Chocolate and Gold Coins

Friday, January 27, 2006

Foot Massage

Parents always take great pride in their children. But the things that give rise to that pride might be hard to explain. Perhaps it helps if you understand that a parent naturally wants to see a bit of himself or herself in the child.

My son is a very nice child. My wife worries that he is just too nice. She says, “He’s a sadhu. He needs to learn some street smarts or people will take advantage of him.”

My wife is suspicious of his friend H. She thinks that H very short and seems to have “small boy syndrome”: a tendency to whine about being picked on and a desire to pick on others. H is the type of boy a mother will worry will take advantage of a nice boy. He will start asking favors and then making demands. I think H is just a pretty normal boy and a good friend of my son’s.

The other day, an incident happened between my son and H (not a bad incident as you will see). My son told me about it and I told my wife. My wife was incredulous. She asked my son to explain. She came back positively beaming. She was so proud of my son.

So what happened? My son’s ankle hurt (growing pains). He asked H to give him a foot-massage just like daddy would give him. H did not know how to do this but my son taught him how.

Compare with this story of what made me proud of my son.

So here is a quiz: which parent –me or my wife–likes getting foot massages and which one is most likely to overeat ice cream?

Caste Mobility and Trickery

The other day, Half-Sigma posted a link to an older post of his about Jewish people in Europe in ancient times. He pointed out something obvious: no one really needed to be Jewish.

During the 2000 years of the Diaspora, it sucked to be Jewish. Not only were you discriminated against by the Christians, you also had to follow strict Jewish laws that took all the fun out of life. Yet it was pretty easy for Jews to simply give up the faith and blend in with goyish society. Remember, this was the old days before there were zillions of records about your existence. All a Jewish person had to do in the old days was just walk to the next town, tell everyone he was Catholic, and that was it.

Of course, most Jewish people never did that or else there would be no Jews today. Most Jews put up with the mistreatment because they believed in their religion and because they were loyal to their family and extended family. But some people did leave.

This raises an interesting question: why didn’t outcaste Hindus simply move to another village, change their names, and become high-caste Hindus? Obviously it wouldn’t be that easy, but then there was enormous incentive. Was the punishment for impersonating someone of higher caste death? Otherwise, why not go for it?

Sure, people might have been suspicious of that outside person. Who really knew what his background was? Maybe he brought his mom and dad along but who knew about them either. But if he was marriageable and a high-caste Hindu had a daughter and no money for dowry, there might be a deal. The trickster might be willing marry someone of high caste for little or no dowry, and he gains a wife and a family of people who will back his case as a bona fide high-caste Hindu. In a couple of generations, everyone will have forgotten that the trickster was of dubious origin.

When Islam came to India, low-caste and outcaste Hindus had the opportunity to simply leave Hinduism altogether. Therefore, why did some stay? They weren’t allowed into the temples. They were treated badly and had the worst jobs. Why put up with it?

Some obviously did leave and others stayed. The curious thing here is that even if there were no actual difference genetically between high-caste Hindus and low-caste Hindus thousands of years ago, after thousands of years of self-selection there might actually be differences. On the positive side, low-caste Hindus might be intensely loyal to family. On the negative side, they might have inherited a lack of ambition- if this is inheritable- since that would be one characteristic that their ancestors seemed to have had. And for high-caste Hindus, there might be a tendency to be ethically challenged because some of their ancestors were probably cheats. But, then again, Australia was founded by convicts and look where they are today.

The main question I have is, “What really kept the low-caste Hindus from pretending to be high-caste.” What was the enforcement mechanism and how effective was it. My guess is that more trickery took place than you might have guessed because trickery, if it is any good, is always unseen.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Greatbong’s R-Day Post

Today is Republic Day in India and since I have nothing much to write about I might as well point you to an excellent piece posted by Arnab the Greatbong.

He must be very proud to have had a grandfather who was a hero of the independence movement and feel a great sense of indebtedness to him for all that his grandfather suffered so that Arnab the Greatbong and others in India could be free.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

A Brief History of Restaurants

Ravikiran Rao who writes an interesting blog called the Examined Life wrote to me to ask about the origin of the restaurant in the west. He wondered how it came about. He could think of several cultural roadblocks that would hinder the starting of restaurants in India and he wondered how it evolved in the West.

There were restaurants in ancient Roman times. There is evidence in Pompeii of some restaurants. But there were no restaurants in Europe after the Roman times until about 250 years ago and they didn’t really become popular until after the French Revolution.

What factors hindered the formation of restaurants? A restaurant doesn’t seem like a high tech business. Anyone who can cook could set up a few tables in and sell food, right? But this business plan was a tough sell initially.

First, restaurant cooking is different than home cooking. You need to operate at a much larger scale and being a chef is specialized skill. However, there were chefs in Europe dating back many hundreds of years ago. They could have been employed by restaurants (at least in theory) but they were not. Many belonged to guilds that specialized in catering. Caterers would cook for special events like weddings and royal events. So people would have opportunities to eat restraurant-quality food. They just would not pay for it.

This is an important point: the tradition was that the diner never paid for food – the host pays. People might have liked to “eat out” but they were expecting an invitation. There are many examples today of markets that just don’t happen because people expect someone else to pay. For example, we expect someone else (an employer for example) to pay for our health care. Also, we are not comfortable with paying for an adopted child or for a vital transplant organ. Food seems to us to be a natural thing to pay for but people rarely (maybe never) paid for food 250 years ago.

Inns served food but I believe it was always included in the price of the room. This came with the culture of “host pays for food”. I think you can kind of understand this issue if you have ever flown on an airline that asked you to pay for your food (which some do). You think, “Hey, I’m captive here. I have no choice. It is unfair to make me have to pay for something like that.” So I doubt Inns really sold meals to the locals because they really weren’t in the business of selling food.

One factor hindering the restaurant model was that in the absence of restaurants, alternatives sprung up. Many people with disposable income hired their own cooks. Then they wanted to invite friends and family over because the cook was paid for, they might as well use him. This lead to a culture of “food barter”. People would invite business associates and politicians to dinner frequently.

Another establishment that served the purpose of a restaurant was a private club. Clubs were male-only and were by invitation only. Clubs were designed for meeting and drinking and discussing politics, but they later started serving meals as well.

The first restaurant in modern Europe opened in Spain in the early 18th Century. A. Boulanger started the first French restaurant in 1765 and also coined the word “restaurant” which derives from a French word for “something that restores” (a refreshment). His business was immediately sued by the trade guilds for copyright infringement. Apparently almost all recipes were copyrighted by these food guilds. But the court ruled in Boulanger’s favor and his business survived. And it proved to others that there could be a market for this kind business.

The French Revolution had an enormous impact on the French restaurant scene. Basically, it put out of business many hundreds of chefs who worked for the nobles. It also destroyed the food guilds. So many chefs with enormous skills needed some way of making a living. The restaurant model was already in existence. The revolution acted like a great supply shift. It lowered to cost of chefs and made it profitable to open hundreds of little restaurants. And like Say’s Law: supply created its own demand. In this case, the supply of restaurants effectively marketed the idea of dining in a restaurant and the culture of “host pays” was replaced with “diner pays”.

Apparently, these restaurants quickly spread throughout Europe and to America as well. The first restaurant in the U.S. started in Boston in 1794. Naturally, it was French.

Once restaurants came about, there was a natural venue for restaurants: the hotel. You had the captive guests that you had to feed anyway, so why not get double duty out of your dining hall by offering it as a restaurant to the locals? So once the culture of paying for food developed, it began replacing the older barter for food system and “host pays” system.

As disposable income rose, more people had the money to occasionally dine out. The culture of taking a girl to a restaurant for a date didn’t start until the early 20th century. A big factor for the growth of the restaurant industry was cheap transportation.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Book Learning and Common Sense

My son is extremely gifted in the ability to learn from books. He reads something once and he has memorized it. He reads books about whales and dinosaurs and can rattle of names and facts about 100’s of these creatures that you have probably never heard of before.

In general, he is gifted academically. He does well in all subjects.

However, my son seems curiously deficient in common sense. This became painfully obvious when I observed him yesterday play a game of basketball. As my wife put it, “He just doesn’t get it yet.” If we gave him a book on basketball, he would probably be an expert in the strategy in no time. But in just playing the game, he is not picking it up at all. He lacks the ability to see the world around him and make some sense out of what he sees.

