India Uncut

This blog has moved to its own domain. Please visit for the all-new India Uncut and bookmark it. The new site has much more content and some new sections, and you can read about them here and here. You can subscribe to full RSS feeds of all the sections from here. This blogspot site will no longer be updated, except in case of emergencies, if the main site suffers a prolonged outage. Thanks - Amit.

Saturday, December 31, 2005

Have a great 2006

Last year this time, I was in Nagapattinam. This year I am in a far more tranquil place, in Pune. Tomorrow morning I go to Mumbai. Tomorrow evening I fly to Delhi. And if all goes well, I leave for Lahore in a few days. It's going to be a busy time, and I may not be able to blog as much as I wish to, though I'll certainly aim for at least one session a day. Apologies, in advance, for that.

And, well, Happy New Year. Have a great 2006, do lots of things that make you smile, focus on the positives, and always look at the bright side of things. (In fact, I'm telling myself that as much I'm telling you.) And thank you for reading India Uncut. It made 2005 a year I'll look back on fondly.
amit varma, 6:09 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

There are plenty of fish in the sea

So why marry a dolphin?
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Friday, December 30, 2005

You ain't seen nothing yet

In an essay titled "Yeah, but the Book Is Better," talking about novels and films as art forms, Thane Rosenbaum writes:
As Chekhov famously once instructed, if there is a gun in Act I, it needs to be fired in Act II, and the same holds true with films (though the aphorism is tweaked slightly to also make sure that a gun is never inserted into a scene unless it makes a loud noise). Certain things have to happen at various markers of a movie, otherwise audiences, expecting such contrivances, will simply walk out.

Yet, in novels, all kinds of props are abandoned on the page. Not everything needs to be resolved, not every loose end must be tied up for the novel to be satisfying. Ambiguity is tolerated much more readily; the impulse toward linearity — the beginning, middle and end of a story — is almost nonexistent in modern fiction.

It is for this reason that Franz Kafka has never received a cinematically successful treatment of his fiction, even though he has been arguably the most important literary figure of the past century. Magical realism doesn't translate well into films. Similarly, dark psychological complexity is not particularly well suited to cinema, which is why Fyodor Dostoevsky's novels have not been successfully adapted, either.
Rosenbaum is right, of course, but I think that cinema as an artistic medium is where novels were 100 years ago, dealing essentially with straight narrative. Cinema hasn't yet had its Kafka or Joyce, and I think exciting things will happen in that medium in this century, developments that we, but naturally, can't come remotely close to foretelling. Watch that space.

(Link via Arts and Letters Daily.)
amit varma, 6:49 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Whither the BJP?

Or should that be 'wither'?

Now that Atal Behari Vajpayee has retired from active politics and LK Advani is stepping down as party chief, the BJP is in a bit of a fix. Ashok Malik, in an excellent column in the Indian Express, "Detox as dharma," writes, "The BJP is now a party where nobody has a mandate but everybody has a veto." He says:
The journey to BJP 2.0 cannot begin without the party subjecting itself to a rigorous detox regimen. It needs to cleanse itself of disreputable hangers-on, fixers and touts; every party has these, but in recent years the BJP has shown a special gift for attracting them. That process of dry-cleaning must be the first task for 2006.
Personally, I'd also like to see it lose the RSS and move towards a more secular-right position, but that's a pipe dream.

Also, Swapan Dasgupta has a strange tribute to Advani in the Telegraph, in which he says, "In perceiving things in black and white, and not upholding Hindu ambiguity, he [Advani] was, perhaps, guided more by Judaeo-Christian assumptions."

amit varma, 2:10 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

A new group blog on Mumbai

Metroblogging has now reached Mumbai, so do check out Metroblogging Mumbai. I'm delighted to be one of the contributors, and here's my first post, on the decline of Mumbai cricket: "Whatever happened to the cricket?"

Between now and the first week of February, I'll be in Mumbai for exactly one afternoon, so having made my debut on that blog, I'll instantly take a break. But there are some fine contributors at work there, so do keep checking it out. When I get back to Mumbai, I plan to be fairly active on it, for whatever that's worth!
amit varma, 9:33 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Spoons have a mind of their own

Scientists have proved it.

I suspect pens are also like that.

(Link via email from Ravages.)
amit varma, 1:27 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

T vs T

In Kashmir, it's a no-contest: Taxmen are losing out to Terrorists. I'm a bit more wary of the former, but that's only because I'm far more likely to encounter them. When it comes to choosing between my money and my life, well, no one's ever asked me for the second option. That's probably because it ain't worth much. Boo hoo.
amit varma, 9:16 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

From HITTs to LISTs?

I had once postulated that there are two kinds of terrorist targets: the High-Impact Tough Target (HITT) and the Low-Impact Soft Target (LIST). HITTs, like the Indian parliament or a prominent political leader, are hard to strike at, but those strikes have a high impact across the country. LISTs, like discos and malls, are much easier to hit, but have less of a national impact unless done on a large scale. Well, unfortunately terrorists in India might just have moved to LISTs, if the recent attack on IISc is anything to go by. My condolences to the bereaved -- and I hope that our security agencies catch the cowardly perpetrators of this crime and bring them to justice quickly. Why do I call them cowardly? Well opening fire with an AK-47 and throwing grenades on unarmed academics is hardly an act of courage. I hope we do not see more of this kind.
amit varma, 9:04 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Now, terrorise the children

The man allegedly behind the infamous Naroda-Patiya massacre of the Gujarat riots is allegedly also the mastermind behind the abduction and abuse of young Gujarati women -- with the consent of their parents. They married outside their communities, you see, and the family honour had to be safeguarded. Read the piece, it's quite a horror story.

All those words just send off alarm bells ringing in my head: community, honour, safeguarded. Tinkle tinkle. Actually, maybe a harsher sound than that.
amit varma, 8:55 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Train to Pakistan

Well, not exactly, "plane" would be more precise. Subject to my getting a visa, and other procedural formalities being completed, I will be flying off to Lahore in a few days from now (link via Delhi), and will be covering the cricket Test series for the Guardian. The Tests are scheduled to be held in Lahore, Faisalabad and Karachi, so those are the cities I'll be visiting. Would any of my readers have any tips on where to stay (am still searching for affordable hotel accomodation), what to do and so on? Any advice from people who've travelled to Pakistan -- or, even better, people who live there -- would be welcome. Please feel free to email me.
amit varma, 3:18 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Divine telephony

Now you can SMS your prayers, it seems.

So if things go wrong, you can always blame it on the service provider.
amit varma, 2:04 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

More hidden cam stuff

This time, it's Sanjay Joshi, an RSS pracharak on deputation to the BJP, who's been caught on camera romping around. Nuggets from the Telegraph report:
Pracharaks — and Joshi is one — cannot marry, let alone have sex outside matrimony. But they can always seek the Sangh’s permission and start a family, as L.K. Advani, for instance, has done, though they have to surrender the title of pracharak.

A collection of celibate men, the Sangh was left red-faced by the scandal. [...]

A Sangh source said “while the woman’s face remains blurred, the man can be easily recognised” in the “explicit” one-and-a-half-hour CD.

The CD was “scrutinised” by the Sangh and senior BJP leaders.
Scrutiny, I tell you!

