Tuesday, July 09, 2013

The Arab Spring and Nation Building

Many people and policy makers from western countries were so happy witnessing the rise of democracy in few Arab countries just a couple of years ago. It all started with Tunisia on 18th December 2010. Then spread to countries like Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria. Many other countries in the region were affected witnessing major protests against its governments. People in some of the Arab countries threw the dictators and installed democratically elected governments. Many of the dictators were propped up by western powers, mainly USA. They were replaced by conservative, if not fundamentalist, organizations like Muslim Brotherhood. Yet the current American president Obama welcomed the uprising. Described it as 'moment of opportunity' on May 2011. For the first time in many years, probably ever, people in these countries elected its own governments. Many people in some poorly governed democracies like India started dreaming for such Arab spring style uprising. So far so good.

Now comes the challenging part. Current political situation in Tunisia, the most western   influenced poster child of Arab spring, is 'poisonous' dominated by Islamic extremists led by the salafists. Situation in other countries are equally challenging and similar in nature, not identical though. Recently we are hearing more about Egypt, its recent coup that uprooted democratically elected Morsi government. It seems to be heading towards more trouble. Many western governments have no clue whether to support or oppose it. Previously the american president took no time to come out openly to support the revolution against Mubarak regime, despite the fact that Mubarak government was one of the strongest supporters of US foreign policy in the region. But now Obama is keeping mum, probably confused. American administration probably will continue its financial assistance even after the ‘coup’. Many influential American politicians like John McCain are equally confused whether america should do the ‘right thing’ by suspending aids.

Arab spring reminded us, once again, that revolution is only the first act of a big drama. Subsequent acts are more challenging and require long term sustained preparation. We can get a clue if we analyze more successful transition towards peace, prosperity and democracy in many east european countries. Alternative elite group of people were active in those countries during communism and soviet dominance. Many political leaders, bureaucrats and other professionals started working towards civil society during communist rule. Former Czechoslovakian president, author and poet Vaclav Havel started his work organizing people around 1970s. This trend is not limited to Czech republic but a consistent pattern in other east european countries as well. Such socio-political elites presented a qualified and, most importantly, acceptable alternative. People with shared vision of nation building and professional ability filled the vacuum after collapse of communist rule. It was not the same for Soviet Union and some of its breakaway republics. Reformists and oppositions were either too fragmented or repressed and harassed. Former wolves just changed its skin to become social democrat and came to power. They continued almost same policies of previous regime. No wonder Russia is now branded as a 'mafia state', as per Wikileaks revelation of US diplomatic cables.

It’s not economic or political system but human resource that makes the difference. It seems to be the main challenge with Arab spring too. Most Arab countries never had any such alternative elite group of leaders. Professionals working for past regimes were either killed or totally rejected. Political process and leaders who could lead were simply not there or disenfranchised. Now it have to start from the scratch. It will take a long time if get the right direction and the direction has to come from within.

We see the same trend in both Asia and Africa that were affected by european colonialism and apartheid. Countries that drove away almost all from past regimes suffer more. Almost every former european colony suffered when all white people fled rather than assimilated with native population. Zimbabwe is an extreme while India is a more moderate example compared to former european colonies in Latin America and post-apartheid South Africa. Assimilating socio-political elites, irrespective of past affiliation or racial identity, with shared value and decent sense of professional ethics seems to be a better route. It takes time and sustained effort preparing ground for a beautiful spring that people would enjoy and be proud of. It's tough but surely not impossible.

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Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Equality, morality and quality among kids and beyond

Few days ago I was flipping the  January 2013 issue of Smithsonian magazine. There I got this exciting article- Are babies born good? New research offers surprising answers to the age-old question of where morality comes from. Yes, babies are born with basic morality and ability to differentiate between 'right' and 'wrong'.

It reminded me of a discussion on whether to be strict to our kids to make them more quality conscious or follow the current tradition of encouraging our kids for whatever they do. Now majority parents in countries like the US encourage their kids even for a very sloppy job and say awesome. Does that “awesome culture” increase the chance of future success by boosting confidence or encourage kids to continue sloppy work that need to be criticized to encourage him/her to do better or help him/her to try something else? Of course, I do not buy the extreme of “tiger mother” concept prescribed by Prof Amy Chua in her controversial book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”. In fact, Prof Chua’s portrayal of typical Chinese mother is not so common among Chinese mothers or undergoing change now. More compelling evidence of why Prof Chua may not be right comes from the fact that countries like India and China where such 'tiger mom' culture is perceived to be more prevalent, do not do well to promote leadership, original thinking and minimize high level of corruption in public lives. Both the countries rank at the very bottom so far creativity and innovation are concerned. The more intriguing question for me is- what should be the right proportion of criticism and encouragement.

I do acknowledge the power of praise and encouragement to make our kids more confident. But we often forget that our praise need to be sincere and with reason. We just cannot keep on saying 'awesome', 'great' in a casual fashion without showing much interest or have time to evaluate what the kid has done. If a kid is intelligent enough to understand 'right' and 'wrong' from a very early age, s/he probably understands what a genuine praise is and what is just a habit. Nonetheless they are confused to evaluate their work and take the easy way of congratulating themselves for even a sloppy job.

Now coming to a trickier issue. Does confidence really breeds success? Evidently mere high confidence does not breed success. But our effort to make our kids more confident resulted in "narcissism epidemic", at least in USA. Few recent studies concluded that narcissistic attitude among US students are increasing since 1979. Many factors are blamed for that trend, including "parenting styles, celebrity culture, social media and access to easy credit, which allows people to appear more successful than they are". It has been concluded that "there is very little evidence that raising self-esteem leads to tangible, positive outcomes."

Few probable consequences are- increasing dominance of mediocrity in almost every field of life, consolidation of wealth and power in fewer hands with decreasing social mobility. Published data show that rate of innovation and invention is slowing. Nobel Prize winning US economist Joseph Stiglitz recently said, "The US has one of the worst opportunity rates of any of the advanced economies. A child's life chances are more dependent on the income of his or her parents than most other industrial economies".

