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Thursday, June 24, 2010

Used or pirated books

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Last month I visited Churchgate in Mumbai and bought over 15 second-hand books from famous vendors at Flora Fountain. Around same time, I saw vendors selling pirated copies of popular books at Andheri station. Last week I found myself with a question to which I could find no answer. While I am stumped at stupidity of not realizing this earlier, answer has profound implication for me.

What is the difference when one buys second-hand books or pirated books? Aren’t they same to all relevant parties?

In both cases, neither publisher nor author gets any fee. In both cases, both publisher and author get credit and fame (since pirated books are printed exactly like original). In both cases, buyer pays less than original price of the book — which, of course, is not single number because retailers have different discount schemes. In both cases, middleman benefits from the sale — either a vendor of used books or publisher and seller of pirated books.

Yes, technically, there is a difference. A new book buyer buys book under proper license and credit. Once book becomes his property, he can sell it to anyone he deem fits. This buyer can re-sell it and so on. A publisher of pirated books steals the copyrighted content and sells to buyer. Yet, practically, if I have to chose between buying a second-hand and a pirated book, there is no difference. In both cases, creative talent is not rewarded and only middle facilitator benefits. Why should I be partial to profits of used book vendors while desisting profits of pirated books vendor? True that one stole and another legally purchased but they are but mere nuances since material impact to all concerned parties is exactly the same. It might be said that one is making an honest living while another is stealing (but who is the victim? Original author but only if only alternative is to buy new book, not used book).

This gets further compounded by the fact that used book vendors themselves are lot which don’t get much sympathy from buyers because of obsessive margins maintained by them (my guess, don’t jump on me for this). While buying second-hand books is perfectly acceptable commercial transaction in all societies of world, buying pirated is considered immoral and unethical. But if there is no difference between both, does buyer of pirated books need to feel guilty (if he does at all)?

This, of course, assumes that choice is between buying pirated and used books. Buying fresh new books is always better move, without doubt. This also assumes that feeling of reading original (without typos and poor print that typically occur in stolen material, though, it appears that quality of pirated books is increasing rapidly) book is not an issue with the reader.

I end this post with one plausible weak reason where buying pirated books could be worse than buying used books: people buy new books only to be able to sell them later. If this is plausible, then buying pirated reduces market for used books thus reducing re-selling ability of vendors and plummeting the sell price of original buyer. This disincentives the original buyer from buying new books and thus original author and publisher also suffer material loss and financial damage. This argument is weak because most book lovers who buy new books don’t buy because they intend to sell them (they might as well sell them but that is not reason of buying in the first place). They buy new books because they like the feeling of fresh crisp pages and smell of printed paper. They buy new books because they want to own and re-read the books and maintain a library. How many of first time buyers sell their books (not talking of textbooks in this post) anyway?

Unless I receive satisfactory response to my conundrum, I will be become more immune to guilt of buying pirated book (unless, of course, I plan to buy original one).

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Hindi count approximation number pair

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This post is based on Hindi colloquial/conversational number pairs used in approximating a quantity. Knowledge of colloquial Hindi is requisite.

Hindi conversational numbering follows Hindu-Arabic Decimal Number System with Hindi pronunciations. One (1) becomes Ek, Two (2) becomes Do, Three (3) becomes Teen and so on. When asked to approximate a quantifiable noun viz. in response to “how many minutes before the dad comes home?”, Hindi speakers often speak in number pairs such as Ek-Do (1-2). Not all pairs are acceptable and feel “right” when you say them aloud. This post will try to discern if there is a mathematical pattern in acceptable set of pairings.

Table: List (partial) of acceptable pairs
Pair Type
1-2 Next
2-1 One
2-3 Next
2-4 Double, Next 2x
2-5 Plus 3
3-1 One
3-4 Next
4-1 One
4-5 Next
4-6 Next 2x
5-1 One
5-6 Next
5-10 Double, Next 5x
6-1 One
6-7 Next
7-1 One
7-8 Next
8-1 One
8-9 Next
8-10 Next 2x
9-1 One
9-10 Next
10-1 One
10-11 Next
10-12 Next 2x
10-15 Next 5x
10-20 Double, Next 10x
11-1 One
11-12 Next
12-1 One
12-13 Next
12-15 Plus 3
13-1 One
13-14 Next
14-1 One
14-15 Next
15-1 One
15-16 Next
15-20 Next 5x
16-1 One
16-17 Next
17-1 One
17-18 Next
18-1 One
18-19 Next
18-20 Next 2x
19-1 One
19-20 Next
20-1 One
20-21 Next
20-22 Next 2x
20-25 Next 5x
20-30 Next 10x
21-1 One
21-22 Next
22-1 One
22-23 Next
22-25 Plus 3
23-1 One
23-24 Next
24-1 One
24-25 Next
25-1 One
25-26 Next
25-30 Next 5x
25-50 Double
26-1 One
26-27 Next
27-1 One
27-28 Next
28-1 One
28-29 Next
28-30 Next 2x
29-1 One
29-30 Next
30-1 One
30-31 Next
30-32 Next 2x
30-35 Next 5x
30-40 Next 10x
31-1 One
31-32 Next
32-1 One
32-33 Next
32-35 Plus 3
33-1 One
33-34 Next
34-1 One
34-35 Next
35-1 One
35-36 Next
35-40 Next 5x
36-1 One
36-37 Next
37-1 One
37-38 Next
38-1 One
38-39 Next
39-1 One
39-40 Next
40-1 One
40-41 Next
40-42 Next 2x
40-45 Next 5x
40-50 Next 10x

