BOOK REVIEW: I Breathed a Body by Zac Thompson

I Breathed a BodyI Breathed a Body by Zac Thompson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

Out: October 5, 2021

This is one creepy commentary on technology run amok, and the alienation, desensitization, and disconnection that can result. [Or, at least that’s how I interpret it.] The protagonist is a driven social media executive who finds herself in territory that even she believes is over the line, despite her near psychopathic emotional disconnection. Another way to interpret the story is that the fungi that has taken parasitic control over humanity is making people see the world more as they would – i.e. with less cringing about death, decomposition, and deformation. [I happen to think that the fungi infection is a clever plot device to get across ideas about technology and modernity, but I could be wrong.]

Either way, I do think this is a clever story. There’s a species of Cordyceps fungi that takes control of the brain of an ant, steers it to the top of the nearest tree, and bursts out of the ant’s head to spread its spores from its new, elevated vantage point. This book reminded me of the Cordyceps fungi, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it inspired the story — with the requisite growth in sophistication to account for taking over a much more complex brain. This is a compelling and thought-provoking story, but it’s also gruesome and at times chaotic. If you can take horror, you’ll probably find it worth reading.

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POEM: Confessions of a Closet Luddite

Some people dream of shoving a boss in front of an inbound train. My own fantasies run to the smashing of computers and phones into a fine — if toxic — dust.

I don’t know what it says about me that:
-I equate these machines with the boss from that first scenario,
and, also,
-(like the aforementioned people) I’m too scared to go through with it.

I realize that these devices make life much easier…
except when they don’t, and it’s only then that I want to murder destroy them. Of course, the person who wants to murder her boss doesn’t want to do it when there is cake in the breakroom or when an unexpectedly generous bonus comes through — just, you know, the other times.

Unlike the original Luddites, I don’t hate machines out of a fear that they will replace me.
They already make a better economist than I ever did.
And even if the machines pick up their poetry-writing game,
that’s why I have the yoga instructor gig to fall back on…

[Because I’m convinced it will be decades before humans feel comfortable learning backbends from an entity that can twist rebar like a bendy-straw.]

No, I detest our silicon brethren because I have been sold a line that they can (and do) only do what I ask of them. [Hence the reason I don’t get so enraged by humans; anytime a person does something I ask is an unadulterated victory.] Instead, sometimes the computer does what I ask, but the next time something else entirely may happen. If the machines were consistently unable to complete the task, I would chalk that up to my failure to understand them. As it is, I’m left with a landscape of disturbing possibilities:

One, the machines are pranking me. (If this turns out to be the case, I think we can, eventually, be friends.)

Two, my computer’s desolate existence is causing it to try to commit “suicide by user.”

Three, we live in a glitching universe, and at any given moment the machine may produce a random unexpected result.

I don’t want to go back to the Stone Age, but I do have a newfound understanding of the allure of Steampunk. Contrary to the name, no one ever got punked by a steam engine. (Scalded and blown up, yes, but never punked.) The same cannot be said of a smartphone.

5 Bizarre Moral Dilemmas for Your Kids to Worry Over

5.) Can “innocent until proven guilty” survive the next generation of predictive models?

I started thinking about this post as I was reading Dean Haycock’s book Murderous Minds, which is a book about the neuroscience of psychopathy. In that book, the author evokes The Minority Report, a Philip K. Dick story turned into a Tom Cruise movie about a police agency that uses three individuals who can see the future in order to prevent violent crimes before they happen. Haycock isn’t suggesting that precognition will ever be a tool to predict crime, but what if a combination of genetics, epigenetics, brain imaging, and other technology reached the point where the tendency toward violent psychopathy (not redundant, most psychopaths function fine in society and don’t commit crimes) could be predicted with a high degree of accuracy. [Note: unlike the Tom Cruise movie, no one is suggesting all violent crime could be anticipated because a lot of it is committed by people with no risk factors whatsoever.] One is likely to first go to the old refrain (Blackstone’s Formulation) that it’s better that 10 guilty men escape justice than one innocent man be punished. Now, imagine a loved one was killed by a person who was known to have a 99% likelihood of committing a violent crime?

