery systems. The efforts culminated in the successful August 1998 Taepo Dong I missile test. DPRK, as AQ Khan confirmed in 2003, also developed an indigenous uranium enrichment capability in the intervening years. In a three week period in Dec 2002/Jan 2003, Kim Jong Il expelled all international weapons inspectors, restarted the Yongbyon reactor and withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Three months later the DPRK acknowledged it had nuclear weapons, and eventually tested one in Oct 2006.

After years of neglect, Six-Party Talks held in February 2007 resulted in an agreement that called for North Korea to shut down its 5 MW (e) graphite-moderated reactor at Yongbyon by 14 April 2007. Almost immediately, North Korea refused to comply with the terms of this agreement and the Yongbyon reactor continued operation for more than two months beyond the mutually agreed upon deadline. On 18 July 2007, the International Atomic Energy Agency finally confirmed that all five nuclear facilities at Yongbyon had been shut down. Since that time, “disablement” has continued. However, more recently on 26 December 2007, Hyon Hak Pong, vice director-general of North Korea’s Foreign Ministry, stated the disablement process will be delayed, in a statement reminiscent of the process of repeated delays practices following the signing of the 1994 Agreed Framework.

The 13th February agreement, which was signed on the precondition that US would release the $25 million dollars frozen by Washington at a Macau bank, Banco Delta Asia, which had allegedly helped the DPRK illegally launder money and pass counterfeit $100 bills, is a much weaker agreement than 1994 one. The 13th February agreement avoids the term dismantling and uses the more ambiguous terms “abandonment” and “disablement”, which allows the DPRK to essentially leave its entire nuclear infrastructure intact. Immediately following its signing, the DPRK state-run news agency announced that the offer of aid equivalent to 1M tonnes of fuel oil was made in connection with North Korea’s “temporary suspension of the operation of its nuclear facilities.”

Reasons for failure

While the 13th February agreement holds the six-parties – China, Japan, the ROK, Russia and the U.S. – accountable, each has different motives and capabilities of performing the duty. For instance, while China may admonish DPRK publicly – as it did when DPRK fired ballistic missiles on the 4th of July and then conducted a nuclear test on 09 October – it has little incentive to be a truly accountable. After all, the nuclear threat from NK concerns the US much more than it does China. Similarly, Russia has little incentive to police North Korean compliance. Japan and the US have very little leverage with North Korea due to non-existent trade links, that make any possibility of tangible economic threat moot, and South Korea seems disinclined. North Korea, on the other hand, doesn’t quite have the security guarantee to comfortably forgo its nuclear program which makes it’s giving up of nuclear capability unlikely.

Strategy for success

Putting NK’s security needs at the heart of the debate is essential to gain a better understanding of how to craft a more sustainable agreement for North Korea. To gain a better understanding of its security needs, I will briefly survey the threat posed by Japan/US combine.

The US has over the past many years led the most cavalier foreign policy in the world. The policy has led to numerous regime changes, more failed regime changes, countless assassinations, and support of terror groups. In East Asia, US maintains a significant military presence, has bi-lateral security agreements with Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea – and as co-guarantor of their security flexes muscle at each of their expressed security worries – and regularly issues damning rhetoric like ‘axis of evil’. While US’s capability to launch an attack in East Asia has been severely compromised due to the ongoing conflagration in Iraq, it nonetheless remains a potent and continuous threat to North Korea.

While Japan has a strictly ‘pacifist’ constitution, it hasn’t stopped it from building a very sophisticated and well armed “self-defense force”. Similar kind of ambiguity underpins its nuclear strategy. While Japan under Prime Minister Eisaku Sato, promulgated the “Three Non-Nuclear Principles” on 05 February 1968 and has been a tireless promoter of non-proliferation at a variety of international venues, it also has one of the largest stockpiles of enriched plutonium in the world – estimated at over 46 tons. While the majority of its plutonium is in storage in France and the UK, an estimated 5.7 tones (still enough to build in excess of a thousand of nuclear weapons) exists within Japan. In addition, Japan currently possesses approximately 3 tons of “near” (i.e. roughly 90% Pu-239, 7% Pu-240, 3% Pu-241) Weapons Grade Plutonium (WGPu), and could immediately begin production of larger quantities of WGPu and Weapons Grade Uranium (WGU) for more reliable and higher yielding warheads. It also has potent delivery vehicles in the form of H-2 (ICBM capable of carrying a 4,000 kg payload over 15,000 km), and M-3SII (IRBM capable of carrying a 500 kg payload approximately 4,000 km). In addition, Japan possesses a robust Theater Ballistic Missile Defense (TBMD) system which forms the centerpiece of “deterrence by denial” strategy. Since 2002, many high-level Japanese officials have openly discussed the possibility of Japan pursuing an indigenousness nuclear capability. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda and Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara have bluntly called for “revising” the Three Non-Nuclear Principles.

