Sunday, June 29, 2008

Weather forecast by drinking wine.

In his book, “Super Crunchers”, the author Ian Ayres refers to the work done by Princeton economist, Orley Ashtenfelter, on the parameters that affect quality of wine. Ashtenfelter went on to develop a quantitative analysis to predict the price of wine, from the weather data in the year in which the grapes were grown. He had the temerity, says Ayers, to reduce his theory to a formula:

Wine quality= 12.145+0.00117 winter rainfall+0.0614 average growing season temperature- 0.00386 harvest rainfall.

Though this might prove useful to connoisseurs of wine and those who need to invest in the vineyards, I don’t see much practical use, outside this narrow domain.

If we can use Ashtenfelter’s formula in reverse, and predict the next year’s average temperature and harvest rainfall, based on the quality of wine sold this year, there might be some interesting applications.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Catch the phrase?

An article in The Slate, ‘hunts for clues on what makes a catchphrase catch on and which ones deserve to be cast aside. And to make distinctions among the welter of catchphrases in use today, to identify variations and to distinguish the ones that still have some life in them’ and explains the different phases :

It is possible to think of catchphrase use in stages. There's Stage 1, when you first hear a phrase and take pleasure in its imaginative use of language on the literal and metaphorical level.

Then there's Stage 2, when you use it to establish "street cred” or convey a sense of being au courant.

Then there's Stage 3, when the user acknowledges a phrase's over-ness and tries to extract some final mileage out of it by gently mocking it, usually by using ironic quotes, or adding "as they say" to the end.

Finally, there's Stage 4: terminal obsolence, dead phrase walking.

As an example of Stage 4, the author mentions the phrase, “at the end of the day”. (In a post, I had also wondered why this particular phrase was so popular with cricket commentators and players.).

Being part of the corporate world, and as a regular in the seminar circuit, I hear and help spread quite a few catchphrases myself. At a recent meeting, I heard the phrase, “in terms of” used more than a hundred times (starting with “What I want to present in terms of setting the agenda for the meeting” and ending with, “ what I want to summarise here in terms of concluding this meeting….”).

Lights on, ready, double action...

Why do Indian movies where actors play double or multiple roles continue to enthrall audiences? Why are stories where the same actor plays the parts of son, father and grandfather, or quadruplets separated at birth so common here?

What is it about Kamal Haasan’s ten-role film that has people queuing up to watch it on the day of release? And, why is this type of multi-roling rare in Hollywood fims? A character going out in disguise, yes, but donning roles of different characters, quite rare.

Some decades back, when stage play was the norm, double roles would have been a novelty and also a necessity due to shortage of actors. It was an interesting stage-craft and watching the actors live and switching roles with rapidity would have drawn gasps of admiration from the viewers. This fascination would have been carried over when movies came on to the scene, thanks to the tricks that the camera could be made to play.

But, in these days of graphics and sophisticated animation, when voices can be dubbed and sound-engineered, where make-up techniques have evolved to make the ugliest of males look like the prettiest of females (and vice versa, to keep the post gender neutral), where cinematographic methods can easily enable Kamal Haasan to act out all the characters of Mahabharatha (including the 100 sons of Dhritarashtra), why should we be surprised or awed by the performance at all? Any two-bit artist who has a sufficient reserve of narcissism, who has the patience to let his/her face be painted, glued and otherwise brutalized can show off his/her histrionic/hertrionic talents without much difficulty. So, why the fuss? What purpose do these ‘double roles’ serve?

The best example of someone donning a double role in real life for a very noble cause was revealed to me a few years back. In one of the minor cricket matches (Chennai, fifth division league), a star opening batsman of the team batting first, got out cheaply. He was immediately whisked away to the nearest barber shop, his head tonsured and sent in again at No.5 or 6 as a different batsman. He managed to score an impressive 64 runs. Of course, the opening batsman didn’t come out to field, due to ‘injury’.