After manual enumeration of all such pairs where first number is up to 40, we can observe following seven type of pairings:
  1. Next: This is the most common type of pair in which each number is paired with next whole number following it.
  2. One: This is the second most common type of pair in which each number is paired with number One, except, of course, number One itself.
  3. Next 2x: Numbers 2, 4, 8, 10, 18, 20, 28, 30 and 40 pair with next number which is multiple of 2 i.e. next even number. Primarily, numbers ending in 0 seem to follow this pairing. There is temporary pairing of this type for numbers ending in 8 but this doesn’t continue long since after 38 this doesn’t work. 2 and 4 are obvious exceptions.
  4. Plus 3: 2, 12, 22 and 32 seem to follow this type of pairing. Projecting further, it appears that all numbers ending in 2 would following this pairing.
  5. Next 5x: 5, 10, 15, 20, 35 and 40 predictably follow pattern of paring with next number which is multiple of 5. These numbers themselves are multiple of 5 clearly following a pattern.
  6. Next 10x: 10, 20, 30 and 40 again following pattern of pairing with next number which is multiple of 10 while themselves being multiple of 10.
  7. Double: Numbers 2, 5, 10 and 25 pair with numbers twice them though 2, 5 and 10 be also be categorized to other pairing types which makes more sense. Projecting beyond 40, we see that while 50 doesn’t follow this pairing, 100, 150, 200, 500 do so. There doesn’t seem to be any identifiable pattern here.

I also tried to find pattern in sum, product and ratio of numbers in these pairs and in ratio of consecutive sums and consecutive products without success. Possibly, enumerating pairs after 40 may identify more types of pairings. What are your thoughts and observations?

(Peculiarity of such pairings have been in mind for quite many years but this post on Futility Closet — which, by the way, is a recommended read blog — propelled me to write this post.)

Monday, June 7, 2010

Dork – Book review

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I am unsurprisingly lazy at writing review but given extra free time I have today, let me put down my thoughts on fictional novel “Dork” by Sidin Vadukut. Review contains minor spoilers.

Dork is a story of an MBA graduate from IIM Ahmedabad who lands a job at a mid-size consulting organization and his first year in the firm. Book is hilarious to the core and an easy read throughout. Book specially appeals to people who are familiar with culture of MBA institutes and consulting companies because author doesn’t bother to clarify things for those unfamiliar. That said, while some humour may be lost, others can still enjoy the book based on simply the character that the protagonist “Robin ‘Einstein’ Varghese” is.

Robin, or he likes to be called, Einstein, is an utter optimist but a mediocre — as mediocre as one can be given that he is in IIMA — student who is in too much awe of himself to notice anything else. His luck, adventurous nature and audacious confidence carries him through ups and downs of campus and work life in a rollercoaster ride which will make you laugh out loud quite a few times and chuckle many more. As all Indian stories must include romantic side interest, Einstein too has one-sided (what else?) crush on his batch-mate from college which he manages to advance to “next level”. Nuggets of Robin’s self-confidence even when he is the laughing stock of the whole world give book its regular dose of wit. For instance, when projected as expert of mechanical engineering to prospective client by his superiors in consulting firm, Robin assures them of his ability because, after all, he was twelfth ranker in his class in engineering and joint fourth when only counting top three courses in last two semesters including Basic French! His interview in the end is not to be missed.

While book deals with eccentricities of consulting profession, it doesn’t take holier-than-thou attitude as I suspected when I started reading. Robin is sole focus of the book and occasional unethical nature of consulting world is mere stage for his fortune to dance upon. Most of the humour in the book is subtle (a parenthetical “not needed” when Robin is wished best of luck for a job interview, a microwave that works only for 20 seconds, and exhibition in Paris for dog) and not in-your-face “I cracked a joke now you should laugh” type which respects intelligence of its readers. While luck shines way too much on Robin, story remains largely realistic.

Book is peppered with mild profanities (‘fuck’ and ‘chutiya’) and few innuendoes (extra hard drive space) but it should offend none but Victorian prudish. For a mass-market fiction category that this books fall into, narrative and English are good (atleast as good as I can judge, which you can judge yourself). For 149 bucks, book is sure worth keeping in your library.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Thank-o-meter

Cultural differences between oriental and occidental societies are well known and expressing gratitude through explicit thanking is one such area of difference.

European and North American societies exhibit an all pervasive tendency to thank family, friends and strangers for the most trivial of the matters which grates Indians — or at least me — in two ways. One, it reduces act of thanking to mere perfunctory ritual rather than heartfelt recognition of gratitude received because it becomes difficult to recognize true thanking to courtesy thanking. Two, it embarrasses me to receive profuse thanking for task which I don’t consider worthy of gushing praise bestowed on me. One English colleague at my firm, for instance, once asked me for “a very very big favour” by asking me to explain her how many thousands were in a lakh. I am often at loss to even respond to such overwhelmed dose of expressed thanking.