Let me give some examples:
1. No one would ever pass the ball to him because he would never make much effort to be “open”- free of a defender; and he was always in a faraway corner too far from the other player to pass to him.
2. He would never get a rebound even though he is the tallest child there because he wouldn’t get up close to the basket. Also he wouldn’t jump up as the ball fell to get above the other kids who were jumping.
3. He never seemed to figure out that if he simply threw the ball in the air, the chance that the other team would get it was better than 50-50.
4. He didn’t figure out that if he spread out his arms, he would make it harder for other kids to pass the ball.

Surely he will learn over time. He isn’t stupid and he can learn easily. But what I thought was odd is that he would need to be taught all of these things. I would have thought that he could pick some of this up from seeing what other kids were doing and what things were working for the other team.

It occurred to me that there might be two kinds of intelligence going on here. One kind of intelligence helps you learn in a formal setting but another helps you learn in an informal setting. A person who is excellent at extracting information from books could be a great academic but a person who is gifted with the ability to simply observe and make reasonable inferences might be better at running a business. I also would guess that a pure book-learning academic would probably never win any major prizes since that spark of genius seems to start with a great intuitive hunch.

I hope that over time my son begins developing the kind of common sense that will aid him in situations in which his book learning doesn’t help. I think common sense is something you can probably learn over time. But maybe one has to have a bit of natural ability in this area to be truly gifted.

Well, in any case, I will love my son just as much.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Pathan is Now An All-Arounder

The second test at Faisalabad has started and something interesting has happened. No, it isn’t that Pakistan is clobbering the Indian bowling attack – that was expected. And I expect the Indians will return the favor when their time comes to bat.

No, what is interesting is that India, for the first time since facing Bangladesh in 2000, has gone in with a 5-bowler attack. This means that Irfan Pathan is now an all-arounder: he will bat seventh and take the spot of a specialty batsman. And guess which specialty batsman?

The test also, in effect, marks the end of Sourav Ganguly’s illustrious test cricket career. If India continues with Pathan as all-arounder, there will be no spot for Ganguly in the squad.

Now this is speculation, but I can guess what the row between Dravid and Ganguly was in the last test. Dravid originally selected Ganguly to open and Ganguly felt he should have been warned that he was been put into this new position before the eve of the Test (like Ganguly warned any of his makeshift openers?). Dravid sensed that if Ganguly failed as opener, Dravid would be blamed for ending Ganguly’s career. He simply decided then and there that he would open. And then it dawned on Ganguly that he had copulated with himself. That is when he got into the big argument with Dravid. But Dravid had made up his mind: he didn’t really think Ganguly could respect his authority so he wasn’t going to change his mind.

But now Dravid has painted himself in a corner. If Yuvraj does well at number 5, can Dravid get back into the middle order? This is very interesting.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Love on a Railroad Berth

I am reading an interesting and sometimes funny book about India by novelist Khushwant Singh called We Indians (1982). I am skipping around a bit and, for some reason I skipped to the chapter titled, “Sex in Indian Life.”

Mr. Singh doesn’t really give much insight in this area; he focuses on one remarkable anecdote from his experience. He was riding in a sleeper car probably similar to the one my family took to Mysore. A newlywed came on board and requested that he move to an upper berth so they could sleep together. He obliged. And then he gives a pretty graphic description of how one couple spent their wedding night.

The couple was apparently both well educated. He was a junior professor and she was a teacher. Neither was particularly good looking, but that might be in the eye of the beholder. They were complete strangers: they spent at least an hour trying to get to know one another and their parents and such.

Then it was time to “get down to business.” They did the nasty right there in the bottom berth while Mr. Khushwant Singh was looking the entire time. Note: if you ask strangers in India to kindly look away while you and your spouse perform sex acts, they will likely sneak a peek at you anyway. Don’t expect privacy.

The scene he describes is possibly the least erotic consensual sex act in literature. It was more like going to the bathroom. No clothes were removed – no need. I learned that women who wear saris often went without undergarments at that time (1980’s). The “hai Ram” at the climax was a curious touch.

At 3:00 A.M., the conductor rudely awakened the couple: they had come to their stop and had to disembark immediately. He had fallen asleep with his bare bum exposed. She was similarly indiscreet. They quickly dressed and left; and then stopped the train to reboard and find a lost earring.

Another male passenger on the adjoining berth sighed, “It is love.” Mr. Singh argued with him: “What kind of love is that, they are strangers.” He also expressed disgust at their free sex show. But the other passenger was in no mood to argue. I got the impression that the other passenger also viewed the free sex show and greatly appreciated it.

I am sure that the incident he describe happened but I have to think that the couple was perhaps a bit odd.

So here is an ethical question for you: if a couple joins you in a railroad berth or some other public place and asks you to look away while they do the nasty and you agree, do you have the ethical duty to look away or are they being silly for even asking the question?

When Does the Past Become Irrelevant?

The comment thread in this previous post took a decidedly negative and disappointing turn. I was reminded of something I read on Suhail Kazi’s blog just a few days ago about Godwin’s law: “As a comment thread gets longer, the probability of someone making a reference to Hitler or the holocaust approaches one.”

But ignoring this for the time being, the question is, “Do things that happened very long ago matter?” For example, in the sentence: “5000 years ago, X happened, and it this is relevant for us today,” what statement could we place in the “X” box and make the statement truthful? While I agree that knowing history is useful, what fact from 5000 years ago, if we knew it, would change our ideas or our opinions about anyone living today?

If, for example, the high caste Hindus came from Siberia 5000 years ago and enslaved everyone else and their descendants still are the high-caste Hindus and the descendants of the enslaved are still the low-caste Hindus, then does this fact have relevance to caste relations today? My feeling is that whether these people came from outside India 5000 years ago or 50000 years ago (when India was empty) is not so important. Intuitively, I think that things long ago are just less relevant.

But what is exactly is the rule here? When does the past become irrelevant? Or how quickly does the "relevance factor" decline with age?

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Invasion of the Bread People

Here is a fascinating post (Sepia Mutiny) and discussion of some genealogical analysis of castes in India. Before I discuss it, though, I would like to make some points about the “Aryan Invasion Theory”.

There are some people in India who, for some reason, think it really matters to India today what might have happened to their culture thousands of years ago. And, for some reason, many of these people have their hearts set on a notion of denying that India was ever invaded and conquered by some Proto-Indo-European people (henceforth referred to as the bread people). We know that India was conquered by the British, and by various Moslem people, and even invaded by the Greeks (Alexander) so why would it break your heart if you found out that the bread people invaded and conquered India?

I don’t have a dog in this fight but I do have an opinion: at the end of the day, there is no way to deny the invasion of the bread people. Why? There are two reasons: there is bread in India and there is the bread people’s language.

These deniers like to create a straw man argument: there is no archeological evidence for any invasion. You mean there is no archeological evidence for bread making in India? There is no archeological evidence for Sanskrit in India? What else would you be looking for? We don’t really know what else the bread people had besides bread and Sanskrit so absence of anything else really proves nothing.

The genetic evidence above seems to suggest that most of the distant ancestors (I think about 95%) of all caste members in India can be traced right back to India. This is presented as a counter argument to the idea that the bread people invaded and conquered India. This is nonsense. In fact, I would bet that 75% of the genes of the bread people – once they got to India – could be traced to India. Let me explain.

Let us suppose the bread people discovered this wonderful new grain and new food that gave them a nutritional advantage over other tribes. Over time, the bread people would have grown more prosperous and numerous than other tribes in the area. There would have been the temptation to conquer the neighboring tribes and take over their land so they could grow more wheat and make more bread.

Suppose they succeeded. Typically, there are more conquered people than conquerors. The conquerors would have wanted the land but there would be too few of their own people to work that land. There would have been plenty of the conquered to work the land. But if they didn’t speak the same language, how could they work together? It could be that the conqueror would think, “There are more of them than there are of us, let us learn their language.” Or he might have thought, “If I keep whipping him, he will eventually catch my meaning.” My guess, “Everyone learns the language of the guy with the whip.”

