Reaving and Slaying

March 24, 2008

While in Calcutta, I went for a litquiz with Aishwarya and Pradipta. Despite four self-overrules in the prelims, we qualified; and despite a Bong-funda heavy first half, we ended up winning the quiz. I think the margin of victory was at least three questions, and probably four or more. Apparently, it’ll be reported in the Telegraph’s equivalent of Bangalore Times and stuff.

Pradipta informs me that this is the first time in years that anyone has ever beaten the runners-up (a team called the Inmaniacs), and that this will therefore cause ripples of shock and awe across the Calcutta quizzing circuit (such as it is). This was of course prophesied long ago by davenchit:

The Jin in the time of Genghis Khan were noted for their many defensive walls- rotting, all but useless against true foes, these were symptoms of inner decay. The infrastructure of Calcutta resembles that of the Jin- reflections of past glory. Reckless drinkers, weakened by the Irish influence, they are ripe for conquest. Securing this key littoral will complete the preparation for the final assault: Bangalore.

Indeed, the shock that is currently reverberating through the cul-de-sacs of the City of Dretful Night is comparable to the
wounds North India suffered after the initial Turkic and Persian invasions, the crippling blows to society faced by Great Britain after the Viking raids, and the sack of Rome by Attila the Hun. A mere raid has exposed the society’s decay and corruption; annihilation and conquest cannot be long away. Soon, Bombay and Bangalore’s quizzers will overrun Calcutta, grabbing pole positions in every quiz that takes place, crushing the locals, and hearing the lamentations of their women and children. The old order of sleazy pubs and Ambassadors shall be shattered, as new watering holes and real taxis spring up to serve the needs of Calcutta’s new masters. The Pax Quizzica shall return Kolkata (faugh!) to the state which it was always meant to be: Calcutta for the Marwaris!

xkcd and नवरस

March 23, 2008

While Wired magazine has commented on the huge popularity of xkcd, it has not been able to provide a reason for this:

This mix of brains and fun, as well as underlying sweetness helped propel xkcd from a hobby to a full-time job for the 23-year-old former NASA roboticist. Since its 2005 launch, xkcd has grown from doodles in the margins of a graphing notebook to T-shirts, radio talks and lectures on humor at MIT, where students batted inflatable raptors around the auditorium. The website drew between 60 million and 70 million pageviews in October, Munroe says, and xkcd’s growing fan base has taken to re-enacting events that take place in the comic.

However, even I don’t have a clue just why it is that xkcd seems to appeal to people so much. So I asked my good friend Neha Natalya Pandey to put fundaes on this. Since she’s majoring in Algorithm Analysis and Design (and minoring in Sanskrit Poetics) at U. Mich., and she has an amazing intellectual pedigree (her parents are Dr. Acharya Somuchidononanda Pandey and Dr. Valentina Dimitrieva Pandey), she’s ideally suited to explain this. I reproduce her correspondence on this subject below, with her permission.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Brat Noise Project

March 23, 2008

The next step the Kansa Society must take has become clear. No, it’s not the t-shirt.

Dinner with the girlfriend,  while excellent (mostly because it was with the girlfriend) was tragically beset by wailing kids. These, it should be pointed out, were not even babies but misbehaved five-year old children. This ravaging of what should be a pleasant and romantic dinner by Bengali brats calls for a solution.

The solution, the girlfriend pointed out, is to adapt one of the great triumphs of the modern feminist movement: the Blank Noise Project Unwanted Gallery. The Unwanted Gallery, for those of you who do not know, is a brilliant concept. If someone harasses you, you photograph them with your handy mobile phone camera, and upload the picture to the gallery. This is strong for the following reasons:

  1. It removes the criminal’s anonymity, imposing costs on street harassment for the first time (well not the first time, because there has always been angry-mob-with-chappals, but honestly, how often does that happen in real life?)
  2. It puts control of the situation into the harassment victim’s hands, instead of having to rely on either a mob or a policeman
  3. It uses cellphones, which appeals to me as a telecom and technology geek
  4. It’s an amazing example of the fundaes described in David Brin’s The Transparent Society, and again this appeals to me as a sousveillance geek

So there. But as we shall see, these fundaes can be used not only as a weapon against sexual harassment, but also against evil parents who bring their spoilt children out, to devastate the peace and tranquility of shared public spaces. Just as there is a rogues gallery of eve-teasers, the Kansa Society can create a Rogues Gallery of misbehaved children. Any time a screaming kid is seen in public – whether in a train, a plane, a cinema, or a restaurant – public spirited Kansa Society members (or indeed, anybody who sympathises with the ideals of the Kansa Society) can photograph the juvenile, send the photograph to the Kansa Society, and rest assured that the misbehaving child will spend the rest of its days knowing that its crimes have been exposed to the world at large. Slowly but steadily, public misbehaviour by children will become stigmatised, and parents will learn not to bring them out into public. A Utopia will be created, all thanks to the Kansa Society.