Kim Jong Il is primarily interested in maintaining himself as North Korea’s Dear Leader. US rhetoric about democratization and omnipresent military threat jeopardize that. A “non-use of force” agreement between the US, South Korea, and the DPRK would go a long way in ameliorating North Korea’s concerns but still won’t remove all doubts from either side. Minus the trust in such a treaty, all things go back to some version of the status quo. A better idea would be to rope in China and ask it to sign a protection deal with North Korea styled on US Taiwan agreements. Of course, China’s interest in roping in North Korea is debatable given that a nuclear North Korea is a concern for the US and not China. China, however, can be enticed by incentives. This kind of a deal would mean sacrificing some of the military supremacy that the US has enjoyed in East Asia but in the longer term, it would lead to a safer region for its allies.

Threats from non-state actors and other contingencies

Since “Chicago Pile One” – the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction – in 1942, a total of 9 Nuclear Weapon States (NWS) have emerged. In addition to the 9 current NWS, Japan possesses the capacity to produce nuclear weapons on a quick notice. Two other countries, Libya and South Africa have come forth and disbanded their nuclear weapons programs.

However, the critical nuclear threat is now thought to come from non-state actors. None of the 9 NWS can provide an exact accounting of the amount of Weapons Grade Plutonium (WGPu) or Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) they possess. In Russia alone, only 64% of the basic Material Protection, Control, and Accounting (MPC&A) rapid upgrades (i.e. bricking over windows, installing detectors at doors) have been completed, and even fewer “comprehensive security and accounting upgrades specifically designed for securing each facility and its stored material(s), have been completed. More ominously, cases of trafficking of nuclear materials are becoming more commonplace. The most recent case came on 01 February 2006 in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi when North Ossetia resident and Russian citizen, Oleg Khintsagov attempted to sell 100 grams of weapons-grade uranium to a Georgian undercover agent posing as a rich foreign buyer. This uranium was obtained from the nuclear material storage facility in Novosibirsk, Siberia; the same facility suspected to be the source of another 2003 nuclear material trafficking case which involved the seizure of 170 grams of HEU. Also in 2003, a court case in Russia revealed that a Russian businessman had been offering $750,000 for stolen weapons-grade plutonium for sale to an unidentified foreign client.

There is legitimate concern about non-state actors using nuclear weapons but using them would mean such an unacceptable escalation that would surely jeopardize the larger aims of whatever organization. But non-state actors are much less rational than nation states and diffuse organizations may mean that the ability to conclusively hit back at them is limited at best. The other concern is that neutralizing the organization may not neutralize the threat of the ideology that the organization may purport. On the positive side, however, – non-state actors often times have depended on explicit nation state funding. As long as the nuclear material is traceable to its source – something which isotopic analysis can do now – the organization and the state actors funding it can be implicated providing each state actor with powerful incentive to control such activity by the organization they fund or support.


The US must embark on a much saner foreign policy course and tone down its rhetoric so as to ameliorate the security worries that countries feel. The other related action would be to see to it that countries like North Korea get their security guarantees from major powers to which they are close to. Little recourse exists as to dealing with non-state actors except strengthening state actors – including providing help in sealing nuclear materials and instituting a strengthened security program. It is important to keep in mind that the chance of a nuclear attack is minuscule and expenditure on security should be commensurate to it.

Use of nuclear weapons has been stigmatized in the international arena to such a degree that nuclear weapons are weapons of last resort for state actors, and likely for non-state actors too. The chance of usage of nuclear weapons hence remains minuscule and it is debatable whether it is worth focusing large amounts of resources on removing them from regimes with limited capacity to produce or use them. However, nuclear weapons do have strategic consequences (e.g. deterrence) on the ability of US to exercise power. The prominent worry is that with deterrence countries could feel emboldened to support terrorism. In addition, given the predicted cascading effect of nuclear weapons-neighboring countries feel threatened by nuclear neighbors and then their neighbors feel threatened etc. – strategic consequences can be immense. The course of action that I prescribe above focuses on mitigating security threat of countries that are intent on building nuclear weapons. But the strategy comes with consequences. Ameliorating threat perceptions of North Korea may also imply giving up the chance of ever really threatening North Korea. And therein lays the bargain and a key dilemma. You can have a nuclear-armed country with deterrence that successfully deters your attacks or be in a treaty with you or another major power which also effectively provides deterrence to it. There are two key advantages to the latter strategy – preventing the cascade effect, and limiting the threat of proliferation. The significant downside to both strategies is limiting the ability to mount punitive action. Given that alternative sanctioning mechanisms like levying economic sanctions have proven to be ineffective, very little edge ways space is available to counteract support for hostile entities except perhaps mounting negotiations – which may not quite work minus the threat of the stick.

It is perhaps best to look at the issue as to how much harder does the presence of nuclear weapons make the launching of punitive action in face of hostile activities. The fact of the matter is that propensity for mounting war as punitive action – even without nuclear deterrence – remains very low given the political and economic costs of war. So in the small minority of cases – really Iran and North Korea – presence of nuclear weapons may make US attack a little less likely from the already low number but given the overwhelming military superiority that the US enjoys – not terribly less likely than non-nuclear scenario.

Seen hence, nuclear weapons possession can be seen as a marginal gain for the countries but nothing which will decisively tilt the power equation.

