Lonely Planet, Amethyst, Parks

July 31, 2011

This isn’t the common name for it, since a Google search doesn’t seem to throw up the link I want, but there’s a Lonely Planet Curse: as soon as Lonely Planet (or, to be fair, any major travel guide publisher) lists a restaurant/ hotel in their guidebooks, it starts getting an influx of tourists. Since it now has a captive market, the place in question lets service standards slip, raises prices to white-people levels, and earns the lasting ire of the locals over there. I think Adri rants about this often.

I was at Amethyst in Royapettah today and I suspect it may be suffering from the Lonely Planet Curse. It was certainly full of white people, and at least one table had a French couple reading an Inde de Sud guidebook. If anybody’s seen the latest South India guidebook, can they verify this?

The Lonely Planet Curse would explain the averageness of the food and coffee there. It’s not bad – it’s just meh. I wouldn’t refuse to go to Amethyst ever again because of bad food, but I’d never go there for the food. The desserts are still very good, though. The lemon curd cake I had today was fantastic. So was the banana bread, but then I am biased when it comes to bananas. People who are going to go ‘Haun!’ or ‘TWSS!’ in the comments, here is a pre-emptive ‘Shut up.’

But the thing is, you don’t really go to Amethyst for the food, which is just a bonus. The reasons to go to Amethyst are:

  1. You are a corporate whore who still wants to pretend to be a hippie
  2. You want to gawk at all the hot people or posh people or actual hippies there
  3. You want to buy nice presents for your darling girlfriend
  4. Amethyst is lovely and you can sit and wander around among plants, fishponds and cats

The new venue is even greener than the old premises in Gopalapuram. They’ve planted pineapples which haven’t come up yet, and have a huge melon (or perhaps pumpkin) patch, as well as brinjal plants. Delightful. I was there last week as well, and I sat in the verandah to write and blasted out almost a thousand words in three hours. As a place to just sit down and write, the Amethyst verandah pwns my guesthouse room, my office, and five star hotel coffee shops (which I tried last year). Though to be fair, doing this writing-on-the-verandah thing during the July monsoon is probably far more comfortable and far less hot and sticky than doing it in May. But even then the green cover would probably help.

So it’s partly the air of artsy hippieness that surrounds Amethyst that keeps taking me back there (and telling other people to meet me there)  and partly the greenery. But I realised that the hippies come there because of the other hippies and the greenery too – so fundamentally it’s the greenery. It’s the third greenest place I know in Chennai – the first two are the IIT Madras campus and the Horticultural Society.

However, I never invite people to meet me at IIT Madras (unless there’s already a quiz on there, but let us not delve into these boundary conditions) or the Horticultural Society. As is my wont, I mused why this is so. After all, with such wonderful greenery, why not invite people to meet me there?

After due consideration, I realised that this is because our social norms – especially in India –  demand that we combine socialisation with consumption. We either meet at coffee shops, where we consume coffee – or restaurants, where we consume food – at the movies, where we consume images – or at malls, where we commit wanton consumerism in general. Thus, most people who adhere to social norms will not go to a place merely because it is green. On occasion, I have suggested to people that we meet at the Horticultural Society or the (Delhi) zoo, but I am not quite as beholden to social norms. (As Bernard Woolley put it, this is “an irregular verb. I have an independent mind. You are an eccentric. He is around the twist.”) Anyway, either they never agreed or the one time someone did agree, the zoo was closed. So it goes.

I further reflected that changing social norms would be difficult and time-consuming, whereas getting parks to add a restaurant, or a small cafe, or a gift shop would be comparatively simple. In fact, many Delhi parks have done this. Deer Park has Park Baluchi, Lodi Gardens has the Garden Restaurant, and the Garden of Five Senses has something whose name I cannot recall at the moment. The only trouble is that these are all high-priced, and there are no lower price alternatives. The parks have street food hawkers outside, on the footpath, but none inside. As far as I know, Chennai does not have anything at all inside its parks, but growing up as I did five kilometres away from both Deer Park and Nehru Park, Chennai’s parks seem ridiculously tiny to me, and I suspect that they wouldn’t be able to squeeze a restaurant or food court in.

In an ideal situation, parks would have restaurants, cafes, small shops, and other such things to attract people for whom greenery was not sufficient motivation. Which is most people, when you come to think of it.

And then finally I remembered that somebody had already written about this, in 1961.

