Thursday, 23 December 2010

First comes dictatorship, then comes marriage...

Having hit the age of 28 a few weeks ago, I have now crossed that stage where my parents (and various other relatives and family friends) keep asking me when I'm going to get married and am now at the point wherein said elders (and some youngers, I might add) have decided to take it into their own hands to find me a wife. Now I'm not much of a fan of arranged marriage, both conceptually (too loaded in favour of the guy, etc) and practically (I've lived away from home for over 1o years now and move in a different social milieu from my parents, so it would be pretty difficult for them to find someone I would have independently chosen), but I've gotten tired of fighting the idea outright. Instead, I've given in to allowing them to start looking, while using equal parts of rational discussion and emotional blackmail to ensure they stick to some basic principles while choosing. I'm hoping this will buy me some time, and also put to the test an important principle in economics. That's right - I'm actually trying an experiment, so if I get married in the next 6 months, consider me a martyr to science. Or, at least, social science. Allow me to explain:

(A quick word before I start: kids, don't try this at home!)

It helps that my parents are actually pretty nice about this whole thing, wanting to take into account each other's opinion as well as the opinions of various friends and well-wishers, not to mention my own. If they were more dictatorial, of course, I'd have been married by now. So, anyway, what this means is that any decision that gets made in choosing a potential mate involves aggregating the opinions of a whole lot of people. I suppose I could hold more sway over the final decision by getting more involved in the selection process, but I find it somehow weird, not to mention time-consuming, to sit in judgement over random women based on what they (or, more likely, their parents) have written in a profile on or some such site. So instead I've traded that dubious 'right' for the moral high ground, from whence I only look on smilingly at their efforts, asking only that they follow some simple principles:
  1. That if they decide that they prefer Girl A to Girl B and in turn prefer Girl B to Girl C, they ought to prefer Girl A to Girl C (where A, B and C are of course hypothetical)
  2. That their preference of Girl A over Girl B should not change if they come to the conclusion that Girl B is after all a better choice than that other girl D
  3. That if everyone whose opinion seems to matter prefers Girl A to Girl B (say), then collectively they ought to state that preference; And finally,
  4. That the final choice should take into account everyone's preferences and should not be imposed on the basis of one person's opinions

Now all this might seem only like the decent and sensible thing, and you might wonder why it would prevent me from getting married in the next couple of weeks, leave alone six months. And well you might, if you haven't studied much economics.
Because, ladies and gentlemen, the above conditions are all part of the wonderfully named 'Arrow's Impossibility Theorem' (sounds like something out of a geeky superhero comic, no?). Formally, Arrow's theorem states that if there are 3 or more alternatives and 2 or more decision-makers, no preference aggregation rule exists that would satisfy the conditions of unanimity (condition 3), non-dictatorship (condition 4) and the independence of irrelevant alternatives (condition 2). Alternatively, it can also be stated as: any preference that aggregation rule that respects transitivity (condition 1), unanimity and the independence of irrelevant alternatives is a dictatorship (i.e. it cannot meet condition 4). Or, to put it simply, yours truly can stay single for a while longer while appearing to be a reasonable and logical young man.
For those of you who want a more detailed explanation of the theorem, good old Wikipedia has a good explanation of this including a pretty neat proof, so I'll just point you there.

There are of course a few quibbles that may come to your mind. Firstly, people obviously still get marriages arranged, even reasonable people, so there must be some way around the problem. Usually that happens because at some point a few decision-makers decide that they've had it with trying to get consensus and make a choice i.e. something like a dictatorship (or at least a marital junta of sorts) gets formed. What that usually means is that while a few people get the power to decide, it appears that everyone's choice was taken into account, including the person getting married (though everyone outside the junta is actually being over-ruled). Here's where a bit of emotional blackmail helps - by claiming to cede my right to choose, I'm basically in a position to ensure that no-one else plays dictator either.

The other possibility is what might be termed a 'cake or death' case - if there's one option that's obviously better than the other(s) so that everyone's rooting for it, then it basically means that everyone's preferences are identical, and there's actually a consensus and I have to get married. But that would just mean that I have to marry someone who's so awesome that she impresses my parents and extended family, all of whom have higher expectations than I do, and she's willing to marry me. Well, I guess one could settle for that, I suppose.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

