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About a boy June 21, 2015

Posted by Sharath Rao in Uncategorized.
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A while ago, a friend in response to a video I sent of my son Samar asked me to describe what it felt to be a parent. I wasn’t sure if that was a serious request. I did sit down to write then and there but never quite went through with it. Recently though I thought might as well, even if merely as a record of my thoughts that have come and gone many a times over the past year and half.

fathers day

Well, Samar is special. That is an understatement, I know.

I don’t think about this everyday but I do quite often. Firstly, there are a few mundane things that actually describe a reality that is very profound about being a parent. There is no other thing, person or entity that has occupied my mind so consistently for so long. I have slept under the same roof as he, every single day of his life so far but one. I have seen him, held him and played with him and let him play with me on each of those days. He has gotten on my nerve on almost every single one of those days. I may not think about him every waking moment but at any given time he is either with me or he is someplace with someone that I know and trust. (All of this is mostly true for my wife as well except for the occasional overnight shift.) Sure, many of these things will slowly change or cease to be technically true, but even so, it is amazing to me that these could be true for any extended length of time.

When we are with him, we observe him, we keep track of what he is doing, what he used to do, what new thing he has learnt. When he cries we attend, every single time. No exceptions. We attend to him until he is not crying any longer, even if sometimes that involves just pretending to ignore him, but never actually ignore him. Crying is mostly how he communicates and we cannot afford to miss it!

We have seen him grow each day, grow from the totally helpless person to a somewhat helpless person. Even an occasionally helpful person when he takes the spoons out of the dishwasher (even when it is being loaded!). We have seen possibilities and capabilities emerge with time out of no effort from us except for having keep him healthy and alive. Yes, when you see someone grow each day you miss certain things, a wonder in itself. Looking at his photos over time we do see several discrete changes in how he looked but we don’t remember noticing it then, only in retrospect. And everyday we have spent our time and energies thinking about his current and near future well-being. Every single day we have loosely kept track of what and when he ate, how much and when he slept and woke up, how often and when he pooped and peed, and just what else notable he did when he wasn’t sleeping, eating or pooping. So much that his life and these stories of him are a part of us.

I remember reading about that ‘parental bond’ a few weeks before Samar came along. Merely valuing something is not the same bonding with it. I read about how one could go from not knowing a stranger to even be ready to “throw ourselves under the bus” for that ‘stranger’. The bond apparently often starts to begin a few days after the birth for fathers, earlier for mothers. I remember that for me the first couple weeks were more about responsibility and learning to do things (efficiently) that just needed to be done. It was much easier to bond when they start smiling, until then it is the one-way street of wonder and puzzlement about what just happened to you!

Being a father also means that I just understand and viscerally appreciate a lot of things better, some because I am living those moments and others because of the shared context of being a father.

I understand better where the expression “his/her baby” comes from in reference to someone’s piece of work. I hesitantly understand better why parents can be controlling and curious about their kids – they basically cannot help it; it is a habit that refuses to go away. Obviously, I understand my parents better. I imagine what my years as a toddler must have been. I can imagine the pain they must have gone through, their sacrifices to raise me even better. Those can’t be paid back, only paid forward as parents ourselves. I am more forgiving of people who advance having kids a few years so that their aging parents can enjoy being grandparents. It is good for the kids and even more so for the grandparents. I understand better if some people feel that in the end their children will be their greatest personal accomplishment/contribution to the world. Given how much thought and energy goes into raising them, it is not unreasonable to think/hope so. They take years from your life but add a few decades to your life’s reach on this planet.

On the darker side, I understand better if people might literally beg/borrow/steal to feed their child; a child going hungry is unbearable. I always give something to a homeless person with a child without pausing to think whether I am being taken for a ride. I think children dying (which is by definition not knowing what is happening to them) is unacceptable. Finally and I say this with much trepidation and awareness that I might be entirely wrong about this: I understand only marginally slightly better the loss of a child. Indeed, the law of nature should be for the child to lose a parent (at an advanced age), never ever the other way around. It is scary to think that the pain of the loss of a child is worse the later in life it happens.

Of course, we haven’t even spoken about his side of things. We also love them because they love us. It is clear that my wife and I are the special constants in his life (even though technically he may have (or may not; I have not clocked!) have spent more time with his grandparents). At the same time it is ironic that if I were to die today, he would go through his life not remembering a thing about being with me. He may know a lot about me through what he hears and reads and the photos and the videos but surely that is not the same thing. In that weird kind of way, I am one of the two most important persons in his life. Besides, it is also a legally incontrovertible fact that we are his biological parents. Just knowing and acknowledging these to yourself appears to reinforces that bond somehow.

I am not sure how much we love our kids because they look like us or because they share our genes. I think we love them because we have thought about them, watched them, been with them day in and day out and taken care of them at their most vulnerable moments, which for the first years is every moment of theirs. We love them because they literally embody own thoughts and energies. Perhaps, as evolutionary instincts go, we love them because we love ourselves.

Finally, here is something that to me today captures very well why, to me, having a child is unlike anything any other relationship in its own way. A young man on the street doesn’t remind me of my brother or a friend. Running into a rather older lady doesn’t really remind me of grandma either. An aging couple on the subway do not remind me of my parents. Surely, passing by a beautiful young lady doesn’t remind me of my wife (this might be a relief or of concern to her). But any toddler anywhere, of any race, color, creed or gender, reminds me of Samar. Anyone younger than Samar reminds me of what he was at that age. I imagine this will happen for the rest of my life.

Happy Father’s Day !

Did that offend you? January 5, 2015

Posted by Sharath Rao in Uncategorized.
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If I say something that you disagree with, did that offend?

What if I did not say it to you but to someone else, did that offend you?

What if I did not say it but only thought it, did that offend too?

What if I thought it but only in my dream, surely that did not offend?

What if I thought it in my dream and then I recount it to you but then disown my dream, who has offended you?

What if you overhear me say something to X, really, did that offend too?

What if X is not offended, is that doubly offensive?

What if I’m offended that you are offended, is that retributive offense?

And if I’m NOT offended that you are offended, is that crossing the line now?

I think when instead of standing up for your beliefs, you go out of the way to not offend others’ beliefs, you implicitly give them permission to go out of the way to take offence at the frivolous. Its like telling them: “since I tried hard not to offend you, everyone else should do and if they do not, you have the right to take offence”.

Narendra Modi May 16, 2014

Posted by Sharath Rao in Uncategorized.
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Carl Sagan said this about science. Just for today, I will abuse this quote.

Plainly there is no way back. Like it or not, we are stuck with science. We had better make the best of it. When we finally come to terms with it and fully recognize its beauty and its power, we will find, in spiritual as well as in practical matters, that we have made a bargain strongly in our favor.
 But superstition and pseudoscience keep getting in the way, distracting us, providing easy answers, dodging skeptical scrutiny, casually pressing our awe buttons and cheapening the experience, making us routine and comfortable practitioners as well as victims of credulity.

Lessons from 1977-79 for Modi and 2014 April 20, 2014

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Once in a while it helps to step back from the heat of the 2014 election reporting and take the road less travelled. I have been watching the Pradhanmantri series for past few weeks. The series takes us back into post independence history through the eyes of the seat of the Indian government in Delhi. It is highly recommended viewing for Indian politics history buffs; the only wrinkle for some would be that the entire series is in Hindi. I, though, very much enjoyed this aspect as well since I otherwise rarely watch TV or keep up with Hindi movies.

While most of the episodes I watched so far have been interesting, one of them particularly stood out. This dealt with the period starting with the withdrawal of the emergency in 1977 until the return of Indira Gandhi (IG) 3 years later. By the time I got through to the end of this episode I could not but think of the many lessons for Indian politics today and the skeleton for this post was ready.


1. Do not write off the Congress

Even if they get fewer than 100 seats, which itself is probably a lower end of the estimate, they will still be getting over 25% of the votes. It is true that the Congress’ star is not looking too bright today. But recall that while the stock market is on a bull run, it feels like the market may never fall and vice versa. A handful of poor decisions by a new non-Congress government will naturally make Congress look like a strong contender.

I recently read this about political victories – seldom are they permanent and when victories come in the Indian context, they are fragile. If NDA wins, that will again be true. It is telling that in an atmosphere of such anti-incumbency, the most optimistic estimates for NDA give them barely a 35% votes and 50% of the seats, with the average poll giving them 235 seats. Obviously this seemingly incomplete victories is about the nature of Indian politics rather than about the relative strengths of NDA or UPA.

2. Public opinion can change really fast.

Indira Gandhi was ousted in the middle of 1977. It was not just the loss of the Congress but Indira Gandhi herself lost her seat, which is a bigger upset than Rahul Gandhi losing today. She was considered down and out, even within her own party. There must have been such anger against her to have been comprehensively defeated. Soon though her popularity was showing signs of revival. She split the party and went on to win the Karnataka and AP elections barely months later in Feb 1978. This result is not widely known relative to her eventual victory in 1980.

In the same vein, the new government cannot take its mandate for granted. IG faced a united opposition in 1977, even more than what Modi faces in 2014. The Janata Party was voted to power with nearly 300 seats. Yet they found themselves increasingly unpopular within a year of assuming leadership and within 3 years, unpopular enough to be voted out. Modi, if indeed he comes to power, will find an increasingly impatient public, a belligerent media and hostile civil society. And just like the BJP took years to get over the 2004 defeat, the Congress and the so-called ‘secular’ parties will also be in denial and in no mood to move on. One can expect the opposition to be obstructionist and baying for Modi’s blood.

It is said that if Kerry could not defeat Bush in 2004, democrats should feel really sorry for themselves. Likewise, with the BJP in 2014. If Modi comes in, he will have done so against all odds, but with lots of help from a non-performing incumbent government. Moreover, he will have done so by winning over a large number of voters who are outside the party’s core base. These swing voters are the skeptics, particularly susceptible to great expectations that are often followed by cynicism and disillusionment.

3. Do not get vindictive against political opponents.

And certainly not against the Gandhis. It amazes me that as someone who imposed the emergency and ran the country like a fiefdom with her son as an extraconstitutional authority was voted back to power within a couple of years. It is fair to say that the vindictive attacks on IG by the Janata Party Government did more for her return than any other single factor. If Modi is seen as going after the Gandhis vindictively, he will lose any hard earned political capital. Trials against IG became spectacles and while they probably made for great headlines and much drama, they did no good in terms of meeting the needs of the population at large. Obviously this does not mean that scams of the past 10 years should not investigated, but Modi should learn the lessons from 1977-79 about how it should not be done. He has said at least as much in a recent interview. With a generally forgiving electorate and a short public memory, don’t waste time going after people right off the bat.

4. Third Front led government will not work.

The intrigue and infighting within the Janata party period of 1977-79 is worth reading about.

If the NDA cannot make it, I would actually prefer a UPA-III to a third front government. Every non-Congress, non-BJP government has essentially consisted of a similar set of parties/people/lineage – the Lohiates, the various caste-based regional parties and the Left. We have had 6 such governments that between them lasted barely 6 years. In spite of such repeated failures, the same people have the gall to suggest that they will form a government all over agin.

A third front will always have more than one PM aspirant. If the third front came in, it is said that the constituent with the most seats will have the PM. Well, sounds good in theory but in practice, unless that party has an order of magnitude more seats, the setup will remain unstable. This is similar to how it used to be believed that the strongest military power in 19th century Europe had to be stronger than the next two combined; if it weren’t so, the strongest would always be susceptible to an alliance between the next two. Now, India has no political space for yet another national party that has the potential to win over 150 seats. And what Charan Singh did to Morarji Desai, Chandra Shekar did to VP Singh and Mulayam Singh will do to Mamata Banerjee. And what the Congress did to Charan Singh, it did to Chandra Shekar, Gowda, Gujral and it will do to whoever comes in.

5. Sanjay Gandhi

That man could do no right.

A part of the article assumes Modi led BJP will come to power, which of course, is a lesson from 2004 for me (that I am refusing to learn.)


Rememberance of (Indian Elections) past March 29, 2014

Posted by Sharath Rao in Uncategorized.
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Think back to what might be your favorite recurring event, if there is such a thing at all. A birthday/anniversary perhaps but these are rather personal and observed in limited circles. For many it might be a sporting event. In my case, the day of results of the Indian general elections would be right at the top. It would be odd to say that I look forward to this day so much that I wish it came more often, so I will not say that!

As the elections approach, I thought I would go back to recall what, if anything at all, I remember about past Indian elections and rise and fall of governments. I somehow hope to see more of these retrospectives, and certainly so from those who have seen more elections than I have. It is hard not to color this with benefit of hindsight since I am having to remember what I knew then; never quite perfect but lets do this anyway.

My earliest memory of Indian elections goes back to October 1990, as a 9 year old. We did not quite have an election that year but the government changed and there was uncertainty about who was going to be Prime minister. Our school reopening dates after the October break kept getting put off due to the political uncertainty, although I was not sure then (or now for that matter) as to why that had to be the case. Chandra Shekar eventually became the PM but I do not remember knowing anything about him. My political awareness around the time was limited to knowing the Gandhi family tree somewhat, the symbol of Janata Dal (‘wheel’) drawn all over our town, hearing about Bofors guns (probably not knowing about the scam itself), hearing the phrase “Ram Janma Bhoomi Babri Masjid” but no details about it. I only knew of 2 parties – Congress and Janata Dal, never heard of the BJP. Also remember a cousin using V. P. Singh as an example of how all ‘Singhs’ are not sikhs; no recollection of the context around that discussion. That was then. I recently read a lot about that time in Indian history from Kuldip Nayar’s autobiography.

My next memory relates to the Rajiv Gandhi assassination. Remember being woken up to be told about this and tuning into the radio to hear the details. The local newspaper (Kannada paper Udayavani for those who know) said “Rajiv Gandhi Bheekara Hatye” ( which I am guessing translates to “Rajiv Gandhi brutal assassination”). I remember hearing the phrase ‘sympathy vote’ from my mother, but never really grasped the results of the elections, or the rise of the BJP. This was also around the time our family moved to Assam. I remember being asked by my Assamese classmates if I came from the same state as the Prime Minister since we shared the same last name “Rao”. Yes, just like rest of India sees that part of the country as “North-east”, my classmates also saw me as a South Indian/Madrasi.

1996 onwards memories are fresh, with some blips of course. I actually remember tracking election results and the debates live on TV, much like debates today. On Doordarshan it was Nalini Singh and Swaminathan Aiyar as hosts if I remember correctly. It was the first time I heard the phrase “communal party”, but cheering for Vajpayee nonetheless. Someone on TV even mentioned that Congress and BJP should form a national coalition. We had a residential summer camp at school from May 15-31st. On the way to the camp on the May 15th, 1996, at the Udupi bus station there were stacks of newspapers with Gowda’s photo on the front and one of the teachers suggesting that Gowda is almost certainly the next PM. When I went to the camp, it was PVN as PM. At the camp it was ABV as PM. When the camp was over it was Gowda – truly the India of the 90s. When I got back from the camp, I remember hearing about that magnificent ABV speech during the confidence vote at the end of his 13 day government. But those weren’t the days of youtube and it was not until over 15 years later that I ended up watching the speech (in parts) over a decade later.

Ah, here is some trivia, a really random memory from that time which I wonder how many would remember. Sushma Swaraj in her 13 days as I&B minister banned an ad with Mahima Chaudury for Videocon Bazooka TV; the TV woofer was supposedly so powerful that it displaced enough air that Mahima Chaudury ended up making an impression of Marlyn Monroe’s billowing skirt. That again was India in the 90s. (Actually I wonder what keeps Doordarshan from putting up its entire archive of literally everything online.) With the benefit of hindsight, I am guessing more Indians would have preferred had PVN come back to power rather than the 3rd front.

Ok, we move on to another memory from 1997. When the Gowda government no-confidence vote was in progress, I remember Jaswant Singh mention the phrase ‘bolt from the blue’, the first time I heard that idiom. But this was 17 years ago and sometimes one wonders if these are imagined memories. So imagine my excitement when a few minutes of searching online revealed the transcript here ; he mentioned that phrase 4 times! TV news in the post Gowda, pre-Gujral days consisted of headlines about who met who – “Harkishan Singh Surjeet met Mulayam”, “Chandrababu Naidu met Laloo”, “Moopanar met A. B. Bardhan” – to agree on the least threatening Prime Minister candidate from among the leaders of the ‘United’ Front. Yes, those dark years of the 90s.

When Gujral had to go, I remember that the BJP were the favorites to come back in some capacity given the 2 years of instability of 3rd front governments and the weakness of the Congress. Deve Gowda made a statement that if the ‘communal forces’ came to power, he would quit politics (pity that in the pre-web days it is hard to find links to such gems). BJP did come back but barely made it to 13 months thanks to JJ. Astonishing that for the second time in 2 years, Tamil Nadu politics had brought down central governments and it seemed fair to remark that if the route to Delhi goes through Lucknow, the route out of the Delhi should end up in Madras.

In 1999, it was clear ABV would return especially since the NDA was going in as pre-poll alliance. Kargil had just happened and there was a sense that he had been cheated/wronged, first by JJ and then by Pakistan. Somehow I have no memories of that election other than reading all polls where ABV was the most favored PM with Sonia Gandhi far behind. I was moving between cities and had just started college.

In 2004 again, the return of the NDA was a foregone conclusion, both sentiment wise and opinion polls, both feeding into each other. I was a research assistant at IISc Bangalore, where for some reason I often worked through nights and slept through the days. I remember getting home around 10 am next morning and being stunned as I walked by the TV playing the NDTV election results program. It was all but certain that there had been a massive upset. There are theories about what happened – primary among them being the violence in Gujarat. It could well be and well deserved too.

2009 was probably the least interesting election in my memory at least. The opposition was uninspiring and rudderless, the issues – national security and black money – apparently hardly moved the electorate. I was in fact pleasantly surprised when the Congress got 206 on its own. The arrogant left was decimated and it seemed like that the Congress would now have some elbow room to take bold decisions and continue growth-oriented economic reforms. Although never a fan of the dynasty or the modus operandi of Sonia/MMS combination, I did cheer the outcome on pragmatic grounds.

That brings us to 2014, an election so different, that it deserves a post or few of its own.

Hero worship January 19, 2014

Posted by Sharath Rao in Uncategorized.
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It was something I was absolutely sure I had not done in a long time. In at least 11 years. Probably as far back as 14 years when I last left school.

The fountain pen.

HP saw a Hero pen online and asked me I fancied one.

My face must have lit up as I said “Yes”.

What color ink?

When I said “Black”, I probably had just tossed a coin. I could care less about the color.

Screen Shot 2014-01-19 at 12.38.36 AM

Why would one say no to a fountain pain? Perhaps if one did not need one, which of course was the case here. But then how often do we buy things, sign up for memberships and subscriptions, pay more for features in gadgets that at the moment seemed essential but later seem like poor decisions. So it was with me in this case. At $15 – the pen and the ink – it was too inexpensive to be even called an indulgence.

There are our childhood developmental milestones – when one starts to smile, sit up, crawl and walk among several others. These are milestones we are ourselves oblivious of but that adults around us care about and keep track of. And then there are markers of progress that one keeps track of oneself. At some point I got old enough to take coffee/tea rather than a Complan or a Bournvita. At another point I was old enough to wear a watch. And yes, at some point I was old enough to graduate from using a pencil to a pen. That is, at least at home; it was a few more years before I was old enough to use one at school. Of course, these non-biological milestones are arbitrary – some are not even considered milestones in some households and the age you reach these depends on many factors, one of them being the presence of the older sibling.

Using a fountain pen was one of those milestones – you just had to be old enough to be able to do one.

All pens were not made equal. There was the ball pen, less fancy but more convenient and worked the same way for everyone. To my recollection, most ball pens were created equal in their user experience. Fountain pens were a different breed – they had to be held in certain position and each one wrote differently based on how and how long they had been used. The ink had to be filled from a bottle (often with a syringe (!)), these pens wrote better the more they were used until a point came where their nibs became too smooth and blunt resulting in a thick script which I am sure maps to some fancy font today. I remember that at school we were encouraged to use fountain pens because they helped discipline the practice of writing cursive and generally write legibly.

Now, even among the fountain pens there was a caste system – there were the ink pens with fat and short nibs and then the far more elite Hero pens with the thinner, longer nibs and the tip of the nib being visible. Some of them had a hood marked on the pen – for a while it was understood among friends that the hood was indicative of the authenticity of the Hero brand. I guess I have been so brainwashed that to this day I think the Hero pens look and feel way cooler than the regular fountain pens.🙂 I spent 2 years in Assam in the 90s where these pens were called “Chinese pens”, rightly so since many of those had chinese script rather than the instantly recognizable “H E R O” on the bottom of the top. (“Niagara Solid” comes close)

So, yes, the Hero pen and ink arrived in the mail. Its amazing how they look, feel and work just like they did 25 years ago.

For the next few minutes, those moments I had long forgotten came back to me. The act of filling ink, spilling it, smell of it. In fact, I had forgotten that one does not need a syringe to fill ink in these Hero pens. I was soon on auto-pilot, the entire elaborate rigmarole came to mind – as I went back and forth a few times between dipping the pen in the bottle and twisting the transparent tube to let the ink flow down. When the pen would not work the first time, you shake it, let some ink spill, dip the nib in the spilt ink and get going again (Do not cry over spilt ink, just write through it). Oh, if you write on the wrong paper, it might blot too. It was like riding a bicycle after years, it just comes to you if you have done it before! I was that 11 year old again.

The pen itself wrote beautifully. Or wait, it is actually something about the pen that makes it hard to get away with scribbling sloppily. By forcing you to hold it in a particular position, it has already captured much of your attention and made the process of writing a conscious deliberate activity, almost an end in itself. It is like when you suit and boot up and generally dress to impress, everything looks up, at least for a while. The fountain pen, it may not make your writing better although it could fool you into thinking that it does.

Even today fountain pens are not in the league of floppy disks, VCRs and tape-recorders which have essentially been replaced by newer technologies. We have not given up on writing, but do less and less of it. I once wrote about how we spent much of our life writing and then transitioned to typing – at work, online and email – and along the way somewhere many in our generation got to a point where we had typed more stuff than written. Preteenagers of today have probably always been in that state.

That said, even when do write, fountain pen is not the instrument of choice. It now seldom makes for more than an exotic gift or the start of a nostalgia trip like the one you just took.

Of hyphenated last names December 26, 2013

Posted by Sharath Rao in Uncategorized.

We were filling in our son’s birth certificate form a few weeks ago. Having filled all but his last name, I asked HP. “Rao Sarathy” or “Rao-Sarathy” ? “Lets do it with the hyphen.”, she said. And so this boy now has a hyphenated last name.

The part of naming, which can often be contentious among couples, is to agree on what will be passed on to the child. That was something we had no disagreements on: his name will have both our last names. It just wasn’t obvious in what form it would go in. And there were several options – split between middle and last name, hyphenated last name, 2 words in the last name or something else. Neither of us had strong preferences either way and so, even while we oft and on wondered what it should be, it never quite got decided. Eventually the decision to go with the hyphenated last name was done without as much as batting an eyelid!

Hyphenated last names are not common, maybe unheard of, where I come from. I probably encountered one only when I came to America. I know of no others in our close circle of friends here either. So it was not surprising when some friends who asked if the hyphen is indeed a part of the name.