Certain qualities in design can apparently make a difference too. For if the object of a generalized bread-and-butter neighborhood park is to attract as many different kinds of people, with as many different schedules, interests, and purposes as possible, it is clear that the design of the park should abet this generalization of patronage rather than work at cross-purposes to it. Parks intensely used in generalized public-yard fashion should have four elements in their design which I shall call intricacy, centering, sun, and enclosure.

Intricacy is related to the variety of reasons for which people come to neighborhood parks. Even the same person comes for different reasons at different times; sometimes to sit tiredly, sometimes to play or to watch a game, sometimes to read or work, sometimes to show off, sometimes to fall in love, sometimes to keep an appointment, sometimes to savor the hustle of the city from a retreat, sometimes in the hope of finding acquaintances, sometimes to get closer to a bit of nature, sometimes to keep a child occupied, sometimes simply to see what offers, and almost always to be entertained by the sight of other people.

 (The Death and Life of Great American Cities)

Jane Jacobs, ladies and gentlemen. One of the twentieth century’s leading badasses. You’d be well advised to read the whole thing – all 448 pages of it.

Frightfully Well Carried Out

July 30, 2011

This morning, I read the Caravan magazine cover story on the organisational restructuring Rahul Gandhi is carrying out at the Youth Congress. It is very good and you should read it too. What I found particularly interesting was this bit:

The “transformation effort” kicked off in earnest in May 2008, with a workshop conducted by Jayaram for 40 young Congress leaders. It was this seminar and a series of subsequent meetings—about “what the organisation should stand for, its goals and its ideals”, in Jayaram’s words—that set the course for the overhaul of the IYC. What Rahul and the other young Congresspeople envisioned was an open, democratic, clean, technologically advanced party. “We wanted to produce good politicians who are like professionals,” one participant in the meetings told me.

All this is well and good, but openness, democracy, and cleanliness are hardly goals in themselves. Organisational structure and processes are means to an end.

To make things clearer, let me draw an analogy to the corporate world. A company’s goals could be to create great products, to give its customers a cheap deal, or prosaically, to maximise shareholder value. Similarly a political party might want to create a welfare state, or to increase economic freedom, or prosaically, to get into power. These are all valid goals. A company which said that its goal was to have really great internal processes, but mentioned nothing about its products or customers is probably not going to do very well at the market.

The Caravan story does allude to this:

After suggesting that the “professionalisation” of politics, with its recruitment strategies drawn from the world of business management, had produced politicians wary of taking a stand on anything controversial, Mehta drew a contrast with the 1970s. “There was a massive wave of young people into politics,” he said, “but they had clear political identities at a young age. You knew what Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad stood for in 1974. I don’t know what Rahul Gandhi stands for.”

By a happy coincidence, I discovered a bit of Yes, Prime Minister dialogue this evening that sums up this whole issue of really fantastic organisational processes for the sake of really fantastic organisational processes:

Sir Humphrey: My job is to carry out government policy.

Jim Hacker: Even if you think it is wrong?

Sir Humphrey: Well, almost all government policy is wrong, but…frightfully well carried out.

This is actually better than the Youth Congress. At least Sir Humphrey could comment on government policy. With the Youth Congress, we don’t even know what the policies are.

The Economics of Autos and Cabs

July 24, 2011

Hello beloved readers. For a personal project, I’m trying to understand the economics of being an autowala or taxi-driver (especially in Mumbai). Do you have links or pointers to any research or other reading material about this? The topics I’m looking for include:

  • What the licensing system is
  • What the revenue and costs are
  • How the union politics work – how many unions there are, what there primary interests are, and so on and so forth
  • Whether there are different models of who owns and who rents the cab, or whether there’s one dominant practice
If you have links or citations, please do share them in the comments. If you have personal experience, please share that too.

The Sainath Fallacy

July 17, 2011

I’m sure this fallacy has existed for many years and has already been described and named here, but I first came across it in P Sainath’s opeds. I brought it up again because it seems to have been spreading beyond Sainath in the recent past (where India is concerned).

The Sainath fallacy is basically this: “How dare you outrage about Cause X when Cause Y is so much more outrageous!”

Specific examples are:

  • Sainath himself: how dare the finance minister worry about the stock markets when India is so low on the Human Development Index! (This actually combines the Sainath fallacy with misdirected outrage, another thing that seems to be spreading these days, but that’s a topic for another post)
  • Richard Dawkins: how dare atheist women worry about men behaving creepily when Muslim women are at risk of genital mutilation!
  • Hindutvawadis: how dare the media talk about human rights abuses in Kashmir/ riots/ whatever the media is talking about when they never address the issue of Kashmiri Pandit refugees!
  • I can’t find links right now, but I vaguely remember people outraging that women were Slutwalking for the right to dress as they pleased instead of focusing on far more pressing issues like dowry deaths or female foeticide.