Asian societies, on the contrary, are more cautious in thanking and when done, it is almost always to strangers. In fact, a good yardstick to measure how close one is in personal circle of thank-er is to notice for what and how often one is thanked. A close friend or family member never expects to be thanked and some even take offence at thanking. Even strangers are thanked for things more substantial than mere getting out of the way on footpath. This, naturally, comes out to West as rude and ungrateful behaviour.

Those of us educated and exposed to Western culture are pushing thanking in Indian social interaction to same extent. While thanking someone for efforts he put into helping you is desirable social mannerism, anything done in excess loses its meaning as happens on the other side of the Earth. What we need is moderate amount of thanking and thanking from heart for things for which thank-er is really thankful about. What we need is thank-o-meter™!

Thank-o-meter is each individual’s personal cumulative counter of thanks he received and thanks he gave throughout his life. Because thanking someone will decrement thank-o-meter reading, one would do so only when meant genuinely and when other’s effort are substantial enough and worthy of a thank. This will obviously increase value of thank to receiver as well. Because one will be able to thank only when he has positive balance of thanks, he will have to earn thanks through efforts before he can spend them.

Implementation of this scheme can only be undertaken by God for He only has such scalability and omniscience required for this project. Implementation details such as initial stock of thanks can be worked out. What may happen is that some miser may stop handing out thanks or some other start hoarding them. Thanking in return of cash gift would be equivalent to selling thank-o-meter readings. Humankind may end up deciding price of a efforts in units of thanks which will be function of demand (low during natural disaster) and supply (high during charity event) and may work much like today’s forex market (and can possibly be traded).

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

From Milan to Gulshan

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An envelope. That’s what begins and ends this story.

They say, coincidence is the biggest player making one’s life’s biggest decisions. Nothing could be truer.

It started with a regular white 4’’x10’’ office envelope. The envelop, like others, contained two printed A4 sized sheets — one with bio-data and other with horoscope, and her photograph.

It ended with an ornate hay coloured envelope proclaiming their marriage and inviting others to join the occasion.

Incidents in between, spanning over 18 months, are riddled with numerous twists of fate, intervention of luck, sweet nothings, months of courtship, love of life and memories of lifetime. Each encounter, each gesture, each dialogue could be made into an essay. Such shall not be attempted because my attempts to include even one in this post left me in trance and unable to phrase. This whole story though flashed before me in excruciating detail right at the moment my fingers smeared red vermillion in her hair partings. From first meeting at “Milan” restaurant to forever bonding at “Gulshan” marriage garden — an era has changed.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The end of the beginning and the beginning of the end

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Starting now, I am a family man.
And “uncle”.
And among set of people who have tasted proverbial laddoo.
And can empathize with, and not merely laugh at, marriage jokes.
And will live longer.

Starting now, I cannot sleep till noon.
Or skip meals.
Or not shave for days.
Or leave my room cluttered.
Or wear same shirt for fourth consecutive day.
Or ogle at beautiful ladies.
Or watch porn (as frequently).

And my wife is awesome (she is watching over).

Wish me luck. I am marr(i)ed!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Rupees ten thousand per life, only

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There was a news couple of days ago about a couple committing suicide along with two children and a neighbour because they couldn’t pay 50,000/- fine imposed by caste panchayat. While such locally imposed caste laws are bane of the society, what had me thinking was the meagre sum involved. Naturally, half-a-lakh rupees was not meagre for people concerned who couldn’t think of anything else but to kill themselves, but this is not large amount for many people like us. Well, not trivial enough to throw away, but trivial enough to save five human lives. I wondered if somehow one would have known about it before they decided to die, he could have saved them — and he need not be doing any charity.

What if I pay off their loan and in return they work for me for free for one full year? I will be paying 60,000 (+lodging+boarding) for five members (and three working adults) for 12 months thereby effectively paying 1700/- per month per person which is less than market rate for full time servant. This, of course, is win-win for both since however substandard their life would have been with me at subsistence wages, it is still better than alternative of death. Two questions come to my mind: how would have I known about it, and whether they would have accepted this proposal?

Second question is a tricky one. From my point of view, proposal is bargain for them because I’d be willing to work for free and easily for more than one year if alternative is suicide. However, once I pay the sum, there is no incentive for them to stick to their commitment however great generosity I might have bestowed upon them, except moral obligation and gratitude to the benefactor. Unfortunately, humans have horrible track record in honouring their commitments. Ideally, I’d expect them to be forever thankful to me, but practically, I’d have fears that they will rob my house and run away very next day I kept them. Somehow, that is all possible. This possibility, real in my mind, could be reason enough for me not to make that proposal in the first place, unless I am willing to forego the money without expecting any return. Such situations are not uncommon in Indian society where people dying of cold or hunger or inability to repay loans is regular news. A donation of 50/- could have saved that life, if only, donor and sufferer had known in advance.

Am I being paranoid? Do you think proposal would have been accepted? What are the risks?

Monday, May 3, 2010

Happiness in five rupees

Auto RideOne hand precariously holding on the handrail above me and other arm, sometimes, wrapped around the sidebar. Feet either rested on foot rail or freely dangling. Face facing the oncoming traffic and receding away from it. Wind roughing the oiled and combed hairs into a dry mess. Thighs pulled together to balance the polybag containing roasted groundnuts and other hand attempting to peel few of them singlehandedly, losing few seeds occasionally to road, to toss in my mouth. Torso huddled along with three more co-passengers. Balancing myself through speed breakers and sharp turns on a thin plank of wood serving as my seat.