On borrowing books versus buying them

Usually, I end up deciding on which books to buy based primarily on 5 dimensions - learning/self-betterment, overall entertainment value, my current attention span at the time of buying, signaling value and cost-effectiveness, though not always in that order.
Let me explain them further:
A. Learning/self-betterment relates to what I expect the book to teach me, either by introducing me to something new (like say Marcus Aurelius' Meditations) or to expand my knowledge on something I have some idea about already (e.g. various pop-econ books I've accumulated through the years). It typically relates to non-fiction, though some works of fiction have probably gone a long way in helping me define my world-view as well.
B. Overall entertainment value relates mainly to how well-written a book is and/or how much the underlying ideas may tickle my mind. This usually helps when choosing what works of fiction to buy. It's worth considering since I rarely re-read books anyway, so a good writing style may leave as much or more of an impression than the plot (some of Wodehouse' lesser works provide good examples of style trumping plot by a fair distance).
C. My current attention span is defined by how busy I am, and what other books I might be reading at the same time. If I'm already reading something fairly heavy, I might consider picking up something that's easier on the mind, to read in the loo, say, or late at night before I finally go to sleep.
D. Signaling value is sometimes a factor, though I try not to give it too much weightage. this is basically related to deciding whether owning/showing off a book could affect other people's perceptions of me. Now that I have loads and loads of books at home, this isn't much of a concern when considering individual books, though sometimes I admit it can play a role when deciding what non-fiction to buy, in terms of 'if I take this book to office and leave it casually lying around my desk, will that make people think of me as an intellectual, or as a pretentious so-and-so?' Come to think of it, given that I did a Masters in Econ whereas most colleagues are engineers and/or MBAs, both the above views are probably held already, so the additional book won't shift opinions at the margin. This probably is a vestigial trait left over from having posed on main corr at various times in years past with a wide selection of books from the Stephen's library.
E. Cost-effectiveness - This may seem like a vaguely heretical idea for a lot of book-lovers, but every once in a while when deciding between 2 books, I end up considering which one offers greater bang for the buck, so to speak. So, for example, when Tom Friedman came out with 'The World is Flat', I figured that his 'The Lexus and the Olive Tree' was selling at a much cheaper price but still gave an introduction to the same broad set of ideas, and bought that instead. I got half-way through it, decided that he didn't really offer much in terms of points A,B or C above and only partially helped with D, and didn't bother reading any more of him. Saved myself some time and money in the process. Similarly, I've quite often considered picking up new pop-econ books only to leave them back on the shelf for a while until the cheaper paperback comes out. Admittedly, with my credit card and Flipkart at hand, I'm in danger of now being much more profligate.

Anyway, that was all prologue to what is really the point of this post. I've just signed up as a member of a library in my neighbourhood, and as a result it got me to thinking how this changes the way I choose what to read. Since the cost of membership has already been paid, I no longer have to worry about E so much, nor even D. I can instead choose to balance factors A, B and C, which I think is quite freeing. Since the fees are more easily perceived as a sunk cost in this case, I can opt to quit reading books without feeling guilty, and I can hopefully read across a wider range of genres that might interest me. At least, that is, until I run across cute women in the library whence the impulse for D might kick in and I suddenly reach for Kahlil Gibran.

Until that happens, I'm open to suggestions from loyal and not-so-loyal readers on stuff I ought to attempt reading . This might give you an idea of the stuff I typically tend to read, in case you're wondering. Drop a comment or two. I might even write about the books if I like (or dislike) them. I know, I've promised this before as well, but this time I really mean to do it. Dependent on points C and D above, of course.

Bonus book review: Sheena Iyengar's 'The Art of Choosing' is a good read if you're interested in topics related to choice, limited rationality, etc. all discussed with a certain amount of nuance and a few Indian anecdotes.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Match-fixing and the Market for Lemons

As you most probably know, this week has been a bad one for cricket, what with the spot-fixing controversy and all (see Cricinfo's full coverage here if you have been blissfully aware so far). The news was especially sad because one of the players accused of spot-fixing is Mohammad Amir, easily my (and everybody else's) pick for the emerging player this year. Anyhow, to deal with the shock and the pain, I figured I'd try and come up with a flippant pseudo-economics-based post on what can be done about match-fixing etc. While I was still formulating my ideas, Cricinfo's excellent Surfer blog pointed me to this article by Malcolm Knox on Back Page Lead, which sets up a pretty nice segue into some of what I had to say:
If bookmakers are stupid enough to take spot bets that are fixed, and players are corruptible, then the result will be that the bookmakers will be stung often enough to refuse taking such bets. If the Pakistan players are corrupt all or most of the time, the market would have become a sham and would have ceased to exist. The fact that the market does exist tells us one thing: most of the time, the players are trying their hardest. When they are not, they are choosing their moments selectively. Otherwise there would be no bookies left to fool.
Now before I get into what I had to say proper, there's something that Malcolm doesn't get exactly right (which was also pointed out by one of the commenters on his blog): bookmakers don't usually get on the other side of a bet. They're supposed to set up a market by setting the odds of a particular result and finding two entities who are willing to take either side of a bet, with the bookie usually earning a decent fee from both, and the winner of the bet taking the money. (Note:In a way this is not unlike an investment bank helping to set up a securitization deal by putting together say a bunch of mortgage-backed securities from one set of lenders and getting a rating agency to assign a rating, like a set of odds, that define how risky the resulting CDO's tranches are, and then selling said CDO tranches to some other chump and taking a hefty fee in the process, thus getting a fixed payoff while leaving the buyer to face any risks involved in the deal. Of course, the last few years saw the i-bankers believe their own spiel and holding on to said CDOs, eventually bankrupting their parent companies and more. Sadly, bookmakers seem to be more aware of the risks involved in their bets than i-bankers.) (Note: the previous note was drafted just to show that I've recently read Michael Lewis' 'The Big Short' and now feel like dissing a few i-bankers).
So anyhow, what Knox should have been worrying about is not the bookmakers but the punters who are willing to take the other side of the bet for a spread-bet, even though there was the possibility of fixing. My own guess is that most punters don't take up just one side of one bet - they too would make a string of bets to hedge against losses.