The Missing Women of Asia

9 May

According to China’s fifth national census, conducted in 2000, there were around 117 men for every 100 women. The sex ratios in much of Europe and the US are quite the reverse, with there being around 105 females for every 100 males. Amartya Sen in an essay for NYRB argued that the reason behind the discrepancy was misogyny. Emily Oster, who was a Harvard graduate student at the time, published an article in 2005 arguing that “perhaps as much as 45 percent of the gender imbalance observed in the Sen (1992) missing women populations in the period 1980–90 can be accounted for by hepatitis B.” Oster further argued, “that the explanatory power varies significantly across space: 75 percent of the missing women in China are accounted for, versus around 20 percent in India.” Oster’s article received a lot of attention on its release. Luminaries like Steven D. Levitt used Oster’s research to take a jab at Amartya Sen. The paper was seen as a signpost of how sometimes prejudicial seemingly convenient explanations can be completely off the mark. The article also produced a fair amount of backlash with Monica Das Gupta, a senior researcher at the World Bank who had prior produced scathing articles documenting female infanticide in Punjab, arguing that Dr. Oster’s methodology was flawed. Das Gupta’s critique didn’t go unrequited and soon the argument had turned into a narrow academic debate. Just recently Das Gupta has renewed her assault with an article that uses some innovative statistics to dig a hole in Oster’s hypothesis. “Das Gupta found that data from a huge sample of births in China show that the only women with elevated probabilities of bearing a son are those who have already borne daughters.” World Bank

The argument Gupta offers is persuasive, and there is little doubt in my mind that Gupta is right.

Further Reading –

May 22, 2008

Oster admits that she was wrong

Andy Gelman on Monica Das Gupta being right all along

The Political Dollar

29 Apr

BBC reports, that according to UN over 100,000 people have benefited from a $1.5 million solar loan project that provides $300-500 for setting up solar lights. If the math is right, $1.5 million would have yielded, assuming perfect distribution, about 3100 such lamps (with the average cost of $400). In other words, each of these 3100 lamps benefits 30 people each.

Cross the $1.5 million figure with the $125 billion, which the US has spent post hurricane Katrina to “help” about 5 times as many people. [Washington Post, 2000 US Census put New Orleans population at 484,000] In other words the US government has spent an estimated $200,000 per person.

In many respects, the above comparison is a false one. It compares money needed to emerge out of a disaster, which requires rebuilding houses and infrastructure, with providing loans for buying solar systems that provide electricity for a few appliances. It does, however, provide one with a barometer of how much the world spends and on whom.

What is so Foreign About Foreign Aid?

18 Nov

A khaki-clad Western aid worker is helping unload a truck in a sun-baked dusty barren place surrounded by black (sometimes brown) faces. It could be a scene from any of the countless news clips from the equally countless number of crises that continue to rain down upon obscure parts of the world. The clips are ubiquitous and yet hardly anybody notices the egregious role of the Western aid worker, who ostensibly has flown around from whichever place s/he calls home at a pretty penny to do the readily outsourced job of (un)loading supplies from the truck.

Planners versus “the Searchers”
William Easterly, NYU economics professor and a former research economist at the World Bank, in his book “The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good”, argues that the aid efforts led by the West have failed primarily because their utopian aid plans are based on the assumption that they know what is best for everyone. He argues that the West needs to get away from the model of “Planners”, imposing top-down solutions, and rather adopt the “Searchers” model, that tries to adapt innovations that come from native cultures. That may well be. But it is not clear if that is the primary sin.

Home Aid
Easterly misses the fact that many Western aid programs typically mandate that the recipient country buy provisions (defense armaments to cans of food) from the donor nation. Many times in fact aid is provided in form of products made by donor nation industries. So you can have “2.4 million Kellogg’s pop-tarts” being airdropped in Afghanistan (see Wikipedia which cites the book from which the figure is drawn), while much cheaper staples like rice and lentil are largely ignored.

This better explains why “the West spent $2.3 trillion in foreign aid over the last five decades and still had not managed to get 12 cent medicines to children to prevent half of all malaria deaths. The West spent $2.3 trillion and still had not managed to get $4 bed nets to poor families. The West spent $2.3 trillion and still had not managed to get $3 to each new mother to prevent five million child deaths” (White Man’s Burden).

Careerism and Bureaucratization
The rise of careerism and increased bureaucratization in the NGO industry are partly responsible for the failure of development assistance to the third world, according to Dr. Thomas Dichter, an anthropologist at The University of Chicago and author of “Despite Good Intentions: Why Development Assistance to the Third World Has Failed.”

Increased bureaucratization has led to a demand for “trained professionals” (air quotes because it isn’t clear what the training is in) to fill the ranks. Paying heed to the rising demand, “entire college programs have sprung up, such as Wayne State University’s Nonprofit Sector Studies Program (NPSS). The NPSS mission states, “The nation’s fastest-growing sector needs administrators, policymakers, program managers, and advocates who will guide them into the future” writes Michael Donnely for Peace Corps Online. One may expect that the rising compensation packages at non-profit organizations would attract better talent, instead, it has largely meant that the organizations are paying more for the same work or/and are led by ever more ambitious dimwits who want to push for ever larger projects at the expense of some little ones that do work.