This thirty-minutes five-rupees journey from IFFCO Chauk to Sector 54 in Gurgaon on the back of shared auto-rickshaw gave me more pleasure than anything else I’ve encountered in recent years. And trust me, I’ve fairly many things to compare it against. [Image source]

Friday, April 30, 2010

Strange connections

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When I tinker with my eyes, as in when I am trying to put on contact lenses, specially when it takes longer than usual and my eyes become watery, why does my nose start running too?

Why do I cough when digging in my ear using an ear stick?

Why does sneezing makes me momentarily deaf?

Why are there such strange connections between two unrelated parts of the body? What are other examples?

Edit 30/04/2010: See comments for some asnwers.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Surcharge on vegetarianism

If you are an Indian and a non-vegetarian, you should probably stop reading now, because I am going to write about you.

India is a vegetarian’s paradise. It is perhaps only country in the world where vegetarianism is culturally and religiously ingrained, unlike other countries where it is outcome of personal choice usually later in life. Those not familiar with Indian history of vegetarianism often find surviving on meatless diet impossible and it is not uncommon to find doctors in western countries proscribing pure vegetarian diet for pregnant women, a notion amusing at the least. Inclination to meat eating is growing in India alongside average affluence of urban generation. Religious apathy, consumerism and emphasis on instant gratification probably also have something to do there. That said, about one-third of Indian population remains lacto-vegetarian and no food service provider can ignore them. In an interesting cross-cultural business mishap story, when KFC tried to position itself as pure non-vegetarian restaurant, it saw its sales low and stagnant. That even one vegetarian person in the group of people can veto a going to KFC for eat-out was the reason behind this otherwise successful chain not taking off in India. They ultimately introduced limited set of vegetarian options to reduce the barrier to entry.

Eating out remains a group and social activity in India and in a group of people there are bound to be few vegetarians. Vegetarians almost always suffer small economical loss every time they go on group lunches or dinners. This is because (1) meat always costs more than vegetables in Indian menu, and (2) group usually splits the bill equally. Thus, vegetarians always subsidize their non-vegetarian brethren. While difference can be substantial within single bill itself, none speaks lest he be cast ‘cheapskate’ by others. This difference compounds over life and ends up being surcharge on being friendly to animals. Group that benefits from this subsidy will naturally not protest against it — not necessarily intentionally but possibly because thought never occurred to them — though it is surprising that no non-vegetarian has even raised an issue or questioned this practice even once in my twenty five years of experience involving numerous such meals. On the other hand, few vegetarians have confessed silently this systematic bias to me occasionally.

It is not that I want accounting done to minute detail but elephant in the room is worth acknowledging. Of course, writing about this might makes me ‘cheapskate’ to others but then, truth will have those it hurts trying to mock or curb it.

Edit 30/04/2010: As some commentators point out, same surcharge applies in case of alcohol consumption as well.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

A classic love story

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Like any love story, boy and girl are passionately in love with each other. Like any classic love story, their parents don’t approve of this.

I’ve seen it happen at least three times and I’ve heard about it about double the number of times and story is always the same. Parents do come around and accept the proposed nuptial after rounds of persuasion, cajoling and threatening — assuming that the couple didn’t choose to go ahead anyway, not at least right away. And Indian couple do attempt to bring families together for marriage because despite choosing to find their partner themselves, they still believe in marriage as relationship between two families. There is a catch, of course. One parent is the most difficult one to please: he is (almost) always father of the groom. Question is, why?

I don’t wonder why parents oppose love based or inter-caste unions. Answer is obvious, even if conservative and prejudiced. I do wonder, however, among four parents, why must it be father of the groom?

We can rule out two women quickly, because, as mothers they usually don't care for social rules over happiness of their wards. They might not like it — in fact, they might feel cheated of their right and dream to choose their daughter- or son-in-law — but they accept anyway. They might need to be persuaded but gentle stream of tears is enough to melt their hearts. They might be angry but that doesn’t stop them from blessing the couple.

Among the two gentlemen, though, debate becomes tougher. Girl’s father has many reasons to be angry. He is going to lose his reputation in the community if he gives away his daughter to another community. There is larger tag of shame on his name as his daughter rescinds his caste and joins another. There is a danger that his way of life may not prevail, that traditions will not be continued and that daughter might change her name and her habits to something despicable in his caste (viz. may cook, or worse, eat meat). Boy’s father, on the other hand, has less reasons to be antagonized. He is gaining a member to his community and symbolically winning over other caste by stealing its woman. His way of life and traditions are guaranteed to prevail. New member of the household may not be conversant with the traditions of his house but can be taught and moulded accordingly. So far, we’ve listed reasons to be affronted and found that girl’s father has more and hence must be more outraged. Why, then, the anomaly?

If we turn around and question who can afford to be angry we obtain different answer. This, clearly, must weigh more for we observe this. If couple elopes, then girl’s family suffers much more social dishonour than boy’s family. This risk defines who can afford to be offended and not who has reasons to be offended.

In all three cases, wedding was organized only by girl’s family and boy’s family boycotted it completely. Couple, after months and years of cajolery, had to give up trying to join two families. Some still hope: some day. Your take?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Books you should read

Categories:
Ideally, I’d like to review books I read, particularly those I loved. However, I almost always don’t go beyond short excerpt at my online catalogue and hence here I take this opportunity to list all English books I really really loved so far and count among my top recommendations. You may, of course, go through whole catalogue of 116 books to pick other favourites and read more detailed review at librarything.