Now one of the factors that would actually encourage punters to think that the bets are fair and they can easily hedge, would be the belief that most players are honest, and the bad ones are weeded out. A life ban for a player who cheated, in this case, could plausibly encourage more betting! How? Here's my pseudo-econ explanation:
Way back in 1970, George Akerlof came up with a seminal paper on asymmetrical information called 'The Market for Lemons' (wiki link). The idea there was that in a market where the sellers of a product -specifically, used cars - knew more about the condition of their cars than buyers. Since buyers were unsure of the quality, the average price they would offer would be lower than the price of a well-preserved used car would be. Now this would in turn mean that the sellers who actually have good used cars would not want to sell at a lower price, which leaves only the sellers of badly-maintained cars willing to sell. This in turn would reinforce the buyers' belief that all used cars are bad (lemons), and would drive their price lower, and so on and so forth in a vicious circle. Now in cricket, we have the opposite situation. Life bans for cheaters would signal that those who are left are quite probably honest which means that the events that are being bet upon aren't fixed and are instead decided by a combination of honest effort and chance. Here's one point where perhaps i-bankers win back a point: if the punters had Phd-toting quants assisting them, they might have more rationally looked at the events of the past and calculated a probability of any given player being dishonest and factored that in when making a bet. However, since most punters are also (probably) die-hard fans, they would confidently (and somewhat irrationally) assume that all players not yet caught are completely honest.

Which brings me to a discussion of the players themselves, and what might be a way of setting punishments for cheats. Knox rightly points out that the bent players don't always cheat, but rather, would pick the moment when they can let their standards slip. We could probably make a conjecture of what the decision-making process in this case would be. Since players stand to gain both money and reputation (which can help if they want to cheat later), they (at least, not the smarter ones) would not cheat in the bigger marquee events - the World Cup, say, or the big Test series. The best occasions are in inconsequential tournaments and matches (think Sharjah and other cricketing backwaters) where the spotlight isn't very much on the players and fans may be more forgiving of a 'loss of focus'. Admittedly, those who got caught were those who cheated at more marquee events (Cronje's Test, this England-Pakistan series), which only goes to prove that they were either a little too greedy or too naive.
So what does this mean? Well maybe instead of an all-or-nothing approach - a life ban or a clean chit, how about handing out graded punishments? Perhaps we could ban players from certain forms of the game for a given period - no World Cups and Tests, but they could be allowed to play first-class cricket and T20 and tournaments-sponsored-by-cell-phone-companies, perhaps. That way, the players with tarnished reputations know that if they want to keep going at quite possibly the only job they know, they will have to play twice as hard and honestly. At the same time, the average punter will know that there are more players who have been dishonest in the past involved, they might actually think twice about taking on a bet that sounds too good to be true. Which might in turn bring down the amount of betting.

On then to another important aspect of cricket: the fans. Would they want to watch games that might involve players with dodgy reputations? Probably not. Maybe (hopefully), we would we see a flight to quality, with people opting instead to see stuff like Test match cricket for the spectacle. Rather than fill up the calendar with hundreds of meaningless ODIs, we could have more series that are eagerly awaited (and monitored) and which actually linger on in our collective memories. More discerning viewers might also mean that broadcasters might have to improve the quality of their programming - more Michael Holding, less Navjot Sidhu, for instance.

So all in all, win-win then. We could make something really positive out of all this, if we just give it some thought.

Yeah right, who am I kidding. This sucks.

UPDATE: K very astutely pointed out in the comments that I hadn't explained the link between match-fixing and the market for lemons too well. I've elaborated a little further in the comments. Going by what I've said, it struck me that the ICC and various administrators would be analogous to used-car salesmen. Which seems about right.