So the language spreads and the knowledge of wheat growing and bread making spreads. Does that mean that the bread people just wiped out the other people? No. It never happens. The conqueror counts on the conquered to be his peasants and other jobs as well. What happens is that the conqueror begins noticing that some of the younger female peasants are kind of cute. As Amit would say, fun happened, (from the conqueror’s viewpoint). Mixing of genes happened. After a few hundred years, a new ethic group happened. If you don’t think that could happen – just look at Mexico.

This process repeats itself many times over. One fine day, the bread people arrive at modern day Pakistan. By this time, they have already crossed though all of Persia. Already, there has been much mixing of genes and maybe mixing of cultures as well. By this time, the bread people look to everyone like just another Indian ethnic group and most of their ancestors could be traced right back to India. They would have had tanned skin. They would have had dark hair. They would look very much like Pakistanis do today.

The invasion deniers will argue that maybe the bread simple passed from one people to another by trade and the language along with it. Both of these are far-fetched but the second claim is ridiculous. Can you image a people saying, “Our language stinks. Let’s learn their language?” But even the idea of trade leading to bread making is not so likely – there is no evidence that this happened in ancient times. Just look at how reluctant South Indians are to eat bread today when they can get it in the market. Can you imagine how hard it would be to convince a people who never ate bread before to change their whole economy from some other grain production to wheat and bread production?

Here is an interesting point: if there is no bread in south India and since the Dravidian languages are clearly not the language of the bread people, why do people think that the high-caste Hindus in the South were bread people? It is ridiculous. If these people were bread people they would have brought their bread and their language with them. There ample evidence that they brought neither: the South still speaks Dravidian and they still don’t eat bread (for the most part). Therefore, I would guess that the high-caste Hindus in the South are as Dravidian as anyone else.

There is really no evidence that the bread people brought the caste system. First, they didn’t bring anything like a caste system to any of the other places that the bread people conquered. Second, the caste system exists in the South where the bread people never came. My guess is that the caste thing was always an Indian thing. The bread people were unable and/or unwilling to change it much like the British.

Also, there is little evidence that Hinduism, as it is practiced today, originated outside of India. In fact, quite the contrary, it almost could not have originated outside of India. What ever was the religion in India 5000 years ago, it has vanished long ago. The Hinduism of today is probably a complete rework of the ancient belief as a reaction to Buddhism. And since Vishnu and Shiva are both worshipped in the South, which the bread people never conquered, my guess is that these two are both 100% Indian deities (if that matters to you).

So who are the Dravidians and where did they come from? Their dark skin indicates that they have probably been in India a long time – maybe 30000 years. Their round eyes indicates that they are not related to any of the east Asian people and are probably related to the people who later settled in Europe. But not too much can be made of this – the Europeans and the Indians probably don’t share any common ancestors for 30000 years.

If anything I have written breaks anyone’s heart, I apologize. But I think that if Indians spent less time thinking about where they have been and more time thinking about where they are going, they would be further along by now. (This last idea was suggested by this comment).

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Medical Condition

Ever since I have come back from India, I haven’t been feeling well. I have frequent headaches. Sometime I feel shortness of breath. And there is always a persistent discomfort in my abdomen: it is a sharp pain in my lower waist.

The only time I feel okay is when I take off my belt and loosen the button on my trousers (which I cannot do at work). I think my problem is that I ate too much in India.

The only cure for me is diet and exercise. Oh dear.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Credit Card Ouch

We received our credit card bill and we were in for a terrible surprise. We were charged 3% for all of our purchases overseas. I should point out that this isn’t unusual but I was not expecting it and I might have saved some money by shopping around.

Credit card companies have always charged a fee for transactions in foreign currency but until recently, they have been completely hidden in the exchange rate. You would never have guessed that they were actually charging a special fee for using your credit card overseas. One or more states sued the credit card companies and now they have to disclose their fees. Well this is the interesting part: the actual credit card company only charges your bank (the one that issued the card) 1% on foreign transactions. But the bank turns around and passes on that 1% charge and adds an extra 2% (or more) on top of that. What do you get for that extra fee – nothing. The 2% is pure profit as best as I can figure out. It is a fee for a service the bank didn’t actually have to perform – a swindle by any other name. And let me tell you, I am not amused.

Why hasn’t competition driven this transaction fee down to the 1% that the credit card companies charge? I’m not sure but I guess that it really isn’t a big factor in determining which credit card people choose. They choose the credit card for the low annual fee and the low interest rate but never think about the transaction fee on foreign purchases. But it would really pay to shop around if you plan to use your credit card overseas. I can tell you one bank not to deal with: Citibank. They have given me nothing but grief. I would be very happy to read some day of the CEO of Citibank going to prison for a long time. He deserves it.

Should you use traveler’s checks? I’m not sure. I think the credit card companies actually provide a really good service by negotiating an excellent exchange rate, but the extra fees largely negate this effect. It is a real bother to use traveler’s checks and I think it might be better to find a bank that only charges a 2% transaction fee or less.

Here are some links to some news articles on the subject. Link1, link2, link3, link4, wikipedia.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Peons and Pooh-Bahs

Here is an excellent photo from Greatbong (this post was inspired by another post by Greatbong here). It is a photo of that a senior police officer in India being carried on the shoulders of a junior one. The photo looks as if – perhaps – the senior officer is exploiting his position at the expense of the junior officer.

Of course, we don’t really know what is happening here. It could be that the junior officer’s greatest wish in life was to carry a senior officer across a flood on his shoulders and the senior officers is merely indulging him. Or perhaps the senior officer will melt like the witch in the Wizard of Oz if he should ever touch water, (in such case, a double reason to pity the poor sap underneath). But it would seem that the senior officer had a very nicely pressed uniform that he just did not want to get ruined by the floodwaters. Indeed, he does look nice in his pressed uniform. It would be a pity if the junior officer would happen to trip and fall and send the senior officer headfirst into the muck, wouldn’t it?

This is something that seems different between Americans and Indians. It isn’t that Americans don’t abuse their authority if they have some to abuse. It is that we lack the imagination to abuse it in this way. When faced with a flood, the thought that, “Maybe I could avoid getting my clothes wet if I have one of my peons carry me,” is just not a thought that would naturally occur to most Americans.

The peon and pooh-bah culture is not unique to India. Europe in the seventeenth century was in many ways the zenith of the peon and pooh-bah culture. Consider Louis XIV of France. He spent everyday the entire day thinking of new ways for people to make him feel more important. This was his life’s work: being the great pooh-bah of France. His greatest accomplishment was inventing new positions to assist him in the lavatory. After using the facilities, one really wouldn’t expect a royal to sully his hands with “paperwork.” No, Louis XIV merely said, “Let the royal bum be wiped,” and it was – with a smile.

You tell this story to a classroom of American kids and you will get a very predictable response, “Ewww Yuck!!” The idea of strange hand touching this area does not appeal (well, not to most people). But they fail to understand the real value of having such a servant. The real value comes in the art of conversation or more precisely the art of belittling others in conversation. A monarch from a lesser nation comes visiting. Louis XIV deftly steers the conversation towards lavatory servants (great skill is needed to steer polite conversation in this direction). The other royal politely and innocently inquires, “What is a bum-wiper?” And at this point, Louis XIV exclaims, “You mean, you wipe your own?? Mon Dieu!”

This is where Louis XIV and Bill Gates would differ. Both would love to flaunt their wealth. But Bill Gates would naturally think to do so by buying some expensive toy – like his own aircraft carrier. That would be cool – I would like my own aircraft carrier. But he wouldn’t see any point in having a bum-wiper. He lacks the imagination to see the value in such a servant. Servants merely serve, and if you could do it yourself, why bother having a servant do it. But the pooh-bah thinks, “Why should I do it if I could get a peon to do it for me?” In fact, the most important things for a pooh-bah to have a peon do are the things the pooh-bah could do for himself: that shows true power.

I would not say Americans know nothing of the peon and pooh-bah culture. Everyone in the military is a peon and almost everyone is simultaneously a pooh-bah. But civilian life isn’t much like that. Most Americans just aren’t very good at acting the role of the peon. And most Americans don’t like pooh-bahs and would not want to be seen as one. And most Americans lack experience acting in the role of being the one served: service is just too expensive here. Other than getting a plate of spaghetti slung in their direction, most American hardly know what service is.

