Chocolate and Gold Coins

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Robotic Cameras

A comment by Patrix in the previous post made me think about robotic cameras. I believe that these will important in the next twenty years in many areas:
1. Remote controlled cameras will allow photography in the most hostile environment and in the very worst weather conditions. They will be able to be everywhere so that a thousand eyes will hunt for the elusive prey and then the operator will move the camera (on wheels or on a tractor tread) to the optimal location. The operator will never have to leave the comfort of his own apartment.
2. These cameras will make the safari even more assessable and more successful. How many people have gone to the wild animal preserve and never saw the lion or the tiger? In twenty years, it will never happen again. The robots will always know where the animals are. And if you cannot afford the trip to the Serengeti, you can rent a robot and go on safari from your own p.c.
3. Guerilla warfare will become as obsolete as the bayonet charge. Robots will find the guerilla hiding in the jungle or in the cave easily. The guerilla’s only hope will be urban warfare.
4. In fact, in the distant future, people won’t fight people. Armies will send their robots out to fight their enemy’s robots. Once one robot army is defeated the country will immediately surrender because you won’t stand a chance against a billion robots.
5. I wonder if people will allow a million robotic cameras to perform surveillance on society to prevent terrorism, crime, and driving faster than the posted speed limits.

What are your opinions on the future of robotic cameras?

Sunday, March 26, 2006

March of the Penguins

I seldom watch movies and almost never write about them, but I wanted to write about this wonderful documentary I saw with my family called, “March of the Penguins.” This small French team spent nine months in Antarctica to film the remarkable story of the reproductive habits of the penguins and the incredible hardships these birds go through just to produce their offspring.

It is just incredible to see all these birds walking single-file in the snow to reach the breeding ground. Once in a while the lead penguin will be lost and they will gather around not knowing where to go. Then someone remembers and leads them on. Eventually they reach the site. And for the males, that is where they will stay for four months.

This is the incredible thing: they don’t eat. They go completely without food for months so that they can help raise one chick. First they spend a couple of weeks looking for a mate. Then they wait until the egg is laid which takes about two months. Then the females – who are in desperate hunger at this point – pass the egg to the male and the females take off to the sea to eat. Sometimes the eggs roll off in the passing and the egg almost instantly freezes and their efforts are completely wasted. They showed some scenes of parents looking at their frozen eggs – just heartbreaking.

The females go to the ocean and eat for two months to build back strength while the male incubates the egg. This is in the dead of the Antarctic winter. Some penguins just freeze to death during the extreme winds and cold temperatures. They need to keep their egg on their feet and keep it warm with their bellies for the entire time – for four months!

When the chicks finally hatch, they give them a little stored food they kept somewhere in their stomachs. It is amazing the sacrifice these birds will go through for a chick.

Then the females return – and not a moment too soon. They take over caring for the chicks while the males return to the sea. Each of these journeys is about seventy miles and when you see the penguins waddle it looks like the equivalent of a human journey of 1000 miles. Many males simply die on the way back to sea – they were just too weak. And many chicks die of freezing and predators. It really is a tough life for a penguin.

After a couple of months, the females leave – often before the males return – because they are so hungry. The males return once again to care for the chick until it is ready to go into the ocean.

And that is the most extreme anti-climax. These parents suffered so much for the chicks and by the time the chicks go into the sea the parents are gone. The chicks swim by instinct. And when it is time for them to mate – after four years – they will go through what their parents did by instinct.

I have to say that the French crew did an incredible job capturing all of this on film. The conditions could not been worse for filming or for just living for that matter. But they persevered. Perhaps they were inspired by the penguins.

In ten or twenty years, such a documentary would not be so remarkable. Robotic cameras (which the French did not use) will allow the filmmaker to film the wildlife in the most hostile environments without putting a human in the wild. But for now I have to admire the French crew’s courage and tenacity in bringing this incredible story

Saturday, March 25, 2006

The Consumption Tax, Part II

One year ago today, I wrote about the virtues of a consumption tax. It is a decent essay and worth reading. I thought I would add to those thoughts but first let me introduce the idea

The idea is that instead of taxing income, which has the problem of discouraging investment since it is taxed as soon as an investment is liquidated even it an investor intends to reinvest these earnings, the government would tax your consumption. The idea is not to tax the goose that lays golden eggs but just the gold eggs.

Here is an excerpt:

My proposal is to treat all flows of money into investment as equal and non-taxable until these investments are cashed in. Flows of money between investments would not be prevented or discouraged in any way.

The simplest way of explaining this idea is to assume that most people have a checking account and a money market account. Any flows of money into the checking account would be considered consumption (in the near term) and would be taxable even if they came from investments. Any flows from the checking account into the money market account would be fully deductible. Any expenditure from the money market account on investments would not be counted since this would be an exchange from one form of investment to another. Using your money market account to pay your credit card bill though would mean you would have to pay tax on that transaction, so you would probably first transfer money to your checking account and then write a check for the credit card bill, but you wouldn't have to.

There two big issues that I can anticipate with this new type of tax. First issue is how to treat the taxation of investments made prior to the enactment of the consumption tax. The second issue is how to treat home mortgage interest deduction.

Read the whole post here.

The idea of a progressive consumption tax (i.e. one that taxes low consumption at a lower rate) has been around for many years but has always been considered impractical. I do not believe it to be impractical at all.

The issues of the progressive consumption tax are many: first there is the issue of transitioning to it, second is the issue of how complex would it be to compute, third there is the issue of tax incidence and who wins and who loses under the new regime, and fourth there is the issue of getting the required information to tax all consumption.