I then found this article about hyphenated last names. It speaks of the motivations behind them – a sense of equality in terms of having both the parents represented, which is frankly what motivated us. We are not big on symbolisms with few exceptions (which is probably how most most people think of themselves🙂 ). The article speaks of how even as a marker of equality, this is a ‘one-generation solution’, a solution that scales poorly. What will the future generations do? Simply pile on names?

As we had agreed, HP retained her name after marriage as a matter of principle. The common option in such cases is for the children to simply take on the father’s last name. When it is not a paternalistic ritual, the act of taking on the father’s name is mostly about convenience. If not, I imagine that the same motivations that cause women to retain their names would lead them to pass on their names to their children. And passing on the names would mean one of the few options I mentioned above, including the hyphenated last name.

To us, the quandary that a hyphenated last name presented to future generations, while valid, was not deterrent enough. What they do with their kids’ names will be one of the million choices that they will have to make anyway and I do not intend to prime them one way or the other. It is unlikely that they will, for reasons of complexity, resent having both their parents’ names as part of their name. It then boils down to what might annoy them more – not having one of their parents’ names as part of their names OR having a composite last name that they cannot realistically pass on. Like many decisions that we simply have to take for them, we did.

That, of course, means there shall now be 3 last names in the family. I know there is a symbolism associated with the entire family having one last name. A reasonable way within our framework to accomplish that would have been for both of us to change our last names and also pass them on. Although I know a couple that went down that road, I am not sure we cherish that notion (one family, one last name) enough to make it worth the trouble.

What we now have is the possibility that our son might share his last name only with his potential future sibling. Not too bad for sibling revelry! (read: making virtue out of necessity)

Reference: A whole another post on the second choice for the first name.

Why we cannot afford UPA-3 December 26, 2013

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The Congress got a rude surprise earlier this month with the rout in the Assembly elections. While the rout itself was in some sense expected, the extent of defeat probably wasn’t. One of the consequences of this appears to be an expectation that this is a shape of things to come for 2014.

Perhaps as part of the effort to stem the bleeding, shore up some support, fundraising wise and otherwise, Rahul Gandhi talking to the FICCI tried to make all the right noises on growth and corruption. Or at least, he tried not to strike the same tone that he did earlier this year talking to CII. So is this the new Congress under a new leader who comes with a new language and a realization that growth and fiscal prudence matter? Is there a panic in the Congress that their rights-based populist vision might not carry the day for them? All of these are questions that are better left to those who follow the party and have inside sources. I can leave you with a question here though: Would you judge someone by what they say they will do or based on what you have seen them do so far?

Let me instead concentrate on how the man on the street might want to reason about 2014.

So, hey common man:

Chances are that for any number of reasons you will vote the Congress back to power. It is unlikely to happen in the manner that it happened in 2009 with Congress getting over 200 seats. But a repeat of 2004 cannot be ruled out, where non-Congress, non-BJP parties get enough seats to prop the Congress back to power. A repeat of the dark days of 1996 is also possible. What does UPA-3 bode for India?

Is there a reason to believe that UPA-3 would be worse than UPA-2. Yes, there is. One simple reason, a reason that is embarrassingly simple to state.

Renewed political capital.

Just like companies raise financial capital in the public markets, political parties and politicians raise (or fail to raise) their political capital in the elections. Each election defeat is a vote of no-confidence. If the defeat involves the incumbent government – as in Delhi and Rajastan recently – the message is – “You have not done a good enough job and you deserve to go”. If the defeat is of the challenger – as in MP and Chattisgarh – the message is – “We are generally happy; we could be happier but its not you who will take us where we want to.”

Likewise, each election victory is a endorsement of all the good and more importantly, a forgiving and forgetting of all the bad. And that is where if UPA-3 comes in, the message is – “Yes, you may have caused a lot of damage, but you know what, never mind. No big deal. No scam matters, nor does the wrecking of the economy. And, guess what, weakening and destruction of institutions, that is ok too. All forgiven, all forgotten, for all time to come.”

The signal it sends will not merely be implicit and in the abstract; it will be concrete and the effects will be on the ground. There will be no investigation of any scam of the past 10 years, there will only be more scams. In 2016 when the opposition asks about Coalgate, they will be reminded that they lost the elections and that they are poor losers and that the charges are politically motivated. Bush was emboldened when re-elected in 2004, although he arguably took decisions on Iraq (‘the surge’) that eventually changed things for the better. Obama, having re-elected in 2012, decided not to negotiate on healthcare reform since he claimed that the issue had been settled with his re-election. Fair enough, but scary when one thinks what UPA-3 will do once re-elected.

Not punishing poorly performing government emboldens politicians and subsequently things only get worse. It is extremely unlikely that a poorly performing government barely manages to return to power having won narrowly and then course corrects. A victory is seen as an endorsement, a ‘lets have more of it’ vote and more of it is what you get. India has already lost several years and in a rush to paint doomsday scenarios awaiting us with the advent of Modi on the national stage, nobody is talking about what it means to have the current crowd back in power. I know I am not saying anything terribly profound, merely pointing something that is seldom talked about.

The basis of appeal here is not personal, it is not based on conspiracy theories about the Gandhis or the predominantly left-liberal media or Mr. Modi’s rhetoric. It is not even necessary to entertain any of that to arrive at this conclusion – we cannot afford 5 more years.

What did you (almost) name your baby? December 1, 2013

Posted by Sharath Rao in Uncategorized.

As we neared the baby’s arrival date, we were often asked if we had thought of names. This can be a tricky question and people employ various strategies – evasive and otherwise – in handling this question. Sometimes the name is a well-guarded secret and is revealed only when the baby is here, leaving no room for comments. At other times there is less of a symbolism attached to the secrecy and names are discussed within a close group of friends/family. We generally went with the latter option. That said, even when we did not discuss names, we mentioned that the name shall not start with an ‘A’. I would love to find data on this but it seemed like there was a strong preference in the recent years for Indian babies with names starting with an ‘A’. I am told that this is done by parents to give their children that slight bit of advantage when list of names are made. (In India, names are sorted by the first names). Hoping to buck what we considered a trend, we steered clear of ‘A’ names.

We had a running list that was typically 2-3 names long and over several months some names dropped out and newer names crawled in until the list whittled down to one name 2 weeks before the boy arrived. What went in and out of that list? That is the kind of information one does not typically see out there – really why bother documenting it. I though have this general curiosity about the name that narrowly lost out to the eventual one. It is an odd question (or at least I find it odd) to ask most people, except someone you know really well. So that you don’t have to ask me that odd question, here is the approximate progress of that running list.


Screen Shot 2013-12-01 at 8.30.39 PM


Of course, we are talking about first names here. The last name is another story altogether, for a future post.

To write and not to wrong November 29, 2013

Posted by Sharath Rao in Uncategorized.
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What does it take to write?

Kurt Vonnegut (of all) apparently said – “When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.” He wrote anyway.

I, however, am a lesser being. What does it take me to get down to writing?

I need the write/right environment, the ambience, the quality, the setting, the context and – what is the word I am looking for – the buzz. In case all of that was not conveying enough, I can even think of a word in a language I am even less comfortable with – a Hindi word – the right ‘Mahaul’. An elaboration follows.

Yellowish light. Incandescent is probably best, even if that yellow is not green enough. Not in the wavelength sense, but environmentalist sustainability sense. However, having researched this topic in the aisles at the University library local Home Depot, I think soft white is best.

The music needs to be right. That would mean instrumental because words can be very distracting. I might want to look up who wrote the lyrics. Have I heard this song before? Probably, but it was a different person singing because the voice isn’t as familiar as the words are. So I have to google it. Soft instrumental sure, but preferably no trumpet notes. Some violin and/or cello is ideal because there is a delicious melancholy to it and most of my writing is sad (I will let the pun be). I say violin or cello because I cannot often/ever tell between them. That apart, guitar and piano are always great. Among Indian classical, it will be Sitar, Sarod and (Mohan) Veena. What strings all of these instruments together? Yes, strings indeed. Or “string operations” if you will.

The time has to be right too – I must start writing preferably at the hour or half past the hour. Often the quarter hour too, but its tempting that if the time were 3:37 I would rather put it off till 4 pm than 3:45 pm. 3:45 is a nice enough as a round number but putting off to the nearest quarter hour does not satisfy the inner procrastinator.

Having found examples of music pieces that will do it, I need to create a playlist of these. Wait, will that playlist last long enough though. Hmm, either I can put it in repeat mode or maybe just find a pandora channel which lasts in perpetuity. Except it can be distracting if I am distracted enough by an unexpected piece – it is a pandora’s box after all – to have to google it.

Hey, its a midweek and wednesday is typically when Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s column is out in the Indian Express. Can’t miss any of those; I often feel like I live from one of his articles to the next. Oh ok, not out yet. Is it a holiday in India or maybe his column might be out tomorrow? Just to be sure, let me check pbmehta@twitter which he updates whenever his column is out. Verified that there isn’t one yet. But Indian Express has otherwise great op-eds. I will check th0se out.

Can I check twitter just once before I start? Maybe I will see a nice piece of writing, or well, a link to a nice piece and be inspired. Yeah, I have been there for hours in the past months and without being inspired enough to write. But maybe that inspiring article is just around the corner. This time it is different.

Actually brainpickings is the best source for just general inspiration. Never lets one down – except when it kills with the occasional monotony. Or Farnam Street.

Inspired. Ready to start.

Restroom break. Even before I start writing. While I am at it, I can take a bath too.

I need to find an editor I love. Actually I found one – its called Draftin. So, this is actually taken care of. Next one.

Its been a while since I changed the blog theme. Let me do that first.

Who is going to be reading this anyway? Those days of blogging back in 2005 were great. We had this group of people who blogged and generated conversations around each others’ posts. Nobody I know from those days or otherwise is a regular blogger anymore. Wait, perhaps I can contact some of these guys and get them to resume all over again. But then having myself made so many false restarts at blogging, I have little credibility now! So let me first write a few posts before I speak to them.

I should get a cup of hot tea. After that. I promise.

And to the most important thing for the last – what do I write about?

I could write about A but A might end up reading it.

I could write about B but B may not read it after all.

I could write about C but that might come across as being too opinionated.

I can’t write about D because I am not an expert on the topic.

It is hard to take a clear stand on E because I have never been in the other person’s shoes. I cannot write about E.

I want to write about F, this book that I am reading but maybe after I finish it.

I want to do some research before I write on G.

That is when I go meta and write about why I am struggling to write. That is why, coming back to Kurt Vonnegut, I remain the lesser being.

If you wake up mid-sleep do you want to know the time? October 17, 2013

Posted by Sharath Rao in Uncategorized.
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Lets assume you  set up the alarm for a certain time every morning. Now if you happen to wake up in the middle of the night, do you, before you return to sleep, look for the clock? I know people who do. I don’t. I used to but I don’t anymore. 

I find that to me it has no upside and only a downside. If I have set the alarm for 7 am and I happen to be up at maybe 6:15, knowing that I have another 45 mins to sleep does me no good and simply ensures that I can’t go back to sleep. In fact, I may be tempted to not go back to bed if I know I only have 45 mins to go and thus give myself no chance at all. I therefore make a conscious attempt to not know the time, which means not even look towards the window. If, on the other hand I woke up at 2, knowing that I have 5 more hours to go does not necessarily help me sleep better either. I know people for whom this is supposedly an upside but it isn’t for me.

Of course, its a different story if the alarm is not reliable – perhaps then you can be more vigilant sleeping with only 45 mins to go. But that has better solutions including finding yourself a better alarm.

In a culture where keeping track of one’s progress and executing on one’s goals is prized, not knowing how much progress I have made through my (sleeping) goals gives me a better chance at achieving them.

Ignorance, for once, is indeed bliss.


Experiments in photography: Invisible black backdrops October 15, 2013

Posted by Sharath Rao in image.
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Invisible black backdrops. We see these photos everywhere – think of photos where there are just 2 things – a subject in front and a solid plain black background. Often the photos are b/w, but not necessarily. If you like portraits you probably love those photos too for they so well constrain the focus (pardon the pun) on the subject without letting distractions get in the way. For long I have wondered how these were done. Naively I thought it was literally black background consisting of a plain screen or a wallpaper with low enough light on the subject. I even tried it to replicate it 3 years ago but failed – it was impossible to get the subject lit up without the background lit up as well at which point it wouldn’t be dark background after all.

Why I did not bother looking it up befuddles me – I always thought I was a member of the first ever generation to google their thoughts – look up everything online. Apparently not.  Anyway, I did finally look it up a few weeks ago and found out that the trick is more elaborate and what I had been trying was indeed naive. This past weekend I decided to try it the right way.

Here is a blog post from photographer Gyln Dewis that describes in rather detail how this is accomplished. And if that were not enough here is video of him doing it. Over the weekend I went about following Gyln’s instructions. It required renting some equipment and I am more than pleased with the results! Now there is enough detail in Gyln’s post to reproduce his results and I completely owe everything I was able to do to his post. This post is for those of you who need that last bit of spoon-feeding and a matter of record for me anyway!

Given the windy weekend, with my rather light stand I was only able to work indoors something that Gyln cautions against and rightly so. It is hard to prevent light reflecting off the walls but its possible if you have at least one large room, maybe with more trial and error than usual but not impossible.

Now if you are in NYC you have absolutely no excuse for not getting this right. Read Gyln’s post and come back here.

What you need to have:

I used this flash, this umbrella, a pair of transceivers and a stand to mount the umbrella and flash. You need an off-camera flash cable that connects the flash to one of the transceivers – again something that should come along when you rent all the above, but ask to make sure anyway. I used a Canon 60D, but any entry level DSLR that can use an off-camera flash should do. If you are around nyc, go to csirentals on 19th street between 6th and 7th avenue – they have it all. They give you transceivers with batteries – 2 pairs and the flash comes with a pair of batteries as well. They even give you 4 spare batteries just in case. All of this cost me $55 in rental costs over the weekend: Fri 1pm – Mon 10 am.

What you do with what you have:

1. Set up the stand and fix the umbrella. Mount the flash on the stand – be careful here and make sure its well-secured.

2. One transceiver T1 goes on to your camera like an on-camera flash would have – don’t worry if you have not done this before, its impossible to get this wrong.

3. Hang the other transceiver T2 on the stand. Use cable to connect to the flash.

4. Settings: I followed Gyln instructions on Manual mode with ISO 100, and 1/250 sec. F/6.3 worked better for me than F/5.6. I used a 50mm potrait lens but any lens that permits the above configuration should do.

5. Flash setting is key – the above flash has 5 finer granularity at each main level: 1/8 (-7), 1/8 (-3), 1/8 (0), 1/8 (+3), 1/8 (+7) and so on at each main level 1/16, 1/8, 1/4, 1/2, 1. I started at 1/4 (0) and ended up using 1/8 (+7). But this really depends on 2 things: a) the ambient light and b) how you want your photos to be.

Other things to remember:

1. I was cheated by the Canon 60D screen/preview brightness setting at first – photos looked well-exposed but weren’t so on my computer until I digitally filled light. So watch out.

2. Again about trying this indoors: I did one session in the afternoon and one in the night after dark. The night session I had one corner light in the room in front of the subject (so I can focus!) but I felt more comfortable doing it in the day. In any case, find a place where the subject is farthest from any wall/reflecting surface.

3. Extra batteries might come in more than handy if you use higher power settings on the flash. I was able to get nearly 200 flashes over 3 hours over 2 days.

Thats it – its really easy if you have the right equipment and some patience for try things out.

And now for the results:

Here are couple of photos I thought I would share.

invisible black background

On baby names July 1, 2013

Posted by Sharath Rao in Uncategorized.
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I have been thinking a little bit about identity lately. And there is good reason – a junior on the way. Thinking of baby names I found myself thinking for Indian boy names. And then I paused and asked myself if this is simply the natural thing to do since both parents are of Indian origin and upbringing. Or is this something that is worth a second thought. What if we both love a name that happens to not be an obviously Indian name (eg: Simon) ? What is the universe of names under consideration?

I have been asked if I am proud to be an Indian. My answer was – “By the usual connotations of the word ‘proud’, No. I believe that one’s place of birth and parental heritage is not an achievement one can take credit for or derive one’s self-esteem from. Am I ashamed of being one ? No, and again, for the same reason. I would not like to be at an advantage/disadvantage based on the country of my birth. I am aware that it happens all the time, but it is less than ideal.

So what then do I feel about being an Indian? I spent the first 23 years of my life in India. I am culturally an Indian for a large part – it is where I grow up, and that is where most of my family and many of my friends are. That is where I went to school. I understand India and Indians better than I understand any other people. Indian food and music is the single first choice whenever such a choice is to be made.

I think India is an extremely interesting country – large, diverse, a lot of history and perhaps as much potential. I had some great growing up years there in a generally stable political and economically promising circumstances. I ended up learning 4 languages effortlessly just being there. I also grew up in a multi-cultural environment – born into a religious majority but a linguistic minority with a mother tongue that is spoken by fewer than 5 million, that has no native script or any rich literature to speak of. Saying I don’t feel bad about it is an understatement. It is impossible to establish causality about these things but I wonder if this makes it easy to accept diversity – these are facts of life that make life interesting. I think about moving to India more than I think of moving to any other single country.

Well, so what gives? What is it that I don’t feel about India that those who might expect me to be proud feel ?

A recognition of the accident of birth. Much of the above would have been true of country X if I were born and grew up there. Sure, I can imagine X excludes several places, certainly say Afghanistan/Somalia in 1992, or Iraq in 1987. I understand it could have been worse and given the many countries that have seen strife trapping many generations in gloom, this is not to be overlooked. For the moment though, I am keeping these considerations aside. Everything I like and appreciate about India, I would do even if I knew India as intimately as I do but in a capacity other than that of having grown up there. And so much would be true of any other country. India is as special as any other country.

I do not feel compelled to defend India and its greatness. If anything, it exists in spite of me. To elaborate:

– When I talk of India as being home to an ancient civilization, I do not say that with any pride. It is a historical fact and one that is as much true of many others – Sumeria, China, Egypt come to mind. I will not feel bad for myself if one day somehow, however improbable but for the sake of argument, it were proven to be a hoax!

– I may not agree with the historical Indian consensus on many issues, including Kashmir – I think Pakistan had, as of 1947, a stronger moral claim on Kashmir than India did. I might recognize however, on strategic and pragmatic grounds that it is not possible to redraw borders now.

– I do not condemn colonialism on the grounds of what it did to my country any more than what it did elsewhere. Arguably many countries had it worse.

– I will never defend/accept anything merely because that is the Indian (or some community within India) way/culture. I might concede that local problems often require local solutions (not because they are Indian solutions)

– I happened to be born a Hindu, which I think is neither anything to be proud or ashamed of. I have, since age 13, been an unrelenting, non-believing agnostic. I recognize that Hinduism is different from other major religions in its origin and among few that do not appear to have the history of proselytization by the sword (although caste-based discrimination mitigates that somewhat) but that does not make me feel better about myself (what has it got to do with me again ?). I do however, think Mahabharata is awesome story!

– Unlike food and music, I hold no special love for Indian dances/popular movies/literature/modern architecture. Partly unfamiliarity/ignorance, partly just taste.

In other words, my feelings and loyalty towards (not sure is the right word but anyway) India are probably similar to my feelings about some of the schools I went to or places I have lived (in India and US) – they emerge from familiarity and personal associations (makes me selfish? maybe). And to each her own, so everyone should be entitled to their own similar affiliations. I like these places and I have a strong stake in their success because of the familiarity, roots and pleasant memories, but I see no pride/honor to be defended and nothing to attach my self-esteem to. In fact, I feel that more often than not my professional and intellectual identity supersede the cultural counterpart. More on that another day.

Why then I am thinking about it now and why am I feeling so strongly as to write about it. Perhaps events such as these – the arrival of a baby – cast a different light on some issues. Perhaps the heritage counts for a lot even if it is a choice that is made for you.


Act Two June 30, 2013

Posted by Sharath Rao in Uncategorized.

I stopped blogging over 5.5 years ago. Before I blogged Epistles for about 2 years – 5.5 years ago –  I tried blogging 4 times. Since I stopped blogging, I twice attempted to return to blogging. Going merely by numbers, I have been such a failure at blogging that I would only wish this abysmal a success rate on someone trying to kill themselves.

Going by anything else however, I only have great memories of blogging. I returned to the blog every now and then and each time I wondered how I could have spent so many hours putting down my thoughts, read by a barely few friends. Often times, I have read a few posts almost refusing to believe I wrote them – not so much because I vehemently disagreed with the content but because today I can barely bring myself to focus enough to complete a post.

That said, I have never ceased to love the written word. Moreover, my broad interest in most of the topics I wrote about – culture, data/statistics, india, economics, policy, politics – remain intact (except cricket which has declined)  What has changed then? I am now older and feel a bit wiser, I have lived in more places, worked in more jobs. I have also gone from sharing a house for a year, from year to year, with people I had barely met to now sharing each day with a woman I plan on being in love with for the rest of our lives. (Meet HP)

It may not be entirely unreasonable that Epistles may have played a role in the HP affair. She traversed the length, breadth and depth – spatial and temporal – of this blog before we met and she credits these writings – which were written in her absence and oblivious of her existence many years before she arrived on the scene – with having helped her understand me more than anything else. Such is life.

Other things have happened too. Back in 2006 blogging was generally more popular and a few friends I had known and others that I made through the blog were a small network of blogging buddies who kept one another going. I do not see that network anymore; people have moved on mostly to facebook/twitter where it is far more convenient and light-weight to update one’s status, post a link and engaged in discussions. This, of course, is no criticism – I myself have had active twitter and facebook accounts and they have their place. Except that I have missed the breadth, space and the permanence of the canvas that the blog represented – if facebook were the city square, the blog would be the countryside. (I do recognize that the wild countrysides quickly turn into ghost towns if not well tended to.)

I also debated whether I need a different new blog or should I merely return and resume. Each has its own appeal – a new blog would have meant a new beginning, which would leave behind the baggage of an older (or is it younger ?) self. Returning here would mean a continuity – an understanding that acceptance of one’s past is not an obligation to defend it. (Not that there is much in Epistles in I will struggle or be called upon to defend). Evidently the latter won out, either for the apparently lofty reasons I just described or sheer laziness.

HP has been the greatest cheerleader of my writing. Not a fortnight has gone by in nearly 3 years when I have not been asked about the blog to come. And today is her birthday.

Here then is to many more years of the written word.

What we did with our wedding gifts July 23, 2011

Posted by Sharath Rao in Uncategorized.

As were were preparing for our wedding late last year, we decided that all our wedding gifts must be directed to charitable causes. We made an explicit mention of this in our wedding invitation cards.

Manipal Invitation

“No gifts/bouquets. Any gifts received will be channelled towards supporting education of financially underprivileged children”

Mumbai Invitation

Please do not bring bouquets of gifts. All monetary endowments will be channeled to support the education of financially underprivileged children. Details are given on our website.

First off, we thank you all for the gifts and contributions and are very moved by your support. There were several of you who specifically told us that you were making a gift only because of how we plan to spend it. On the wedding website, we committed to presenting a report of fund utilization by May 31st. Although we did manage to fully allocated all the contributions by mid-March, for various reasons including awaiting documentation, photos and some busy times, we finally have gotten down to putting together this post. So here we go:

We received a total of Rs. 51000 ($1160 )  from the ceremonies at Manipal and Mumbai. The amount was directed towards 3 different projects mentioned below. For project 1 and 2, we are thankful to Mr. Karunakar Shetty. We know Mr. Shetty through his son Sandeep who is a good friend of Sharath’s from high school years. The Project 3 effort was possible thanks to Krishna Ramkumar, CEO and founder of Avanti Fellows, who also happens to be a Little Rock alumnus.

