And the Fun Goes On

At the end of the Commonwealth Bank Tri-Series Cricket tournament in Australia in March 2008, there was a hilarious comment posted on the website of an Australian newspaper:

Securing the services of Matt Hayden: $375,000
Securing the services of Ricky Ponting: $400,000
Securing the services of Andrew Symonds: $1,350,000
Making these Australians eat their own words in their own backyard – Priceless
There are some things money can’t buy. For everything else there’s BCCI.

– Comment by “Sagar”, Melbourne Herald Sun

An Interesting Story

As an addendum to my previous post, here is something that I saw someone else post on Aamir Khan’s blog. It is a pretty interesting story by an unknown Canadian student.

Once upon a time the animals decided they must do something decisive to meet the increasing complexity of their society. They held a meeting and finally decided to organize a school. The curriculum consisted of running, swimming and flying. Since these were the basic behaviors of most animals, they decided that all the students should take all of the subjects.

The duck proved to be excellent at swimming, better in fact than his teacher. He also did well in flying, but he proved to be very poor in running. Since he was poor in this subject he was made to stay after school to practice it and even had to drop swimming in order to get more time in which to practice running. He was kept at this poorest subject until his webbed feet were so badly damaged that he became only average at swimming. But average was acceptable in the school so nobody worried about that – except the duck.

The rabbit started at the top of his class in running, but finally had a nervous breakdown because of so much make-up time in swimming – a subject he hated.

The squirrel was excellent in climbing until he developed psychological blocking in flying class when the teacher insisted he start from the ground instead of from the tops of the trees. He was kept at attempting to fly until he became muscle bound – and received a C in climbing and a D in running.

The eagle was the school’s worst discipline problem, in climbing class he beat all of the others to the top of the tree used for examination purposes in this subject, but he insisted on using his own method of getting there.

The gophers of course, stayed out of the school and fought the tax levied for education because digging was not included in the curriculum. They apprenticed their children to the badger and later joined the ground hogs and eventually started a private school offering alternative education.

“The Animal School – A Parable” by an Unknown Author


Floored. Completely.

My absences keep getting longer and longer. Luckily I decided to write something today, otherwise I might have finished 2007 without a blog!! Anyway, here is something I actually posted as a comment on Aamir Khan’s website ( about his recent movie Taare Zameen Par. It is tough to do an “Eloi & Morlocks” analysis for this movie, so the comment is general. Aamir’s blog has a limitation of 1000 characters per comment and my first draft was 3772 characters long! So I decided to split it into sub-sections and tried my “precis-writing” skills. I eventually brought it down to 3 sections from 4 and posted it. Here is the content.

(Here is a really long comment that I have split into 3!)

Part I

My wife and I would like to first thank you for making a splendid movie. We sincerely hope that the movie makes a lot of money otherwise the message will not go to the masses. That being said, the movie set us both thinking.

I have, for the past few years, been a contributor to a group called Parivaar in Kolkata. Parivaar takes complete care of destitute and vulnerable children. Two things stand out when you visit Parivaar – the children and the administration. The children are in many ways like the ones at “Tulip”, but they are not suffering from Down’s Syndrome or autism or other congenital ailments. Instead they have been given up by parents who couldn’t take care of them. The founder is a young man in his twenties with degrees from both IIT and IIM, who chose not to pursue a life of luxury and dedicated himself to helping the underprivileged.

(Continued …)

Part II

My point in the above is that most of us lack the courage and conviction to do something so radically different. We forget that the smiles on the children’s faces are often a greater reward than any other. Why is it that most of us want our kids to grow up and become doctors or engineers? It is due to our conditioning. An average Indian is by nature more conservative and risk averse than say, an average American. Not our fault – there are more jobs and benefits available to a mediocre engineer than to a good artist. So the parents feel more secure if the child is in a low risk track. To that extent I sympathise with Ishaan’s parents – how is a child to survive in the rat race without the 3 R’s? After all, no parent wants his or her kid to do badly. It is just that in India our inherent nature really narrows down the range of “doing well” to academics. Come to think of it, even TZP’s ending shows that Ishaan has become better in academics.

Part III

I think that for the movie to make a tangible impact to society, everyone has to accept that there are more choices than becoming an engineer or a doctor. Moreover these opportunities really have to be available, profitable and visible. Our taxes should be used better to build a good infrastructure for handling unemployment. Once this happens TZP can go down in history as the movie that kickstarted a progressive society.

High points:
– Darsheel. It was astounding how he conveyed so much by speaking so little. Besides the “3 x 9” sequence, I believe he has less than 30 lines of dialogue, which goes to show how well he emotes with his eyes. The scene where his mother tells him that she cannot visit was top notch.
– The song “Maa”. And the music in general.
– The script and the direction. I now fully understand your comments on “Black”
– The research. “Solomon Islands” was a gem

Sorry for the rather long-winded comment. I hope I haven’t worn you down!