I addressed the first two issues in the essay above. I will just say that transitioning could be gradual and phased in over a decade. Computing consumption is easy if you keep your accounts well. Any money flowing into your checking account is likely to fund consumption. You might write a check to buy an investment – and this would be fully deductible – but it would be easier just to fund investments out of an interest earning money market account.

The third issue – the issue of who pays that taxes and tax fairness – is the real reason I wanted to readdress this issue. There is a big issue here. Republicans are using the issue of tax efficiency to argue for an almost complete repeal of capital gains taxation. Obviously this helps the wealthy. In fact, a wealthy person living solely off of investments might pay less tax as a fraction of his or her consumption than a common laborer – a regressive tax system.

The only fig leaf of respectability for this swindle is that taxing investment income would discourage investment. Basically, you are grinding down investment over time because each transaction requires a check to the government. The government should simply wait until you are finished investing.

But under the current scheme, investors don’t pay much tax on either the goose or the gold eggs. Even if all consumption is liquidated and spent, the investor pays merely 15 percent – a really small tax on a fortune.

The fourth issue is how to compute all consumption. One form of consumption that really should be tax is the imputed rental value of owner occupied housing. Basically, if you were to rent your home out, you could be making a good income. But you are living in it. So you pay yourself the rent. This should be taxable consumption. But how much is this?

The issue of fairly estimating the value of property that never comes up for sale in the market is always a contentious issue. I think the county assessors do a reasonable job – I say this with the knowledge that they have over-assessed my home by 20 percent. Is there a better way?

I thought about a scheme in which owners would simply self-assess their property with a huge penalty if they self-assessed too low. When you sell your home and if you self-assessed for less than the sale price, you pay a penalty based on the difference to compensate for the lost real estate tax. If the penalty is sufficiently high – maybe 30 percent of the difference – then you would want to be honest and reveal the true value of your home. The issue with this, of course, is that everyone will self-assess too low in a rapidly rising real estate market.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Subtle Warning

Sign seen at a Starbuck's coffee house:

Unattended children will receive complimentary espresso and a free puppy.

I'll have a real economics post up in a day or two.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Three Jokes

First joke
This joke sits uneasily with these others – it is intended for children. My seven-year-old son read this joke in a magazine and laughed heartily even though he had no idea what the joke was.

Q: What did the cat do when he ate some cheese?

A: He waited by a mouse-hole with baited breath.

Not bad for the genre of seven-year-old humor.

Second joke
Last night we were walking around a furniture store and they were playing an old Bangles tune from twenty years ago. I remember them. A girl band, to be sure, but Susanna Hoffs was a babe. And they had a few hits: Manic Monday, Walk Like An Egyptian, and my favorite: If She Knew What She Wants (He’d be giving it to her). That song had easily the best double entendre in pop music.

I remember hearing the lyrics and thinking it was just a stupid girl song. It seemed to be about a girl who was taking advantage of a guy who was "crazy about this girl". And then I heard it again:

If she knew what she wants
(He'd be giving it to her)

I wondered, “Are they talking about that?

If she knew what she needs
(He could give her that too)

“Indeed, it is about that.”

And indeed there were lots of you men who while looking at close-ups of Hoffs were dreaming of “Giving it to her, giving it to her, giving it to her, yeah!”

Third joke
This one-liner is perhaps the best spontaneous retort ever. I remembered it while reading this post by Greatbong about the remake of Basic Instinct. I’ll just copy what I wrote in his comments:

The all-time best joke that I recall concerning the Basic Instinct movie was from the Late Show starring David Letterman (this was early 1990s). Sharon Stone came on and joked about her role and the infamous scene (which I never saw btw) in which she doesn’t where jettie and the camera see all the way up to her acting ability. She referred to it (inexplicably) as “seeing all the way up to Nebraska.”

Letterman quipped, “Nebraska? I thought Oregon.”

I didn’t catch the joke at the time but years later when I read some info about New Mexico. I already knew that its slogan was the “Land of Enchantment” which makes absolutely no sense. But a little devilish voice made me want to know what Oregon’s state motto was.


Talk about getting a joke years later. One time in my life where ROFL was appropriate.

Friday, March 17, 2006

I'm Feeling Lucky

Today is St. Patrix Day –um – St. Patrick’s Day. Since some of my ancestors come from Ireland (the Higgins family), I should celebrate this somehow.

Anyway, I was inspired to try a little experiment and I came up with the following list:
1. Gaurav - Yes
2. Amit – No
3. Sunil – No
4. Charukesi – Yes
5. Patrix - Almost
6. Ravikiran – No
7. Michael – are you kidding?

What was I doing?

A Plumbing Issue

When I met Ravikiran, one of the things we discussed briefly was an idea I had to teach people economics using game theory. I won’t bore people with the idea again – I posted about that here. Rather, I am interested in knowing if there are people in blogland that know enough about computers and connecting them via the Internet to tell me roughly how difficult linking millions of computers together to play a game would be.

The idea is that many people would be playing a game on the Internet. These people would be sending signals – vectors of data – to each other. This information would then be aggregated and fed back to everyone in aggregate form.

You could think of this as a plumbing issue where the data is water and the problem is transferring the water from residence to residence. It is very definitely a solvable problem and many people have solved similar problems. What I want to know is roughly the amount of the plumbing bill.

Let me give a simple example. Suppose people want to purchase some of commodity. People have preference so it would be straightforward to compute each person’s individual demand curve: for each price we could know the quantity demanded. We could adequately represent the demand curve with a vector of data. Taking the price vector as a known given we would just need the corresponding quantity vector. The aggregate demand curve would come from the summation of these individual demand vectors.

I would know how to program such a problem on a single computer. The problem for me is that the vectors of data are on perhaps a million computers and how does one efficiently collect so much data?