Learning from this excellent story, we should make better use of Tendulkar. Due to practical limitations, we can’t let him bat eleven times, but let’s say he is sent in to bat at No 2, 6, and 10 positions, named respectively Twodulkar, Sixdulkar and Tendulkar. He goes in at No 2, whacks a century, comes back to the pavilion, colours his hair, goes back at No 6, scores another century, runs back to the pavilion, puts on a fake moustache, goes in at No 10, scores another half century… Of course, batsmen at No 3,5,7,8,9 have to play out their parts well, and make sure that they don’t create a situation where Tendulkar has to play out a double role in real time. And, when India is fielding, the look-alikes of Two-dulkar and Sixdulkar, created by the make-up crew of Shahrukh Khan, will have to stand at third man and long on, with caps and goggles. No one will notice the difference, especially since the real Tendulkar’s fielding is nothing much to write about, these days.

This would be a far better application of multi-roling, don't you think?

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Traffic discipline

A typical morning at the railway level crossing near Bangalore and a typical evening at the road junction at Hanoi. (both videos via BoingBoing.)

Nothing warms the heart more than viewing such scenes where complete orderliness prevails and life goes on peacefully.

Diamonds may not be forever.

In a post, two years back, I had linked to the e-book titled Diamond Invention that reported on the illusion created about the scarcity of diamond, to prop up the prices artificially.

A recent article in The Smithsonian says:

Natural diamonds aren't particularly rare. In 2006, more than 75,000 pounds were produced worldwide. A diamond is a precious commodity because everyone thinks it's a precious commodity, the geological equivalent of a bouquet of red roses, elegant and alluring, a symbol of romance, but ultimately pretty ordinary……diamonds are simply crystallized pure carbon, just as rock candy is crystallized sugar—an ordered array of atoms or molecules.

Credit for the modern cult of the diamond goes primarily to South Africa-based De Beers, the world's largest diamond producer. Before the 1940s, diamond rings were rarely given as engagement gifts. But De Beers' marketing campaigns established the idea that the gems are the supreme token of love and affection. Their "A Diamond Is Forever" slogan, first deployed in 1948, is considered one of the most successful advertising campaigns of all time. Through a near total control of supply, De Beers held almost complete power over the diamond market for decades, carefully hoarding the gemstones to keep prices—and profits—high

The article reports that lab-grown gemstones are now available, that are indistinguishable from natural diamonds and this could trigger the beginning of the end of the high-price era. True, artificially diamonds are not exactly cheap today, but once the development costs are amortised, the price is bound to come down.

“A diamond for everyone” could be the new marketing slogan.

There's hope for this planet.....

In a lovely post, Sunil Laxman makes an ‘astute observation’ on the ‘land of liberty’.

“I learnt one of the first rules of living in a consumer paradise. In order to live the American life, one had to buy lots of stuff continuously, but remember to upgrade constantly, and get rid of the old stuff. .. There is a ton of “junk” here in this country that is perfectly good and useable, and which would be very valuable to lots of people around the world.”

He goes on to discuss a corollary to this observation – that, if you happened by chance to retain the stuff long enough, they would acquire antique value, and you could end up making a fortune.

Leaving aside the corollary for the moment, consumerism of the American variety has been discussed much in recent years, with a self-evident fact being reinforced that a linear process of production, distribution, consumption and disposal cannot last long in a planet with finite resources.

One solution is proposed in this article in WorldChanging, which I heartily endorse. What we need to do to save the planet, says the author, is to work less.

..our long work hours allow us to produce and buy more and more “stuff,” resulting in a greater pressure on resources and an inevitably stream of more waste… reducing work hours, Americans would reduce the energy used for transportation, and even more importantly, that they would reduce the energy necessary for the production of goods – as Americans trade time for money, they would consume and produce less.

The good news is that some American companies are beginning to think that a 4-day week is a good idea. Unfortunately, they want to make it a 10-hour day. This is completely wrong, argues the author. This will only increase stress levels. ‘The real solution to this problem is to go to a four-day workweek of eight-hour days. Total production would be reduced slightly, but this will make us more sustainable”, he recommends.