Monday, 26 July 2010

Christopher Nolan, Chronicler of the Broken-Hearted

So, I got around to watching Inception yesterday, and while thinking about the plot and reading a few of the reviews of the movie, it struck me that a lot of Christopher Nolan's movies Memento onwards seem to deal with the same sort of male protagonist - white, heterosexual, broody, bit of a loner, doing some kid of work that's illegal or at least unconventional - and said protagonist is usually trying to deal with the end of a relationship (mainly romantic, though Insomnia, which I never got around to seeing but which I looked up on IMDB for this post, deals with the end of a different sort of relationship). In fact, if you put the movies in chronological order, you get something like 'The 6 Stages of Dealing with Break-ups' as visualized by Christopher Nolan. Consider:
  1. Memento: Having just seen the end of the relationship, the male protagonist (henceforth MP) is filled with anger at the world at large, generally withdraws into himself and his memories of the relationship he had, and is so caught up in the past that he is hardly aware of the present.
  2. Insomnia: Haven't seen the movie, but the title fits.
  3. Batman Begins: The MP decides that he must try to get back together with the woman by attempting to become a better person. He picks up a few new hobbies, spends time with a few male friends (mainly Michael Caine), tries to feel better by working out, eating right, and asserting his alpha-male-ness
  4. The Prestige: MP is still troubled by the end of the relationship, although it's been a while since it ended. He is desperate to find a clear reason, and someone other than himself to blame for the collapse. He throws himself into his work (mainly with Michael Caine), has a dalliance on the side, but deep down is still really pissed-off
  5. The Dark Knight: Much time has passed, and although the MP still has a thing for the woman and is hoping his new hobbies will prove that he's the guy for her, he sees that she's moved on. He decides to be the better man, supporting her and the new beau (of course by the end of the movie, the new beau is at the Memento stage) (And yes, the mentoring from Michael Caine continues)
  6. Inception: Although the woman is no longer part of his life, MP still has memories of their relationship, and realizes that deep down he blames himself for the fact that it ended. The only way to move on is to forgive himself, which he eventually does, and thus finds peace. And, need I say it, there's more Michael Caine here, although fittingly, since the MP realizes that he needs to look within for peace, he needs less of Caine's mentoring at this point.
Going by this evidence, I expect the next Batman movie to involve Bruce Wayne deciding that he's had enough of getting into relationships that end messily and cause a lot of pain to all involved, plus he's really busy with work, and so he's going to just get hitched to a nice, homely girl. Chosen for him by (you guessed it!) Michael Caine.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Ain't No Dancer

He felt like he'd been woken from a deep sleep, his mind still groggy and his body stiff, unmoving. He tried to recall what he had done the last night, the last few days, to end up in this sutation, but he couldn't remember. His thoughts were caught up as if in a fog, moving around his brain slowly, feeling their way around. He tried to open his eyes, but hey refused to respond to his thoughts. It struck him that he might be in a dream, that his body was stil lasleep but his mind was somehow conscious. And as that thought seemed to gain a foothold in his mind, the fog again seemed to get thicker, darker, until what little consciousness he had drifted away, leaving behind a dull numbness.

The numbness slowly gave way to a dull pain, then a sharp, prickly sort of sensation as he perceived what seemed to be a bright light, though he realized that his eyes were still shut. It was as if the light bypassed his eyes entirely and projected directly onto some point in his head. He tried to move, to make some noise, shout for help, but he couldn't hear anything. And then the light went out.

He sensed a throbbing somewhere in his head, and slowly he discerned that it was as if he was hearing a sound, or a series of sounds. And as he became more conscious of it, he realized that there was a pattern, a tune to it. He could almost recognize the song. And as the recollection of the song slowly started coming back to him, it also brought with it memories. The music stopped, then started off again, a different tune this time, loud, raucous, building up to a frenzy. He recognized the song, could even piece together some of the lyrics, and found himself anticipating the shout at the end of it with a sense of buried anger. And as it came, it brought with it memories of who he was, of what he'd done.

Watching the scans, the RA immediately sensed he was onto something out of the ordinary. He'd been doing cryonic reanimation research, or thawing-out psychos as they called it in the cafeteria as a wry nod to the typical test subjects, for a year now, and this was beginning to look like the real deal.
"Well?", his supervisor asked.
"The scans show some activity around the amygdala and the insula, it's a bit like when we did those scans for the god project. It's like our test subject here's experienced some kind of epiphany, but it seems to have made him angry. Like, real mad. Though I'll need to analyze the scans in more detail to see what exactly happened."
"OK. I guess I'd be cheesed off too if I woke up 10 years later and found that my brain had been cut out and frozen. What set it off?"
"So I was running through the standard sensory stimulation tests, only this time I thought I'd try more appropriate cultural references to see if they rang a bell, so to speak. The profile they gave us said he was born in the first half of the 20th century, so I figured I'd try playing him video and music from around the time he'd have grown up."
"Interesting", and then, looking at the heads-up display, "so the subject seems to dislike the, umm, Beatles, huh?"
"Well the real jump in activity seems to have been kicked off with just one track, actually."
"Yeah? Which one?"
"Something called 'Helter Skelter'".