Juicy though all this may be, I think the sexual life of an individual is no business of anyone else, as long as everything is consensual and there's no cheating or suchlike involved. By joining in the moralistic hypocrisy of these "celibate men," though, Joshi opened himself up to such scrutiny. I feel no sympathy for the man.
amit varma, 9:53 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

The best idea ever

Gautam Bastian points me to an excellent interview of Daniel Dennett, author of "Darwin's Dangerous Idea," in which Dennett says:
I would give Darwin the gold medal for the best idea anybody ever had. It unifies the world of meaning and purpose and goals and freedom with the world of science, with the world of the physical sciences. I mean, we talk about the great gap between social science and natural science. What closes that gap? Darwin -- by showing us how purpose and design, meaning, can arise out of purposelessness, out of just brute matter.
Indeed, if the concept of God was created by us as an explanation for how life, in all its complexity, came to be, I think Darwin took away that reason. As Douglas Adams said about Darwin's theory in this interview:
It [natural selection] was a concept of such stunning simplicity, but it gave rise, naturally, to all of the infinite and baffling complexity of life. The awe it inspired in me made the awe that people talk about in respect of religious experience seem, frankly, silly beside it. I'd take the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance any day.
The book Adams credited with having opened his eyes to evolutionary biology was "The Selfish Gene" by Richard Dawkins, whose other books are also required reading on the subject. The best book I have read on the implications of evolutionary theory is Steven Pinker's remarkable "The Blank Slate."
amit varma, 12:55 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

The Tsunami and the SEA-EAT Blog

Jane Perrone writes in the Guardian of how the SEA-EAT Blog, set up in response to the tsunami, might have been "The coming of age of citizen media." Quite so. And it keeps growing.
amit varma, 12:40 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Pratap Bhanu Mehta writes in the Indian Express:
We lament the fact that there is no debate in Parliament. But meaningful debate requires three background conditions: first, that there is a genuine difference of opinion between parties. Except on a small set of ideologically charged issues like secularism or who is more corrupt, our parties do not differ on principle. Second, there must be some sense that debates are consequential. But in a parliamentary system, especially with a fragmented party system, voting against your party line is almost impossible. Third, there must be some sense that debate can be leveraged for reputational gains. There is almost no evidence that this happens. Why would an MP take Parliament seriously?
Mehta's article is about how our political class is so corrupt because there is "a fundamental confusion over the principle" undelying the insitution of parliament. And how voters are called upon to choose MPs despite "serious information constraints." Read it all.

Will this change? If so, how? I fancy that if change does come, it'll be driven from the bottom rather than from the top, by an electorate that gradually becomes more enlightened, perhaps in conjunction with becoming more prosperous, and demands more from its leaders. That could take years, even decades -- especially as that drive towards prosperity is hostage to reforms in the system that have almost completely stalled. But I simply do not see the change being driven by a new class of political leaders. It would be against their interests to reform the system that has brought them to power.
amit varma, 10:18 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

An inspired what wind?

Only Vladimir Nabokov can get away with sentences like these:
Swept out of the valley night by an inspired oneiric wind, I stood at the edge of a road, under a clear pure-gold sky, in an extraordinary mountainous land. Without looking, I sensed the lustre, the angles, and the facets of immense mosaic cliffs, dazzling precipices, and the mirrorlike glint of multitudinous lakes lying somewhere below, behind me.
And only he deserves to. Do read his latest story in the New Yorker, or read his collected fiction here. A good way to spend the new year -- unless you like to party and all that.
amit varma, 10:12 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

AIDS and India

Why is AIDS spreading so fast in India? Gaurav Sabnis summarises from a WHO report:
The reason behind why AIDS is spreading so fast in India is right there for everyone to see, and I am suprised that no one has done anything about it. In fact the reason was staring me in the face just a few minutes after my car drove me out of the Mumbai Airport.

Dotting the roads, and indeed the entire city of Mumbai, were "STD Booth"s!

When I spotted the first one, I put it down to jetlag. But then, I kept seeing an "STD Booth" every few metres. I asked my driver to stop the car near one and I realised that the "booth" which was a small yellow kiosk, actually boasted of being "Government Approved".

There are Government Approved STD Booths all over India, and we are wondering why AIDS is spreading so fast.
Tee hee, and suchlike. Read the full post.
amit varma, 10:07 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

No more cheating?

There'll be spycams in examination halls now, we're told.

Hmm. I'd like to see how well that system works in Patna University.
amit varma, 10:05 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Monday, December 26, 2005

Sounds of the mountain

I am in Khandala now, with a room in a mountainside hotel that overlooks a valley. My room has wall-to-wall windows, and I get a terrific view of the mountains, with an apology of a waterfall in the distance doing the best it can. The sky is blue and all that. So I tread over to the windows and slide them open, to get some nice mountain sounds.

I get traffic. The hotel's right above the Expressway, you see. So lots of traffic: the frenetic whirr of small, speeding cars; the sonorous drone of long-distance trucks; the occasional chirping of horns.

Well, what to do, at least I get the view.
amit varma, 5:42 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Every day, disasters

Last year, while travelling through Tamil Nadu after the tsunami that struck South Asia, it struck me that much of what I was looking at, much of what was evoking so much compassion from across the world, was nothing new to us: people without homes, without food to eat, without access to affordable healthcare, and so much more. It took the context of a natural disaster to make us suddenly worry about these things, to open our eyes and see, for the briefest while, people who were otherwise invisible to us. Because tsunamis and earthquakes and floods may come and go, but disaster is all around us, every day, and we don't want to see it.

Well, this post has two purposes: one, I'd like to point you to the WorldWideHelp Group, which has announced a , starting December 26, for all those affected by the disasters of 2005. Click here to find out what you can do to support this effort.

Secondly, I'd like to direct you to a charity that I've been hearing about a bit in the last few weeks, and that I wish gets more support. Project WHY was started by Anuradha Bakshi to educate and empower young children in Delhi; to read more about them, check out their website and their blog. Anuradha's email id is on her profile page, do write to her if you wish to express your support or contribute in any way.
amit varma, 1:01 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Sunday, December 25, 2005

And then her throat vibrated

Boy and girl fight over mobile phone. Boy wants it. Girl doesn't want to give it. So she swallows it. It gets stuck in her throat, and doctors have to be called in. Yes, yes, all this happened.

Imagine if they'd been fighting over a fridge.
amit varma, 12:35 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

All it takes is a sharp knife

Pride, I'd written yesterday, can be a dangerous thing. Well, what can we say, then, about its demented cousin, Honour? After this.
amit varma, 12:30 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Playing cards

Remember how Mohammad Azharuddin played the religion card when he was accused of match-fixing, imsinuating at one point that he was being persecuted because of his religion? Well, one of the cops correctly punished for the incidents in Meerut, where the sadism of the police was captured on cameras and broadcast throughout the country, has played the gender card. "I am being punished because I am a woman," she has been quoted as saying.

Needless to say, the accountability for that incident should extend higher up the ranks. But the constables -- be they of whatever sex -- should not be allowed to escape the consequences of their actions. What they did matters more than who they are, and should be the sole focus of how we look at them.
amit varma, 12:14 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Counterintuitive, but true

Chris Anderson, who famously coined the term, The Long Tail, writes that people tend to distrust the Wikipedia because it "operate[s] on the alien logic of probabilistic statistics." He explains:
Our brains aren't wired to think in terms of statistics and probability. We want to know whether an encyclopedia entry is right or wrong. We want to know that there's a wise hand (ideally human) guiding Google's results. We want to trust what we read.

When professionals--editors, academics, journalists--are running the show, we at least know that it's someone's job to look out for such things as accuracy. But now we're depending more and more on systems where nobody's in charge; the intelligence is simply emergent. These probabilistic systems aren't perfect, but they are statistically optimized to excel over time and large numbers. They're designed to scale, and to improve with size. And a little slop at the microscale is the price of such efficiency at the macroscale.

But how can that be right when it feels so wrong? [Links in original.]
Well, it's the same reason, as he explains, why people still debate market economics and evolution: because, being probablistic systems, they're "simply counterintuitive to our mammalian brains."

On that note, here's a fine essay by Max Borders on a few economic concepts that are counterintuitive.

(Link to Anderson's post via Marginal Revolution.)
amit varma, 1:29 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Replace Santa Claus...

... with Alan Greenspan, writes Tim Harford in Marginal Revolution.

Keep the reindeers, though, I'd request. If hunger comes...
amit varma, 1:19 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Taxpayers' cake

What to say now?
amit varma, 1:16 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Pride and chauvinism

One often leads to the other, points out Ramachandra Guha, writing in the Telegraph about Bangalore and Bengaluru.

