Sunday, April 18, 2010

Vacuous and Verbose-17

"The Defence Minister Shri AK Antony has called upon the top brass of the Armed Forces to coordinate closely with various national cyber agencies and prepare crisis management action plan to counter cyber attacks and cyber terrorism….( source).

Referring to the use of large-scale energy resources in the Armed Forces, Shri Antony called upon the top brass to bring about strict energy conservation discipline. He also asked them to look for alternative sources of energy…

….he asked them to control the Revenue Expenditure in the Armed Forces by adopting various mechanisms such as increased use of technology, integration of the three Services, adopting joint training / procedures and uniform inventories. Shri Antony said there also exists considerable scope to improve the quality and efficacy of Defence Expenditure through increased Private Sector engagement, import substitution and indigenisation, improvement in procedures and practices and better project management within the parameters of the Government’s Policies."

I can imagine the scene. The Defence Minister making this long and completely vacuous speech, packed with motherhood statements,  and the ‘top brass of the Armed Forces” looking in his direction ( not the same as listening) with as much solemnity that they can pack into their facial expressions and nodding their heads in agreement, but praying that the damn ordeal would get over soon.

Heads of Army, Navy and Air Force are equipped to handle nuclear wars, infiltration, mutinies, terrorist attack, guerilla ambush, threat from inter-continental ballistic missiles and enemy aircraft carriers that have entered Indian waters, but I doubt if their training manuals provide them any tactics or weapons to counter such verbal volleys from Ministers. Just for their endurance of this torture, they deserve all the medals that they wear on their uniforms. I look at them with new admiration.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

High-Fives and Ass-Pats.

A forthcoming paper by Michael Kraus and Dacher Keltner at UC-Berkeley investigates the correlation between "tactile communication" and success in the NBA. In essence, the paper demonstrates that "touchier" teams - and this includes everything from pats on the ass to high-fives - are also more likely to win. “Tactile communication, or physical touch, promotes cooperation between people, communicates distinct emotions, soothes in times of stress, and is used to make inferences of warmth and trust. Based on this conceptual analysis, we predicted that in group competition, physical touch would predict increases in both individual and group performance “say the authors ( via Frontal Cortex).

What I find incredible about this paper is that the researchers have sat through so many of the NBA games, observing if players are touching each other’s ass and if so, how many times, and concluding that the team that recorded the most number of ass-touching was more likely to win.

I wish I had read about this correlation, before IPL3 started. I would have spent my time more productively, keeping count of the tactile touches rather than the runs scored.

I could have used the sensitive information to make a killing off the bookies this season.

By the next season, I will come up with a counter that would record the number of ass-pats among the team members based on feedback from electronic sensors/transmitters secretly fitted on the backside of all players. As I mentioned in my previous post, this is an age of hi-tech data mining. Human observation alone will not do.

Friday, April 16, 2010


The book “ Super Crunchers” by Ian Ayers explained how statistical evidence obtained through data mining is fast replacing human intuition in decision-making. “ Cutting-edge organizations are already crunching increasingly larger databases to find the unseen connections among seemingly unconnected things to predict human behavior with staggeringly accurate results. From Internet sites like Google and Amazon that use filters to keep track of your tastes and your purchasing history, to insurance companies and government agencies that every day make decisions affecting your life, the brave new world of the super crunchers is happening right now”.

Credit card companies use data mining extensively to send out the right mailer to the right group. If your spending pattern shows that you like Chinese food, they can send you a mailer when a new Chinese restaurant opens in the city. The connection will not even register in your mind, but you will be led subliminally to the ‘Wong Fu” or the “ Fong Chu” or whatever the new restaurant is called.

Now, the field of  data mining is getting far more advanced and nuanced. This article that I read (via) says that Visa Card can actually predict when someone is going in for a divorce. Other seemingly strange correlations have been unearthed from the data. Passengers who prefer aisle seats on planes spend more money on others than on themselves and so, I guess, will be the prime targets for ‘gift’ shop brochures.