I'm strangely embarrassed to have written this, but also quite tickled by the idea.
Thought it up while sitting through yet another power cut (thanks, BESCOM). It was inspired in part by this NYT article. Incidentally, I remember a Roald Dahl story that was somewhat similar, of a prof whose brain gets preserved along with one eye, and his wife takes him home. Anyone remember the name of that story?

Saturday, 29 May 2010

What are you laughing at?

Humour me a little.
First, watch this:

Now, grab a pen and paper, and watch the whole thing again, and write down what you thought was funny about it.
Here's my (incomplete) list:
  • The phirangi women dancing - brings up the Indian fascination for white skin, but at the same time it's also funny to see that these particular women are almost dowdy and behenji-esque in their dress - one of them's even wearing a kurti! - and dancing style
  • The dark-skinned Uday Chopra lookalike's moves
  • The silly hat the main guy wears to off-set his bushy Mallu moustache
  • The fact that it's a Mallu song but the refrain is in (slightly messed up) Hindi
  • All the disheveled guys in the group dance scenes who look like they've had a bit too much of Old Monk and Hercules the previous night and couldn't be bothered to take a bath
  • The credits - Babydoll Productions, Writer's Forum Alappuzha etc
  • The fact that they're absolutely sincere about the whole thing - there's something tragicomic about people trying their best to do something and yet appearing as complete losers
  • The comments - if you're Mallu and have a decent grasp of Mallu abuses, the comments are quite something
So now if you've put together a list, let's move on to the third part of the exercise: try to list out why you think those things are funny.
Putting on my pseudo-Hansonian (and maybe even pseudo-Han-san-ian) hat, let me try to put together some of the reasons why I think this might be funny (again, an incomplete and possibly not completely thought-through list) :
  • The sense of superiority that comes from looking at people who are trying their best and whose best is not very good, whereas one ('I') could obviously do better if one were to just put in a little effort - case in point: the Hindi pronunciation, the sucky production values, the jerky music
  • The 'there-but-for-the-grace-of-god-go-I' aspect, where one ('I') knows that one may not have done a much better job and is glad that the camera was trained on them and not on oneself, which lends a sense of relief and hilarity (this combines with the earlier point, since one can say, 'what losers for allowing themselves to be caught on camera'). Case in point: the dance steps. I am ever-thankful that back when I was in college there weren't too many camera-phones around to record me dancing at 'Do Re Mi'.
  • The incongruities - Bushy moustache-meets-funky hat, dowdy phirangi women dancing, Mallus singing in Hindi (do not bother bringing up Yesudas, you know what I'm talking about here), Babydoll productions and the Writer's Forum being thanked - it's quite a mind-meld
  • Contextual humour - knowing Malayalam helps to really understand the depth of feeling in the comments, and anyone who's come in contact with Mallus would probably get the humour in the hatted guy's facial hair. I wonder how funny non-Mallus, or for that matter non-Indians would find this video
From the above list, I'd say I almost feel a little guilty about the first point, since they really, sincerely, think they're doing something good. And yet, if they were doing this ironically or as a parody (a la Borat or Wilbur Sargunaraj) it probably wouldn't be as funny.
So what do you think? What were you laughing at? Leave a comment, please.
And if you want homework, analyze this.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Five Books I wish I'd read when I was younger

In response to my post inviting ideas for more blog posts, Murthy suggested that I do the Tyler Cowen thing and list out the 10 books that have inspired me the most. Now I'd already done something similar on Facebook many months ago thanks to one of those tag things from Han, so that didn't seem like something worth rehashing. So instead here's a list of books that I wish I'd read when I was younger. Some of these I have gotten around to reading only in the recent past, while others I've only read in part or not at all, and the longer I delay getting around to reading them, the more I find that I can get by (and indeed have gotten by) passably without reading them or that my attention span is now too short to attempt picking these books up at this point. I dont think these books would have brought about any life-altering changes in my own personality (which is fine, since I quite like who I am), but I feel these would have been good reads at some point, for various reasons. So on with the list:

1. Godel Escher Bach, by Douglas Hofstader - Just as something of a geek-culture touchstone this would have been worthwhile to read and subsequently name-check (note: especially useful when having slightly tipsy Econ PhD-applicants explain computability problems to you), and it also seemed to cover a lot of things that I've never been able to get a real handle on - music, math and art, but also deeper stuff about logic and so on which I only get a peripheral idea about through Wiki-trawling. I haven't read it yet so what little I know about the book too is from Wikipedia and by word-of-mouth, so maybe I'm building it up to be bigger than it is, but given its sheer size itself, it'll probably be a while before I work up the nerve to read it.