Coming soon – a tribute to our soon retiring generation of great cricketers.

Sorry, couldn’t resist!

Reams of newsprint have been expended on India’s recent Cricket misadventures. I resolved to keep myself away from making any comments, but felt inexorably drawn towards breaking my resolution. Well, anyway, the straw to break the camel’s back has indeed landed on the camel’s back, so let me get started with it already.

A few issues keep popping up and that make me believe that this whole drama is more due to misrepresentation of facts in some media reports, misreading of media-reports in some other cases or reading a bit too much between the lines in a few others. I will cite two articles here:

  1. The prediction of Chappell’s report to the BCCI
  2. The report on Tendulkar’s rebuttal

Quoting from the first:

From all accounts, Chappell’s report, due to be submitted to the board before April 6, will be scathing in its criticism of the attitude of the senior players including Sourav Ganguly, Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag and Harbhajan Singh. It is learnt that Chappell, and some members of the board, believe that the return of Ganguly, and later on Tendulkar’s captaincy aspirations, had a destabilising effect on the team, forming groups within the eleven and perhaps stifling the growth of some of the younger cricketers trying to make a mark.

As a direct fallout of this report, most of the cricket fans in India went up in arms against one party or another. Some people went about rubbishing Chappell for his high-handedness and others wanted to consign Tendulkar to a similar fate for his poor form over the past few years. But the operative phrase in the report was “From all accounts, Chappell’s report, due to be submitted to the board before April 6, will be scathing in its criticism of the attitude of the senior players including …”. Did Chappell’s report on April 6 actually do that? I will address that shortly.

What happened next? Tendulkar spoke out to the press and said (from the second link above):

“Again, it’s not that we are defending ourselves. We do realise that we played badly and, as a team, we take full responsibility for that. But what hurt us most is if the coach has questioned our attitude.”

Again, the operative word here is “if”. Tendulkar never said anything about having a bad day or even about having a rift with Chappell. His only remark was that if the coach questions his attitude, he will be hurt.

The rest of the report is speculative:

His statements come in the wake of reports that many members in the team have rallied together against Chappell and Dravid and want Tendulkar to take up their case to the board. Cricinfo had reported on the crisis in the team , one largely owing to the rift between Chappell and the senior players, and Tendulkar’s statements reinforce the players’ stance.

I don’t see any comments by Tendulkar in the entire article making any allusion to a rift or to players asking him to pick up cudgels on their behalf. So isn’t this a case of reading too much between the lines? I think a lot of people let emotions override their thought process and jump into hastily formed conclusions, causing massive misunderstanding – something that never gets corrected. The press is a major reason for this, because it tries to sensationalise irrelevant bits of news with attention-grabbing headlines, then leaves the fire simmering. I guess this incident will go the same way.

The Art of Bad Examples

After a prolonged absence, I am back! I had initially intended to publish at least once a month. However, with August rolling by and September too failing to motivate me to write, I decided to finally do something about it in October.

How often has it happened that while you are having a debate with someone, your opponent gives you a rank bad example to make his / her point? I was trying to recollect various instances in which this has happened and not so surprisingly, I found three such cases in the past 6 months. The first two, incidentally, happened on the same day, with the same person (which perhaps goes to speak volumes about his having a completely wrong hold of things).

I am notorious as a person with a strong dislike for Bombay. Readers might jump at me for not using the politically correct Mumbai, but then I say Madras and not Chennai and Calcutta and not Kolkata. To hell with political correctness. While I do agree that Bombay has a lot of merits that help it sustain a burgeoning population, I believe that most of these merits stem from a typical Bombayite’s (or Mumbaikar’s) immense patience and inherent sense of discipline or order within chaos. The city itself is chaotic:

  • The weather is quite lousy
  • It takes an incredibly long time to get from one point in the city to another, thanks to traffic
  • The public transport system, though good, is grossly inadequate. Dissenters simply need to look at a local train station there during the peak hours.
  • Real estate prices are sky-high, without much justification. Yes, people will claim that there are more opportunities there, but the ratio of opportunities is disproportionate to the rents that people have to pay to live there. New companies shy away from setting up centres there (this includes companies like Microsoft, Google and Yahoo – all IT companies, as the doubting Thomases will agree)
  • Roads are no great shakes in most parts of the city. If a road is being repaired, it stays that way for months together
  • The political environment is quite horrible – there were talks of banning non-Bombayites from purchasing real-estate there and of mandating a “Bombay visa” for people to get into Bombay.

But the people are good and friendly and the food is perhaps the best among all places in India. Anyway, liking or disliking a city is more a consequence of a man’s personality rather than anything else. I prefer quieter areas, so Bombay grates on me. I like to call it the largest village in the world, much to the chagrin of my acquaintances from there. I agree that I am being quite uncharitable there, but the fact that the largest slum of Asia, Dharavi is in Bombay only strengthens my case.