Now success depends more on networking, ability to agree with majority than raw talent and ability to solve problems. One can gauge this trend more clearly in social networking sites like Facebook. Number of ‘like’ depend more on who is posting it, rather than its relevance or quality. It can also be argued that many people who have less knowledge and/or critical thinking tend to give 'expert' opinions. Such opinions are readily available to others by virtue of media and internet. Higher acceptance or 'agreeability' can give rise to a sense of confidence and seemingly more influence among peers with  long term consequences in democratic societies. The same media, internet and social networking sites also make common people aware that some of our leaders, famous public figures, top executives are no genius. Sycophancy, nepotism, stealing ideas, telling lies are not taboos anymore but a ‘desired’ character for increasing number of people to become successful. People who succeeded via that route are less likely to accept constructive criticism or failure. That puts extra pressure among colleagues, junior staff and students. The trend is expanding due to increasing reach of news-hungry media and internet. More we know about our ‘leaders’ more we tend to think that s/he is just one of us, nothing special. If others consider that person a genius, then I’m no less a genius! Recently I watched a news report on famous american president, John F Kennedy (JFK). It included some of his affairs, mainly with a former white house intern Mimi Alford. Few people who were previously fond of JFK started 'severely disliking' him after they came to know JFK more intimately. Such reversal of fortune, erosion of public faith will continue to rise as internet and other media coverage increases its reach and investigative ability. 

It’s yet to be proved if increasing reach of internet and other media add or counter-balance its power to promote mediocrity in the name of talent in this era of reality shows. But we can be reasonably assured that increased scrutiny would help to promote transparency. Evidences now indicate that social media is making us more honest. Now many well groomed people, ambitious enough to succeed and occupy influential positions would try avoiding such media scrutiny and taking extra precaution to leave less digital footprint.

Some of our great leaders like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln did not have formal education. But lately most US presidents are coming from privileged background with Ivy League university degrees while past US presidents were from all over the country and from different colleges and universities. Of course, I’m not talking about Obama. I consider him as a rare exception in this regard. The trend deteriorated further after Ronald Reagan, who practically transformed US education mainly higher education, to another for-profit industry. It does not seem to be a mere coincidence that all the US presidents are from Yale or Harvard since 1980s. One can observe the same trend for many influential positions in US, including supreme court judges. All nine current supreme court judges in US are from either Harvard or Yale, except one (justice Alito). 

It's not so surprising that quality of education, which is considered the silver bullet for social mobility and fulfilling the so-called ‘American dream’, is deteriorating. Education is becoming more of manufacturing workers and consumers than to groom a complete human being with the ability to understand the difference between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ to act accordingly. Now money and influence plays a more important role in deciding college admission (12). Such students enjoy even more competitive edge in admission in very selective and costly Ivy League universities where many of our current leaders in both corporate and government sector  now comes from. The famous book, "The Price of Admission" by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Daniel Golden shows, "how America’s ruling class buys its way into elite colleges and universities – and who gets left outside the gates".

Einstein once said, “everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid”. It’s not that hard to understand the consequences of encouraging a fish to think that it is equally talented to climb a tree. The situation gets worse if climbing tree is far more financially rewarding than swimming. In that situation, many parents will try to coerce their fish-kids to climb. The culture of imposed equality may not be that great to infuse a sense of quality and mentor talent. Deliberate or not, it seems to help kids from privileged background who are destined to be 'successful' irrespective of their ability and talent at the cost of the society and the nation in the long run. I'm not sure though if infatuation to wealth management and not wealth creation by talented or ambitious students since last few decades is related to it.

We seem to destroy the in-born morality that I told earlier. More people feel less ashamed  to accept awards/scholarships/credit that they don't deserve. The tendency probably continues when such kids grow up and occupy influential positions, be it in academic-research, corporate management or public policy. It probably makes a run-of-the-mill decent worker but not a natural leader who is able to earn respect and lead effectively.

Now we live in an increasingly smaller global village with more aggressive news media, increasing reach of internet and social networking sites. People feel comfortable with mediocrity. Many people don't like to take the pain to find out what they are good at, what they love to do (particularly if that is not financially rewarding) but prefer to impose themselves on a subject that they are not so good at. Best prepared candidates are not always the best or most talented ones to succeed. Gradually talent is replaced by mediocrity. More kids are groomed with that objective. They are less encouraged to excel what they are good at if that does not fit the objective. We see its consequence more clearly during selection of top bureaucrats in India through, arguably, the most competitive selection processes in the world with less than 0.3% success rate. Yet  ‘Indian bureaucracy the worst in Asia’.

We can see its influence not only in schools, universities and screening for a specific career but also in many other forums and cultural programs. Many, if not majority, cultural organizations promote children and adults who have proper connections or influence. Such parents feel elated simply by seeing themselves, their spouses and children on the stage. Many times we witness reduction of performance time even for expensive artists from abroad to accommodate such whims of influential members. They seem to be totally ignorant on the larger implications of such act of nepotism. Many organizers of such programs proudly assert that cultivating equality, mass participation is the goal; not promoting talent or leadership. The sense of justice, professional ethics are severely damaged for the kids too. Talented kids are not only demoralized but also start accepting corruption and nepotism as part of life, as the main (sometimes, only) criteria to be recognized and enjoy what they are good at. They too will try to take advantage of the same in areas where they are not so good at. 

In a sense, imposition of equality helps maintaining the status-quo. It encourages people who believe in dynasties, give effort to establish their children towards same success and power. We need to keep in mind that kids from privileged families sometimes are under more pressure to succeed. Regular evaluation, defeat in the hands of more talented student help such kids to accept defeat,  remain humble and empathetic. It help promoting talent, grooming worthy leaders. 

No, I am not suggesting that kids from privileged families cannot be good or genius. Yes, they have equal probability to excel. We need to encourage students who are good- irrespective of his/her background. I believe that every child has talent. We must acknowledge specific talent and not lower the bar to make almost everyone feel like a genius. Students who cannot see the bigger picture start believing that if many mediocre people become so successful then why not they. In the long run, the rot will become clearer in form of deterioration of governance, declining ability to innovate and invent, erosion of product quality (both goods and creative art) resulting deterioration of industrial competitiveness, and overall quality of life. It's impact will be on whole society, including our children. Many of us often forget that we and our own children, who may not be that excellent in a specific area, would have a far more productive and happier life if s/he is under a competent professional and governed by an able leader- academic, corporate or political. 