My idea is that each player’s personal computer would be the “slave” to some other “master” computer. There might be 10 slaves per master. The master tells the slave that it should send the information to the master’s address. When the slave has the data ready, it sends the data to the master. The master aggregates and sends it to its master and so on. Eventually all of the data is aggregated on the super-master and this information flows back to whomever needs the information.

There are two issues here that I would like to know about:
1. How difficult is it to use the Internet to hook up computers in this way? Is there off the shelf software that would make this a snap?
2. How long would it take for the signals to propagate all the way up to the super-master? We always assume that the computer computes virtually instantaneously, but that really isn’t true. And sending signals between computers is a cumbersome way to do computation. My feeling is that the propagation delay time here would be non-trivial and may require fancy programming.

So, are there any computer gurus among my readers who would know about this?

I should point out that there is another major issue with the master-slave thing. The computers are not always on and some people might play for a while and then quit. The master must wait for a slave that really is playing but must ignore a slave that abruptly quits. And do you want to use master computers that might occasionally quit also? That throws in another interesting complication.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

9A.M., CIA Headquarters, Langley, Virginia

“Your cover’s blown Higgins. You know that don’t you?”

“It’ll blow over.”

“No it won’t. This Sabnis fellow’s smart. He pieced it all together. Northern Virginia location, spends time gathering info, unnaturally interested in cricket. It all fits.”

“Wait, I have an idea. What if I play along with the gag?”

“Play along?”

“Yeah, I’ll just make a joke about it. I’ll pretend that I really am a CIA analyst.”

“What do you mean pretend? You are a CIA analyst. And you can’t admit you are analyst and still work here.”

“You see, that’s the point. They don’t really know, do they? They’re just suspicious. But if I “admit” that I really am an analyst in a lighthearted manner, everyone will know that I’m just joking because I couldn’t admit to being a real analyst and still be an analyst, could I? They will then assume that I’m a just a joker. And I’ll have the perfect cover.”

“You know, Higgins...that’s so stupid its might just work!”

The Best Cupcake Ever?

My son had the day off today. He spent half the day with Mommy and half the day with Daddy.

Mommy was in a generous mood and said he could have a snack. And, quite fortunately for me, I was able to take him the Starbucks and get him that treat.

He chose the double chocolate fudge cupcake. It looked like pure chocolate overload – lacking the balance necessary to make it a truly delicious cake.

I asked him how he liked it. “Is it one of the ten best cupcakes you ever had?”

He nodded yes with a mouthful of cake and a huge smile. He swallowed and announced, “It’s the best cupcake ever!”

The best cupcake ever?” I thought. The cynic in me wonders if that could possibly be.

For seven-year-olds, the combination of youth and short memory guarantees that the “best ever” is always just around the corner – and that is an awesome thing.

Once you are old and cynical, you’ll never know that feeling again.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Gaurav Is Incorrect

The commute from Dunn Loring to Langley is not bad at all.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Freedom To Make Lame Jokes

I like to kid around. I love subtle humor and I insert it whenever possible. Sometimes nobody gets it. Sometimes people think it's lame.

Oh well, so what? Not everyone can be Greatbong. Like C-Gawker wrote last month – some posts will be lame. And some jokes will be lame. This is what blogging is about: throwing your rough-cut writing to whomever is interested. Often it really isn’t worth reading. But it is the honest revelation of the real person.

Sometimes I look at a paragraph that might cause offense or might cause a laugh and I wonder, “Should I cut it out?” Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. If the joke is not way out-of-bounds I prefer leave it uncut.

Others sometimes post lame jokes also, I might add. For example, India Uncut – as great a blog as you are likely to read – had a rather lame series of jokes on cricketer Monty Panesar. Probably Monty never read them. If he did, he might have chuckled. But he might have taken offense. And Sikhs might have taken offense because they might have interpreted the Ponty series as an example of an ethnic Sikh joke. But I say, “Some jokes are going to be lame. If we never take risks, we become humorless."

Of course, one should make every effort to improve the lame joke into the not-so-lame one. But if it is a choice between cutting it out or not, I would prefer to leave my writing uncut.

I try to be a nice person but sometimes my lame jokes might offend someone. If I were really really nice like Sunil, I would never risk offending anyone. I’m not that nice. Like I said, “If we never take risks, we become humorless.” I sometime post lame jokes in the hopes that others will laugh along but knowing full well some might not like it. It is a risk I take. I’m just not that nice.

For example, the post on the blogger meeting recap had some lame jokes thrown in. The joke about Chetan doing something called “Budginay” and the reference to my wife’s reaction to my meeting Piyush Gupta, (she really did say, “Oh-yo-yo-yo-yo-yo-yo!”) might have caused offense if they were the types who take offense easily. Hopefully they will take this in good spirit.

There was a long paragraph in there about Curious Gawker that was probably a fairly lame joke:

I should mention that the real reason we had this meeting was trap someone: the notorious terrorist Ondiran Khan, number 5 in command in Al Queda. He now lives in Phildadelphia and blogs under the pseudonym Curious Gawker. We hoped to lure him out into the open by the hopes of meeting Arnab the Greatbong and some free food. The Feds were waiting to nab him and send him to Gitmo. But he never showed. Maybe the food court food was not enticing enough. Maybe someone tipped him off. We’ll try to do this again in May or June and see if we can trap him next time. Please, no one tip him off this time.

I don’t think Curious Gawker would take offense to this but maybe. It just expresses in a light-hearted way our disappointment that Curious Gawker was a no-show. Both Arnab and I asked him to come and he seemed interested but he didn’t come. The paragraph makes fun of his anonymity and his Anti-Bush politics by making him into a terrorist “on-the-run”. Hopefully he would have laughed but maybe not.