But I digress. One fine morning I had a lively discussion with two Bombayites who claimed that their city was the best place to live in. Not to be outdone I put forth my arguments, which, needless to say, didn’t gel well with them. I argued that Delhi is a much better place, thanks to excellent infrastructure (it is remarkable how Delhi went from being the most polluted city in India to becoming a very clean city – a feat that other cities will find hard to match). On the topic of real estate being very expensive there this was a discussion that ensued:

Opp: Let me give you an example. Have you ever been to a casino?
Me: Yes, quite a few times
Opp: If there are two tables, one where you bet $1 and the other where you bet $100, which one will have a higher return?
Me: If you win, then obviously the one with $100
Opp: Then you have answered your question yourself
Me: Really? Then let me ask you – where are you going to lose more if you lose?
Opp: The one with $100
Me: Then you have contradicted yourself.
Me: In a casino you are gambling – not investing based on sound principles. There you have a greater chance of losing, since the house always wins. And when you lose at a big table, you really lose there. On a $1 table even if you lose frequently you will not feel it much.
Opp: You are taking my example too literally.
Me: That’s because it is not the right example to give. Real estate investments are more a study of trends rather than gambles. In most cases if you have done your homework well you will leave with a profit.

There was some rubbish that I had doled out too, but luckily his example was too off-centre for him to come up with a counterpoint.

The same afternoon this gentleman and a few other colleagues of mine were having another discussion. This time the topic was companies using an outsourcing model. The company I work for is a pretty big consultancy firm with well over 100,000 employees worldwide. It does have a couple of big centres in India too. This gentleman was singing paeans of people in the US centres, saying that they are much better employees, since they have equal technical skills and much better presentation skills. While I agree with the presentation part, the technical skills, I believe are a whole different ballgame. But that is a subjective issue and is best not discussed here, lest it gives rise to some unhealthy “us vs. them” debate.

According to him if he had a person working under him and that person couldn’t present his point, then that person had no business working for us. Not a bad point to make, though that would make our organization a bad place for people who are off the charts in technical brilliance but are quite lousy in presentation skills. It would also reflect poorly on the organization’s ability to mentor such a person and would undermine the value of teamwork – the panacea of disparity in a firm. The organization might actually let an uncut diamond slip through its hands if all its managers take this attitude.

On the topic of outsourcing itself, we were remarking how the quality of work coming in from places like TCS and Satyam in India is at 70-80% that of homegrown consultants from our firm, but the price is probably just about 20-40%. In this aspect this gentleman decided to throw in another of his brilliant examples:

My friend: What I don’t understand is when other companies in India like TCS or Satyam or Patni provide almost the same quality as our firm but at a much lower rate, how does our firm expect to survive?
Opp: Let me give you an example. If you have to buy a shirt from Macy’s or Walmart, which one would you choose?
Us: Obviously Walmart (unanimously)

Obviously he expected us to say “Macy’s” (unanimousl
y), but this was an outright horrible example: a much better example might have been a choice between Walmart and a factory outlet of a named brand.

Anyway, this discussion concluded with another set of contentious statements:

Opp: Can the Indian offices of our firm survive without the US offices? No. Can the US offices of our firm survive without the Indian ones? Definitely.
Me: That is rubbish. Without the Indian offices you would be so undercut by Indian firms that you might end up getting no business. In fact a couple of years ago the CEO of the firm had said, “There are four new threats to our company. They are Infosys, TCS, Wipro and Satyam”.
Opp: Again, you are taking my examples too literally.
Me: Well, you are behaving like a child. You start of by trying to give an example and when it turns out to be a bad example you protest if anyone points it out.

The fact is that people providing bad examples simply don’t know how bad their examples are (I am pretty sure I have used a fair number of them in my blog). Very often you have people who try to use a word that they have just read or heard, thinking that they are being very erudite in doing so. I once had a person who had heard the term “comparing apples and oranges” being used quite frequently against him. When two competetive methodologies were being discussed, he said, “That is like comparing apples with oranges”. Luckily for him he got away without much being said.

End of rant.

Let Me Check My Skejule

While working for WebTek in 2000 I happened to be speaking to a colleague from overseas who said, “Let me check my skejule and get back to you”. At that time the sentence created a jarring effect on my ears. A few days later I happened to be watching a movie which had me laughing with respect to the skejule.

An Englishman’s way of speaking absolutely classifies him,
The moment he talks he makes some other
Englishman despise him.
One common language I’m afraid we’ll never get.
Oh, why can’t the English learn to set
A good example to people whose
English is painful to your ears?
The Scotch and the Irish leave you close to tears.
There even are places where English completely
disappears. In America, they haven’t used it for years!
Why can’t the English teach their children how to speak?