The NGO-Ivy league Nexus
In the past two decades, an internship at an NGO has become a right of passage for countless Ivy League undergraduates, primarily in social sciences and humanities, interested in pursuing further graduate school education. Experience with a foreign NGO has become the best way for the ambitious ivy educated brats to pad up resumes and impress law and medical school admissions committees of their sociotropic ideals. There is little that these self-absorbed individuals bring to third world countries in terms of talent or ability to help but every year thousands of such students are farmed out to NGOs across the world and there they leech money and time from NGOs to get training to hang their mosquito nets and make their calls to mom and dad and make safari trips and learn the language.

NGO workers — Why do they get paid more?
“Government employees have complained their co-workers employed by some non-governmental organizations are getting high salaries that cause a socio-economic imbalance in the society. The high-paid workers of NGOs have clouded the status and standard of life of the low-paid government employees. Prestigious social status and high income of the NGOs workers have created envies in the poverty-stricken government employees.” South Asian Media Net “Venting her spleen, Torpikai, a government employee, told Pajhwok Afghan News on Sunday despite 18 years experience she was paid 2,000 afghanis (40$) but her younger and inexperienced neighbor with same qualification was getting double than her salary.” And wages are only part of the issue, real bills pour in from conferences at five-star hotels, and extravagant perks enjoyed by foreign aid employees like the use of SUVs, PDAs, and stays in five-star hotels. The sad fact is that majority of the aid money is actually funneled back to pay for the perks and salary of the Western aid workers.

Lack of accountability
The logic that underpins all NGO wastefulness is lack of accountability, both in tallying funds and actual accomplishments. Washington Post a couple of years reported that employees in non-profits often times take loans from the NGO funds at no or ridiculously low-interest rates. Other ethical violations are also rampant within NGOs. For example, Oxfam, an NGO and a 25% stakeholder of Cafedirect, campaigned vigorously against CafeDirect’s competitors, accusing them of exploiting coffee growers by paying them a small fraction of their earnings.

Food for Thought
Here’s an excerpt from a New York Times article that passingly compares aid strategies between the West and China.

“The industrial nations conducted a sort of moral crusade, with advocacy organizations exposing Africa’s dreadful sores and crying shame on the leaders of wealthy nations and those leaders then heroically pledging, at the G8 meeting in July, to raise their development assistance by billions and to open their markets to Africa. Once everyone had gone home, the aid increase turned out to be largely ephemeral and trade reform merely wishful. China, by contrast, offers a pragmatic relationship between equals: the “strategic partnership” promised in China’s African policy is premised on “mutual benefit, reciprocity, and common prosperity.” And the benefits are very tangible.”

Playing with Numbers: Coming up with Objective Ratings of a Subjective Reality

1 Nov

Statistics are only meaningful to the extent that people can identify the phenomenon being measured, come up with a sensible measurement scales to measure primary or secondary observable phenomena and then interpret the results and display them in a lucid fashion. Often times that’s too much to ask and our world is now crumbling under the load of heaps of pointless incomprehensible statistics.

Increasingly, we are trying to understand the world around us via numbers. To this end, a host of research centers and organizations now annually release rankings on issues ranging from corruption to democracy to freedom of press. These rankings are then featured on prime real estate across media and used in homilies, laudatory notes and everything in-between; to buttress indefensible claims; and to bring a sense of “objectivity” to a media-saturated with rants of crazed morons.

“Lost in translation” are subtleties of data, methods of data collection and of analysis, and the caveats. What remains, often times, are savaged numbers that peddle whatever theory that you want them to hawk.

Understanding with numbers

The field of social science has been revolutionized in the recent decades with “positivist” approaches using statistics dominating the field. The rise in importance of “numbers” in research is not incidental for numbers provide powerful new ways, particularly statistics, to analyze concepts. Today numbers are used to understand everything from democracy to emotions. But how do we go about measuring things and assigning number to thing which we haven’t yet even been able to define, much less explain?

Let me narrow my focus to creation, interpretation and usage of rankings to substantiate the problems with using statistics.

More Specifically, Rankings

Reporters Sans Frontiers (Reporters without Borders and henceforth called RSF) came out with its annual “Worldwide Press Freedom Rankings”. The latest rankings place USA at 53, along with Botswana and Tonga, India at 105 while Jamaica and Liberia are ranked 26 and 83 respectively. The top-ranked South Asian country in the rankings is Bhutan at 98. Intuitively, the rankings don’t make any sense and a little digging into RSF’s methodology for compiling these rankings explains why.

Media’s fascination with rankings

The rankings received wide attention and made it to the front pages of countless newspapers. There is a reason why rankings are the choice nourishment of media starved of any “real information”. Numbers capture, or so is thought, a piece of “objective” information about the “reality”. Their usage is buoyed by the fact that rankings are seductively simple and easy to interpret. Everyone seems to intuitively know the difference between first and second. All that needs to be done is present the fluff, the requisite shock and horror and the article is written.

On to the problems with rankings or the “rank smell”

How can you measure objectively when you need a subjective criterion to come up with a scale?