I support this idea. Not just for America, but India too. Not because I will need to work less, believe me. Because I want to make a supreme sacrifice of my working hours to save this planet.

May I use this opportunity to reiterate my humble suggestion of redesigning the calendar and banning Mondays forever?

Thursday, June 19, 2008

To see or smell?

While reflecting here on the challenges posed by dysfunctional sense organs, I had quoted Oliver Sacks to the effect that a person born deaf was likely to be more handicapped than a person born blind.

What about ‘becoming blind” and ‘becoming anosmic ( losing the ability to smell)? Jonah Lehrer quotes from a book called “Scent of desire” by Rachel Herz:

In one study that contrasted the trauma of being blinded or becoming anosmic [losing you sense of smell] after an accident, it was found that those who were blinded initially felt much more traumatized by their loss than those who had lost their sense of smell. But follow-up analyses on the emotional health of these patients one year later showed that the anosmics were faring much more poorly than the blind. The emotional health of anosmic patients typically continues to deteriorate with passing time, in some cases requiring hospitalization

Jonah adds:

As you can probably guess, the French novelist was right: there is something uniquely sentimental about the buttery whiff of a seashell-shaped cookie (or any other odor). This is because smell and taste are the only senses that connect directly to the hippocampus, the center of the brain's long-term memory. Their mark is primal and indelible. All our other senses (sight, touch and hearing) are first processed by the thalamus and only then sent along to the hippocampus. As a result, these senses are much less efficient at summoning up our past

What a finely tuned and optimized system the human body is!

Update 09/07/08; An article in Slate, written by a person suffering from anosmia, talks about the miseries of losing one’s smell. The author, Elizabeth Zierah, partially disabled by a stroke at an early age, writes that she found the experience of losing her smelling ability later on, far more traumatic. “As the scentless and flavorless days passed” she writes, I felt trapped inside my own head, a kind of bodily claustrophobia, disassociated. It was as though I were watching a movie of my own life. When we see actors in a love scene, we accept that we can't smell the sweat; when they take a sip of wine, we don't expect to taste the grapes. That's how I felt, like an observer watching the character of me”


In this post written soon after his mother’s death, Amit Varma narrates how he, as a non-believer in God or souls, and without the attendant comforting philosophies of the afterlife, had to deal with death as simply death. He defends his atheism thus:

The conviction that there is no God is irrational because one cannot prove a negative. (How do you prove that something does not exist?) However, it is entirely rational to not believe in something whose existence has not been demonstrated. I don’t believe in dragons or fairies because no one has yet proved to me that they exist. Ditto God. I am not asserting that God does not exist, but simply saying that I don’t believe in the existence of God because I see no evidence of Him (or Her, or It). This is not a dogmatic position: if you can prove to me tomorrow that God or dragons exist, I will start to believe in them. Until then, I remain in disbelief. That’s atheism.

But his is not a militant brand of atheism, adds Amit:

What other people choose to believe in is none of my business, and I respect their right to their beliefs. But the right to religion does not imply the right to force it on others. I object when people try to coerce others into conforming with their beliefs, believing that their religion gives them the license to infringe on the rights of others. Religion in the private domain and in community settings can be useful, and a force for good, but too often in recent times, it has been used to justify the worst excesses: genocides, riots, terrorism, and all kinds of coercion.

Christopher Hitchkens, author of the book,” God is not great” is far more critical of religion, the medium through which the illusion of God is constantly propagated. Religion, he argues, poisons everything and will be responsible for the destruction of all the hard won human attainments. In the concluding chapter, he writes:

Religion has run out of justifications. Thanks to the telescope and the microscope, it no longer offers an explanation of anything impossible. Where once it used to be able, by its total command of a world-view, to prevent the emergence of rituals, it can now only impede and retard- or try to turn back- the measurable advances that we have made

Christopher furnishes exhaustive data on the destruction caused in the name of God and argues that religion must be stamped out ruthlessly.