Prof. Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady

An erudite British colleague of mine once pointed out certain differences in accents between speakers of American and English. “Nicaragua”, he said, “is pronounced ‘Nicaragyua’ by the English and ‘Nicaragooa’ by the Americans”. That shed some light. Friends of mine who had joined universities in the US for higher studies provided further insight, “Americans pronounce words like they are. Since ‘school’ is pronounced ‘skool’, ‘schedule’ becomes ‘skejule’.”

Really? Why is “argue” still “argyu” and “tongue” still “tung”, then? I also reasoned that it should have acutally been ‘skedule’, but then figured out that ‘individual’ is pronounced ‘indivijual’. The American interpretation of the language is actually just that – an interpretation. That isn’t to say that it is wrong. Language, after all, is how you define it.

A lot of words have been taken liberties with, not only in terms of pronunciation but also in terms of their spelling and meaning. Being from a place that was a British colony not long back and working in the US most of the time poses a difficulty of switching contexts every now and then. I am in the habit of writing “civilise”, “analyse” etc., which my word-processor has a ripe gripe with. I also write “fulfil” as opposed to the American “fulfill”. “Program” has made its way into my dictionary, but only when I am talking about a computer program. I guess things will get really creepy the day I start saying “I cannot believe where I am at.”

Raymond: That is what has got me to where I am at.
Marie: Where I am at?
Raymond: Where I am… where I am.
Marie: Have I taught you nothing?
Raymond: I know, I know. You cannot end a sentence with a proposition… A preposition.

That is gross. Truly gross. Another thing that vexes me is the use of “presently” to mean “currently”, while it actually means, “in a short time”. “Prodigal” is another word whose meaning has changed quite a lot in the last couple of decades.

As a general rule I have decided to stick with the English roots rather than the American variants because I believe that in most cases the American variants start out as idealistic approaches and then lose their way. Moving beyond the realm of language, I recently discovered the discrepancy between and American gallon and an Imperial gallon (which is used in the rest of the world, wherever the FPS system is still in vogue). I believe that I can be forgiven in this regard because India uses the SI system, which is much easier to handle. But what is the point of having two different measurements with the same name?

Then there is the custom of left-hand drive and right-hand drive. And here is a curious thing – there is a reason for travelling on the left side of a road. In medieval times when Englishmen travelled on horseback, they used to doff their hats at people coming from the opposite direction using their left hand. That way if they saw an adversary coming they could have their right hands free to draw their swords and fight (most people were right handed). It thus made sense to travel on the left side of the road. This practice extended to horse-driven carriages and eventually automobiles. I don’t know the reason for driving on the right side of the road, though I can only guess that since most people in a sample set used to be right-handed the tendency was to choose the right half of the road (assuming that you weren’t going to be fighting while using a road).

An interesting digression – why are a large number of Chinese left-handed? Again, here I don’t have a concrete answer, but I do have a theory. In February this year while my wife and I were doing the Singapore tour that Singapore Airlines provides, the tour guide showed us the “Suntec Building” that was shaped like the left hand. She explained that it had everything to do with Feng-Shui and Yin and Yang. The right hand gives away wealth and the left hand gets in wealth. In places where such beliefs are strong you would naturally encourage your children to be left-handed since that would be considered auspicious.

Back to Americanisms. Actually another digression. I have a large number of vegetarian friends. Some of them claim that they do not eat meat because it is cruel to animals. And they continue to use leather purses/wallets, belts, bags, jackets and shoes. Another attempt at starting out idealistic and stopping midway.

Anyway, English as a language is fine. And the American interpretation is fine as well. As I said, language is all about communicating. And both the versions are mutually compatible. They don’t castigate you for not getting your pronunciation right. So everyone is happy. And let me schedule my next blog update.

On the Ball

Disclaimer: I mean no offence to baseball-lovers. The following is my attempt to explain some quirks of cricket by drawing parallels to baseball.

One of my stated hobbies on Orkut is “Memorising Cricket Statistics”. This may seem weird. Hell, it is weird. But it is fun. I guess it follows as an extension of liking both, cricket and numbers.

Most of my American friends find it difficult to understand an Indian’s obsession with cricket, the same way most Indians (and in fact, most non-Americans) find the attraction of Americans to baseball quite queer. To a bystander it does often seem funny that cricket is a game where you could play a match over 5 days and still not have a winner!

The Other Laws of Cricket
You have two sides, one out in the field and the other in the clubhouse. Each man that’’s in goes out, and when he is out he comes in and the next player goes in until he is out. When all the players are out, the side that was out comes in and the side that was in goes out to get those players that are coming in out. Sometimes players are still in and not out. When a player goes out to go in, the players who are out try to get him out, and when he is out , he goes in and the next player in comes out and goes in.