Suppose not. Suppose Curious Gawker had in fact written to me saying that the joke was lame and offensive, and he feared that others (the government) might really believe that he was a terrorist. Suppose he said that he would prefer that I remove it, (of course, he did not do anything of that sort). I respect C-Gawker. For Joe Blow, I wouldn’t care less. But for someone like C-Gawker, I will go the extra yard and I will edit my post. I would feel bad though. But I would get over it. I might try harder to avoid offense in the future.

I might give C-Gawker a bit of a hard time, though. I might write something like this:

Curious Gawker
I am so sorry; I must profusely apologize. I have removed the offending paragraph and I will post an apology with a post entitled "Curious Gawker is not a terrorist" just to clarify that it was just a stupid joke.

In fact, a very similar incident happened to me. A blogger who I greatly admire and respect took offense to one of my posts and politely asked me to amend it. Like I said, I don’t like to edit my posts but he is a blogger I greatly admire so I would go the extra yard for him. I did so and wrote a letter like the one above. I was kidding about the explanatory post (isn’t that obvious?).

The response…Woof! I saw a side of this blogger I had not seen before and hopefully will not see again. Let us just say that he was not amused.

So there is a lesson here for people like me who like to kid around. Some people will take offense. Some people will not see the humor so well if they are on the receiving end and not the sending end.

So if you post something that turns out to be offensive to someone else, how should you react?

If it is someone you respect, swallow your pride. Just remove the offensive material and apologize. It isn't going to be helpful to point out, "But you make lame jokes too." Just diffuse the situation. If you try to diffuse the situation with a bit of humor – make real sure that the person will laugh.

I will just end this by saying I am really red faced about the whole incident. But I still prefer to take risks and leave my writing uncut.

The person obliquely referred to above writes in to explain that I misunderstood completely the tone of the email he sent to me and that he has no problems with lame jokes at his expense in general as long as they are not intentionally cruel.

5YAT: Laxman and Dravid Batted All Day Long

Five years ago today, I woke up a bit early and turned on the computer. I wanted to see what was happening in the Kolkata test match.

The previous day, India followed on. From that point, the hope of winning was gone (or so I thought) and the only hope was to bat out for six sessions and draw the match. But Tendulkar fell early and Ganguly was out short of a half-century. India was down to their last recognized pair: Laxman and Dravid. Laxman had scored a century and Dravid, who usually bats third, just had come in at the end of day 3. Unless the two of them batted all day long, there was little hope for anything other than another loss.

I turn on the computer and Cricinfo announced that Laxman and Dravid were fighting back. I look at the scoreboard. Laxman was on 196; Dravid was on 85. It took a couple of overs but I waited until Laxman scored his double ton. India was fighting back! I thought this was incredible.

People later called this Laxman’s knock, but it was really the great Laxman-Dravid partnership. Dravid is the only player in cricket who could say something like, “I have to go to bed early tonight; I have to bat all day tomorrow,” and not make it sound like a hollow boast.

By the end of the day, India had seen a minor miracle: there have been tens of thousands of test partnerships and only 61 triple century test partnerships. This was one of them. And this one came from the last recognized pair India had left. Laxman had set a new test record high score for an Indian batsman (later bettered by Sehwag). It seems ironic that now five years later Laxman has been dropped, but he was the right guy for the team then.

I thought, “Good, Australia won’t win this one.” But I never thought India could win – not against Australia. Not unless Australia was daft and “went for it” on the last day.

But India had one last miracle in store for day five.

Monday, March 13, 2006

The D.C. Blogger Meet Recap

A gathering of bloggers came to Union Station on Saturday. We had much fun. Let me start with a list of attendees:

Arnab was very much like I thought he would be. He is little chubby (he looks just like the picture is on his blog). He had a big smile during the entire meet. I think he was just having a blast. And he had lots of interesting stories to tell. He is no doubt a brilliant writer and the perfect host of a blogger meeting.

Arzan and Ravikiran came all the way from New York and New Jersey to be there. I cannot know if it was worth it for them but I can only say that I appreciate the effort these two made to be there.

Ravikiran actually does some interesting software development. I wished I could have learned more about that. He doesn’t come off in real life like he does in his blog. In his blog, he seems quite confident, assertive, and certain in a way that others might misunderstand as arrogance. He doesn’t come off that way at all in person. He is actually somewhat soft spoken.

Arzan Sam Wadia in real life is an architect and he told us about some very interesting energy efficient buildings he is helping design. He also runs a blog called Parsi Khabar that blogs about the Parsi community. Recently he linked to an editorial that said that Zoroasterism might make a comeback in Iran. I remember a friend (in the early 1980’s) saying that it would be nice is Communism fell apart and those nations went for a market economy. I thought it was a far-fetched hope at the time. Well, who knows!

The lone female was Seema. She has a degree in (I hope I didn’t forget this) International Relations. She has a popular blog that I’ve never visited before and that is nice about blog meets, you get to see bloggers you never would read otherwise. We need to work harder in addressing the gender balance in future blogger meets.

Piyush Gupta has a website about India politics. I actually recognized Piyush. He comes frequently to the Einstein Bros. Bagel shop on Gallows road where my family visits every Saturday. We always see him discussing politics with his friends. Sometimes my wife has commented about him and the fact that the female friends seem bored out of their minds. When I said that I met him and he seemed really nice my wife’s comment was, “Oh, yo, yo, yo, yo, yo, yo!” I don’t speak Tamil so I don’t really understand but my guess is- knowing my wife- that she really doesn’t want to discuss the political situation in India with Piyush and his friends. Too bad, he seems quite nice.