1) Rs. 21600 to a high school in Panchanbettu, a village about 20 kms from Udupi, Karnataka. This is a Kannada medium government funded high school that had somehow been deprived of funds for about 7 years. During this period it survived mostly on donations from Bunt hoteliers based in Mumbai. Mr. Shetty has been teaching at this school in honorary capacity since he retired from work in 2001. We contacted the school principal asked him to list their most pressing needs. It turned out that they had been spending several thousand rupees every year renting sound system during ceremonies and stage events. We therefore sponsored the purchase of a sound system for Rs. 21600. The money thus saved may be otherwise better used. Sharath’s parents visited the school and delivered the check. Here are photographs from the visit.

2) Rs. 15000 to a high school in Rajivnagar, about 5 kms from Udupi, Karnataka. This school particularly serves children of daily wage laborers and poor farmers. The school management had been seeking to build a library but had not been able to do so. Our contribution of Rs. 15000 was split into 2 efforts:

  • Rs. 6500 for a bookshelf
  • Rs. 8500 for an initial set of books

A few photographs from the school visit are here.

3) A donation of Rs. 14400 was made to Avanti Fellows, a program run by a highly motivated and enthused group of IIT alumni that is dedicated towards helping children from the underprivileged community. In their own words:

The Avanti Fellows Program aims to be the largest mentoring program for underprivileged students in India. The organization is currently focused on helping students from poor homes gain admission to prestigious engineering colleges across India and ensuring that they are able to perform well academically and assimilate socially during their time at engineering school. In due course, the organization will expand operations to other disciplines including medicine, law and commerce.

Krishna, the CEO/Founder of Avanti has prepared a report of the expenditure. Indeed this report is testimony to the professional execution of this project. We are happy to recommend Avanti to any of you looking to make a philanthropic contribution.

Once again, thanks to Mr. Shetty and Krishna for helping us channel the money into productive and effective philanthropic efforts. It might have easier to just have sent a check to one of the scores of global charity/NGOs, but we chose to go down this route so we (and now you all) know exactly what happened to the money.

As a parting read, here is something to think about – The Ovarian Lottery.

(If you would like to do something similar and if we don’t already know each other, please leave us a comment here  and we will reach you via email)

Why I have blogged and why this is my last post December 30, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in landmark-post.

I think this had to happen one day. At least once every while for the past few months I have asked myself why I have been blogging. And what would be of the several hours every week if there were no blogs to read or post to. Finally, about a week back I decided to find out.

I am going off on a blog-sabbatical (is there such a thing ?)– one that will last at least a year. I will be a different person a year from now (nothing portentous, we all will🙂 ) and not unlikely different enough to not return to blogging in its current form. In what will therefore be my last post for another year to come and maybe last ever on Epistles, I will briefly (we’ll see how brief it will end up) outline why.

Epistles was my fourth attempt at blogging. Or was it the fifth. I started this blog as somewhat of a countervailing/compensatory force against other developments in my life. This may have been what kept it going in its initial days when there were hardly any readers. Over the next months as activity picked up (which meant waking up on an occasional morning to see more comments on the blog than emails in my inbox and an average of 3200 page views per month), I spent more and more time posting material and generally thinking about what the blog should look like.

And then when I say blogging, I am also including the time devoted to regularly following the handful of blogs which I quite frequently also linked to. Following these blogs also meant I had, through their writing, access to some of the most brilliant, articulate and opinionated people in the blogosphere (and at large) – Tyler Cowen, Greg Mankiw, Megan Mccardle, Gary Becker, Richard Posner, Daniel Denette, Richard Dawkins, Bryan Kaplan, Arnold Kling and Robin Hanson to name only a few. And even if it would be hard to recall specific instances of inspiring prose (because there were many), it would be equally hard to deny that contemplating their writings motivated fundamental changes in my outlook on the world. Several years down the road if I have to pick two characteristic themes of my 2006-2007, my experience as a blogger would rank in there.

Of course, all this begs the question that if it was all this great then why stop ?

Well, all this also means that for over 22 months now, I have spent most of my leisure reading. And did so with little sense of direction. Much chaos and much clutter. I had a good idea of what subjects interested me and there were many and diverse. Given a choice between walking far and digging deep, I always chose the former. My sources were relatively few – a handful of blogs and news sites – but many of them were themselves producing heterogeneous content and in copious amounts. And so, month and month I followed commentary from famous blogs and bloggers and while I was at it, produced some of my own.

This kind of reading and this kind of blogging had become a way of life. I liked this model – it came naturally to me and went well with my intellectual restlessness and a general lack of time to pick up details with some exceptions. And I want to try and change this. It might appear to be (and it is) change for change’s sake but then its also true that there is only that much intellectual enrichment to be sought from reading yet another article on rise of this phenomena or that, influence of this person or that, or ponder over possibility of this event or that. This change is mostly about experiencing something different and new. And its also about a feeling that although it could have always been better, I am happy with this experience and its time to move on.

I don’t exactly know to what end how all the time spent blogging will be put to, but the bigger picture is that I am now looking at activities that are more focused in nature – learning some music, catching up on some photography and maybe, just maybe trying my hand at reading some fiction.

I thank my readers who gave me a chance to put down my many thoughts, and for having put up with my (pride and) prejudices🙂. Through Epistles, I also met and came to know many individuals who I would otherwise have never known (and have not yet met) and then those that I may still not know. I am touched that many of you have been a part of this blog even in the absence of that vital connection that knowing the blogger personally brings.

I thank you all and lets stay in touch.



Skeletons, Cupboards and the re-morse code December 30, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in people, reminisces-1990s.

Kinda funny sentence today from Alan Greenspan’s recent book which I found surprisingly un-putdownable :

I remember where I was on the day the Japanese attacked the Pearl Harbor: in my room practicising the clarinet. I turned on the radio and there was the announcement. I didn’t know where the Pearl harbor was – nobody did. I didn’t immediately think, Oh, we’re going to war. Instead, I hoped the calamity would just go away. When you’re a fifteen year old, you blank out a lot of things. You just focus on what you’re doing.

Greenspan also mentions his adolescent fascination for the morse code, which brought back in a flash long forgotten memories from over a decade ago.

The only time I ever maintained a diary of personal reflections was for a short period in the mid-90s. And in order to make the contents almost inaccessible to anyone who lays a quick hand on it, the entire diary was written in morse code !! To give you a sample, here is what it would have looked like – commas that separated letters and forward slash separating the words ( and two forward slashes between consecutive sentences )

// . , . _ _ . , . . , . . . , _ , . _ . . , _ , . . . / . . _ . , _ _ _ , . _ . / _ , . . . . , . / . _ . . , _ _ _ , . . . _ , . / _ _ _ , . . _ . / . _ . . , . , _ , _ , . , . _ . , . . . //

( “Epistles – For the love of letters ” )

Now imagine 109 pages of this😀 .

Thinking back it was rather crazy, maybe the craziest thing I ever did. No, actually what was even more crazy of me was to destroy that diary in a fit of desperation – too many skeletons of too many people in one cupboard it was. Looking back though, it remains one of my bigger regrets.

I realize I have forgotten some of the confusing and infrequent letters like J and B, but am otherwise quite okay. But the memory refresh that followed looking at this, I am almost ready to start another one, save for the absence of skeletons and abundance of cupboards😉

Journalists, power and Shekhar Gupta’s memoirs December 28, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, people, politics.
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I just read two articles from journalists that have known Benazir Bhutto personally – Shekhar Gupta during his many years of reporting and Karan Thapar from their college days. Both articles make for an engaging read and are replete with anecdotes from the yesteryears.

Reading some of these writings one wonders what must it be like to be a journalist – with close association, understanding and friendship with a country’s (and often international) ruling class. A journalist-friend of mine in the Indian Express says that is one of the main lures of the profession – the contacts you make. Understandable, but then again not all politicians are great human beings, the nice to know types. Some of them are not only miserable people themselves but are also liable for misery and bloodshed elsewhere, either willfully perpetrated or condoned or done in their name. [ More on politics ] What would it be like to have such people in your phone book and among your email contacts and vice-versa ? Also most people in power (or those that have been) have egos that need to be pandered to. Not my idea of a day job.


Talking of Shekhar Gupta, I have admired his writings for years now. And having watched/read him interviewing people, I almost feel like I can see inside his mind. He sets the stage gradually to extract that one headline, almost like the leg spinner who bowls four consecutive balls moving away from the right hander and finally nails the batsmen with the fifth that remains straight. If a potentially controversial question is evaded, he rephrases the question and as he does so, may even add a controversial statement that elicits a reaction from the interviewee. When the interviewee decides to react, the interviewer has won.

Yet, if there is one aspect of his writing that I am ambivalent about, its how he makes it clear to the reader that he is important, that he has been there and done that and that he is aware of his place in post-1975 Indian political reporting history. Or at least that he has one. For example, a number of times he writes in his newspaper columns that what he is about to tell us is something that he had originally reserved for his memoirs but will tell us right now anyway. Look Shekhar, I am starting to find this funny, maybe even condescending.🙂

A simple search for (“Shekhar Gupta” “my memoirs) [ Retain the quotes, remove the parenthesis if you want to do the search yourself ] revealed at least 5 columns – 1 , 2 , 3 , 4 and 5. And the other day on a TV debate when he was asked to call what will happen to the Gujrat elections (before the results came in), while everyone else on the panel took a shot, Shekhar from atop his high horse went – “From my 27 years in journalism, one thing I have learnt is to never call an election….”. When pressed he said he would prefer to “respect the voter.” Really ? Or is it because if he were proved wrong, 20 years from now Vikram Chandra (who moderated the discussion) is going to keep this story for his memoirs ? All said and done, I will continue to follow him and read everything he writes. Putting up with some of the above is a small price to pay to get some insights and read some very interesting anecdotes.


“Unstable and malfunctioning – pick two” December 27, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in geo-politics, history.

Bhutto is gone. Sad and scary, not because she was a great leader of the peoples but given our reduced expectations of democracy from poor (and/or Islamic) countries, her absence is destabilizing for Pakistan and the region.

Thats one of those famous pictures (best size I could find😦 ) from India-Pak history shot when Z. A. Bhutto was in Simla to negotiate the Simla agreement. (If Rajiv was in politics at the time (1972), he would have been in this picture too).

Read this interesting account of Benazir: the girl who mesmerised Shimla.

Much similarity there – I. Gandhi and Z. Bhutto on one hand and R. Gandhi and B. Bhutto on another. Father-Daughter/Mother-Son – all political assassinations [Details ]. In the latter case, both were assassinated during campaign rallies just days before the elections . Everybody in the picture faced unnatural and violent deaths.


Just realized that Z. A. Bhutto without the somewhat prominent hair on the behind of his head bears some resemblance to Nehru !

And what a blessed neighborhood India once again finds itself in – Burma, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Nepal – none of them even have a stable, functioning, democratic government. Sri Lanka is struggling big time. Is it just Maldives and Bhutan then ?

There is the popular CMU motto – work, sleep, social life – pick two.

Or as Dani talks of the impossibility theorem – “democracy/national sovereignty/global economic integration” – pick two.

Similarly, I think in much of the non-OECD world, you can’t have it all in one government- stable/democratic – pick one.

In South Asia, its more like “Unstable and malfunctioning – pick two”.

More Pakistani history pictures here.

The WT! story today December 27, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in culture, weird.
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 From a Times article on the Apple retail experience:

Two years ago, Isobella Jade was down on her luck, living on a friend’s couch and struggling to make it as a fashion model when she had the idea of writing a book about her experience as a short woman trying to break into the modeling business.

Unable to afford a computer, Ms. Jade, 25, began cadging time on a laptop at the Apple store in the SoHo section of Manhattan. Ms. Jade spent hours at a stretch standing in a discreet corner of the store, typing. Within a few months, she had written nearly 300 pages.

Not only did store employees not mind, but at closing time they often made certain to shut Ms. Jade’s computer down last, to give her a little extra time. A few months later, the store invited her to give an in-store reading from her manuscript.

“Give me advertisers and I promise you free content” December 26, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in india, media, technology.

Thats quoting Subash Chandra Bose. (who some believe is still alive.)

Anyway, this happened when I wasn’t watching. But all forgiven (!) – India Today, which to me is India’s best news magazine, is now available online for free !

Here is Sanjoy Narayan, Chief Operating Officer, India Today Group Digital.

…decided to change to a free access model for two reasons. The first says , “Our earlier subscription model found takers mainly among Indians living abroad or those who wanted information about India. Also, that was a time when Internet penetration was low and the user base was small. Now, with both of these increasing rapidly, particularly among the younger people, we want to tap this audience.”

The second reason is revenue. Online ad revenue is growing and the group feels as though they can attract an audience by keeping their readers engaged everyday instead of just periodically when their magazines are released.

Looks they are going the way of the NYTimes – generate revenue from advertising that comes from having a large readership than from subscription fees. I hate to call tipping-points but is this another statement about internet advertising in India ?

And yes, I will gobble anything that S. Prasannrajan writes, a favorite since the 90s.


Mind and language December 26, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, weird.
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That line there in the boxed part of the picture below. Read it once. Pause.


What does it mean ? Read it again. Does it mean something different ?

Maybe its too late in the night but the first two attempts I thought why would somewhat want resumes of missing people ? Finally I concluded that the word “resume” has a meaning I don’t know, which is that it can just mean the contact details of individuals so as to help them be located/identified, and not a job pitch.

Until that is I visited the page and found the real story. (And all this inspite of knowing the sense of the word that means “restart/continue”.)

P.S: I would be curious to see to which interpretation of the sentence would statistical parsers or/and language models give a higher probability. (Of course they are actually two different words rather than being homonyms, but most automatic Natural Language Processing systems disregard the “whatever” that appears above the letter ‘e’ and build consider the two words as being homonyms.

P.P.S: My post title is another deliberate attempt at misleading the reader. Is that v divided by n or resume as in verb or noun ? Now you know

I changed the title without realizing I did and ended up misleading you about having misled you already when I had only misled myself. Smart ass me.

Incredible stories December 25, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in people.
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From the NYTimes, a must-read and a must-watch (the inset video). Very moving.

G. P. Sawant entered the letter-writing trade in 1982 when he won a government contract for a coveted stall inside the post office headquarters. Before long, he earned a reputation among illiterate migrants as a gifted writer of letters.

But now the professional letter writer is confronting the fate of middlemen everywhere: to be cut out. In India, the world’s fastest-growing market for cellphones, calling the village or sending a text message has all but supplanted the practice of dictating intimacies to someone else.

And very positive.

He is happy, of course, because his four children, all of whom he sent to private school using the proceeds from letter writing, have pulled the family into the upper middle class. His son works at a bank; one daughter works as a civil engineer in Denmark; another daughter is studying computers in college; and there is Suchitra, who is currently in New Jersey on assignment for Infosys.

A billion mutinies now !


A MINT article on running :

The granddaddy of marathons Fauja Singh ran the London Marathon when he was 94. He not only finished the run but also improved his timing…. He ran his first marathon at 89 and since then has taken part in at least six, defying age and proving several armchair sceptics wrong about age, knees and long-distance running.

From the same article :

And then there is Dean Karnazes of San Francisco. Last year, between September and November, he ran 50 marathons in 50 states in the US in 50 consecutive days. He finished the New York City Marathon, his strongest finish, in three hours flat.


That bookshelf in your life December 25, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in general, image.

A while back I had though it would be cool to have a place where people submit pictures of their bookshelves; not of shelves themselves but of books in the shelves such that you can clearly read the title/author of each book. Turns out there is already one, or rather there is at least one. And its on Flickr. In the group description, they say :

This group was created so you could browse through the titles on other people’s shelves. Please submit pictures showing your books with readable titles, rather than pictures showing your entire bookshelf from a distance, or pictures of your cat/toys/candles/mugs/skulls/gear/etc on your bookshelf.

I spend little time on Flickr or any photo site for that matter and while I had long heard of this remarkable community thing Flickr has in comparison to other photo websites, only now got a chance to see an example. Those pictures are such a joy to go through, not just to see what books there are out there, but because viewed from a (mental, not spatial) distance, its some kind of collective art – non-mundane art out of things as mundane as a bookshelf.

Not wanting to burden the universe with yet another bookshelf group with members consisting of the founder and a handful of friends who “would-rather-not-be-but-will-be-for-our-friendship”, I got a few pictures of my bookshelf and added it to the group. Here are the pictures and I am mighty pleased about how they turned up. If you decide to put up some of your own, please leave a link in the comments section.

Here is one. This slideshow of all 6 pictures makes for better viewing.

This New Year here is a wish that may there be a bookshelf in everyone’s life. ( And may some of their pictures be up online😉 )

Man, Dog and everything December 24, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in humor.
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Today’s dog bites man story :

After the United States has spent more than $5 billion in a largely failed effort to bolster the Pakistani military effort against the al-Qaeda and the Taliban, some American officials now acknowledge that there were too few controls over how the money was spent, and that funds were diverted to help finance weapons systems designed to counter India.


Today’s man bites dog story :

Midas, the muffler company, in honor of its fiftieth anniversary, gave an award for America’s longest commute to an engineer at Cisco Systems, in California, who travels three hundred and seventy-two miles—seven hours—a day, from the Sierra foothills to San Jose and back. “It’s actually exhilarating,” the man said of his morning drive. “When I get in, I’m pumped up, ready to go.”

My commute is 1.1 miles, will shortly be truncated to 0.6 miles when my office moves even closer and yeah, “When I get on (the bike), I’m pumped up, ready to go.”

Inner luddite December 23, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, technology.

Every once a while at the freakonomics blog, Steve and Steve conduct informal polls, sometimes to get data for back of envelope calculations (see example) and sometimes just seeking advice from what one may expect to be a very intelligent and well-informed reader community (thats another of those nice things about top economics blogs). A while back Levitt went :

I’m a notoriously late adopter of technologies. It is not a conscious decision, and I don’t take any pride in it.

… As such, I need some advice from blog readers: what are some technologies I need the most that I’ve been slow to adopt?

I’ve been relatively slow myself. Cell phone in late 2003 that too because someone was selling it :p . Did not learn driving until I was way past 18.  And after 40 months in the US, have not got my license yet ( just use my international license😉 ). I have not bought an ipod and may not in the foreseeable future primarily because I hate to carry around things that are really small and forget/lose and all that. And of course, not things that are too big either, simply because they are not meant to.😉 [ Except a bicycle maybe😀 ]. I did not buy a Mac either because back then I could not afford it, but now that I have one from work, I am so used to it that I am not that impressed any longer.

I have been a recent adopter of 2 technologies (if you can all them that) and I am loving it. Hold your breath for here it goes

  • RSS reader
  • Tabbed browsing in Firefox (I don’t use IE unless that is the only way out)

( So, if your blog stats have come crashing down, its because I am not showing up on your blog that often😉 )

For 700 posts, I’ve been writing… December 22, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in blogging.

Just noticed this nice pattern on my blog stats page.


699 posts, 6999 spam comments – is that marketing dream come true or gone sour ?

That makes this post number 700. In 664 days since Feb 26th, 2006.

Woah !

Presidential candidates – Holiday ads edition December 22, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in America, people.
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A roundup of (some) Christmas holiday messages from presidential candidates.

  • John Edwards refers to faith, has Christmas lighting in the background but does not go the whole nine yards.
  • Obama has his wife starting the talking, his daughters chime in, does not mention Christmas and has no campaign positions in there either.
  • Hillary subtle reference to holiday season as she gives away goodies (“Whose money is it anyway!”😉 )

When you mention “Christmas”, you are signaling. When you don’t, you are avoiding alienation and signaling to a different constituency. Just wonder how many “holiday seasons” would India have if all the (mostly religious) festival names were sanitized to just “holidays” in order to be more inclusive ? Truly, there are more tangible ways to separate church from the state, eh !🙂

Outreach update December 22, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in general, life, people.
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About a couple of months ago I wrote about my participation in Kiva, a micro-lending website through which I lent two amounts of $25 each to a Pham, a poultry farmer in Vietnam and Regina, a baker in Honduras. I had promised to provide an update which can be potentially reassuring to anyone who is waiting to see someone they personally know who has down this path before they themselves do. From my lender page, I see that both Regina and Pham are on track with respect to their commitments – Regina had repaid 25% of her total loan ($250 of which my contribution is $25), while Pham has repaid 8% already.

To repeat verbatim from my previous Kiva post : “If you are a US resident and willing to forego one dinner one time and save that $25, and don’t know what to do with that money, well, now you do !”


During the same week, I decide to sponsor a child through “Save the Children”. Learn more about sponsorship here. (if you are considering sponsorship there are other organizations here along with ratings by the American Institute of Philanthropy)

My sponsor-child is Joce, a 7 year old girl from Haiti. The organization encourages sponsors and their sponsor-children to communicate with each other. A couple of weeks back Joce sent me a drawing. Photographs are below:


And my reply to Joce. (Warning : my handwriting is very neat and illegible.)

Indian “Fox” and Public sector unbound December 22, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in india, politics.
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A friend sends me this video from IBN-live website. This is about the almost completed Golden Quadrilateral and how the changes it brings are far and wide. In his email he adds :

..in the entire program these ***kers have not mentioned whose dream project all this was !!

For those of you who don’t know, he is referring to the fact that the program was initiated during the NDA regime. In reply to this mail (it went to a bunch of other folks), one of them writes in :
when do we hear that a news channel is being run by Swapan Dasgupta or Chandan Mitra or Arun Shouri??? BJP must realize that media is very very powerful; unless they start a media house like Republicans did Fox in US, their opinion will never be heard…
Interesting, while there are newspapers such as Livemint whose editorial stance is fiscally conservatism (and socially liberal), is there any major Hindi/English channel that is to the right of center, at least on the fiscal side.
On a related note, the Indian Express has been running a series called “Public Sector Unbound” which is tracking all that happened to privatized PSUs (mostly privatized in the pre-MMS era). Certainly not music to many ears, but (and therefore) makes for some good material for debates and discussion on the topic.
Sample this particular (erstwhile) Hindustan Zinc story. Happiness.

Mobs that empower December 18, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, rant, reminisces-2000.

For a long time I thought that rediff has the worst online community in terms of the quality of the discussion forums/message boards. Turns out I forgot about the usual suspects – TOI. A member from the “Times of India sucks” orkut community sends me this link, while requesting me to take a stand on this issue. Visit the link and you will truly wonder if there are indeed so many people who will have spent so many hours writing/copy-pasting material.

What are these people like in real life I wonder (I know we are again revisiting topics we have in the past week, but let me use the occasion to make a related comment). I suspect a good number of them could be any of us, or our close friends and that won’t surprise me. Among two circumstances under which I don’t trust most people, even some of my good friends – anonymity and mob membership.

Mob is empowering ; its trading sovereignty for power. A mob accomplishes far more than the individual constituents can – not because of the larger physical presence, but its the alternate mental space that it inhabits. One of the most inhuman practices I have witnessed time and again (never been party to either way) was the manner in which the presumably happy occasion of one’s birthday is celebrated in most Indian colleges with lifting the person and handing him kicks on his bum – “Birthday Bumps”. Repeatedly kicking one person as hard as one possibly can, the whole occasion inviting even until now uninterested onlookers to contribute their kicks – some of who may not even know who the landing surface belongs to. I know people who will defend this practice (after all its consensual adult activity on a large scale with (almost) no victims). Yet, my point is that it brings out the most raw instincts and the worst in people and when it involves some of your good friends, its not a pretty sight.