This is something I raise earlier when I talk about how we can understand concepts like democracy or say emotions using numbers. Researchers do it by assigning number or related phenomenon – in the case of emotions it may be checking the heart rate or doing a brain scan or counting the number of times you use certain words, while in the case of democracy it can be how frequently the elites change, or how many people vote in the elections. But still numerous problems remain especially when we try to order these relatively hazily defined concepts. Say for example the elite turnover in US Congress has of late been fairly close to 2% and that doesn’t seem fairly democratic to me and how does it compare with somewhere like India, where elite turnover may be higher but where members of one family have held key positions in India politics since inception.

To rank something means to determine the relative position of something. Rankings NEVER tell one about absolute position of something unless of course they are an incidental result of a score on a shared scale. For instance – RSF’s ranking of USA at 53 in the worldwide press freedom rankings doesn’t tell one whether USA’s press enjoys freedom over say a particular bare threshold below which a functioning press can’t be legitimately said to exist. A lot of people have misinterpreted India’s slide from 80, in 2002, to 105. They believe that it is a slide in absolute terms but the rankings only tell us of a slide in relative terms. There may be an argument to made that India is doing better than it is doing in 2002 in absolute terms but not in relative terms to say other countries. In other words, the press freedom in India may have improved since 2002 but as compared to other countries, India’s press is less free today.

The scale of things

To rank something, one has to use a common scale. Generally a scale, especially one measuring a complex concept like democracy, would be a composite scale of a variety of variables. One now needs to think of a couple of things. How does one weight the variables in the scale between time periods and between countries? For example how do you account for higher usage rates of media in one country (and possibly associated higher level of censorship) to say a country with low media usage and possibly lower total censorship? One may also argue that the media penetration is lower by deliberate action (as in limitation for foreign content owners to broadcast) or other factors (poverty). One must also tackle the problem of assigning “weight” to each facet.


RSF ranking are based on a non-representative survey of pre-chosen experts. Hence it is more of a poorly conducted opinion poll rather than a scientific survey. Statistics gets its power of generalizability from the concept of randomization. RSF methodology is more akin to conducting a poll of television pundits on who will win the elections and I am fairly sure that the results would be more often wrong than right.

Secondly, questionnaire includes questions about topics like Internet censorship. No explicit mechanism has been detailed where we know that these scores are weighted based on say Internet penetration in each country. If no cases of Internet censorship was reported in Ghana, and it consequently gets a higher ranking as compared to a country Y whose press is freer but did report one case of Internet censorship – it implies the system is flawed. Let me give you another example. India has the largest number of newspapers in the world and there is a good chance that the total number of journalists harassed may well exceed that of Eritrea. It doesn’t automatically flow that Eritrean press is freer. One may need to account for not only the number of journalists (for more journalists per capita may mean a freer press) but also crime against journalists per capita. In the same vein we may need to account for countries which in general have a high crime rate and where journalists by pure chance, rather than say a government witch hunt, may have a higher chance of dying.

One also need to account for the fact that statistics on these crimes are hard to come by especially in poor countries with barebones media and there is a good chance that they are under-reported there.

On the positive side
Rankings do give one some estimate about the relative freedom of a country. Proximity to Saudi Arabia in the ranking does give us an idea about the relative media freedom.

A lot of the criticism lobbed against India’s low placement in the RSF rankings has been prompted by people’s perception of India as a functioning democracy with a relatively free press. What goes unmentioned are episodes like Tehelka and the one faced by Rajdeep Sardesai of recently. India’s press, especially in small towns, is constantly under pressure from the local politicians who monitor aggressively.

What can RSF do?
I would like to see a more detailed report on each country especially marking areas where India is lagging behind. Release more data. Aside from protecting sources, there should be no concerns regarding release of more data. Release it to the world so policymakers and citizens can better understand where improvements need be made.

Release a composite score index that is comparable across time rather than countries. There are far too many problems comparing countries. Controlling for major variables like economic growth etc., we can get a fairly good estimate of how things changed in the course of a set of years.


Whenever we do use numbers to understand concepts, we sacrifice something in what we understand or our conceptual understanding. Some numbers like demographics are relatively non-debatable. Even there debates have arisen in defining who are say Caucasians etc? More debatable are how numbers are used in say the realm of content analysis. What does it mean when a person says a particular word in a sentence? Does it mean that somebody who uses the word “evil” twice in describing Bush hates him twice as much as the person who only uses it once? The understanding and “counting” of words has largely been limited to simple linear additions. We haven’t yet tried understanding strength of words as an equation of countless variables or more importantly learned how to work with that much data so we use shortcuts in our understanding.

Numbers can give one a sense of false objectivity. The ways numbers are trimmed and chopped to support a particular point of view leave them meaningless, yet powerful.

The problems that I describe above are twin fold – errors in coming up with rankings and errors in reporting the rankings. In all, we need to be careful about the numbers we see and use. It doesn’t mean that we need to distrust all the statistics that we see and burrow our nose but we can do well by being careful and honest.

