RBI Votes Against the Dollar?

Time will tell whether this is a first step in a long stampede or a more innocuous portfolio rebalancing BUT, the Indian central bank made some pretty significant waves in currency markets yesterday. How? It unloaded roughly $7B of its US currency reserves and exchanged it for gold

Gold prices on Tuesday surged to an all-time high after India’s central bank bought 200 tonnes of the precious metal, swapping dollars for bullion as the country’s finance minister warned the economies of the US and Europe had “collapsed”.

India’s decision to exchange $6.7bn for gold equivalent to 8 per cent of world annual mine production sent the strongest signal yet that Asian countries were moving away from the US currency.

Pranab Mukherjee, India’s finance minister, said the acquisition reflected the power of an economy that laid claim to the fifth-largest global foreign reserves: “We have money to buy gold. We have enough foreign exchange reserves.”

He contrasted India’s strength with weakness elsewhere: “Europe collapsed and North America collapsed.”

While the amount in question ($6.7B) is relatively small in currency circles (India holds $285B in reserves & China has dollar reserves >$2T), it is a highly symbolic move that their faith in the dollar and/or their need to tie their fate to it may have shifted a few notches of late. What could it mean? Continue reading

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Incenting Desi Teachers…

The good folks over at Marginal Revolution have yet another interesting post about Desi schools. Here at SM, we first touched on this topic when we discussed the incredible outcome differences between government and private schools - even with low income students and often at a much lower total cost per student. A post last week noted one reason for poor performance at government schools – classic public choice economics as absentee teachers discovered how to game the system to maximize their salaries while minimizing risks to their slice of the public trough.


This week Alex Tabarrok points out a great study that cuts into the economics of teaching from a different angle – teacher incentives. The various teacher incentive options out there broadly work by directly compensating teachers based on tested educational outcomes achieved by their students. If poorly designed, the incentive programs run the risk of over-incenting teachers to mind-numbingly “teach to the test” (alas, even seemingly well intentioned govt policies like No Child Left Behind are often also criticized for the same thing). Still, what well designed systems do is dispel the notion that teachers are just in it for the greater good and – like all other professions – are actually motivated by pocketbook issues as well.

In this study, UCSD researchers Karthik Muralidharan and Venkatesh Sundararaman (with names like that, I suspect they’ll know a thing or 2 about the Desh), describe the results of a carefully crafted, multiyear program conducted in Andhra Pradesh (AP). The results are impressive -

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Teacher Absenteeism in the Desh

A few months back, I pointed mutineers at a new book – The Beautiful Tree – which documented the surprising success of very low cost, unchartered, private schools in India. Although some charged as little as $1-$2 per child, per month and they solidly outperformed their government counterparts –

It ain’t pretty but it works…

The results from Delhi were typical. In mathematics, mean scores of children in government schools were 24.5 percent, whereas they were 42.1 percent in private unrecognized schools and 43.9 percent in private recognized. That is, children in unrecognized private schools scored nearly 18 percentage points more in math than children in government schools (a 72 percent advantage!), while children in recognized private schools scored over 19 percentage points more than children in government schools (a 79 percent advantage).

In a blog post over at the ever-excellent Marginal Revolution, Alex Tabarrok provides some detail on one of the reasons for the utterly poor government school performance, teacher absenteeism –

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2 Thumbs Up

I was in India earlier this month and while celebrity endorsements are all over the place, these posters for MacroMan Underwear with Hrithik Roshan were particularly, uh, eye catching –

Having lived in the SF Bay Area for over 10 yrs, I probably read too much into the posters & tagline (“Excitingly Male”). However, more interesting & prominently featured in the ad was Mr. Roshan’s polydactyly – long the subject of giggles and hushed tones but proudly displayed for a billion desi’s to proudly gawk at -

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3 New Geniuses

This year’s MacArthur “Genius Grants” have been announced and, as usual, the award committee has tried to recognize a wide variety of human endeavor and scholarship

A papermaker dedicated to preserving traditional Western and Japanese techniques; a scientist developing theories of global climate change; and a journalist who helps uncover details of unsolved murders from the civil rights era are among the 24 recipients of the $500,000 “genius awards,” to be announced on Tuesday by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation….

Mutineers might be particularly interested in 3 of the award recipients who have a desi flavor –

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Set your DVRs – ABDC Goes Bollywood

While some folks are addicted to American Idol or Survivor, my favorite reality competition show, for a couple seasons now, has been MTV’s America’s Best Dance Crew (ABDC). ABDC brings together dance teams from across the country who compete in a variety of challenges and each week, the illustrious judges and America vote a team off.

Winning teams from previous seasons including the Jabbawockeez and Quest Crew have delivered some utterly showstopping performances that have set a high bar for the show in general. Full episodes from previous episodes & seasons are available on line and the ABDC’s top 10 performance recap is a great intro to the show.