This video here – where one of the kickers had planted 6 kicks so hard that he is almost limping by the end of the video.

Actually being in a group and anonymity are really much the same thing. In the end, its boils down to absence of accountability because of the aggregation, of becoming one among the many. A benign version of this is how as a child you are relieved to know that you are not the only one in class to have not completed your assignment.🙂

History quiz and Castro December 18, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in history, ideas, people.
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History is interesting. Time yourself as you figure out A through I.

A is ruling over B. C wages war on B and D. C and E occupy I. C occupies A. C wages war on E. F wages war on G. G, E and A beat the shit out of C. G beats the shit out of F. H and D occupy A. A teams up with B to drive out H. H and D leave on the condition that B will leave A. A does not leave B. B breaks into B1 and B2. A leaves B1 and B2. G and B2 team up against B1 (and H). G loses to B1. B1 occupies B2 and together becomes B. And today G is the largest trading partner of I, B, H and F. A is the largest and G the second largest partner of C.

I think most people would figure out A to I, its about how many seconds (minutes??) it takes. Since I made it up, I have no idea how long it would have taken me.

Continue reading this post if your head is not spinning yet.

P.S: Some sentences give more information than others, but then you don’t know that before hand. Do sentences that have more actors (letters) give most information ? At what point did you become fully confident of your answer ?


My nomination for Foot in Mouth Award 2007.

“I promise that I will be with you, if you so wish, for as long as I feel that I can be useful — and if it is not decided by nature before — not a minute less and not a second more,” he said at the time. “Now I understand that it was not my destiny to rest at the end of my life.”

No, not quoting Joseph Heller. Thats Fidel Castro. Since 1959. ( Raymonds style😉 )

Lets say you are in your early twenties, single and all that – now ask yourself which current head of state you think will remain head of state when your granddaughter is as old as you are now.

Some pattern there – Musharaff and Chavez seeking political immortality. (but where they have failed so far, Castro is going strong.) And why leave out LK Advani, MMS, and others except that people have a chance to vote them out through largely free and fair polls.

P.S: Oops, just as I wrote this I see it has already been awarded. Only if they waited a little longer.



Authors and bylines – Academia effects ? December 17, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, education, media.

In a comment to my post on why I am not too enthusiastic about anonymously authored blogs, Sudhir raises an interesting question, one that did not occur to me when I wrote the post. He asks:

I’m just left wondering if a persons identity has such an impact on a reader. I’ve never really given it any thought before! We probably cannot take anonymous bloggers too seriously because we cannot draw a mental picture of what they look like. Having said that I never seem to look for a journalists name in the newspaper even if i really enjoyed the content. Do you? just curious..

Yes, No and Sometimes.

“No” for news reports, “Yes” for analysis and opinion pieces that are either very moving or are on polarizing topics. And then there is an non-deterministic component that I will categorize under “sometimes” – where I look up for no particular reason. There are also times when it works the other way around – where you go scouting for articles by certain columnists and journalists. Too many to name they are, but as regular blog readers would know they are mostly from the NYTimes, Indian Express, Hindustan Times, Hindu, Slate, Outlook, Livemint and The Pioneer.

So yeah, the identity matters. Why ?

I don’t know if this has got to do something with spending some time in academia/grad school where you talk of research papers and results in terms of the authors and groups/labs/locations and often over 15% of the paper content is “saying who said what before you say what you intend to say.” Any serious, life long academics want to weigh in on that ?🙂

What do you think ?

Statistically improbable humanbeings December 16, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in people.
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Esquire’s annual article on the “Best and the Brightest of 2007” :

On Franziska Michor, Austrian prodigy and genius at baking cakes, driving 18-wheelers and math. Among other things :

a) twenty-five years old;

b) a slip of a thing, about a hundred pounds;

c) employed by the department of computational biology at Sloan-Kettering, the cancer hospital and research center in New York;

d) equipped with a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from Harvard, which she earned at twenty-two;

e) determined to change the way modern medicine deals with cancer, so that it may truly be called modern;

Her area of work – bringing (more) math into biology, in particular into cancer fighting efforts. And why ?

And she thinks medicine is — though she would never use this word — dumb. Not doctors, not scientists, and certainly not the people she’s gotten to know at Princeton, where she was a theoretical biologist at the Institute for Advanced Study when she was nineteen, or at Harvard, or at Sloan. No, medicine — at least in comparison with cancer, at least in comparison with the blind god of evolution. And what she wants to do is make it smarter. What she wants to do is teach it math.

Read the whole article ; the article itself is well-written. You do get the impression that the Esquire journalist must have been totally floored by someone of this caliber. Look at this extract :

So yeah, Franziska Michor is pretty smart, but that’s not really the point, even though a certain amount of smarts helps, given what she’s setting out to do. She’s also pretty determined and pretty dedicated and pretty damn dauntless, but that’s not the point, either, any more than are her talents at cake baking or ballroom dancing or the fact that she speaks six languages. No, the point is this: Franziska is, in the statistical sense of the word, improbable. She’s to the general run of human capability what she is to truck driving in Austria. Her position on the bell curve of what people can and can’t do is so far-flung as to seem exotic, even impossible.

Genius is fascinating, scarce, inspiring and a real turn on – at the level of personality sure, even by its very nature. We are only beginning to understand the brain, and someday we will better understand genius, and many varieties of these.

I somehow think that one must engage in pursuit of excellence in a way to be really good at one kind of science, one kind of art and some sport. How do we define great ? Maybe say 99.5, 95 and 93 percentile in these 3 domains ? Of course, by definition (of percentile) we cannot all be in these percentile brackets, but wonder where the pursuit itself will take us.

Weather update – Live webcams on Campus edition December 16, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in CMU, image.
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I was reading news of winter storms in the North Eastern United States and was curious to see how things look, see not weather reports but actual footage of actual neighborhoods within cities I lived in – Boston and Pittsburgh. One option is of course look for videos on sites such as Yahoo! News and CNN, but you may not get what you want.

The other is to look for live webcams on the internet ! And from a link I saved into delicious back in July, I found exactly that.

Here is from a camera near my department at Boston University looking down on the BU Chappel. Far right end of the footage is the Charles River, which looks (at this moment) all but frozen to me.

Here is the cam from the Carnegie Mellon campus – the actual purpose of this camera is for people to keep track of the work on the new Computer Science building called the “Gates Building”. But, well…

Link: Online webcams

P.S : A sampling of (13) more pictures from the Boston storm. In this picture shot on Jan 24, 2005, the day after a massive thunderstorm, I was actually standing in the middle of the river, about 50 feet from the shore. Never before, never since.🙂

Starbucked, Tourism of Doom and Venezuelan capitalists December 16, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in assorted, economics, humor, videos.
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Starbucks chariman Howard Schultz to Larry King in a 1997 interview.

“People weren’t drinking coffee. … So the question is, How could a company create retail stores where coffee was not previously sold, … charge three times more for it than the local doughnut shop, put Italian names on it that no one can pronounce, and then have six million customers a week coming through the stores?”

The article is PJ Rourke’s review of a new book by Taylor Clark titled “STARBUCKED: A Double Tall Tale of Caffeine, Commerce, and Culture.” Himself an author, Rourke is known for his witty style (one of his books titled : “Eat the Rich: A Treatise on Economics”), something that is on display here. .

Clark talks a lot about the determination, drive and persistence of the Starbucks Corporation. But if those were the sole qualities of success, toddlers would rule the world. Clark makes much of Starbucks’s discovery that it could put one store close to another and both could thrive. But you can line a street with fire hydrants and dogs will use them all; that’s not necessarily a recipe for wealth, especially if you try to charge the dogs.


Times on the emerging trend of “Tourism of Doom” from Ken Shapiro, the editor in chief of a travel magazine.

From the tropics to the ice fields, doom is big business. Quark Expeditions, a leader in arctic travel, doubled capacity for its 2008 season of trips to the northern and southernmost reaches of the planet. Travel agents report clients are increasingly requesting trips to see the melting glaciers of Patagonia, the threatened coral of the Great Barrier Reef, and the eroding atolls of the Maldives, Mr. Shapiro said.

To borrow from Tyler Cowen, lets call this Markets in Doom ! (No pun certainly)

“It’s not just about going to an exotic place, it’s about going someplace they expect will be gone in a generation.


In the annals of “Do as I preach, not as I do.”


A video of a Gucci- and Louis Vuitton-clad politician attacking capitalism then struggling to explain how his luxurious clothes square with his socialist beliefs has become an instant YouTube hit in Venezuela.

The video is here ; truly these are time when I really wish I knew Spanish.

Despite the best efforts of left-wing President Hugo Chavez to instill austere socialist values in its people, the oil-rich South American nation remains attached to consumerism. Riding a boom in oil prices, middle-class and wealthy Venezuelans are on a spending spree, guzzling fine whiskies and snapping up luxury cars. Poorer Venezuelans also have benefited, with subsidies driving a spike in demand for basic products.

See resource curse.

News from Europe December 15, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in assorted, humor, technology.
1 comment so far

A fully robotic parking lot, hats off to German engineering.


 Picture credits : Courtesy Autostadt GmbH. Photograph by Rainer Jensen.

Equally dramatic, in a high-tech way, are the parking towers at Autostadt, Volkswagen’s exhibition complex and automotive theme park in Wolfsburg, Germany. This parking garage is entirely robotic. Two 160-foot circular towers store 400 new cars on 20 levels, serviced by a central elevator that can retrieve a car in 30 seconds. Stacking cars in close-packed racks can be up to 50 percent more efficient than a conventional garage, but since it is currently more than twice as expensive, it is viable only in cities where land prices—or space—are truly at a premium.

Bangalore and Bombay please.


Sentence of the day from Roger Cohen of the Times:

Europeans still take the Enlightenment seriously enough not to put it inside quote marks.

Thats comparing European secularism to America’s ‘faith based democracy’. Religion is so much an election issue that one of the elections issues for 2008 is about religion being an election issue. Not too different from India, eh !


Quoting positive thinker Scotsman, who got locked and spent nearly four days trapped inside a men’s toilet with no food or mobile phone.

At least there was a toilet to use.

12th man at the 11th hour December 15, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in sport.

Former Indian test cap Sanjay Bangar on what goes on inside the mind (and outside the body🙂 ) of the 12th man/the extra :

If the dressing rooms are small, the reserve player has to make room for the players, and in some rare instances, has to keep their kit bag in some adjoining room. He also has to ensure that he identifies each player’s kit bag so that he can cater to the requirement of the player like a sweater, glove, cap, shoe, etc.

He has to understand and interpret sign convention; a batsman can ask for a change of grip, change of glove, a batting tape, cap, helmet and he makes the signals accordingly. One has to pick it up and respond quickly; players and coaches often let the reserves know sternly if there is any delay, if the players are not well looked after.

During breaks, if a player wants to dry his clothing or equipment, the reserve has to keep the stuff in the sunlight or use the dryer, if a washing machine is available. If the side is batting, the batsman might ask the reserve to bring him some lunch.

Looks like the Cricinfo guys are having former cricketers author blogs where they are writing not the usual predictions or advice for the forth coming games or the even more usual criticisms, but personal experiences – a sort of an inside look at what a player actually goes through. Certainly welcome this idea of making cricketers look more human.

Why I almost don’t read anonymous blogs December 15, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in blogging.

There is much discussion in the Indian blogosphere about anonymous bloggers. [ Digression: I am amazed that wordpress is flagging the word “blogosphere” as a spelling error – what irony ! ]. The issue is about commenters and some elements trying to ‘out the identity’ of these anonymous bloggers, presumably for the sheer pleasure of it. While it is bad manners, discourteous and all that, I think we will need the expertise of someone like Judge Richard Posner to convincingly argue why such practice might be tantamount to invasion of privacy and hence must invite legal consequences. Anyway, thats not what the post is about.

Its my inability to bring myself to be a reader of anonymous blogs. I respect their right to stay anonymous and won’t even require them to give reasons why. But I respect my own right to not read anonymous blogs and will give ‘reasons’ (prejudices is probably a better word) why🙂.

To state upfront, great content might come in from anywhere. Occasionally when I am done reading that some really interesting post someone linked to/emailed, the next thing I do is see who the blogger is. It is important, or better yet comforting for me to know where the blogger comes from. I may not really care about the blogger’s real name (as long as the pseudonym can be easily pronounced🙂 ) , but other things – place, primary area of expertise, education and training, homepage would be great. I want as much context as possible. Without much of this information, my interest quickly vanes and I am unlikely to return to the blog.

To make things clear, its not a matter of policy to not follow these blogs, which means the next time you send me this link to a great post from an anonymous blogger I will still read it. Except I may not continue to return to the blog. This of course does not apply to ‘anonymous bloggers’ whose identity I know through personally knowing them. I think this is consistent with my view that while I respect their right to be anonymous to the world, I can’t bring myself to read blogs from bloggers I don’t know about.

One might argue that all the information that I sought above can be derived from reading a few posts. Very well likely, but I won’t do that. Why that extra cognitive load ! After all,

a) Elasticities abound – there is no dearth of good content out there.

b) there is a real dearth of time anyway.

In an attempt to find a real-world analogy for this discomfort, I wonder if reading anonymous bloggers is akin to speaking to a person “face-to-face” while the other person has his/her shades on, or worse still, a mask on. How long can you do that ?

In reply to Amrita who says:

These people are not your bitches, they didn’t call and ask you to visit, they didn’t hound you into giving them your custom, you are not doing them a favor by visiting their space, you do not own them or their material – and they’re not making an extraordinary request of you by informing you that they don’t wish to share their identity with you. If the lack of a real world name bothers you so much, don’t visit.

Okay, I will take that last option🙂

In summary, sorry anonymous bloggers, although I understand that many of you are compelled to remain anonymous, I can’t bring myself to read your blogs. Which of course means I can’t bring myself to ‘out’ you or urge people to boycott you or bother you in any other way either.


Culture as competition, not legislation December 13, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, people.

The story so far.

prettybluesalwar puts up what appears to me a half-serious post (and what she claims as not-at-all-serious🙂 ) trying to sell T-shirts with India related one-liners. Thambi, a commenter on her blog is offended and accuses prettybluesalwar of being “a white person trying to capitalize on some rudimentary knowledge of Indian culture to make a quick buck.” Now this exchange seems to have gone on to the next level with Thambi taking on more pseudo-identities and leaving messages on prettybluesalwar’s blog. He sends her this article by Sunita Puri, while also asking her to refrain from “being an ambassador for all things Indian.”

prettybluesalwar has written a post in reply here. I find prettybluesalwar’s stance to be unnecessarily defensive and that of Sunita’s article astonishingly xenophobic.

From Sunita’s article :

…is cultural imperialism at its worst. Pop icons like Madonna perpetuate a faulty understanding of Indian culture by selecting exotic images from India, such as the bindi, taking them completely out of cultural context and popularizing them in the West. What people like Madonna don’t realize, however, is that appropriating the bindi in such a way has devastating effects on the symbol’s meaning in South Asia.

I have only two points to make and had I been in prettybluesalwar’s place, my reply would have been thus.

Dear Commenter,

I have 2 points to make in reply.

  • Culture is competition, not legislation. If evolution of genes is through process of natural selection (in presence of environmental factors), then progress of culture is through human selection, again not without environmental influences, which Dawkins put it so well to call it a ‘meme’. Bindi is a meme thats lived through a few thousand years and so is the Sari. They must have evolved from different forms and it is fair to say that neither you nor I are aware of the first ever form. So what are we trying to defend and protect -that which we last saw ? For example, the pallu of the Sari is predominantly worn on the woman’s left. Yet in some places (primarily in Northwestern India), its worn on the right. It would be foolish of a Tamilian lady to object to a Gujrati woman wearing the pallu on her right. I am sure there must have been resistance when some woman somewhere first saw her reflection in the water and quite playfully (or maybe mistakenly) decided to switch the pallu. There must have been Thambis then too. Yet that is a meme that has survived.
  • If you believe that everything is getting homogenized, you are failing to see second-order effects. Self-expression, by definition, cannot fall prey to homogenization beyond a point. There will be enough homogenization and standardization to enable the society to function – anything more will be boring, anything less will be inefficient. In geekspeak, the error surface is one with several locally optimal solutions, not one global optimum !

Culturally yours,


P.S: So much for the commenter’s objection – among the things I consider myself to be one among the ambassadors for : Indian, Men, Single men, Mid-twenties youth, blogger, Indians in America, Former Indian Graduate Students, Computer Science Researchers and the almost bald and maybe somewhat overweight.

Any objections anybody ?

Image, Video and uuh, text December 11, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in assorted, humor, image.
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Dress codes and hair styles of programming language legends. Can you tell who is who ?

Although some of you might be more keen on taking Nangafakir’s quiz about another picture in a league of its own. If Nangafakir had a caption contest on that one, my entry would have been “What Paris, New York and Rio have lost to Islam(abad).”

HT : Amit Varma


Is there anyone who will watch this video for a minute or two and give thought to the idea that someone there looks like a somewhat newly wed movie star without putting me at risk of abuse and my future physical self at the risk of rotten tomatoes ?

For those of you with little bandwidth or little patience – at least this screen shot taken at 0.42 seconds ?


Amit again links to Economist report :

[Hillary Clinton’s] campaign has also begun questioning Mr Obama’s integrity, using an essay he wrote in kindergarten entitled “I Want to be President” as evidence of overweening ambition.

How about Hillary Clinton’s refusal to divorce her husband post Lewinsky as ‘evidence’ of her ‘poor moral character’ and condoning adultery while in office ? Oops, an accidental pun there !

And what now about poor Tom Hasken (that we talked about earlier), a hypothetical future president-in-running for 2048 currently growing up in a small town near Iowa and has a wordpress blog, a myspace profile, a facebook wall, a twitter account and a massive search history logged in somewhere !


2007 Nobel Literature Laureate Dorris Lessing in her acceptance speech :

How are we, our minds, going to change with the new internet, which has seduced a whole generation into its inanities so that even quite reasonable people will confess that once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free, and they may find a whole day has passed in blogging and blugging etc.

If “blogging” includes reading blogs, she is talking about you, too.😀

Jokes apart …no, actually I will just let that pass. [ and leave with you another blogger’s take on this ]


Which “-ist” are you ? December 10, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in humor, media, statistics.

Featured on a popular portal a while ago.




Lets call the 2 links a) “Creative ways to propose” and b) “What if she says no”. This then divides the world (at least among those who see this page) into people who :


1. Click on a and then on b (pragmatists)

2. Click on b and then on a (realists)

3. Click on a but not on b (optimists)

4. Click on b but not on a (pessimists)

5. Click on neither a nor b (but promptly blog about it) (analysts)

6. Complain that link b is gender discriminatory (feminists ??)

LOL ! Anyway, this one is a and that one is b.

On the blogroll control-freak widget December 10, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in blogging, technology.

I wonder if there is a widget out there that you can plug into your blog such that it will order your blog roll according to any logic you desire. I would then order my (incomplete) blogroll by some function* that  can be automatically computed and accounts for the frequency of posts, length of posts and some other variables I haven’t yet thought of. They can perform the added function of removing (temporarily or otherwise) blogs that don’t meet a particular criterion.

Of course, given that this blog is not among the prime movers of traffic in any sense of the term, it may not make much of a difference other than quenching my geek hunger. But I am sure that vastly popular blogs would want to reward blogs that meet some criterion by promoting them up the blogroll. Or even randomize the blogroll every once in a while to promote all blogs equally (in which is becomes an equal outcome function😉 )

* Of course, needless to say that function would be an equal opportunity function that does not discriminate on, among other things, the basis of attributes the blogger is not responsible for – such as age, gender, height, weight, race, sexuality etc

Birthday distribution – Middle-east edition December 10, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in statistics.
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Followup to the previous birthday post:

Luciferratic, a commenter on therandomizer’s blog ( am seriously getting pissed with these pseudonames🙂 ) has access to a much larger dataset (<raises his eyebrows>). And something looks fishy/interesting. Over 20% of the folks born in the one month – January !!

Update: And fishy it was ! Here is an update on that January-mystery from Luciferatic in the comments section here.

….there definitely is something wrong as the birth rates cannot be skewed to this extent and I have been asking around. This is the first time anyone has tried to look at the portfolio on the basis of month of birth as it really has no relation to the risk profile of a customer.

So, I asked around as to possible reasons as to why the data could be so skewed. Apparently the data is correct, its the birth DATES that are wrong. And I DO apologize about this as I should have checked before posting such a reckless response.

The country I reside in has had a national identification system in place only since 1950. Prior to that there was no official document used to identify birth dates! When the National ID came into play in 1950 most people didn’t know which month they were born in and they were randomly assigned dates in January more often than not the 1st of January! Yes I know it sounds stupid, but prior to 1950, people here were familiar with the Islamic Calendar (Hijri Calendar) and were not used to the Gregorian Calendar. A market norm is to use the date of birth as appearing on the National ID and the result as you have already seen is the data is skewed towards January for customers that were born before 1950.

3 questions I never thought of before December 10, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, ideas.

1. How much do you know about each of your 8 great-grandparents ?

My answer :

Dad’s dad’s dad – Know his name.

Dad’s dad’s mom – Nothing

Dad’s mom’s dad – Nothing

Dad’s mom’s mom – Nothing

Mom’s dad’s dad – Nothing

Mom’s dad’s mom – Nothing

Mom’s mom’s dad – Whole lot of stuff

Dad’s mom’s mom – Nothing, except the place she grew up (Mangalore)

By “nothing”, I mean absolutely nothing. Ever thought about this – surely we know a lot about our grandparents (and so do our parents know of theirs) but the knowledge that really flows from one generation to another is barely anything (unless you are Priyanka Gandhi’s son). Of course, this is almost entirely be attributed to human life spans being almost capped at 100 something.

This of course works down the tree as well, although technology might as well change this just a bit. So next question becomes :

2. Say you answer this question on your blog, then what is the probability that your hypothetical great-grand daughter will read the post (and maybe get to this one ?)

While you think about that, here comes the next question, which is really a few ridiculous steps ahead.

3. There is a chance that my great-great-great-<go back another 65 generations>-great-great grandfather who as a food along with his tribe-mates,  attacked your ancestors’ village, looted their food sources, burnt their houses, kidnapped their children and raped their women and killed your corresponding ancestor ? Do you feel angry about that ?

Queer isn’t it – we are almost incapable of personalizing such distant relationships and empathizing with people who lived more than x years ago (x probably varies from person to person but is surely not very large). In fact, we are even talking casually so about it right now. And thankfully so !! 🙂

But if you think about it, these relationships are distant in time, not in genes. Or in other words, in all probability I share more in my genes with the above looter/rapist than with a randomly chosen person who is currently walking down the main street in Santiago, Chile, South America. But then, like I care ! Afterall, the truth is that I feel closer and relate more to the latter than the former.

Who says blood is thicker than water !

Just links December 9, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in assorted.
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1. Victor Mallet of the Financial Times paints the doomsday scenario for India, dissecting the ‘myth’ of the so-called ‘population dividend’.

2. therandomizer’s thoughts on “The fountainhead”; remarkable how if I had written mine, they would have been so similar !

3. Very interesting take on 9-11. From the always interesting Eliezer S. Yudkowsky.

4. Things to remember when I blog – use lists more often. Of course, no compelling reason to overdo it.

NRI worship and the North American Association of Koramangala citizenry December 9, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in America, humor, india.
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Quite an article from Ram Guha on the new ritual on the Indian calenders – NRI worship !

