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Sunday, August 30, 2009

Bhopal: Giving credit

Among the few cities that I’ve seen, I liked one small thing about Bhopal in my short stay of a month here. If only miniscule, the difference is, nonetheless, noticeable, comment worthy and, from my point of view, admirable.

Buildings, public institutions, parks and traffic circles here bear names commemorating range of India's historical and political figures. Sarojini Naidu, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sister Nivedita, Swami Vivekanand, Swami Dayanand, Maharana Pratap, Tatya Tope, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Rani Laxmi Bai and Mahatma Gandhi are but an handful. I don’t know if this is common in other cities of India but I am impressed by variety in honouring our historical past. I am irked by tendency of certain party of ruling elite to repeatedly give credit to same persons while ignoring others. Perhaps the greatest tragedy Lal Bahadur Shastri suffered was to be born on the same day as Mahatma Gandhi, who, as is known well now, is a poster boy for Congress for everything. I think one thing that we can easily and cheaply do without really doing anything is to give credit, at least posthumously. Of course, one certain party in Maharashtra has the longest list of names in its honour roll.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Flashing lights and other traffic irritants

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They both do it promptly, lest the other one beat them into it. They both do it quickly, instinctively, almost aggressively. They both signal others. Yet they couldn’t mean more different.

One is a driver in American road flashing his headlights to yield right of way. He is more than willing to wait patiently while you go ahead and he voluntarily signals permission. Other is, in contrast, a driver on Indian road flashing his headlights to demand right of way. It’s unofficial rule of Indian highways: first flasher gets right of way and coming vehicle must yield. Hurry to be first often leads to flashing as early as when distance between vehicles is more than 300 meters. He doesn’t do it only where there is only single lane for both sides, he does it then too when he is overtaking by coming in your lane. That it’s your lane be damned, since he flashed first, he has right. Funny, and dangerous, part is that he assumes that flashing is enough to carve way for him and whether you have sufficient time or place to yield is not his problem. So even when he is directly ahead you within 20 meters, he will flash, and you better get off the road however before he hurls at you. If you follow local news on Indian roads, you will notice that maximum number of road accidents happen because of aggressive overtaking.

Why are we so (stupidly) hurried on road? Have you seen how auto-rickshaws and two-wheelers seek niches and corners at traffic crossing to advance few inches even when traffic light is red (four-wheelers would do it too if they could)? What do they gain by gaining few inches on road? How much time will it save them in their journey? It seems any advantage in moving forward now is more than nullified by having to reduce speed when light turns green because, obviously, final speed is determined by vehicle in front*. So if I have three feet free in front of me at signal, I am not really losing anything. Same shortage of common sense leads to mass honking when signal turns green. Working on the sensible premise that no one likes to stay parked on middle of road, and hence when he is stopped he must have a genuine reason such as vehicle ahead of him or some obstruction, and that honking cannot really get rid of reason concerned, what exactly is point of honking?

Our need to hurry without reason or advantage to hurrying is so great that passengers block the passageway and obstruct foot traffic on the aisle of train compartments and bus by arranging their luggage as much as an hour before arrival of destination station. Why? So that when train or bus stops, they can instantaneously disembark. By preparing and inconveniencing themselves and others for more than a hour, they gain a minute on arrival. I am sure it must matter a lot in their life. Such ridiculous behaviour has been observed even in airplanes when Indian national tendency warrants passenger to pick up their luggage and gather around airplane gate as soon as plane lands on the runway and is still taxing to the gate with seatbelt sign on. After all, in most cases your arrival to airport lounge is decided by departure of bus which picks you from the airplane and not by speed of your disembarkation. Keeping principle of bottleneck in mind is usually a good idea in life in these cases.

(This post is based on experience from a lot of driving around in last four months.)
*When I was little I used to think that when my school bus got stuck in traffic, I can speed up my arrival to school by getting off, walking ahead of bus, and getting on the bus again when it catches up to me. What happens there is a lot like this.

Monday, August 24, 2009

So, what’s wrong with incest?

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Somethings are beyond reason for some people. Faith, obviously, comes in that category. So does the incest, I believe. Howver, really, nothing should be beyond question (except when you are in Army, perhaps), albeit answer may be unknown. Hence I will try to understand and analyze — but not necessarily defend, to begin with — exactly what is wrong with incest in this post. Those that find this incredulous or repugnent may please stop right now.