Let me give a trivial example. I was having breakfast at the Accord Metropolitan in Chennai (very nice hotel). They have an excellent breakfast buffet with a variety of western and Indian breakfast items. I liked getting the fresh toast. You can easily spot an American if there is a breakfast buffet with a toaster. The American will always insist on toasting his toast himself. He wants to control the little darkness control knob and the thought that maybe he really isn’t allowed to mess around with the knob never occurs to him, “I promise, I’ll set it back to the old setting once I’m done.” He wants to see the toast slowly move on the conveyor belt and smell the bread being toasted. And he insists on having it on his plate the instant it is toasted; cold toast is like stale donuts: all of the calories and a fraction of the taste. The Indian would never bother – I never saw any toasting his own toast. They would prefer to say, “Let there be toast,” and be satisfied when it emerges miraculously at the table.

I don’t get the whole pooh-bah thing but my wife does. She would love being a pooh-bette. She loves being served – it must be in the blood. She called for room service almost every day we were in India. She loved the idea that people would just come to deliver food to the door. She loved having her clothes professionally washed and pressed, “Oh look, I have pressed underwear; I’ve never had that before.”

At the end of the trip, she looked at me and said, “It’s all your fault.” She could have had servants: maids, cooks, gardeners, and chauffeurs. She could also have lived in a house the size of our living room, but she would have had servants to clean it. So which is the better life: having the fancy car you drive yourself and the fancy house you clean yourself or the tiny house with a maid and auto-rickshaw service at your beck and call?

But the peon and pooh-bah society definitely has a dark side. Some people like the officer above want to abuse what little power they have. Greatbong relates a story of a sadistic art teacher he had when he was 12. The teacher viciously ripped up the work of one unpopular student for no reason other than “I don’t like your face.” In a classic Greatbong piece, he images what that teacher might have said to his wife:

Wow what an achiever. Today he is going to go his dingy Bhowanipore hovel and over a dinner of rice and daal tell his fat wife--Guess what I did today! I made a 12-year-old boy cry. While his wife would reply---"Ooh you hunk of a man you. Come to bed bobba and ride me like a rickshaw".

Yes even at age 12 I was having such thoughts.

As Amit would say: read the whole thing.

But to some extent we can guess that the art teacher was being the ugly pooh-bah because he was the unfortunate peon to someone else. It is an endless cycle of abuser and the abused.

Indian culture seems to perpetuate the roles of peon and pooh-bah. The whole caste thing was based on the idea that some people were born to serve and others were born to be served. The classic literature tends to reinforce the roles as well. Remember how Drona treats Ekalavya (who loses his thumb). Drona is not the villain in the story, Ekalavya is. He was a tribal with no right to learn the art of archery from a pooh-bah like Drona. Ekalavya “steals” the wisdom by creating a statue of Drona to learn his wisdom. But Drona cleverly foils the “upstart” Ekalavya by using his own peon nature against himself. The lesson: there are peons and pooh-bahs – know which one you are and don’t make the pooh-bahs angry. In fact, this could be the lesson from nearly every piece of ancient literature.

Let me relate a little anecdote about how the peon-pooh-bah culture. In 1995, my wife and I and her family went to a craft fair to buy a bronze icon (a very nice piece we still own and treasure). We met some government official there and he invited us to chat with him. I think the only reason why he was mildly interested in us was because I was American and not that many Americans came to craft fairs in the early 1990’s. He was definitely acting out the role of the pooh-bah: lounging in his chair and giving the others who wanted to talk with him the, “I don’t have time for you,” look. Then a minor film star showed up. He immediately transformed and went into pure peon mode. He jumped out of his seat ran after this film star and treated him like the pooh-bah. My mother-in-law couldn’t understand why he would care so much about a mere film star. I said, “This is Tamil Nadu, land of MGR and Jayalalitha. A film star today maybe his boss tomorrow.”

And talking of politics, there is a clear connection from a peon-pooh-bah culture and socialism. Europe went down that road and so did India. But America was never into that. You see most people in a peon-pooh-bah culture are necessarily peons and peons always silently resent their pooh-bahs. They always wish for the day when they can turn tables. So when given a vote, the people will vote for the politician who wants to turn those tables. There is a terrible irony here: the vote makes the peon feel like a mini-pooh-bah but he uses that power to vote for conditions that guarantee that his children and grandchildren will always be peons.

One final note: The first test between India and Pakistan started today and Ganguly is in the team. Ganguly was pooh-bah for five years. Dravid was his peon and Ganguly made him keep wickets, something Dravid clearly was uncomfortable with. But Dravid was a good peon. And he thoroughly deserves his time as a pooh-bah; all the great players have this opportunity: Bradman, Lara, Gavaskar, Miandad, Tendulkar, you name them. So how will the former peon Dravid treat his former pooh-bah Ganguly? If you understand India, you know that Dravid has to make Ganguly know that he is the peon. He has to serve Dravid. What role will Ganguly have? Well…Jaffer and Gambhir are out, who will open?

It can imagine the conversation:

Dravid: “You know Saurav, I have a very special role for you.”

Ganguly: “Really?” (a little unsure of what this role might be)

Dravid: “I envision you as our new opener.”

Ganguly envisions a 100 mph bouncer from Shoaib Akhtar aimed straight for his head (so does Dravid but they the images give different emotive responses).

Ganguly: “I’m not really comfortable opening in tests. I’ve never done that before. Is there some other role for me?”

Dravid: “Well, that’s too bad. But there is one other role I can imagine. I need a personal assistant of sorts. (dramatic pause) Have you ever read about Louis XIV?”

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Trip to Mysore

Two posts that I read recently convinced me that I should blog about a trip to Mysore (home of the Mysore bonda) that my family took. The first is this post from Kiruba Shankar. The connection between that post and this one will be obvious very shortly. The second post is this old post by Vikrum Sequeira. The connection between that post and this one is not so obvious and you will have to wait to the end of this post to find out.

We spent nearly a week in the state of Karnataka in Southern India. We were there primarily to visit the Kabini River Lodge in Nagarahole National Park. That stay deserves a post in itself, so this post will describe the journey.

The start of the journey was leaving our nice hotel room at the Accord. We checked out very late (7:00 P.M.) but the Accord gave us permission to do so. This is something different in India: hotels and other places really go out of their way to accommodate people, (well, people like our family with some money). We then boarded a sleeping train for an overnight journey to Mysore.

My son absolutely loved the sleeping train. He loved climbing on the bunks and looking out the window and maybe just the fact that this was like a hotel on wheels. I absolutely hated it. It was one of the worst nights I have spent in years. I didn’t sleep more than an hour: the bunk was so hard and uncomfortable.

I’ve gotten soft over time. Ten years ago, I didn’t mind but now I do. I told my parents later that I’m getting too old for that type of thing and my father (who is 40 years older than me) laughed and said, “welcome to the club, but I didn’t think you would join so soon.”

One thing I didn’t like about the train was the toilet. It really reeked. And my son had an accident trying to use it (on a shaky train) and needed to change clothes. I tend to overreact in such situations and get all flustered. My wife gets irritated: “Why are you telling the whole train that he had an accident?” It never occurred to me to care what other people on the train might think.

We then went to the Lalitha Mahal Hotel. Here is a picture of the Lalitha Mahal Hotel (via Kiruba Shankar).
It turns out that Kiruba visited the same hotel just this week so there are many other views of this hotel there. We saw all of those places – excellent photos.

The hotel used to be the summer vacation palace of the Maharaja of Mysore. The main palace is in the heart of Mysore and we visited that as well. The hotel was nice but the room was only comfortable – a big step down from the Accord. The room had a funny odor that bothered my wife a lot. I think it was the bed covers. I don’t think they had been washed in years. We learned to remove those immediately and keep them in a drawer. A curious custom in Indian hotels is to come around at 6:00 and remove the bed covers. Well – we already had done that.

We spent much of the day just recovering from the (terrible) train trip. I think it would have been more sensible to fly into Bangalore and take a car to Mysore. But, anyway, I eventually got up and walked around the nice gardens at the hotel.