Well-written, incisive and humorous with all those tales from Hindu mythology and all that (do you call that an allegory ?). The article is about NRIs and this word in the media sure attracts attention. This excerpt here is a long one but it better be for the sake of completeness. NRI or not, do read the entire article anyway.

Sometimes the Family Show-Off takes on a second role, that of the Non-Resident Religious Radical, or nrrr. The nrrr tells you that the only way to build a strong, self-reliant nation is to marry Faith with State. … These nrrrs have been to the Sangh parivar what North Americans Jews are to the Israeli Right and what Irish-Americans have been to the ira—that is, an important source of moral and (more crucially) material support.

Thats only a part of the story. Here is the other half.

But few, it seems, have noticed the steady growth in influence of another kind of diasporic extremist, whom I call the Non-Resident Political Radical, or NRPR. While the nrrrs tend to come from the commercial and professional classes—they are typically doctors, lawyers, and businessmen—the NRPR are located chiefly in the American academy, as students and professors. They are fervently against ‘lpg’: liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation. This, despite being beneficiaries of L, P, and G themselves. … Where the nrrrs support a political party, namely the BJP, the NRPR are more prone to support, and influence, those social movements which share their distaste for the state, the market, the establishment; for, it seems, everything – and – everyone – but -themselves.

And finally, the coup-de-grace.

Both kinds of radicals are hypocritical. Living under a Constitution that separates Church from State, the religious radical yet wishes to convert India into a Hindu Pakistan. Living in an open, free society that encourages innovation and enterprise, the political radical yet wants to refashion India into a Burma writ large, into an isolated, autarkic autocracy that shall pass itself off as a socialist utopia.

As has been written numerous times, India’s relationship with NRIs is at the extremes. A love-hate relationship and in fact there is a variety of them – that of the general public, the media, haves, have nots, wants, don’t wants – each of them prevail at the same time. Wonder what it is like among other expatriates.


Staying on the topic, here is Chidananda Rajghatta’s article on how over the years several ‘Indian’ associations have spawned in the US that have come to reflect India’s ‘diversity’. Surprised anyone ?

I predict the existence of “North American Association of Koramangala citizenry” in the year 2023. After all, the population and the diversityof Koramangala then will be more than that of Estonia today ! In fact, thanks to decades of migration from all parts of India into Koramangala (which is merely good economics and bad governance), a completely new dialect comprising mostly Kannada with several other Indian languages will have been formed. Now if Estonians can have their own association, why not Koramangalites ?

Disclaimer : My association with Koramangala has seldom been beyond visiting a relative at some point, getting a haircut at a saloon at the Raheja arcade sometime in 1999 and using it as a thoroughfare between Indira Nagar and Jayanagar.

HT : Nanopolitan.

Be skeptical December 8, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in rant, sport.
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Update appended.

I feel great for Saurav Ganguly – what a man ! Scroll down all the way on this page.

Pick any article from Oct 2005 to Dec 2006. And you see things like these

Meanwhile, Indian cricket must move on. It has found a new energy and direction. A fitting tribute to Ganguly would be not to lament about what he could have achieved with a few more opportunities, but to look back at what he gave to Indian cricket. He was immense. And he didn’t go without a fight.

And this.

Ganguly’s Test performances have been patchy at best, and as much as we might have willed him to go out on a high, it was only a matter of time for him.

And now what.

When he was brought back, I really hoped he would do well. Not as much because I was fond of him, but because we needed it. And when I say “we”, I don’t just mean the team as a whole but just about any member of the public who is looking for great examples – if not to emulate, but at least to quote to oneself and others.

More generally, every now and then we need real-life examples of individuals and feats that have proven a large majority of experts wrong. I love to see them their views being discredited (😀 ), especially of experts in fields where they don’t really have a good record – political analysts, journalists, social scientists, sportspersons, writers, general mediapeople, stock market experts and the like. These are fields that require having a pulse on the public, second guessing human behavior, and too often on a large scale. And who can ? I would rather toss a coin that go by their predictions. Maybe a biased coin, sometimes. Its somewhat different in the hard sciences – rigorous peer-review process and the very nature of these subjects provide them some insulation (they may have their own problems, but lets leave that aside for now.)

Schadenfreude reigns as you go back to see their writings, predictions and warnings from the yesteryears and how few of those hold up to today’s realities. But they still linger and the fact they continue to accumulate ‘accomplishments’ in spite of their records says a thing or two about these fields and their tolerance for mediocratisation. Who ever asked Tom Friedman about this ?

I once challenged my friend Sadiq that just before the World Cup 2011, we must conduct a poll of former test crickets about likely finalists. And then do something similar for a random sample of avid (and thinking) cricket enthusiasts. If I give you the numbers, can you tell the difference ?

But then think about it – Sambit Bal from Cricinfo that I quoted above – what else could he have said then ? From the statistics and maybe merely watching Ganguly play in those days would have lead pretty much any layperson to arrive at similar conclusions. So I don’t really hold that against them. But then if what experts have to tell us is what we ‘know’ (or can figure out, even if incorrectly just like they did) already….well.

Be skeptical.

Update: Sambit sets the record straight with a lovely article on Ganguly.

“I am a socialist but” December 8, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in humor, media, politics.
1 comment so far

Shobha Narayan in the MINT

Although my political leanings are socialist, I tend to get very bourgeois when it comes to spas.

And then the article limps from one account to another of her visit to spas at the Leela to ones at Singapore to other exotic ones elsewhere and how she stocks up on “spa products from Aromatherapy Associates, a UK firm I love, which, sadly, doesn’t retail in India.” Shoba, did you just say “sadly” ? Comrades ! there is treason in your ranks, purge !! . And then her desperate attempt to get multiple spa treatments by offering to pay more (incentives ??) because “her time is valuable”.

Finally she ends with her business plan that she thinks someone should take up, a plan that only brings about even more specialization and division of labor (remember what Chacha Marx had to say on that) where she goes on to give her Lutheresque “I have a dream speech” :

My dream is to get into a spa where each limb is taken charge of by a different person, my face by the fifth. Perhaps a sixth could do some abdominal chakra healing or whatever. The weird part is that I am happy to shell out bucks for all this. But there is nobody offering this six-in-one approach.

All the while as I read the article I wondered why that sentence claiming her socialist credentials ? Is this

a) satire (MINT has an audience sophisticated enough to get the joke, I am an exception)

b) typo (maybe she meant “capitalist” but can’t be – she said it twice !)

c) “I am a <enter your favorite political ideology here> until my interests are at stake” pattern.d) fashionable

e) intellectually endearing/satisfying

f) running for office sometime soon – you know our politicians and that ridiculous constitutional amendment. American politicians become unelectable as atheists, in India the cake (does not) go to non-socialists.

g) poking fun at her employer (MINT is partnering with the WSJ afterall).

h) I am wrong, after all why should socialists not visit spas ?

Well, this article would have been just alright without that one sentence.

Birthday distribution December 7, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in numbers-in-my-life.

therandomizer in a comment on my earlier post:

In my personal observation, I seem to think that more kids are born in the latter half of the year (esp Sep-Dec) than before …. so it would’ve been interesting to see the stats for the year, though I know it’s too much effort. I think that this has something to do with the eligibility for admission into kindergarten.

From the data for 64 of my high school batchmates that I drew up almost an year ago out of curiosity.

Birthday distribution

Thats 28 in the first 6 months, 36 in the latter half. So there, therandomzier, too little data but still some supporting evidence I guess. Treat yourself to what – more frequent blog posts ?

Update: therandomizer with more data.

Much resemblance December 7, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in people.
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This story has much resemblance to that of a person I know.

On his way down to Wall Street, my father, who was driving a Stanley Steamer, one of the earliest automobiles, noticed an acquaintance whom he didn’t especially like. But Edgar Kohler looked frail and dejected and my father felt sorry for him, so he offered him a ride, mentioning that he was going to stop off at a Japanese-print exhibit. Kohler decided to accompany him.

Going into the gallery, they met two friends coming out, who assessed the exhibition this way: “There’s a girl walking around who’s better-looking than anything on the walls.” Once inside, Kohler and my father immediately spotted her — a tall young woman with fair hair and blue eyes, clearly strong, dynamic, and self-assured. My mother always remembered what she was wearing that day, because she felt that her “costume,” as she called it, had played a part in her destiny. She must have been quite a sight in her gray tweed suit and small squirrel cap adorned with an eagle feather. My father, on seeing her, said to Kohler, “That’s the girl I’m going to marry.”

Are you serious?” Kohler asked, to which my father responded, “I was never more serious in my whole life.” Kohler, supposing that they’d never run into her again, suggested that my father speak to her. “No. That would offend her and spoil everything,” my father replied. The two men then agreed that whoever subsequently might meet her first would introduce her to the other.

The story above is that of Katharine Graham’s parents – this extract is from the first chapter of her autobiography. The couple I know await their formal union sometime next year.

Layout fatigue December 7, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in blogging.

Okay, anyone who catches me* change the blog layout gets a check for $50 an ipod shuffle.

* – Until at least 5 readers request it.😀

Jaywalking in Delhi December 6, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in humor, india, policy, weird.
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Threat of harassment allegation

We know that we have violated the rule. But we did not know that such a rule is being implemented and will never repeat the same. But where are the female cops? Keep away from us or else we will sue you for harassing us.

Fear of nuisance value

I will not pay the fine as I do not have Rs 20 with me. If you want to send me to Tihar, then do that. It’s better as I might get free food there.

Call for humanitarian consideration

I had to rush as someone had expired in my family and that is why I did not look for zebra crossing.

There are among the various emotions and states of mind that the Delhi police finds itself in. As the article says:

With the launch of crackdown on jaywalking in the Capital on Wednesday, Delhi Traffic Police had a tough time implementing the drive.

A wasteful Orkut exercise December 5, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in numbers-in-my-life.

For over an year now, my “upcoming birthdays” section of the Orkut page was disabled. I just enabled this feature only to pander to my curiosity to see if there is any day in the year which does not happen to be the birthday of someone I know😀 .

As of now, here is what it looks like.

6/12 – 1

7/12 – 2

8/12 – 1

9/12 – 1

10/12 – 0

11/12 – 3

12/12 – 1

13/12 – 5

14/12 -2

15/12 – 2

16/12 – 2

17/12 – 2

Whats this about Dec 13th ? I need to find someone born on Dec 10th😀

Of course, like all survey methodologies, the assumption here is that people have indeed chosen to make their birthdays public. This assumption does not always hold and I know this because I happen to be one of the violators.

As infinitely easier way to settle this question within an hour rather than an year in the current format is to automatically download profiles and parse out the data. Well, easier it would be but downloading profiles automatically is tricky.

Stars R us December 3, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, people, reminisces-1990s.
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What will Madhuri Dixit think when she reads this sentence ?

“Moreover, to the new generation of cinegoers, Madhuri’s name does not mean anything so all the talk of a comeback did not make much sense. There was curiosity among the people for Madhuri but when they saw the promos and got to hear about the script, the curiosity was killed,” Mirani added.

One way of thinking about this is to go back to what you were doing when Madhuri just came on the scene. When was the first time you heard of her, if you remember at all (I don’t). Quite the same with Tendulkar, except that his arrival on the scene was such that many more would have good recollections. He is still of course still around.

Ask someone who grew up in the 50s and 60s of who his favorite stars were ? Ask the same of the 70s crowd, the 80s and the 90s. Isn’t our “favorite star” most likely to be from the time when we were in our teens and 20s ? Probably. Surprising ? Probably not. Will this continue to be so ?

Which famous person do you feel you have grown with – your careers growing parallel ? Who you remember from a time from which your recollections are reliable ? To go a step further, is there anyone whose lean patches and purple patches have coincided with yours ? Or so you have thought for reasons I won’t ask you to explain ?

My previous Madhuri post was almost an year ago.

More sentences for thought December 2, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in humor, politics.

From Ian Mcewan, a British Novelist :

Atheists have as much conscience, possibly more, than people with deep religious conviction, and they still have the same problem of how they reconcile themselves to a bad deed in the past. It’s a little easier if you’ve got a god to forgive you.

That sentence later, I will be be okay even if I encounter absolutely no written irony/sarcasm for the rest of the week.🙂 .

Come to think of it, who has died of lack of everyday irony.

By the way, if you did not know Deborah Soloman’s interviews in the NYTimes are different – kinda like the newspaper’s version of the Tim Sebastian’s Hard Talk. I linked to an interview with her before.


From Vir Sanghvi

The truth, of course, is that only in India do we make a bizarre association between Communism, a totalitarian ideology that has little respect for human rights and whose leading lights have murdered millions of people, and liberal freedoms. But because the Left has rushed in to occupy this space, it is judged on different standards from other political parties. And so, the liberal outrage is greater when Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee behaves in a manner that we might expect from, say, Murli Manohar Joshi.


One (and perhaps the only) brand of “feminist writing” a feminist of my brand likes – when a peeved lady writes an article, much in jest, on feeling discriminated against and eventually concludes :

I have invested an embarrassingly large fraction of my income on my wardrobe and consider it a valuable asset (or I should, considering it is worth more than my 401(k)).

I chose my dry cleaner because of the quality of their service and quick turn-around. The family that owns the cleaner have also become a surrogate mother to me: sewing on stray buttons, lecturing me on the poor care I take of my clothes, and telling me what pieces are more flattering than others. The state of my wardrobe has become so dependent on my cleaner they have a monopoly power over me. I even felt guilty questioning their pricing policy. Apparently, they have no such power over their male customers so I will continue to be exploited.

What comparable stereotype would you associate with men –  who is most likely to become a surrogate mother/father to a man ?

Epistles’ RSS readers December 2, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in blogging.
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In the midst of the discussion on the blog skin/format/layout in the comments section here, I thought of how the 25 or so RSS feed audience (with possible overlap with regular readers) are spared that discomfort I impose each time I play with the blog layout.🙂

I must admit that for the first several months the mental model of my blog readers did not find a place for the RSS audience – probably because I don’t use one that extensively myself.

Yet, let me take this opportunity to say Hi to you all.

“India after Gandhi” December 1, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in india.

That of course is Guha’s book.

I have not read the Guha’s book and this is not a book review; this is more like quoting from a review of the book. One of the sentences from that review is rivetting.

To comprehend India’s achievement, imagine if Mexico became the 51st of the United States, followed by Brazil, Argentina and the rest of Central and South America. Add Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain to give this union the Sunni-Shia mix of India. The population then represented in Congress would still be smaller and less diverse linguistically, religiously, culturally and economically than India’s. If such a state could democratically manage the interests and conflicts swirling within it, and not threaten its neighbors, the world should ask little else from it. If we were such a state, we would feel that our humane progress contributes so much to global well-being that smaller, richer, easier-to-manage states should not presume to tell us what to do.

Incredible, isn’t it !

There is an itch that you see rather commonly (even if rightly) to keep such accounts of today’s India ‘balanced’. For now though, I would rather leave you in the halo of it.

You can catch the first chapter of Guha’s book.

P. S: Each time I quote (on the blog or in conversations) foreign writers and journalists, I prepare myself to take on the abundance of unfair ( and almost racist) criticisms of writings on India by foreigners (See a blogosphere version in the comments section.) Common arguments go along India being too complex a country and hence out of reach of anyone who wasn’t born and spent as many (but not more) years in the country as the critic in question did.

Well, let me just say that for every Tom Friedman’s over-simplified India commentary, there is the Shashi Tharoor’s over-aggrandizing India cliche.

Finance news links December 1, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in economics, statistics.

What does a remote seaport town of Norway with a population of about 18000 have to do with homes in California ?

More than one might think.

…the stark reality of the situation is starting to set in. Narvik’s chief administrator, Trond L. Hermansen, figures he may recoup half of the town’s $9.4 million investment in the defunct Citigroup product — a package of securities linked to municipal bonds in the United States. Those securities declined in value after the market for bonds dried up.


Entire of cost of the mortgage crisis and the accompanying construction/housing bust is not borne by the two sides involved in the deals.

One difference between subprime loans and subprime labor is that unlike the loans, the financial institutions, home buyers and home builders who together helped create the demand for illegal immigrant labor don’t find themselves now burdened by that legacy. These guys are out of work but no-one other than themselves and the general public pays the price. The profits from their labor were privatized but the costs of their unemployment will be shared by the broader public in the form of urban blight, higher crime and welfare.

Linked from this nice new economics/policy blog I found – Odd numbers.


Baffling figures for the Indian stock market.

The Sensex seems to be setting new highs every day and mutual funds are not far behind. For instance, while the Sensex gave a 48% return over the past one year, 76 funds out of the universe of 195 diversified funds managed to beat this number quite comfortably.

Thats nearly 40% of the funds beat the index (and therefore the index funds) comfortably ! I could not find a ready figure for the US funds but I will be surprised if the number is so high. Or should this be expected from the dynamics of emerging, less mature markets ?

Multitudes of labor December 1, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in ideas, people.
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Who hasn’t been asked, as a high school student, what he/she would “like to be” when he/she grows up ? It interesting that very often the question was about “What do you want to be ?” rather than “What do you want to do ?”. Okay, I don’t want to read too much into whether that means anything, so we will let that pass.

I have wondered more than a few times why, more often than not, it has to be just one thing that one wants to be or do. Maybe 2 is nice. 3 at the most. Yeah, people often commit to career changes but then going from being a consultant in the Engineering industry to the financial sector is not that much of a career change, the kind that several tend to be. But wistfully I give in (albeit only partly), reasoning that its a price to pay for the advantages that division of labor brings to the modern economy.

And now enter Sean Aiken.

…Mr. Aiken hatched his plan to work at 52 jobs in a year and to chronicle the search on a Web site, oneweekjob.com. He would take no salary for the work, but would encourage his “employers” to make a donation to charity. He spread the word through a mass e-mail message to friends and family and eventually through word of Web.


Mr. Aiken is on Week 36 of his journey now (he spent it at the studio of a Manhattan filmmaker). Since his first one-week-job, as a bungee-jumping instructor back in March, he has done practically everything, including teaching yoga, exterminating insects, trading stocks and baking apple pies.

Of course, easy to dismiss that as an attempt to snatch a book/movie/reality show deal and make a quick buck. After all it is not sustainable beyond a limited period. But whatever that may be, I think the idea to just do this once is still a cool one.

Sentences of the day December 1, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in humor, ideas, weird.
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Two sentences, at two distant points in the vast multi-dimensional space of thoughts.


“My father looked at me,” Mr. Aiken recalled, “and said, ‘I’ve been around 60 years and I’ve yet to find something I’m passionate about except your mother.’”


“We sold more books today that didn’t sell at all yesterday than we sold today of all the books that did sell yesterday.”

Head to this article if you don’t want to break your head over sentence 2.

Sentence 1 is from here.

LTTE suicide bomber video footage December 1, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in geo-politics, videos, weird.
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Warning : This is a very graphic footage, not of the run up to or of the aftermath but of the event itself.

Among the many reasons to watch this video is the quality of the footage. No, don’t get me wrong, I am talking not about how very graphic and of clear quality the video is, which it of course is. What I am referring to is that they have footages from several cameras that capture the several stages (time slices) leading up to the actual detonation. And what you will note is how its not at all trivial to guess until the very end as to who the suicide bomber actually is. In fact I imagine those who watch too many movies will likely do worse in discerning what is actually happening (unless this caveat of mine makes you discard your first guess.)

This is not to make a spectacle out of death. The reason I am making an ‘exercise’ out of this video is so we can take a moment to put ourselves in the shoes of the law enforcement and security forces and imagine how hard their job is.

Video link. It is mirrored here as well.

As an aside, I think to myself how there are so many things in life to give your life to – art, science, public service, loved ones etc. But what is there in whose service one should give her/his life away ?

P.S : The AP has a related story here.

“Karachi Beach girls” running around “Lombard Trees” looking for “work permit for their spouses” November 28, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in numbers-in-my-life, weird.

To answer therandomizer’s questions.

So … tell me ! What search queries have brought people to your site? What is the most consistent topic? Where do you get most of your traffic from? And what is the weirdest query someone has entered to find your site?🙂

Here is the list for today:

karachi beach girls
Nasim Talib Black Swan
nris work permit for spouse
orkut friend request specials
“sagarika ghose”
book ends
lombard trees
greetings to teacher leaving for higher
profound sentences

Think about the guy who is looking for the work permit for his spouse and finds this post.

Beach girls ? On this blog which someone said ” ruminates on everything but sex” ?

And lombard trees ? What are they ?

Well, what do I say except that this is what Einstein thought of Gandhi :

Generations to come, it may be, will scarce believe that such one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.

So lets paraphrase Einstein and say that “generations to come, it may be, will scarce believe that such humans as using keyword-based search engines ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.

Darwin award, Child labor and Sweatshops November 28, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in economics, history, weird.
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Meet Toni Vernelli:

Incredibly, so determined was she that the terrible “mistake” of pregnancy should never happen again, that she begged the doctor who performed the abortion to sterilise her at the same time. He refused, but Toni – who works for an environmental charity – “relentlessly hunted down a doctor who would perform the irreversible surgery.

And why ?

Every person who is born uses more food, more water, more land, more fossil fuels, more trees and produces more rubbish, more pollution, more greenhouse gases, and adds to the problem of over-population.”

Linked from here. One of the comments on the post implies that she should next be aiming for the Darwin award.


The sweatshop dilemma – this time in the Indian context – manhole covers headed for New York City made in India. Dani discusses discusses the implications of this article as a starting point. But we know that the debate is more general. A related article by Amit Varma on Child Labor is here. Usha has a few very interesting accounts and personal recollections pertaining to the dilemma.

Then there is Nicolas Kristof’s very controversial sweatshops column in the Times.

And Krugman’s article from 2001 where he said :

There is an old European saying: anyone who is not a socialist before he is 30 has no heart; anyone who is still a socialist after he is 30 has no head. Suitably updated, this applies perfectly to the movement against globalization — the movement that made its big splash in Seattle back in 1999 and is doing its best to disrupt the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City this weekend.

The facts of globalization are not always pretty. If you buy a product made in a third-world country, it was produced by workers who are paid incredibly little by Western standards and probably work under awful conditions. Anyone who is not bothered by those facts, at least some of the time, has no heart.

But that doesn’t mean the demonstrators are right. On the contrary: anyone who thinks that the answer to world poverty is simple outrage against global trade has no head — or chooses not to use it. The anti-globalization movement already has a remarkable track record of hurting the very people and causes it claims to champion.

 And thats enough material for a high-school debate on sweatshops. Of course, you will then be below 30 and with much of the above material open to criticism of having no heart.

Funny links November 26, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in humor.

Limericks: I have always loved them. Check out links from here. Aparna blogs newsmericks here.


Bumper stickers: There is Anti-Bush, there is pro-Bush (which other country makes so much fun of their heads of state in general ? ). There is pro-environment and anti. They are all funny, but there was at least one I did not understand.

What can bald people do to promote global warming (that others can’t) – something about reflecting heat and light back rather than absorb ?


Joy: Has gotten into the habit of having weird ‘Desi guys’ * returning back * to stalk her online.

Not so funny actually.

A non-travelogue November 26, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in humor.
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The Bible apparently says

Treat Others As You Would Like To Be Treated.

George Bernard Shaw however differs :

Do not do unto others as you would expect they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.