It’s worth putting foremost that here I refer to consensual incest only. Incest is taboo and illegal in most societies of world except perhaps in some aborigine ones. Reasons for that that I gather from various readings, reflections and discussions are:

  1. ‘Yuck’ (disgust) factor
  2. Increased chances of genetically defective offsprings
  3. Social awkwardness following failed incestuous relationship
  4. Damaging effect on social & familial structure

First is, perhaps, ironically, the strongest as well as the weakest reason against. The strongest because this feeling of incest-being-wrong is so deep rooted in almost everybody’s psyche that mountains of rational analysis proving otherwise will be discarded instantaneously based on gut feeling of wrongness. I too harbour that disgust towards incestuous relationship. Yet, it’s also the weakest because, despite my admission in previous sentence, I must admit that yuck-ness has never been force enough to stop change in social setup, primarily because it is too personal and without reason. It can be easily argued that those that harbour disgust are free to avoid this and those that don’t are free to do so, as long as in private, as sex has always been, and that former have no locus standi in interfering matters of later. There was a time when inter-caste, inter-religious and inter-racial relationships aroused the strong yuck-ness that we observe against incest today, and we are well aware of current situation in those respects. Even now, large segment of Indian population and significant segment of world population feels yuck-ness towards homosexuality. Despite that move towards normalization is getting stronger everyday. One may find many such examples across the world which weakens feeling of disgust as genuine reason to outlaw incest.

Second is theoretically correct but practically unimportant reason. For one, increase in chances are infinitesimal at the best, not unlike many other deceases that a fetus may be susceptible to. (See this excellent researched article on Slate.) For another and more importantly, birth control is so easy in modern world that pregnancy can be avoided with certainty by those that are determined to do so.

Third is a minor annoyance let alone solid counter-argument against incest. If an incestuous relationship fails then couple involved may face social awkwardness because their opportunities of mutual confrontation are frequent and unavoidable in many cases — them being family members. This, however, is very much familial problem and hardly large enough to concern society to prohibit incest. Furthermore, who hasn’t encountered awkwardness in various forms in familial setup arising out of myriads of other reasons?

Fourth is perhaps one reason that is worth investigation by anthropologists and sociologists though my initial hunch suggests that even this is not sufficient enough. Evidence for this comes from varying degree of incest (if it can be so called) that’s already being practiced in various communities. In North-Indian Hindus, if I know right, marrying your first cousins is prohibited while South-Indian Hindus follow this practice. In Muslims communities, again, marrying cousins is all too common. Clearly if these communities have flourished over centuries, nothing suggests, as yet, what may befall on social structure if practice touches all family members. Point to note here, and point under discussion, is the legal and social ban on incest. It doesn't suggest in anyway that revocation of such ban will lead to prolifiration resulting in fallout in social structure.

So, precisely what’s wrong with incest? Your thoughts and opinions are invited particularly if you think I’ve skipped a valid reason against it. If only morality, an all too fluid term these days, is reason against, I think, in due course, we will surely see revocation of ban on this too, as had been case for others.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Humours from the Daisy Row

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Now that the placements at the IIMA are long over (this post was to come out in May) and we are out of self-imposed quarantine from media, let me share escapades of the days. This year, as everyone and their uncles know by now, thanks to relentless, and I must say quite tactless as well, coverage by the media, particularly one leading English behemoth, was specially bad for all colleges all over the world, IIMA being no exception. This resulted in more diverse and wide variety of firms coming to campus for placements than there had been in earlier times. Some of these executives were coming for the first time and were probably unfamiliar with process we follow here, which is a very fast paced, jam packed, heavily organized and highly technology controlled one for increasing throughput of the system and maximizing benefit to students and firms.

Few firms backed out at last minute even after pre-placement talks and releasing shortlists for interview. I suspect little of that happened because of change in market condition between acquiescing to come and actually coming, and more because companies wanted to put off pitching calls from placement members till last minute before coping out. Few firms reduced their salary after having made offers, introduced bonds or changed profile after news of dismal first days were out. Such unprofessional conduct was disappointing and shocking for students concerned but also had undertone of dark humour.

A small firm used this opportunity to hire student amass. Only lone interviewer from that firm interviewed over hundred candidates in a day in what has been described by participating students as the most flippant way. He/she was busy playing with his/her blackberry and trading on his/her laptop while he/she pretended to listen to students during their interview. Rather than asking questions to students, he/she kept asking if they had any questions for him/her. In interview process running for two days, he/she displayed his/her inability to select good candidates and just asked coordinating placement team member if he/she could suggest some. There are rumours that he/she made one offer on the way to taxi. In another case, he/she made job offers and then realized that he/she had forgotten to take second round of interviews. Few firms used this opportunities to hoard “IIMA grads” now that they were cheaply available. On the contrary, other companies just participated in placement process to continue their relationship with the institute and just pretended to hire.