2. The Return of Depression Economics, by Paul Krugman - Krugman came out with the first edition of this book way back around the time when I was in college, so it was a little silly of me in hindsight to wait until 2009 to read the updated edition. It wouldn't have transformed me into an economics wunderkind, but I guess it would have helped relate what I learnt in class to the real world, which, hopefully, would have made me pay a wee bit more attention. Instead I did the Delhi Times crossword, doodled or wrote atrocious schoolboy poetry and eventually had to relearn economics via pop-econ books and blogs. And of course Wikipedia.

3. The Story of Philosophy, by Will Durant - I had a copy of this when I got to college way back in 2000 and tried manfully to read through it before getting lost somewhere in the discussions about Kantian thought. I did pick it up again in my 3rd year to refer to for an assignment on Hegel and Dialectical Materialism, which I must admit was probably the best tute I ever wrote, but after that I let the book go again. Maybe I should have started with 'Sophie's World' instead...

4. The Argumentative Indian, by Amartya Sen - This started off as an OK read, but every time I picked it up it reminded me of the absolute mind-numbing horror that was my Social Choice Theory paper at D-School, and the thought that our primary reading material for the course was Amartya Sen's drier theoretical work was enough to prejudice me against him forever. Someday, perhaps, I might be able to get over it and give him a fair chance.

5. Basic Econometrics, by Damodar Gujarati - considering that I've been working in analytics for almost 5 years now, I have to admit that my knowledge of 'trics and stats is a little shakier than I'd like it to be. 'Gujarati' is something of a ready reckoner for most people working in the analytics sector in India, and although I bought myself a copy in a fit of work-related enthusiasm many moons ago, I'll admit to having opened it only sparingly since then.

So that's my list. Murthy, Han and Kanishka, consider yourself tagged. Anybody else want to talk about the books they wish they'd read, feel free to blog about it and leave a link in the comments below.

Monday, 12 April 2010

I've started, so I'll finish

In my last post, I spoke about one way to think about the possibility of God's existence, and I stopped short of talking about how that meshes with my own day-to-day life as a Catholic. As I had said, I don't have it all figured out, and there are obvious questions that come up on why I continue to identify myself as one, as illustrated in this comic.
I think that part of the reason that I self-identify as a Catholic is simply that since my parents are staunch Catholics and brought me up as one, I choose to stick to the label and explore the more personal aspects of my faith within it, rather than trying to make a clean break from it. I'll admit that if they had been part of some other religion or denomination I would probably have accepted that label willingly too. At the same time, one aspect of Catholicism (as I've experienced it) that I think helps make it easier for people to stay within the fold is that it does not require or expect followers to know or read the Bible in much detail (some of the more evangelical types do make the effort, of course). Other denominations (and a few other religions) require greater knowledge of their sacred texts and consequently a stricter, possibly more literal-minded adherence to them. There is a lot more focus on rituals and symbolism in Catholicism, and I feel that they allow for more individual interpretation - for example, some followers may have a favourite saint whom they hope will intercede on their behalf.
 Along the same lines, I find going to mass an interesting contemplative experience, where I can follow my own train of thought while participating in the overall proceedings. Being a creature of habit, I find it easier to be contemplative in church than in most other environs, especially when thinking about my own limitations and errors. At the same time, participating in the service along with the congregation is also something of a soothing experience, making you feel that you are part of a greater entity than just yourself. I think a similar feeling of belonging would also arise from jagrans, retreats or Buddhist chanting. The need to belong is, after all, part of the human essence.
In terms of my personal faith independent of the church, I will admit that I've found it difficult over the last few years to think of a way to properly engage with God,especially since I broke up with someone I was very close to. It called into question what I would consider the standard approach, where we as humans expect something like a quid pro quo relationship, exchanging prayer and supplication for specific outcomes that we desire - 'Not on our deeds, but on your grace, O Lord, though if you could help me out on this small matter, I would be eternally grateful and will light a candle to symbolize this'. Insofar as I do get around to praying these days, it usually revolves around expressing gratitude, and rephrasing what is essentially the Serenity prayer to fit the minor hassles of life- 'God grant me the wisdom to know that there is very little that is entirely under my control, and grant me the serenity to accept that; and perhaps you could grant courage to those who would use it better than me'.

I know the above is neither comprehensive nor entirely convincing, but that's because I've never really contemplated my faith in too much detail either. Deep down, I suspect my spiritual beliefs do get captured by the following lines which appear at the beginning of Vonnegut's 'Cat's Cradle':
'Live by the foma that make you brave and kind
and healthy and happy.'
-The Books of Bokonon 1:5

Did I mention that I sometimes think that God has a sly sense of humour?