Pride itself has two faces: As the Wikipedia page on the subject tells us, "in French, self-respect is fierté and vanity is orgueuil." And even self-respect can be taken too far, when we identify the self too strongly with a community, country or race, and are blind to its faults.

Or to our own.
amit varma, 12:44 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Eminent domain and suchlike

Shekhar Gupta writes in the Indian Express:
Have you sometimes wondered why reform in some areas of our infrastructure proceeds much faster than in others? You will see a clear pattern there. Anything that does not involve real estate, moves much faster. Telecom is a good example. Anything that involves land takes much longer. One of the greatest causes of delay in the national highway project is land acquisition. The Mumbai airport modernisation has run into the challenge of clearing the land — it desperately needs for expansion — of encroachments. Work in Delhi’s Commonwealth Games village has not begun yet because the Uttar Pradesh government, which owns a small part of the land to be acquired on Delhi’s side of the Yamuna, is loath to part with it. You go around the country listing delayed or blocked infrastructure projects and you will find this one, common thread: property.
Well, reforms get held up in sectors where there are powerful vested interests with a lot at stake, and property is obviously one those things when it comes to infrastructure. But I take issue with one of Gupta's examples: I would imagine that the land acquisition issues that the national highway project is facing aren't necessarily all due to vested interests, but also due to owners of private property resisting eminent domain. (That is, owners of land the government needs for the project not wanting to sell it to the government.)

In cases where an owner is not willing to part with his property, no price is fair, and a forced purchase is effectively theft. In fact, I would object to something like the Narmada Valley Project for the same reasons: that there is eminent domain involved, and people are being coerced out of their property. (Yes, yes, you can tell me all about the "common good," but the greatest crimes of mankind have been committed invoking that dangerous term. To my mind, the common good is best served when everyone's individual rights are safeguarded.)

Needless to say, there are few places in the world where private property is safeguarded from eminent domain. In the USA, for example, that principle suffered a sorry blow this year, with the infamous Kelo ruling. Pity.

Cross-posted on The Indian Economy Blog.
amit varma, 12:23 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Friday, December 23, 2005

Smiling is good for you

This study reminds me of the point I'd made here more than a year ago: the cause-and-effect relationship between success and happiness doesn't always happen in the order we think.

(Link via email from Dev Kumar. Cross-posted on 23 Yards.)
amit varma, 5:55 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Pucker up, and digitize the dog

Just a couple of the New year resolutions Newsweek suggests you make.

Don't pucker up with the dog, though.

Ok, ok, don't get upset, pucker up with the dog if you want. As the saying goes, what goes of my father?
amit varma, 5:20 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

A space for sharing information

Tim Berners-Lee, the WWW man, has started a blog. In his first post, he writes:
In 1989 one of the main objectives of the WWW was to be a space for sharing information. It seemed evident that it should be a space in which anyone could be creative, to which anyone could contribute. The first browser was actually a browser/editor, which allowed one to edit any page, and save it back to the web if one had access rights.

Strangely enough, the web took off very much as a publishing medium, in which people edited offline. Bizarely, they were prepared to edit the funny angle brackets of HTML source, and didn't demand a what you see is what you get editor. WWW was soon full of lots of interesting stuff, but not a space for communal design, for discource through communal authorship. [Link and itals in original.]
Blogs and wikis, he says, are changing that now.
amit varma, 4:20 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

The life of an item girl...

... ain't all fun. Sonia Faleiro writes of Rakhi Sawant:
As her popularity grows, so does the pressure. According to Usha, her daughter eats a full meal only on Sunday. During the week, she has a cup of tea and fresh aloe vera for breakfast, juice for lunch, fruit for dinner. She exercises two hours daily. In her new video, Hoton Mein Aisi Baat, her gaunt appearance prompts concerns of anorexia. During the interview, the Sawants' family doctor administers an injection to Rakhi. "He says I'm very weak," she says, later. "He told me to eat, stop exercising. I will eat for 10 days then I'll stop in time for my next shoot."
Read the full piece here, and check out more of Sonia's writing here.
amit varma, 4:04 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

An inauspicious time to move house

That's why Rabri Devi is staying put in the chief minister's bungalow in Patna.

Maybe the election commission should have consulted her astrologers before scheduling the elections.
amit varma, 2:53 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Thursday, December 22, 2005

X and Y

Gaurav Sabnis has a quiz question here. And also a good point to make, especially if you're interested in monopolies and suchlike. Do read.

Update (Dec 23): Arun Simha responds to Gaurav here, and Gaurav responds to Arun's response here. Such joy.
amit varma, 9:37 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

A tactical quiet

Vikram Chandra says in the Indian Express:
A big city can’t have a permanent cure for organised crime. You can destroy specifics, a certain gang, but there’s always going to be this guy who sees an opportunity and thinks he can make money if he breaks the rules and he’s aggressive enough and courageous enough to make that jump. If it’s not extortion today, it’s going to be some other crime. Criminals are the first to adapt to change. They are very conscious of technology, always on the cutting edge of everything because it helps them. I think the Mumbai underworld is maintaining a tactical quiet now, it’s not going to disappear.
Well, at least Ram Gopal Varma won't run out of material anytime soon. Meanwhile, I'm eagerly waiting for Chandra's "Sacred Games," which stars Sartaj Singh, a character from the story in "Love and Longing in Bombay" that I'd liked the most.

Towards the end of his interview Chandra also talks about blogs a bit, but I don't entirely agree with him that "[b]logs are a revisualisation of the classical diary form." They're much more than that.
amit varma, 1:29 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

How safe is this country?

This is just horrifying. Mid Day reports:
A 24-year-old woman was raped in the Mumbai-Lucknow Pushpak Express last night. Ten armed thugs barged into the compartment when the train halted at Bhopal.

Forty-five minutes after it left the station, they threw three passengers out of the running train [and] robbed the rest. Two of them then raped the woman in the toilet.
The box at the bottom of the report tells us that a similar incident happened a couple of weeks ago on a train between Mumbai and Nashik, in which "[a] gang of robbers held the woman’s husband at knife-point while they raped her."

We've always known that certain parts of the country -- Bihar and UP certainly -- are more lawless than others, and that train travel is unsafe through those areas. But there is a huge difference between your reservations counting for nothing as thugs take your seat and crimes of this sort. It isn't just trains: there has to be some pressure on the system to make law enforcement much stronger in these areas. But people have to be accountable for that to happen, and any accountability is notional at present. The police, the bureacracy and politicians all look after their own interests, which, perversely for a democracy, are not aligned to those of the people. Change can only come via elections, if the people make law and order a polling issue and a committed party campaigns on that plank.

But at the moment, there's just apathy.
amit varma, 12:57 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

The lengthening shadow

In a moving review of Brokeback Mountain, Andrew Sullivan writes:
Three scenes remain in my mind. There's a shot after the two men leave each other for the first time when Ennis [Ledger] stays upright and walks nonchalantly as his lover drives away. But then, as soon as his beloved is out of sight, he collapses in emotional pain, punching a wall in agony, even then having to deflect the suspicion of a stranger. The moment when they reunite - its passion, its need, its depth - ravishes with insight into what love truly is. Then there's the scene when Ennis' wife finally confronts him - and you can see the damage done to so many lives by the powerful, suffocating evil of homophobia. So many lives. Sometimes I start to imagine how much accumulated human pain has been inflicted for so many centuries on so many gay hearts and souls, and then I stop. It's too much. We are slowly healing; but some wounds will never heal; and they are inscribed on the souls of millions in the past - the ones who persecuted, the ones who suffered, the ones who never let themselves be loved - or saw it briefly once, feared it and lived their lives in the lengthening shadow of their regrets.
Just as we find it hard to imagine how people could once have considered it natural to keep slaves or unnatural for women to vote, I think we will one day wonder how gays could have been treated the way they are today. (Indeed, homosexuality is still illegal in India.) And to stop gay people from marrying each other will seem as ludicrous as not allowing left-handers to drive. Thankfully, some change is happening.