Of course, one doesn’t have to lock the high-risk individuals away in prison. What about laws forcing one to take either non-invasive or invasive actions (from meditation retreats to genetic editing) to reduce one’s risk factors? That’s still a presumption of guilt based on a model that  — given the vagaries of the human condition — could never be perfectly accurate.

 

4.) What does “trusted news source” mean in a world in which media outlets tailor their messages to support confirmation bias and avoid ugly cognitive dissonance? (i.e. to give viewers the warm-fuzzy [re: superior] feeling that keeps them watching rather than the messy, uneasy feelings that makes them prefer to bury their heads in sand and ignore any realities that conflict with their beliefs.) Arguably, this isn’t so much a problem for the next generation as for the present one. The aforementioned sci-fi legend, Philip K. Dick, addressed the idea of media manipulation in his stories as far back as the 1950’s. However, it’s a problem that could get much worse as computers get more sophisticated at targeting individuals with messages tailored to their personal beliefs and past experiences. What about if it goes past tweaking the message to encourage readership to manipulating the reader for more nefarious ends? I started to think about this when I got the i-Phone news feed which is full of provocative headlines designed to make one click, and — if one doesn’t click — one will probably come away with a completely false understanding of the realities of the story. As an example, I recently saw a headline to the effect of “AI can predict your death with 95% accuracy.” It turns out that it can only make this prediction after one has shown up in an emergency room and had one’s vital statistics taken and recorded. [Not to mention “95% accuracy” being completely meaningless — e.g. in what time frame — minute of death, day, year, decade? I can come up with the century of death with 95% accuracy, myself, given a large enough group.]

 

3.) When is it acceptable to shut down a self-aware Artificial Intelligence (AI), and — more importantly — will it let you?  This is the most obvious and straightforward of the issues in this post. When is something that not only thinks but is aware of its thoughts considered equivalent to a human being for moral purposes, if ever?

 

2.) When is invisible surveillance acceptable / preferable? This idea came from a talk I heard by a Department of Homeland Security employee, back when I worked for Georgia Tech. He told us that the goal is eventually to get rid of the security screening checkpoints at the airport and have technology that would screen one as one walked down a corridor toward one’s gate. At first this sounds cool and awesome. No taking belts and shoes off. No running bags through metal detectors. No having to pitch your water bottle. No lines. No dropping your laptop because you’re precariously balancing multiple plastic bins and your carry-on luggage. [I don’t know if they would tackle one to the ground for having a toenail clipper in one’s bag or not, but — on the whole — this scheme seems awesome.] But then you realize that you’re being scanned to the most minute detail without your awareness.

One also has to consider the apathy effect. If one can make an activity painless, people stop being cognizant of it. Consider the realm of taxation. If you’re pulling a well-defined chunk of pay out of people’s income, they keep their eye on how much you’re taking. If you can bury that tax — e.g. in the price of goods or services, then people become far less likely to recognize rate changes or the like.

 

1.) If society can reduce pedophilic sexual abuse by allowing the production and dissemination of virtual reality child pornography (computer generated imagery only, no live models used, think computer games), should we? This idea is discussed in Jesse Bering’s book, Perv. It’s not a completely hypothetical question. There is some scholarly evidence that such computer-made pornography can assuage some pedophiles’ urges. However, the gut reaction of many [probably, most] people is “hell no!” It’s a prime example of emotion trumping reason. If you can reduce the amount of abuse by even a marginal amount, shouldn’t you do so given a lack of real costs / cons (i.e. presuming the cost of the material would be paid by the viewer, the only real cost to the public would be the icky feeling of knowing that such material exists in the world?)

BOOK REVIEW: A Burglar’s Guide to the City by Geoff Manaugh

A Burglar's Guide to the CityA Burglar’s Guide to the City by Geoff Manaugh
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This is a book about how people exploit the architecture and infrastructure of cities to abscond with other people’s property. Manaugh shows us both how the masterminds of burglary think outside the box “Ocean’s Eleven” style, as well as how the dim dull-wits and junkies botch burglaries in hilarious ways. In the process, the author also shines a light on the ways in which the law enforcement community has had to update its technological and tactical capabilities to counter these threats.