  • Fiction
    • Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri is one of the excellent collections of short stories with vivid narrative and appropriate tug of heart.
    • To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee is a classic which needs no introduction. Read it for deep dive into difference between good and evil and high dose of cathartic emotion.
    • Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino binds science with imaginative fiction to come up with most strangest set of science fiction stories.
  • Non-fiction
    • The Code Book by Simon Singh is a fascinating tale of evolution of coding and decoding interspersed with stories of people involved, incidents that changed the world and mysteries that still remain unsolved.
    • The Story of My Experiments with Truth by Mahatma Gandhi is an autobiography everyone must read irrespective of whether you agree with him or not. Not because it tells you about one of the greatest man ever lived but because it tells you what makes greatness.
    • Logic of Life by Tim Harford is among my must read books for every person for it introduces one the most important subject of Economics which governs pretty much whole world and interactions within.
    • Surely, You are Joking Mr. Feynman! by Richard P. Feynman is book which completely changes the way you would want to live your life. Even though author is noble winning Physicist, book almost brushes past Physics to introduce a character you don’t want to forget.
    • Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps by Allan Pease is perhaps one book you may be surprised to find here among list of intellectual books. I, however, found this indispensible in understanding many things and living life a little less confused. Don’t take everything as gospel and you’d be fine.
    • A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson is one book you can give to a teenager and expect him want to become scientist. If all important scientific discoveries of the world since dawn of time are rolled into a paperback, you’d have this book.

Friday, April 2, 2010

60 hours without food

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More because I was bored and because I wanted to do something exciting with my body — I’d always imagined that I’d want to subject my body to limits such as starvation, thirst and exhaustion (not simultaneously) just to see what happens and whether I can do it, particularly after reading days long hunger strikes of popular leaders — than really intending to lose weight, I decided to go on crash diet for three days. I chose a simple one: only warm water with honey and lemon for three days and nothing more. I eventually didn’t continue third days but not because I was feeling hungry or weak. In fact, my experiment surprised myself so much that I didn’t feel any particularly different that I delayed writing about it so far, because, there wasn’t anything to write about.

After a moderate dinner night before, I went through first day on 4-5 helpings of water+honey combos without feeling much twist in my stomach. After momentary hunger pang at lunch time, which I would have felt any other day as well when I delayed my lunch, I was perfectly okay well up to the night. That night, I did feel little difficulty in falling asleep and my stomach kept me awake for one hour before letting me slip in to land of dreams. Next day, surprisingly, was better. I went through whole day without as much as pang of hunger and had a peaceful sleep the next night too. I could have easily continued for the third day, or even longer, before my body starts giving hints of starvation, but I didn’t. Particularly because I knew getting back to routine would take time and I didn’t want my first meal to be on work day (Monday) where my luncheon menu is less healthy and beyond my control. My break-fast was light, as required, and by the dinner time I was back to my original routine. My physical activities during past two days were normal and didn’t include huge acts of physical exertion.

Only thing this experiment has taught me is that I feel no difficulty in not eating for two days straight and that I should try even longer time frame next time if I really wanted to stretch limits of my body.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Calcutta and a car with no driver

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North Indians who had never been to Calcutta had surprisingly consistent reactions when I mentioned that I will going there for my next project. Calcutta is perceived as an unappealing city — city where there is nothing to look forward to, city which is old and dirty, city where no one in sane mind would want to go. There is not so much of disdain than surprise and disinterest. Fortunately, I didn’t have any such presumptions to begin with.

I knew Calcutta is left behind in march of ruthless progress which has painted facade of other metros and tier-I cities in India but I was also keen to visit part of country which I’d never been before. Calcutta didn’t disappoint me. As a tourist, at least, I walked into a city frozen into sixties but came out happier. Streets hustling with crowds and vendors, pavements lined with myriads of goods decorated in many ways, dilapidated trams crawling in middle of road and denizens relishing uniquely Bengali delicacies sent me back to memories of childhood fairs. That my most favourite snack gol-guppas were staple of city did help the matter. I didn’t see city much in two days but got glimpse of life in general. Victoria memorial at night was lined by couples in stages of embrace which could put Marine Drive in Mumbai to shame. Street side food is mouth watering. Even though I am no big fan of Bengali sweets, and sweets in general, I found Sandesh — which I tasted for first time — quite nice.

There is no better way to mention the ethos of Calcutta than to narrate little experience I had while being driven from airport to my destination.

At some point along two hour ride, our driver decided to switch to “shot-cut” to avoid potential congestion on the road ahead. To give Murphy a credit, our alternate route was no less congested. While being stuck in a traffic jam for few minutes, our driver had an epiphany: he could use time better. He excused himself almost in hurry before we could protest and said that he’ll back after ‘taking a leak’. To further credit Edward Murphy, jam was cleared within minutes of him departing. Naturally, cars behind us started honking after courtesy wait of one second. Our driver was spotted on far end of road smoking, oblivious of raucous that an unmanned territorial vehicle created in middle of heavy traffic.