Closing Thought

According to UNECA, Ethiopia “counted 75 000 computers in 2001 and 367 000 television sets in 2000. Only 2.8 % of the total number of households in the country had access to television and approximately 18.4 % of people had a radio station in 1999 and 2000.” These numbers do inform. They talk about poverty. For the West, obsessed with issues of liberty and running from its own increasingly authoritarian regimes, press freedom is “the” issue. In the hustle, they miss some of the more important numbers coming from other countries that tell different stories.

Debunking Nuclear Peace, Deterrence, and Associated Posits

23 Oct

Social scientists and casual analysts have for long understood the importance of nuclear weapons as a direct correlate to their destructive power. Given that we live in a world where some of the lowest technology weapons take the most number of lives and are the most effective in waging war, and where “low-intensity war” is the new buzz word, the exaggerated importance of nuclear weapons and the consequent paranoia of nuclear-armed countries rife in literature seems utterly baseless.

I posit that possession of nuclear weapons imbue no special properties to a nation and no special protection against attack and doesn’t protect it from retribution if it is found to have erred. Superiority in conventional and not-so-conventional weapons, including Phosphorus and Depleted Uranium bombs, remains the primary criterion in military supremacy and ability to initiate action and respond to aggravation.

The enormous destructive power of nuclear weapons and the stigma associated with their usage has proven to be their undoing in the “real world” as opposed to the “realist world”. A slew of “realists” have argued that nuclear weapons guarantee peace between states. Aside from the “hot” cold-war era that led to the deaths of millions, the 1999 Kargil War between two nuclear-tipped nations, India and Pakistan, provides an easy rebuttal to the argument.

Others have posited that possession of Nuclear weapons by a regime limits the options of other countries in dealing it. “Chaste” in his article presents the 1999 Kargil invasion by Pakistan as an example where Pakistan’s nuclear capability limited India’s options in the field. The scenario that he mentions is not particularly true for India did respond back with a fairly robust counter-attack, successfully repulsing Pakistan’s attack and only held back at the personal assurances of Clinton. Even if we discount this particular example, concerns remain as to whether states will genuinely have fewer options in dealing with a nuclear-tipped rogue state. I believe that the answer is no and will try to corroborate my point my examining two possible scenarios– a rogue state conducts a terrorist attack against a much more powerful nation, and an event where it conducts a terrorist attack against say an equally or less powerful nation.

If a rogue state were to sponsor a terrorist attack against say the US, the US will respond militarily much in the same way as it has done in the past. If the rogue state were to choose a nuclear-tipped response at that juncture, it would be annihilated fairly quickly given the overwhelming nuclear superiority of the US. One may reasonably argue from the above that unless a regime is self-destructive, and then there would be repercussions even in a non-nuclear scenario, it would not use any nuclear weapons. And if the regime doesn’t choose to use nuclear weapons then we can take nuclear weapons out of the equation and see the conflagration as a “conventional” war.

Let’s consider now if a “rogue state” were to conduct a terrorist attack against an equally or less powerful nation. This is akin to the example of Pakistan sponsoring terrorist attacks against India. The choices that India has are already limited because, though India has conventional superiority against Pakistan, a conflagration with Pakistan will inevitably cost a lot, cause a fair amount of lives and create the threat of communal discord. If Pakistan were to use a nuclear weapon against India, as a response to a conventional attack by India, it would be stigmatized at the world stage and would swiftly result in a host of powers joining hands with India to at least affect a regime change. Here again, given the stigma of using nuclear weapons and given the repercussions of using one, the chances that Pakistani regime will ever use nuclear weapons against India are very limited. Even if India were to pro-actively launch strikes against “terrorist hideouts” in “Azad Kashmir”, there would be little that Pakistan could do to affect it except reply back with conventional firepower or via sponsorship of more terrorism.

Hence, one can safely assume that for most purposes, the possession of nuclear weapons is immaterial. This framework leverages the universal stigma against using nuclear weapons and hence will hold only until the stigma continues to be powerful and the will of the international community to be punish the errant strong.

Strategic perspectives on dealing with a nuclear North Korea and Iran

22 Oct

The following commentary is Chaste and can be seen as a follow-up to my article on the topic.

“I agree with most of your points. And I do understand the strategic value of combating naivete with naivete. After all, there is no strategic value in calling your opponent out on his underlying reasoning. He will deny the underlying motive and simply brand you a conspiracy theorist. On the other hand, one could argue that your opponent adopts naivete self-consciously is simply a front, and as a delaying tactic. Once a particular naive position is exposed, he will adopt another slightly less naive one and thus prolong his contention endlessly. For this, it may be useful to clearly address all underlying reasons up front. As mentioned, I am unable to evaluate the relative strategic merits of the two positions.

So, with that caveat clearly stated, here is what I believe to be the crux of the issue. I do not think that anyone seriously believes that the leaders of DPR Korea or of Iran will use nuclear weapons against another country. What the west objects to, is precisely the acquisition of deterrents by these target regimes. Such deterrents could embolden these target regimes to engage in non-nuclear anti-western activities. Recall for example that Pakistan started openly funding and training groups dedicated to fomenting violence in Indian Kashmir around the same time that it is thought to have acquired nuclear capability. This surely was no coincidence. Such Pakistani activity in the past was followed by Indian invasions. But with a nuclear Pakistan, India has been forced to accept the deaths of thousands of its security forces, an actual invasion in Kargil, and the deaths and displacement of tens of thousands of Kashmiri civilians with little more than a lot of sound and fury. Thus, what the west worries about is not that Iran may bomb Israel, but that it might be emboldened to be a more active supporter of groups like Hezbollah or Hamas.