Basically, it’s not enough to be outraged yourself. Everyone else has to share your outrage. And moreover, all outrage over anything else is illegitimate.

Dear Sainath, Dawkins, and other outragers: as long as people are expressing themselves with their own money, or on their own blogs, and not using your money or house or website to do it – how about you let them say whatever the fuck they want?

Buying Music Legally

July 15, 2011

In recent months I have become a rich bugger. And so I have bought a shiny new smartphone.

One of the delights of Android is that the phone’s address book integrates and syncs with Google Contacts. So for the first time ever since I started using a mobile phone, I have all my contacts on my phone, and navigating through them is actually easy. I can create separate groups in Google Contacts, both based on the type of relationship I have with the contact (family, friend, work relationship, service provider), and on how frequently I call that contact (people who should be called every day, people who I should catch up with every few months, suppliers who I never want to speak to but whose number I should store so I know when they’re calling – you get the picture). So I can keep a priority address book, and archive everything else. What delight. This is the Platonic ideal of address books.

I can also assign each group of contacts its own ringtone. And here is where I need help.

Last week, I discovered a version of the Ode to Joy on grooveshark. It was a short, choral, full of sturm-und-drang version from the Neon Genesis Evagelion soundtrack that would have been perfect for a ringtone.

Now one of the things about being a rich bugger is that I can afford to buy music legally, and when it comes to music I really like, I want to do so. Unfortunately, when I tried to buy it from grooveshark, Amazon claimed it didn’t have it.

Many internet searches later, including the Neon Genesis Evangelion music wikipedia page, lots of fanvids on youtube, and a Neon Genesis Evangelion forum, it turns out that this is from Rahbari conducting the Brussels philharmonic, and just a short clip from the fourth movement of Symphony No 9. Which is not too big a deal – mp3 cutter is there.

What is a big deal is that even the Rahbari Symphony No 9 doesn’t seem to be available anywhere. Flipkart doesn’t have it. Amazon UK doesn’t have it. Amazon US doesn’t have it on its own, but has five affiliate retailers who have it. Unfortunately, the shipping prices will probably be more than the CD itself, and more importantly, I’ll end up waiting a month or more before actually receiving the CD. Napster does have a digital version, but only lets me stream the track, but not download it. Bah.

Beloved readers, do you have any idea of how to get this track legally? If nothing else works, I’ll just rip it off youtube and use that while simultaneously ordering the CD of Amazon.


I gave in to temptation and torrented the Neon Genesis Evangelion Symphony. Now it turns out that they’re not the same track. Someone has just found a very badass Ode to Joy, incorrectly tagged it Neon Genesis Evangelion (or possibly NGE had it in the anime but not on the soundtrack), and caused confusion. Oh sigh. I seemed doomed to not know the actual performers of this version.


July 8, 2011

My career path this year consists of not being at the factory (located fifteen kilometres outside Kanchipuram) every day, but gradually shifting into a sales role, so that I’m either at the office in Chennai or travelling and meeting customers. Therefore, I am looking for a place to live that is not too far away from either the Bangalore highway or Chennai proper. This sort of narrows my choices down to Porur (or possibly Maduravoyal, though I haven’t tried that yet).

Apartment-hunting in Porur has not been fun. Everything advertised seems to be an old house with a floor on rent, not an actual flat. Well, not really. I did find two listings for flats in Shantiniketan West Woods. When I called, they had already been sold out. Oh sigh. All other apartment buildings seem to be still under construction. Oh sigh.

Unfortunately, the buildings that do exist and are available don’t seem to want me. I’m not Brahmin, not vegetarian, and a bachelor.

Now vegetarianism within the premises is easily done (I can always sneak off outside to thulp meat) and as an Arya Samaji I am technically more Brahminical than most Brahmins – so faking Brahminism is not too difficult – though it will involve the poonal, which I am assured is both uncomfortable and unsexy. That only leaves occupying the flat with a family, which presents more complications. My father will be there a week in a month, but I get the feeling that landlords are looking for something more permanent. There is grave danger here that I will have to resort to sitcom/ romcom style madcap hijinks and hire actors to play my wife and kids.