Season 4 began a couple weeks ago with a new set of crews who’ve been assembled from across the country. While previous seasons were criticized for being overly weighted towards b-boys and hip hop, this time around, the producers have tried to venture wide and bring in other styles of music and groups. Towards that end, this week, the 6 remaining ABDC crews will be facing the Bollywood challenge

UPDATE – MTV’s blog has released a few snapshots & commentary from the upcoming episode

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The Economics of Piracy

The econ blogosphere is heavily linking a new article in Wired about the economics of Somali piracy. In addition to being a slickly produced piece (including an online game where you can dabble in some “Cutthroat Capitalism” yourself), Wired editor Scott Carney managed to get ahold of a Somali pirate and got unusually candid answers about the $$ and cents of their operation & the details often turn out to be incredibly, well, mundane & rationale.

“Ships with African or Indian crews are never profitable.”Far from fashionable excuses that the pirates are avenging illegal offshore fishing or represent some sort of anti-neo-colonial insurgency, the truth of the matter is a pretty basic risk vs. reward calculation –

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Dr. Ambati on Healthcare Reform

Speaking of Desi Docs, one of the more interesting ones out there – Dr. Bala Ambati – recently wrote up his (learned) opinions about the path forward on healthcare reform. Haven’t heard of Dr. Ambati? He’s a real life Doogie Howser, M.D. –

Balamurali Ambati graduated from New York University at the age of 13 and Mount Sinai School of Medicine at age 17, becoming the world’s youngest doctor in 1995. He completed an ophthalmology residency at Harvard University, where he developed strategies to reverse corneal angiogenesis, after becoming a winner at the Westinghouse Science Talent Search and the International Science & Engineering Fair and becoming a National Merit Scholar.

Wikipedia teases us with a couple cryptic, saucy details about his personal life –

Balamurali and his family were detained in India for over 3 months in a suit related to alleged Dowry demands by the family for his brother’s wife, which delayed Dr. Ambati’s entry to the ophthalmology program for 2 years, leaving him to begin his residency in 1998. All charges against him were dismissed in October 1996 and all his family members were acquitted in June 1999.

Heh. While Wikipedia indulges in the surly, Dr. Ambati has been publishing his own thoughts in a blog for several years and he’s tackled quite a few of the issues of the day including healthcare reform…

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That Hunter-Killer Instinct…

An interesting piece in the New Scientist lays out one reason for long term population density in the Desh – our forefathers were technologically proficient hunters

Thirty-five thousand years before nanotechnology became a buzzword, a different kind of diminutive innovation transformed India. The advent of stone microblades set the stage for the subcontinent’s explosive population growth, new research suggests.

..”It allows people to more reliably and more cheaply slaughter animals,” says Lawrence Guy Straus, a paleoanthropologist at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, who was not involved in the study.

This development, along with an ice age which transformed the proto-Indian subcontinent into a habitat patchwork created effects that are arguably still with us today. For example, in addition to species biodiversity, recent DNA research also suggests that Desi human biodiversity also began about this time -

..In India, however, this ice age shortened the monsoon season and transformed what had been a rather homogenous tropical landscape into a patchwork of savannahs and deciduous forests bordered by desert, Petraglia says.

..These changes almost certainly would have split up ancient populations, but they could have spurred their growth as well, Petraglia says. By treating the mitochondrial DNA of contemporary Indians as a sort of molecular clock, the researchers documented an expansion in Indian genetic diversity dated to around the time of this ice age.

So while today’s marauding bands of Silicon Valley desi dudes are armed primarily with laptops, their predecessors were armed with the smart bombs of their day. Cool.

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How the Sri Lankan Civil War was Won

I’ll admit to not following the recently concluded Sri Lankan civil war very closely but other SM bloggers have been. Still, I found this interview with noted Atlantic Monthly correspondent Robert Kaplan quite enlightening about many aspects of the conflict. Kaplan is noted for his relatively unorthodox approach to understanding conflict and in discussing Sri Lanka, he comes out swinging –

MJT: So you just got back from Sri Lanka. What did you see there? What did you learn?

Kaplan: The biggest takeaway fact about the Sri Lankan war that’s over now is that the Chinese won. And the Chinese won because over the last few years, because of the human rights violations by the Sri Lankan government, the U.S. and other Western countries have cut all military aid. We cut them off just as they were starting to win. The Chinese filled the gaps and kept them flush with weapons and, more importantly, with ammunition, with fire-fighting radar, all kinds of equipment. The assault rifles that Sri Lankan soldiers carry at road blocks throughout Colombo are T-56 Chinese knockoffs of AK-47s. They look like AK-47s, but they’re not.

What are the Chinese getting out of this?

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