It is time for the Brat Noise Project to take wing.

When You’re Appreciated by People like These

March 18, 2008

 … who needs condemnation?

China on Tuesday said that Tibet was a ”very sensitive issue” in Sino-Indian relations but appreciated New Delhi’s action against Tibetan pro-independence protests.

”The Tibetan issue is a very sensitive one in our relations with India,” Premier Wen Jiabao said at his maiden press conference at the ornate Great Hall of the People after being elected to a second five-year term.

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Salvor Hardin was Right

March 10, 2008

BJP and RSS workers have attacked the CPI(M) office in New Delhi, apparently in retaliation for the CPI(M) killing BJP workers in Kerala.

The idiots haven’t done anything in parliament for the past four years. They’ve squandered the opportunity to attack the Congress for toeing the CPI(M)’s line, and the left for toeing China’s line. The Congress has gifted them issue after issue on which it’s bungled – inflation, PSU disinvestment, Naxal civil war, terrorism, the nuclear deal – and it’s done absolutely nothing with this cornucopia of issues to attack them on. They’ve wasted the past four years.

And now this. Violence truly is the last refuge of the incompetent.

An Early Misuse of Geographical Indicators

March 5, 2008

From The Big Oyster – A Molluscular History of New York:

The leading merchants realized that such practices were damaging the reputation of their most valuable product. One of the leading New York City houses grew concerned that Chesapeake oysters were being sold to England as Bluepoints. An agent for the house intercepted a shipment of Bluepoints, opened the barrels as they were being loaded, and found that they were mostly “Virginias.” It was a new age of communications and the agents was able to telegraph Liverpool so that British authorities were waiting for the shipment when it landed. The oysters were confiscated, though it is not clear what happens to a healthy confiscated oyster. The American shipper was charged with mislabeling, which carried considerable fines. The New Yorkers were not accustomed to such stringent consumer protection and the American agent argued that the oysters had spent a little time in Great South Bay and they had thought that this was all that was required to label them Bluepoints. That the Americans don’t know any better is always an argument of some currency in England, and the charges were dropped.

Yet Another Google Service

March 5, 2008

For the past few months, I’ve been using the Books application on Facebook. As soon as I finish a book, I search for it, add it to my list of completed books within the application with a two or three line review, and a rating (on five stars). This is then broadcast to all my Facebook friends.

The obvious disadvantage with this is that it is broadcasted to only my Facebook friends. And only within Facebook. There doesn’t seem to be any way to get an RSS feed of completed books. Which is sad, because I’d like to have one, and push it onto the blog for permanent archival and suchlike.

Other Facebook apps like iRead which do the same thing also don’t offer RSS feeds.

Shelfari does let you keep a list of books on your blog, but this seems to be in the form of a Shelfari widget, and poking around their FAQ didn’t seem to reveal any way to get a pure feed. Besides, Shelfari spammed me at unmitigated levels back in August or September, earning my hatred (and the dubious honour of being added to my GMail spam filter).

But there is something which seems to meet all my requirements, and it’s a little-known Google service: Google MyLibrary.

This is an add-on feature to Google Book Search. And besides ratings and reviews, there are three extremely cool things which MyLibrary has:

  1. an RSS feed. So now, as soon as I finish a book, I can add it in MyLibrary, and display it in a WordPress widget or in the GOAT feed.
  2. labels. Which allows great scope for taxonomisation and categorisation. Such joy. Such joy.
  3. searching within the book, and reading the whole book, copyright permitting. Yay!

This weekend, I’ll probably be tinkering with feeds and widgets and whatnot.

A Theory of Fraudness

March 4, 2008

You can approximate how fraud an MBA’s job is by looking at which Microsoft Office1 product he2 uses the most.

Excel indicates the least fraudity, because the MBA here is working with real data and numbers, and is close to the truth of a particular situation. These are the consultants who do actual number-crunching, market research junta, and quants (though of course quants will be using cooler stuff than Excel).

