Sunday, January 25, 2009

On 'schadenfreude' and other big words.

You know how it is. You have never heard the word before. But then you hear someone use it. After that, your brain spots the same word in a hundred blog posts or news paper articles. You begin to wonder how you managed to survive in this world, without knowing that such a word existed.

One such word is “schadenfreude”. I remember coming across the term in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book, “ Fooled by Randomness”, that I read just a year back. He explains that it is a German word that means “the joy that humans can experience upon their rivals’ misfortune”. Once that had been planted into my sub-conscious brain, it kept popping out of pages.

Wikipedia explains that the word entered popular culture in 1991, making an appearance in an episode of The Simpsons. Since then, it has been used in several other shows, usually with an explanation of what the word meant. A play called “Avenue Q” even had a song by that name.

Today I can’t seem to read a blogpost without tripping over the word. Hell, there’s even a blog site that is called . Google Blogs throws up no less than 89000 entries. One of the bloggers says “I love that word, schadenfreude. Sounds foreign enough to give it a false air of erudition while describing one of the most common of human emotions” and goes on to file the post with the tag “schadenfreude”, in anticipation that more such posts will fall in that category. The venerable Amit Verma, in a post in Aug 2008, noted that a study that mosquitoes preferred men would make feminists feel immense schadenfreude.

Hmmm. I must find a context to fit that word in. Casually. Into a conversation or a blogpost.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Conversation with daughter- 28

Daughter: Appa, how does one become a Prime Minister or a President?

Me: What do you mean?

Daughter: I mean, what does one have to study? Just as you have to study Medicine to become a doctor?

Me: Let me think. ….What you need to do is to complete a Bachelor’s course in Arts, followed by a Master’s.

Daughter: How does that help you become President?

Me: Well, that’s what this guy called Baracko did.

Daughter: Baracko?

Me: Yes, he did his B.A and then his M.A and called himself Barack Obama. That's how he became President .

Smoke, drink and be merry

The economy may be melting, automobile sales dropping, steel consumption declining, cement offtake dipping, share prices plummeting, retail sales dwindling, shipping rates crashing, airlines struggling and jobs vanishing, but there’s hope yet.

Cigarette sales have increased in the last quarter. ITC has reported an increase of 18% in revenues in the period from Oct 1st to Dec 31st, 2008. Incidentally, the ban on smoking in public places came into effect from Oct 2nd. The ban seems to have boosted the sales.

Another piece of cheerful news. Liquor sales posted a growth of 18-20% in 2008, bucking the general trend and proving that “Boom or gloom, anytime is a good time for the booze business”.

Doesn’t this lift your spirits?

Be Indian

“British passengers on the Titanic died in disproportionate numbers because they queued politely for lifeboats while Americans elbowed their way on, an Australian researcher believes.” Source ( via Tyler Cowen).

Do you still believe that Indians should emulate the British and form orderly queues, Ms. Taru Bahal?

Monday, January 05, 2009

Conversation with daughter- 27

Daughter: Appa, you have been biting my head off since yesterday.

Me: Not without reason, you will agree.

Daughter: You are over-reacting.

Me: Over-reacting?

Daughter: I admit that I have been overdoing things a bit, but you are over-reacting.

Me: Let us get this straight. If you agree you are overdoing, isn’t my increased reaction proportionate to your deed, and therefore not an over-reaction?

Daughter: No, even for the overdoing, yours is an over-reaction.

Me: Let’s use some simple mathematical terms to settle this argument. Suppose a wrong deed of magnitude X merits a reaction equal to Y, then a deed of X+x will elicit a proportionate response of Y+y. No?

Daughter: No. Your reaction has been Y+2y. Tone it down by a small y. That’s my point.

Tomato soup- 2 by 3

Security restrictions at airports don’t allow the entry of water bottles, a fact that many passengers discover to their considerable dismay when going past the Security gates

So, when the merciless guards ask them to leave the bottles behind, what do they do? Open the lid and gulp down as much water as their bladders can hold, before bidding a tearful goodbye to the bottle.