I am back from this really amazing trip and would imagine wanting to blog about it. But I don’t take to travelogues too well, they bore me. Now, although Bernard Shaw thinks I should blog about the trip anyway, the Bible suggests I should not.

Well, I agree with many things from Shaw,

and maybe none from the Bible,

so I will go with the Bible for now

and spare you the travelogue.

[“gue” is silent to maintain the rhyme scheme]
My previous attempt at putting down a travel account was better, although previous attempts at verses (such as above) were admittedly worse.

Sample something from Shaw here.

When ? November 21, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation.

In conversation with a friend I have known for 20 years asking him to give his take on turning 26. Lets turn over the mike to him.

Its hard to believe that I am 26. There was a time when people would talk about “today’s kids” and they would mean us. Its not us any more.

When was the first time you used the phrase “Current generation” to refer to another group ? Kids People of what approximate age would you consider to be of your generation ? How old should a person be so you can use the phrase “current generation” and he/she won’t think its him/her ? When did you first think that you should not desist from engaging in certain activities because life is too short and life in a healthy body that can take strenuous shocks is even shorter ? When did it first occur to you (if it did) as to what kind of a place your grand kids would grow up and how much technology would have changed things by then ? Rather among the many future developments that you anticipate, which do you think will not happen in your lifetime ?

No you don’t have to be the brooding Eeyore when it comes to the above thoughts. I am talking about the first time many of these thoughts you actually felt – not read, not heard, not spoken to – but felt personally.

Whats not in the source code ? November 20, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in humor, india, science.
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Look at this piece of news.

The exploration of the human genome has long been relegated to elite scientists in research laboratories. But that is about to change. An infant industry is capitalizing on the plunging cost of genetic testing technology to offer any individual unprecedented — and unmediated — entree to their own DNA.

For as little as $1,000 and a saliva sample, customers will be able to learn what is known so far about how the billions of bits in their biological code shape who they are. Three companies have already announced plans to market such services, one yesterday.

Great ! The next time someone wants to know why I started balding at 19 and am all but done with it at 26, ( “Was it the swimming pool water”, “May be KREC hostel water”, “I am sure it was the Boston Winter”), I might be able to give them an entire subsequence of A, T, G, C for an explanation. (Geneticists out there – does this make sense ?)

Jokes apart, this is precious stuff. Sure, the science is at still at the early stages and so is the technology – I reckon within 2 years the costs of the above indulgence may come down by 20-30%. And I am going to go get it !  What kind of stuff do you find there anyway ?

Like other testers of 23andMe’s service, my first impulse was to look up the bits of genetic code associated with the diseases that scare me the most.

But in the bar charts that showed good genes in green and bad ones in red, I found a perverse sense of accomplishment. My risk of breast cancer was no higher than average, as was my chance of developing Alzheimer’s. I was 23 percent less likely to get Type 2 diabetes than most people. And my chance of being paralyzed by multiple sclerosis, almost nil. I was three times more likely than the average person to get Crohn’s disease, but my odds were still less than one in a hundred.

Seriousness apart (!), the great practitioners of the system of arranged marriages will keep up with the times in a rather queer manner – I presume we in India will soon start circulating and matching DNA substrings instead of the horoscopes for prospective alliances causing a recession in the astrology market.

Of course, astrologers may well be able to predict this recession and take corrective steps.🙂

Superachievers – Attention parents !! November 20, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in education.

The 2008 Rhodes Scholars announced. Look through these profiles of these superachievers to get a picture of just how high the standards are.

I could not quite find too similar a list for the Indian scholars though. This is the best I could. (2007 winners)

Some more tidbits here.

She has a perfect academic record at MIT — A’s in all her courses, including linguistics and fiction reading — and plans to study immunology. Of course, she’s practically an expert already, having worked in six laboratories and designed a device that isolates white blood cells to better understand how the human body reacts to injury.

Thats Melis Anahtar at 21.

This section of Cecil Rhodes’ will is telling indeed.

My desire being that the students who shall be elected to the Scholarships shall not be merely bookworms I direct that in the election of a scholarship regard shall be had to (i) his literary and scholastic attainments (ii) his fondness of and success in manly outdoor sports such as cricket football and the like (iii) his qualities of manhood truth courage devotion to duty sympathy for and protection of the weak kindliness unselfishness and fellowship and (iv) his exhibition during school days of moral force of character and of instincts to lead and to take an interest in his school-mates for those latter attributes will be likely in afterlife to guide him to esteem the performance of public duties as his highest aim.

For the forever nitpicking, forever aggrieved ones, don’t fret, for here is what you were expecting🙂

The words ‘manhood’ and ‘manly’ were removed when the law was changed to throw open the scholarships to both sexes.

Actually, I would interested in reading their parents’ profiles as well. Seriously, nothing sarcastic about it. I think parents have a big role to play here because this scholarship is not just about being brilliant or even a genius – its about doing lots of very different things and doing them well. I would think it is a totally different kind of achievement and wager that its also a rather poor predictor of Nobel Laureates (the hard sciences), Field Medalists (‘The Math Nobel’) and Turing Award winners (‘ The Computer Science Nobel’).

Assorted links November 20, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in blogging, economics, life, technology.
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Okay, so if you could read say 15 blogs, which should you read to be most up to date ? (No ! not this one😀 )

Being among the first to pick up on Internet news and gossip and rapidly detecting contamination anywhere in a water supply system are similar problems, at least from a computer scientist’s point of view. Both can be solved with a versatile algorithm developed by Carnegie Mellon University researchers.

Check the website for more details and their list here.


Questions that people ask economists these days. The answers they get are more impressive (to me) than they get from other Agony-aunt columnists. Except I don’t know Gloria finds them as impressive or useful.

More in the same series is Tyler’s incredible exposition of ideas on when to utter the “I love you” phrase. I hope this inspires a new round of Ballywood dialogs and lyrics.


Tyler Cowen’s “The cost of the Iraq war.” For which as Cowen says “….I’ve received more email about it than any other article I wrote this year and the paper edition isn’t even out yet.”

Zen and the art of bicycle maintenance November 18, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, life, reminisces-1990s.

For the last 2 weeks my bicycle tires deflated on their own (volition??) and that made for depressing days😦 . The front tire would deflate in about 18 hours and the back in 3-4 hours. The simple solution would be to just replace the tubes for a not-at-all princely sum of $16 for 2 tubes. Or else you can buy yourself a patch kit – a little box with glue, patches and sandpaper and then patch the tube by yourself. What did I do ? Surprisingly this time I turned to the latter option.

And there is a reason I choose the word ‘surprisingly’. Over the years things have turned out such that given a choice between working with my hands versus the mind, would prefer the latter (exception being my love of cooking (an earlier konfession). It was not always like this – my free time as a young teenager was spent in the garden digging pits, watering plants, climbing coconut trees, painting something (not art, maybe furniture, walls etc.) or cleaning something else.

This was until about 1996. Starting class XI (1997) though I got busy with books and learning – of all kinds , including of course academic. Most of my vacations were spent doing something to further career interests and general curiosity. If they weren’t spent on the IISc campus, they were spent in the MIT (Manipal) library catching up with (what were then) obscure periodicals like the HBR, IEEE Spectrum , Potentials etc. If one of those (vacations) was indeed spent partly at my native place, it was spent either online or at an old public library (where I first laid my hands on this disgusting book).

The long term optimization was heavily geared towards saving time, being efficient and quickly washing my hands off anything that uuh… required washing hands ! Lazy weekend meant lazily lying on the bed with the laptop. Anything physical that is broken would lay broken until it became life threatening and anything digital/virtual that were broken would be fixed as if it were (life threatening) when it almost never was. Reality became little more than a really really good simulation and the comfort of algorithmic certainty was too much to let go of in favor of something more nuanced that life’s realities tend to be.

Today 10 years after that phase of life began and after completing what might turn out to be all of my formal education, life seems to have come a full circle ellipsoid ! There is an incredible urge to open up those old cupboards of life-skills, hone them just a little bit and get my hands dirty.

So I sat down on the kitchen floor and before me was the ‘ungainly’ sight of my cycle on the floor (not this bad !), the tubes ripped out of the tire as if it were an accident spot. With some effort that involved dipping the tubes in water to see where the leak is, finding it, gluing in a patch, rediscovering practical physics 101 on the way and then putting it all back, blowing air into the tubes and leaving my cycle overnight (to recuperate (!)) to make sure its all okay. And it was !!

When drunk poets wrote about experiencing the joy of little things in life, it wasn’t the alcohol.🙂

To live for November 18, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in music.
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This piece.

To play this one day. Blindfolded.

Why do people stop blogging ? November 17, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in blogging, contemplation.

Update appended at the end of article

Who is the most famous blogger you know who stopped blogging ? Or lets say who among frequent bloggers do you know of that stopped blogging ? Why ? Why do people stop blogging ? And I am not talking about bloggers who blogged infrequently and indifferently in the first place, not those who have one ‘bad day at work’ and none to come home rant about it. My question is about regular bloggers who seemed like they will go on and on. Maybe the phenomenon of blogging has not seen cycles and recessions (!!), so its hard to find bloggers who cease to blog. I don’t know.

I am trying to understand the place and role of blogging in a blogger’s life. Its not like tennis players who stop playing – surely you can play only that long. But blogging does not require physical activity. Its not even about say violinists – playing a music instrument is special skill and very few do that in the first place and few give up. Its not even a full-time job for most that you retire from one day.

I think blogging is somewhere in between – it requires some skill, but once that is out of the way and once you have a dedicated (even if small) readership, what you need to keep blogging is time and sense of lack of indifference about the world around you. Or Ben puts it :

When someone maintains a blog, it usually means their mind is cranking so quickly that they need one more outlet through which to channel that energy and express their thoughts. It usually means they’re engaged with the world and what’s happening. It usually means they like to write and believe in the idea-generation that comes from writing well. Yes, it probably means they’re a little self-involved and self-important, but I prefer that to someone who lacks self-confidence. In other words, I like people who have a “posture” in the world.

What other real world activity does blogging compare to ? Reading ? Probably, but if you get busy for a couple of months and stop reading, you can still get back to it. With blogging it might be harder.

Is blogging like friendship in some ways ? Lots of friendships are disrupted just because you were too busy to call/meet for a few months and then you don’t know where to start. They are also disrupted when you get married, have children and suddenly have limited time. In general, for any number of reasons and events in life that suddenly demand a diversion of commitment of time and energy friendships may be disrupted. And blogging too.

And several years after you have stopped blogging you may come back to read your blog and think about the times you wrote those posts, how aroused you were about the world around you, how naive and self-important your thoughts were and how there seemed to be no end in sight. Just like old friendships.

Why do people stop blogging ?🙂

Update: Another reason to wonder why people stop blogging. (NSFW)

War and South India November 17, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in history, india.
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Another excellent article by Rama Guha :

Malavalli has been untouched by war for the past 200 years; so, in fact, has the whole of South India. This fact needs to be more carefully pondered by professional historians as well as by ordinary citizens. For, of which other part of India, or indeed of the world, could one say that two centuries have passed since the cannons boomed and the tanks roared? In this respect we South Indians have been very fortunate indeed.

This is not a novel thought certainly – maybe Guha himself must have said it before. I remember reading something along these lines a few years ago in one of Naipaul’s essays. Naipaul’s writings of India don’t have too great a reputation, but could someone have got everything wrong ?🙂 (especially if Naipaul and Guha agree on something🙂 ).

I wanted to mention this while the North-South debate came up briefly – that the north has repeatedly borne the brunt of violence in the Indian sub-continent , especially external aggressions. But the relative disorder, the relatively large impoverished masses, the caste complexities, the relatively eroded human capital over decades – this is the price that part of India has had top pay. Not altruism but in self-defence one might argue, but I think this has been some sort of a positive externality for the South. This is not of course to defend any racial discrimination either way, but an acknowledgment that there are a few fundamental differences between South and parts of the North. Not all of these differences matter all the time, but some of them matter some of the time.

Whats there in Bangalore November 17, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in culture, india.
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As MINT launches in Bangalore, it appears they have timed it well to have a special feature on “Why we love Bangalore” (other than that it makes business sense😀 ). That page there, with famous Bangaloreans singing paeans of Bangalore City.

All that is fine until someone asks you “what is there in Bangalore to see ?” Or to make it sound even worse, what is there in Bangalore for someone who has seen every other Indian city ? Maybe its an unfair question – for a city is more than its monuments, museums and galleries. Yet it only means that Bangalore does not have something to offer to everybody.

I would take someone to the IISc campus – it comes with an attached botanical garden, a bookstore, a coffee shop for some obesity inducing vada sambhar where if you are lucky, you may occasionally catch an eccentric researcher talking to his tea cup. (And if you are not so lucky, a tree may fall on you as you take in the samosa at teaboard.) But then not all friends would appreciate this (would any??) – so maybe it will be Vidhan Souda and Lal Bagh.

City notes and Ben’s blog November 15, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in America, blogging, culture, people.

Cities have personalities sure. Here is about Los Angeles. Here about San Francisco (10 reasons why someone hates it !)

I spent barely a few hours there ( LA ) and I did not really take to the place too well – it was like one big warehouse/shop floor. Or maybe I saw all the wrong places. Now I think I just want to go there once, check out the landmarks and be done with it !

On a related note, you kind of get tired of people talking of how the city they grew up was unique and the best place ever. Yes, the best it was, for them. Rest could not care less. Topics to avoid in conversation arguments with Mumbaikars – Mumbai, Madras-ites – Madras, so on and so forth.

I linked to the articles above from Ben Casnocha’s blog. Ben is “an entrepreneur, writer, and college student currently based in Los Angeles county. I’m 19 years old.” Do sample from his list of what he thinks are his best writings. Incredible range and depth for someone that young.

CMU roundup November 15, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in CMU.
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CMU awards an honorary doctorate to President Kalam.

CMU Tartan racing team wins the DARPA Urban Challenge !! Read more about the challenge here. Believe me, this is not what you think – cheering just another some college sports team.

In much older news, watch this short video of the Robocup.

If you could not catch the longer version of Prof. Randy Pausch’s lecture here, then maybe a shorter one when Randy appeared on Oprah’s show. You really must, please do.


Economics everywhere. More than. November 15, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in economics, humor, image.
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Greg Mankiw points to this really cool advertisement.


I am feeling really wicked today. Therefore, in the interest of promoting humor via economics and of not being economical in promoting humor, here is what I did to the image.

Original link for the image.

Links assorted November 14, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in assorted.

Blogger loses another blogger. This time it is Vishnu who went left Blogger to hang out on wordpress. Last time it was therandomizer. And prior to that was myself, I moved in February 2007. Somewhere in between DK gave up.

Except, one of the drawbacks of wordpress vis-a-vis blogger (for potential immigrants (into WordPress I mean🙂 )..anyone going the other way ?? )  is that you can’t customize the layout if you have the free account.

By the way, you really must read Vishnu‘s sentiments on Diwali away from home.

Aloofness and freedom from all the complexities of these relations or struggle to be with like minded people? Or to reform myself drastically to be in sync with people around me? As I toyed with all these ideas the mexican waiter of the Indian Restaurant came over and handed me the bill. I wished the the elderly Indian employee of the restaurant (who appeared to me to be of my father’s age) , who showed me to my table was in his place so that I could atleast wish him Happy Ganesh Chaturdhi. I waited two more minutes to see if he would come by, but the mexican still persisted “Is there anything I can do for your sir?” I had to mumble a thanks and wish him a good evening and return back all alone…


Cars (that) Harvard academicians drive. I would interested to see a comparative evaluation (why : for the heck of it🙂 ) with cars driven by UC Berkeley and UChicago professors. It is obviously going to be hard to control other factors – weather, distance from suburbs, quality of public transport etc.

As an aside, as one might expect closing the comments section on his blog allows Mankiw Chacha slightly more leeway in choice of posts and tenor. This is an unusual Mankiw post.


Times of India was always injurious to intelligent beings or at least being in intelligent information seeking modes. Now they are also proven injurious to your computer.

Visitors to the IndiaTimes website are being bombarded by malware, some of which appear to target previously unknown vulnerabilities in Windows, a security researcher warns.

In all, the English-language Indian news site is directly or indirectly serving up at least 434 malicious files, many of which are not detected by antivirus software, according to Mary Landesman, a senior security researcher at ScanSafe. She said at least 18 different IP addresses are involved in the attack.

Visitors can be infected even if they have up-to-date systems and they don’t fall victim to tricks to install software or browser add-ons, she said. She urged people to avoid the site until it’s been cleaned up.

Join my Orkut TOI sucks community !


Read this post for the Game theoritic reasoning with respect to assassination. More specifically, why “Kasparaov should die”.

“Life’s like that” November 12, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in weird.
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On a backside of some body lotion in a friend’s bathroom :

Directions : Apply all over the body.

When curiosity baffles. No idea what these products actually do.

Marriage Research November 11, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, life.

Tyler links to Divya Mathur’s research on arranged marriages in India.

 …when parents are involved in mate choice, sons are significantly less likely to marry college-educated women and women engaged in the labor force, after controlling for individual and family characteristics. I show that these effects are driven, at least in part, by parental preferences and cannot entirely be attributed to correlation between arranged marriages and unobserved characteristics.

Comments section of the above post is worth a read as well.

Why do parents have a say in any of this ? They should probably have a say if :

a) You are too young to know enough – but if you are old enough to marry, you are old enough to know whom to marry.

b) You want them to have a say (for whatever reasons)

c) The prospective spouses’ parents want your parents to approve of the alliance. Dubious at best, but believe me it happens. In-laws who demonstrate such preferences are unlikely to stop at that.

How can be make the already most complicated matching problem even more so but adding variables like the above ? I can’t think like a parent of a 20 something year old. (actually I can’t think like a parent at all). Its interesting if there is a website (like the PostSecret blog) where parents anonymously what actually prompted them to choose a particular bride/groom for their child and of course, the “just married” ones anonymously post about why they actually rejected all the proposals that came in and finally accepted the one they did. 

My own nonsensical wishes apart, a systematic study of the topic was long overdue – even more creditable if that thesis is coming out of a prominent economics department and is being supervised by the likes of Gary Becker and Emily Oster.

Tricky bets November 10, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in CMU, ideas.

Somebody stole my idea again😀 .

In fact, some of his Yale colleagues are in the final stages of launching a business based on this very concept. They have started a company called stickK.com that will allow people to take out a contract on themselves. They pick a price. If they don’t lose a certain amount of weight, they lose the money, either to a charity, friends or family.

The ‘friends’, in my case is my CMU colleague Sanjika. I have a bet with him that if I don’t return to my pre-Jan 2006 levels by XX, I pay for his March 2008 trip to California (from Pittsburgh). The XX is something I choose really – I can say December so that tickets for March 08 will be cheap, but that gives me less time to lose weight. Or of course I can wait up to February before ‘giving up’ – that gives me more time to lose weight, but if I don’t, I pay a far more steep price on the airfare. And of course, if I do make it to my pre-Jan 2006 levels, Sanjika doesn’t give me nothing – after all I am already getting a healthier body !!
So the problem is not just of becoming healthier, but even deciding if and when I arrive at a point where I don’t think I can make it. I like problems like this – its so much like you deciding to get from place A to B the fastest. You see a shuttle bus arriving, but you know that there is a faster bus coming ‘sometime’ in the next 15 minutes. Its a 10 minute journey. Should you wait for the next bus or take this one ? We faced this every now and then waiting to get to school back in 1991-92. An a few years ago going from from Mangalore to Suratkal.

Actually, I hate problems like that🙂

Numbers in my life – Top 10 tags here and there edition November 8, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in blogging, numbers-in-my-life.
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Another inconsequential, yet curiosity-quenching set of numbers to throw around.🙂

Here are the top 10 tags for the posts on this blog

1. india
2. humor
3. America
4. life
5. economics
6. contemplation
7. rant
8. science
9. ideas
10. politics

Top 10 tags for my delicious bookmarks.

1. economics
2. india
3. politics
4. education
5. science
6. technology
7. history
8. psychology
9. culture
10. america

A measure, in some sense, of the difference between what I read and what I write. Or what I do and what I preach😀

And sorry DK for inflicting on you the tyranny of these numbers.

Previous tyrannies and inflictions.

Light November 4, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in blogging.
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….(as in not heavy, not “not dark”)

Eeeks, 10 posts in the past 4 days, I will let you catch up😀 .

Rest of the week is going to be light.

Can blogs be objective vis-a-vis MSM ? November 4, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in blogging, media, politics.
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Consider 2 bloggers X of left political persuasion and Y is from the right. For now lets focus not on social positions but on economic/trade related.

X regularly links to article such these from Paul Krugman :

Mr. Giuliani got his numbers from a recent article in City Journal, a publication of the conservative Manhattan Institute. The author gave no source for his numbers on five-year survival rates — the probability that someone diagnosed with prostate cancer would still be alive five years after the diagnosis. And they’re just wrong.

Y links to article B such as this from Greg Mankiw :

Our health care system is not perfect, but it has been a major source of advances in our standard of living, and it will be a large share of the economy we bequeath to our children. As we look at reform plans, we should be careful not to be fooled by statistics into thinking that the problems we face are worse than they really are.

For someone who is not really bothered with America’s healthcare problems, the summary is that Krugman thinks America’s healthcare is more screwed up than reported and Y thinks its less so.

Now both X and Y are not quantitative social scientists, to use a term broader than just ‘economists’ and as such are unable to independently and competently critique articles A and B, but they link to respective articles anyway.What do you do when you encounter Krugman’s article in X’s blog or Mankiw’s article in Y’s blog ?

In most cases, I just ignore it.

As a blogger, our defense would be that with other full-time jobs, family, community activities and errands to run, one seldom has time to come up with competent critiques of foreign subjects, so just outsource your thinking and put your faith in your favorite commentator – Krugman, Mankiw or Cowen, as the case may be. But even readers too have “full-time jobs, family, community activities and errands to run” and we don’t want to be saddled with the blogger’s long held positions and biases. Fair enough, ain’t it.🙂

As a blogger I have no solution for this problem (other than to link to such stuff less frequently) and as a reader, I can afford to live with it I guess. But yeah, increasingly what kind of a blogger you are becomes more important than what you have to say on some issues – because your stand is predictable and credibility is at risk, even if your honesty/good intents are not in doubt.

Now note that both the articles I linked to appeared in the NYTimes within days of each other. So, mainstream media can at least make pretenses to objectivity (or some diversity in coverrage), but blogs with political content that are run by individuals or very small groups seldom should.

P.S: Closely related to “Political Philosophy as a consumer good.”

P.P.S : Just so I make it clear that I am not on some high horse, I am absolutely aware that the above discussion applies to this blog as well. If we meet up over coffee and you tell me that you ignore any content with an ideological hue when you read this blog, I will….I will just order another coffee.🙂

“What do you believe is true though you cannot prove it ?” November 4, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation.
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There is this really cool website called Edge.org. One of the many things they do is to ask over 100 odd experts and public thinkers from several fields one question each year and have their answers put up online. You can catch the series of questions here and clicking on each of those the answers as well.

One of the questions asked (2005) was “What do you believe is true though you cannot prove it ?”. Of course, my answers won’t really deserve to show up there anyway, but hey, I will answer anyway !

I think social networks are overrated.

I have lot of respect for and faith in the ability of experts to explain the past. Seldom in their ability to predict the future in matters such as these. We just don’t know.

What else explains things like sub-prime lending crisis – entirely man-made, partly wall-street made and they have some of the smartest brains, right ! What about the tech boom/bust at the turn of the century –  all those entrepreneurs and venture capitalists hailed as superstars ?

