Saturday, April 30, 2011

Port Sunlight

I am an unashamed Anglophone and an unrepentant capitalist, both tendencies being happily united in my admiration for the Victorian Robber Baron. Make no mistake, I am no Scrooge McDuck, rather it is the paternalistic Victorian that I aspire to, one of whom, William Hesketh Lever, built Port Sunlight.

I was reading through Engels' criticism of the cottage system, where workers in factories were provided with housing. Engels says this started harmlessly enough, to provide cheap housing for workmen but was later used as a tool to keep them restive, the threat of ejection from the cottage (and the awful state of alternative housing) sufficing to prevent excessive wage demands. Engels' also faults the industrialist for charging the normal or market rent for the property, which he feels is excessive since (in Engels view) the principal risk with property; difficulties in collecting rent and the possibility of the property lying vacant are both absent in the Cottage system. (ie As the industrialist fills his cottages with his own workers he is always sure of a tenant and since he deducts the rent from their wages he is certain of receiving payment).

Port Sunlight however was a triumph. Lever wanted to provide a healthy and pleasant environment for his workers, with schools, library, institutes and public buildings. A whole village in fact. An interest in architecture drove him to employ some 30
architects including an unknown Edwin Lutyens to design the 900 buildings. No two houses are alike.

The critics claimed that he was a despot, controlling and dominating people, the whole village being effused by the "spirit of soap".

I think he did his workers much good and built a quaint little village (now quite a tourist attraction, all buildings being Grade II listed) in the process. Have a look at the pictures and judge for yourself.

Friday, April 29, 2011

The Chinese Connexion

I have borrowed the title for this post from a book I read as a schoolboy. I have only hazy recollections of the book , but the Rice-Rubber pact with China surely featured prominently.

It is rather hard to imagine today that the world's second largest economy would enter into the most cumbersome and primitive form of trade: barter, with a tiny country like Ceylon but post-revolutionary China was a poor, chaotic, almost anarchic state. Some news reports from the time, though partial, are amusing to read.

Today things are rather different. China, a rising power seeking to dominate trade and wield its influence in the world. Sri Lanka is one of the countries that seems to be locked into the Chinese embrace, no longer an equal partner as in 1952 but a minnow, in a position familiar to many an African nation. And it is the African experience that is interesting, how the Chinese first welcome so eagerly now seem to inspire suspicion, fear and anger. The Economist has an analysis that is well worth reading.

I do apologise for the frequent links to The Economist in my recent writings. It is just that they have many interesting ideas and I am one who is stimulated by ideas. An attractive idea is absorbed, then bounced around like a rubber ball, ricocheting around the mind, stimulating thought in distant areas, reappearing in different forms and repeating the whole process all over again leaving the mind a-whirl in heady intoxication.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Rehabilitating the war zone

The Economist has suggested that one way to rehabilitate the tsunami hit region would be to turn the area into a special economic zone. Could this approach be used in the war zone? I think so.

The Government can declare several special investment zones in the North and the East. Private infrastructure developers can be invited to set up the basic infrastructure (power, water, roads drainage etc) in the zone in return for the right to lease out blocks of land to other investors (who build the factories or offices).

The market that should be targeted is South India, Indian bureaucracy is notorious and Indian investors would be quite happy to set up shop, provided duty free access were available to the Indian market. This is something the Government would need to negotiate with India but given that that India is keen to see progress on rehabilitation this should not be too difficult.

The harbour and airport would need to be brought up to standard to enable the goods to flow out and raw materials to flow in, this alone will create some jobs. This will also open up the possibility of catering to tourists, particularly pilgrims from India. It is only by catering to the Indian market, particularly pilgrims, can a reasonable tourist industry be built up in the North.

The North is too far from Colombo, the climate to dusty, hot and dry to attract anything other than intrepid backpackers and even for them the principal attraction - the Fort, is now partly destroyed. Even in the 1970's and 1980's the North was not on the package tourism trail and I don't think it will ever get on to that, even with the benefit of better roads and air-conditioned cars.

There would need to be other support infrastructure; particularly education and training institutes to ensure that people have the necessary skills in addition to things like transport, telecommunications and power.