The food at the hotel was good. We ate the Mysore Thali that offered an excellent sampling of local foods. My son tried the spaghetti – which was a mistake.

In the afternoon, we visited the palace of the Maharaja’s. It is enormous. Obviously, being a Maharaja was a good life. Here is one photo and a link to a description of the palace.

We went to the Kabini River lodge, had a wonderful stay, and then returned to Mysore to the Lalitha Mahal Hotel. We then spent the day doing some shopping. We spent much of it in a government run handicraft store. The government subsidizes the local artists so that the crafts do not die out. But I saw no need for a government intervention: there was plenty of market in the U.S. and other places for this artwork. You could get nice carved elephants, furniture, paintings, inlaid wood scenes, and other wonderful things, for very good prices. If anything, the government intervention here seemed to be stifling competition and variety (the artists seemed to be in a rut in terms of themes).

On the way back to the train station, the driver could not find room for our luggage in the car so he put it in a rack on the roof (which is not at all uncommon). What was odd and made me very upset when I found out is that he had not bothered to strap the luggage down. He told my father-in-law that it was just a short trip to the train station and he would be careful driving there. Well, luckily for us, none of the luggage fell off, but I saw no reason to take such a risk. But one reason why he was lazy was because he lacked bungee cords (the big rubber-band like straps that hold luggage). India still tends to use rope and rope takes time to use. I did see one car with bungee cords but that was the exception. They cost more, but they save time. It is interesting that the idea of paying a little more for a device that save a little time each trip is not popular in India but taking a risk (with someone else’s very expensive luggage) to save some time is something Indians will consider.

I slept a little better on the train back to Chennai. Going back to the Accord, I felt all disheveled since I had not shaved or bathed and had slept in my clothes. I joked with my wife that I was reminded of the scene in the film “Die Another Day” in which James Bond walks into a swanky Hong Kong hotel after escaping from prison. He has a long beard. He is only wearing pajamas and looks like he hasn’t bathed in years. But with his normal James Bond swagger and aplomb, he just strolls into the hotel like he owns it. The fact that he has no way to pay for anything bothers him not a bit. My wife appreciated the analogy.

This is where the post from Vikram Sequeira fits in. He describes how people from lower classes in India are excluded from places like Barista (a coffee house chain much like Starbucks). In many cases, the people themselves feel they don’t belong in there. I think is somewhat natural to ask the question, “Do I belong here?” if you are not dressed appropriately or if you haven’t bathed recently. But I didn’t really feel that way entering the Accord. I knew that I was welcome in there even if I didn’t smell very pleasant. After all, the showers were right there in our room. But unlike James Bond, I didn’t have to bluff about paying for it.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

The Homework Option

My son came home with some homework and a curious option. It was a slip of paper from his teacher excusing him from one homework assignment, which my son could use at his discretion.

“I won’t use it now, Daddy, because this homework is easy. I will save it for a really hard homework.”

“But what if you use it for a really hard homework and the next day the teacher gives an assignment that is three times harder. You would have wasted your option.”

This made me think. How would one use such an option optimally? It is like an option to marry someone or to buy a house or take a job opportunity or some other decision that is nearly impossible reverse (at least in the short term). You never know what better choices might lie ahead, but you also may be throwing away great opportunities in the present.

There is a theory that deals with such options. You never exercise the option early on. You use the first few opportunities to create an estimate of the probability distribution of future opportunities. Once you have an estimated probability distribution, you then can make a decision rule which is always: accept the option if the opportunity is better than or equal to x(t). The variable x(t) declines with t – at some point you accept almost anything.

The curious thing about the homework option is that the distribution of homework assignments is not random. The instructor creates the homework and decides how hard to make it. He might, in fact, purposefully hide a really hard assignment way near the end of the semester just to trip everybody up. Students who still had the option would then avoid the trap.

I have been trying to convince my son that this is exactly his teacher’s strategy. Even if it isn’t, I don’t really care: I just want my son to do all of his homework.

Time Out

When my son acts up, we might put him in a “time-out” for as many minutes as his age. He is supposed to be silent for seven minutes. He has not needed a time-out in a few months.

In December, I was supposed to renew my car’s safety inspection. I should have done it as soon as I came back from India, but I forgot. Yesterday, I got stopped and got a ticket. My son was in the back seat.

While we were waiting for the officer to fill out the paperwork, my son said, “We’ve been waiting a long time.”


“Do we have to wait for forty-three minutes?”

Friday, January 06, 2006

Why Are They Doing It That Way: The Answer

A week ago, I wrote this post asking, “Why are they doing it that way?” It is a basic question: “Why would people in different countries perform the same task in different ways?” It isn’t just about technology: even if we insist on low tech tools, they way Indians and the way Americans would approach the same task would be different. Why is that?

Here is the observation and the four questions again:

The task was to remove the sod from about 400 square feet of lawn. Six workers worked the entire morning doing this task. …

There were six people to remove the sod. Two were older and were clearly supervisors. They did no physical work whatsoever. They only passed a few comments. In the late morning, both of the supervisors left and the work proceeded as before.

All four of the workers had nice shoes (not sandals). They all removed their nice shoes and placed them in one corner of the garden before starting work.

Of the four workers, two had the task of removing sod with a tool that looked a bit like a pick. Actually, it looked like a cross between a pick and a shovel: it was a tool you lifted and brought down with a pick motion but the blade was wider like a shovel’s. The tool looked thoroughly inefficient for removing sod and it did take an enormous amount of effort to use this tool as evident by the sweat the two workers were generating in the cool morning.

The remaining two workers picked up the sod with their hands and placed it in wok-shaped bowls. Each bowl was about 18 inches in diameter and could hold about 15 to 20 pounds of sod. They would lift each bowl to their shoulder and carry it 20 yards away to the dumping area. The two workers will bowls could not keep up with the two workers with picks.

As I observed this, I had four questions:

1. Why have two supervisors?
2. Why use bowls to move the sod?
3. Why use picks instead of shovels?
4. The picks looked very dangerous with bare feet. Why didn’t these workers protect their toes from injury?

1. Why two supervisors? The clue is the age of the supervisors: they were too old to do manual labor anymore. Chances are that there is an implicit contract here between the lodge and the workers that if they work diligently for many years, eventually they will become supervisors. This policy might lead to an excess of supervisors but so be it; it serves the purpose of motivating the workers to stay with the lodge.

2. Why use bowls to move sod? Why not use wheelbarrows? This one is partly a mystery because I cannot think of a really good explanation why the lodge would not use wheelbarrows. But a partial explanation is that wheelbarrows might not be very common in that part of India (or in other parts of India for that matter).

Wheelbarrows don’t work in mud, and India tends to be the land of mud during the monsoon. Therefore there must be some other tool that the locals use instead of wheelbarrows when the land is muddy. I haven’t seen the tool but I imagine that it might be two horizontal poles with either a cloth or a tub between them. This tool would require two people to use but it would be otherwise ideal for transporting heavy loads over marshy ground. A poor people cannot afford a tool for good weather and another for bad, so the make do with the two-pole-tool for all twelve months of a year.

The reason these workers weren’t using this tool on that day might have been partly a miscalculation. The supervisors thought that two workers with bowls would do about as well as the two workers with the two-pole-tool, but they were wrong. One person with a wheelbarrow could have done the work of the two people with bowls, so the lodge really should think about buying some wheelbarrows.

3. Why use the pick tool to remove sod? Why not use a shovel? The clue here is that the workers didn’t work with shoes on. It would be impossible the use a shovel with bare feet. Shovels are not popular in India because boots are seldom worn in India, and no one has a need for boots because shovels are not sold in India – it is a classic vicious cycle. And it is a pity that boots and shovels aren’t used in India because shovels use leg power and our legs are many times stronger than our arms (if you don’t believe me, imagine trying to pedal a bicycle with your arms).

Europe was lucky that the weather was colder in a way. They needed heavy boot for the cold weather and tended to use them year-around. So tools that could be used with boots (like shovels) could evolve in Europe but not in India.