Coming from a developing country, l personally feel little worried witnessing the same trend in a developed country like the USA.

Shorter URL: http://goo.gl/uEF6M

** Modified version of the blog is published in one of the most influential science and technology policy forums in USA, Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes (CSPO) at Arizona State University and Washington DC. 

Sunday, October 28, 2012

India needs to be cautious while following the American model of higher education and research

It's almost unanimously accepted that quality of Indian education and research is steadily declining since last few decades despite of huge increase in funding and number of schools, colleges, universities and institutes. It's also well recognized that we need drastic reform. Whenever we talk about reform in Indian science, we generally end up talking about the American model as the gold standard. Many do not consider analys­ing the US system and its limitations in more detail. Others think that we should first reach the current state of American research and only then talk about further modification, probably following the same US model.

There is no doubt that developing countries like India can learn and more to gain from the American model of higher education and research, e.g. transparency in funding and recruitment. But we also need to be aware of probable pitfalls so that we do not repeat the same mistakes and end up wasting our scarce resources and lose few more generations of scientists.

Since early 18th century when France led the world, till today, history and sociopolitical events indicate that emergence of science super powers generally follow economic uprising. Not the other way round. Scientists must not take undue advantage of a nation’s appetite for heroes. It becomes more important in this era of economic crisis where almost all national governments are hard pressed to fund research projects. Here, I mainly discuss the issue in the context of the US, which we generally try to follow in India.

Lately, the whole assembly line to manufacture "scientist" is becoming dysfunctional as evident by slowing down of innovation and invention. Even the mighty pharmaceutical R&D sector is now suffering from acute shortage of new drugs. Few policy makers in the US already started asking serious questions about the relevance of once highly productive post World War II ‘input–output model’, where monetary input was assumed to be directly proportional to knowledge output, to judge the efficacy of today’s public funded research. Many argue that scientific output should be judged in terms of its capacity to achieve the desired social outcome.

We generally forget that immediately after the World War II, the US had no serious scientific and economic competitor. The US higher education and research enterprise was, and still is, much larger than that of any other country. The most successful and dominant player for American research was the Department of Defense (DoD). With (i) end of cold war and the declining role of DoD in translating public funded R&D into tangible social outcome; (ii) rise of many serious challengers (mainly the emerging economics in East Asia and South America); (iii) newly emerging issues (e.g. public health care, global warming and energy crisis) that require greater scientific understanding, needed a different approach to quantify and prioritize national scientific need. These issues arose mainly during 1980s and put the traditional ‘input–output’ model under serious threat. India never has the luxury of being an economic superpower to invest heavily to build a massive infrastructure on science education and research, naively thinking that quantity will ensure quality. Here I should mention that India already has the second largest higher education system in the world, only after the USA! 

Some people already started demanding that the universities should be restricted to teaching, without wasting public money in the name of research. Now US universities are more interested to select those candidates as faculties who have developed suitable network and mastered the art to attract grants, than to identify and select candidates with original thinking ability who can innovate and/or invent to generate revenue for the university. Present model completely absolves the universities from the responsibility of spending tax-payers’ money. In its most optimistic and fair terms, keeping aside the regular allegations of nepotism and corruption in recruitment and funding, Indian research institutes and universities are no different.

The lack of strategic thinking, focus and coordination between government, other funding agencies and universities, and by unrealistic expectations of what money could buy are becoming more evident these days. Some of the problems, including that of the ‘publish or perish’ model started long ago during the 1970s, as indicated in the book, Hera­clitean Fire: Sketches from a Life before Nature, by the famous biochemist Erwin Chargaff. Later, it became more of a global problem as initial success of the American ‘input–output’ and ‘publish or perish’ model was adopted by many countries, including India, albeit half-heartedly.

The problem worsened as the most important parameter to quantify productivity and efficacy of our publication based academic research started losing its credibility. The ‘monopolistic’ business of the academic publication industry has become one of the fastest growing lucrative businesses without much self-regulation and government oversight. Today almost anything can be published in journals claiming to be peer-reviewed. It has significantly contributed towards deterioration of the peer-review process, rising incidents of scientific misconducts and higher acceptance of such misconducts among researchers. China is a good example in this regard with increasing incidences of plagiarism and other forms of scientific misconduct. Chinese journals find a whopping 31% of submissions are plagiarized.

It has serious consequences not only on over all scientific environment but also on careers of individual researcher – as recruitment, funding, promotion and fame, which can be defined as ‘institutional power to influence future direction in any specific area’, depends largely on that single parameter. Credibility of data, its interpretation and conclusion seem to depend more on individual researcher. Any researcher adhering to the higher standard of professional ethics and scientific understanding is now under severe threat.

Lack of accountability partly explains low financial remuneration for non-tenured researchers and students, poor working condition, poor mentoring that contributes to low attraction and lower retention of talented students in the US. It reduce support towards science not only among talented students, but also among policy makers and general public for this vital sector, which was, still is and will remain crucial for industrial competitiveness and higher quality of living in western countries. Any country ambitious enough to have a knowledge based economy, as some Indian policy-makers like to achieve, needs to acknowledge that increasing dominance of mediocrity is a serious threat today than ever before.

Companies are running out of new blockbuster drugs, other novel products and technology that can generate high profit to pay its shareholders and executives as the quality and integrity of scientists are steadily going down and mediocrity flourishes. It's one of the major reasons why companies are increasingly taking illegal routes by undertaking deceptive marketing and illegal promotion of drugs not approved by US federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or similar regulatory authorities in other countries. Its impact is also becoming more common in research publications, scientific seminars and conferences. Almost all, if not all, major drug and medical device companies now seem to be involved in systemic and massive fraud (AbbottGlaxoSmithKlineMerck, Pfizer, Novartis, BASF). They are increasingly bribing doctors even in developed countries like USA. Now more than 90% of doctors in US receive favors from drug companies who paid more than $2 billion to different health professionals. Keep in mind that it's only the disclosed value, that many believe to be the tip of a massive iceberg.  

We need to understand that past achievements will sustain competitive edge for a shorter period of time in this age of higher mobility of manpower and increasing reach of communication technology. It demands   faster development of novel, innovative products and technology. Many times the policy makers and scientists either could not understand or conveniently ignored the bigger picture, as there are not many subject matter experts willing to play the role of a devil’s advocate.  Scientists with vested professional and financial interest generally evaluate scientific projects and invariably recommend specific projects that benefit them personally.