Go back to read some of the magazine articles from 1999/2000 and am sure most of the guys making predictions were around then as well and often it looks like mistakes have not been lessons. Or maybe its whole new set of people doing the same mistakes. Today we make fun of how people (that often includes ourselves) evaluated companies from their market capitalization even if that number was 100 times the actual revenue. Now with facebook at $250 M in revenue and $15 B in evaluation (thats 60 times), its interesting to see where this goes. And each time you hear the same thing – “This time its different because blah…blah..blah.”.

A relevant link from Abi : A video

P.S: Somebody else concurs too.

That must-ache November 3, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in humor, reminisces-1990s.
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From this weird website.

November (the month formally known as November) is a moustache growing charity event held during November each year. At the start of Movember guys register with a clean shaven face. The Movember participants known as Mo Bros then have the remainder of the month to grow and groom their moustache and along the way raise as much money and awareness about male health issues, in particular prostate cancer as possible. Movember culminates at the end of the month at the gala partés.

Should I take the bait ? After all, I recently told a friend that I don’t know anyone in the world who will look better with a mustache (women included). To get some insight, I looked up as usual this entry from my favorite encyclopedia.

Mustache is a contraction of must and ache; something that most probably hurts. This may be a reference to how a bad mustache hurts the eyes, or how much it may hurt to kiss someone with an uwieldy [sic] mustache, or how much it hurts to get stuff stick in one. The similarity in pronunciation to mistake is no coincidence: many mustaches result from mistakes. In fact, even if someone intentionally wears a mustache it is often considered a mistake.

I have not had a mush for a while. The last time I did was out of sheer paranoia. For an exam to be held in May 2000, I sent in a picture (for the hallticket) shown in Sep 1998. My looks had changed so much in the interim (mostly because I had no mush since mid 1999), that just a month before the exam I began to grow a mush to match my looks of the year before yester-year. I was successful – not in clearning the exam itself but in getting entry to the exam hall without any problems. This rates among the most paranoid I have been knowing that I was being paranoid.

Actually they must have had some evolutionary reasons to hang around so long. I just don’t know. As for my friend, she thought for a while and said -“No, what about Mammoty”. Okay, I leave that to a counterfactual historian.

(HT: Amit Verma.)

Reading Vs. Commenting November 3, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in blogging, contemplation.

Bloggers get feedback from readers – through page views/unique visitors the blogger gets an idea whether it is mattering that she/he is blogging at all, assuming of course that a blogger gainly some satisfaction/utility from being read (a fair assumption).

What about comments ?While comments reinforce this point every now and then, they are an incomplete and a not-so-comprehensive indicator of a blog’s popularity. Here are some possible reasons in the increasing order of political incorrectness.

  • Comments require more effort and thought and are rather time-consuming – if people read blogs at work as a 5 minute diversion, they are unlikely to comment.
  • There are other biases where some people comment only when they agree with your view and others only when they don’t. So there is an effect of the kind of readership you have rather than the absolute number.
  • Some are hesitant to comment – much like public speaking fright, commenting online is not something everybody is willing to jump at.
  • It might also be culture dependent. I was surprised to see that when a really popular Indian blogger opened up some of the posts for comments, there were far fewer than one might predict from the blog’s popularity. This may partly be due to the fact that different countries are at a different stage of adoption of blogging as a technology and a medium of influence.
  • Not everyone is efficient and competent at putting their thoughts in writing – somehow they haven’t practiced writing for any other purpose other than when it was the only way out ! ( Note : this is different from not having a enormous vocabulary which is neither a necessary nor sufficient pre-requisite for writing well. Note also that this is different from not willing to comment as in point 3.)

In summary, while the absence of comments is not necessarily a bad thing, the presence is certainly good news for the blogger. (Not for everyone though)

Its kind of going to be tricky to request those readers who don’t comment to now comment to indicate whether there are reasons I have left out.😀

sort -n +increasing_political_incorrectness foo.txt > bar.txt November 3, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, humor.
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Today ( or if I last, today onwards ), everything I ever write/speak/list will be sorted in the order of increasing political incorrectness.

I think its a win-win – if you are reading through a list I wrote, you know exactly when to stop. If we are talking face to face, I know exactly when to stop.

For those of you who prefer it the other way around, just let me know in advance – we can also do sort -n -r +increasing_political_incorrectness foo.txt > bar.txt .

Mini-FAQ :

1. WTF is your title about ?

Sort reference.

Delicious video November 3, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in videos.
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I use Delicious, the social bookmarking website. As you are probably aware, the “Just been reading” section on this blog is infact directly linked from my delicious bookmarks.

My dad does too ! I did not use this video (“how to explain delicious to your parents”) but I agree it can be useful. (although I prefer if the narrator was not in that much of a hurry to get somewhere )

Like people you know (or are related to) independently in more than one way, so is Delicious to me – founded by a CMU grad and acquired by Yahoo! a few years ago.

Bookmarking on some centrally accessible location is indispensable really – I don’t remember the last time I said – “I saved it on my home computer. I will send you the link when I go home.”

Are you a better writer or a better ‘type-writer’ ? November 2, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation.

I was trying to write something today – write, not type and not fill a form which is a more structured activity, but write something as unstructured and impromptu as writing a letter. I realized how awful it had gotten over the years given that there has been little writing activity. Hardly taking notes during college and grad school, you lose that art of writing anything at all, without mistakes, misspelling, poor construction. Infact, don’t be surprised if this also takes a toll on your ability to ace exams where you have to write long answers ;  it sure did to me, or so I am given to think.  ( a good enough reason to take notes in class).

I don’t know at when in the last years I must have crossed the point where I had typed more characters than I ever wrote (I used to keep count, you know😉 ). To be sure, its impossible to know if it ever did, but I imagine it must have. Also interesting – and I am sure this happened – is the point in life where your fastest typing speed just exceeded your best writing speed (for a given number of mistakes).

I still feel that I am a better writer with the keyboard than I ever was writing on paper. Its not just the obvious advantage of the backspace key but the ability to move entire sentences around which I often tend to do overdo. And once you move sentences around, you tend to (often justifiably) modify sentences themselves and this can often mean moving around sentences again😀 . But then one might argue that one sentence very well thought that went out on paper is better than several iterations of a sentence where the most frequently occurring ‘letter’ is the backspace.

Its hard to measure any of this however, even assuming you come up with a measure of what good writing really is. This is because there is an inherent bias in that most of my writing on paper was done a few years ago and arguably one might have improved writing skills over time by just having hung in there and written more. Ideally then you would need snapshots from around the same point in life where you wrote quite a bit and typed in as well. Fortunately for me, the time around 1997-2000 would qualify for such a study, except having to do any automatic analysis of paper-written material is rather cumbersome and time-consuming. And the nature of content is such that there is little scope to outsource the typing work.

Sorry about that silly, ungrammatical title – the best I could come up with. Maybe if I were writing this post, I would have come up with something ….well, whatever !

In the gulf November 2, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in geo-politics, rant.

Joy links to this article from the Times, a case of a French teenage boy raped by some natives and now the case getting complicated and in the process exposing (yet again !) the UAE authorities. The article has other gems such as “United Arab Emirates law does not recognize rape of males, only a crime called “forced homosexuality.”. The boy’s mother has started this website called – boycottdubai – where she says :

To all the Pakistani, Filipino, and Indian mothers who were expelled from Dubai to their countries of origin with their little children, wounded in their hearts, flesh and minds. This web site is open to all the mothers of the world united in the same Combat.

You know, there is such a thing called “resource curse” – and nowhere in the world is this more evident than the hell hole called ‘middle-east’ ( at least much of it !)

In many “ordinary” societies that are not resource-dependent, governments tax citizens, who demand efficient and responsive government in return. This bargain establishes a political relationship between rulers and subjects. In countries whose economies are dominated by natural resources, however, rulers don’t need to tax their citizens because they have a guaranteed source of income from natural resources. So this relationship between rulers and subjects breaks down. More insidiously, those benefiting from mineral resource wealth may perceive an effective and watchful civil service and civil society as a threat to the benefits that they enjoy, and they may take steps to thwart them. As a result, citizens are often poorly served by their rulers, and if the citizens complain, money from the natural resources enables governments to pay for armed forces to keep the citizens in check. Countries whose economies are dominated by resource extraction industries tend to be more repressive, corrupt and badly-managed.

Am sure there are many amongst us who will rise to defend things that happen there – judicial/legal systems, treatment of expatriates, other religious denominations and simply basic human rights. These are usually (and rightly) the favorite causes of the left and is it not then ironic that its the Indian left (or even the left in general – smart and mostly well intentioned – individuals not including politicians) that finds common cause with the rogues out there (while their children study in the Harvards and Oxbridges of the world). (my previous post explains this).

I actually feel bad for the many millions of Indians – mostly from Kerala/Karnataka – who have to go there to work because they are unable to find sufficiently remunerative options in India and who would otherwise not consider that an option. From an earlier NYTimes article

Plagued by chronic unemployment, more Keralites than ever work abroad, often at sun-scorched jobs in the Persian Gulf that pay about $1 an hour and keep them from their families for years. The cash flowing home now helps support nearly one Kerala resident in three. That has some local scholars rewriting the Kerala story: far from escaping capitalism, they say, this celebrated corner of the developing world is painfully dependent on it.

“Remittances from global capitalism are carrying the whole Kerala economy,” said S. Irudaya Rajan, a demographer at the Center for Development Studies, a local research group. “There would have been starvation deaths in Kerala if there had been no migration. The Kerala model is good to read about but not practically applicable to any part of the world, including Kerala.”

Actually but for the global economy powered by fossil fuels, most countries would rather let them just be – have an economic embargo and sit put ! (Tom Friedman gets it right once a while.). Geographical isolation (in place of Australia perhaps) would be an added bonus.

If this post was too much to take, you can perhaps stay on the topic but read something with a much lighter tone.

Political philosophy as a consumer good November 1, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in ideas, intellectual.
1 comment so far

Megan Mcardle hits the proverbial nail on the not so proverbial head when she says :

For most people, a lot of their beliefs are consumption goods. The irrational clustering of political beliefs–there is no logical reason that one’s views on abortion should be so tightly correlated with one’s view on business regulation or nationalized health care–indicate that there is a very strong social component to the formation of allegedly principled beliefs. The anger with which opposing views are met, and the in-group/out-group social dynamic of most political debate, suggest that for most of us, fitting in with our friends and feeling good about ourselves are at least as strong a component of belief formation as careful reasoning from first principles.

Think about it – once you figure out your position (lets ignore for now where that came from) on some of those key issues that you are really really passionate about, every position on every other issue just falls in place. It pretty much mirrors the view of that big group you identify with or that which opposes the view of the group you loathe for having divergent views on your core concerns.

What else explains the fundamental connection between being skeptical about global warming  and opposition to gun control – both of which issues dear to the conservative right. Or for that matter, the connect between the support of Darwinian theory and opposition to spontaneous order in other spheres such as that of economic activity ?

Sum Fun November 1, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in humor, image.
1 comment so far

Funniest organization : PETSA – People for Ethical Treatment of Stuffed Animals😀

PETSA focuses its attention on the four areas in which the largest numbers of stuffed animals suffer more: in damp and/or moldy closets and attics, in over-lighted collectors’ cases, in the hands of sadistic stuffed-toy bullies, and as dress-up guests at little girls’ tea parties. In addition, we work on various other issues, including the cruel use of washing machines not set on gentle cycle and the abuse inflicted on stuffed animals by backyard dogs.

Here is an example of things that will probably freak out PETSAians.

Disclaimer : I am a vegetarian (to the extent that egg is a vegetable), though that does not mean I eat stuffed plants (or stuffed eggs for that matter)


This site rocks man !! Absolutely for geeks. And here is for cat lovers. And here is for geeky cat lovers.

In the “Directory of Top Blogs in India” ….Eh ! October 31, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in blogging.

I have no idea how this list was compiled but just noticed that some of the traffic to this blog of late has been coming in from here. The list calls itself – “Directory of Top Blogs in India and Most Widely Read Indian Bloggers (Last Updated: October 29, 2007)”.

You see me right at the bottom of the page under “General (a bit of everything)” ( they got that just right🙂 ).

I have no idea about the methodology that informed the list – it could well have been a combination of a lazy man at one end and a lucky one at another ! I am really curious though as to along which weirdly obscure dimension the data must have been sliced for this to happen.

Yet I will take it as a recognition that gives me “bragging rights” and “thanking privileges”. Thanks all for showing up day after day and commenting every now and then.

P.S : Thats actually a good collection – especially given that they have them all meaningfully categorized.

Third party liability October 28, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in ideas, policy.
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The question of – “Should Hosts Be Liable for Serving Liquor to Guests Who Cause Accidents While Driving under the Influence? –And Other Issues of Third-Party Liability.”

Listen to Gary Becker.

I am dubious about this approach because of the difficulty of effectively enforcing such third-party liability. Only a small fraction of patrons of most bars both drink heavily and then drive afterwards. Waiters and other bar employees would have to keep track not only of how many drinks patrons have had, but also of how drunk they are, and whether they would be driving afterwards. I do not see how many bars could ever hope to have accurate information about all three stages involved in producing drunk drivers, especially whether patrons would be driving afterwards, particularly when they do not know their patrons well.

To be sure, if they were liable, bars might have rules that no patron may have more than I or 2 drinks, which would be the limit in most states before most drinkers would fail the usual sobriety tests. The problem with such a rule is that it does not focus on the behavior of patrons who are potential drunk drivers. It punishes patrons who want to drink more than that and have no intention of driving while under the influence. Moreover, such a rule is ineffective against patrons who go from bar to bar and only have one or two drinks at each one. It is also ineffective against patrons who drink at home first and then add a few drinks at a bar or restaurant. The same considerations apply if bars get insurance to cover these liabilities, and then raise the cost of drinking to everyone to cover the additional costs.

It could be claimed that while holding bars liable would not work perfectly, such third-party liability would cut down on the number of drunk drivers. It probably would, but would the effect be large, and how much costly and inefficient litigation would be stimulated against bars and others held liable who are not in any important way responsible for the drunk driving of persons who been at their establishments? Why not also hold friends liable who did not stop a drunk driver from drinking so much, or did not force him to take a taxi home? The ultimate question is whether the general and specific harms from imposing liability on bars to innocent patrons, friends, and others exceed the gain from cutting down drunk driving? I believe it does, especially because better approaches are available.

Actually, this extravagantly broad interpretation of “third party liability” in Europe/North America which condones suing the neighborhood fast food restaurant for becoming obese, is hard to understand.

Can the fast food restaurant then legitimately seek monetary rewards from its thin/lanky customers for having keep them that way ? We will then have a situation where restaurants will want to locate to areas with lot of healthy people and the healthy one running away from these places to avoid paying them. And of course, the unhealthy/obese folks running after restaurants so they can get legal settlements.🙂

Assorted links now October 28, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in assorted, culture, people.
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Here is Chandrahas Choudhury’s review of Shashi Tharoor’s latest book.

…. Shashi Tharoor’s The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cellphone, a ragbag of columns and op-eds in which gassy generalities, second-hand insights and witless witticisms are foisted upon the reader with breathtaking conviction. Tharoor’s unwise (but in some ways perfectly characteristic) decision to gather up his jottings only serves to render more clear his considerable shortcomings in the realm of both thought and expression.

And no, I am certainly not in a minority. From my post of May 27th, 07 where I drew up a little wish-list under the title “Wanted”.

The Shashi Tharoor column replaced by another that deals with, at least once every 2 columns, fresh ideas rather than those that have been beaten to death by other columnists or that which is public knowledge. I can hardly recall one time that his article made me think real hard  or think new thoughts.

There is him and there is Tom Friedman, some of the most over-rated writers of our generation.


Joy links to this very interesting article on “the extravagant overrepresentation of Jews, relative to their numbers, in the top ranks of the arts, sciences, law, medicine, finance, entrepreneurship, and the media.”

For example, only a handful of the scientists of the Middle Ages are mentioned in most histories of science, and none was a Jew. But when George Sarton put a high-powered lens to the Middle Ages in his monumental Introduction to the History of Science (1927-48), he found that 95 of the 626 known scientists working everywhere in the world from 1150 to 1300 were Jews—15 percent of the total, far out of proportion to the Jewish population.

To get a sense of the density of accomplishment these numbers represent, I will focus on 1870 onward, after legal emancipation had been achieved throughout Central and Western Europe. How does the actual number of significant figures compare to what would be expected given the Jewish proportion of the European and North American population? From 1870 to 1950, Jewish representation in literature was four times the number one would expect. In music, five times. In the visual arts, five times. In biology, eight times. In chemistry, six times. In physics, nine times. In mathematics, twelve times. In philosophy, fourteen times.

From my limited experience of watching Jewish families conduct themselves in restaurants and airports, I will not underestimate the role of the family structure/values that influence Jewish upbringing that eventually plays a huge role in what the author calls “Jewish genius.”

Same by reading books like these.


My mom’s blog October 26, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in blogging, landmark-post.

And it finally is done.

My mom has a blog – Cuisine India !

Its been an amazing effort on her part indeed. Its one thing to use a computer to just read email and quite another to do just about anything else. Using a word processor – both within XP and on WordPress, remembering to save documents, and remember where they were saved to retrieve them later, having that mental picture of your hard drive’s directory structure, using a digital camera, transferring images from the camera to the machine and then uploading the images onto photobucket and then linking to those pictures from the WordPress Editor. And thats just being brief. An incredibly steep learning curve has been scaled !

As she says on the blog :

I am just learning and new to the medium of blogging and to pace myself well, at least for the first few weeks, I will put up  one new recipe every Saturday and Wednesday. Any comment you leave, whether about the blog or about specific recipes will be an encouragement.

Feel free to stop by on the blog and say Hi maybe. And as a favor to me, send around this link. Either a link to this post so people know the context or even directly to the blog.

Remembering Newswagon October 24, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in KREC.

Back in KREC, I was a member of this newsletter/’rag-mag’ called Newswagon. Here is what I wrote about this in July 2003 when I built my first personal homepage.

At college I was a part of an organization called ‘Newswagon’ – a monthly newsletter. We would generally write things that go on in college or most often the other way around – make some things [happen] by writing about them….and put them up on the walls, trees and odd places. ! There were fifteen of us ( five from 2nd, 3rd and final year of Engineering ) representing about a total population of over 2000. One thing I really enjoyed was writing anything about anybody and getting away…but of course I learnt how to make and keep enemies. Everybody wants only nice things written about them…but nobody wants to read nice things written about others….come on yaar…how can we work then.

Here, from Abhinav (a former wagoner himself) is a slightly more specific (and hence less palatable) description, a description that although is accurate in parts, is very readable. It appears to me as being accurate in the depiction of the perception, of what we were thought to be. And often some of us became just that, if we weren’t already.

My favorite.

So he can have very, very high standards from himself-most of them quite ridiculous, considering his track-record.

A close second, very deep indeed.

And yes, because his ideals have not still been erased from his head completely, he is either fanatically moral or fanatically immoral, (sometimes at the same time).

In a typical Nwagoner fashion, must I respond with –

“Yeah, we were an imperfect bunch. We still are. Imperfect, not a bunch. Bunch, not imperfect.”

And by we, I mean :


Thats May 3, 2003.

Among the overlooked contributions of the Newswagon to the KREC Newswagon community was that it brought together a bunch of frighteningly like-minded people. In other words, telling me you are a Nwagoner tells me more about you than talking to your mom. (with the possible exception of knowing what you loved most on Thursday evenings for tiffin when you were 4 years old)

Just sit back and … October 23, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in movies.

Cultural determinism and Australian cricket October 23, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in sport.
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Hayden is now getting into trouble with his theories of cultural determinism governing success in Cricket.

“I think it’s one of the greatest misconceptions of this side ever, that it’s aggressive. I think what we are, it extends from our culture, is just having a great mateship and camaraderie within any kind of team,” Hayden said.

“You put any 12 blokes together and you’ll get a job done. Whether it’s getting a bogged four-wheel-drive off the beach or standing in front of a cricket wicket and making sure we’re in a dominant position. It’s the same dog, different leg action, so to speak,” he said.

Shaky ground (why not their neighbors across the ocean the New Zealanders) but it might be a contributing factor yet. (Anyone vouching for Australia’s dominance in other outdoor sports -hockey, rugby??). So he may have a point there after all. And hence the trouble he is inviting.

Oh, and the other thing he said about the Indian team:

“I think India is close on being my favourite side to beat. They’ve almost taken the number one seed off England in a lot of ways…

It’s a side that within it’s psyche has amazing highs and amazing lows. So it doesn’t take long to realise they’re at a low when you’re standing in front of 70,000 people at a stadium and you can hear a pin drop. It’s a great position to be in and you know you’ve got them beat.”

Truly, who does not enjoy the idea of being able to control a 70,000 crowd without opening your mouth – must be making the likes of Sonia Gandhi/Vajpayee jealous. At least Somnath Da, whose current stint as Lok Sabha speaker must qualify him for the “Sisyphusian award for parliamentary helplessness”.

Meanwhile, I trust that the great Indian free market will rise up to the occasion by meeting the rapidly growing demand for effigies of Mathew Hayden and Ricky Ponting. Also watch out for the price of matchboxes !

Random stuff now October 23, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in assorted, geo-politics, intellectual, science, statistics.
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Why very soon you will be seeing an influx of more and more Romanians into India. (Clue: Not Yana Gupta’s fortunes, Ba-llywood’s affair with east Europeans and all that)


Arnold Kling’s very quoteworthy (and hence unquotable – I don’t know what part to quote) article about Masonomics.


And Op-ed in the NYTimes about why Iraq might have to be broken to keep it united. This paragraph sums up the trilema of a united Iraq.

Iraq’s minimalist Constitution is a reflection of a country without a common identity. The Shiites believe their majority entitles them to rule, and a vast majority of them support religious parties that would define Iraq as a Shiite state. Iraq’s Sunni Arabs cannot accept their country being defined by a rival branch of Islam and ruled by parties they see as aligned with Iran. And the Kurdish vision of Iraq is of a country that does not include them.

Truly, for the countries that were supposedly carved out from the British Empire with a stick on beach sand as Winston Churchill was sunbathing one evening on a Southern beach, perilous future awaits.


On the emerging evidence for the effects of birth order.

Yeah, I know that environmental  factors matter and all that. I also know that just yesterday I promised not to link to empirical social science studies whose conclusions are either contradicted the next day or entirely discredited or are suspect because they are not reproducible independently. And know too that for most people which study one trusts depends so much on one’s prior belief about how things ought to be. And certainly bet that there is at least one person who has time to read the article.

The tyranny of Deepak Krishnan October 22, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in humor, KREC.
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Deepak finds a clever way to call me a tyrant. He first praises a book called “The tyranny of numbers” (whose title is self-explanatory) and then claims that I would disagree with him.

This book is a delight for a qualitative person like me who doesn’t like the way numbers are being abused. Collecting data, furiously searching for patterns in them, drawing conclusions from the data are exercises which I generally take up when there is no other option to put my word across.

I am more of someone who argues based on emotions, abstracts, gut feeling, sixth sense etc. It may sound out of place in this world, but data is what I do not like, give me date anytime over that!!!🙂

Mr.Quantitative, will surely disagree with me on this!! Check this, this, this and this.

Thats from someone who topped the department with arguably the most mathematical syllabus back in college.