All this must go in parallel with meeting the basic needs of the people especially housing. The Government lacks the funds but if properly managed the private sector can handle much of the investment and donors should be quite willing to pay for much of the social infrastructure.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Why so much black?

Black is a colour that seems to be in fashion now, especially amongst women. It is not unusual to find women setting out to work dressed entirely in black, something I find odd.

Not that black is a bad colour. Black is sophisticated, smart but it is an evening colour. Black in daytime is only for mourning, which implies that it should be used with a degree of sobriety. No one should mistake someone in mourning for someone heading out to a smart evening party.

Dark colours, navy or grey, are acceptable if one likes darker hues but leave black for the evening. Little black cocktail dresses are best left for cocktails.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Taxes on vehicles increased

According to a news report, the Government has raised vehicle taxes. It was only in the middle of last year that the taxes were reduced, so why the sudden reversal?

There are three factors that could be the causes:

1. There are too many vehicles on the road, there is a need to restrict the number being imported.
2. The Government is short of tax revenue.
3. Possible problems with the balance of payments.

The most likely scenario is a combination of items two and three.

Taxes on household appliances and cars were cut in the middle of last year and further cuts to VAT and income tax were announced in November. People were generally pleased and there was a marked increase in economic activity.

There was however a flaw in the budget - there was no reduction in state expenditure. Thus although the rates of some taxes were cut there could be no reduction in the overall tax collected if the budget deficit was to be met. In more simple terms the same amount of tax would be collected by different means.

In fact the Government was expecting to collect more taxes (151 billion rupees more, total tax revenue was targeted at 963.5 billion rupees, up from 828.2 billion rupees in 2010). The higher tax collection was necessary to finance increased expenditure (total current expenditure will go up to 1,017 billion rupees from 926.0 billion in 2010, the largest part of the increase - 49 billion rupees, being spent on salaries).

Therefor the Government was hoping to collect more in taxes, but at the same time tax rates were cut. How does one square this particular circle?

This is workable provided growth in volumes offsets the reduction in rates. It is likely that this has not happened. Recent price increases in fuel, gas, bread and electricity indicate a need for increased revenue, which is consistent with the increase in car duties.

Is there an issue with the balance of payments as well? The surge in imports of vehicles has undoubtedly put this under pressure, but as there are no figures available it is difficult to be certain. The recent IMF review did note that the forex reserve target was missed, although this was blamed on an early repayment of a loan from Iran.

The increase in traffic is partly due to the increase in economic activity and while this is a problem, I don't think it is enough to have caused a rethink in policy.

The increase in taxes will dampen activity and will cause worries about policy. Businesses do not like to see constant changes in tax rates, it adds to uncertainty and what changes take place should be within a clearly discernible policy framework.

People were pleasantly surprised when taxes were cut and one only needs to witness the spurt in activity in the last five months to see its benefits.

In order to reap maximum benefit the lower taxes need to stay, but to do this the Government must tighten its belt and cut its spending.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

One of Them

First one, then another friend,
calls from overseas, asking for news,
of UN reports and other serious matters.

I am confounded and reply,
with trite gossip of cricket scores,
the team and the IPL.

Realisation dawns. The mind is benumbed,
critical faculties suspended,
trapped in the mundane monotony,
of everyday existence,

I have become one of Them,
the obedient, unthinking automation,
another Zombie.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Tales of the jungles

My grandfather was a sportsman, a good shot and a frequent traveler to the jungles. It is politically incorrect to even talk of shooting (other than with a camera) these days, but well up to the middle of the last century it was perfectly acceptable.

In his defence I venture that like most sportsmen, in later life he turned conservationist. After all, Yala was originally conceived as a shooting reserve, it was only later and with the support of former sportsmen was it turned into a wildlife sanctuary. Jim Corbett, the famed Shikari of Northern India was instrumental in creating India's first wildlife park.

Coming back to my grandfather, although he possessed no higher education he loved to read and had an extensive library. The library was in a separate room where few other people ventured and was my particular sanctuary, quiet and cool, despite the afternoon heat.

There was a long row of cupboards, the one at the centre contained his guns and fishing rod, on either side were the books. There were books on travel and of life in far of lands; I picked up quite a few books from Teak Wallah, Two Happy Years in Ceylon and The Kon Tiki Expedition to Country Life and National Geographic magazines and much else besides.