At any Indian airport, near the Security gate, you can see many such mostly-empty bottles piled up.

The Indian brand of frugality is well known. “Don’t waste food” we are told in our formative years. And most of us simply can’t, for the rest of our lives. A friend of mine is so obsessed with the idea of not wasting food that he will literally push unwanted food into his mouth and his overfilled stomach, if he had carelessly ordered more than what he ought to have. No amount of appeals not to punish himself would be heeded to.

But, in these difficult times, we may have something to teach the decadent Americans, says Anand Giridhardas in the International Herald Tribune.

As rich countries enter a new era of scarcity, the best practices of the “gurus of frugality” can serve as a textbook for frugality's new pupils.

The first tip of the Indian frugalist is to wear your money. One rarely misplaces funds when they are kept in gold and hooked through your nose or strung around your neck. Some Indian women wear saris woven with gold thread. The danger of nudity discourages whimsical spending.

The truly frugal segment friends and associates into two camps: those who merit their money and those who don't.

Cellphone calls may cost a cent a minute in India, but why call people who only rate a text? Why text when you can make a "missed call"? Millions of Indians dial and quickly hang up, hoping for the other person to call back and foot the bill.

Your upholstery is not for everyone. Sofas fray and stain; there is, in the final analysis, a cost per posterior. So cover your sofa with bed sheets and remove them for only the best behinds.

So, too, with crockery: Buy a set of expensive plates and keep it in a case where your friends can see them while they eat from the cheap plates you actually set before them.

When eating out, order soups fractionally: a certain number of soups split by a certain number of people. Start with "one into two," the realm of Indian beginners, then graduate in time to "three into five" and "six into seven."

For entrees, count the diners at the table, subtract one and order that many dishes - which, for a table of four, saves 25 percent over the one-person-one-dish norm.

So, the next time you order a “by two’ coffee or “ 2 by 3 soup”, or “2 extra spoons for the single dessert”, remember that you are promoting the Indian brand of frugality which will lead the world out of the financial mess it has gotten into.

Diversity is well and alive

An indicator of the damage caused by human action on the environment is the shrinking diversity of species in rainforests and other eco-systems. So I have been led or misled to believe.

Thankfully, I came across this graphic which dispels that myth completely. If you were to visit the Amazonian rainforest, you will see enough evidence of the growing diversity of species, as illustrated below

There is always hope. Don't believe the doomsayers.

GDP will grow by 7.23413% next year

In a panel discussion in which some usual suspects participated, I heard confident predictions on next year’s GDP growth, ranging from 6-9%. One of the panellists was quite specific. “I expect the GDP to grow in the range of 7 to 7.25%” he said.

Now, the total GDP is an aggregate of the individual GDP of the manufacturing, agricultural and service sectors, each of which in turn has several components. So, the statistics need to be compiled bottom-up and painstakingly to arrive at the aggregate. There are central agencies entrusted with this task. It is not a figure that can be arrived at by conjecture.

On the other hand, there is the Gestalt factor. This is the capacity of the brain to form a holistic picture at once, rather than going through the process of adding up lines and curves. This is often used in perception surveys. Airlines may ask you specific questions relating to check-ins, cabin temperature, food, service, etc and finally ask you a global question, “What was your total experience?” The answers to the individual questions may not necessarily add up to the answer you provide for the global question. Quite often, the top-of-the-head answer that you provide against the global question may reflect your honest views.

Sensex is another index that is calculated on the basis of aggregation. So, when someone – even if an acknowledged expert- says confidently that he expects Sensex to touch 15000 or 20000, it is possible that he could be right, but not probable.