The book contains seven chapters. The first chapter lays the groundwork, particularly through discussion of the aforementioned extremes. On one hand, there is George Leonidas Leslie, an architect turned bank robber who would build accurate mockups in order to accurately rehearse robberies, and–on the other hand–there is the guy who used a ghillie suit disguise in a rock and mineral museum (which, not unsurprisingly, featured barren rock displays [down-playing vegetation] such that the guy stuck out like a guy in a ghillie suit in a rock display.)

Chapter 2 details what Manaugh learned about burglary and the fight against it through his interviews with law enforcement, and—in particular—the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) helicopter unit.

The next chapter focuses on how different types of buildings are violated by burglars, and apartment burglaries are prominent in the discussion. This isn’t just about how they breach the building, but how they discover when no one will be home.

Chapter 4 is entitled “tools of the trade” and it reflects upon the skill-set that Hollywood suggests is associated with burglars—i.e. lock-picking and safe-cracking–but which constitute a less common set of tactics than one might think. Burglars usually favor the messier / quicker approach of busting walls and locks.

Chapter 5 deals with a number of issues under the rubric of “inside jobs” but one of the most intriguing is its discussion of those who don’t break in at all, but rather who hide inside the target building awaiting closing time.

The penultimate chapter is about that ever-present concern of burglars, the getaway. And sometimes the secret is what Black Widow says in “Captain America: Civil War”: “The first rule of being on the run is walk, don’t run.” The final chapter is a wrap-up, including a conclusion to the George Leonidas Leslie story that was brought up in the first chapter.

There are notes and citations at the end of the book. There are no graphics. I think this book could have benefited from graphics. However, the author displayed such skill with language and story-telling that I didn’t seem to notice (or care) at the time of reading. I suspect Manaugh didn’t want to present too much detail for fear of being seen as an actual manual for crime, which this clearly is not.

I found this book fascinating, and think you would enjoy it if you have any interests in cities, security, civil engineering, architecture, or just have a healthy curiosity about how buildings and cities work.

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BOOK REVIEW: Thing Explainer by Randall Munroe

Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple WordsThing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words by Randall Munroe
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazon page

Allow me the awkward start of explaining two things before offering my lukewarm reception of “Thing Explainer.” First, I loved “What If?” (this author’s previous book.) I thought that book was brilliant, gave it my highest rating, and eagerly anticipated Munroe’s next book (this one.) Second, I didn’t deduct because this book is a pain to read on an e-reader (at least the basic model I have.) That’s on me. I should’ve known better, and accept full responsibility. All I will say on the matter is to recommend that–if you still do want to read this book—you get a hard copy. [If you have an awesome reader, your results may vary.] The hard copy is large-format, and that’s useful because the graphics are so crucial and the text can be hard to read (some of it is light text / dark background and some is dark text / light background.)

The author uses only the most common 1,000 words of the English language to explain the operations of many modern technologies (e.g. laptops and helicopters) and scientific ideas (e.g. the workings of a cell or the sun.) It’s an intriguing question, and I can see why Munroe was interested in it. Can one convey the inner workings of objects like nuclear power plants or a tree with a rudimentary vocabulary? You can. Munroe does. However, the next question is, “Should you?” I come down on the side of “no.”

One might say, “But this is a book for kids [or people with a child-like grasp of language], you aren’t the target demographic.” Perhaps, but the book doesn’t do children any favors because the brainpower needed to puzzle out what the author is trying to convey through imprecise language can be more than is necessary to expand one’s vocabulary. [e.g. What do “tall road” or “shape checker” mean to you? If you went straight to “a bridge” and “a lock,” you may be more in tune with Munroe’s thinking than I, and thus more likely to find this book appealing.] For adults, it’s like reading essays by an eighth-grader who’s in no danger of being picked for the honor roll. Without the combination of the book’s graphics and a general background in science and technology, I suspect the book would be a muddle. I’m not against explaining ideas in simple terms, but I felt the book takes it too far and it becomes a distraction.

On the positive side, the graphics are great—sometimes funny while providing enough detail to get the point across without bogging one down. Also, Munroe’s sense of humor comes through here and there throughout the book (though it’s hampered by the lack of vocabulary.)

The book includes the list of words used as an Appendix (though you obviously won’t find the word “Appendix.”)