Sunil Soman talked a little bit about his work in supply chain management. That is really quite similar to work I do (which means it is not too interesting). He worked on a very similar problem for the same client that I worked on, a coincidence.

Ujval Gandhi had wanted to organize a blogger meet for some time. His work is in mergers and acquisitions. He would like to return to graduate school to get that Ph.D. It is essential in life to get education before earning a good income. Otherwise, one finds it hard to return to college life.

Vinay Jain has many blogs and I am too lazy to link to all of them. He is from Rajasthan and he reminds me a bit of Parthiv Patel.

Chetan Kulkarni was very nice. He gave me a nice card thank me for organizing this meet. That is nice. He majored in journalism but unfortunately he is unemployed right now. He keeps himself busy doing something called “Budginay” which I think is some kind of job search regimen.

Eswaran Baskaran doesn’t have a blog but comments on Sepia Mutiny and writes to India Uncut. He took the photos below. I should really ask permission to post these photos but I figure the good Lord wouldn’t have let me come into possession of these photos if I were not chosen by Him (Her) to post them. I get selectively religious about some things that coincide with self-interest.

I was originally intending to augment the turnout by having phone-ins. We had some A-list bloggers who were going to let me call them and we put them on speakerphone and chat briefly with others. I hoped it might work. Well it flopped. Union Station is underground and has lots of concrete and the signal failed. Sunil tried to call but could not get through. He lives in Seattle; my parents live near Seattle.

But at least we avoided the problem that Anand had in his first blogger meet. He came to a blog meet looking for bloggers but didn’t see anyone who looked like one (what do bloggers look like – people?), and he left disappointed. I avoided such a problem by posting little signs.

Also some kind person remembered to bring a birthday cake. It was, in fact Ravikiran’s birthday. Here is the cake – with chocolate coins on it. It was an excellent quality cake from this pastry shop.

Here is a photo of Ravikiran’s birthday present. Some context is needed here. He had complained about American toilet paper and how it was inadequate for the task. So, as if to show that in a well-developed free market all needs are met, I found these excellent flushable wipes. He declared that this was, “The best present he had ever had.” He might have been just being polite.

Here are some group photos:

Ravikiran is cutting the cake. From left to right: Vinay, Ujval, Michael, Ravikiran, and Chetan, (with perhaps Seema in the background – she did not want to be photographed).

From left to right: Sunil, Ujval, Michael, Arnab, Chetan, Ravikiran, Piyush, Arzan.

Far right: Eswaran.

I should mention that the real reason we had this meeting was trap someone: the notorious terrorist Ondiran Khan, number 5 in command in Al Queda. He now lives in Phildadelphia and blogs under the pseudonym Curious Gawker. We hoped to lure him out into the open by the hopes of meeting Arnab the Greatbong and some free food. The Feds were waiting to nab him and send him to Gitmo. But he never showed. Maybe the food court food was not enticing enough. Maybe someone tipped him off. We’ll try to do this again in May or June and see if we can trap him next time. Please, no one tip him off this time.

Both Arnab and I think the blogger meet was a nice success. We hope to make it a regular event. We will probably have four of them a year.

I was trying to recall some pithy things that people said and then I remembered what Arnab told about Suhail Kazi. He actually met Suhail once in Maryland. He said that whenever he writes about religion and Islam he always thinks, "How would Suhail react to this?" If he thought that if Suhail might take offense then he knows he went overboard.

The interesting thing about that is that although I have never met Suhail, I know he is a prominent blogger with an Islamic-sounding name who reads my blog from time to time. So I have often wondered myself if something I have written about religion might cause offense to someone like Suhail.

So maybe there is a business opportunity for Suhail: giving his Good Housekeeping seal of approval for incendiary blog pieces; Just a thought.

Update 2
Arnab explains in the comment section that the issue of "How would Suhail view this" applies more to how he comes across in the comment section and how he deals with his many critics than with the original post. Arnab does get a really lively debate in his comment section and it takes quite a lot of work to keep it from getting out of hand.

Also, Chetan has an excellent account of the blogmeet here. Also here is Arnab's.

Update 3
Here is Arzan's version and Ravikiran's (with links to more photos).

Saturday, March 11, 2006


Five years ago today, perhaps the most remarkable test match in that last 20 years started. It was Kolkata: India vs. Australia. The match didn’t start well for India at all. Australia tore into a fairly weak and inexperienced bowling attack and laid a solid foundation for a great innings. After two sessions, Australia were 193/1.

I turned on my compute and checked Cricinfo early in the morning. It was the 72nd over of the match. The score was 252/5. The scoreboard read:

Ponting had just fallen to Harbhajan; Waugh was on 14.

I thought, “Oh well, at least India has 5 wickets. Maybe they can hold Australia under 400.” But I was disappointed that they had once again let Australia get a good score.

I checked the scorecard. I saw Hayden had scored 97 and Langer got a half-century.

I went back to the scoreboard half expecting Gilchrist to rip the game wide open. The scoreboard read:

Gilchrist had just fallen first ball to Harbhajan.

“Wow! Harbhajan is on a hattrick.” I just stared at the screen hoping I would see another W come up.

I remember one other time I sat looking for something to happen. I was following a match on Cricinfo: New Zealand vs. South Africa. It was just one of a 6- match series of ODI’s. South Africa need 7 runs off of the last two balls and Klusener was batting. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be incredible if Klusener hit two boundaries in a row and won it for South Africa?” Needless to say, Klusener did it. He was awesome.

But a hat-trick is really rare. In fact, no Indian bowler had ever bowled a hattrick in a test match before. I just looked up at the screen wondering if it could happen. And then I saw it:

Harbhajan had just gotten Warne for a first-ball duck!

I nearly fell out of my chair.

