Thursday, January 28, 2010

He Speaks Like a Dream

I type this as I listen as Obama addresses US Congress live.
Sometimes it is best to listen to what we feel instead of thinking through and coming to a clever conclusion.
So here are my impressions:
a) He speaks like a dream
b) He can bring a lump to your throat - you do not have to be an American
c) He is speaking of tax breaks to business who keep jobs in America - in other words, anti-outcourcing - but you cannot dislike him for that; partly, because you know that this is a lot of rhetoric and that America cannot isolate itself from world economy, and partly because you know that he has to say that, he is an American president, after all
d) He is speaking of retaining (or is it regaining?) world dominant position
e) He makes repeated references to China and Europe and India; US is worried - time to think of cooperation, rather than competition.
f) He is unafraid to speak his mind.
g) He makes me want to stand in front of India and speak like this. Hmmm... time to join politics and aspire to become the greatest Prime Minister of India. Ever.
h) I wish I could speak like him. As I said, he speaks like a dream.

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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Longest Sentence

The longest sentence I know is also the most expansive in scope and reflects the hope and aspirations of a nation. I am great votary of sweet, short sentences, but in this case I make an exception. This is one of the most beautiful sentences I have come across. Ever.

What am I talking about?
Click and drag the shaded portion below.

WE, THE PEOPLE OF INDIA, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a SOVEREIGN SOCIALIST SECULAR DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC and to secure to all its citizens:
JUSTICE, social, economic and political;
LIBERTY of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship;
EQUALITY of status and of opportunity;
and to promote among them all
FRATERNITY assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the Nation;

Yes the preamble to the constitution of India.
Do you know of any other sentence as long and as optimistic?

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Monday, January 25, 2010

Should the IPCC be disbanded?

Or at least the people who are decision makers need to go. Even if it just to restore its credibility.

The main charter of the IPCC, is flawed. It states:

The Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change is the leading body for the assessment of climate change, established by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) to provide the world with a clear scientific view on the current state of climate change and its potential environmental and socio-economic consequences.

Instead it should have been

The Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change is the leading body for the assessment of climate change, established by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) to provide the world with a clear scientific view on the current state of climate change and its environmental and socio-economic consequences, if any.

You do not start a scientific inquiry by deciding before hand that there is a potential consequences. One is already biased.

In any case, the credibility of IPCC is at all time low. It is being hit by one controversy after another. Close to the heels of the Himalayan Blunder, and allegations of financial impropriety and conflict of interest against Mr. Pachauri comes this news of apparently incorrect linking global warming to an increase in the number and severity of natural disasters. Ignoring unfavourable data and including data that supports your hypothesis is not a scientific approach. Once again it points to process failures. Caution by two reviewers were completely ignored.

It is as if a bunch of scientists are determined to prove that there is a problem out there. There might well be; but this is hardly the way to go about it.

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Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Himalayan Blunder

I do not think Mr. Pachauri has understood the nature of the "mistake" that IPCC made in its 2007 report. The "mistake" concerns melting of almost all the glaciers by 2035.

There are only two types of mistakes that can happen. One is because of oversight. These are genuine mistakes. Instead of typing 3025 someone may type 2035. Such mistakes are generally caught rather easily by an independent review.

Other mistakes creep in because of process failure. When IPCC admits that the melting of Himalayan glaciers was included in their report without it undergoing a peer review (see here), it is actually admitting to a process failure. Such process failures put the entire 2007 Climate Report under doubt. Who knows what else was included without peer review?

The 'himalayan blunder' brings out another aspect that troubles me. The Himalayan range is 2400 km long, 150 km to 400 km wide, and home to 100+ Mountains that are 7200 m high. (Source: Wikipedia) I am not sure how much water is trapped as snow and ice in this huge mountain range, but it must be only behind Antarctica and the Arctic Ocean. We are not talking of some chota-mota geological feature.So, if the Himalayas have not been taken into account into the global climate model then how accurate is the model?