Word is more fraud, because it abstracts real information (numbers) into words, but is not quite as fraud. And given that there’s a lot of tacit knowledge floating about in organisations that it not easily converted to numbers, there are chances that the MBA is actually communicating real information when working in Word. As a commercial banker of repute, I am in this position.

PowerPoint is the pinnacle of fraudity. The MBA who works mostly in PowerPoint is doing nothing but converting real information into easily digested bullet points that lose all nuance. These MBAs are usually found in things like internal consulting and sales strategy. They convert the Excel sheets made by people doing real work into PowerPoint presentations made to clueless senior managers who refuse to analyze the data themselves.

1: There are other office suites besides Microsoft Office, but these are MBAs in the corporate world we’re talking about here. We can safely assume that the IT department has bought MS Office.
2: It could be he/ she, but again, this is the real world we’re talking about and in practice male MBAs outnumber female MBAs five to one (and that’s at IIMB). The female MBAs who do exist are of course equal to the males when it comes to putting fraud.

Another Reason My Girlfriend is Brilliant

March 1, 2008

She takes photographs of Batman buggering Two-face while Penguin looks on with sadistic relish:


Note the strategic positioning of the jar of Vaseline. Also, Batman is so brutal that the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh will have to be called in once he’s done.

I’m not too sure about the significance of If God Was a Banker being there in the background.

More on the Debt Waiver

March 1, 2008

Since I’ve already expressed dismay and bad language about the debt waiver, let me expand a little.

(Writing this in a rush, so it won’t be entirely accessible to lay readers. Sorry about that. If you’re interested but confused, ask, and I’ll try to explain in the comments.)

For now, let’s ignore the fact that this rewards farmers who took bad decisions and punishes the farmers who’ve actually been diligent about repaying their loans, and so it’s set up all sorts of moral hazard. Let’s accept that indebtedness is making the poor suffer, that ending suffering is of prime importance, and that the ends justify the means.

There are problems with that at many levels. First, Ajay Shah points out, this will write off the debt of people who own land,  while the poorest of the poor don’t own land. This is helping the not-quite-rich, not the poor.

Over and above that, Business Standard had a report (not linking it, because it’ll disappear in a few weeks anyway) on how this doesn’t help the most heavily indebted farmers, because their landholdings are so small they can’t get bank loans, and have to rely on moneylenders.  This whole waiver is only going to end up benefiting large landholding farmers – not very well off, but certainly not the poorest of the poor, and the ones who’re suffering the most.

(Of course, all this assumes that the money allocated will actually go completely towards writeoffs. I’m not even sure where the 60,000 crore rupee figure came from.)

The second shady thing about the waiver is that there are no details on how the mechanics of it are going to work out. I think O P Bhat or someone has said that the loans are going to be swapped with government securities.

If this is true, it presumably means that a 60,000 crore rupee provision for credit losses spread across the banking system is magically going to turn into 60,000 crore rupees of capital. In effect, SBI and other PSU banks (or as Percy Mistry calls them, SOBs) are having their balance sheets recapitalised. And this is not being done through the capital markets, but by soaking the taxpayers. Nice.

I’ve just talked to Skimpy about this, and he’s pointed out that there are flaws in the details:

  1. Chidambaram might not give 60,000 crore rupees of G-secs for 60,000 crore rupees of bad debts. So the net worth could still fall.
  2. Against 60,000 crore rupees of bad loans, the actual provisioning might not actually be 60,000 crore rupees. I’m not sure about the current RBI rules for provisioning. I am tempted to leave this as ‘an exercise for the reader’, since I’m still too busy at work for the next month or so to devote time to finding out how much you have to provision, and what various swap ratios would be like. On the other hand, if the loan waiver is against provisions and not actual bad loans, then my point still holds.
  3. Chidambaram has apparently said that the waiver will be carried out over the next three years. So there may not be a waiver after all.

Fine. Readers, I leave it as an exercise to you, since I will be busy with mobile handset distributors and telecom switch importers and generic drug manufacturers over the next month.

But if my fundaes are correct, the loan waiver is stunning. If the government divests its stake in SOBs after doing this, it’s basically going to get a better valuation, which the taxpayers have funded. So the public at large will pay to get a better performing bank, when the risk should really have been taken up by people like ARCIL. Very, very shady.