There are two men called umpires who are all out all the time, they decide when the player who is in, is out. When both sides have been in and all players are out and both sides have been out twice after all the players have been in, including those who are not out, that is the end of the game.

Now do you understand cricket? To avoid complicating matters more, we haven’’t got to the ““silly mid on”” and ““sticky wicket” scenarios.

What, then, is the reason that a country of over a billion people obsesses over cricket? The reason is hard to pinpoint, though I believe that it is because individual brilliance in a team game is never showcased better than in cricket. Football (not the American breed) is the quintessential team game. In cricket, though, more often than not you have outstanding individuals in ordinary teams.

Then there is a question of skill. I know next to nothing about baseball, hence given my rudimentary understanding of the game baseball experts might find my knowledge of their game as superficial as a layman’s understanding of cricket. The little that I know of baseball tells me that you have to thump the ball as far as you can and run like your life depends on it. Cricket is different. Often it is not about thumping at all.

Douglas Jardine: Like most batsmen I can play one or perhaps two different shots to any given ball, whereas Bradman can choose between four or five.

Percy George Fender: Oh, he doesn’t choose. He just plays the first shot that comes into his head. But he has no technique. Now he can get away with it on those true hard Australian wickets. But put him on one of our green strips, with Morris, seaming the ball late… Oh no, he is too unorthodox. Now take the third test in Melbourne. On at least three occasions the ball was short-pitched, screaming out to be hooked. He played a cover-drive.

Douglas Jardine: At least two of those balls went for four. That is the power of Bradman. He’s learnt that the batsman’s sole objective is to score runs and he’ll play whatever shot, unorthodox or not, which best fulfils that purpose. It makes it almost impossible to set a field to him.

– From Bodyline – The Mini-Series

Every game is about scoring runs and getting the opposition down. Bradman happened to be the best batsman ever, but there have been several players for whom the above statements hold true. Now, would it be possible to say the same in a game like baseball? That is not to say that baseball-type slogging isn’t a part of the batsman’s repertoire in cricket. You do have some pretty brainless heaving exhibited by players like Shahid Afridi which would not be out of place in baseball.

There is, then, the whole different aspect of bowling. The very fact that you get to pitch the ball before it reaches the batsman opens up a new vista of options that would be quite out of place in baseball. You could have a bowler bowl really fast, the way you would ideally like to pitch in baseball and you could have the classic art of spin exhibited by slow bowlers to fox batsmen. Personally I like the sight of a menacing fast bowler sending down a thunderbolt to a batsman and the batsman promptly dispatching the ball to a corner of the field.

Greg Thomas was bowling to Viv Richards in a county game. Viv missed a superb outswinger, and Thomas said “It’s red, round and weighs about 5 ounces.”
Next ball Viv hits Greg Thomas out of the ground and replies, “Greg, you know what it looks like. Go ahead and find it!”

Running between the wickets is akin to running between the bases in baseball, I guess. But often it can lead to hilarious results due to a breakdown of communication on the field. Records of players like Inzamam-ul-Haq and Sourav Ganguly tell their own tales in this aspect.

“Bomber” Wells, a spin bowler and great character, played for Glocuestershire and Nottinghamshire. He used to bat at No.11 since one couldn’t bat any lower. Of him, they used to paraphrase Compton’s famous words describing an equally inept runner.

“When he shouts ‘YES’ for a run, it is merely the basis for further negotiations!” Incidentally, Compton was no better. John Warr said, of Compton “He was the only person who would call you for a run and wish you luck at the same time.”

Anyway, when Wells played for Gloucs, he had an equally horrendous runner as the No.10. During a county match, horror of horrors… both got injured. *Both* opted for runners when it was their turn to bat. Bomber played a ball on the off, called for a run, forgot he had a runner and ran himself. Ditto at the other end. In the melee, someone decided that a second run was on. Now we had *all four* running. Due to the confusion and constant shouts of “YES” “NO”, eventually, *all* of them ran to the same end. Note – at this point in time, the entire ground is rolling on the floor laughing their behinds out. One of the fielders – brave lad – stops laughing for a minute, picks the ball and throws down the wicket at the other end.

Umpire Alec Skelding looks very seriously at the four and calmly informs them “One of you buggers is out. I don’t know which. *You* decide and inform the bloody scorers!”

Harold “Dickie” Bird’s From the Pavilion End

While the batsmen and the bowler are in the thick of the action, the fielders too have their part to play. I don’t think catching the ball in baseball does the batter any harm (or does it?). In cricket it surely does. So a napping fielder often gets a good hiding from the bowler.