4. Why don’t these workers try to protect their toes? The risk of injury is real. But it isn’t certain and it apparently isn’t high enough to motivate the workers to wear any protective gear for their feet. To understand why not, we should ask, “How much would you be willing to pay to avoid a 1 in 10,000 chance of losing a toe?” We in the west might pay $50 or $100 to avoid such a risk because it sounds really scary. But in India, the people cannot afford to pay so much and the risk of losing a toe might be less scary. I am not saying they don’t mind it; I’m saying they don’t fear it so very much because their life is already hard and pain is not uncommon. They can take some more pain. So they might pay a $1 to avoid such a risk. Well, what safety device for your toes can you get in India or anywhere for $1?

To some extent, it could be that safety, or disregard for safety, might be part of the culture. If others start wearing safety equipment, you might think you should have it also. In other words, safety needs to be marketed in India, and no one is doing it yet. It might be a tough sell at first, but there are definitely some safety devices that Indians would like to have.

The interesting thing about this exercise is that it reveals a lot about markets. For example, you might be able to market shovels in India to people who make their living digging, but only if you market the boots that go with them. Also the safety aspect of the boots might be a bit of a selling point as well, although maybe not so much initially until many other people start buying boots. Also, there might be more of a market for wheelbarrows in India if properly marketed.

Also there is another point: tools in one place might have a use in another place. For example, the two-pole-tool seems to me to be a tool that would be useful occasionally when wheelbarrows really wouldn’t work: like taking things up staircases or across marshy land. Is there a market for such a tool here that no one has tapped?

I would like to acknowledge the help from Kunal, XC-135, and Ravikiran in answering these questions.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Three Views of Cricket in India

View 1.
I am sitting in a wonderfully luxurious hotel suite in Chennai (the Accord Metropolitan) flipping through to channels on the television and really wishing for the day that computers with Internet access become standard in hotel rooms. There’s really nothing I want to watch. A Bollywood song and dance is entertaining for a moment but I surf on.

Then I see a cricket match. I recognize the teams as India and Sri Lanka in their ODI uniforms. “But that series was over weeks ago”, I thought. Then they show a close-up of former coach John Wright. “This must be from years ago.” Then I see that the bowler is Ashish Nehra. Then there is a commercial break and there is an announcement that this was ESPN’s “Glorious India” series. Then I figure it out: this is from the NatWest series in England from three years ago.

I just thought, “how pathetic.” I mean really, how cricket crazy must someone be to sit and watch a match from three years ago that you already know the result?

View 2.
My wife and father-in-law have to run some errands and I tag along. We stop in a travel agency to pick up some tickets for a flight to Kerela. There is a little television on in the back and we can hear the audio. It is a test match between India and Sri Lanka. I imagine productivity in India plummets during the World Cup.

View 3.
I am in a car with my family going from Kabini to Mysore, a journey of maybe 100 kilometers (60 miles). It is Sunday and the children are playing cricket. I count the matches going on. There was one in every village we passed. I counted 10 matches on the way.

I could see that in the small villages, these cricket matches were the biggest form of entertainment and fun around. Life was hard so the cricket was pure joy. And the kids could play too. I saw one budding Tendulkar lace a scorching drive right past the bowler and across the field and across the road just after our car passed. Believe me, that was a solid shot.

I believe the talent in Indian cricket will blossom like anything in the coming years. That is because they will be able to tap the enthusiasm in these village cricketers. At one time, one-third of all the major league baseball shortstops came from a tiny village in the Dominican Republic. Why? - because there was nothing but baseball and sugar cane in that village. There’s nothing but cricket and rice or wheat for most of these Indian village children as well. They might as well dream big dreams because that is one luxury they can afford. And some of those dreams will come true.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Why Is It Taking So Long?

I am sitting in the hotel restaurant. There are only two other tables with customers. There are five waiters to serve us. I ordered a South Indian filter coffee 20 minutes before and I am wondering, “Why is it taking so long?”

The service in India is actually very good in general but often on the slow side. If you have a special request, they will bend over backwards to satisfy it. We wanted applesauce for our son when he had an upset stomach: they mashed the apples up and prepared applesauce from scratch. They were always extremely polite and courteous. But they did take their time and often we had to remind them that we had orderred something.

I observed the wait staff and it was humorous to see that most of them often didn’t know what they were supposed to do. They would stand around but in a way that they wouldn’t observe the customer if he had a request. They were always very quick to remove your plate (often before I had a chance to finish) but if I wanted to order coffee or tea, or get the bill, I had a hard time finding anyone who would look my way.

What occurred to me was that there might be a tendency in India to squander labor in the way we in the west squander water. We think, “Water is cheap; I’m not going to waste time trying to find ways to conserve it.” In India, if a problem with service can be fixed by either hiring more servers or by using existing servers more efficiently, they will usually opt for the former. Labor is cheap; why waste time thinking about how to conserve it?

But it seems a bit jarring to an American. We tend to think of wasting labor in the way people in India might view wasting food. We think that labor is precious and shouldn’t be wasted. But labor isn’t precious in India.

Over time, this will change. Firms will not squander labor because labor costs are rising over time.

One good thing about Indian hotel restaurants is that there were buffets for breakfast and dinner in most cases. This meant you didn’t have to wait for your food and the variety was wonderful. But since these meals were included in the tariff, there was a strong incentive the store up food in your “hump” like a camel in the morning and try to make it last until evening. The problem with this strategy is that the “hump” has great staying power and I took mine back to the U.S.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Carnival of the Capitalists

Please look for this post under business (I overlooked it before) and this post under investing.

Here it is. Finally.

This took forever. I'm not doing this again - ever.

Thanks to Jay Solo for letting me host this and I apologize for not letting you know sooner that I was in India last week and was not going to be back before Jan 1.

Most of the posts were interesting but some were less so and I am very bad at hiding this. I could not resist inserting a bit of a comment in here and there but hopefully people will not be (too) offended. In general, these posts are well worth reading.

I tried to include everyone but I refused to look at the two posts labeled "sex" on the grounds that I am at home and my wife might have come in and found me looking at objectionable material. If I had done this a the office during company time, it might have been different.

I also refused to include one post that seemed to be merely a link to an online gambling site. I did include another similar post that made a half-hearted attempt to write a post about gambling simply because it was so pathetic it had humorous value.

If I forgot your post, I apologize. Please leave me a note. I'll probably forget it as well - but I assure you that it is nothing personal, I'm just that way.

Lighter Posts

These are posts that made me laugh or just didn't make my brain hurt.

Blog: Interested Participant by Mike Pechar
Post: Attacked by Sith Lord
For some reason, Overstock dot com is seeing sales fall and its stock price plummet. Is the reason possibly related to the fact that the CEO thinks that a "Sith Lord" is plotting to overthrow the company? This is a thoroughly entertaining piece and perhaps a warning not to entrust your company to your not-so-reliable son.

Blog: Big Picture, Small Office by Big Picture Guy
Post: In Wine There is Truth
The author relates a humorous anecdote from a company party and finds that too much wine can "deconstruct" the office toady. We all know people like that.

Blog: Political Calculations by Ironman
Post: The Perils of Marketing
The author gives a list of humorous marketing mistranslations. Compare with this list from Snopes.

Blog: Multiple Mentality by Josh Cohen
Post: “Holiday” “Spirit”
Here is a nice light rant against the half-hearted attempts retailers make to subtly market Christmas without offending non-Christians. This post reminded me of another post by Sepia Mutiny (an excellent blog).

Economics and Regulation

Blog: Sophistpundit by Adam Gurri
Post: What Can We Hope to Leave Our Children?
The author asks a big question: will the future better better or worse for our children? He clearly believes that it will be better and that there is no reason to fear "peak oil" or any other exhaustable resource will stop our growing prosperity. This is a thoughtful post.

Blog: The Roth & Company Tax Update by Joe Kristan
Post: The Tax Gap and the Schmuck Factor
The author fears that lax enforcement of tax laws will lead to more people cheating on taxes and other people feeling like "schmucks" because they didn't cheat and their neighbors did and got away with it. Over time, the "schmucks" will learn to cheat also.

Blog: Daily Dose of Optimism by Ed
Post: Against Public Sector Unions
The author takes a hard look a public sector unions, and the potential problems they pose to the economy through higher taxes. There are some interesting economic and moral issues raised by the potential conflict of interest between government and government employee unions.