If it sounds like something that would interest you, pick it up. It’s hard to say that I’d recommend it, generally speaking. It’s funny and educational, but it’s also distracting and tedious. I neither hated it, nor loved it. I give it the median score of “meh.”

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BOOK REVIEW: The Science of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Michael Hanlon

The Science of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the GalaxyThe Science of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Michael Hanlon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

There are a lot of “The Science of…” books out there using science fiction as a means to explain science. It’s easy to see the appeal for both readers and writers. For one thing, it makes complex and technical subjects approachable and palatable. For another, it provides a series of examples with which most readers will already be familiar. Triggering memories of a beloved book can’t hurt sales.

This “Science of” book is a little different in that it uses a work of absurdist humor as its muse. [In the unlikely event that you’re unfamiliar with Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide” series, you can access a review here.]One may wonder whether the book delves into this absurdity by contemplating the efficiency of infinite improbability drives (faster than light engines that run on unlikelihood) or the value of melancholy robots. It does and it doesn’t. For the most part, it relates the wildest creations of Adam’s mind to the nearest core notion that has scientific merit. [Though it does have a chapter on babel fish (an ichthyologically-based universal translator), but that’s a technology that’s already in the works—just not in fish form, but rather a phone ap.]

For the most part, the book explores science and technologies that are popular themes in the pop science literature. These include: the existence of intelligent extraterrestrial life, artificial intelligence, the end of the world, the beginning of the world, time travel, teleportation, cows that don’t mind being eaten (presumed to take the form of lab-grown meat, and not talking cows who crave flame-broiling), the simulation hypothesis (as related to Adams’ Total Perspective Vortex), parallel worlds, improbability (only tangentially related to the infinite impossibility drive, i.e. focused on understanding extremely unlikely events), and the answer to the ultimate question. There is also a chapter that I would argue is more in the realm of philosophy (or theology, depending upon your stance) than science, and that’s the question of the existence of a god or gods. (This isn’t to say that the question of whether god is necessary to explain the existence of the universe and our existence in it isn’t a question for science. It is. But Hanlon mostly critiques the numerous arguments for why there must be a god, and it’s easy to see why because they provide a lot of quality comic fodder.)

The book contains no graphics, but they aren’t missed. It has a brief “further reading” section of other popular science books, but it isn’t annotated in the manner of a scholarly work. It is well-researched and highly readable, not only because it hitches its wagon to Adams’ work but also because it’s filled with interesting tidbits of information and its own humor. The book was published in 2005, and so it’s a little old, but most of the technologies it explores are so advanced that the book has aged well. (But if you want the latest on a particular aspect of science fiction-cum-science, you may want to look at a more recent book.)

I’d recommend this book for fans of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” and those interested in popular science generally. (Having read the five books of Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide” trilogy will make the book more entertaining—though it’s not essential to make sense of it.)

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Robot Karateka Threat Underwhelming

Worried that Terminator-like robots may kick humanity out its pole position among sentient beings? You can sleep well tonight. A news report today suggests that the Karate Kid’s kicking dominance is not yet under threat by Robo-karateka.  In other words, Ralph Macchio can still out kick the state of the art karate robot. The Cobra Kai’s plans to achieve world dominance via a fleet of Karate androids have been thwarted for the time being.

 

Tradition v. Modernity in Fitness and Movement Arts

 

TheScienceofYoga_BroadOne of my favorite professors (and I had a lot of them) was in the Religious Studies department of Indiana University in Indianapolis (IUPUI.) Among the lessons he taught us were the various forms of fallacious reasoning applicable to the discipline. He did so in a way that was both erudite and folksy, often in a humorous way.

 

 

 

While I don’t remember the formal names he gave these concepts or their technical definitions, I do remember the more colorful variations. One was the “firstist-is-bestist” fallacy in which it’s assumed that the old ways are inherently superior because bad ideas die out, and young ideas are at least as likely to be crap as not. This is sometimes called “appeal to tradition.” Over a sufficiently long time horizon this assumption may prove true (i.e. the time horizon beyond which Keynes warned we’d all be dead), but we know that wrong ideas can live on for centuries.