Fearsome English fast bowler Fred Trueman extracted an edge from the batsman, which flew straight into the hands of Raman Subba Row at first slip. The ball however went right between Row’s legs to the third man boundary. Fred didn’t say a word. At the end of the over, Row ambled past Trueman and apologised sheepishly. “Sorry Fred. I should’ve kept my legs together”. Trueman retorted in classic fashion “Not you, son. Your mother should’ve!”

Perhaps more than in any other game, the most thankless job is that of the umpires. Not only have the poor souls have to stand and watch an entire game, they also have to listen to at least one appeal each over (which makes it a good number of them in the course of a match) and then have each of their decisions scrutinised very thoroughly.

Lot of our appeals against the New Zealand players were turned down. Chandra in particular had a really bad time with a lot of legitimate decisions going against him.
He finally bowled the batsman out and turned to the umpire, “Howzaaaat?”
The umpire said, “He is bowled”.
Chandra’s reply was a classic, “I know he is bowled. But is he out?”

Sunny Days by Sunil Gavaskar

The humour, though, is not restricted to the field. There can be a fair bit beyond the field too.

Jack Crapp, who was born on 14th October 1912, played seven Tests with reasonable success but is best known for the amusing, and possibly apocryphal, story of a misunderstanding with a hotel receptionist. When Crapp reported to the front desk, he was asked “Bed sir?” Presuming he had been mistaken for Alec Bedser, he replied, “No, Crapp.” The receptionist duly directed him to the first door on the right.

Well, this article has been the most unfit among the lot with the subject, “Eloi and Morlocks”. So what was my real motivation behind writing it? Nothing, I guess I just wanted to rant against baseball and show how cricket stands out in spite of or because of its idiosyncrasies!

The Premium on Life

When I was in London for around 8 months in 2001-2002 I used to marvel at the content of their news. An ordinary person like me being kidnapped or going missing would typically occupy the headlines on all news broadcasts for weeks at a stretch. But back in India a similar incident would have to really stand out to even merit a mention. Maybe it is due to the burgeoning population of India, but somehow the life of a person doesn’t seem to hold much value in the greater scheme of things. People get shot dead and the culprits walk free because they have managed to buy the witnesses out. Ask Jessica Lal or Priyadarshini Mattoo’s relatives. Or the relatives of the BMW hit and run victims. Vermin like Manu Sharma, Santosh Kumar Singh and Sanjeev Nanda are murderers walking free.

I had just started work on my first job in the erstwhile WebTek in Bangalore. Typically the first couple of months of one’s professional life are spent in finding one’s bearings. Things were no different for me: I used to sample different places to eat every evening (I did not know how to cook), I was saving up for buying a two-wheeler and I was trying to make new friends.

My friend Rohit Khandekar was visiting Bangalore for a couple of weeks for a conference in IISc. Along with my housemates Abhishek Saxena and Umesh Batra we made plans to do a day-long trip to Mysore. Roughly at the same time that we were returning from Mysore at night a veteran Kannadiga thespian called Rajkumar was kidnapped along the same route by the notorious sandalwood smuggler Veerappan.

The next day office closed early. The reason was that fans of Rajkumar had started rioting in parts of the city and our company’s management did not want to put us in a situation where we would have to brave riots to go home. Those days I was finalising the purchase of my motorbike. The bike was decided, registration was done and the balance amount needed to be paid. While I would have the entire balance amount when my salary came in, pay-day was still a few days away. So I had decided to take a loan from Abhishek for a few days to speed up the process. Taking advantage of the fact that office was out I decided to visit the HSBC ATM in Manipal Centre on Dickenson Road with Abhishek.

Abhishek put in his ATM card and withdrew Rs. 1000/-. After closing the transaction he realised that he was supposed to withdraw Rs. 5000/-. So he put his card into the ATM machine again. And then a mob appeared at the end of the road opposite Manipal Centre. And the machine started taking very long to process his transaction. As the mob drew closer we started to panic. The card was still stuck!!! The mob was around 30m away now. The card came out. We took the card and the money and fled the scene from another exit of Manipal Centre. That evening we learnt that the mob had torn down the ATM. We counted our blessings.

This kind of a tale has, I am sure, happened to quite a few people. Hell, I remember sitting in an autorickshaw as a 12-year-old not 20m away from a burning bus in Hyderabad during the Ram Janmabhoomi – Babri Masjid flare-up in 1990-1991 (when L. K. Advani was arrested during V. P. Singh’s regime). I also remember sitting in London when not far from my parents’ home in Baroda there was communal carnage instigated by Narenda Modi.

People talk of India’s diversity in glowing terms. Indeed there is no other country anywhere in the world that has such a rich blend of culture, tradition and people. Ironically it is this diversity that gets India into trouble every now and then. Just consider:

  • It is ridiculously simple to cause a riot between Hindus and Muslims. All it needs is a few miscreants.
  • The esteemed elected body of India managed to cause mass upheaval and subsequent massacre of the otherwise communally peaceful Sikhs.
  • You can give special privileges to one section of society (and be assured of its fealty) and make the other sections of society completely hostile to this one.
  • You can board a train from Delhi to Calcutta and be sure of a fight happening between people of UP and Bihar.