I had heard Calcutta is laid back city. I think, those ten minutes in car were perhaps what Calcutta is all about.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Gazillion Pillows

Room I was staying in Holiday Inn in London had to undergo renovation. So I was upgraded — so I was told — to better room. This room was exactly same as the one before, except that now I had eight pillows on my double bed rather than two. When I went to sleep, I just threw down seven of them on the floor. Why would anyone need so many of them was perplexing. I was reminded of this the other day when reading this article:
One might think that beds are made for sleeping in, but they’d be wrong. Apparently, unbeknownst to men everywhere, beds are in fact made to hold as many pillows as possible. Only a fraction of the pillows present are actually functional at any given point in time, while the rest are there for some unstated purpose. Sleeping on the bed requires several minutes of relocating pillows to suitable locations, which of course will be designated by the woman who placed them to begin with.

I can imagine need for second pillow for those who like to cuddle with pillow when sleeping or need an extra prop support when sitting. My creativity runs out when envisaging need for third pillow or more.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

On airline safety

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Perhaps the most embarrassing part of the job of a flight attendant is safety announcements. If a well draped, polished executive who is about to deliver keynote speech at podium is asked to recite ‘twinkle-twinkle’ before he can begin, that is how he would feel. This awkwardness multiplies because, one, nobody in audience pays attention, and second, they have to do it twice in Hindi and English, both. Their lackadaisical gestures are far too easily noticeable when drained steward or stewardess mechanically goes through the motions. I often dream about final exam of flight attendant’s school necessarily having a question on steps of safety demonstration. From what I’ve observed, stewards are more uninterested than stewardesses in moving their hands more than a foot away from their bodies. So routine this routine has become that process has lost its very purpose — for I believe that first time flyer will find these instructions too fast and too limited. It’s another matter that even after numerous flying miles, I am still not sure if I can find my safety jacket beneath my seat.

This brings me to the second point. Why must these instructions be relayed live? Most airlines, even those who have personal entertainment screen for every seat, conduct these announcements live: narrated by an on-board attendant and demonstrated by other attendants. I would imagine that having a tape recorder with instructions to be played could be simplest thing to have. If inbuilt tape recorder is expensive proposition requiring rewiring of aircraft’s public announcement system, I can imagine a steward playing a pocket tape into the microphone. Of course, alternative thought suggests that once in-flight crew is on board, they might as well do something to keep themselves busy.

Third point on this topic is about requirement of doing so at all. Surely, Government of India guidelines specify wording of instructions and usage of two languages*, but must those be followed to the letter? Could their be an AAI or DGCA official sitting in plainclothes among traveller who’d report the violation? Or perhaps the penalty of violation is large enough to dissuade airlines from taking any chances at all. Then there is something-to-do reasoning, again.

*God bless them for continued Hindi usage, for if left to airline and airport staff only, Hindi would completely disappear as it did from shopping complexes — richness often being irrevocably associated with usage of English and abandonment of National language. Note that any announcement which is not part of required announcement is only relayed in English, chief among them being Captain’s mid-air flight summary.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Brain, Beauty, Availability, etc.

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A well know equation describes feminine disposition as:
Beauty X Brain = 0
A more generous version of the same propositions that:
Beauty X Brain X Availability = 0
where ‘beauty’, ‘brain’ and ‘availability’ are binary variables.

This equations implies that a girl cannot be beautiful, brainy and unattached at any point of time simultaneously. Among numerous corollaries of this equation, two complementary ones are common fodder of dismay among young men: all beautiful and intelligent girls are taken and those who are available are n/either beautiful n/or intelligent but not both. I take umbrage at such implication.

First, by definition, it is a fact that those who are unavailable now must be available prior some point in time, for one can make available unavailable and not unavailable unavailable1. It must, then, necessarily be true that among those who are beautiful and intelligent there must a time, if only a fraction of instant, where above equation fails to hold and when girl is simultaneously available, beautiful and intelligent. One could argue that such infinitesimal point is discontinuity in the function which is valid elsewhere.

If such anomaly is not acceptable, then for equation to be valid it must be true that girl becomes intelligent and/or beautiful as soon as she gets a boyfriend, which, while possibly being true in long term2, cannot possibly be true instantaneously. Thus, one must either accept frailty of this equation or believe that equation must hold only on long term average basis. Second of this appears more palatable. This, therefore, suggests that above equation is asymptotically true as population size and time horizon grow longer. Of course, this weakens the case for disappointed men who excuse their inability behind this universal law.

1. Assuming simple case of one boyfriend at a time.
2. Glow of love or diffusion of external wisdom from new person may be reason behind.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Riding on a moving platform

Sometimes I have to ride standing up. Short travel from airport departure gate to airplane and in local bus and train journey necessitates me to ride on a moving platform standing up. Such rides are not always smooth, even after ignoring the bumps on the road, force of acceleration, deceleration and curvature throws off the person with weak support. Hence, to stabilize myself, I need to hold on to handrails or handlebars. One point support at top end of my body frame doesn’t provide me full steadiness and unless I have something to hold on to at my waist level by other hand, my posture is not firm. Such horizontal support is not easy to come by, particularly if there is paucity of handrails compared to people, if I am holding some piece of luggage with my other hand, or if I am lodged in the middle of crowded vehicle away from walled boundaries of said platform.