Blog: Different River by Different River
Post: They’re All Wrong!
The author doesn't want to take sides on the new California law regulating violent video games: the author thinks that all sides are wrong. This post raises an interesting question about what is the appropriate regulation of violent video games.

Blog: Chocolate and Gold Coins by Michael H. (me)
Post: Signs of India's Development
The author (me) compares the India he saw in 1995 to India of 2005 to see signs of development. India is developing but trend is subtle. India is a great place to visit, by the way.

Blog: Gongol by Brian Gongol
Post: Ages of the World's Largest Companies
Here is an interesting hypothesis: does more government regulation mean that older established firms have an unwarrented advantage in the marketplace? If so, the average age of firms should be higher in more regulated economies. Here is some evidence.

Blog: Marketplace Monitor by Chris Rossini
Post: Why so down on Dividends?
The author argues that the double taxation of dividends encourages firms with profits to make unwise purchases of other companies.

Blog: Searchlight Crusade by Dan Melson
Post: The Economics of Housing Development
The author believes that we spend too much on housing and gives a long and detailed explanation for why this is so. People who like this post might like to read this book.


Update - I forgot this one
Blog: All Things Financial by JLP
Post: Making Financial Resolutions for 2006
The author gives a list of financial resolutions you should follow for the next year. Indeed, if you do not follow number 2, Santa will put coal in your stocking next Christmas (and you'll need it to heat your home).

Blog: Personal Finance Advice by Jeffrey Strain
Post: The Worst Investments You Can Make
Here is a nice post listing some of the really bad investments people might make. People in India might want to consider the advice about not investing in jewelry. My wife's family invested a fortune in buying jewelry in anticipation that she would eventually have a traditional Indian wedding. It still languishes in some safe deposit box.

Blog: Econbrowser by James Hamilton
Post: Who's afraid of the big bad yield curve?
The author provides some detailed analysis of the link between interest rate inversion (short term rates higher than long term rates) and economic slowdown. The former doesn't always predict the latter, but there is correlation, (nice graphs).

Blog: Financial Methods by Michael Cale
Post: Will 2006 Be the Year of Japan?
The author provides some nice graphs to show how well the Japanese stocks performed in 2005. He believes this might be a harbinger of strong economic growth in Japan in 2006. He believes "2006 could be the Year of Japan for equity investors." Either that or 2006 is the year investors invest in Japanese equity a year too late.

Blog: Small Business Trends by Anita Campbell
Post: Top Ten Promising Small Business Opportunities for 2006
The author provides a list of what she clearly believes will be the hot new business opportunities for 2006. If you are a contrarian, this is the list of business to avoid or sell short. Something for everyone here.

Blog: Capital Chronicle by RJH Adams
Post: The Baltic Dry Index: 'I fear thee, Ancient Mariner!'
The author shows some nice plots comparing the rates on 10-year Treasury notes and the Baltic Dry Index (a shipping rate index). The author feels that maybe equity investors ought to be paying more attention to what shipping rates are doing, as reflected by the Baltic Dry Index.

Blog: Mover Mike by Mike Landfair
Post: Gold Mining and Non-Recourse Loans
The author looks at the merger between two gold mining companies and discovers that much of their gold is presold at below current market prices. They will not be able to fully profit from any future price increase as well, (of course, this also means they won't lose as much if the gold bubble bursts).

Blog: Early Riser by Early Riser
Post: 401k Versus Roth - A New ER Ratio!
The author provides some calculations to help you determine whether you would be better off investing more in your 401k or in a Roth IRA. Basically, it depends whether your marginal tax rate is going to be higher or lower at retirement than it is today.

Blog: Free Money Finance by FMF
Post: Getting Rich is Simpler than You Think
The author believes that getting rich is easier than you think: just save a portion of your income in mutual funds and compound interest will grow your investment. This is undoubtable true if "getting rich" means accumulating about $100,000 to $200,000 in wealth (remember what you paid for this advice).

Blog: Financial Options by Tom Hanna
Post: Market Wrap 2005
This year the Dollar was up 11% against the Euro, Gold was up 20%, the Dow was down 0.5%... If you like this sort of thing, this post provides lots of statistics.

Business and Business Practices

Update - I forgot this one (sorry!)
Blog: Okdork by Noah Kagan
Post: Death of a Startup: Online Video Sharing Website
The author gives an interesting account of what went wrong in a startup involving online videos. Even the combination of a great idea and talented people doesn't guarantee success.

Blog: Businesspundit by Rob
Post: Should You "Spy" On Employees Through Social Networking Sites?
The author gives an interesting example of how one manager found out a whole lot of potentially damaging information on his own employees by logging on to a social networking site. The author asks: "Is this ethical?" Um, no. Are businesses going to do it anyway? I wonder.

Blog: InsureBlog by Henry Stern
Post: Death of a Salesman (and his business)
Here is something many small business owners never consider: what happens if the owner dies? Often, the business dies also, even if it was profitable and has several employees. The author argues that a simple buy-sell agreement would likely prevent an unfortunate demise of a good small business.

Blog: Fire Someone Today by Bob Pritchett
Post: Sorry, we're closed...
The author reminds us that it is never good business to close ten minutes earlier than the posted closing time. Warning: it might not be a good idea to read the blog titled "Fire Someone Today" at work.

Blog: Photon Courier by David Foster
Post: Railroads: The Next Phase
The author gives a thoughtful and detailed look at the next generation of railroad technology.

Blog: The Big Picture by Barry L. Ritholtz
Post: Annual CD Sales Slide Resumes; Down 8% for '05
The author looks at sales of CD's a discovers an unmistakable downward trend. It could be those MP3 players. The author adds a rather amusing observation about Mariah Carey and her success in recording No.1 hit singles.

Blog: Kicking Over My Traces by cehwiedel
Post: A Little Analysis, Please
The author does some nice and simple analysis of data from BigStockPhoto and quickly concludes that not many photographers are using commission sales from BigStockPhoto as their sole source of income.

Blog: Blueprint for Financial Prosperity by Jim
Post: Ten Real Estate Mistakes
The author offers some sound advice for people looking to buy a new home. Curiously "location" only shows up at number 7 under "remember the little things."

Blog: Crossroads Dispatches by Evelyn Rodriguez
Post: Teach Him to Fish
The author takes a look at charities that helped in the wake of last year's tsunami. She finds that the ones that were most effective combined donations with skill building.

Blog: The Browster Blog by Scott Milener
Post: The Click Fraud Effect
The author looks at the problem caused by fraudulent clicks on online advertisements. The author feels the problem might be cured by combining a price per action (a sale) with a price per click. This post left me wondering what exactly is "click fraud".

Blog: Ego by Martin Lindeskog
Post: Highflying Business
The author looks at the success of Budapest (Hungary) Airport. Perhaps it is related to deregulation/privatisation of Hungary's airlines.

Blog: Mensa Barbie Welcomes You by Mensa barbie
Post: Interdependent Outsource
The author gives her (or his) opinions on outsourcing. The author seems to be concerned that outsourcing will lead to loss of skill in our country (I'm guessing). I admit that I don't think I understood whatever the author wrote. Maybe I should have outsourced this task to India.

Blog: Online Casino Bonuce by Alexander Volskov
Post: Casino Games
The author provides a brief history of casino games. I am suspicious that the real motive of this post is to entice readers to click on his links to online gambling.

Sales and Marketing

Blog: The Common Room by DeputyHeadmistress
Post: Buying the Guitar
The author gives her experience with two different musical instument stores. One store made no effort to sell anything, the other did. The Common Room is actually a very good blog and in might be worth a second look. I might be biased: they recently linked to this post of mine.

Blog: Business & Technology Reinvention by David Daniels
Post: Paying for Performance and Customer Service
The author provides his own experience shopping for a computer for his father at three types of stores: Full service, discount, and warehouse. He found that the discount store provided more helpful service in part because their sales staff are on commission and not pure salary. Compare with the previous post.

Blog: Blog Business World by Wayne Hurlbert
Post: Blog visitor traffic: Boost your readership numbers
Here is some advice in bringing some more visitors to your business related blog. Good advice but I would add one more: make sure your content is worth reading.