It seems that exaggerated data fueled the hype for Jatropha based biofuel programs in countries like India and ended up wasting huge public money. Another recent casualty of over-selling or culture of hype became clearer when many high profile players in the pharmaceutical industry dropped their plans and altogether pulled out from much hyped technique, RNA interference, popularly known as RNAi.

Deteriorating scientific climate and rising incidences of misconduct in both public and private funded universities and R&D units, even in developed countries like USA, have far reaching consequences for the organization, the country and, most importantly, science itself. Developing countries like India with fewer resources need to learn from both the successes and mistakes of more successful countries like USA. Ignoring their mistakes will be no less fatal. India needs to prepare itself to adopt the changing world where, probably, there will be no science superpower to follow.

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Monday, August 13, 2012

End of anti-corruption movement by Anna Hazare?

Anna Hazare dismantled his team that was fighting against corruption. Now "Team Anna" is forming a political party. None of their demands is met. Janlokpal bill is as far away as before. They probably succumb to the pressure from all political parties and media to contest election. I am not sure why they feel that civil rights movement always have to win election and/or follow the system they are so opposed. I am also not sure how wise that decision is- considering the nature of Indian election and electorate where rampant crime and corruption plays a major role. It becomes clearer when we consider the fact that some of the top leaders in ruling Congress party and current government had a miserable time to win election despite of getting all backing from the  powerful party machinery. One of the poster boys for "honesty and wisdom" and our current prime minister failed to win a single election, even from one of the most prosperous and educated constituencies in India- South Delhi in 1999. Dr Manmohan Singh is always a  member of the upper house of Parliament (Rajya Sabha). It seems that once hugely popular anti-corruption movement by Anna has lost its steam, at least for now. I am quite confident that no such movement against corruption will be successful  in India in near future.

Many Indians seem to think that Arab spring type revolution is more probable and also desirable to cleanse India. They probably forget that any movement or revolution becomes successful when it connects majority of common people. Majority people have to agree with both the goal and the path to achieve it. All the regimes in all the countries where Arab Spring is successful were from the minority sect / community, within Islam. Minority rule over majority people was a major factor there.

Majority of Indians accept corruption as part of life. They adjusted their ‘education’ (rather lack of it) and lives to use that as a tool to ‘succeed’. They feel so comfortable with that historic but no less damaging  socio-political reality.

Any anti-corruption movement can never have a great chance to succeed in a country where one third of population is “utterly corrupt” and half is in the “borderline”, as described by Pratyush Sinha- one of India's Central Vigilance Commissioners, country's anti-corruption watchdog. It will not be unfair to say that more than 80% of Indians are basically corrupt. Mass attendance during the first phase of Anna’s movement is more due to curiosity and time pass for many. Almost everyone seems to believe that others need to become honest and less corrupt first. They have enough excuses to justify why s/he personally need to do all sorts of corruption, even crime. Recently one state minister from Utter Pradesh (one of the biggest and most corrupt states in India) openly admitted that “little stealing is acceptable”!

Almost everyone seemed to 'support' Anna Hazare even though they are highly corrupt in their own professional and personal lives. How can any movement against corruption be successful without mass public support in real sense?

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Our legacy, our liability, our future

Can we solve a problem without acknowledging and analyzing the problem before we attempt solving it? Let me put in other words. How a woodpecker find rotten wood that might have its food- the wood boring insects, grubs and ants? Can a woodpecker survive if we ask it not to drum or peck the dead wood? The topic I'll discuss below have a lot to do to these questions, seemingly unrelated. I'll come back to the woodpeckers later.

Yesterday lower house of Indian parliament, popularly known as Lok Sabha, passed (mostly) the government version of Lokpal bill. It is yet to be passed in the upper house, Rajya Sabha. Many think the bill is too weak to have any impact, while many others think that it will increase corruption, instead of minimizing it. On the other hand many believe it as a total betrayal by our elected representatives and parliament considering its promise (formally referred as "parliamentary resolution" or "sense of the house") made in the floor of the parliament to make and pass a strong lokpal bill that will include (i) Citizen's Charter, (ii) lower bureaucracy under Lokpal through an appropriate mechanism, and (iii) establishment of Lokayukta in the States. Today Anna Hazare ended his fast in Mumbai. Many of his followers are disappointed. They think the fight against corruption is over, at least for now. Many are worried about the long term consequences of our culture and social acceptance of corruption. 

The problem of extremist movement arises from systemic blockage of civic protests, as happened to many previous socio-political movements and as happening to Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement. We are yet to show any sign of maturity as a democracy and learn from our past mistakes. Our system in independent India has been doing it since its birth in 1947. Our 'elected' representatives and ruling elites inherited the legacy of the foreign rulers, since 1192- start of Muslim rule. Such elites include mainly the blue eyed boys of Muslim invaders (for ~600 years) and then the British (for ~200 years), who facilitated their rule over this country- in form of maharajah  nawab, jaminder, feudal landlord, businessman and    bureaucrat (including police, judiciary, civil administration bosses). It is also true that many of such maharajahs  nawabs etc were nothing but local dacoits or leaders of organized crimes (that include many businessmen). Such elites were remunerated not only by prestigious awards, powerful positions and blood-money, but also awarded admission to prestigious British universities like Cambridge and Oxford. That was like passport to culture and education accepted to our ruling elites. Responsible positions in civil administration were severely compromised. In subsequent years, oppression was accompanied with the awe and ego of 'culture' and 'education' of the scions of the looters aka rajas, nawabs, jaminders and bureaucrats. That tradition continued. It did not take much time for British trained wolves to get into 'Indian' sheep outfit.