Below the article, a commenter adds, “British airways are understanding consumer behaviour in a different light. Passengers now look to the airlines not simply as a mode of transport, but to catch on movies they've missed. That seriously resonated with me, am often guilty of that. With the average traveler facing a lack of time, behaviours shift with the passage of time and the way entertainment is presented will start to shift radically.”

Flights not as mode of transport, but as movie theatres! Where are we heading?

Is it all about computers/data/numbers/super-crunching? Is there no value to human intuition? A Little Birdy has commented on the article :

"After working for 10 years as a bartender and 20 years in the legal field, I can tell you that it's amazing the things that all people do and share no matter what their race, religion, gender or socio-economics. It's very easy to predict behavior. I used to be able to take one look at a couple who came in to the bar where I worked and tell if they were married, if so how long, if the were on their first date or if they were cheating lover and I could do it in about 60 seconds. We used to bet on how long it took for certain behaviors to occur.”

Thank you, Little Birdy. There’s hope for the human race.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Killer BMWs

“A speeding BMW driver ran over a 62-year-old morning walker near the Akshardham temple in East Delhi on Thursday morning”, reports the Times of India. The title of the story is " Speeding BMW kills elderly man".

As I wondered in a post earlier ( be warned that I have more than 650 posts up my belt and can link back to a post on any subject), why is BMW singled out for special attention? Was BMW responsible for the accident? Hell, there have been many accidents involving Mercedez Benz, Toyota Corolla, driven by rich kids, but these cases have not been referred to as the Toyota case or the Benz case.

An incident in Feb this year, in which a rich woman rammed her Honda CRV into a police jeep and killed two persons, has been reported by TOI thus:

A woman driving allegedly under the influence of alcohol rammed her car into a police jeep and a bike, leaving an assistant sub-inspector and the biker dead and four constables seriously injured early Saturday morning. A local court remanded Nooria Haveliwala (27), arrested for drunk driving, to police custody till February 5.

This is now being tagged by the media as the Mumbai drunken driving case, not as the Honda CRV case.


Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Coward! Stop fighting elections, come fight us in the forests.

Calling the Maoists “cowards, Union home minister P. Chidambaram launched a direct attack on the ultra-left rebels and their front organisations during his first visit to their bastion at Lalgarh, in West Bengal’s West Midnapore district, on Sunday. “Why do they live in the forests? If they have courage, they should take part in democratic processes and face elections. Who is stopping them from winning elections?” ( source)

Of course, as Arundhati Roy would love to point out (and she has in a recent 32-page essay in Outlook, after spending some time in the forests, walking with the comrades), perspectives can vary. For the Maoists, living inside their forest may be a way of life. Why should they accept the Home Minister’s notion of courage – that of taking part in democratic processes and elections?

The Maoists can ask the question: “ Why is P.Chidambaram such a coward? Why can’t he step into the forests here, without his sten-gun toting Black-cats and settle things with a man-to-man fight?

In any case, why describe the Maoists as ‘cowards” of all things? You can call them anti-national, immoral, unlawful, unresponsive, unrepentant, etc but how can they fit the description of coward?

To quote Paul Krugman for the third time (earlier quoted here and here) from a column in which he was discussing President Bush's description of 9/11 as an act of cowardice.

“In truth, notions of "cowardice" and "bravery" are entirely irrelevant when we contemplate the horrors of terrorism. To call a terrorist “cowardly” is to substitute testosterone for morality. Somehow it isn’t enough to abhor an act of terrorism or even to promise to make the terrorist pay dearly. The rules demand that the terrorist be branded a sissy. This is not only a childish reflex, but one that weakens the moral force of the condemnation and thereby dishonors terrorism’s victims. After all, we don’t want brave people to slaughter innocent people any more than we want cowardly people to do so. Still, the public seems to demand that our presidents call terrorists cowards, and our presidents are too–well, cowardly–to deny them.”