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Imagining an Ant God

A few days ago I asked readers of this blog for ideas on what they'd like me to write about, and my cousin Nikhil suggested a post on my religious beliefs (or lack of them). Now that's a tough one, since I find that, for the most part, the best way to retain one's religious beliefs is to not think about them too deeply. What I'd initially planned to do was to just record myself talking about this for a while and then post it as an ersatz podcast, since that would also make it a 'stream of consciousness' type post, which is also something that Nikhil asked for. However, I ended up recording myself at about 2.00 AM, which meant that I wasn't making too much sense when I was talking. Plus I usually sound like a 15-year-old with a blocked nose, and since the whole thing revolved around God and so on, it basically sounded like someone getting doped out of their head and talking nonsense. Not the sort of thing I'd want to post, thank you. Which brings me to this post. Hopefully the meandering prose sounds sufficiently like a stream-of-consciousness narrative so I can tick that off the list as well and not make up something to project my consciousness as being sufficiently arty-farty.
Now on to the topic at hand. I guess when talking about my religious beliefs, I can split the narrative into two posts detailing firstly, how I think about God at a broader rational(izing) level and, secondly, how that relates to my day-to-day life. Let me admit now itself that the links there are tenuous and the arguments inconclusive, and it all eventually comes down to belief and force of habit, so if you're hoping for a cogently argued piece on why everybody should go to church on Sunday, you may as well quit reading now. Consdier yourself warned.
When I was in school in Cochin, we used to have a weekly class on the Gita, taught by the Biology teacher who, incidentally, was an Ottamthullal dancer in his spare time (true story, though I'm a little hazy on whether it was Ottamthullal or Kathakali). One of the few things I remember from that class was that, during a discourse about God's existence, he said that the only people who have a complete definition of God are atheists, because only if you have a complete definition can you put it to the test and then say for sure that God does not exist. That's not entirely true, but I think it is a good way to start thinking about how the way we think about God is constrained by the limits of human comprehension.
Consider this: let's say you have a whole bunch of ants sealed up in an ant farm so you can observe them, but they are pretty much oblivious to the existence of the world outside of the farm. Assuming those ants were developed enough to think about these things, how would they think about a god in this case? Being at the top of the food chain within the farm, they'd probably assume that god was very much like themselves. The funny thing is, as the owner of the ant farm, you could pretty much play god with them if you felt like it, but they'd still think of you in ant terms - perhaps as a deity with six legs and magical pincers or something, until you revealed yourself as a human, at which point they probably would not even be able to comprehend your existence in non-ant terms.
Now that's not a great thought experiment, but what I wanted to bring out was that we as humans are far too vested in trying to think of god in strictly human terms, with broadly human motives and human emotions. Remaking god in our own image, as it were. And yet, if god as an entity really exists, it seems to me that he/she/it would be far too complex a being for us to wrap our minds around, far more complex than the idea of a human being would be to an ant. When we do prove that our earlier beliefs are wrong, that only demonstrates our own small-mindedness and ignorance. This doesn't prove that God clearly does nor does not exist, it's just saying that thinking about Him/Her in terms of human logic may not provide a sufficient answer. It then comes down to a question of belief or faith.
However, if god really is so complex, it does make it tougher to assign emotions or motives. We would like to believe he has a soft spot for us, but the ants in our hypothetical ant farm might also believe the same thing about the humans who own the farm. This is one of the things I definitely haven't figured out completely yet - how to engage with this idea of God. After all, if I don't know if there's a plan or what that plan might be, I may as well live my life assuming that there's no plan, or at best, that I'll play just an incidental role in any larger plan.

At this point, things get really murky, so I'm going to stop for now, and in my next post I'll try to cover how I try to engage with my religious beliefs on a day-to-day basis.
Right now I need to go get a haircut.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Now taking Requests

What with work getting more and more hectic and my comp crashing and with the IPL, I haven't blogged in ages. There are a couple of half-formed posts in my head, but I'm probably going to let them swim around for a bit till I can type them out on a comp instead of on my phone, which is what I'm doing for this post.
Instead, to spur myself into writing something and to see if anybody still bothers to read the blog, I am going to steal an idea from Tyler Cowen and invite regular readers to nominate topics they would like me write about. Obviously, since I am nowhere near being the sort of stud that Cowen is, I hope the topics will revolve around stuff where it makes sense to have me write something original, rather than pasting stuff from Wikipedia or something. Also, since I'm typing on my phone, stuff that doesn't require me to type out long essays would be preferable.
So far I haven't really established any particular tone or style for this blog, so hopefully this will give me an idea about what sticks with the regular readers, and what aspect of my writing sucks. Let me know what you think.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Buzz, I'd like to meet your uncle, GG

Remember what life on the web was like in the years before Google became a verb? Back before Orkut Buyu-how-many-Ks-in-kkoten supposedly set out to find his lost love through social neworking, before Mark Zuckerberg supposedly screwed-over a bunch of other Harvard-types to start a site for college kids to ogle at other college kids, before even stuff like Friendster and what not, there was the mailing list. Thanks to e-groups (later Yahoo! Groups) and such-like we tried to keep in touch with friends from school that we'd left behind by signing up for the batch mailing list with much enthusiasm. Similarly when trying to find people with similar tastes or hobbies, we would again sign up for a mailing list. I, for example, was on the mailing list for something called Quiznet for about 9 years, though I stopped reading the mails after 3, and another poetry mailing list called the Wondering Minstrels, which sadly seems to have stopped sometime in 2004 or so.