A company was so adamant to conduct Group Discussions for its selection that they didn’t even hesitate when only two candidates were left in last panel. How did they manage a GD in 2 is anybody’s guess. Another company declared their salary package of 10 lakh during role description. When two people were selected, surprise followed. Company representative argued that 10 divided by 2 is 5 and hence each should get 5 lakh each. Now we are learning math!

A firm was too precise in its procedure to screen students that it flew its executive to Ahmedabad for very small written test. I am no cost-cutting expert but something sounds amiss. Once forty shortlisted students were interviewed over two days in multiple rounds, firm decided not to hire anyone. I hear that their liquidity is severely limited!

One company decided that best way to introduce prospective candidates to company is to hold an dinner evening with them. About three dozens shortlisted candidates were treated to expensive dinner with company officials. Two days before placement week, they decided that they will release second shortlist and cancel the first. Only half a dozen students, none of them in earlier list, were shortlisted again. Interviews were changed from in-person to phone-interview. They didn’t hire anyone.

Few firms decided that they would use this opportunity to get revenge for all the perceived wrongs done by the institute when things were going good and we didn’t need them. Negotiation to get a preferred slot is the biggest deal breaker. In IIMA, like in other IIMs, placements are conducted during one week rather than as and when firms come. Best and preferred companies come earlier and less preferred companies come later. Wisdom in the street says that relatively better candidates are taken in earlier days and relatively worse candidates remain in applicant pool later. It’s not clear if former leads to later or vice-versa. So, of course, companies want earlier slots. In typical marketing style, days of placement week are not called 1, 2, 3… but are –1, 0, 0.5, 1.5, 2…. First day of placement week is day zero (sounds like “daisy row”) and any offers before that count as day minus one. In strategy not unlike pricing a shoe at 199/-, 0 and 0.5 convey sense of same day and not a second day.

Names have been deliberately omitted, numbers are fudged and language is sanitized to avoid any damage to parties involved, but primarily to me.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Population trading

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Most of you will be familiar with ‘carbon trading’ and attempt of various countries and organizations to become ‘carbon neutral’ by certain time in future. By fixing quota of permitted pollution, attempt is made to reduce/prevent/stop Global Warming. Those that cannot control pollution to the permitted extent are allowed to buy additional quota from those that can control more than required. Idea of ‘population trading’ and ‘population neutral’ emanates from this and this post can be understood as an intellectual fantasy if this were followed…

Rapidly expanding population of Earth is increasing danger to rapidly vanishing Earth’s resources, and has direct impact on human welfare and lifestyle. It is also the most important contributor to Global Warming. Naturally, it helps if attempt is made to reduce world’s population. However, no such attempt is in offing and most efforts, if any, are at country level. At one hand poor countries of Asia and Africa, India included, are trying to reduce population growth, on the other hand, few highly developed countries (viz. Japan, Australia) are incentivizing their reluctant population to grow faster. Unfortunately, both are failing to some extent.

If future population quota is fixed based on country’s habitable area, then countries growing faster can buy ‘population credits’ from those growing slower. Unpalatable part of this scheme will be that mostly poor countries will be required to pay to mostly rich countries, and that is unlikely to happen. If such quotas were permitted at couple level then parents trying to produce more than allocated children will have to buy quota from those who are producing less or not marrying. Again, poor families will have to cough up money to pay to rich families, as usually educated (and mostly rich) couples desire fewer children than usually uneducated (and mostly poor) couples. Involvement of government authorities in licensing quotas can open floodgates of misallocation and corruption.

At personal level, a couple can try to be ‘population neutral’ by limiting their progeny to two. If neutrality is carried over generations than compensating actions is permitted where fewer or no children in one generation can allow additional in next or so generation. Such practice can be followed at community or social level and will require careful auditing and population enumeration.

In extreme case, wholesale population migration can be attempted, where select couples from populous countries can be moved to countries with negative population growth. This, of course, has to be tried by later country and will have significant effect on its social, cultural and political environment. Some indirect efforts are already underway in this realm where some countries are luring students to study, work and settle in it, though these are primarily aimed at economic growth at not at population decline.

Lot of it may not make any sense and may be poorly thought of but it was merely an idea, I thought novel, carried to a limited extent.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Point of contention

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I realized something today. It will be bone of contention in my life.

With regret I have come to realize that my mother’s culinary skills are unparalleled, incomparable, beyond par so much so that this is going to be cause domestic feud between me and my potential wife when I am going to say to her that her cooking is nothing like my mom’s.

I’ve been told that this (missing mum's food) happens largely to men and not to women. Is it true?

I had never thought of this before. I must learn to keep my mouth shut. Sigh.