Blog: Pro Weblogs by Mariano Di Biase
Post: How to carve for a niche blog for tomorrow, today
This post explains why it is important to start early if you plan to start a blog with a finite lifespan (e.g. a blog on the 2006 Soccer World Cup). This blog is published in both English and Spanish.

Blog: Small Business Branding by Yaro Starak
Post: Small To Medium Business Branding
This post explains the need to protect your brand when a solo enterprise transitions to a multi-employee enterprise.

Blog: Lip-sticking by Yvonne DiVita
Post: Jane Markets Blogs
The author gives credit where credit is due, and points out the human-value in blogging. The author gives an end-of-year thanks to all of her blog buddies - a nice thought. I should give an end-of-year thanks to my blog buddies: Sunil, Vikram, Charu, Amit, and all those other people on my blogroll.


Blog: The Skeptical Optimist by Steve Conover
Post: Reflections on 2005, and a list of things I’m not
The author explains why political labels like "libertarian" "supply-sider" "left-wing" or "right-wing" don't accurately describe his views.

Blog: Don Surber by Don Surber
Post: Bush Cracks Down On White Collar Crime
The author believes that President Bush is doing a significantly better job of cracking down on white collar crime than his predecessor. This post made me wonder what would have happened to Osama Bin Laden if, in addition to his other crimes, he embezzled a company.

Sneek Peek at Next Week

I will be submitting the answer to this question.

Later Today: Carnival Time

If you are wondering whatever became of this week's Carnival of the Capitalists, it's coming. I'll have it done by this afternoon or this evening or maybe sometime. I need to run some errands and I'll get back to work on it.

Note to future hosts: it's probably not a good idea to wait until the last moment to compile this. It takes some time.

Well, I have an excuse. I was in India all last week.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Why Are They Doing It That Way?

I have to write a whole post on the wonderful stay we had at Kabini Lodge in Nagarahole National Park near Mysore, India. On the last day of our stay, I observed some yard work. I don’t like to do yard work but I have a lot of experience observing my parent doing yard work and know how it would be done in the U.S. These Indian workers were doing it very differently. It made me wonder: “Why are they doing it that way?”

I will describe the task and how these workers were doing the work. The task was to remove the sod from about 400 square feet of lawn. Six workers worked the entire morning doing this task. In the U.S., obviously we would use power equipment instead of hand tools and it would take two workers an hour to complete everything. But my father would have done this very differently, and he only had hand tools for doing gardening.

There were six people to remove the sod. Two were older and were clearly supervisors. They did no physical work whatsoever. They only passed a few comments. In the late morning, both of the supervisors left and the work proceeded as before.

All four of the workers had nice shoes (not sandals). They all removed their nice shoes and placed them in one corner of the garden before starting work.

Of the four workers, two had the task of removing sod with a tool that looked a bit like a pick. Actually, it looked like a cross between a pick and a shovel: it was a tool you lifted and brought down with a pick motion but the blade was wider like a shovel’s. The tool looked thoroughly inefficient for removing sod and it did take an enormous amount of effort to use this tool as evident by the sweat the two workers were generating in the cool morning.

The remaining two workers picked up the sod with their hands and placed it in wok-shaped bowls. Each bowl was about 18 inches in diameter and could hold about 15 to 20 pounds of sod. They would lift each bowl to their shoulder and carry it 20 yards away to the dumping area. The two workers will bowls could not keep up with the two workers with picks.

As I observed this, I had four questions:

1. Why have two supervisors?
2. Why use bowls to move the sod?
3. Why use picks instead of shovels?
4. The picks looked very dangerous with bare feet. Why didn’t these workers protect their toes from injury?

I thought about it and came up with reasonable explanations for three but not four of these questions. I thought it might be fun for you to try to think about this yourselves and see what explanations you might come up with. I will post my answer to three of the four questions next week.

Signs of India’s Development

I visited India in 1995 and exactly ten years later in 2005, so it might be interesting to compare those experiences. Before I write anything else, I should say that I had a wonderful time in India and look forward to returning in less than 10 years.

In 1995, there were signs that India was at the cusp of some development. My wife went on and on about all of the changes she saw. Now in 2005, I could see some changes first hand. While some things have changed, the change is really pretty subtle to me. Most of Chennai looked much like it did in 1995. But there were a few obvious changes.

Cell phones

This is obvious: everyone in India seems to have cell phones now.


I was expecting to see a lot more cars in Chennai. What I saw was a lot more motorcycles. Now at first glance, this might seem to be retrogression since motorcycles would seem to be an inferior good in the West. But a motorcycle is definitely a step up for someone who previously had to walk or ride a bicycle. It is obvious that the motorcycle is a good that is now affordable to the majority of Indians. Even in small villages, I saw lots of people with motorbikes.

Prepared foods

In 1995, my wife’s mother prepared idly and dosa mauva (dough) in a blender. Today, she just buys mauva from the store. She buys yogurt from the store instead of making it herself. She used to grind her own Sambar powder; now she buys it from the store. There may be something lost in the process, but the switch from homemade to store-bought is an unmistakable sign of development.

Price increases

The most obvious sign for me of India’s development is that the price (in dollars) for many luxury items is considerably more expensive, even accounting for inflation. I will give three examples:

One of Chennai’s finest South Indian restaurants is Dakshin at the Park Sheraton Hotel. My wife and I took her parents there in 1995 and had an absolutely wonderful experience. I remember the price very well because I used that as an example for how inexpensive India was in many conversations. The restaurant in 1995 was only half-filled and the price for an outstanding meal was only $36 dollars for 4 people. In 2005, the restaurant was packed and the bill for the same 4 people (plus a child who only ate rice and Indian bread) was $85. This might be partly a story of Dakshin’s success, but generally, we found that prices for restaurant food everywhere was much more pricey.

In 1995, I bought several shirts, slacks, and coats from Raymond’s, a premier clothier in Chennai. In 2005 we walked in, looked at the prices, and walked out. In 1995 you could get a fine dress shirt for $10; today it is $30. In 1995, fine dress slacks were selling for $20; today they were selling for $70. It was not much of a bargain today.

I did get several nice but simple shirts and chinos from another store for a reasonable price. The big price increase seems to have hit primarily the upscale market.

My wife and I shopped at CIE for a nice carpet for our house. The salesman said the price of carpets has gone up by a factor of 4 since 1995. Of course, he might have just been saying that but my wife’s parents who had bought some carpets ten years ago thought that this seem to be accurate. In 1995, you could get an excellent quality silk carpet 4’ by 6’ for less than $1000. Today, they start at $3000.

The price increases probably reflect the new purchasing power of the Indian upper middle class. But the cost of labor has probably increased considerably as well. In the case of the carpets, I think it might reflect the success of reducing the amount of child labor used in making these carpets, or at least one could hope that this is the case.


Although I saw some examples of India’s development, I saw several counterexamples as well. For example, there was a small village near the lodge we stayed at in Nagarahole National Park that we passed through on several occasions. The children there lacked any footwear and the women had to collect their family’s water in a pot from the common well to carry it back to their homes.

Some of the roads we drove on in 2005 seemed fairly nice but there still are no freeways in India. And some of the roads we drove on in Nagarahole were some of the worst in the world. They purposefully avoided repaving the roads there to prevent too much traffic and disturbing the animals in the National Park. But this is simply decision by indecision. The road through there is the main road connecting Mysore to Kerala and something needs to be done.

In 1995, my wife’s parents said that a public transit was being built for Chennai. In 2005, I saw no evidence of it at all. In 1995, my wife’s mother cooked using a propane tank because there was no natural gas utility in Chennai. In 2005, there’s no difference. Prior to 2005, there was severe water shortage in Chennai and my wife’s parents suffered much hardship because of this. The only reason 2005 is different is due to the rain. The city has done nothing.

Basically, none of India’s development has been aided by any observable government good or service. India is developing despite the lack of government services. But good government services like dependable water supply and other services would be welcome.

Happy New Year, I’m Back in the U.S.A

I had a wonderful time with my family and my wife’s family in India. We visited Kabini, a wonderful lodge in Nagarahole National Park. I will have to write about that. And we later went to Kerala to a nice beach resort. And we had lots of fun in Chennai as well.

Everywhere we went, service was wonderful and the people were very nice.

There were many things we didn’t get a chance to do. I guess we’ll have to go back.