At such moments, which are far too common, I must brace myself using my feet. Knowing that bending moment of a cross section is function of cube of the height and of only width, I position my both feet in L shape so as to provide me maximum moment of inertia on two perpendicular direction. Any force of jolt from any direction can be adequately born by two mutually perpendicular frames of my leg by splitting the component of force along two axis defined by L shape. At least, this is hoped. On many such occasions, I observe position of feet of co-passengers and find no apparent logic or system to buttress against the swing of turning or stopping.

Irony of the matter is that despite my posture based on solid grounds of physics and dynamics, I’ve found myself more vulnerable to jerks compared to other people who exhibit no visible support better than me.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Holding the door open

One thing that I imported from US stay was holding the door open for your following walker. This practice is so common in US that everyone will do it even for complete strangers when passing through a gated entrance in any public place. It obviates need for follower to pry open the door, specially if that warrants special effort or entry pass and saves few moments of his time. It encumbers leader to spend few moments waiting for follower to catch up to him and keep the door open lest it shuts on follower’s face. This is all part of acceptable social courtesy and admittedly a good one.

However, being a courtesy ritual, this also has danger of having more meaning in intention than in reality. In some cases, waiting for follower to catch up could be as long as 10 to 15 seconds (a not insignificant time standing holding the door) which could be inconvenient for the leader. Moreover, sometimes it is not required for leader to wait holding the door open for follower, even if leader has intention of eliminating efforts of opening on follower’s part. This is because of how some door works.

As you know very well, some doors have spring or damper in their hinges which makes them close very slowly even when not held open. As you also know that typical human frame can enter a door which is only half open because of difference in width of door opening and width of human body. Combining these two insights with the common sense estimate of follower’s speed can sometime make leader leave the door and walk away just at the moment so that door is still half open for follower to pass through without having to open again. This will not only serve the purpose of helping your follower but also reduce waiting time for the leader — a win-win situation which serves the courtesy as well as minimizes total inconvenience. But, of course. Follower’s potential inability to understand this dynamics and calculation in leader’s mind and read leader’s action in not keeping the door open as violation of social courtesy, thereby imparting more meaning to ritual rather than effect, and thereby casting doubt on intention of leader rather than evaluating impact of his action, forces leader to wait till follower catches up, thus achieving suboptimal solution for himself without improving convenience to other.

I've had this debate internally so many times whenever I was leader in this ritual.

Edit 14th July 2014.
I was much ahead of the times :) http://thedoghousediaries.com/5842

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

1411

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That’s the number you’ve been told about remaining number of tigers in India. Campaign is ubiquitous: on prime time TV, on print media, on bill boards. Cause is just: after all, conservation of any animal specie is worthy effort, let alone unique, majestic and royal creature as Royal Bengal Tiger of India. So, of course, you are supposed to join the roar.

I do wonder though if such expense of money on campaign is going to serve any useful purpose at all. Your writing blogs, SMSing friends and writing articles in media will help whom? Are poachers, illegal traders or users of goods made from tiger will suddenly change their heart because Mahender Singh Dhoni says so? Will politicians and forest officials will see light at the end of tunnel and gear their actions towards stricter punishment and speedy justice? Will China stop consuming soup of tiger’s private parts for increasing their fertility? If not, what is your roar going to do?

Even their website is not sure if you can help. It says 'you can help', so I went there looking how. It says “roar” and previous paragraphs tells me that impact of that is non-existence and unclear at best. It says “donate” which, naturally, will help promote this very campaign but which is not going to have any effect anyway since this is precisely what we are discussing now. It says “be informed” which is good but again a useless activity. I am well informed about severity of this issue and how is this going to help me or tigers? It says “speak up” which is another word for “roar” in ‘saveourtigers’ lingo. You see where am I going here? Website suggests us to “lead the change”. Now if you are kind of person who will kill tiger for money or wear that necklace of tiger bones, I am not sure if reading this website will change your mind. Supposing if it does, what fraction of market of tiger goods is from these kind of people? And, of course, if you are not this kind of person then you are already part of change, even if unconsciously. Having access to most strata of India society, I don’t see any of intended audience of this campaign consuming tiger anyway. Further advice given in the campaign is to “write, SMS, donate, spread the word” which we have seen is rehash of earlier.

What can be remotely considered useful is advice about being “responsible tourist” and example given is not to throw chips packet in national parks. How much impact will it have in improving 1411 number doesn’t require a genius. Hint: it won’t. It continues to say that we should “preserve natural resources”. Preaching to the choir?

What happened, if I can imagine, is this. World Wildlife Fund knows that this is worthy cause and Aircel joined with big sponsorship and now we have an organization which has lot of money but nothing to do with it. So they blow all in advertisement saying what they do (save the tigers) but that they don’t actually do (they just campaign). I am not good at these sort of things but I’d reckon that throwing all the money to bribe forest officials to catch poachers, lobbying politicians to change regulations, incentivizing local communities near forests to alternate livelihood and exposing China’s consumption to world at large will be better use of money than that expensive billboard shouting “1411”.

Related read: Only other blog raising this question, Humorous take on this (NSFW)

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Unimpressed by magic

I’ve seen magic shows (live, on TV, on web) and I’ve read about them. Because they are magic shows, they are, well, magical and unbelievable. Some stuff just seems impossible, but being magical, is shown to be possible. I’ve read about people being handcuffed and locked in multiple iron boxes and thrown in sea and come out free as a bird few hours later. This is quite unbelievable and more magical than tricks on stage because you don’t have access to equipment and stage itself. I’ve seen people in audience dropping their jaw and going ‘wow’ over magic. I’ve found myself interestingly amused but not blown over. Why?