Independence Day: Then and Now

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Once upon a time today used to bring smile, happiness and pride. Now a new emotion has dwarfed the feelings. The day starts with apprehension and uneasiness and finds relief only at the end (if) when celebrations would have had finished without any terrorist incident. That's what they have done to us. I try to be happy again. Wish you the same. Happy Independence Day.

Happy Independence Day

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

An Indian joint family

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Joint Family

Sunday, August 9, 2009

A lesson in Arrogance

He was my project advisor. He is also the best faculty in his area in the department. He is, more uncommonly, a very spiritual person who had, it seemed, found peace away from rat race of this world. He was also my idol, my role model, my sounding board, my debate partner and my guide. His philosophies irked some, who found him preachy and snobbish, but then, he wasn’t bothered because he was contended. Following excerpts are from a conversation that I had with him over six years ago when I was IIT Madras. Dialogues are constructed from memory but essence is maintained.

He: There is increasing perception in Industry and outside world that IIT students are very arrogant.
Me: I can see that. Having cleared JEE, students here believe themselves extra smart. My experience working with graduates of other colleges has shown me that neither their learning nor their applications are any lesser than those of an IITian.
He: Then why does this arrogance arise?
Me: Perhaps euphoria of passing tough JEE has intoxicated them. I, personally, hate arrogance in all form. I don’t think I am any special in being here.
He: So you think you are not arrogant?
Me: I don’t think so. A person accomplishes anything because of many factors including family upbringing, financial resources, genetic qualities and environmental factors and not alone by personal feat. I think I just have been lucky to be be where I am, to do what I did. (See: Proud of What?)
He: You think you are just luckier than those who couldn’t make it to IIT?
Me: Yes, Sir.
He: Isn’t that arrogance too?

And I haven’t forgotten the lesson to this day. I don’t really understand it completely, even now, but I do know there is something important here. And therein lies ultimate humbleness.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Free food

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When I was student of undergraduate studies at Madras, I was unaware of the phenomenon which was soon to take an important part of my life, and will continue to bring smile on my face forever in life.

I was introduced to ‘free food’ in MIT. MIT, probably like other US universities, had uncountable number of student groups, seemingly unlimited funds — to my eyes accustomed to IIT situation — for student activities, and almost daily events, seminars, lectures, conferences and bouquets in any of its myriads departments and organizations which constantly provided free food to students. In fact, many students attended those precisely for that reason. This trend continued in Ahmedabad as well, though in very reduced form, and I found that despite there being no dearth of funds to spend on food for me, magic of free food was irresistible. And that’s just not for me but for almost every student I’ve met. It appears that any eatable, when made available free of charge, even of non-descript nature, never fails to tempt palate of any person who is or ever has been an student of graduate studies or higher in any institution across the world, irrespective of how much money the said person makes or whether he has already satiated his hunger extensively. At MIT, we even had a mailing list (freefood@mit.edu) where any student can post message about availability of free food anywhere on campus and subscribers of the same will hasten to devour it. And because MIT is a large university, free food was an almost daily occurrence so much so that person with eye on above mailing list and speed in his feet can almost survive on leftovers for full term.

Even at work in Los Angeles, in my company, free food had people rushing to cafeteria. I’ve moved out of college now and mostly will not enter one again but I cannot understand why it holds such a strong grip on people? Corollary to free food is freebies, however trifle, which students would fight to get hold of. I suspect, but am not sure, that this phenomenon is bachelor specific. Does free food holds special place in your heart? What was your experience?

(It seems that attraction towards freebies is well known to marketers. A large lump sum price and free products/services tend to have more customers than individual price for each product/service. It has something to do with how our brain treats sunk cost.)

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Big Bang Theory

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There is this sitcom running on CBS in USA these days which is quickly taking up second spot (see first) in my list of favourite sitcoms: The Big Bang Theory. It doesn’t appear to be all that popular in States, if Wiki ratings are to go by, but geek in me seem to see parts of me in legendary Sheldon Cooper whose rational and logic driven world leaves robots into shame. His company of experimental physicist, astrophysicist and engineers is charmed by (how should I say it politely?) a bimboo named Penny and the hilarity ensues. I am hereby proposing a Penny-Sheldon Scale© of character analysis. If Penny scores 0 and Sheldon scores 100 on this scale, where do you see yourself? Sometime, if I have got really nothing to do in life, which means never, I might watch reruns and prepare a questionnaire. Preliminary investigation and research (also known as a single Google® search) tells me that I am first to propose this scale. Here are few snippets for you to enjoy.

And today is exactly an year hence and as many posts later as is sum of cubes of first five natural integers.