Actually, looking at how widespread landlord antipathy is towards singletons, I’m surprised that this isn’t already an underground business, with HR managers in Bombay and Madras whispering to new joinees about very convincing actors at very reasonable rates. Oh wait, that would require HR to do something useful. Silly me. But maybe the cool mentoring manager that every organisation has.

What makes the pro-family-anti-singleton bias particularly annoying is that it has two levels of irrationality. First is the prejudice against behaviour associated with single people – wild partying, getting members of the opposite sex over for sexytimes (what happens when landlords learn about gay people?), and all night poker parties. And the second is the assumption that all single people are up to these nefarious activities Against Our Culture, while the minute you get married you stop.

I mean, I can’t sympathise with a bias against premarital sex or drinking, but I can understand that people have one and want to enforce it. But in that case, why not specify no drinking or no sex when you rent out the flat, instead of a blanket ban on single tenants. There is some serious ‘All men are mortal. Socrates was mortal. All men are Socrates.’ thinking going on when you ban single people.

I have a dream. Actually I have two dreams.

The first dream is that one day I will be rich enough to buy a flat that has previously refused to rent out to me because of my bachelorhood,and then rent it out to the most horrifying possible tenant. Say, a drinking, smoking, North-East-Indian, hard-rocking tattooed Muslim with a succession of girlfriends, all of whom visit him. That’s right, blaggards, you could have had a sober young Punjabi tenant who got up to nothing worse than really bad puns when you had the chance, but you blew it. Pay the price now!

The other dream is a little more subtle, and will actually screw around with their prejudices instead of reinforcing them. Once again, it’s to buy a flat in an apartment complex otherwise full of uptight people *cough Iyengars cough*, get on the owners association, and pass a resolution to only let out flats to families. And then, for tenants, find a married couple that is Brahmin and vegetarian, but also one where the couple are swingers and throw loud and ostentatious orgies every weekend. This should hopefully cause permanent brain meltdown among the neighbours. It will be awesome.

I am still about seven megarupees away from bring rich enough to do this just for the lulz, but as soon as I am, I will let the internet know about it. Once that happens, if you are looking for a flat and fit either of these profiles, please let me know.

Until then, I am throwing myself on the mercy of Chennai brokers. Wish me luck.


A Modest Proposal to Solve the Euro Crisis

July 5, 2011

Yesterday, the rest of Europe bailed out Greece. While this will keep Greece going for a while, it can’t keep going forever. At some point it will have to default, bringing down the rest of Europe with it. Thanks to the Greeks having a lazy workforce, lying bureaucrats, and tax evading entrepreneurs; the German economy – based on a foundation of hard-working Prussians, brutally efficient Teutons, and stupendously badass engineering from the Rhine valley – will collapse.

This is unfair. It hurts the Germans. It also hurts me. Our company makes a lot of money by exporting to the Germans, and hoped to make even more. If the Eurozone keeps Greece on the Euro – and it seems determined to do so – then the only way it can manage is to devalue the Euro. So much for making money by exporting to Europe. Rascals.

Fortunately, I have a solution – which would not have occurred to me had I not recently read Adrian Tinniswood’s Pirates of Barbary and Sean McMeekin’s The Berlin Baghdad Express. (Psst. Those are affiliate links. If you click through and buy, I get a commission. And those are very good books, well worth buying.) And it is a delightful and elegant solution. Here it is: bring back white slavery.

There isn’t really anything the Greeks can do to pay back their debt. Their economy is unproductive. Their geography isn’t suited to either industry or intensive agriculture. The last time they came close to being part of the knowledge economy was twenty three centuries ago, and frankly, it’s not like they have the work ethic for even low-intellect services.

Under normal circumstances, that is. But if they were made to work to the drum and under the lash, things would be different. The Greek who responds today to talk of austerity by vandalising banks and setting fire to policemen would be a model worker if the austerity was enforced by an overseer with a whip and a pugio.

I think this can be made to work like this: first, we bring back the Ottoman empire, the institution which was historically competent at white slavery. Fortunately, with the AKP coming to power, there is a neo-Ottomanism revival, so this is not going to be too difficult.

Next, the new Ottoman Empire takes over Greece – also something it has done in the past – and agrees to pay its debts. It repays with the proceeds from selling the Greeks as slaves to whoever will buy them. China and India are both buying massive agricultural tracts of land in Africa, and will need somebody to do the sowing and reaping. Heck, thanks to the NREGA, agricultural and construction labour in India itself is so scarce that we might as well get the Greeks over to Punjab and Bangalore without having to transship them to Africa. There’s definitely going to be a market for able-bodied Greeks, so we don’t have to worry about this not being a sustainable source of income for debt repayment. Eventually the Greeks get sold off, the debt gets repaid, and Turkey returns to world power status. It’s brilliant.