Emerging elites start buying famous books and other items of art to decorate their homes and offices. Such books, movies and other items of art are hardly used, less understood, least followed. Another preferred way to get reputation as 'cultured' is to get the son/daughter (mainly daughters are sacrificed for such noble act!) married to a spouse already having heavy weight degree(s) or sending the would-be groom to buy some degrees, preferably from abroad. Such seemingly 'educated' and 'cultured' sons-in-law are excellent showpieces to advertise the glory of the family. No, such people are not much worried about any certificate of honesty, as they know that ignorance of general people allow them to accept heavy-weight degrees and employment hierarchy as the gold standard for all virtues like honesty, hard work and talent. They would afford to ignore few skeptics who still dare to question why so many of our 'highly educated' politicians and other elites are so corrupt, least talented, but no less gifted with awards. Paid headline news in national media are not so uncommon these days. On the other hand, our typical 'good' students from less fortunate background seldom afford the courage and ability to ignore the easy and fast track to succeed, provocation of assured career, and most importantly, wealth and power- simply by being associated with such powerful and wealthy families.

Severe shortage of trained manpower and commercialization of education in western countries made the job easier. Gradually Oxbridge was replaced by american universities as the glory and power of British empire eroded, new world order established. Occasionally such elites promote backbone-less cronies as we see in some high positions, only to show that one can prosper only if s/he obeys them - the ruling elites. In short, the culture of endowment, distribution of national scholarships/fellowships/awards to cronies and relatives continued unhindered in independent India.

That culture of a feudal society and all pervasive corruption has another serious implication. It does not allow natural leadership quality to grow. In such a society people with actual leadership quality have to face severe consequence- ruthlessly crushed if not supported by some god-father/mother or powerful dynasty. The vacuum in leadership are filled by non-natural, promoted 'leaders'. There is no internal democracy in majority, if not all, of the political parties in India. That's why there is hardly any chance for India to get its own Barack Obama in near foreseeable future. That trend is not limited to politics or bureaucracy but present in almost every field including private sector companies.

Of course, not everyone belong to this category but majority does and it follows a pattern. You can describe it as 'profiling'- successfully used by security agencies and policy makers. It's the same reason a person can expect little more scrutiny while applying for US visa from its embassy/consulate in Delhi or Mumbai as compared to Kolkata. 

The cycle of deprivation, oppression and exploitation continued almost unhindered since 1947, as the British handed over the right to rule (not govern) to more dishonest and no less oppressive desi “brown sahibs”, who sometimes behave more British than actual British rulers. On top of that, the good-for-nothing fellows who failed as students were groomed by mainstream political parties as student "leaders". Then modern day criminals, big businessmen joined the loot.

Now several business tycoons are members of our parliament, many in Rajya Sabha (the upper house) where members are nominated by political parties without public referendum. There are an estimated 300 MPs with assets worth Rs one crore (10 million) or more in the new Lok Sabha, with 543 members having combined asset of Rs 3,075 crore. Now the  number  of crorepatis is almost double, from 154 in the 14th Lok Sabha. Four MPs in Lok Sabha have assets worth more than Rs 100 crore. If anyone still thinks that these rich and powerful people are there to serve the country and its people then read this article published in Economic Times which describes how "MPs have managed to find a place in many House panels despite having business interests in the sectors concerned". Please keep it in mind that the above information is only the declared asset value where the most powerful Indian politician, Sonia Gandhi, has only Rs 1.38 crore total asset including a house in Italy that is valued around Rs 18 lakhs (1.8 million) (USD ~36,000) and no car, as per her election affidavit.

The trend accelerated fast after Indira Gandhi institutionalized corruption. National institutions were ruined, started resembling party offices and increasingly being dominated by cronies. In the meantime, we committed another grave mistake. We kept most of our old laws, bureaucracy, police, judiciary that the British introduced in their native colony, which was significantly different than what they had in Britain. Our policy makers never seriously tried to reform the core institutions, even though talks of reforms are going around since ages.

Last few weeks I was watching debates on Lokpal Bill in Indian TV channels. Most of the politicians, mainly from the ruling party, talked as if they are the kings. We all seem to have the constitutional obligation to obey them and, most importantly, those who support Anna Hazare and Anna himself is nothing but insignificant bugs which "would have been crushed if our great forefathers, great administrators, were present" (as per one prominent Congress leader in NDTV). 

Many believe that it is now pay-back time. Fast spread of naxals, increasing tendency of general citizens to take laws into their hands, more support towards hartals, bandhs and gheraos by common Indians now (as compared to 1971) are just few symptoms of the all pervasive rot. Check this BBC article that says- "today 223 districts - India has 636 districts - in 20 states are "Maoist affected", up from 55 districts in nine states six years ago. Ninety of the affected districts, according to the government, are experiencing "consistent violence". PM Manmohan Singh calls it the country's "greatest internal security challenge". Such facts show the increasing distrust over our political system and civil governance, more so after 1991 economic liberalization. That is supported by many reports, fact and figures. One such reports tells- Indian government gave three times more subsidy to rich Indians (Rs 4.6 lakh corers) as compared to middle class and poor people (Rs 1.54 lakh corers). It is high time for us to ponder why India is among the worst of the emerging economies in terms of poverty, income inequality and social discrimination since globalization (i.e. since 1991- in case of India). Emerging economies like Indonesia, Argentina effectively reduced social and income inequalities significantly in recent times while India is among the worst affected ones. 

Anna's movement is (probably, was) a rare opportunity to bring a systemic change in our system of governance and force our "elected" representatives and public servants to govern- not rule. Only those get democracy who deserve it and ready to fight for it. By now we know that chanting the mantra of peace does not guarantee peace. The same way, chanting the mantra of "parliamentary democracy" and shouting from the roof that “parliament is supreme” does not transform a corrupt, feudal society into a productive, prosperous democracy. One must be able and ready to pay the price as and when needed. At the end of the day, we get what we actually deserve. It does not matter if we like it or not!

Remember the woodpecker whom we asked not to drum or peck when we started this article? Wood boring insects, grubs, ants are not the only food woodpecker can eat. In fact, adult woodpecker change its diet  according to what food sources are most abundant. In the fall, nuts, seeds and fruit are popular because of plentiful natural harvests. In the spring and summer, these birds feast primarily on insects that provide high levels of protein for breeding birds and growing hatchlings. If we ban our woodpecker to drum or peck dead woods it will not only create rippling affects in the relevant ecosystem but also will have huge negative impact on future generations of woodpeckers, without not-so-immediate and acute impact on the adults.

**added later: The bill was not passed in Rajya Sabha. The house was adjourned without voting amid chaos after a debate stretched to midnight.