(That last link via Uma.)
amit varma, 11:53 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

"Try something different"

Rajdeep Sardesai writes about turning 40.

I hope he sustains writing a blog. The blogosphere in America was enriched when some of its finest journalists -- like Andrew Sullivan, Mickey Kaus and Joshua Micah Marshall -- took up blogging, and it'll be fun if that happens here as well.
amit varma, 1:17 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

"Living is no laughing matter"

So begins this great poem by Nazim Hikmet, a Turkish poet of whom Chandrahas Choudhury asks in a lovely post: "Has any poet ever made death seem so much fun?" He describes Hikmet's life, his poetry, and links to some exceptional poems by him, of which I enjoyed particularly this one: "I Come and Stand at Every Door." An excerpt:
I come and stand at every door
But no one hears my silent tread
I knock and yet remain unseen
For I am dead, for I am dead.

I'm only seven although I died
In Hiroshima long ago
I'm seven now as I was then
When children die they do not grow.
Remarkable work. Do read Chandrahas's post, and you can buy some of Hikmet's work here.
amit varma, 4:44 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

P for Prison, Party, Predicament

There's a bit of a hoo-ha over a party allegedly thrown by Abu Salem in the Arthur Road jail, at which "there was special catering, cake and even alcohol." This leads me to wonder why people in jails should not be allowed to throw parties and suchlike with their own money, if they disturb no one else in the process. Sure, jails are meant to confine criminals, but besides free movement, should all the other rights that an individual normally enjoys also be suspended? And even if you feel convicted criminals should have no such rights, what about undertrails, who are presumed innocent?

If blogging badly becomes a crime and I'm accused of it and in jail, why should I not be allowed to order biriyani or a dvd flick to watch on my in-cell dvd player with my own money, as long as I inconvenience no-one else in the process? And even if I am convicted, isn't my captivity itself the sole intended punishment of the law? Hmm.
amit varma, 12:53 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Recipe for some parliamentary fun

Take a "durbari maulvi." Add a "Hindu bania." Mix them around in the Pakistani parliament and leave it to simmer. A good dish will result, most notable for the masala of "two-and-a-half" slaps.

So, you see, it isn't just the Indian parliament where fun comes.

(Link via email from an anonymous tipster.)
amit varma, 12:11 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

The moral gestapo strikes again

The Times of India reports from Meerut:
Students burnt the police in effigy in protest against "humiliation" of couples studying in parks here for allegedly indulging in immoral activities and the U P Women's Rights Commission has decided to probe the incident.

The students alleged that some boys and girls studying together were beaten up and abused by the police, including women constables, yesterday on the charge that they were having "illicit affairs".
Well, this is just so commonplace now, isn't it? Not the specific crime of the police beating up couples in a park -- yes, what the cops did is a crime in my book -- but the growing trend in India of using coercion to enforce a particular view of morality. Whether it's discos in Bangalore or dance bars in Mumbai or people's views on pre-marital sex, we have way too many self-appointed guardians of public morality clamping down on people's rights in the name of culture.

As Gaurav Sabnis had once commented, Indians confuse "freedom" with the sovereignty we got in 1947. Individual freedoms, both in an economic and social context, are still routinely denied in India, and, in Gaurav's words, "[o]ur freedom struggle is yet to start."
amit varma, 10:24 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Regulations and suchlike

Ravikiran Rao clarifies that when libertarians oppose regulations, they are not opposing laws, as some people mistakenly assume -- indeed, the rule of law is the bedrock of free markets. This was a subject of some debate in the comments here, and Ravi's post explains it much better.
amit varma, 9:59 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

In the house with DJ Bal

Mid Day explains why Bal Thackeray wears sunglasses. It will help him in his forthcoming hip-hop career.

Ok, ok, I made the second sentence up. What, I can't have fun now?
amit varma, 6:01 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

The return of the novel

Nilanjana S Roy sums up the year in fiction.
amit varma, 4:04 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Zero in the numbers

Ok, it's bizarro time. Kenichi Ohmae, a "management guru" who is apparently known as "Mr Strategy," tells Business Standard:
Indians are not good at manufacturing. Even if they do what we tell them to do, they always need to understand why they are doing it that way. They are more inquisitive than the Chinese. Maybe it’s because of their ability to find zero in the numbers.
This is laughable. As I've written in the past, India isn't a manufacturing superpower because of the many different kinds of restrictions placed on Indian industry by an oppressive state. It is ideally placed to dominate in labour-intensive manufacturing, and there is nothing about its people that precludes it from doing so. Mr Ohmae's statement betrays his lack of knowledge of both India and the Indian people, and the recourse to easy stereotype is laughable.

In the years to come, I hope he will be proved wrong.

Cross-posted on The Indian Economy Blog.
amit varma, 3:49 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

It's time to go...

... but you can't think of a suitable resignation letter. Worry not, help is at hand.

(Link via email from Ravages.)
amit varma, 2:53 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Love, money, subsidies

"Can Kamal Nath persuade Prince Albert to switch from French Brie to Mauritanian camel cheese?" asks Saubhik Chakrabarti in an excellent piece in the Indian Express. The relevance of the question comes though after he explains how farm subsidies in Europe, especially France, have little to do with farmers being electorally important. Instead, it has all to do with "love and money." I won't excerpt from the piece, just rush over and read the full thing.
amit varma, 10:41 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Mukesh Ambani switches off Reliance...

... and switches on MTNL. Tee hee, and all that. Such fun, these family feuds.
amit varma, 10:09 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Sting II

This time, it's Operation Chakravyuh.
amit varma, 10:05 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Monday, December 19, 2005

Divine irony

"Godman's follower files suit against Nana Patekar," reports PTI.

I don't get it. Why didn't the fellow just go to God?
amit varma, 11:37 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Ah, so that's the secret

Why is Agatha Christie so popular? Dr Roland Kapferer, who co-ordinated a study by neuro-linguists on just this subject, is quoted by the Guardian as saying:
Christie's language patterns stimulate higher than usual activity in the brain. The release of these neurological opiates makes Christie's writing literally unputdownable.
There, rush off and write your bestseller now.
amit varma, 6:41 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

The California Gold Rush

Now in Dubai.
amit varma, 6:36 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Who shall guard the guardians?


(Link and headline via email from Yazad.)
amit varma, 6:15 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

The colour of our skin...

... could be determined by SLC24A5. That's the name of a gene that is now believed to play a crucial role in determining skin colour. Reporting on the study that came to this conclusion, the Boston Globe reports:
Dr. Keith C. Cheng, the senior scientist who started the work using zebrafish, said it is astonishing to think of all that has happened in this country based on skin color -- including the Civil War and the segregation that followed -- and then to discover that just a single molecule in a single gene on a long string of human DNA accounts for so much of the difference.

''This is one base out of 3 billion" in human DNA, said Cheng, an associate professor of pathology at the Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine in Hershey. ''It does not say where someone should sit on a bus."
Quite. And all human differences are based on similarly trivial things, if SLC24A5 doesn't mind my calling it trivial. And boy, all these genes together do such wonderful things, and instead of celebrating the wonderful diversity that results, we seek comfort in sameness, and suchlike. Sadness comes. And no doubt there's a gene responsible for that as well.
amit varma, 12:55 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |


In the 1980s, it would take you years to get a telephone in India.

Today, it takes anything from a day to a week.

Q: What has changed?

Ans: Competition.

That's why competition is a good thing, even if the competition keeps messing up. So Tata Indicom may give me sucky service and Reliance may hassle me in different ways, but I have options. And it's because all these options exist that even MTNL's service is vastly better than in the pre-liberalisation days. Competition rocks.

And even though liberalisation is no panacea, without it, I wouldn't be online right now and typing this. Would you be reading this?