While agreeing with Christopher’s conclusions, I still think that his reasoning and logic could have been better. He fails to establish clearly that religion does more harm than good. Citing incidents that reveal the destructive capabilities of religion or arguing that it has caused “harm” or has the potential to cause harm are not enough. Because a corresponding argument can be put forth, with examples, that religion has also done some good, binding people together, providing a framework for moral values, etc.

For instance, I can, with equal ease, put together a fat book called “Sports must be banned”, completely ignoring the plus points of brotherhood and harmony that sports have promoted, and instead packing it with stories of how fans have gone on murder sprees after football games, or talk about the killing during the Munich Olympics, or about the scandals involving drugs and betting to rest my case.

Unlike Christopher, Amit has made his point in a moderate and balanced manner and, further, is open to changing his views if evidence presents itself at a later date. Which is what ‘scientific temper’ is all about.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Which of the senses would you give up?

In an outbound team-building exercise that I took part, we were split into three groups of five members each and marooned on three different “islands”. Members of Group A (of which I was a part) had their feet tied together and were ‘immobile’. Members of Group B were deaf and dumb and gagged and fitted with ear-plugs. While those from Group C were blind-folded. The objective was to get the members of Groups B and C from their islands that were about to be deluged, over to Island A, in about 45 minutes. Vital information on survival tools was available only with the deaf and dumb, and needed to be communicated to others through sign language..

The pressure and the intensity could be experienced, thanks to the build-up provided by the coordinator. And, finally, of course, we could empathise profoundly with the challenges of being disabled in any manner.

Later, we were discussing which of the disabilities was more “preferable”, under the circumstances, if we had been given the Hobson’s choice. Obviously, we could not come to a consensus. Each had its own drawbacks and a silver lining. And, for us, it was only a temporary disability. Those of us who were blindfolded could still be made to visualize, by providing graphic description. The deaf could lip-read as they had the language skills.

What about those unfortunate ones who are born with such infirmity, in the real world? Does being born blind pose more challenges than being born deaf? Or, is it the other way?

In an absorbing article called “A deaf world”, Oliver Sacks says:

“Whether deafness is ‘preferable’ to blindness, if happens in later life, is arguable; but to be born deaf is infinitely more serious than to be born blind- at least potentially so. For the prelingually deaf, unable to hear their parents, risk being severely retarded, if not permanently defective, in their grasp of language, unless early and effective measures are taken. And to be defective in language, for a human being, is one of the most desperate of calamities, for it is only through language that we enter fully into our human estate and culture, communicate freely with our fellows, acquire and share information. If we cannot do this, we will be bizarrely disabled and cut off- whatever our desires, or endeavours, or native capabilities. And indeed we may be so little able to realize our intellectual capacities as to appear mentally defective.”

Beethoven would never have managed his musical feats, had he been pre-lingually deaf. He was ‘lucky’ to have developed deafness, only after he was 26 years old, and had developed the ‘ear’ for music.

The manholes of Mumbai

In Mumbai, city officials are upset by an American warning about the risks of falling into manholes in India's commercial capital during the monsoon season. Jairaj Phatak, the municipal commissioner, estimates that 10 people or fewer have died in such a manner in recent years. (via).

A post in the Mumbai Metblogs links to the news item on the travel advisory and comments angrily:“Maybe they should deploy more staff to sort out visa backlogs instead of such studies”

Here is an old post, I came across via the same Mumbai Metblogs, where the blogger narrates his nightmarish encounter with the Mumbai sewage system, thanks to an open manhole.

Maybe the bloggers at Mumbai Metblogs ought to dip into their archives, once in a while.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Use cash, spend less

That we tend to spend more when we use a credit card than when we use physical cash, is stating the obvious. When we use cash, the ‘pleasure of buying’ is instantly weighed against the ‘pain of making the payment” and this forces us to pause a bit. With credit cards, the pain of payment comes much later, and the temptation of buying meets with reduced resistance.