Naturally a lot of the books were on the jungles and in this genre one particular author was quite outstanding: Kenneth Anderson.

I am not sure how many have heard of him, he was not as well known as Jim Corbett but he was a far finer writer. I have never managed to finish a book by Corbett, I struggled with one once, but Kenneth Anderson was very special. His deep knowledge of the jungle and its denizens and his love of nature are vividly conveyed. Most of books deal with his adventures tracking down man eating tigers, leopards and rogue elephants and the killing that occurs at the end of each chapter is a little shocking today but the hold of the books is irresistible.

I thought I was alone in my appreciation for his skills but it turns out that he has a dedicated following in India and even a few in Sri Lanka. There is a Yahoo Group with about 500 members dedicated to him. That someone who wrote of his experiences in the 1920's and 1930's should be able to communicate to people in the 21st century (and more than a quarter century after his own death) is a powerful testament to his skills as a storyteller.

Most of his books are being printed in India and a couple are available free online. To whet people's appetite I quote the opening paragraphs of one chapter.

The Man-Eater of Jowlagiri

THOSE who have been to the tropics and to jungle places
will not need to be told of the beauties of the moonlight
over hill and valley, that picks out in vivid relief the forest
grasses and each leaf of the giant trees, and throws into
still greater mystery the dark shadows below, where the
rays of the moon cannot reach, concealing perhaps a
beast of prey, a watchful deer or a lurking reptile, all
individually and severally in search of food.

All appeared peaceful in the Jowlagiri Forest Range, yet
there was danger everywhere, and murder was afoot. For
a trio of poachers, who possessed between them two
matchlocks of ancient vintage, had decided to get them
selves some meat. They had cleverly constructed a hide on
the sloping banks of a water-hole, and had been sitting in
it since sunset, intently watchful for the deer which, sooner
or later, must come to slake their thirst.

The hours'wore on. The moon, at the full, had reached
mid-heaven and the scene was as bright as day. Suddenly,
from the thicket of ever-green saplings to their left, could
be heard the sound of violently rustling leaves and deepthroated grunts. What could be there? Wild-pig undoubtedly ! A succulent meal, and flesh in addition that could be sold ! The poachers waited, but the beasts, whatever they
were, did not break cover. Becoming impatient, Muniappa,
the marksman of the trio, decided to risk a shot. Raising his
matchlock, he waited till a dark shadow, deeper than its
surroundings, became more evident, and fired. There was a
snarling roar and a lashing of bushes, followed by a series
of coughing 'whoofs' and then silence.

Not pigs, but a tiger ! Fearfully and silently the three
poachers beat a hasty retreat to their village, there to spend
the rest of the night in anxiety as to the result of their act.
But morning revealed that all was apparently well, for a
male tiger just in his prime lay dead, the chance shot from
the ancient musket having sped straight to his heart. So
Muniappa and his friends were, for that day, the unsung
and whispered heroes of the village.

But the next night produced a different story. With sun
set came the urgent, angry call of a tigress seeking her dead
mate. For it was the mating season, and this tigress, which
had only just succeeded in finding her companion the night
before, was decidedly annoyed at his unaccountable ab
sence, which she quite rightly connected with the inter
ference of human beings.

Night after night for a week she continued her uneasy
movements, calling by day from the depths of the forest
and in darkness roaring almost at the outskirts of the
village itself.

If you appreciate the beauty of Mother Nature or simply enjoy a good yarn, try these books, I promise you will not be disappointed.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Simple pleasures

It is a quarter to twelve and I stepped out of the house a few minutes ago to find the entire landscape bathed in a brilliant moonlight. I stood savouring the scenery and the cool breeze of the night. There is something about the glow of the moonlight that lends even the most commonplace scenery an air of romance and mystery.

It brought back memories from a long time ago.

There is nothing I enjoy more than a good conversation, a rare and prized commodity in this country. A friend once said that the only conversation to be had in Colombo is about women, the latest deal or cricket. Fortunately I have a small circle of friends who I can converse with, one of whom lived with his maiden aunt down a lane on the seaside of Bambalapitiya.