Cross-posted on The Indian Economy Blog.
amit varma, 11:31 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Solving the problem of plenty

Increased choice is one of the welcome signs of material progress, but it sometimes brings with it "the stress of selection," as J Peder Zane writes in this essay. "The need for such guidance has never been greater," he writes, and points to prizes and top-ten lists as "cultural Prozac."

That is also one reason why good filter blogs gain a following: they help you select stuff to read and do without your expending much effort. It is a valuable service, illustrated by how I got the link to Zane's essay: via Arts & Letters Daily, one such filter site.
amit varma, 10:49 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Good news for China

The Indian government is planning to further disincentivise Indian industry.

Cross-posted on The Indian Economy Blog.
amit varma, 10:10 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Conflict of interest

Where do you stand on downlinking norms that make it compulsary for sports broadcasters to share their feed with Prasar Bharti?

If you're the information and broadcasting minister, you're likely to be in favour of it.

If you're the president of the All India Football Federation, and find the value of the TV rights you sell being diluted by this, you're likely to be against it.

Think about poor Priyaranjan Dasmunshi, then, who finds himself wearing both hats. Aniruddh Gupta has the details.
amit varma, 9:33 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Temple privilege card

The Siddhivinayak Temple introduces a Permanent Devotee Number (PDN). If you chant it while praying to God, She gives you preferential treatment.

Ok, I made that second statement up. But who knows, right?
amit varma, 6:17 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Santa Claus is coming to town...

... to protest the "commercialization of Christmas." Heh.
amit varma, 5:18 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Bunty gets a number change

Let us say there is a man called Bunty, and I am a famous numerologist running a service called Numbers Uncut. One day, Bunty comes to me. "I need fame, prosperity, success," he says. "Help me."

"You have come to the right person," I say. "I will help you. First of all, your vibrations are all wrong. Your birthday is 26th, which makes you a number 8. 'Bunty' totals 9. Change your name to 'Bbuunty', which totals 8. And do all important things on days which total 8 -- that is, the 8th, 17th and 26th of every month."

Now, Bunty has come to me, in the first place, because he is inclined to believe in this stuff. He wants to blame something other than himself for his frustrations, and to rationalise past and future failures. So he touches my feet, pays me Rs. 8000 (a Rs 1000 discount just for him), and changes his name. Bunty becomes Bbuunty.

Now, in life, good shit happens and bad shit happens. Whenever bad shit happens to Bbuunty, he thinks, "well, shit happens." Whenever good shit happens, he thinks, "wow, Guruji was right." This is called the confirmation bias. (I'd written about it here as well.)

Also, he starts all important projects on the 8th, 17th or 26th of whatever month. Some of them work out. You know where the credit goes. Repeat and rinse. And so, in a self-validating feedback loop, his faith goes stronger and stronger and stronger.

So why does this come to mind now? Well, I caught this report in DNA of Raj Thackeray leaving the Shiv Sena, and caught this line:
Interestingly, Raj has chosen his lucky number 9 (Sunday’s date is 18) to bid farewell to the party.
Maybe it's the party's lucky number as well. Not that I could care less. The party is a danger to civil society, and so is he. Numbers, though, are largely harmless, and sometimes amusing. What's your birthdate?

Update: JK points me to a post by Vellithira on how Malayalam film-makers are using numerology to produce hits. What to say now?
amit varma, 4:22 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

The ennobling Delhi Metro

Gurcharan Das writes in the Times of India:
When public spaces are not kindly, you seek escape behind the barricade of your car or your gated home. When ordinary life lacks dignity, you run in search of physical and psychological cover. When you ride in a DTC bus you want to distance yourself and to feel superior to others.

Nothing could be nobler, more human than to feel deep inside that we are all one in every way that really matters. To feel this, however, you need to share unthreatening public spaces.

Since we are not a culture of public squares and piazzas of say, the Mediterranean countries, we need to create other opportunities for rubbing shoulders with fellow citizens, and build empathy and respect for them.
Das sees Delhi's Metro as one such space. Hmm.
amit varma, 3:35 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Sniffing out dissent

The Indian Express has a report on election-rigging techniques allegedly used by the Left in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections in West Bengal. I was particularly intrigued by this paragraph:
To detect exactly whether a vote is being cast in favour of a particular party a “strong scent” is put by a loyal voter on the party’s key in the electronic voting machine when he goes to cast his vote. Everyone who votes after him and chooses the same key has the “scent” transferred to his/her figure besides the indelible ink — the official mark of adult franchise. This ensures tracking of who voted for whom.
So if you see people sniffing madly outside a polling booth in the next Bengal elections, don't assume it's hay fever.
amit varma, 1:32 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

The perils of honesty

It drove this bureaucrat to kill himself in frustration.

What surprises you more: the corruption in the system, or the fact that this man didn't get reconciled to it.

(Link via email from Arjun Swarup.)
amit varma, 10:34 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Cricket... and more

When my friend and colleague, Anil Nair, accuses the Left of "subsidizing wounded self-esteem," he is referring to more than just Sourav Ganguly, the subject of his piece. He writes:
[S]een objectively, at the heart of Ganguly's sacking is the fraught question of managing the country's transition - as much in other walks of life as in sport - from a protected environment to one that is internationally competitive.
Indeed. And that's just why, whether or not it's right to drop the man, it's a matter in which politicians should certainly have no say.

By and by, cricket blogging has resumed at 23 Yards, as I'd mentioned before.
amit varma, 11:56 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Nationalism, not religion

Chandrahas points me to a piece by Pankaj Mishra in the New York Times that he feels, in the light of this post, might interest me. Mishra writes:
The destructive potential of modern nationalism should not surprise us. Traditional religion hardly played a role in the unprecedented violence of the 20th century, which was largely caused by secular ideologies - Nazism and Communism. Secular nationalism has been known to impose intellectual conformity and suppress dissent even in advanced democratic societies. In America, it was at least partly the fear of being perceived as unpatriotic that held back the freest news media in the world from rigorously questioning the official justification for and conduct of the war in Iraq.

As for traditional religion, outside Saudi Arabia and Iran and Afghanistan under the Taliban it has rarely enjoyed the kind of overwhelming state power that modern nationalism has known. Then why reflexively blame religion for the growth of intolerance and violence?
Excellent point. I often write about how I oppose both the socialist left and the religious right in India, but perhaps I need to change the latter phrase to "nationalistic right."

Note that I am not against having a sense of identity based on things like being Indian or French or German, as Sandeep seems to think here. (Our sense of identity is essentially involuntary anyway.) But insisting that others conform to these notions, and any kind of coercion that accompanies that insistence, is wrong. Coercion is at the heart of all injustices inflicted by us on other members of our species.
amit varma, 9:42 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

More dollars for Microsoft

Tim Harford's on a roll. In this piece in Slate, he explains how Microsoft could be making more money off the XBox 360. Good thinking.
amit varma, 9:34 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

It's in our hands

Tim Harford writes in the New York Times:
The Group of 20, composed of developing countries like Argentina, Brazil, China and India, has been pushing hardest of all for an end to rich countries' agricultural subsidies and tariffs. Paradoxically, some of the most vocal members of the group impose regulatory barriers that are just as crippling to exporters in their own countries. India's commerce minister, Kamal Nath, has called for rich countries to "eliminate export subsidies as fast as possible." And so they should, but Mr. Nath might take note that an Indian exporter needs to collect 22 signatures on 10 documents - that puts India in the bottom 20 countries in the world for letting its own entrepreneurs trade across borders.
Precisely. As James Glassman writes in Tech Central Station:
What will actually help people in developing countries the most is for their governments to cut their own barriers to trade, no matter what the rich countries do. [Emphasis in original.]
That is not to say, of course, that the USA and Europe aren't monstrously wrong in keeping their agricultural subsidies in place. But our salvation lies in our own actions.