Update 07/04/10: The post rather flippantly got into the semantics, but reading about the tragic event involving the killing of 74 CRPF men yesterday, made me reflect a bit.

“Bravery’ and ‘cowardice’ were traits that were part of a Code of Honour in the past. If one was labeled a coward, and therefore ‘unbrave’, that was the ultimate insult as per the Code of Honour. This code of honour was deeply implanted into the collective psyche and therefore was accepted unquestioningly. Whether it was the Samurai warriors fighting each other or the Kuruskshetra battle, the Code of Honour provided the coward-to-bravery scale to judge soldiers with. Even the thought that one was going to be described as ‘brave’ posthumously was enough motivation to take on the risk of dying .

Cut to today. How do you get people to sign up for the Army, when there is no Code of Honour that is held sacred by all? With money? No way. When you consider the high risk of being killed in the prime of one’s youth, soldiers get a pittance. And there are options of less-riskier and better-paying professions. So when you can’t lure them with money, you need to appeal to their sense of glory and fame- a modern day equivalent of the Code of Honour. And the glorification of military acts must be done relentlessly. Genuine acts of bravery do become part of legends and folklore. At the same time, a Commando-officer who meets his end at the Taj Hotel has to be called a ‘braveheart”, even if he did nothing spectacular in military terms. A Police officer who merely put on his bullet-proof vest and got shot after removing it must be spoken about in glowing terms. Vir Chakra and other awards will have to be bestowed too. The ‘brave’ image of the Army and the Police force must be kept alive.

To enhance the ‘brave’ shine of the Army, the ‘enemy’ must necessarily be branded a coward. The ‘terrorist’ who might have shown extraordinary daring to blow up a plane must be described as a pusillanimous poop. Maoists who carry out attacks with precision and with solid planning must be dismissed as cowards. This is the ‘done’ thing and the tradition must continue.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Off with the gown; hand me the Japee and the sorai

The no-nonsense Union Minister of Environment and Forest, Mr Jairam Ramesh, on Friday called the practice of wearing convocation gowns a “barbaric colonial relic” and removed his gown at one such event. (source)

“Why can we not have a convocation in a simple dress, instead of coming dressed up as medieval vicars and popes,” he asked, removing his gown worn over his trademark white kurta.

Two days after pocketing these swadeshi brownie points, Mr Jairam Ramesh went to the Guwahati Zoo to inaugurate the night safari. Here he was felicitated with a traditional Assamese Japee and Sorai, which the grinning MOEF donned on his head and clasped in his hands and sportingly posed for photographs.( source) 

If you will, for a moment, keep aside the swadeshi vs colonial angle , both the practices – that of wearing colourful, flowing convocation robes and the one of carrying the traditional Japee and Sorai can be viewed as meaningless and stupid. You can’t condemn one as barbaric and endorse the other as traditional.

That is because human beings have an innate need for rituals. Probably this shared belief in rituals improved the survival value of the race by providing a common purpose, even if the said purpose had no specific functionality.

Given this legacy, whether we are a tribal society in an island in the South Pacific or we are engaged in a Board Meeting in a Corporate office in London, we continue to observe rituals. Where religious rituals are absent, surrogate ones take their place. The Opening Ceremony at the Olympics serves absolutely no purpose, if you take a rational view; the organisers can start off straight with the events. But without the ritual and the pageantry of the Opening and Closing ceremonies, Brand Olympics will lose its shine and appeal. The changing-of-guards ceremony at Buckingham Palace or the daily show of saber-rattling at Wagah are other examples of ‘meaningless’ rituals calculated to capture people’s attention.

Sworn atheists in the DK and DMK parties in TN may frown upon religious rituals and label them barbaric, but they will not hesitate to garland a statue of their long-dead leader, forgetting the absurdity of venerating an inanimate block of granite chipped away to look like and symbolise a human being.