The diversity gets exploited by random freaks like Arjun Singh or zealots of the Sang Parivaar or bigots like Narendra Modi for reasons that rational thinking humans would have found to point solely to vote banks. It is indeed interesting that the politicians strive to keep people backward and divided just to cash in on their misery and differences. Sounds very much like anti-virus companies wanting Microsoft to have virus attacks so that they can fix them and make money!

পশ্চাতে রেখেছো যারে সে তোমারে পশ্চাতে টানিবে ।
(Paschatey rekhechho jaarey se tomarey paschatey tanibe … For people who cannot read Bengali or Unicode)

Rabindranath Tagore

It is indeed ironic that Tagore’s quote about people whom we are leaving behind pulling us back should continue to bite us 60 years after our independence. An Indian’s life seems to be just as valuable as its rulers deem fit!

Consumption of Income

My dear friend Vivek Haldar has often talked to me about how a country should have a consumption tax instead of an income tax, arguing about the merits of the former. His contention is simple – why be taxed for something that you have earned? Taxes, he argues, should be levied upon people when they are trying to purchase something. Or when they are using a means of transport like a road. That way people earning more will not feel shortchanged by income tax. Also, people with moral objections to supporting unknown people via schemes like social security will have reason to be happy about.

Savvy? Not so. Well-intentioned though the plan may be, it is fraught with difficulties. How will a country pay for things like defence if there is no income tax? Ok. So we can have a flat tax for defence. And how will people whose job doesn’t involve generating any profits (like the President?) get paid? Well, there could be another flat tax for all administrative and judiciary management, which will cover things like law and order etc.

Then there is a question of quantisation. Are these flat taxes we are talking about going to be fixed values or percentages of income? A fixed value tax might completely wipe out the income of a person earning little and the tax will be for things that probably concern him very little. And a percentage of income tax essentially means going back to square 1 – you are looking at the capability of a person to pay and then you are making that person pay accordingly.

Can a compromise be struck? The more I think about it the more sense it makes to have the plain old income tax as opposed to a consumption tax, simply because the number of things where it is difficult to define consumption is simply overwhelming. Here are examples:

  • Space research, or for that matter, any kind of research that is funded by the government. None of us is a consumer of research, but we all agree that we are benefited by it in some way or the other.
  • Use of intangible resources. It is possible to track how much of the country’s roads we are using by simply tracking the mileage on our vehicles and taxing us accordingly. But what about cases like using manpower for work. Let’s say you own a company and employ a fairly large number of people. You are, by virtue of using these people to attain your profits, using resources of the country. But how are you going to pay taxes for them? And to whom?

A lot of similar examples can be advanced in this regard.

Now let us approach the problem from a different angle. Let us assume that we have handled the complex issues of defining consumption and thereby put together a taxation structure in place. Now let us look at some numbers. An average single person in the US pays a certain amount of tax each year. If we were to get rid of income tax and make the entire system consumption based, then extracting the same amount of money in taxes could result in a phenomenal amount of taxation on what you consume. You might be paying 3 times the cost of fuel in taxes for the distance you travel.

One of the contentions of taxpayers is, why pay taxes for social security benefits when all you are doing is creating a safety net for yourself and paying for other people of your age to get along in life. Point taken, but again, with a pinch of salt. The fact is that if unemployed or homeless people aren’t given a helping hand they soon resort to catastrophic means with disastrous consequences.

Of course. Over the ages our weapons have grown more sophisticated. With Gotham we tried a new one. Economics. But we underestimated certain of Gotham’s citizens, such as your parents. Gunned down by one of the very people they were trying to help. Create enough hunger and everyone becomes a criminal. Their deaths galvanized the city into saving itself, and Gotham has limped on ever since. We are back to finish the job. And this time no misguided idealists will get in the way. Like your father, you lack the courage to do all that is necessary. If someone stands in the way of true justice, you simply walk up behind them and stab them in the heart.

Ra’s Al Ghul to Batman in Batman Begins

The upshot – while income tax is not the nicest way to spend one’s hard-earned money it is a tried and tested method of moving a society forward. Unless we come up with answers to the various issues that plague the assessment of consumption and how to tax it, we are better off with income tax.

Googly for Google

Though the Google Watch site has been around for quite some time now it was only recently that I came upon it. The site kicked quite a few thoughts into action, not because it is accurate, which it is quite often not, but because it set off the whole line of thinking around Eloi and Morlocks.

Google Watch’s Daniel Brandt talks about Gmail being creepy, how Google is a privacy hazard, how its caching is a copyright violation and how Google Print is potentially depriving authors of royalties. Naturally, given the popularity of Google, the site has a fairly large number of detractors and takers.