Later, I bought the video just to see that hattrick. It was a stunning catch by Ramesh (who was a decent opener and should have played longer).

A few overs later, Kasprowicz fell to Sourav Ganguly (he would get only five more wickets in the next five years). It seemed then that India was going to hold Australia to a gettable score.

But that was just day one.

Sticky Post: D.C. Bloggers' Meet Update

D.C. Bloggers' Meet Update. Click on the link for any changes or updates. See you there.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Vending Machines and Rationality

Sunil has a hilarious post about his confrontation with a vending machine. It made me recall some incidents I have had with vending machines.

How often have you seen this: you go to the vending machine and you see a snack dangling by one corner on a hook. You know that if you pay 60 cents, you could get two snacks for the price of one. But you have to wonder why the previous customer left the snack just dangling like that. Here are some possibilities:

1. She just put her last 60 cents in the machine, she had to abandon her hope for a snack
2. She used to assume that the probability of getting a snack was 100% if she placed the coins in the machine. Now that she sees that it clearly is less than 100% she Bayesian updates her prior and decides that now the probability is closer to 50%. Buying candy from a vending machine is no longer cost effective at this low payout.
3. She went to the vending machine out of combination of hunger and moral weakness. She knows she should not be snacking. When she sees the snack dangling from a hook, she sees that as an omen and repents.
4. Her preferences are really variable over time. By the time she sees the snack is just dangling from a hook, she wants something else and ends up buying another snack instead.
5. She was willing to pay 60 cents for one snack but not 120 cents for two. So she decides to cut her losses and go back to her office.
6. She only wants the snack that she paid for and if she tries to buy it again, she will be stuck getting two and eating two, (since she cannot bear to throw food away) and she knows that this would be wrong.

Some of these arguments are reasonable and some are just plain stupid. Which ones do you think are reasonable? And do you think that the average person who leaves the snack on the hook does so for reasonable reasons or stupid reasons?

Thursday, March 09, 2006

The Habits of Very Old Men

I used to work in an upscale apartment building for seniors. I was a night security guard. Occasionally I would have to help a resident who had fallen and could not get up. Sometimes I would have to make a minor repair like fixing a stopped up toilet (never fun). But mostly I just studied all night long.

When I came in at the late evening, the daytime guard would tell me things that happened that day. He told me of this odd fellow Mr. R. Morton who would stand behind the mailman and make sure that he delivered no incorrect mail in his mailbox. Apparently, the mailman had placed something intended for Mr. Morton F. in Mr. R. Morton’s box by mistake. Well, mistakes happen. But it really bothered Mr. R. Morton and he insisted on pestering the mailman everyday thereafter to make certain that it never happened again.

Well, it turns out there is more to the story than just that. I have a guess about exactly what it was that wound up in Mr. R. Morton’s mailbox and why it bothered him so much.

First, I will give a little background on the two “Mortons”. Both of them were in their 80’s and both had lost their wives (or maybe divorce – I don’t really know). R. Morton was a lawyer and rarely talked to other residents. Morton F. seemed a gentle old man who shuffled along in baby steps. He liked to chat with the elderly ladies. He later fell and broke his hip.

Mr. Morton F. called down one evening saying that his toilet kept running. This was a common problem because the toilets still had the old chain stoppers. The chain would get tangled and then the tank valve would not close and water would run forever. It was important to fix this problem right away or else literally tons of water would be wasted.

I went up to fix his toilet. I just had to lift the lid of the tank. But I had to remove the things that Mr. Morton F. put on the tank first. And I could not believe what Mr. Morton F.’s had on his toilet lid: something like this. I had to suppress a huge urge to smile.

Leaving Mr. Morton F.’s apartment I had mixed feeling about him. On the one hand, I thought Mr. Morton F. was a dirty old man: why would someone in his 80’s want to look at the mammaries of the 20-somethings featured in the magazine? It seemed revolting. But on the other hand, I had to admire the fact that he could keep the flame of desire burning all the way into his declining days. I am only in my 40’s and already I am more inclined to fondle a chocolate cake.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

10YAT: My First ODI

Ten years ago today I saw my first ODI. It was an excellent introduction to the world of cricket.

Actually, I had seen parts of a test match on television in India when my wife and I visited in 1995. It was, in fact, the famous Sri Lanka vs. Australia test match in which Muralitharan was no-balled. But I didn’t understand any of that. I just noticed that they played all day long and only a handful of wickets fell. It seemed a dreadfully dull sport. I couldn’t see the point of watching the same game go on for 5 days – especially if there was a good chance that even after so much time there would be no winner.

We came back to Minnesota and I forgot about cricket. But then the World Cup started –and that year it was being played in India! My wife was sorry that she would miss all the games. She read a little about them.

We went to the Indian store on the evening of the 8th of March. There were two Indian stores in Minneapolis and they were located 50 yards away from each other. This seemed to be actual example of Hotelling’s Theorem. We went to the store closer to our house (by 50 yards).

Inside, they were advertising the India-Pakistan quarterfinal. My wife exclaimed, “Oh, I wish I could have been in India to watch this.” The grocer said that they were selling tickets to watch the match at a local motel. When we left the store, my wife said, “I wish I could have seen that match. India-Pakistan matches are always so exciting.” I asked her, “Do you want to see it?” I expected my ever-practical wife to say that we needed to go home, study, sleep, etc. But she surprised me. For one time in her life she was truly spontaneous. She looked at me and said, “Yes I would.” So I said, “Let’s go back and get those tickets – you will remember this match for all of your life!”

We went straight to the motel as I recall. If we bought any frozen dinners, we just kept them in the car. It was freezing cold in Minneapolis at that time.