It was an old rambling house that was falling to pieces with a small garden. I used to go over on the eve of the poya day carrying a bottle of Rockland Gin or Gilbey's Lemon Gin. He would generally have a kottu rotti or some other nibbles handy and we would take two chairs out to the garden and chat late into the night.

The roar of the ocean, the stiff sea breeze, the coconut trees swaying to the front of us, the gaunt outline of the old house behind us and the entire scene bathed in the ghostly glow of the moonlight; with the alcohol, flowing as freely as the conversation, those evenings had an atmosphere that I have not experienced since.

Sadly, the passage of time has taken those simple pleasures beyond reach. The Marine Drive devoured most of the garden of that old house, the house itself was later knocked down and the land sold; my friend migrated to Australia and I do not know what became of his charming old aunt.

I wish I were typing this post out in the yard under moonlight rather than in my room, I think I shall pull out a chair and spend some time outside now and ponder on the magic of mother nature.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Beat the heat

I have some advice for people like me who are stuck on the sunny, hot plains in April. It does not involve travel to Nuwara Eliya (and for those in Nuwara Eliya, I shall publish a guide on how to avoid crowds), nor the expensive business of air conditioning, which quite a few people now seem to have at home.

It is to do with the ceiling fan. Please do not turn it on.


Because the blasted thing keeps blowing hot air. I was wondering why the room feels hotter when the ceiling fan is on. The breeze, when it comes through the window, is fairly cool but the fan blows gusts of warm air.

I think the reason is that hot air rises to the top, so the ceiling fan simply blows the hot air back into the room. The trick is to have a table fan, the air that comes from that is much cooler. I also think its much quieter and probably consumes less electricity. Give it a try and see, there are some very compact models now that can sit almost anywhere.

Phew, according to the BBC the temperature will rise to a maximum of 31 centigrade, with 75% humidity, I'm off to sneak off downstairs (downstairs is always far cooler- the roof absorbs direct heat from the sun) for a quiet snooze. There is a promise of showers in the night, though. It is unusual, a continuation of the weird weather, but I'm not complaining.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Trolling around

The local blogosphere was destroyed by an infestation of Trolls. This week's Economist had an interesting article on the phenomenon.

It is the anonymity that the internet offers that brings out the base characteristics of people. There is a parallel with real life, I think it is the relative anonymity of an existence in a large city that brings out the worst in people. Crime always seem far worse in cities than in smaller communities.

When people know who everyone else is then that knowledge acts as a check on behaviour. A social check of sorts. There will always be a few incorrigible elements or black sheep but most would think twice if they knew that word would get round soon enough and their reputations and those of their family were at stake.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

The holiday organisers burden

I have organised many a successful holiday for groups of friends. Everybody who travels has a good time and suggests doing another one, so the organiser, forgetting momentarily all the headache that he went through starts planning the next journey.

This must start with locating somewhere that is nice yet cheap. This is not an easy task but if one starts early enough there is a good possibility of finding something. I had a little trick up my sleeve - I would get in touch with a printing firm in November or December and get the list of holidays for the forthcoming year, before any calendars had been printed. I would pick out the long weekends and start calling around and getting rates, take a straw poll amongst potential trippers and book, paying whatever advance was necessary.

Since we are booking three to six months ahead everyone is enthusiastic and confirms.

About a month before the date I start calling people to remind them and then the trouble starts. Some people have extra work in the office that they need to finish, other people are going abroad, some people can't come because its lent (April is always a problematic month), others have weddings, some people are not speaking to each other anymore, other people's parents object to them going alone.

When organising an outing, a rough transport plan is also at the back of ones mind, a few people with company cars (hence free fuel) providing the transport but with the drop outs, the transport plan will also be thrown into turmoil. One may have people but no transport or the converse.

All the problems do not come together, its starts gradually and builds up over the weeks until a few days before the journey the organiser is left with just a couple of people, which means a last minute round of frantic calling to try and find replacements.

The last time this happened was in 2007, when I was left with two or three people for a bungalow in Nuwara Eliya booked for eight. Thanks to the kindness of the owner, we managed to postpone the booking, which eventually had to be re-postponed once again before the trip finally took place in September. A couple of times I have ended up giving away bookings to other friends-bungalows are much in demand close to the dates booked so have not really suffered financially but its the frustration of having a great place but not enough people to go with.