Now those mailing lists weren't perfect, but they had some redeeming features-they were strictly opt-in, there was a clear reason for their formation (better than, say, being defaulted the 'India' network on Fb), they were reasonably simple to figure out if you knew how to use e-mail and the rules for posting and moderation within the network could be tweaked by the users themselves. Set against that was the pain of having loads of unread mails cluttering your inbox, including flame-wars, personal mails because people replied to the group instead of the sender and even the odd out-of-office auto-reply. Even today, most of the mails in my Gmail account in the last 6 months seem to be from members of a particular mailing list that I'm part of.

So now that Google's come out with Buzz and the initial enthusiasm has worn off, I find myself wondering why they didn't try integrating Buzz with Google Groups. Instead of opting users into one universal social network they could have provided a platform for multiple overlapping networks. People could choose which networks they wanted to join, what permission levels they wanted to set for the group, and they'd only need to share something once to the group. Instead of receiving 10 emails from members of a group with the same attachment being forwarded around with new comments, you could have just one instance of the item, with comments tacked on. Want to keep your work contacts different from your other friends? Set up different networks. With opt-in, there'd be less chances of twitter-style bots. And instead of those irritating messages on fb about '1 new survey for you to answer' etc, Google could simply show some discreet adwords on the side tailored for the network, similar to the ads shown within Gmail (maybe network members could even choose to some extent what types of ads they want to see=> more targeted ads =>happier marketers and customers).
It wouldn't necessarily be as flashy as facebook, but it could lead to more communicative networks, with more useful information.

Not to mention, it would reduce the chances of my being woken up at 1.00 AM because a new mail hit my phone, informing the mailing list that _______ is not in office right now and will be out on vacation with limited access to his e-mail, but we can contact his colleague _______ for any urgent matter.

Friday, 12 February 2010

A little Hemingway in the afternoon

I just started reading Hemingway's 'Death in the Afternoon' and came across this sentence:
However, if I had waited long enough I probably never would have written anything at all since there is a tendency when you really begin to learn something about a thing not to want to write about it but rather to keep on learning about it always and at no time, unless you are very egotistical, which, of course, accounts for many books, will you be able to say: now I know all about this and will write about it.
I think that 'tendency' is also partly why I blog a lot less these days - as I've gotten more aware about the world in general and about the skill involved in writing, I end up spending more time reading others (and sharing a lot of what I read online through Google Reader) while discarding most of my own output as being not very good.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Big Mama's House

We interrupt this not-so-steady stream of blog posts to bring you two very important bits of news:

  • Firstly, the proprietor of this blog has gone and bought a flat in Bangalore and is now slowly coming to terms with his debt profile and the intricacies of plumbing. Once that is done, more regular blogging will may resume.
  • Secondly, and more importantly, this blogger has been informed that he will become an uncle sometime this year. Yay me! Or rather, yay my sister and brother-in-law.

That is all. We now return to our regularly scheduled lack of of original programming.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Why Twitter is like one of those Morning Walker thingies

You know what I'm talking about - one of those machines that claim to give you all the benefits of exercise while you basically spend 15 minutes lying on your back twiddling your thumbs. If you're not in very good shape to begin with, you'll probably see some level of improvement for a week or two, but after that, you know you're lying to yourself, but you'll continue using it because it's still easier than, say, actually getting off your bum and working out.
Now I'm a pretty big fan of Twitter, for the most part, but the one thing I dislike about it is that it allows me to slack off on blogging/writing. Now this isn't how it's supposed to be. Twitter's supposed to actually help you write better, by forcing you to get concise and fit everything into 140 characters. Only I find that I'm not just writing less, I'm now also writing less. Let me explain - I like the idea of writing, and that's why I started blogging in the first place, but now I keep telling myself that if I am going to post something on the blog, it had better be good, or I shouldn't bother with it at all. Which eventually means that I hardly post that often on the blog these days (compare, for instance, the number of posts I did per month back in 2008 to the number I did in 2009). Instead, when I do feel the urge to express myself somewhat on the internet, I now type out a quick tweet and I'm done.
And then I go back to gorging at the all-you-can-eat buffet table that is Google Reader. I can almost feel my arteries hardening, metaphorically speaking. And so, since this is still January, I shall now make a resolution to write more, in terms of both, quantity and frequency, this year. Let's see how long that lasts.