The Greeks hate the Turks and it would be massively humiliating to be under the Ottoman empire again – but as far as I’m concerned, that’s a feature, not a bug. Thanks to their shenanigans, our export margins were annihilated last year. They deserve a little humiliation.

As Supriya pointed out on Twitter, there are other beneficial side effects to this scheme. An Ottoman state restored to its full extent would encompass Tripoli, thus ending Libyan conflict. Heck, it would encompass Israel/ Palestine, and so that problem would be solved. Well, it would replace an Israeli occupation with a Turkish occupation, but that would possibly be more acceptable to all concerned.

You might argue that uptil now the people most affected by the Greeks are the Germans, and they might not want to get involved with the Turks. But thanks to The Berlin Baghdad Express, I now know that there used to be significant German-Ottoman co-operation back in the day of Kaiser Wilhelm. He spent many, many years trying to ally with the Ottomans to weaken the British empire, feeling that if the Caliph were to whip up Muslim sentiments against the British, it could lead to insurrection in their colonies. If you remember your Class 8 history, you know that this strategy came close to working.

So if the Germans and the Turks co-operated in the past, they can do it again today. True, Ms Merkel does not have as intimidating a moustache as Kaiser Wilhelm, but I’m sure she is still badass enough to come to an agreement with Erdoğan. This can happen.

And what can happen for Greece can happen for the other European basket cases. Portugal, Italy and Spain are across the Mediterranean Sea from North Africa – which was also under the Ottomans and can be again. In fact, what with all the turmoil after the recent revolutions, why shouldn’t it? The Turks would do a better job than all the dictators so far.

That leaves Ireland, which isn’t quite as close to the Turkish sphere of influence. But we needn’t despair. Back in the good old days, the Vikings used to raid Ireland and capture the Irish for use as slaves. If this started again, it could mean that Iceland and Ireland could simultaneously repair their economies – Iceland could get rich selling the Irish, and Ireland would get rid of a lot of its population, most of whom serve no useful purpose otherwise. Dolores O’ Riordan is of course a notable exception. Now that global warming is making Greenland green again, there would be ready buyers as well. A longship would leave Iceland, raid the Irish coast, and carry a cargo of whining Irishmen off to Greenland, where they could be put to work growing soya, which would then be carried back to Iceland. And we would get some brilliant sagas out of this.

The more I think about this, the more I feel that white slavery is an idea whose time has come (again). It just goes to show how ancient and venerable traditions can take us out of the morass which modern times have dragged us into. We must bring this about as soon as possible.

The Power of Visiting Cards

July 2, 2011

I have commented about the awesomeness of visiting cards earlier. Today I found out that I have actually been underestimating their power. This was a footnote in The Berlin-Baghdad Express by Sean McMeekin:

The origin of Oppenheim’s title of Baron (‘Freiherr’ in German) remains unclear, aside from the fact that he put it on his own calling card. It took some time, but eventually the moniker stuck. After his name burst into the headlines in 1906, he was generally referred to both inside and outside Germany as ‘Baron Oppenheim’.

Wow. Evidently if you keep something on your visiting card long enough, it becomes true.

You know what this means, don’t you? If only Kiruba had stayed the course, he would actually be a Wikimedia director by now.

About the book: I’m three chapters in so far. It has Ottoman Empire politics, German railway engineering, and Orientalists. So it is awesome and badass.

And… Reboot!

July 1, 2011

Oh hi guys. I know I wrote three months ago that I probably wouldn’t be touching my blog again for two years. And yet, here I am. Here is the explanation.

I was diagnosed with high anxiety levels about a month ago. Since then, I’ve been on antidepressants and started behavioural therapy. However, the high anxiety levels have probably been around for a while – at least a year, I’m guessing – and they probably contributed to me not wanting to write here. Meanwhile, the antidepressants have been working very well, and I’m much more enthusiastic about blogging as well as work, and all my other projects – so if this state of affairs continues, blogging should become regular again. Yay for sertraline!

Also, my pyschologist has told me to blog as part of my therapy. Whatay.

If I’m able to get over the anxiety and improve my time management skills, there should probably be a podcast about really awful books starting here soon.

And now, back to regular programming.