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Saturday, November 12, 2011

How can we, in personal capacity, help reforming basic education in India?

Some time ago I suggested to giving importance to basic education, at primary and high school level to have better quality of scientists and other professionals. I also think, there is absolutely no point to waste public money in setting up (mostly) useless new, “elite” institutes at this time. It will surely provide employment for some but will not bring much positive change in the quality or productivity of Indian higher education and research. Quantity does not guarantee quality unless there is the desire and transparency in the motivation

Initially I used to be optimistic about Non Governmental Organization, NGO (non-profit organization- as popularly known in the USA) operated or promoted schools. Later I realized that majority of such NGOs are equally corrupt and counter productive for our national interest, operated within and/or outside the country. India has the largest number of NGOs in the world (3.3 million registered ones, as in 2009, with many more unregistered) with more than 20 million employees, mostly unpaid or under-paid volunteers- nicely exploited for their temporary infatuation (for majority), some fashion and few passion (besides the usual compulsion to have a job and/or experience, applicable to any other sector). It is alleged that more than 90% of Indian NGOs are corrupt. Many big business houses, politician or political party affiliated organizations, individual entrepreneurs and even organized crime syndicates start NGOs for various reasons- starting from acting as "pressure groups" (lobby) to promote a product or technology or public policy that benefit it, to money laundering and human trafficking. Indian government is the biggest donor (Rs 18,000 crore in the XI plan), followed by foreign contributors (worth around Rs 10,000 crore in 2007-08). Around Rs 2,000 crore was donated to established religious bodies such as the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams. Lately individual donors are emerging as the biggest and most lucrative source of funds (1).  In short, motivation for majority of Indian NGOs boils down to profiteering and tax incentives, not only from that specific venture but also for other organizations owned by the same company or individual than dedication towards any social or national cause. Due to that overwhelming majority, few dedicated NGOs also lose credibility and that affect its financial prospect. Almost none of those NGO operated/promoted schools have any idea about education, leave alone its desire or ability. It is just another business as usual. Many political and business heavyweights in India now have schools, colleges and even universities that are pathetic in quality and motivation, nonetheless doing roaring business. It is because majority parents have no idea about education either and few, who have, do not have any desire, rather able to gather the courage, to groom their children as “educated”.

The few honest efforts to run schools suffer not only from resource crunch but also are confused if they should continue that effort. The students from such schools do not do very well in competitive exams and job market, as compared to rot memorization and coaching based kids and/or kids in cities from affluent families. Gradually such schools lose its sheen among parents, particularly among those parents who can pay, and become establishments for less-privileged kids who have no better option). Mostly run by few benevolent, reasonably honest donors and government handouts. Dependents on government fund ruin its independence, attract political interference that ultimately destroy its purpose. Most of the time the institution dies with the death of the patron, who established the school. Then local mafia or political leader becomes its president  or sectary and party cadres become the teachers. 

One patron of such a school once jokingly told me  that, "I need to open my own industry to recruit the students from my school". His next statement was more serious, "not many organizations, public or private, prefer to recruit our students. Even the most brilliant and dedicated ones are forced to go away (from our island) and do petty clerical job. That too if s/he is fortunate. Because we do not teach them how to score 100% marks, can not teach them to become 'street smart', speak fluent English to get the BPO jobs". Whatever the person might say, one can easily understand the impact of his school among local people, among the community. The community is economically poor but very clean (both personal hygiene and community-wise), disciplined, honest and, most surprisingly, none of them (I talked to) ever realized even the need to have a police station! They still have excellent sense of collective responsibility towards the community. Wealth distribution is more or less equal, no caste or religious division (so far I can witness), no crime whatsoever. They follow laws and ethics without any fear or force from any police. There was no police station in the whole island. Some might be illiterate, yet, collectively they are more educated and developed in every sense. Many will be surprised to know where I found that excellent community and the school! It was in one of the remote islands in Andaman, Rangat island, about 200 km away from the hustle and bustle of Port Blair. The community was established around mid 1950s, (mostly) by refugee Bengali community settled in Andaman after partition of India.

No, those local students never top UPSC exam or secured the top positions in any 'prestigious' joint entrance exam, probably never joined IISc or IIT or IIM type 'elite' institute or get any foreign scholarship/fellowship. They are not expected to get any either in foreseeable future. US and Europe are as alien to them as moon to many of us. There I got one of the best models of education and students I ever experienced anywhere in India. Probably we will lose that soon, as heavy flow of 'civilized' and 'educated' tourists, businessmen and bureaucrats started pouring in from outside- polluting that remote, (so far) peaceful and civilized part of India (2). Many of these 'outsiders' never learned the basic to respect other human beings particularly if they have darker skin, not to treat them as animals in a sanctuary. Many 'highly cultured and educated' tourists and 'outsiders' settled there go for thrill ride looking for the tribal people, just like African safari to see wild animals in Masai Mara. Local people are worried, but feel helpless. There I met one ex-army officer, an excellent gentleman, who settled there to enjoy both natural and human ("Insaaniyat"- as he described me) beauty. He was a very worried man too, but determined to continue to fight the losing battle. 

I realized that education and quality of school reflect mentality of local people and the  community. Just yesterday I met an young Indian couple in front of an Indian grocery store in a US city. They parked their car in a parking lot reserved for handicapped people. There was enough empty parking space but that handicapped one was the nearest to the shop they went. The car had a big "Ohio State University Alumni" sticker to advertise the owner's "education", but did not have the permit to use handicapped parking, which is legally binding all-time-display, to use such facility. When I suggested the couple not to misuse the facility, they started telling me how that is none of my business and suggested me to do whatever I feel like (in the typical irritating tone, prevalent in some parts of northern India)! Their "education" taught them that maintaining law and order is the responsibility of only police and government - common people "have no business" there. I was looking for an apology and simple assurance that they would not be doing it again. Instead their arrogance and defense to support their illegal activity prompted me reporting it to the police. The car had a booster seat at the back. I assume they have kid(s). What type of education the child like to get? Such people practically destroyed India and will contribute doing the same wherever they go- Andaman or USA, knowingly or unknowingly. 