 

 

 

Another was the “outhouse” fallacy, which says that because pre-modern man didn’t have indoor plumbing they must have been complete idiots, and we should assume newer is better. This is sometimes called the “appeal to modernity.”  While there is some advantage to having access to the compiled knowledge of history, this doesn’t keep people from coming up with idiotic ideas regularly.

 

 

 

What made me think about these conflicting fallacies is that I’ve been reading a lot about the science of yoga–and other systems of movement–lately. Specifically, I was reading The Science of Yoga by William Broad. During the 20th century, yoga went from not giving a whit about science to trying to show that it wasn’t at all at odds with science–if not that it was grounded in science. (Note: this statement could be applied to many of the old ways—e.g. religions—which sought to prove themselves consistent with scientific evidence out of fear that–in the age of rationality–to be inconsistent with scientific observation would be death to old beliefs.) While the hucksters and con men seeking to bilk people out of money through shows of yoga “magic” have lost power (though some still exist and prey on the gullible regularly), this isn’t to say that science has yet won the day entirely.

 

 

 

Chapter two of Broad’s book discusses the findings of the scientific community on whether yoga has any merit as aerobic exercise. (The consensus is that it doesn’t.) Now, one would think that the whole yoga community would be pleased that academia has for the most part shown that yoga has a range of positive benefits that make it a worthwhile endeavor when practiced safely and conscientiously, but some have been unwilling to accept that yoga isn’t excellent cardio on top of all its unambiguous benefits. The established consensus is being ignored and a single seriously flawed study (small sample size, no control group, and—while peer-reviewed—the author was the journal editor) is cited, that one—of course—suggests that yoga meets all one’s cardio needs.

 

 

 

It’s easy to follow the incentives. For example, if one runs a yoga studio one would like to be able to say that yoga is a panacea for all of a person’s health needs. People are busy and lazy, and if someone else can sell them a silver bullet then they’ll lose business.  If one gives the matter thought, it becomes hard to imagine an exercise panacea. Consider a list of health goals that includes reduced stress, improved balance, greater flexibility, more strength, and enhanced cardiovascular capacity. One should see that some of these goals are at odds with each other. The first three goals—at which yoga excels–require holding a static position for a time while engaging in deep and controlled breathing. The fourth goal, strength enhancement, (which yoga achieves only in a limited way) requires repeated alternation of stressing and relaxing a muscle. And cardio, the fifth goal,–for which yoga is less than helpful–requires rapid and sustained motion so as to cause the heart to be stressed.

 

 

 

Of course, individuals have tried to rectify yoga’s cardio deficit by creating yoga styles that add speed and repetition. If one does five sun salutations per minute for 45 minutes, then—congratulations–you are now getting cardio and strength building. Unfortunately, you are now losing out on the first three goals of stress reduction, balance enhancement, and flexibility improvement. Those three things requiring holding poses while engaging in relaxed and controlled breathing. So the question is whether one is happy having sacrificed the benefits yoga does better than everything else in a desire to have yoga gain benefits that other exercise systems probably still do better.

 

 

 

The old systems of movement and exercise, be it yoga or chi kung, have shown themselves to have merit. However, the mechanisms by which that merit is achieved (or the nature of the merit) are often not what the system’s mythology suggests. There’s no need to fear science, but one should be ready to embrace what is shown true and set aside what is shown to be false.

 

 

 

On the other hand, this modern idea that we can have our cake and eat it too by throwing together disparate systems, which often have conflicting goals and modes of operation, needs to be reevaluated. All of these fads have been created where someone crams together tai chi and yoga or yoga and jazz dance or Zen meditation and parkour and they think they have the ultimate system based on a more complete picture of modernity, and what they’ve got is a muddle.

 

 

 

What we need is the tested merit of tradition without its voodoo, and the compiled knowledge of modernity without its hubris.

 

BOOK REVIEW: Inventing Iron Man by E. Paul Zehr

Inventing Iron Man: The Possibility of a Human MachineInventing Iron Man: The Possibility of a Human Machine by E. Paul Zehr

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

As the title suggests, this book examines whether Iron Man could exist in the real world. As with Michio Kaku’s book Physics of the Impossible, answering the question involves defining the various meanings of “impossible.”