Jonah Lehrer explains the physiological activity in the brain:

“What's interesting to me is the way credit cards take advantage of some innate flaws in the brain. When we buy something with cash, the purchase involves an actual loss - our wallet is literally lighter. Credit cards, however, make the transaction abstract, so that we don't really feel the downside of spending money. Brain imaging experiments suggest that paying with credit cards actually reduces activity in the insula, a brain region associated with negative feelings. As George Loewenstein, a neuroeconomist at Carnegie-Mellon says, "The nature of credit cards ensures that your brain is anaesthetized against the pain of payment." Spending money doesn't feel bad, so you spend more money.”

That’s why you should, right now, cut your credit cards (all eight of them) into small pieces and flush them down your toilet. Carry cash wherever you go.

A thing about cash. For some reason, I am more reluctant to part with a five-rupee note than with a five-rupee coin, although the metallic coin should, logically, give the impression of higher value than the paper note. I have this careless habit of leaving loose change on a table or desk, as the coins make the wallet a lot heavier. This is ok with Indian currency, but once when I was travelling in Europe, I counted the Euro coins that I had left behind in the hotel room. It added up to more than Rs 1000/- , a sum if available in the form of notes, I would safely deposit in a locker. I wonder if the note and the coin tickle different parts of the brain

I also wonder if I can sponsor a research on how to manipulate the insula region of the brains of my daughters, to trigger sharp negative feelings whenever they force me to take out my credit card...or cash.

Monday, June 09, 2008

The reaction to 'the elements'.

In a post, a few weeks back, I had referred to Shashi Tharoor’s criticism of R.K.Narayan- that the latter was one-dimensional and his repertoire extremely narrow. My point was that if that was how RKN chose to be, and if that fetched him loyal readership, there was no need for him to strive to be multi-dimensional or to make effort to widen his range.

Actually, I wrote that post after reading something about the ‘elements’ that a writer needs to master while narrating a story. So, RKN was free to choose his mix of elements, I had argued.

The post elicited this comment from Manasi:

“I don't know who you folks are, but from the brief introduction it appears that most of you are engineering/technocrat/cyber-coolie types, which makes this rant not so surprising. Really, calling RKN's prose pedestrian is generous at best. Surely, no one takes him very seriously except for folks that speak English as a second language. It is with good reason that RKN is not seriously in India or abroad, his prose is "Wren and Martin" meets "Illustrated Weekly" lacking any aesthetic beauty whatsoever, his analysis is banal and mindless, though I understand that may be difficult for engineering types to appreciate. Perhaps the one use RKN may be good for is to train the legions of call center workers and cyber coolies to somewhat gramatically correct English (which would be an improvement), while also providing them a reaffirmation of their simple minded view of life.”

Reading between the lines and delving into the sub-text of Manasi’s subtle comment, what I discern is that the engineering/technocrat/cyber-coolie types must stick to their narrow domain and not pretend to be literary/author/ types. Other e/t/c-c types in the blogosphere- please note.

Sunday, June 08, 2008


One of the most famous palindromes is “ A man, a plan, a canal: Panama”, said to have been coined by one Leigh Mercer in the November 13 1948 issue of Notes & Queries, to capture in one line the story behind the construction of the Panama Canal. I could appreciate this palindrome a lot better after reading the absorbing story of the Panama Canal told by Henry Petroski in one of his books.

This was a rare instance of a palindrome fitting into a context and making sense. The other one was “Able was I ere I saw Elba”, to describe Napolean’s final days.

The Panama palindrome has been gradually expanded further into meaningless sentences.

“A man, a plan, a cat, a canal – Panama!”

“A man, a plan, a cam, a yak, a yam, a canal – Panama!”

“A man, a plan, a cat, a ham, a yak, a yam, a hat, a canal – Panama!”