Traveling in a group is fun and cheap - if a bungalow can be filled to capacity the cost per head works out quite cheap. I dislike hotels and these days they are far too expensive so a bungalow is the only viable option, the problem is in finding people who can make a commitment. A commitment for a holiday, that's not too much to ask for, is it?

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Reluctance to utilise leave

Has anyone noticed a strange phenomenon?

Sri Lankans hate to take leave, unless it coincides with a long weekend. At this late stage (I should have booked in December for April) I have starting looking around for somewhere to get away from the heat. Naturally, everything is full but a few places are available on weekdays. The thought of taking a few days off mid-week, is difficult, almost repulsive, I would say.

I cannot seem to work out why this is so, do other people feel the same?

Monday, April 04, 2011

The death of popular music

I have written before on the death of classical or serious music. The problem extends to popular music as well. A post by Cerebral Ramblings on the degeneration of music describes the problem.

Music of the 60's was simple and understandable, it was mostly about love. Modern music is quite incomprehensible. The problem is partly to do with the industry itself.

What is happening is that music is being made to formula. Music producers look around for what they think listeners like and then put together bands and songwriters to produce the required sound. The 'look' of the thing is often more important than how it sounds, which is why the music video is so important.

The music video can no longer be funny, it must be seen to be very sophisticated because this is what carries the song, indeed many songs do not make sense unless one sees the video, so what we really have is incidental music to a video.

For example, Lady Ga Ga is marketed on her shock impact; her dress and attitude colouring everything. There is one nice song but that is all, strip away the video and the image and what have you left? Almost nothing. Compare her to the Material Girl of the 1980's Madonna - she was a little shocking too, but I don't think it was only hype and there was a lot more to her music than Lady G's.

The musical thing (it defies description) called Barbara Streisand is the perfect example of nothing packaged as something. It has a beat that can be danced to, a scrap of melody and nothing else.

How has this state of affairs arisen? Popular music in its modern form would not exist without broadcast radio and the record industry. Before the development of radio and recording a popular music did exist but it was mostly traditional folk music, jazz (which is traditional Afro-Caribbean music) or possibly dance music that was performed live. Music circulated in the form of printed sheet music.

Broadcast radio opened music upto a vast new audience, music could spread rapidly and people could listen to at home rather than have it performed live. The recording industry, which developed alongside radio, took this even further. People could listen to music whenever they wanted, rather than waiting to hear it broadcast.

The vast new audience wanted music and this drove the development of bands and music to meet the need. Where things started to go wrong badly was in the 1990's when producers tried to create music to fit what they thought was a need - the Spice Girls were an early attempt at this, their success lead producers further down the road until they have ended up in the dead end that is today's music.

Producers did try manufacture to formula even earlier, the Monkees, were created for television and when the producer Don Kirshner, found the real actors less than malleable, went a step further and created the cartoon band, the Archies. The difference was that in the producers still worked with musicians, rather than defining everything from end to end, which is what I think happens today.

If anyone wants to brighten their Monday after the World Cup hangover try listening to this 50's song, or feel the enthusiasm of the musicians in this 60's number.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

The Great Indian Rope Trick

India was the favourite to win the world cup but when Sri Lanka rattled up 274 and had India struggling at 30 for 2 with both Sehwag and Tendulkar out, I thought an upset was on the cards. It was not to be, thanks to Gambhir and above all, Dhoni, who kept his head, calmed his partners and batted steadily.

Dhoni is an Indian, with the temperament of an Australian, Mark Taylor comes to mind and this is what won India the cup.

Some very fine batting from Jayawardene, with graceful support from Sangakkara set the stage for a big total. The new faces in the middle order delivered on expectations and punched the ball all over the field in the power play.

The Indian batting lived upto its reputation and performed under pressure, but all credit to the Sri Lankan team, they fought to the end and it could have gone either way upto the last couple of overs. They played better than they had at any time in the tournament and would have made worthy winners, unlike the team who scraped it into the final and then played badly to lose in 2007.

Overall, an excellent game of cricket. I would have liked to see Tendulkar score a few more runs though, he was looking very good and would have made an excellent counterpoint to Jayawardena's. Gambir, Kholi and Dhoni did get the runs, but Tendulkar's craftsmanship is matchless.