One way to parse the question is, “Is Iron Man possible today given the existing state of technology?” In and of itself, this question is of limited interest because the answer is, “no.” There’s certainly a demand, and so if Iron Man could exist given current technology, he probably would. That’s not to say it isn’t interesting to learn about what technologies are holding us back and where the cutting edge of relevant technologies lies—both of which are addressed by the book.

Still, a more interesting inquiry is, “Will Iron Man ever be reality given the physical laws that we know to govern the universe?” While more intriguing, it’s also a harder question to definitively answer. It’s impossible to foresee all the technological developments that might come along to answer the seemingly insurmountable challenges (e.g. Tony Stark’s inevitable Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).) The book deals with the critical question of what challenges would have to be overcome for Iron Man to be reality.

As Zehr suggests, the appeal of Iron Man is that he’s considered to be among superheroes for the common man. Like Batman, the sufficiently bright and diligent nerd may fantasize that, “That could be me.” You or I can’t be Superman or Wolverine, but given enough money, smarts, and training we could be Batman, or—even better—pilot the Iron Man suit. Put in this light, the book may seem like just another frivolous attempt to capitalize on the popularity of superheroes to sell books. However, there’s actually a great deal of food for thought packed in the book. Like others, I read the book because its title is Inventing Iron Man and not Neuro-motor control of a self-propelled armor system or some other suitably scholarly title.

Dr. Zehr has the bona fides to delve into this topic. He is a Professor who investigates questions of how the nervous system controls movement. That subject may not constitute the sum total of critical concerns, but it’s one of the most important challenges. For Iron Man to move the way he does in the movies and comic books, Tony Stark’s impulses to move have to be transmitted seamlessly to the servo-motors that move the suit. From dodging Col. Rhodes’ (i.e. War Machine’s) punches to ducking RPGs, Stark can’t be quick enough if he has to manually steer the device. Then, of course, there’s the issue of feedback. Any neophyte meditator who’s had his or her foot fall sound asleep will know how difficult it is to walk surefootedly when one can’t feel anything through one’s foot.

[Iron Man 3 spoiler commentary in this paragraph.] One of the most damning challenges for making Iron Man a reality is the high probability of severe concussions. Let’s say you make the suit out of a material that is virtually indestructible? This may be possible. However, the pilot’s mushy brain is still sloshing around inside that impenetrable armor. One can remotely pilot the suit in order to negate this (as has been done in the comic books and the third movie), but—at that point—is it still Iron Man? I know from a writer’s perspective it’s a lot harder to maintain tension if there’s nothing human on the line. In the third movie about 30 autonomously piloted suits get wiped out and the viewer doesn’t care—the only source of tension is that Tony Stark is without armor half the time.

Some of the most interesting discussions are about where the current state of the art lies with respect to: a.) direct mind control over mechanical systems; b.) a “flying suit”; and c.) robotic movement enhancers. Zehr conducts interviews with those engineers and technologists involved in such technologies, and finds out where we are presently. Letter “a” above seems to be the least developed of the three technologies, but they are all active lines of research.

I enjoyed this book and found it interesting. I think anyone who is interested in the state of technology and its limits will find it a nice pop-sci introduction to the subject. The use of superheroes as a pedagogic device may be overdone, but it continues to work because we are fascinated by the edge of possibility, and that’s what superheroes represent.

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Can India Compete With China?

IMG_0131There’s perennial hope in the West that India will succeed. Having won the Cold War, advocates of democracy and rule of law aren’t eager to replay it and have a Communist country win–not even one that yields to market forces in large part.  Citizens of democratic nations want reaffirmation that democratic rule and rule by law, not men, is the superior paradigm. We acknowledge that such a system is rarely easy, but live with the words of Winston Churchill ringing in our ears:  

Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

When I found out that I was moving to India, I read all that I could find on India in magazines I subscribed to, such as Foreign Affairs, National Geographic, and Wilson Quarterly. Needless to say, there was a lot to read. Besides India’s nuclear programs, both energy and weapons, I hadn’t followed its role in the world. These articles took me on a roller coaster ride. If one went back many years, no one expected much of India. Then, a few years back, massive enthusiasm blossomed that India was going to rocket off and leave India in its dust. Then I got to the most recent articles, which did yet another turnabout–saying that India’s growth had been ephemeral and no one should expect much from the country in the near future.