Those who get absorbed in the nitty-gritty of rituals and get lost in the symbolism would miss out the big picture and the larger social purpose. Equally, those who dismiss rituals as ‘barbaric’ or ‘medieval’ are only kidding themselves. They would be unconsciously observing several surrogate ones in other areas of their lives..

It is easy to ridicule the convocation ritual. But, without the attendant ritual and the induced air of solemnity, the aura will simply not be there and you will not find anyone attending. The graduates would rather take their degrees by mail.

If you object to the colonial hangover, replacing the robe with the “kurta’ won’t do. You must substitute it with an Indian equivalent that is ornate and resplendent in colours and hope that this will gradually become a tradition.

Update 26/04/10 : Santosh Desai, in a column in TOI today, expresses similar views.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Do you love dogs, children, cricket and travel?

I had an uncle who was a veterinary doctor. By all accounts, he was very good in his profession. As a child, I have tagged along with him a few times to his hospital and have seen him treat assorted animals with total commitment. But what I remember most about this veterinary uncle was that he hated animals. I have never seen him pat a dog caringly.

For years, I used to take my daughters to a pediatrician, who again was very professional and quite reliable. But he used to view children almost with disdain and would make no effort whatsoever to put them at ease. It could be concluded that he hated children.

These examples illustrate that being good at your job or in your profession does not mean that you should love what you are doing. Or love the object that your job is centred around or concerned with. I may be highly competent in my job as a power sector professional. I may even love my job, but I don’t need to love the boilers and turbines and the other objects that I need to deal in or the people that I need to deal with.

Prem Panicker, in a recent post, writes that he is repeatedly asked why he has given up writing on cricket and he cites ‘ennui’ as the reason. When the questioner protests and remarks that his is a job that others would kill for, he replies “You want to try doing it, day in and out, for a year, mate. Then let’s talk.’ Prem adds : “Doing this for a living’ is not all it is cracked out to be. How do you explain, for instance, the difference between kicking back and watching cricket as a fan and sitting in front of the TV or in the press box, laptop open, scrutinizing each moment minutely for technical points to make, for “turning points” to identify and use to season your report, for broader narratives to expound on? After a time, you see only the trees — the greater beauty of the forest is lost to you.

Prem links to an article by Tom Swick who expresses very similar sentiments about travel writing. “Travel writer” may be the one title everyone wants except the people who have it. The travel writer, when thought of at all, is regarded as a charmed figure, never stymied in front of a customs officer or a computer screen. The travel writer, when he reflects, sees himself as aimless, clueless but nevertheless underappreciated.” A travel writer is too busy picking up minute details for reporting later that he has no time or inclination to enjoy his travelling.

On a related note, Prem cites a mail from a friend, Siddharth Vaidyanathan of Cricinfo.

We all began as cricket fans before becoming professional cricket writers. Being in the profession, though, takes away a lot of the fizz….At some point, … you start watching the game through a different prism. It’s no more the innocent past-time that made you jump up and shriek or kick the floor in anger or sulk all day. It’s now the sport that you trying to be detached from (though you’re actually very close to the epicenter). It’s a sport you think you have figured out (though you actually have very little expertise on the subject matter).

Gradually you begin to view it as another job – I’ve actually felt really frustrated when a cricketer died on a Sunday, simply because it meant more work. Soon you ask yourself – just like Swick says of travel writers – what (the heck) am I doing here? And over time, you gradually forget why you got here in the first place.

That’s why, says Prem, he has given up writing about cricket. He loves the game too much.