Cross-posted on The Indian Economy Blog.
amit varma, 9:23 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

The core competence of the Indian Left

The Telegraph reports:
There is a familiar gleam in the eyes of Bengal’s politicians. Sourav Ganguly’s ouster from the Indian team has given them an excuse to do what they do best: shut down the state.
Heh. And I can't believe they discussed this in parliament. What guys.

Update: Some chaps have gone on a hunger strike demanding that Ganguly be reinstated in the Indian side. I suppose you could call it Gandhian.

Update 2: Nanda Kishore informs me of a precedent to this. Apparently, Ajit Agarkar's exclusion from an an earlier series had "caused a furore even in the Maharashtra Assembly." Such fun.
amit varma, 5:47 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Bomb in the parliament: the details

I'm not sure if this is true, but it's darned funny anyway.

(Link via email from Nitin.)
amit varma, 11:17 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Friday, December 16, 2005

I, Rigoberta Menchu

Yes, I graduated in English literature. But no, dammit, I'm not the kind of liberal Josh McCabe describes here.

So what kind of liberal am I, you ask? This kind.

(Link via email from Kunal Sawardekar.)
amit varma, 5:49 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Behave, kiddo

Sanjay Gupta doesn't want his friend Sanjay Dutt to "strangle that kid in him."

But he should at least grow up, no?
amit varma, 3:50 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

I love lifts!

Superb smile Fardeen Khan has on his face in the picture that accompanies the Mid Day story, "Fardeen, wife stuck in lift for 5 minutes."
amit varma, 3:46 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

The fundamental right we all ignore

Economic freedom. Nitin Pai has more. Excellent post.
amit varma, 3:39 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Who better to talk to you about AIDS awareness...

... than barbers?

You can't quite walk away when they start talking to you about it, after all. The stand-out sentence in the report linked to above:
Eleven thousand packets of condoms have been distributed by the 85 barbers in the past six months in Lajpat Nagar alone.
It's a relief that no one's yet protested the distribution of condoms on moral grounds.

(Link via email from Sanjeev Naik, who has a detailed post on fighting AIDS, with many links, here.)
amit varma, 3:06 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Navigating Mumbai...

... just got easier.

(Link via email from Ashish Gupta.)

Update: Devendra Gera informs me that this tool has been around since at least 2001. Nothing new, therefore.
amit varma, 2:57 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Gold over PPF

Gautam Chikermane writes in the Indian Express:
The villager in Nu, about 100 km off Delhi, is unconcerned with anything beyond his crop and capital. As and when he generates a surplus, if it is large enough, he buys land; if it is smaller, gold. Now, there are more than 150,000 post offices, four out of every five catering exclusively to rural areas, according to Department of Posts. They are supposed to offer small saving schemes like PPF to small savers. As we all know, these are instruments that offer artificially high returns that are guaranteed by the government.

And still, farmers, farm workers, petty traders, the whole village economy buys gold, not PPF. The reason? Access. Try opening a PPF account there and you face a process, a bureaucracy, a system that forces you to hit gold. Try opening a bank account with a public sector bank in the closest town and there are no cheque books. Simple matters that we take for granted in cities turn into full-fledged projects. Are these instruments, these banks (for now, we’re not even talking about mutual funds) the exclusive preserve of the educated, wealthy, urban citizens?

Surely, there is a logic why people buy small amounts of gold for their daughters in these villages—gold, for them, is a means of last resort. But here lies the surprise: most of rural India does not, as analysts imagine, buy gold jewellery, but gold coins.
Read the full piece.

Intention, PPF. Outcome, gold. Reason, system of government: unaccountable, centrally governed, no incentives to perform, few disincentives from slacking off. You can use Chikermane's example as an analogy for so many other areas in which our government fails us.

And in many of them, the option of gold isn't there.

Cross-posted on The Indian Economy Blog.
amit varma, 2:42 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Why citizenship?

Salman Rushdie ends an essay on multiculturalism by saying:
[T]he questions of core freedoms and primary loyalties can’t be ducked. No society, no matter how tolerant, can expect to thrive if its citizens don’t prize what their citizenship means — if, when asked what they stand for as Frenchmen, as Indians, as Americans, as Britons, they cannot give a clear reply.
I'm not comfortable with the way Rushdie phrases it. I think the basis of every society should be a respect for individual freedoms, that allows every person to live his or her life as he or she pleases, provided they don't infringe on anyone else's freedom to do so. As countries change, I think it is dangerous to hold on to a notion of what words like "French" or "Indian" or "American" mean, and to insist that everyone in those countries adhere to those notions. That opens the way for cultural nationalism. Our values, instead, should be based on basic human rights, on a respect of individual liberties.

I'd written about that here as well.
amit varma, 6:47 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Overweight airlines

Gautam John points me to a BBC report that informs us:
India's state-owned airline Air India has threatened to ground its overweight cabin crew unless they shed their excess pounds over the next two months.

Some 10% of its 1,600-strong cabin crew are estimated to be overweight or suffering from obesity.
Well, I'm just glad that no one is complaining about discrimination on grounds of weight. The reason behind this move, by and by, is "the weight restrictions which have been drawn up by the airline's insurance company." An Air India spokesman was quoted by AP as asking:
Imagine if crew members can't fasten their seat belts, how can they fly?
Quite. And I'd love it if the GoI would lose some more of its excess weight!
amit varma, 6:35 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Vijay the VC

Yet another Indian makes it to Dilbert. Heh.

(Link via email from Ravikiran.)
amit varma, 5:29 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

86 emails, five years

And still Tehelka did not pay Vijay Nambisan. Read some of those emails here.

My rule of thumb while doing freelance stuff for Indian publications: don't write for money; too much of a headache chasing it. Every piece I've written on a freelance basis for an Indian publication so far has been either for the exposure or because friends asked me to and I couldn't turn them down. Any cheque I subsequently receive is a bonus. No such hassles with foreign publications, of course -- at least the ones I've written for.

Oddly, even though salaries in MSM have risen drastically -- especially in Mumbai, with all the competition -- freelance rates haven't risen much. It's a pity for those who make a living off it.
amit varma, 5:06 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Adulterated fuel

Check out this nice sketch in memory of S Manjunath by Sameer Kibey.

(Link via email from Ajay Bhat.)
amit varma, 2:37 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

"No more Bluffmaster ringtones"

Prabhu is upset at the contant barrage of promotional SMS messages he is getting from Hutch, and I sympathise entirely. These messages come at a cost to users -- they disturb them in the middle of work, and take up a fair bit of time when you add them all up -- and sending them without consent amounts to both theft and coercion. One might suggest an opt-out option, but I'm not comfortable with the default assumption of the users' preferences being consent.

I think, instead, that there should be an opt-in necessary on part of the customer at the time when he signs up for the service, with a simple procedure to change that option, specified in every promotional message. The service provider is welcome to offer a slight discount to users who opt in to receive these messages (in other words, charging a slight premium to those who opt out), but everything should be transparent and upfront, at the time of signing for the service, and with every bill. Tell the customers exactly what you're offering them, and let them decide whether they should go to someone else or not.

I'll end this post here, my phone just beeped. Must be something important.
amit varma, 12:07 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Buying a camera?

Be careful.

(Link via ShutterSeek via Tiffinbox.)

By and by, I'm planning to buy the Canon EOS 350D (Canon Rebel XT in the US). Would you have any feedback to offer on that? If so, please email.
amit varma, 11:41 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

One reason to dump email?

Expressindia reports:
Tanushree Dutta was recently honored by the Government of Jharkhand. They released postcards and stamps featuring the actress. She originally hails from Jharkhand.

Unfortunately, she could not be present at this worthy occasion due to her prior shooting commitments.
Well, I hope they mailed it to her.
amit varma, 7:07 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Much ado about a kiss

This time, it's an all-male one.

Look at the number of pictures Mid Day has in that article: it's like a storyboard. Cheez.
amit varma, 4:34 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

The comparative advantage of governments

Oppression and thievery, according to Don Boudreaux in the comments of this post. Heh.