But the one thing they love more than a hero is to see a hero fail

Green Goblin to Spider-Man in Spider-Man

Well, Google is not a hero of the society, but it certainly is its darling. And while I come off as a person with a bias towards Google:

  1. I don’t work for Google.
  2. I don’t own their stock.
  3. I wish I could do at least one of the two above.
  4. I do believe that a lot of things that come out of Google’s stables could use an overhaul, like the accuracy of Google Maps and the polish of Google Talk.

Daniel Brandt’s crusade is laudable. He points out a lot of shortcomings of the PageRank algorithm, like how easy it is to fool, how “Back Links” often play truant when it comes to deciding the relevance of a page and so on. And these are indeed true. But I believe that in most other aspects Mr. Brandt gets it wrong.

One thing that piqued my interest when Gmail made its entry in the market was how and why would people kick up such a big fuss about targetted advertising. Most people aren’t averse to having spam filters and virus checkers on their email accounts. Yahoo, Microsoft and every other email provider worth its name provides these facilities. And these are automated tools that go through each of your mails before deciding if something has a virus or is from a suspect source. So why complain with Gmail, when all it is doing in addition to checking for junk in your mail is putting in some ads in context of your original mail? In any case, the negative publicity seems to have paid off and most lay people shy away from opening Gmail accounts.

The privacy hazard accusation is another thing altogether. It is also something that I am least equipped to address, coming from a place where privacy is probably among the last of people’s concerns. Hence I will defer to Mr. Brandt’s comments regarding the easily available information about a person, though I must say that the only way cookies will cause you harm is if someone very adept at extracting information from cookies has access to the computer you use to access the internet, particularly to the folders where your browser stores the cookies for you. Google is not that villain.

That brings me to caching and Google Print. Google keeps obvious copies of pages in its cache. As of today so do Yahoo and MSN, but not Windows Live or By obvious what I mean is that it is difficult, if not impossible to fetch results from the web fast without actually having a copy of the pages on an instance local to you. So even though Windows Live Search or don’t display their cache to you, it doesn’t mean they don’t have one. They simply choose not to show it. Now, if you don’t want your page to be available and available fast for any web-search, why would you want a webpage at all? Having search engines throw up your page at the top of a heap is good advertisement for your site and caching certainly attains that goal. As for Google Print, it aims at scanning all books in a library and making them available through a search. A search on Google Print, besides showing a few pages of the book does nothing else. You certainly cannot read the entire book without having to pay the author any royalty. As I see it Google Print is one way of representing a library online. When you have a membership to a library you still get to read the books there, or at least excerpts from them without having to buy them. Is that a copyright violation? Google, by bringing the library online is, I believe, simplifying things to a great extent.

The entire policy of policing Google puts a curious spin on things. Sites like Google Watch would have us believe that Google has only one interest – information on our lives for its money. In this way an analogy can be drawn between Google and the Morlocks of our title – Google provides us information, while secretly harvesting information on us and setting us up for slaughter. Google Watch indeed says that people matter naught to Google.

Pointy Haired Boss: I’ve been saying for years that “Employees are our most valuable asset”… It turns out that I was wrong. Money is our most valuable asset. Employees are ninth.

Wally: I’m afraid to ask what came in eighth.

Pointy Haired Boss: Carbon Paper.

– Dilbert’s Still Pumped From Using the Mouse by Scott Adams

I am, however, not so sure. Google prides itself on good search results, but most people at Google itself consider it an advertising company. They also know that they are only going to be this rich as long as they manage to stay ahead of the curve with their core competency – search. The key rule of advertising is to not rub people the wrong way. When people find out that a company is scamming them, they boycott the company of their own volition. Google, by dishing up innovation through technology and not actually charging any of its users for anything will manage to stay the people’s favourtie for long, or at least until something better comes by.

Enough said. The intent of this page is not to sell itself by advertisement of Google or Google Watch: I have deliberately tried to avoid any “Search Engine Optimisation” here, apart from having written this in my blog. I do believe that not only does Mr. Brandt make a lot of good points, but also that quite a lot of his statements that I don’t agree with provide healthy food for thought. The issue here is not whether a company is getting fascinatingly rich, but whether the contributors to its wealth get anything in return. I believe I get a decent return out of using Google’s products (I also get a lot out of using Microsoft and Yahoo’s products) and I don’t believe my privacy is compromised. I consider myself satisfied.

My very first post after restarting my blog and I already seem to have violated the objective of being objective. But then, perhaps one of the most biased statements possible is, “This statement is unbiased”, by means of which the statement automatically biases itself in its favour.

I will sign off by pointing out a classic paper, “Reflections on Trusting Trust” by Ken Thompson. Whom will you trust?