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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Faggots and Clots

I don't think I can ever master English.
I find it extremely difficult to understand what is written on the menu and I need help.
I can read it but not understand it - it is as if I am reading a different language written in Roman script.
The realization dawned during my last trip to England.
As we sat reading the menu card at a cosy little pub one of our hosts declared that he wishes to have Faggots.
What are Faggots?!?!
Turns out that it is a meat dish (see here)

Another instance: We had arrived early at the St Pancras railway station. As we sat waiting for our train on cold, steel benches (why would anyone design metal benches in cold countries?) the shop in front of us had Clotted Cream written in large, bold letters.
Clotted Cream?
The only other word with which I had associated clot all my life is blood!
Turns out that clotted cream is a delicacy. See here.

I have now come to terms with Hash Browns, which is nothing else but fried potatoes.
But what zap me most are the description of ingredients: meat ball shallow fried in xxxx sauce and served on a bed of rice with a serving of yyyy and zzzz. Most of the time I have no idea what the xxxx, yyyy and zzzz are.

But now we have smart phones to rescue.
Look up the ingredient on Wikipedia and you know exactly what you are eating.
Or learn English.

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Sage Advice

My uncle - Jethu, as Bengalis call their father's elder brother - used to be a constant source of stories and advice. He had a huge stock of both. Many of the stories that I have narrated in this blog are from him.

One day, shortly before his death, when I went to him room - he was staying with my cousin in Jamshedpur - he appeared to be sleeping. I think he 80+ at that time. He spent most of his time sleeping. He had not been well for some time.
I sat next to him and he opened his eyes, looked at me and smiled.
I asked him, "What are you thinking, Jethu?"
He replied, "What can think tell me, baba? We old people do not have any future. We have only past. I am thinking of the past."
I do not think I have heard of anything more depressing in my whole life.

Anyways, coming to more cheerful memories.
His favourite - whenever I was in a dilemma to ask someone about something - was, "Go ahead and ask. He won't kill you, right?"
This was his version of "What is the worst that can happen?"
A very valuable advice, if you ask me.
Remember to be polite though.

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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Improve Your Space IQ

The year was 1993.
This was my first assignment abroad.
Shortly after my colleague and I reached England, we were joined by - I could not believe my luck - Rakesh Sharma ... Yes! The first Indian in Space!
We were thrilled to bits.
He was very kind towards us.
Our hosts had organized an evening with Rakesh Sharma, to be followed by a Cocktail and Drinks kind of party. For some reason, the two of us were not invited. We were not keen on the cocktail stuff, but we wanted to listen Rakesh Sharma speak.
I remember my then boss turning to us and say, "I don't think you need to come."
Rakesh Sharma turned and said, "Of course they should come. I am sure they want to come."
His talk on his experience in space was the finest I have heard ever. Not because of the content. But because the way he presented.
Anyways, one afternoon Rakesh Sharma, my colleague and I were returning from lunch. As we were walking towards our makeshift porta-cabins, I asked him if I could ask him a question. The question I asked was, "How do people in space do toilet?" He laughed and said something about suction, etc. I do not clearly remember the answer. But if you need to know how Space Toilets work, check out Top 10 Moments in Space Bathroom History and extend your space IQ.

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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Confident or Proud

I haven't seen the movie Ghajini. Only snatches as seen while surfing TV channels rapidly. But there is one monologue that has stuck to my head and does not seem to leave me. I hope putting it down on this blog will help.

It goes like this: I think the Character Aamir Khan plays is giving a lecture (lecture?) to a bunch of students. He says ... there is a very thin line between being confident and being proud. "I can do it" - is being confident. "Only I can do it" - is being proud.

Very neatly put, don't you think?

Another question: Given the above definition, could some one be confident and proud at the same time? If yes, would you care to give an alternative definition?