Lest my buddies in government service get offended, let me clarify that it is the system of government we are talking about, not government servants themselves, some of whom might be well-intentioned, hard-working, honest types. (And misfits, thereby.)
amit varma, 4:13 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Delhi's new name

Gaurav Sabnis does an Onion.
amit varma, 2:36 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Empowering cows

The first step. And it's linux-driven, to boot. The open-source movement clearly likes its milk.

(Link via email from Vikram Goyal.)

Previous posts on cows: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28 and 29.
amit varma, 1:15 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Big Brother is watching you, voyeur

The Times of India informs us that "[t]he Maharashtra government is seriously considering a legislation to rein in Internet cafes that allow customers access to porn sites." Neelam Gorhe, the Shiv Sainik who is behind this move, was quoted saying:
A great tool like the Internet used for education is being misused and children and youth are taking to vice. Women have to bear the brunt with such unbridled access to obscenity.
I wonder if she presented any empirical evidence in favour of this, which seems to arise more out of false premises than observed behaviour. If anything, I would imagine the opposite to be true, and for sexual violence to be directly proportional to sexual repression. But our moral police is concerned only with purity of intent, and not with likely outcome. Pity.
amit varma, 12:50 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Tilling fields

Speaking about FDI in retail, the Indian Express writes:
Plenty has been said—and an awful lot written—about mom and pop shops shutting down and taking with them the friendly, smiling, simple shop assistants who apparently define a part of our culture. That’s what, with different details, America’s “liberal” and anti-free trade conservatives say about outsourcing to India. Do the Swadeshi Jagran Manch and its politically correct counterparts oppose outsourcing because the West is experiencing an economic-cultural hollowing out? So, hypocrisy is the first feature of those who oppose retail FDI; the second is history, or rather a lack of it. Over space and time, economic progress has involved job losses, job displacement, old skills dying out and new markets for new skills appearing. The transition is almost never seamless and is, therefore, almost always painful for some. But if that were the argument for stopping economic change, we would all still be tilling fields.
And then comes the killer punch:
In fact, rather a lot of Indians do till fields.
Think about it.

Cross-posted on The Indian Economy Blog.
amit varma, 12:43 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Dakshina Kannada police, take a bow

We often complain about how government servants are never, in practice, as accountable as they should be. And about how information, the biggest tool a common citizen can have, is such a scarce commodity when it comes to government. Well, I take my (imaginary) hat and bow before the Dakshina Kannada police, of the Mangalore/Udupi districts, for starting a blog. Here it is.

Their blog aims to keep people updated on important information, and it's an excellent example for the rest of India's lumbering government machinery. It sends the message: We are accountable to you, and we're going to tell you what we are doing with your money, so that you can decide if we're doing our job or not. Only local residents can comment on how well their blog serves that purpose, but the very act of putting that blog online acknowledges accountability, and that's an important signal to send. Whoever thought of this and implemented it, well done.

(Link via email from Arun Simha.)

PS: May I also humbly suggest that a wiki would be an even more effective interface of getting information online, updated and easily accessible. The format in a blog, of sequential posts one on top of another, makes it much harder to input some kinds of information, and difficult for a user to find old, dispersed data.
amit varma, 12:06 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Tuesday, December 13, 2005


I should watch more Rajnikant movies. I didn't know about this.

(Link via email from Sakshi.)
amit varma, 6:11 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

The price of torture

The New York Times reports that George W Bush has expressed his confidence that he and John McCain can reach an agreement over the way in which captives in the 'War Against Terror' are interrogated. Well, I hope that agreement comes about with Bush moving over to McCain's position.

McCain essentially wants "cruel and inhumane treatment of detainees" -- in other words, torture -- to be banned. The typical argument to keep torture legal is the hypothetical ticking-time-bomb scenario, in which a suspect is known to possess information that will help authorities find and defuse a ticking time bomb. Well, even keeping aside the plausibility of such an extreme scenario, there is a counter-argument that Alex Tabarrok stated superbly in Marginal Revolution a few weeks ago:
By making torture illegal we are raising the price of torture but we are not raising the price to infinity. If the President or the head of the CIA thinks that torture is required to stop the ticking time bomb then they ought to approve it knowing full well that they face possible prosecution. Only if the price of torture is very high can we expect that it will be used only in the most absolutely urgent of circumstances.

The torture victim faces incredible pain and perhaps death at the hands of his torturer. If these costs are to be born by the victim then we had better make damn sure that the benefits are also high and the only way we can do that is to make the torturer also bear some of the costs.
Quite. I hope McCain prevails.

(MR link via Patrix.)
amit varma, 5:47 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

If I was a buffalo...

... I wouldn't watch any more Amitabh Bachchan films.
amit varma, 5:16 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Running out of knowledge workers

The Hindustan Times reports:
India contributes 28 per cent to the total talent pool of knowledge workers in the world. This has helped it corner 65 per cent of the information technology business and 46 per cent of the ITES market. But the greatest challenge staring the software services exports in the face is skill shortage. The country will face a shortage of 500,000 knowledge workers by 2010. The IT services sector will need 150,000 employees while the BPO sector will need 350,000 trained personnel.

According to Nasscom-McKinsey Report 2005, the problem is more of suitability than of availability of labour since India is at the right side of demographic divide. According to the report 2005, “The country will need 2.3 million professionals to meet the $60 billion export revenue target by then. But the present education system will be able to churn out only 7,00,000.

“The country needs to do with higher education what it did with telecom. Deregulate the sector so that some universities are given a deemed university status, allow flexibility in curriculum, funding, and teachers salaries,” says McKinsey & Co partner Noshir Kaka.
Quite. As I'd mentioned here, our strengths are much more suited to labour-intensive manufacture than services exports, and our resources in the latter sector are already being stretched. And Kaka is bang on about the need to reform our education system. More on that some other time.


Cross-posted on The Indian Economy Blog, where comments are open.
amit varma, 4:50 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

No more tricolour undies

"India has banned the use of the national flag on underwear or on any other clothing worn below the belt," AFP informs us.

I wonder how they're going to check.
amit varma, 3:24 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

On Leftists and much else

Rahul Bajaj says in an interview with Shekhar Gupta:
Leftist ka matlab kya hai. Convinced Leftist hain, pretension ke Leftist hain, ya sirf vote-catching ke Leftist hain?
Hmm. I won't bother to translate, as the relevant words are the English ones anyway. Read the full interview, it's interesting, though he sort of swings this way and that.
amit varma, 3:15 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

May stays alive and loses bet

The weirdest consequence ever of an inheritance tax.
amit varma, 12:56 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

23 Yards returns

A few months before India Uncut began, I began blogging with a cricket blog on Cricinfo called 23 Yards. I took a sabbatical from Cricinfo at the end of last year, and 23 Yards went underground because of that. Well, it's back in action. You can see the new, refurbished 23 Yards here, and view the archives here.

My first real post this time around makes a case for coaches in cricket being given far more power than they currently enjoy, somewhat like what soccer coaches have. My post begins:
Imagine two boys, Manu and Pikoo. They both go to work for Bharat Newspaper Distributors, an agency that distributes newspapers. They are part of a large team of delivery boys.

Bharat, who runs the agency, tells Manu one day, “Manu, my group of boys is very inefficient, they keep delivering papers late, my customers will switch, at this rate. I need them to put their shoes on, I mean, to pull their socks up. From today, I am making you responsible for timely delivery of newspapers.”
So what does this have to do with cricket? Read the full post here.
amit varma, 12:10 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Monday, December 12, 2005

On the import of Pingbacks, Blogrolls and Splogs

I'm standing as I type this sentence, and sadly I can't clap while I type, because the chaps at Cobrapost deserve a standing ovation. One of them is Shivam Vij, who blogs at Mall Road and was part of the team that conducted the outstanding sting operation I'd written about earlier in the day. Cobrapost, for those of you who may not have heard of it, is the online journal begun by Aniruddha Bahal, who had earlier distinguished himself at Outlook and Tehelka.