India can be justly proud of its victory. The victory in 1983 was a fluke, an overconfident West Indies attempted to finish the match early, threw their bats at everything and gifted their wickets. The West Indian's showed their real class in their tour of India later that year, whitewashing them 5-0 in the One dayers and 3-0 in the six test series.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Cricket and tea

Since we are now quite cricket mad, there is an important question that many non-cricketers will want answered: what do cricketers eat at tea? Do they actually drink tea?

Tea is a vitally important part of the game, some clubs devote more space on their websites to the tea than anything else.

There does not seem to be a single answer but it appears that in English amateur cricket, a combination of sandwiches, rolls, cakes and tea is common. There is an enormous variety ranging from the simple to the lavish. Some can be quite spectacular.

I'm not sure what they have on the subcontinent, though.

Arab unrest and the shoe-thrower''s index

The Economist has constructed an index that attempts to predict where the next outbreak of unrest will take place.

This is a very interesting exercise. There are two aspects, one is the extent to which revolution can be predicted, the second is the assumption that a revolution will usher in democracy. The index only focuses on the first aspect.

The index "is the result of ascribing a weighting of 35% for the share of the population that is under 25; 15% for the number of years the government has been in power; 15% for both corruption and lack of democracy as measured by existing indices; 10% for GDP per person; 5% for an index of censorship and 5% for the absolute number of people younger than 25".

What the index is trying to measure is the level of dissatisfaction amongst people, hence GDP, corruption and a large youthful population. There are other factors as well and readers have suggested unemployment, inequality, the level of education, internet access, sectarian decomposition (countries where a sectarian majority is ruled by another minority), the degree of urbanisation and food prices.

All these are indisputably causes of dissatisfaction but the problem lies in their measurement and and weightage to be assigned in the index. Since these are somewhat arbitrary, the index may be regarded as an amusing intellectual exercise and perhaps a guide to wise rulers as to areas they need to work on to improve people's lives, rather than a sound predictor of revolutions. Nevertheless it is a useful reference point for someone wanting to study the issue.

One other factor that needs to be worked into this is the change in income levels and inequality over a period of time. If people have remained at the same level of poverty and there has been no change in inequality (ie the ratio between the rich and poor has not altered) then no additional dissatisfaction is likely to be caused, unless people's expectations change. The status quo has been maintained, the poor remain at the same level in both relative and absolute terms.

On the other hand, if living standards have fallen over time and/or the level of inequity has increased (the rich having grown much richer, or at least visibly richer), then dissatisfaction will grow. It is no coincidence that countries which have high levels of inequality (South Africa, Brazil) also have high levels of crime.

Assuming all of these factors are in place, the people will grow more restless and angry and a spark can set off a chain of protests that may snowball into a revolution.

Whether protest actually turns to revolution, depends on the ruthlessness with it is stifled and the extent to which the ruler retains the loyalty of the the army, ultimately the means by which a dictator's power is enforced (in a democracy power is enforced by a multitude of bodies). Therefore while a coup is a possibility, the success of peaceful protest is dependent on support from the army or from external forces except in instances where the ruler does not want a fight and flees.

Leaving aside the success of a revolution (measured in terms of ejecting its ruler) implementing democracy will be harder still.

Democracy is dependent on institutions and these need to be carefully built up over decades. There have been instances where it has taken root; Taiwan, South Korea, Portugal and Spain but in all these instances the despots were relatively enlightened and the people relatively prosperous. When the rulers saw a mountain of popular protest they decided to give in rather than murder people in the street.

In Spain, the King, who assumed temporary leadership after the death of Franco guided the introduction on democratic reforms. In Portugal's case it was a rather murky affair, a military coup followed by a series of tussles and elections, closer in spirit to the Arab revolts, that ushered in democracy.

The success rate for democracy has not been good. A series of revolutions across Africa in the late 1980's saw old-time strongmen deposed amidst great hope, only to result in a new set of of despots eventually gaining control. Only South Africa, with its established institutions avoided this fate.

I am not especially hopeful of the outcome of the current wave of revolutions, Tunisia looks the most hopeful and possibly Egypt.