When some corporate bigwig proclaims, with that air of supreme confidence, that the GDP growth next year will be 7.234%, he has absolutely no basis (except the Gestalt theory) for making that assertion. What he hopes for is that the air of confidence that he exudes will act as the perfect smoke screen for his ignorance.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Serious comedians

Two Tamil comedians that I enjoyed listening to were Cho Ramaswamy and S.V.Shekar. I use the past tense because I can’t stand them anymore. They have abandoned their traditional roles by dabbling in politics; Cho as a political commentator ( for many years now) and Shekar by throwing himself directly into the murky den of state politics.

Worse, from being satirists who used to delight with their wit and sarcasm, the two have turned into sanctimonious preachers. This, in my opinion, is gross misuse of the ‘humour’ platform that they built their early careers on.

The oxymoron, “wise fool” has always been used in Indian stories. Birbal and Tenali Raman come immediately to mind. Humour was seen as an important medium to impart sense into the minds of autocratic rulers who would not listen to conventional counsel. In the modern world, satirists, cartoonists and talk-show hosts perform that role admirably. But, when hubris seizes them and they take it upon themselves to expand their mandate to indulge in serious political discourse, they generally make asses of themselves. Bal Thackeray is an example that comes to mind of a cartoonist who took a turn for the bitter.

I faced the same accusation from a friend and loyal reader of this blog. He encouraged my attempts at humour, but when I tried every now and then to come up with a ‘serious’ post, he was extremely critical. I had to tag such posts as “boring stuff” so that he would be alerted and could stay off.

So, I guess, the need to be taken seriously and not just as a clown who provides a few laughs, is ticking in each aspiring humourist or comedian. Maybe I should be more charitable in my views on Cho and Shekar.

Nip this in the bud.

On the platform of Chennai Central Station, where I had gone today to receive someone, I witnessed a disturbing sight.

The same train was scheduled to return to Bangalore. Some passengers who were planning to board the unreserved compartment actually formed an orderly queue prior to the arrival of the train.

This queue in the middle of the platform and with seemingly nothing in front to queue up for aroused a lot of curiosity. Passers-by started asking what the queue was meant for. “To board the unreserved compartment as soon as the train arrives” was the stock reply. Reluctantly, a few others joined the queue. While, others like me who were mere observers couldn’t believe what was happening and kept watching the queue in silent amazement.

What kind of madness is gripping this country? Do we want to lose our core competences? When it comes to rushing into railway compartments, 100 people at a time, 100 metres before the engine finally comes to rest, few people in the world can match our speed, nimble-footedness and our elbow movement. Why abandon these unique skills that we have painstakingly developed and finely honed over generations and decades? Do we have to give up values that are quintessentially Indian and stoop to the level of standing in queues to get into a railway compartment?

I am disappointed, even dismayed. Bad enough that terrorists are trying to tear the fabric of this country, but must we inflict damage on ourselves?

One reason for this virus of orderliness to creep in is that some of our writers go abroad and get brain-washed. For example, in this post, Taru Bahl laments:

While (in London), I had the good fortune of boarding the tube at about the same time (6.30 pm). I was quite surprised to see that the swarming crowds getting off the many elevators at most stations was far more than what we would have BUT there was a difference. They wait for people to get off the tube before letting those who are waiting on the platform to board. There is no chaos, no anxiety and absolutely no question of toenails ripping off. They wait to install older people or those on crutches and wheel chairs first. It is an unspoken thing. The crowds part. Someone helps them on and the rest climb in without making a song and dance about anything. And no one misses the train.

I asked Mark, my Indian friend's English husband and quite an Indophile, as to why we could not do such a simple thing back home in India. Was it a question of just being indisciplined, callous or unmindful of rules? He said, "Taru if you can stomach the truth, fact is it is not in your DNA. It is a cultural thing and will perhaps take a century or so to change!"

That’s the point. Queuelessness is in our DNA and is our birthright. Why tinker with it and try some funny mutations? We may be creating a Frankenstein or a Jurassic Park.

I hope that this Taru Bahl has been quarantined and de-doctrinated