So what did Cobrapost do? Well, to recap, they conducted a sting operation in which they used hidden cameras to record members of parliament taking bribes to ask questions in parliament. One of the questions that a BJP MP from Madhya Pradesh called Chandra Pratap Singh was paid to ask was:
Is it true that while NRI firms such as India Uncut of USA, Sepia Mutiny of Britain and AnarCapLib of Netherlands have been allowed to invest in Indian SSIs, the reputed German investment firm Desipundit has been denied permission? If so, the reasons thereof? Is the Union Government of India planning to make automatic the long procedure of permission for SSIs to import new technologies such as Trackbacks, Pingbacks, Blogrolls, Splogs and Hitcounters? [Hyperlinks inserted by me, obviously!]
Heh. Read Bahal's full account of the expose here. And I can't resist quoting an excerpt from another question, one that Anna Saheb MK Patil, a BJP MP from Maharashtra, asked:
Whether the Railway Ministry has placed any order for purchase of the Yossarian Electro Diesel engine from Germany? Is the ministry aware that the Tom Wolfe committee report in Germany has halted its induction into the Euro Rail system?
Such fun. Bloggers keep writing about how the Indian media has sold out to glamour and commerce, and I'm delighted to note that sections of it are still doing stories in the public interest. Well done, Aniruddha, Suhasini Raj, Shivam and all the other journalists involved in this.
amit varma, 11:12 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

"Narration is excruciating"

Chandrahas Choudhury interviews Altaf Tyrewala, whose book, "No God in Sight," was released by Penguin recently.
amit varma, 4:58 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Beanbag stuff

In the course of an essay in the Wall Street Journal about how the nature of TV viewing is changing drastically, Jason Fry writes:
Reading online or sending email is office-chair stuff; watching TV or a DVD is couch stuff, and the twain don't particularly want to meet.
Well, I spent a fair bit of time relaxing on my beanbag yesterday, surfing the net on my laptop, reading a marvellous essay by Russell Roberts ("The Reality of Markets"), blogging a wee bit, as VH1 played on my TV screen a couple of metres away. I often read stuff on the net on my couch, and I know people who watch DVDs on their office PCs. The nature of how we consume different media is changing, as the media themselves keep evolving, and we don't have a chance in hell of predicting what it's going to be like 15 years from now. Imagine if we'd tried to predict in 1990 the kind of lives we'd be living today. There's not a chance I would have imagined myself "blogging." And we have no idea what manner of disruptive technology lurks around the corner.

Such fun, isn't it? We live in exciting times.
amit varma, 4:22 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Get India Uncut in your Gmail

Gmail started out better than any other web-based email provider, and now they've introduced yet another useful service: Google Clips, which essentially provides headlines from RSS feeds on top of your inbox. If you have a Gmail account, you already get a few sites by default, but can add others as you wish. To add, for example, the RSS Feed of India Uncut to Gmail Web Clips, do the following:

1] Login to your Gmail account.
2] Click on "Settings," towards the top-right corner of your screen.
3] Click on "Web Clips,"on the right side of the orangish bar on top.
4] In the field that comes below "Search by topic or url," paste the url below and click "search".

5] When India Uncut comes up as the result, click on "Add.".

And in case you have a Bloglines reader, you can add my feed to your subscriptions there by clicking here. That is also an excellent tool.
amit varma, 2:10 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

You can't tip a cow

So this report states. But you can piss it off, I'm sure, so be careful.

(Link via Google Blog.)

Previous posts on cows: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27 and 28.
amit varma, 1:57 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

The limits of amnesia

Abu Salem is suffering from memory loss, reports PTI.

But he hasn't forgotten Monica.
amit varma, 1:14 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Stand up, boys

Look who's here.
amit varma, 1:07 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Quite a character, this actor

If a Bollywood producer was given two 'film-ideas' by his scriptwriter, of movies based on Tarannum Khan and Pretti Jain -- yes, that's her name now -- I imagine he would opt for one on Ms Jain, who is a more colourful and interesting character. And yet, I now read that a film is now being made on Tarannum with Pretti in the lead role. Her co-star in the film will be Aamir Khan's youngest brother, and I rather suspect that this casting alone will draw more people to see the film than the story behind it. Maybe that's the point.
amit varma, 1:00 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Question-answer time

The Times of India reports:
A sting operation by a television news channel has caught 11 MPs taking bribe purportedly for asking questions in Parliament.

These aren’t only the more down and out MPs either, they are from across party and ideological lines. While most belong to the BJP, there is healthy representation from in-power parties like the Congress and RJD. Mayawati’s BSP also finds a place in the line-up.


The Left parties, happily out of the mess, have demanded the immediate resignation of all the MPs.
For once, I'm emphatically with the Left on this. This instance also shows the importance of a free media in a democracy. Sting operations have got a bit of a bad name of late, but when they are in the public interest, as in this case, they provide an invaluable service. Kudos to Aaj Tak, the news channel in question.* More, more. This is just a shadow of the tip of a rather gigantic iceberg.

Update: The BJP has sacked those of its MPs who were caught taking bribes on camera. I presume the other parties will follow suit. I won't be surprised, though, if the politicians concerned keep a low profile for a while and then return to active politics. In India, you can't keep a good con down. (Update 1.5: Krishnan Subramanian informs me that "[the] Congress took the high moral ground first and suspended its one MP and BJP had no
other go but to do the same."

*Update 2: It turns out that the sting operation was actually conducted by Cobrapost, and more details will emerge there in the hours to come. Well done!

Update 3: I have a follow-up post here, with a couple of the questions that these MPs were paid to ask. Hilarious stuff.
amit varma, 12:44 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Prosperity and the sex ratio

Jayesh Lalwani points me to an interview of Ashish Bose, a demographer, in which Bose talks about why "[s]tates such as Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Chandigarh and Delhi now have fewer than 900 girls per 1,000 boys." He explains:
The phenomenon of declining sex ratio that showed up in Census 2001 is worst in Punjab, Haryana, Chandigarh, Delhi, Western Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharastra. This defies all demographic theories as these are prosperous states. You expect that when people live better, have better education and economic security, there will be less of a traditional bias against the girl-child; but in India, like China, it has only worsened the situation. Suppose like China, instead of just one, we had a two-child policy, then the Jats and Punjabis would ensure that they had two sons.

In India, there is an unholy alliance between tradition and technology. Tradition is marked by son-preference. Technology started in the ’80s with amniocentesis, most readily available in Punjab, the state made most prosperous by the Green Revolution, and having a long tradition of son- preference. Today ultrasound is the sex-selective technology that is widespread in most prosperous states.

The reasons are easy to define – prosperity ensured better infrastructure, more machines and more doctors to perform the tests. People had money-power to pay for the technology and of course, as infrastructure improved, people could access the clinics easily. All this made foeticide rampant.
There are a bunch of cultural factors for this bias, and local factors that make the ratio worse, such as the tendency in Punjab for men to migrate to the West. Read the full interview. Pretty bleak.

Cross-posted on The Indian Economy Blog.
amit varma, 11:17 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

India Uncut Aphorism 18

It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the world to the scratching of my finger
David Hume, as quoted by Norman Barry in "The Tradition of Spontaneous Order." (PDF file here.)

More Nuggets and Aphorisms here.
amit varma, 1:08 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

From Bangalore to Bengaluru

No, this is not a parody. Karnataka's chief minister, Dharam Singh, really is taking steps to change the name of India's IT capital. I wonder why he's partial to the consonants, though.

(Link via email from Gautam John.)
amit varma, 12:59 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Sunday, December 11, 2005

International trade and the babysitter

Great popularisers take a seemingly complex subject and relate it to everyday life in such a way that they teach even as they entertain. Tim Harford, the author of "The Undercover Economist," does that exceedingly well. Here he is, talking about his babysitter and debunking some common misconceptions about international trade in the process.
amit varma, 2:33 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

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