If we ourselves are not honest, do not value ethics and morality, no law can force us to change that. No formal education or school can teach that. So long parents want to groom only “toppers” and desire to have some heavy-weight degrees for their kids that (they think) will allow them to earn more money and power, we will only have that type of “education” (rather lack of it).  We can reform education in India (or probably anywhere in the world) if you and me, as parents, give lessons of morality and ethics, teach our kids to respect and uphold honesty and justice by being their role model. Then only we will start producing world class scientists (and any other professionals) in that country. It is an individual effort first. If we succeed at home, then it makes sense to talk about systemic change in the society and government. 

Probably my long post will make no sense to many "educated" people and I apologize to them.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Early evolution of religion ushered the dawn of scientific research

Gupi (name changed) was born in a typical conservative Hindu family in India. He visited us for few weeks. It seemed that Gupi presented some tough challenges for his traditional Hindu parents. I think the same challenges are there for many parents and their beloved children who are now preparing to face the world with increasingly higher connectivity, both in terms of personal interactions and digital (in cyber space), in India and abroad. The chance to encounter people with different or even totally opposite tradition and religious beliefs is becoming higher in this era of higher mobility, rapidly expanding communication technology and shrinking personal space. Problems for Gupi and his parents mainly started with religion. The issues became more acute as both Gupi and his parents wanted him to be either a scientist or an engineer.

Many eminent personalities believe that the chance of success of our future generation will largely depend on their understanding of different cultures, which mainly comes from upbringing in multicultural societies as in this country, America. But to get the benefits from the diversity of a multicultural society people need to understand some very basics of human evolution; not only to succeed but sometimes even to survive. It becomes more important in foreign countries where one’s religion and/or traditions are among the minorities. Gupi is one of such kids, growing up abroad where his religion is among the minorities.

Religion has a huge impact on our tradition and culture, the way we like to live. It is also a very sensitive issue. I urge my readers not to take this article personally, but objectively. The purpose of this article is not to hurt anyone’s faith, not to conclude on the issue but to provoke higher level of debate and consolidation of logical thinking. It is believed that both religious and political allegiances are mostly hereditary than rational. These two are also the most important sources for conflict (and both social and political corruption) since ages and remain so till today. In this article I’ll try to deal with the religious issues and leave the political part to our Anna Hazare and his team. In fact, I was encouraged to write this peace after my brief encounter with that 11 year old boy, Gupi’s dilemma and Anna Hazare’s fast to fight corruption.

Let’s start with the very early period of human civilization. During that time humans felt insecure and helpless in front of natural calamities and search for food. They gradually tried to adjust, understand and overcome the problems when possible. Their main strategy was to organize people and act as a group. It increased their chance of success. That gave rise to community living and group activities like hunting, cultivation etc. During the process people gradually understood the problems more critically and also became aware of their limitations. That awareness provoked some to conceive the existence of supernatural powers, which they thought were behind all those forces that they cannot control. They also started believing that such supernatural forces strike when they are not happy, just like they do. They tried to keep the spirits happy, developed a set of rituals, later known as “worship”. Each group of people tried to conceive the supernatural powers according to their own experiences. If they liked any particular food or drink, they used to offer those to their Gods. Gods also started looking like them, physically. The same God is not exactly the same in southern India as compared to that of northern India. Our current, but totally misleading, perception about Jesus Christ with blue eyes and blond hair is just another fascinating story in that regard.

Even the definition of God varies from region to region. Ravana may be a demon in most of India but many people in Sri Lanka and southern India consider him as God. Many believe that Ravana was a better king or administrator, if one compares prosperity of his kingdom with that of Ram. Ajodhya was not “golden” but Lanka was! Of course the package (for Ravana) came with the characteristics that were so common among king-class, elite people (even today), which ultimately caused his defeat and death, just like many other great kings in history.

Now coming back from Satya yuga to our Kali yuga, which started on 18th February 3102 BC as per Brahma Vaivarta Purana and Wikipedia. As most of the natural calamities used to be the same i.e. rain, flood, storm-wind, draught-sun, wild beasts etc, many of such supernatural powers had high similarities (though not identical) world over. Gradually all such concepts and activities gave rise to religion. To cut the long story short, religion was developed to make societies more organized and to involve majority population to participate in different activities or rituals for betterment of the society. Religion made implementing the rules much easier. Both remuneration and punishment was introduced. It gave rise to the concept of virtue and vice. Breaking the rules was equated to sin or vice while obeying those became virtues. Here we should keep in mind that all such rules were made by human, most probably the pack leaders of the groups. During early phase of human evolution and initial days of religion, almost everyone was busy to ensure their survival and growth. They all were interested to search reasons (to solve problems), in other words, the truth (mainly behind natural calamities, food supply and reproduction). Later life became a bit easier due to many innovations and inventions. Then the main evolution of religion started, as we see it today.

Ancient religions are more inclined to have idol worshipping. They have many Gods to take care of natural causes like wind, rain, flood, life threatening animals, birth, death etc. Examples of such religion are Hinduism, religions in ancient Egypt, Greece etc. Many tribes in India and abroad practice this type of religion with many Gods and idol worshipping. More recent religions like Islam, Christianity are more like ideology. Almost all of such recent religions conceive a single God. The person who introduced that ideology became the prophet, mostly the “last” prophet. Such differences indicate the motive behind introduction of such religions. It's like establishing an ideology than to motivate survival of a group of people. The same analogy can be drawn to other non-religious socio-political evolutions, e.g Marxism. It’s the same psychology with which a king rules his subjects and advertises his supremacy. Evolution of recent religions was possible as life became easier. Creation and spread of such recent religions also affected more ancient religions. Leaders of those ancient religions tried to invent new rituals to strengthen their grips over power, and wealth associated with power. “Satidaha” (burning of brides), caste division, no beef eating, many marriages by men but not by women etc by Hindus are some of this type of new rituals. As people from different religions came closer, competition to prove ones’ supremacy became more intense.

Historians and anthropologists widely accept that beef was widely eaten in ancient India. The people, whom we consider as the creator of Hinduism, not only used to eat beef but also prescribed beef for many health reasons and illnesses. An ancient Hindu text, Manusmriti (200BC to 200AD), lists cow as one of several animals whose meat can be eaten. One of the two great Indian epics - the Mahabharata - speaks of beef being a delicacy served to esteemed guests. For a quick reference one can read an article published in BBC on 9th August 2001. It was published after few fundamentalists, claiming to be Hindu, started law and order problems and threatening author, Prof D N Jha, for his book “Holy Cow: Beef in Indian Dietary Traditions”.