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Monday, January 18, 2010

Nature of Markets

It was many months ago (November of 2008) that I made this study(?) on the BSE Sensex Interday High and Low. I should have followed it up with a bigger sample size. Good thing I did not. Why bother when someone much brighter has got it all figured out. This man is perhaps one of the greatest living scientists today. He is called the father of Chaos Theory and he responds to the name Benoit B. MandelBrot. Yeah you go that right - he, of the famous Mandelbrot Set.
Here's what he has to say about a typical characteristics of a market in his absolutely remarkable book, The (Mis)behaviour of Markets ...
Markets have a personality
Prices are not driven solely by real-world events, news, and people. When investors, speculators, industrialists, and bankers come together in a real marketplace, a special new kind of dynamic emerges - greater than, and different from, the sum of the parts. To use the economists' terms: In substantial part, prices are determined by endogenous effects peculiar to the inner workings of the market themselves, rather than solely by the exogenous action of outside events. Moreover, this internal marketing mechanism is remarkably durable. Wars start, peace returns, economies expand, firms fall - all these come and go, affecting prices. But the fundamental process by which prices react to news does not change.

Here's a thesis topic for students of finance and economics: Carry out a study of the pre-1991 Sensex and post-1996 Sensex variations. Examine how the markets have reacted to Indian and World events. It is bound to reveal how the characteristics of the Indian Share Market changed with the entry of Foreign Institutional Investors. And don't forget to thank me!

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Saturday, January 16, 2010

Money Making Secret

The secret of herd mentality among investors was revealed in Liar's Poker by Michael Lewis in 1989. Though the book was a No. 1 Best Seller, this small piece did not sink in. Perhaps, because it is a small paragraph hidden deep in the 249 page book. The book was written shortly after the 1987 Market Crash. The lesson doesn't seem have have sunk in yet.

Here is that truism again ...

The word stockbrokers use for this approach is contrarian. Everyone wants to be one, but for the sad reason that most investors are scared of looking foolish. Investors do not fear losing money as much as they fear solitude, by which I mean taking risks that others avoid. When they are caught losing money alone, they have no excuse for their mistake, and most investors, like most people need excuses. They are, strangely enough, happy to stand on the edge of a precipice as long as they are joined by a few thousand others.

Michael should know what he is talking about. He was there.

So the next time you see a gold rush, either be the first to get in and get out. Or wait for the market to fall on its face.

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Friday, January 15, 2010

Can't Be Done!

It's late in the evening.
I am heath conscious, my kids are not.
Kids win.
We walk into a KFC outlet in Bangalore.
No serpentine queue! (Yes there are fast food joints in Bangalore that are near empty on Weekends!)
One kid wants the regular crunchy chicken and the other hot wings.
So I ask the person at the counter to give me a regular bucket that contains both.
No! Can't be done.
He doesn't know. Just can't be done. Company policy I suppose.
I try to offer logic: "The price of a regular bucket of both varieties is the same. So just mix them up. You don't lose anything." - water on duck's back.
Finally I settled for one; Hot Wings can wait for another day - if I return, that is.
Copious number of management books are churned out from the press in USA and Europe. I am not surprised.
Because with this kind of front-end service, these companies will need lot more education.

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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

How Stuff Works

Recommendation time!
Isn't it wonderful to learn new things? Every day? Especially if they are available in a neatly easy-to-digest package.
Now imagine visiting a website once a day, spending just about 5 minutes. By this time next year you would have 365 new things.
I count my daily visits to How Stuffs Work as one of the few good (ahem!) habits I have. I just pick one topic at random - anything that catches my eye and about which I have do not have much idea - and read through the whole article.
Try it. It will become an enjoyable habit.

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Do You Have a Teenager?

This extract from Gary Marcus's Kluge will not give you any solution, but will certainly help you understand your teenager.

Teenagers as a species seem almost pathologically driven by short-term rewards. They make unrealistic estimates of the attendant risks and pay little attention to long-term costs. Why? According to one recent study, the nucleus accumbens, which assesses reward, matures before the orbital frontal cortex, which guides long term planning and deliberate reasoning. Thus teenagers may have an adult capacity to appreciate short-term gain, but only a child's capacity to recognize long-term risk.