India has a number of advantages. Almost everyone who is capable of publishing is fluent in the de facto international language of business and academic publication–namely English. India has as abundant a supply of cheap labor as anywhere. Indians have a culture that values education. They are building a first-class university system by, in part, having sent students to the very best of academic institutions globally. Their universities are attracting foreign students. This, in combination with such a big population, has given them the potential to build impressive student bodies.

So, why isn’t India competitive? The first thing that should be stated is that things are never as simple as they appear in aggregate. In some domains, India is competing quite nicely–and not just with China. Here in Bangalore, it’s apparent that large IT companies see big advantages in doing business in India.

I made a recent trip to Hampi and was amazed to see how successful India was in building up wind power generation in central Karnataka. India is 5th in installed wind capacity overall. Many democracies have difficulty getting traction with wind because the public views the turbines as an eyesore.

Still, India has its problems. Political and Economic Risk Consultancy (PERC) surveyed business leaders about Asian bureaucracies and found India to be the worst bureaucracy in Asia.  On a 1 to 10 scale, where 10 is the worst possible, India rated a 9.21. This isn’t a surprise in the least. It seems to be common knowledge that business leaders who move to India do so in spite of India’s governance, not because of it.  India’s bureaucracy hasn’t embraced the IT-revolution. It’s interesting being in Bangalore, where IT-companies are state-of-the-art, and being asked for the same copies of documents a half-dozen times because the information is only stored on non-networked PC hard-drives–and paper files are collected but don’t seem to be organized in any way.

An ethos of corruption is ubiquitous in India. Police officers have been known to sit in parks and solicit “admissions fees” from tourists. I’m pretty sure I saw a shakedown in progress this past week when our car went through a toll booth on a toll road we had already paid for and two guys standing outside in front of the toll-taker insisted that our driver pay for the toll that he had already paid not ten minutes before. Being from a country where corruption is punished severely, I’m ignorant of the process of bribes. (I suspect this is why I’ve had so little success in getting anything done that involves the Indian bureaucracy.) For a less anecdotal experience, one can turn to the “Corruption Perceptions Index,” which places India in the bottom half among all nations.

One may wonder how a democracy retains a culture of corruption. Usually, citizens of a democracy get fed up and start voting their disapproval. At the Bangalore Literature Festival, I heard an interesting policy panel featuring a politician, a retired general, and a policy pundit. It was said that there is a high degree of apathy among the Indian middle class. Indian voter turnout rates are generally below 60%. There’s a belief that those most capable of affecting change are relatively happy and, thus, unwilling to rock the boat. I don’t know how true this is, but it seems that India is having trouble defeating some of the problems that wither on the vine in the face of a politically active public.

It also seems that there is a segment of the population who are completely cowed. This is a legacy not only of colonial repression but also of caste repression. While castes have been done away with, there remains a large segment of the population who are accustomed to doing just as they’re told without questioning and without making moves to get ahead.  Perhaps, because they believe they exist in a world in which there’s no getting ahead.

India’s abundance of cheap labor may be a curse as well as a blessing. While cheap labor has brought in foreign direct investment, it has also contributed to a business culture that doesn’t seem to value increased productivity. As an example, if one goes into a small shop in Chicago or Copenhagen or even Beijing, it’s likely that a single salesperson will show one merchandise, ring it up, and bag it. If it’s a big store, there may be a two person interaction–salesperson and cashier. In an Indian store, a salesperson will show one merchandise, a clerk will write up an invoice, one will take that invoice to a cashier, that cashier will take one’s money and hand one a carbon-copy of the “paid” stamped invoice and direct one to a pick up window, a bagger will bag your purchase, and  a “checker” will check your receipt and hand you the bag. I love specialization as much as the next economist, but this is a Rube Goldbergesque approach to retail operations.

If India wants to be a first-rate power, it needs to take on corruption, bring its bureaucracy into the 21st century, and its population needs to realize they can have a more satisfying life than waiting around for someone to need them for a momentary job. The citizenry needs to value good governance, and businesses need to figure out how to increase productivity.