Loving your solitary pet dog is fine. But, when you are a veterinary doctor who has to treat hundreds of diseased dogs day in and out, your perspective on dogs may undergo a change. Similarly, your children may be the apples of your eyes, but for a pediatrician, they are merely objects that need to be repaired and sent out of his garage. You can love’em or treat’em, but not both. You can be a cricket fan or a cricket writer, but it is difficult to be both.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

' We are too self-absorbed"

"Why are Indians poor at team sports? Why don’t we win at hockey or football?"  The answer, according to Aakar Patel’s column in The Mint, is that “we cannot understand harmony. That’s why we are poor at things that require selfless interaction, like team sports. Indians do not have the instinct of acting in concert. We find it difficult to put the other person ahead of ourselves even if both might benefit. This lack of harmony isn’t limited to sports, it is inherent: We see it every day in our mindless traffic sports.”

We might win at cricket, but that’s hardly a team sport. A twenty over match is nothing but an aggregate of 240 one-ball encounters between batsman and bowler. So, someone like Sachin I-don’t play-for-records- I-play-for-my-country Tendulkar can be perfectly happy with his century, even if his team doesn’t win.

To perform harmoniously as a cohesive unit, different components of that unit must come to the self-realisation that they are in it together for a common purpose. In this case, the common objective is that the team must win. How does this sense of collaboration emerge in each of the components?

Nicholas Humphrey, on 'watching his baby son thrashing around in his crib, two arms flailing, hands grasping randomly, legs kicking the air, head and eyes turning this way and that, a smile followed by a grimace crossing his face', wrote a brilliant, meditative piece wondering when and how the different parts of the baby would perform together harmoniously as in an orchestra? 

Ask any orchestral player, and he’ll tell you: although it may perhaps look to an outsider as if the conductor is totally in charge, in reality he often has a quite minor – even a purely decorative – role. Sure, he can provide a common reference point to assist the players with the timing and punctuation of their playing. And he can certainly influence the overall style and interpretation of a work. But that is not what gets the players to belong together. What truly binds them into one organic unit and creates the flow between them is something much deeper and more magical: namely, the very act of making music; that they are together creating a single work of art.

Doesn’t this suggest a criterion for “belonging” that should be much more widely  applicable: that parts come to belong to a whole just in so far as they are participants in a common project?

Try the definition where you like: What makes the parts of an oak tree belong together – the branches, roots, leaves, acorns ? They share a common interest in the tree’s survival.What makes the parts of a complex machine like an aeroplane belong to the aeroplane – the wings, the jet engines, the radar? They participate in the common enterprise of flying. Then, here’s the question: What makes the parts of a person belong together – if and when they do? The clear answer has to be that the parts will and do belong together just in so far as they are involved in the common project of creating that person’s life.

  To go back to Aakar Patel’s column, teamwork cannot be brought about by a team leader or imposed from above. It can come only when there is self-realisation in every member that he/she is collaborating on a common project of winning a match. Perhaps, such a realization evades Indians. That’s why we may produce an occasional world champion in billiards, badminton or chess, all in individual capacities. But team events such as hockey and football leave us thrashing around, arms flailing, legs kicking randomly, head and eyes turning this way and that…………….

Aam Aadmi.

“For the aam aadmi, costs go up again” screams the headlines in Business Line.

Now, this term ‘aam aadmi’ is a cliché that is frequently used by the media and I have always wondered who they are referring to. Apparently, they have the Great Indian Middle Class in mind.

Do the newsreaders count themselves as part of the aam aadmi brigage? If so, why do they use it in a neutral, third-party sense? Am I an aam aadmi or not? Should I then write, “ us aam aadmi” instead of implying “they aam aadmi”. I find myself in such existentialist dilemma.

According to Wikipedia, “ for an Aam Aadmi, his set of aspirations include three essential things: Food, Clothing and Shelter”. Trust me, my set of Maslowian aspirations include these three essential things too. I can't live without them.

Be that as it may, when costs go up, they don’t go up selectively for the aam aadmi, as the Business Line headlines seem to convey. Costs go up for the rich person ( the gender-neutral, opposite of aam aadmi) too. Maybe, it hurts the aam aadmi more. Too bad for them, sorry us.

Update 02-04-10 : See this cartoon in The Hindu today