The motel was really not-so-nice. The room we had was flooded with toilet water because the toilet had backed up. My wife perched on the bed as if it were an island surrounded by sharks. We shared this with some other people who came to see cricket.

There was an English gentleman there to see the Sri Lanka-England match. He was disappointed, of course. I saw a bit of Sanath Jayasuriya’s innings and was enthralled. This seemed infinitely more exciting than the test match I had seen a few months earlier! Six after Six flew out of the stadium. It was a glorious innings (although a bit brief).

Then the big match started. Tendulkar opened with Sidhu. My wife was excited about seeing this Tendulkar fellow play. He had been with India for many years, but my wife hadn’t been following cricket and would only occasionally hear about it from her father. She heard a lot about Tendulkar.

Tendulkar started cautiously and began building a partnership with Sidhu. Just when it looked like India might start accelerating, Tendulkar fell. But Sidhu kept the pace going. India lost some more wickets. They were scoring at a little less than 5 per over. My wife told me that the last 10 overs were called the “slog overs” because the batsmen were always more aggressive then. At the time, I could not understand why they waited until the last 10 overs to start “slogging”.

Then Ajay Jadeja came in. This was his great cameo. He scored 45 from just 25 balls including 22 off one Waqar Younis over. The Indian supporters began getting really excited. They scored 96 runs off of the last 10 overs.

Then we had to wait. Pakistan had a target of 288 – a tough ask. But first there would be the interval. We got up and walked around. My wife felt sure that Pakistan could not chase down 288 but she was still nervous about it. It was really early in the morning and we hadn’t slept. We got some snacks to eat and something to drink – we were getting hungry.

Then Pakistan started – with a bang! Sohail and Anwar (always Anwar!) were leading the charge. They put on 84 in just 10 overs but after Srinath got Anwar, Pakistan began losing its way. Wicket after wicket fell and the asking rate started to climb. My wife and I joined another room that had a bigger crowd of Indian supporters. They cheered loudly at the fall of each wicket. Then there was a partnership between Salim Malik (the match-fixer) and Javed Miandad (the destroyer of India in years past). When Malik fell, that people could sense victory was near. The run rate simply rose over the Pakistanis’ heads. And a huge collapse saw 4 wickets fall for just 7 runs as panic took over. It was glorious!

India won!

My wife was thrilled. And I was thrilled to share a special moment with my wife. My wife exclaimed, “And best of all – we beat Pakistan!” She doesn’t like Pakistan too much.

I drove home with my wife. We were both exhausted and exhilarated at the same time.

I have been hooked on cricket ever since.

My wife has never seen another game.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

The Night My Wife Was Almost Attacked

My wife tells the story of a terrifying experience she had as a young lady in India. She is coming home with her mother on the bus. Why her father isn’t around, I cannot recall and it doesn’t matter. They are alone. It is late.

A man on the bus starts eyeing my future wife. She avoids eye-contact but she can feel his stare. Eventually they get off and begin to walk home. Then they notice that this man has just gotten off at the next stop. He starts walking briskly towards them. They walk faster and he walks even faster. Their home was not far- just a quarter of a mile further. But my mother-in-law-to-be decides to take an auto.

They get in the auto and begin to move when the strange man runs and shouts at the auto to stop! The auto brakes. Her mother shouts frantically, “No, keep going, keep going!” The auto takes off just before the strange man comes.

What was the strange man thinking? Was he really going to attack three people in an auto? Maybe. My wife will never forget it.

Street Harassment and Gender Segregation

I have been reading a variety of interesting and disturbing stories about a form of sexual harassment in India: Charu, Ash, Sujatha, Sunil, Vulturo, and (via Greatbong) Premalatha and Blank Noise. The guys are just strangers who act inappropriately in public toward women. Two questions arise immediately: 1) “Why does this happen so often in India?” 2) “What can India do to prevent it?”

Suppose you are a young attractive female riding on a bus. The seat next to you is empty. A man enters the bus and looks at you in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable. Maybe he looks a little like this…you know the type. Then he moves to sit next to you. Your heart maybe beats a bit faster as you wonder, “What will he do?” You might wonder if he will leer at you, or even touch you, or worse – grope you! Is there anything you can do?

I believe the situation of two strangers sharing a seat on a bus is always going to be a bit uncomfortable – but it will be extremely uncomfortable for a young lady who has to sit next to a strange guy. This is somewhat unavoidable and both will feel awkward. It might be made worse if the woman really makes the guy feel awful by looking down and scrunching up next to window as if he smelled foul. You cannot make people like you. You just have to make the best out of an awkward situation.

But for a woman, what can she do if the guy is some kind of jerk who gets his jollies out of making the woman feel bad? Maybe he will purposely touch her and then smile sadistically. She can leave the bus, but the guy still wins. And what if the guy gropes her?

There is really only one effective method to fight back: using Mace spray or pepper spray. Do most women in India carry it? Definitely, the perps will think twice if they think women carry pepper spray.

Another method to prevent inappropriate contact is to segregate the genders. But I think this is exactly the wrong approach. This just reinforces the idea that men cannot be with woman and act civilized.

In fact, I believe that gender segregation in the schools is the answer to the question, “Why is eve-teasing so common in India?” Boys need to develop social skills in order to mature. One of those skills is to interact with females who are not family relations and not be goofy. Another skill is to learn empathy for people who are different than you. These are not things that you can learn by reading in a book.

The problem in India is that society has become so concerned about the problems caused by having boys and girls together that they never have them experience cooperation with the other sex until marriage. Even then, the boy and the girl are not allowed to get to know each other in private. Boys/men just don’t know how to act appropriately around girls because they lack positive experience. This is why separating the genders causes the problem it intends to cure.