What the west worries about is the removal of the threat of overwhelming force as a factor in their dealing with target nations like Iran or DPR Korea, and the possibility of having to rely primarily on diplomacy. Successful diplomatic outcomes generally require either diplomatic pressure which can deliver total victory in a zero-sum game, or normal diplomacy which delivers a compromise settlement. Diplomatic pressure requires the building of a multi-national near consensus, which in turn can dramatically alter the stakes consequent on the different choices made by the target nation.

The west faces problems in exerting diplomatic pressure on both counts. The first problem is the building up of a multi-national near consensus. No one outside the area cares much about DPR Korea (this may actually make a consensus more possible), and a majority of nations oppose the western agenda in the middle-east. The second problem lies in the difficulty of dramatically altering the stakes for the target nations. This will be inherently difficult in the case of an isolationist country like DPR Korea. In the case of the broader middle-east, this is difficult because of the middle east’s reserves of precious oil.

The West’s best shot with DPR Korea is that of an aggressive investment in the “sunshine” policy. This will make DPR Korea less isolationist, and allow multi-national players to dramatically alter the stakes consequent on its different choices. There is no appetite for such a policy in large part because DPR Korea does not appear to be particularly interested in anything beyond self-preservation. Therefore, the west can substantively ignore DPR Korea’s nuclear deterrent, beyond its opportunities for political posturing.

Iran is a different case since it does have interests beyond mere self-preservation: subversion of Israeli policy at least concerning Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and its aspirations to being a regional power in an oil-rich region. With the difficulty in forging a multi-national consensus against Iran on these issues and the difficulty of dramatically altering the stakes for an oil-rich nation, the west will have no choice but to use normal diplomacy, which can only deliver a compromise settlement. But the west has no interest in compromising either on Israeli policies or in arriving at an agreement that respects Iran’s aspirations to be a regional power. Because of the West’s refusal of any diplomatic compromises and the difficulty of building up diplomatic pressure, the west is very keen on retaining overwhelming force as a factor in its dealings with Iran. As I have mentioned before, the last option will be neutralized if Iran acquires a nuclear deterrent.”

Why North Korea wants nukes? and How to live in a nuclear world?

21 Oct

The testing of a nuclear device by North Korea has drawn the ire of US, South Korea, and Japan, among others. Countless penny-a-quote pundits have come forth with their opinions as to why North Korea developed nuclear weapons, with most “analysis” limited to understanding North Korea’s development of nukes as an act of villainy by the autocratic “thug” ruling the “hermetic” kingdom. That the puerile minds of non-analysts bloated on clichéd Hollywood fare will offer such trash is expected but the relative lack of other explanations is stunning.

Why does North Korea want nuclear weapons? I argue that North Korea wants nuclear weapons for the same reason India and Pakistan wanted them, and that is as a deterrent against hostile action from other states. Walter Pincus, of The Washington Post, traces North Korea’s initial interest in nuclear weapons to the threats made by US presidents Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower to use nuclear weapons against North Korea during the Korean War.

"In 1950, when a reporter asked Truman whether he would use atomic bombs at a time when the war was going badly, the president said, " That includes every weapon we have."

Three years later, Eisenhower made a veiled threat, saying he would "remove all restraints in our use of weapons" if the North Korean government did not negotiate in good faith an ending to that bloody war.

In 1957, the United States placed nuclear-tipped Matador missiles in South Korea, to be followed in later years, under both Republican and Democratic administrations, by nuclear artillery, most of which was placed within miles of the demilitarized zone." N. Korean Nuclear Conflict Has Deep Roots (N. Korean Nuclear Conflict Has Deep Roots (WP) )

Aside from the initial nuclear threats, today over forty thousand American troops man the Korean peninsula and another thirty thousand stay on a base in Japan. Stack on to this the fact that Japan is widely acknowledged to have the capability to produce nuclear weapons at a short notice, and we can begin to understand North Korea’s motivations for developing nuclear weapons as a response to its threat perception.

One may argue that understanding the motivations behind North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear capability does not fundamentally change anything for either U.S.; South Korea or Japan, all of whom still see a nuclear-tipped North Korea as a threat. I believe differently – understanding North Korea’s actions in terms of its threat perception can inform our policy in multiple ways. Firstly, if you look at North Korea’s actions as a primarily defensive measure then one may argue that North Korea will probably only use nuclear weapons if attacked. This posit is most likely to hold true because U.S. owns an arsenal of over 10,000 nukes and any usage of nuclear weapons by North Korea will evoke a swift, debilitating response.

Secondly, the lessons learned should inform US diplomacy in the future – especially towards Iran, Cuba, and Iran. Threats from the US will only hasten these countries attempts to develop a nuclear arsenal.