Even the languages, which were only the means of expression, became associated with specific religions. Arabic became Islamic, Latin became Christian, and Sanskrit became a Hindu language. Many Hindus started believing that anything written in Sanskrit must be true and (mostly) holy. Here we should keep in mind that Sanskrit was not the language of common people but of socio-political elites of ancient India.

To maintain the social order and supremacy, group-leaders did not encourage asking question. They started implementing their own version of “truth” in the name of religion. It became the norm. Gradually every religion started demanding un-questionable faith. “Search for truth” soon became the fight to establish one’s own version of truth. Now we see the fight among human beings to prove that their version of “truth” is more “true” than that of others! This deformed version of “religion” allegedly is the single most important reason for human sufferings, conflicts and death in the past and remains so even today. Religion took a massive blow to serve its original intended purpose as we invented constitution, laws and lately democracy to maintain social discipline. This presented a great dilemma for many, particularly for those who live in secular democracies like India and the USA.

Many cannot stop the temptation to cite famous people, mainly famous scientists like Einstein to “prove” religion. Let me quote a letter written by no other but older, more matured Albert Einstein on January 3rd 1954, a year before his death. It says (as published in many newspapers, including “The Telegraph” of UK on 13th May 2008)- “The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weakness, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this”. Einstein, who died the following year aged 76, did not spare Judaism from his criticism, believing Jewish people were in no way “chosen” by God. He wrote: “For me the Jewish religion like all others is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity have no different quality for me than all other people.”

Our own Achariya Prafulla Chandra Roy, the noted chemist and among the first few Indian entrepreneurs to set up knowledge based Industry, Bengal Chemical, in India on 12th April, 1901, once tried to identify “since when and why India cannot undertake objective scientific research” (my own translation from Bengali texts). After a long investigation he wrote a book, “History of Hindu Chemistry”. There he identified distorted interpretation and practice of religion (more specifically the Hindu religion) and heinous caste system as the root cause. In an article titled, “knowledge of technical arts and decline of scientific spirit”, he was more elaborate. He specifically identified two people – first one is Saint Shankaracharaya and then saint Manu (who introduced stricter caste based social division and marriage among Hindus). For a quick reference one can check the short article published in reputed Bengali magazine, “Desh” (2nd February 2011 issue). The sad state of affairs of Hindus (and Bengalis) becomes clear when we find madness to celebrate 150 years of Rabindranath Tagore but not even a fraction to remember this great Indian scientist and entrepreneur (1861-1944).

There are many people who consider themselves Hindu yet totally deny existence of God. One such group of Hindu sites the ancient Sanskrit scripture, Sankhya- tattva-kaumudi. It argues that a perfect God can have no need to create a world, and if God's motive is kindness, Samkhya questions whether it is reasonable to call into existence beings who while non-existent had no suffering. Samkhya postulates that a benevolent deity ought to create only happy creatures, not an imperfect world like the real world!

Now let’s come out of such controversies and share the good news. A recent survey by PEW Forum on Religion and Public Life, a part of the famous American think-tank Pew Research Center, concluded that atheists and agnostics are among the highest-scoring groups in a survey of religious knowledge, outperforming “believers”. If we re-frame that statement, we can safely say that those people who know more about religion believe less in it. Another PEW survey concluded that, “America is among the most religious of the world’s developed nations. Nearly six-in-ten US adults say that religion is “very important” in their lives”. The Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA) of USA concluded in 2002 that, “the influence of religion is decreasing in all the developed countries surveyed so far. In USA, about 51.6% of people think that it is decreasing and about 37.5% believe that it is increasing”. A recent article in BBC pointed out that, “Religion may become extinct in nine nations, study says”. These nine countries include mostly developed ones- Australia, Austria, Canada, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Switzerland and the Czech Republic. It's reported in 1998 that about 93% of "great" scientists of USA (members of National Academy of Sciences) expressed disbelief or doubt in the existence of God.

I personally think there is no conflict between science and religion, as many believe or might expect. It will not be right to say that Achariya PC Roy was less Hindu (to do excellent “objective scientific research”). But that will only be true if we keep in mind the real meaning of religion and can logically follow its gradual evolution. The people whom we think are the founding fathers, invented “religion” to seek truth, as I indicated before. I could not include “founding mothers” simply because almost all mainstream religions are male dominated and follow policies mostly biased against women. It is almost unimaginable to see a woman as the Pope (the head of Catholic Church) or a Shankaracharya in Kanchipuram or the Imam of any great mosque. Nevertheless, all those father figures and many great women scholars used to seek truth with the tools and techniques available to them. They very effectively used the best tools they had, i.e. their brain. They developed the ability to ask questions and seek answers, not for monetary gain or fame. Are these not the same very basic requirements to become a true scientist even today? If you do not have those, no degree or job designation can make anyone a scientist. Science is not just learning few techniques, following protocols, rote memorization of some information/data or even publications and getting awards. To me science is nothing but searching the truth and solving problems.

During the course of evolution we lost the focus and forgot the real meaning of religion. We started following some (mostly) meaningless rituals in the name of either religion or tradition. There comes the conflict. Meditation is not just sitting idle in a specific posture for a period of time to watch soap operas or cricket on TV later. It was to prepare our mind to be able to concentrate on more challenging problems. A true religious person will not undertake any sort of corruption or dishonesty using some mundane rituals as shield. The same is true for a scientist. Eating beef does not make anyone less Hindu. Not eating beef also does not make the highly corrupt, dishonest person a Hindu or a religious entity either. To me, spirituality indicates purification of one’s own mind by achieving the ability to think clearly and logically towards making the world a better place. Unless we can do that, there is no way that following some rituals or traditions will make us either spiritual or religious. It is immaterial to me if you gather strength by thinking some real (e.g. our own parents, spouses, children, friends etc) or imaginary (God, Goddess etc) figures or from personal conviction of logic and facts (as atheists do) if you are an honest person with the ability to think clearly and the courage to talk straight. If we follow Vivekananda we should understand that one does not need to pray to God or offer pujas all the time to become religious, if we are honest and have the ability to fight for it.

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