It probably is not a good idea to place teen-age boys and girls together and let them get too friendly. They might discover more about biology than you want them to know.

However, it might an excellent idea to have boys and girls do at least one major project together a year to help build social skills. And it might be even better if the project focuses on sexual harassment so that these young adults get a double lesson.

In general, I think that eve-teasing is simply a function of poor socialization. If boys and girls could learn to cooperate through each stage in life, the idea of acting inappropriately in young adulthood will seem less natural.

P.S. My apologies to the random person whose picture I took off the web as an example of an "eve-teaser". Of course I have know way of knowing if this person has ever done eve-teasing. He just looks like the type.

It occurred to me (after reading Sunil's blog) that Vikrum Sequeira's post on gender segregation is a nice companion to this post.

Monday, March 06, 2006

1YAT: Indian Call Center Employees Get an Earfull

Indian Call Center Employees Get an Earfull :

Trin! Trin! The phone rings, and Stephanie (an alias used by the call center employee taking the call) has 20 seconds to get ready with her headphones and chant her opening script.

"Thank you for choosing *** (the name of the company). My name is Stephanie. How may I help you?"

Guess what she hears in response? "Oh my God! My call has been routed to India. Hey poor girl, do you understand English?"


" 'You Indians suck!' an American screamed on the phone," recalled a soft-spoken Manzoor, 25. "He was using a lot of four-letter words, too. He called me names left, right and center."

In this post, I looked at the growing rudeness that Americans exhibit towards Indian call center employees. It is still relevant.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

1YAT: He Only Drinks American Beer

He Only Drinks American Beer:

I was standing in the checkout line in my local supermarket when the old man behind me began quizzing me.

“What kind of beer is this?” he inquired. Before I could answer, he positioned the box so he could read the label.

“Bass Ale? Where does that come from?”

“England,” I responded.

“England? What does it taste like?”

“It tastes like…beer.” I admit that wasn’t very helpful. I admit I wasn’t really trying to be helpful.

“I only drink American beer,” he announced.

“When I was in Germany, I tasted the German beer and it was pretty good. If I lived over there I suppose that I would drink it,” he said.

“I think it tastes the same over here,” I said to him.

He stared at me as if I were some kind of idiot.

I eventually stopped drinking Bass Ale. I found out that there is something fishy about it. They use some sort of fish-based additive to filter the beer. Here is a Sepia Mutiny post with links to these non-veg beers.

Talking about Sepia Mutiny, check out their new desi-news site. You can add stories yourself. I added one.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Indian Movies and All-Arounders

In this previous post, I posed a question, “Why are Indian movies mediocre?” and I gave some hints: the Indian cricket team in 1999, and Milli Vanilli.

No one tried to solve the puzzle. It reminds me of my years being a TA in college: the student always came to recitation looking for answers to homework problems not insight.

Well, so be it. Here is my answer.

The problem with Indian films is simple and many have noticed it: they are all musicals. After Satyajit Ray, the idea of making a two-hour movie with real actors and no song-and-dance has just died. And that is a pity because the musical is not just not well suited to address serious issues.

But there is a more important reason a film industry based on making musicals will have problems producing high-quality films. It has to do with the labor demand that these musicals place on the market for actors. Before I go in to that, let me explain why the genre of musical died out in the west.

The musical was invented in Hollywood. I believe Busby Berkeley made the first musicals and I think he had an impact on Indian musicals as well. Soon came Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers who made some of the best musicals of all times. I love this assessment from Astaire's first screen test:
"Can't act. Can't sing. Balding. Can dance a little."

Later came Gene Kelly who made the greatest musical ever: Singing in the Rain. But the genre died when Kelly and Astaire retired. Basically, it was just too hard to find people who could act, sing, dance, and looked handsome enough to be a film star.

The problem is familiar to any cricket enthusiast: the musical required an all-arounder. And it is obvious why the genre didn’t die in India. India discovered Milli Vanilli before Frank Farian did.

Who or what was Milli Vanilli? A german music producer named Frank Farian had an insight: there are many great singers who lacked dancing ability and many great dancers that lacked singing ability. Maybe if these talented people specialized, then they could produce really high-quality music videos. Farian didn’t let the paying public in on this little insight: he packaged Milli Vanilli as if the dancers were the ones doing the singing on the record. Milli Vanilli one a Grammy and then famously had it taken away when the scam was revealed.

Of course, Indian films have always used the Milli Vanilli trick. They use actors who can dance and lip-sync to the words of professional singers. This trick enabled the Indian musical to survive because they didn’t require a complete musical all-arounder. They just required actors who could dance - they didn’t have to sing.

But Indian films typically required little true acting ability so most famous Indian film stars were dancers first and foremost and maybe interesting personalities but not really actors. The all-arounder of a true actor who could dance well enough not to provoke laughter was hard to find. This is the analogy to the 1999 Indian cricket team: today’s actors are one-dimensional.

To make serious movies you need serious actors and screen writers who have skill in writing serious drama. Bollywood doesn’t have this kind of talent. I think there is a need for serious films and serious acting but it definitely a different commodity that the typical masala film.

My feeling is that there is a market for serious movies and it cannot be satisfied by making slightly more serious song-and-dance movies. If you have dance, then you will have dancers, not actors. I think a there should be a separate genre of film where there is absolutely no song-and-dance. This will force a premium on acting ability and create a new form of artistic expression in India – one that is greatly needed.

I think it would be wise to make the movies in English. Yes – you throw away 90% of the potential movie going population, but most of them what masala films anyway. And making serious movies in English allows the potential to carve a niche in the greater English-speaking movie market – a huge industry. I really believe that there is an untapped potential here. Of course, it could be that I am just tired of reading subtitles.