For first, I am convinced that there is some trick to magic so it’s not real magic but merely an illusion. It’s not a momentous insight but this knowledge doesn’t let me really get into magic because part of being blown over is to believe it as real. Second, being aware that trickery is being performed, and being aware that I don’t know what is it, implies ignorance on my part which is not something I am impressed by. Magic, thus, is thrown in category of things-unexplained-yet-but-there-is-explanation-somewhere-that-i-don’t-know-yet along with God, black holes and what women want. These are the things I am fascinated by but not awestruck by.

What gets me going is though the explanation behind magical tricks. That, of course, is not easy to come by. I’ve read workings of trivial magical tricks in books and on web and seen some of those in movie The Prestige (which is a must watch movie, by the way). A double layered milk bottle which when turned upside down drains its little quantity of milk into oversized bottle stopper thus creating a illusion of whole bottle worth of milk disappearing is simple yet impressive trick for me.

Genius which creates illusion which blows over masses and confuses prowess of brain is worthy of my true admiration, and not it’s creation.

Edit 20/03/2010: Explanation of one of truely amazing tricks:

Friday, February 5, 2010

Anticipatory pleasures

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Among the things I like to eat, there are some things I start missing if I’ve not had them for many days. Rich chocolate cake, pizza, turai sabzi, daal-baati and Subway™ sandwich are some such examples. When faced with opportunity of consuming them, I develop irresistible urge to savour the object of desire. I often succumb to my urge. What is surprising to me is the fact that I end up enjoying them mere okay and not become as ecstatic as I thought I would be after eating them. Even more surprising fact that despite my less than extraordinary experience this time, I will once again start missing same things and cycle will continue.

Why does my mind plays such tricks on me? Do my expectations always overshadow my real experiences? If so, why don’t my expectations decrease next time? Am I tough nut to please? Am I subconsciously enjoying them? Is there such thing as subconscious enjoyment of eatables?

It seems that only way for me to enjoy what I enjoy is not to really enjoy it but only anticipate the enjoyment the enjoyable object will bring.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Lovers are, Love isn’t

Different, that is.

Each person is unique in the world. Each has a life story to tell which, in hands of good writer, has potential to engage other humans emotionally. It is too bad that world doesn’t have enough storytellers to tell about experiences, feelings, fears and ambitions of every person on earth*. My belief is that however intellectual we may be, we, as humans, love to read about personal lives of others. Personal life in sense of personal triumphs and misfortunes, escapades and coincidences, and not just dirty laundry of others.

Two individuals in love are, however compatible, very distinct entities. Each love affair in the world has a unique story, driven by uniqueness of both of their characters and circumstances. Starting from the “how did they meet” to “till death do them apart”, each couple has potential to tell a mesmerizing tale. Yet, love that binds them is not all that different. Feelings of love are uncannily similar across the world. Actions based on those feelings may differ based on individual persona and means but desires and wants are surprisingly universal. Why else would otherwise every romantic poem seems to appear to a forlorn lover written exclusive for him? Hindi music, with it predominantly romantic musicals, has ample melodies to suit every occasion of lovers’ relationship, and it appeals to them at very personal level. It would be natural to expect something unique between them but they will probably find that hormones which run (or ruin?) their lives aren’t all that much different from other people.

We all are puppets of our genetics.

*Though, one can question that who will read trillions of books?

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Of blogs and bloggers

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What more do I say? I’ve run out of things to say. So here is a nice dump!

070702_stop_blogging 070621_blogging_vows 070620_naming_her_skype 070504_jesus_affiliate 070312_widget_searching 070301_it_must_be_love 070213_if_a_tree_falls 070126_web_developer 070119_finish_your_RSS 070104_booger-blogger 061212_the_riaa_called 061122-no-more-trackbacks 061019_always_use_bcc 060926_google_search_guru 060922_blogging_material 060912_depressed_narcissist 060906_server_connection

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Accounting disposition

A set of roommates often find need for a system to keep accounts of their common expenses*. That much is no news. What, however, I’ve found interesting in my journey across different sets is that manners of doing that, and how much it relates to their mental disposition.

At MIT, a hard core technocrat institution, me and my roommates had developed a cross-platform programming language based tool residing on intranet which would read input from text files or command line and produce outputs on text file or screen. Any of us could use that independently.

At, Los Angeles, where my roommates were of eclectic background, a simple Excel based model would serve the purpose. On the other hand, my brother tells me that they — bunch of software and hardware engineers — use an web-based utility which supports multiple login to same account to collaborate their expenses online.

In my dormitory at IIM, partially because of recently undergone course of Excel and VBA, I introduced an Excel based binary matrix system, which would let one person collate and distribute expenses in transparent manner.

My current roommates, most from IIMs, most from engineering background, however, use a simple pen on paper system to keep account, largely driven by one economist’s resistance to move to more automated and transparent versions such as Google Docs.

It is surprising that, while in India student hardly ever choose their career because of real disposition to any particular field, their temperament is irreversibly altered after having gone through years of study in their field.

*For those unfamiliar with this: input of system is collection of expenses distributable across roommates and output is netted required transfer amount. For example, if A paid Rs.10 for supplies of common use between A and B but not C, then system should tell net transfer of Rs.5 from B to A.
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