Hmmm.... Does the human orbital frontal cortex ever mature? Think rain forest, environment, financial meltdown, wars, nuclear arsenal ... I rest my case.

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The Two-Second Distance

It is amazing how quickly people reach conclusion.
Especially when they are apparently the victim.
Especially when it is easy to blame others.
Take for instance the accidents that happen outside my window. More often than not it is a vehicle that has hit the one in the front. The traffic police stops the traffic, the vehicles slow down and bam! accident.
Who is to blame?
Why that is simple! Not the person in the front. After all s/he slowed down at the traffic junction. The person behind should have kept his/her distance. Right?
What if the vehicle in the front was driving fast in the first place?
After all the vehicle in the front determines the speed of the vehicle that follow.

Like I said, it is always easy to blame others. Especially when it is easy to identify a victim quickly.
By the way, I read this somewhere ... keep a 2-second distance between yourself and the car in the front.
How do you do that?
This is simple: from the time the car in front crosses a stationary object, say, a telephone pole, count off 2 seconds (one thousand and one ... one thousand and two). If you cross the telephone pole within that time, slow down.
The advantage: the faster you are going, the more distance between you and the car in the front if you are two seconds behind.

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Friday, January 8, 2010

What if I die tomorrow?

What if I die tomorrow?
Not that I intend to commit suicide or something like that, but supposed I knew that I were to die tomorrow.
What do you think one could do?
It is too short a time to plan for all the things that I wished to do and procrastinated.
It is certainly too short a time to get a huge insurance on self.
I would just go on living as I am now.
Doing exactly the same thing.
Well, not exactly the same thing.
I would smile a lot and laugh a lot and try to make others laugh a lot.
Now for that I do not have to wait for one day before I die, do I?
I can start doing all this right now.
What about you?

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Monday, January 4, 2010

Invitation to the Terrorists

Yesterday I posted (here) my observations of the lip service security checks carried out at the Bangalore soft spots. And today I see something more stupid.
Apparently, there will be tougher screening of US bound passengers from some 14 countries (see here).
My observation: Can't this be done without giving any publicity? This is like telling the thieves, please use other doors, this door is securely shut.
Mr. Terrorist, please do not board planes from Pakistan or the 13 other countries in the list. Try a different route.
What rubbish!

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Participant of the Future

The newspapers are plastered with the "decade that was" for the past two weeks. Suddenly, 2009 was not just an end of year; it was an end of a decade.
Curiously, up until this moment I never though of 2009 as the end of a decade. Just another year!
I wonder how many really did.
Anyways! Some newspapers have become bold and have also given us "trends": the equivalent of crustal ball gazing into the next decade. So now we have what is going to happen in the next decade.
Chances are that they have got it all wrong. The 2010-2019 is going to be far more innovative than anyone can possibly imagine.
But the real question is: are you going to just read about it, tucking away such information in some corner of your brain, only to be used in some quiz competition. Or - think about it - are you going to be a an active participant?

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Sunday, January 3, 2010

Security in Bangalore

Security issue concerns us all.
In this age of mindless violence by thugs - terrorists are thugs, no more no less - I can understand the need for increased vigil.
But paying lip service to security is an absolute waste and represents unnecessary harassment of ordinary citizen.

Every time I drive into a hotel or an hospital in Bangalore, I am stopped by 3-4 security guards. One chap then wheels a mirror to see if there is a bomb under my car. The other requests me to open the boot / trunk, so that he can have a good look at what is inside - another bomb, perhaps. Not once in the last 2 years has anyone checked me or inside of the car. I could be carrying an AK-47 in the passenger seat and cover it with a jacket or something and no one would be wiser. This is security check at its most ridiculous. Why even bother?

One of these days a bunch of thugs - I refuse to call them as terrorists - will hold a hotel or a hospital or the ITPL (they have identical security check - under the car, and in the boot) hostage and then one year hence there will be a report that will try and assign blame.

Mr. Chidambaram are you listening? I do not think merely giving directives to the state government or the hotels and hospitals is sufficient. Please follow up.

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