Lastly, we all need to adjust to the idea of a nuclear-capable world. Nuclear weapons, as recent past has shown, are not particularly hard to develop or acquire – this is I say given three third-world countries, namely Pakistan, India, and North Korea, have been able to develop them. Aside from this, a slew of countries, including Israel and Japan already have nuclear weapons or can easily make them. In short, nuclear weapons technology will continue to proliferate, and there is very little we can do to stop this process.

This brings us to question of the repercussions of such a world. The fact remains that the probability that anyone will use a nuclear weapon is remote given that it will bring universal international castigation and a swift response from other powers. Secondly, given the rapid rise in ability of non-nuclear weapons like say MOAB or cluster bombs to afflict harm and destruction, and the comparatively less vocal condemnation on their use will bias countries towards using these “conventional” weapons. Thirdly, possession of nuclear weapons doesn’t equate to the capacity of reliably delivering them and even if one possesses the technology for delivery, the threat of universal condemnation and a swift response limits the probability of their use to nearly zero.

There are a few legitimate concerns about a nuclear-tipped world, and they have been dealt with below. Possession of nuclear weapons by a nation does limit U.S. choices against that nation, but the concern is largely theoretical for any use of nuclear weapons will result in a very strong response from the US. The second concern is about the ability of nuclear weapons to annihilate civilization. This concern stems from our understanding of the severity of the nuclear threat from cold war days when a nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union could have produced complete annihilation.

The scenario today is a bit different, and war between the U.S. and Russia, the only other power capable of delivering a similar nuclear response, is remote. Of course, conditions can change, but it still seems unlikely that we will reach such a scenario. Another facet that has garnered a lot of attention is the threat of terrorists using dirty nuclear bombs. There are two parts to the issue – one is state-sponsored terrorism which will be dealt in much the same way as response to conventional attack, and the second is threat of terrorists acquiring nuclear weapons from stockpiles of nations. This second threat must be dealt with the US trying to provide infrastructure and monetary assistance to countries to help them secure their stockpiles of nuclear material.

In all, we can take two things away from this discussion – the threat emanating from nuclear proliferation is greatly exaggerated, and that clichéd panic button responses of putting blanket sanctions against nations are unlikely to work.

Rhetoric in Iraq Catches up to Reality

19 Oct

This is second in the series of three articles on US policy in Iraq. The first was posted about a week ago and focused on the bankruptcy of policy suggestions in play in Iraq. This article analyzes how the consensus on Iraq has shifted, in the light of recent news reports, and how this change can inform our future policy direction.

While Blair’s and Bush’s views on Iraq remain unchanged much like the catastrophic news from Iraq, views of technocrats and other politicians on Iraq have shown a metamorphism of sorts of recently.

Over the past few weeks, starting with the release of the study of mortality in Iraq by School of Public Health (SPH) at John Hopkins University, there have been a spate of news reports that have shed light on the failed policies in Iraq.

On October 11th, a study by Bloomberg School of public health at John Hopkins University, a university whose professors ironically were the primary flag bearers of the invasion, estimated that mortality rate in Iraq doubled post US invasion leading to the deaths of an additional 655,000 Iraqi civilians.

Two days later British Army Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Richard Dannatt, much to the chagrin of Mr. Blair, in an interview with BBC said that the continued presence of British troops on Iraqi soil “exacerbates the security problems”. The statement was remarkable not for its content, for it has been long obvious that the continued presence of foreign troops “without a timeline” and amidst reports of torture and usage of heavy-handed tactics by foreign troops has only inflamed opinion in the Muslim world, but for who said it. The British general was joined yesterday by a US counterpart in the push to state the obvious. Military spokesman Maj Gen William Caldwell said that the US military strategy in Baghdad has been a failure. He pointed to the “disheartening” 22% rise in attacks in Baghdad since the end of last month” (BBC). President Bush went even further when he acknowledged that the “escalation of violence “could be” comparable to the 1968 Tet Offensive against US troops, which helped turn public opinion against the Vietnam War.” (BBC)

If this wasn’t enough, Jalal Talabani, president of Iraq, stated three days ago that violence in Iraq could end “within months” if Iran and Syria joined efforts to stabilize the country. (BBC) Talabani’s statement came against the backdrop of repeated assertions by the US that it would not work with either of the countries.

The fount of statements mentioning what has long been obvious to lay observers should be taken in context. For more than three years the news on Iraq has been stage-managed allowing for little dissent, especially from the top echelon. Of course generals, diplomats and politicians – all have alluded to the catastrophic failure of the US policy in Iraq at varying times but the “wisdom” has never been allowed to snowball into an extended skewering of the administration. With mid-term elections on the anvil and with Democrats poised for major gains – the rose-tint of Republicans view on Iraq may finally be seen as blood.

There are two valuable lessons that emerge from these recent proclamations of the obvious. US troops have shown themselves to be single-handedly incapable of assuring security for Iraqis. Hence a timeline must be set for withdrawal of foreign troops from Iraq or at the very least they should be moved to the fringes of security regime– responsible primarily for either manning borders or providing tactical support.

Secondly, Iran and Syria are critical for stability in Iraq. The US, or better yet, Iraqi government led by Talabani should negotiate with Iran to recruit their help in managing the security scenario in Iraq.