“A man, a plan, a canoe, pasta, heros, rajahs, a coloratura, maps, snipe, percale, macaroni, a gag, a banana bag, a tan, a tag, a banana bag again (or a camel), a crepe, pins, Spam, a rut, a Rolo, cash, a jar, sore hats, a peon, a canal – Panama!”

As the linked article says, in 1984 , someone used a computer program and the Unix spelling dictionary to generate a 540-word Panama palindrome. It doesn't read so well as the others because the simple program allowed abstract nouns and mass nouns like a ten, a salt and a wax.

This record has been beaten hollow by this 17259-word effort , referred by Tyler Cowen here. It took me a few minutes to even scroll down to get to the bottom of the palindrome.

Enough to give one an acute attack of aibohphobia. the fear of palindromes or words that spell the same backwards- such as aibohphobia.

Sale! Sale!

I remember a scene in a Tamil play where one of the characters would manage to sell the Chennai Central Station to a gullible villager visiting the city. When the buyer showed signs of hesitation, he would sweeten the deal further by offering the adjoining Moore Market at no extra charge.

This is not such a novel idea, as there are reports of enterprising salesmen in New York who perfected the art of selling public property, as early as 1900. According to Carl Sifakis, who tells his story in "Hoaxes and Scams: A Compendium of Deceptions, Ruses and Swindles," George C Parker produced impressive forged documents to prove that he was the owner of Brooklyn Bridge, then convinced his buyers that they could make a fortune by controlling access to the roadway. "Several times," Mr. Sifakis wrote, "Parker's victims had to be rousted from the bridge by police when they tried to erect toll barriers." (source).

Not that Parker was a one-trick pony. He was also adept at selling the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Statue of Liberty and Grant's Tomb.

Maybe this Parker was the one who sold the lighthouse at Massachusetts to some sucker. And, for good measure, also threw in a 4000-year old Egyptian pyramid for free. Both these monuments that were presumed lost have been found recently. (via)

Anybody interested in buying the Taj Mahal? I can give it to you at a good price. And add some freebie too, the Agra Fort.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Conversation with daughter-23

Me: Getting admission into an Engineering College is too much trouble. I don’t think you should get into the Science group when you come into your 11th standard.

Daughter: Appa, you can’t decide that. It’s my choice.

Me: Hey, my parents decided for me, ok? So, I will decide for you. You, in turn, can decide for your child. That’s how life works.

Daughter: It may have worked that way for you. But, I will decide what I want to do.

Me: Look, my parents wouldn’t let me choose what I wanted to study, and if you don’t let me choose what you have to study, I would be sandwiched between an autocratic ancestor and a defiant descendant. I would end up not making the decision for anyone. That wouldn’t’ be fair to me, would it?

Daughter: Too bad. But, if I let you decide on my course, and years later, my daughter refuses to let me choose hers, then I would have lost out. So, rather you than me.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Have money? Want to be happy?

Can money buy you happiness?

No, not if you earn it and greedily spend it on yourself.

But, there’s a way you can buy happiness with money. Just, give it all to me.

That's the insight into the secret of happiness by HBS professor Michael Norton and two colleagues from the University of British Columbia, Elizabeth Dunn and Lara Aknin. Their article, "Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness," appeared in the March 21, 2008 issue of Science.

And, it’s not the absolute amount that matters, but the percentage of what you have. So, don’t worry about the actual figure. Just send me 50% of whatever you have in your bank. There will be a demonstrable increase in your level of happiness, trust me.

You have lived all your life struggling with the paradox that having more money did not necessarily make you happier. I am glad that I would be putting an end to your misery, through this insight. Subject to receipt of your money, of course.

I can hear some of you state cynically that, if I then kept all your money with me, I won’t be happy and I ought to spend it on others, going by the same logic.

Luckily, I have no less an authority than Professor Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick to fall back on. He says that there is a direct correlation between financial windfalls and happiness and that the more you get.. the cheerier you’ll become. Large sums are better than small sums.

So, by allowing you to give me all your money and then not sharing the windfall with anybody else, I will ensure that both of us are happy.