Anyway, I am tempted to agree with him but given that I have already conceded 17 arguments to 5 different people today, conceding one more will be severely damaging to my self-esteem and lead to infinitesimal employment generation (one more counselor.)


Okay, make that 6 people on 18 counts, but as long as I maintain a healthy weekly average I should till be okay. 😀

Wallet, photocopy and “What I have lived for” October 22, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, KREC, reminisces-2000.

For a long time my book reading algorithm has been running as follows –

1. Get book

2. Read blurb, appreciation.

3. Read contents, foreward, preface and acknowledgements

4. Read chapter 1.

5. Put the book away.

6. Months later return to a random page on the book. Read until bored/distracted which easily happens

7. Back to step 5.

Along the same lines, sitting in the KREC library sometime in Dec 2000, I found the autobiography of Bertrand Russel. I opened the book to the preface. I remember being so impressed by it that I went up to the Library photocopy center known for those notorious delays, misplacing material and never having change for any amount over Rs. 10.

Yet I took it on. I kept a photocopy of that preface in my wallet for a while. In April 2002, a bunch of friends gifted me a new wallet (lets call it wallet A) as a token of appreciation for having moderated a group discussion their club conducted. This photocopy promptly found a place in that wallet.

Just before I boarded me first flight out of India on August 8th, 2004, my father gave me a new wallet (call it wallet B) in which I kept the dollars, cents and all that I needed for my journey and after. And among the few things that went from wallet A to B was this preface copy which after 4 years in several different wallets was beginning to look soiled. As I left India, I swapped wallet A for B. When I landed in Bombay for the first time on Dec 22nd, 2005, I just swapped my wallets again. It already had everything I needed and therefore, the only thing that jumped from one wallet to another was, yeah, this piece of paper now 5 years old. And the whole thing repeated when I left for Pittsburgh 3 weeks later.

3 years of wear and tear on wallet B and last month I bought a new wallet. As I started moving contents from wallet B to wallet C, I saw this piece of paper which by now was so soiled as to be almost unreadable. I decided that this paper is better left somewhere safer than exposed to the elements, wither away.

But just what was the preface all about and why did it mean so much. Read on.

What I have lived for

Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a great ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.

I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy – ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy. I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness–that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. I have sought it finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined. This is what I sought, and though it might seem too good for human life, this is what–at last–I have found.

With equal passion I have sought knowledge. I have wished to understand the hearts of men. I have wished to know why the stars shine. And I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux. A little of this, but not much, I have achieved.

Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate this evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.

This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.

In December 2000 when I first read this as that impressionistic, idealistic 19 year old, it was almost as if Russel was speaking to me. Although I have read it a few times in the intervening 7 years, as I read it now, I remember how I was so passionate about it, about showing it to a friend who was not as impressed, but unswayed, deciding I will have a copy nonetheless.

Today, although I have no disagreement with what the preface says, I feel more attached to that piece of paper than what it says. In other words, its an attachment and respect for my passion from another age than for the object of that passion. (Okay, I wont spent another sentence explaining this, I know you get it🙂 )

Linked from here.

Assorted links this instant October 21, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in assorted, humor, image, science.

This site is kinda like a dream come true. Why ?

LibraryThing is an online service to help people catalog their books easily. You can access your catalog from anywhere—even on your mobile phone. Because everyone catalogs together, LibraryThing also connects people with the same books, comes up with suggestions for what to read next, and so forth.

So maintain a list of books you have – if the collection gets too big you still can track it via searching and stuff. And then all that about connecting to people with similar book interests etc.


Reading articles like this I wonder what is the whole point of linking to scores to studies and wasting your time ( or as a corollary, some of you doing the same and wasting my time😀 )

We all make mistakes and, if you believe medical scholar John Ioannidis, scientists make more than their fair share. By his calculations, most published research findings are wrong.

Dr. Ioannidis is an epidemiologist who studies research methods at the University of Ioannina School of Medicine in Greece and Tufts University in Medford, Mass. In a series of influential analytical reports, he has documented how, in thousands of peer-reviewed research papers published every year, there may be so much less than meets the eye.

Unless of course, among the 90% incorrect findings is the one above.😉


And then this one – some really cool T-shirts. One of my favorites – here.


On whether Harry Potter as a phenomenon can/will be replicated. One view here and also connects to posts with differing views.

Regina and Pham October 21, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in ideas, life, people.
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Some time past week past my 26th birthday, I thought I will do something towards spending some of my money wisely (as I think I usually do) but now on random people out there that I don’t know and might never meet.

So one of the things I did was to become a lender at Kiva. This is what Kiva is about.

Kiva lets you connect with and loan money to unique small businesses in the developing world. By choosing a business on Kiva.org, you can “sponsor a business” and help the world’s working poor make great strides towards economic independence. Throughout the course of the loan (usually 6-12 months), you can receive email journal updates from the business you’ve sponsored. As loans are repaid, you get your loan money back.

So basically interest free loans to the needy, where the interest-free is from my point of view. The borrowers do pay interest, something which goes towards administrative/logistics/publicity costs. Read more about Kiva here. Watch this little video from Nicholas Kristof of the NYTimes.

The businesses I lent to – Regina from Honduras makes pastries and Pham from Vietnam is a poultry farmer. The factors I considered while lending included :

– Record of the agency that manages the operation and their interest rates (field partner as Kiva calls them – in Vietnam and in Honduras) – Low delinquency, low default, low interest rates.

– Married women

– 2 different kinds of business in different countries

– In Regina’s case, I was the third of the 10 donors who collectively raised her $250.00 in loans whereas in Pham’s case, I was the penultimate donor.

– To start with, I have lent $25 each to Regina and Pham.

If you are a US resident and willing to forego one dinner one time and save that $25, and don’t know what to do with that money, well, now you do !

P.S: And thanks to the coverage they have been having, they are also having problems that organizations of their kind generally don’t, but would not mind having. As they say on their website :

We were just featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show, NBC’s Today Show, and in President Clinton’s new book “Giving”! Our new service is experiencing record traffic, and we are working overtime to add new businesses from all over the world everyday. We hope you find an entrepreneur you’d like to support!

P.P.S: From my lenders’ homepage, you can see who I have lent to and who else has lent to the same people. I also did some nonpolemic-preaching-but-not-what-you-expect there about why I loan – catch that if you care.

Previous post on personal philanthropy.

The lady in Blue October 21, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in india, people.

A little about Blue in her own words :

Hi. I’m Blue. That’s not my real name, of course, but it’s what you can call me while we spend our time together. I’m going to India in August. To Hyderabad, in Andhra Pradesh. I’ve never been to India before. So… this is my plan: to spend the next eight months writing, linking, connecting, and sharing everything I learn. If you jump on board now, you can follow me through the entire trip.

While in India, blue kinda gets into redistributionist mode.🙂

In Bangalore I have finally met the “please let me take you to this emporium” auto drivers. They tell me that they will get books for their children, shirts for their backs, cans of petrol for their autos, if I will only take the time to stop into one or two stores.

All she has to do is to agree to get to some store, mouth a particular code name (kinda like the Ba-llywood movies)  so that the merchant can map that to auto driver using his hash table memory, and then she has to hang around there for a bit and leave ! And this auto driver gets paid for having ‘won’ a customer.

Now perhaps the merchant thinks that though blue has not made any purchases, she may show up the next time she really needs to. But if there are so many blues, the merchant is going to come up with additional clauses to pay the auto driver, perhaps that the customer must actually buy something. If the auto driver is pissed off with the merchant A though, he is going to strike a deal with the his rival merchant B and is going to give some seriously bad publicity to merchant A.

So this whole thing is kinda complicated. Academically, textbook-ally speaking (while also putting on the hat of a (libertarian) political scientist), it would also have been morally reprehensible had there been an element of coercion which I don’t really see. Each of the parties – merchant, auto driver, blue – can at any time withdraw from the ‘transaction’. But hey cmon, she is just having some fun.

Whatever. Meanwhile Blue, enjoy the truly Incredible India.

Linked through Abi.

Subtle and not so subtle Po(i)ntings October 20, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in sport.

Maybe should take it back now.

Going by the record of the past one-day matches, India have won 2 out of the last 21 matches, making it a nearly 1 in 11. By purely inferring from past data, the scoreline for this series should be 6-0 for Australia.

Now that the score is 4-2, with one of the wins coming from chasing I am disappointed that our 9 year long record is broken.

Meanwhile, this article which I picked up from Proses Anonymitus‘s (PA) blog is a good read. Prem talks about sledging in the game n all that. And while doing that quotes interesting bits from Ponting.

Listen carefully to what he says in press conferences and interviews: “Sachin Tendulkar is the best I’ve ever seen, good on him for playing 400-odd games – still it’s a bit easier when you don’t have to field in half of them.”

Tendulkar had been off the ground for the entire fielding innings the game before. Ponting didn’t like that.

Now I see something else from Ponting here.

Dhoni’s counterpart, Ricky Ponting, felt his team did not get enough runs on the board. “We fell short by 15 runs. We gave away too many extras – 23 extras means four extra overs. We did it the other night also and we need to buck up,” he said. “Harabhan and Kartik bowled well. Gambhir batted well. We would like to play more matches against the new generation Indian players.”

Smartass is implying perhaps that some Indian heads must roll.🙂

Its kinda like the time when India got to South Africa for the one-day series without Ganguly and there were statements from the South African players/ex-players about how they can’t understand why Ganguly was dropped and that the Indians would certainly miss him. And as India lost match after match and Ganguly was brought back for the test, the South Africans appeared to have been vindicated though that was not their purpose anyway.


An expletive and a pun today October 19, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in humor, ideas, weird.

In the annals of the weirdest things anyone ever said about me is Proses Anonymitus (remember her/his article I linked to earlier):

Sharath Rao has a good blog where he ruminates on everything but sex – a typical goody goody educated [..expletive ] Indian student’s blog, if I can say without making him feel bad. Nevertheless, his perspectives on some aspects of the desi life are good. I blogged here on one of the issue that he picked up, for which he later responded. May he get a lot of girl friends who likes him.

[ Emphasis mine ]

I am reminded of a related fact. Back last July I wrote this post, the word “rafian” implying of course that I am a fan of Mohamed Rafi’s voice/songs. For nearly an year from that point on and sometimes even today, at least a handful of visitors would land up on my blog looking for that word. It does not take a genius to investigate why this was happening and given that my work and attention lies bang in the middle of this domain – search engines/information retrieval – only made this more natural. Try searching for the word on your favorite search engine.

This has understandably reduced in the past few months perhaps because the search results for that word on major search engines don’t have my page in the top 10 at least (effect of time). Just a little technical speculation for those who care – putting the word in the URL made it worse (for me). As for Proses’ complaint about not writing about sex, I guess I will have to wait until a nanopolitan-esue impulse strikes.😉 And on girl friends, the empiricist in me is smitten by a serious data sparsity issue.🙂

Apologies meanwhile to all the beach video surfers.

P.S : As I was searching for an appropriate link to post on data sparsity (insufficient data), this is what I found – what, to me is the coolest multiple pun of the decade.

Many of the cell combinations might not make sense or the data for them might be missing. In the relational world storage of such data is not a problem: we only keep whatever there is. If we want to keep closer to our multidimensional view of the world, we face a dilemma: either store empty space or create an index to keep track of the nonempty cells. Or – search for an alternative solution.

Biking to work risks October 18, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in general, numbers-in-my-life.
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There have been several studies of accidents involving bicyles especially now that commuting to work is on the rise as this post notes.

Bicycle commuting is on the rise, as evidenced by the following articles in Treehugger.com, the Boston Herald, and USA Today. But if the idea of hitting the road on two wheels — with little to protect you from cars and trucks but good manners — strikes you as pretty risky, you aren’t so far from the mark.

Freakonomics also raises a question I think it has raised before – if helmets protect cyclists at all.

I cycle to work as well, been doing that for about 2 weeks now. Of the 1 mile/10 minute one way distance, this is the approximate split.

10% – on a road with some bit of traffic

2% – on a road with some real busy traffic (no, not a highway anyway)

20% – on purely residential cul-de-sac kinda route safe enough to let 8 year olds play.

60% – Third-party corporate parking lot

rest – Yahoo! parking lot

Inspite of this weird journey composition, with about 100 metres in potentially danger area, I always try to remember carrying my helmet. Yet I forget about 1 out of 5 times and if I have to cycle back more than 10 seconds to pick it up, I don’t. I think that should change.

‘Wish-set’ (a singleton set for now) October 16, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in ideas.
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I wrote about the role of randomness in life. I wonder if there is a wordpress widget somewhere that I can add to this blog that will throw up a random set of X posts generated each time you refresh the page – obviously each reader sees a different combination (with some overlap expected given the randomness).

If that is out there somewhere, I will become greedy and make it more specific – Give me 10 random posts tagged with “India” posted in the year 2006.😉

Outsourcing comment moderation in blogs October 16, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in blogging, economics, ideas.

Okay, so Mankiw Chacha (my very Indian way of referring to one of my favorite bloggers) has decided that the comments on his blog will hence be disabled.

The growth in the comments section was fine with me, as long as the discussion remained civil. Mostly it was, and I learned a lot from the comments. But unfortunately, a few (usually anonymous) commenters too often crossed the line.

I just don’t have the time to police comments and enforce good behavior, especially since some posts were generating more than 100 comments. And I don’t want to host a party in which a small vitriolic minority consistently tries to ruin the event for everyone else. So I decided to turn the comments feature off.

That is sad. What of the following would his loyal readers prefer ?

– Make some donations so Mankiw Chacha can pay someone to moderate the comments section.

– Or raise money through advertising to do the same.

– Hire unpaid interns who can do the same for him in return for some of his time (which would be less than what he would himself have spent cleaning up the site) discussing economics ( “Ask me a question” types ) – but then how successful would be able to have them with manageable attrition rate ?

– Or someone else can host a website where he/she will link to (not reproduce) Mankiw’s post and ask readers to comment on that website instead. He will then choose to moderate if he so pleases. He may also try to monetize the traffic and perhaps agree to share the revenue with Mankiw lest he be sued. (I don’t know what the law says on this). Mankiw of course will probably not mind redirecting the proceeds to charity/school-fundraiser/microfinance organizations.

But then for years now newspapers and magazines have been successful without providing the comments section so to speak. (Yeah, friends and family members have suffered as a result, but thats a different thing). So maybe blogging can work too. But can it when most other popular blogs do have allow comments ?

In the meanwhile, what other solutions are possible that address Mr. Mankiw’s predicament ? Any other organic/market-driven (not to be confused with financially driven) solutions ? This year’s Nobel in Economics went to folks who studied ‘mechanism design’. I have no real idea what that means but Alex says

Mechanism design is a very general way of thinking about institutions. An institution or mechanism takes as input “messages” or “signals” from agents and it responds with an outcome. The idea of mechanism design is to create institutions that produce a desirable outcome while respecting the fact that agents have private information and are self-interested. It turns out that designing mechanisms that work well while respecting information and self-interest constraints is very difficult.

At the risk of over-simplification/being a jackass, I ask why lessons from ‘mechanism design’ or economics in general can’t help an economics professor come up with a mechanism to moderate comments on blogs ?😀

Politically incorrect algorithms/’wisdom’ of the crowds October 15, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in humor, image, politics, technology.
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Another kind of westernization that I bet you never knew about (unless you are from the pertinent profession ).

Looking forward to an impassioned Outlook article about Arundathi Roy’s agitation against ‘Epicanthoplasticians’/’Epicanthoplasti-narians’/’Epicanthoplasti-cists’.


Read disclaimer

The North-South divide October 15, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, india.

Vishnu has an honest personal account of the North-South divide.

If the southern states were not so hospitable, tolerant and unjudgemental of this so called dominance of North Indian intruders into their society incidents like the ones erupting in North-eastern states (of Biharis being abused by ULFA) would have erupted long ago in every IT-hub down south (Chennai, Hyderabad and Bangalore). And further such hubs are found and are prospering in southern part of INDIA more than northern part only because people have been more accommodative down south than in the north.

…although he concludes on a more cordial note.

I am happy speaking Hindi, English, Telugu as well as Kannada and this post pains me for being so harsh on Hindi speaking people, but I couldn’t help but convey the facts I observed.

I have personally had very good relations across this ‘divide’ ….and will have no similar experiences to recollect. Also 12 years of CBSE schooling and Hindi education therein for more years than even kannada has meant that my Hindi is more fluent than Kannada.😦 And of course, 2 years of stay in Assam never hurt !!

Ask Germans about Polish and the French about the English and these grouses seem only inevitable. And they do so because of our expectations from the country the size and diversity of India. I very well recognize that the artificial and freak emergence of such an improbabley diverse country as India has certain costs. But it has opportunities too.

I  know I am probably preachy here, but its exactly what I think.

P.S : Just a relevant observation – at every level of granularity, from family to extended family to community to state to country, when we are with people like our own, we seek to distinguish ourselves. And in the company of strangers, we seek out our own to blend with.

Abstractions and contexts October 15, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in science.
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I know analogies are a very bad way of buttressing one’s arguments. But as a reader who did not read the previous post (and the comments that followed) might realize, even if you don’t know the background, this extract soooo makes you think.

The robot is observing a person opening a glass jar. The person approaches the robot and places the jar on a table near the robot. The person rubs his hands together and then sets himself to removing the lid from the jar. He grasps the glass jar in one hand and the lid in the other and begins to unscrew the lid by turning it counter-clockwise. While he is opening the jar, he pauses to wipe his brow, and glances at the robot to see what it is doing. He then resumes opening the jar. The robot then attempts to imitate the action.

Although classical machine learning addresses some issues this situation raises, building a system that can learn from this type of interaction requires a focus on additional research questions. Which parts of the action to be imitated are important (such as turning the lid counter-clockwise), and which aren’t (such as wiping your brow)?

Once the action has been performed, how does the robot evaluate the performance? How can the robot abstract the knowledge gained from this experience and apply it to a similar situation? These questions require knowledge about not only the physical but also the social environment.

As a follow-up to my comment here.

This extract is linked to from this document. I read this in Steven Pinker’s Blank Slate where he quotes one of the authors of this paper, Rodney Brooks from the MIT AI lab.

Assorted observations today October 14, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in America, assorted, contemplation, rant.

Today was another sad day – I saw what appeared to be a 6/7/8 year old girl in a neck-to-toe burkha. Yeah, in California. I got into lyrical mood and went (to myself ofcourse)- “We need no indoctrination, we don’t need no clothe control…..hey ! parents leave the kids alone ! “


Public libraries in America – they are crowded. There is always someone, there are kids in the kids section, teenagers in the teen section. There are older people on the internet or the magazine section. There are moms helping kids with their storybooks and dads picking DVDs. The library employees anywhere are some of the most courteous, helpful and polite types among humankind. There are people trying to rush in just before the door closes for the day.

Makes one wonder what then is supposedly wrong with America’s education (just a sentiment, not an assessment🙂 ) ? And what was it like before the internet ? Before Amazon and Alibris ?


Joy wants to know what our Friday nights are like. Well, I guess almost all myo nights have for years now been like her Joy’s nights.🙂


Nobel Economics announcement today !!


Assorted Links today October 14, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in America, assorted, education, people, politics, videos.
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Most cheeky question yesterday on Mankiw Chacha’s blog :

Question to think about: If right-wingers are underrepresented in universities relative to the population and discriminated against by the left-wing majority, as Larry suggests, should there be affirmative action for right-leaning academics? It seems that, on principle, those on the left (who favor affirmative action to promote diversity and correct past injustice) should endorse such a university policy, and those on the right (who more often oppose affirmative action) would be against.

Weirdly, the comments section has been disabled for all posts on his blog.


You are probably familiar with the “XXXX for Dummies” series. Its interesting that last week I saw a “Doing Business in India” for Dummies book. It means something.

Somewhat on similar lines, the Financial Times has a section on this now.

…FT Business School series of online executive education courses, conducted in partnership with leading business schools. Five professors from the Indian School of Business, in Hyderabad, will deliver lectures on topics such as marketing, microfinance and mobile telephony in a country such as India.

You will probably need a free registration there to view the videos. Seen on the same page, they have an entire series of videos on these and other topics conducted, what appears to be, in partnership with several top B-schools.


Another atypical yet familiar, weird though not surprising, but a nevertheless interesting story about a 24 year old in Chicago. From Modern Love in NYTimes.

Identity loss October 14, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in rant.

Tyler asks about people who have earned multiple and major recognitions in one year – much like Al Gore this year.

I can tell you someone who has had multiple de-recognitions in a matter of 3 days. On Wednesday, I lost my Yahoo! Corporate ID (losing it on Day 7 at work – probably an organizational record) and today someone stole my backpack which was pretty much empty – except for my Passport, Visa and I-94.

If you were a CNN IBN journalist you would ask me how I feel about the whole episode and I will tell you that I am really excited and looking forward to mountains of paperwork – with authorities as diverse as the Indian Embassy, US Embassy in Madras and Department of Homeland Security – pretty much at three well-spread out points on the spectrum.

There are rating agencies that keep track of how easy it is to do business in different countries. They use information like how many days its takes to set up a new business etc. I am going to keep track of the number of places I will have to sign, number of phone calls, emails etc. I am currently busy collecting each and every piece of paper with my name on it – if you have one, send over.

One funny thing I noted though was this thing on the San Francisco Indian Consulate website –

“Habitual losers of passports may be denied further passport facilities.”

Imagine what you would answer to some foreign government official who demands a passport as part of some paperwork – “My country is fed up of my passport losing habits and will not issue a passport.”

This specific incident apart, one of those things I really hate is about not having some document/login/permission required for some purpose and having to wait more than 3 minutes to get it.

And my secret fear (which Alex wanted to know) is that one day I will have lost such a unique combination of documents that I will never be able to get them since there would be a catch-22 about possessing document X to get document Y replaced and then vice versa – a problem that only be solved in the long run.

Link from Tyler.

The importance of being a plagiarist October 7, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in humor, india, rant, science.
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Abi catches Rahul catching “an Anna University group’s paper (published in the Journal of Materials Science) whose abstract is a near-verbatim copy of that of an earlier paper in PNAS from a Swedish group.” You really must see just how verbatim it really is.

While Abi waits to see what Anna University does, the cynic in me takes a shot :

1. Anna University will set up a “high-powered committee” to “look into the matter” which will submit the “report” to the board of “trustees”.

2. Meanwhile, defendent will claim that he has been “fabricated by the Swedish intelligence” and that this is an attack on the India’s scientific community in particlar and “social fabric” of the country in general.

3. Defendent’s professional rival will point to past indiscretions on the part of the defendent.

4. Sagarika Ghose at IBNLive will have a “Face the nation” where she will talk to a panel of experts about how this might be the sign of “larger (with a rolled ‘r’) problem” – sheer (with rolled ‘r’ again) “lack of integrity” in India’s scientific community. When she is unable to find enough air-time to say what she thinks, she will blog about it.

5. One commenter on the Sagarika’s blog will want to the know the caste of the Mr. Muthukkumaran (One of authors of the paper) and might find a link between this and having/not having enough reservations for backward sections of the society.

6. Another commenter will be able to infer the caste of the above commenter and make more inferences.

Cut to 26 months later.

7. The ‘esteemed’ Board of Trustees at Anna University will conclude that there is not enough evidence to charge Mr. Mutthukumaran and his colleagues and will dismiss all charges.

8. Repeat 4.

9. NDTV will conduct a string sting operation where one of the authors confirm on camera that he threatened his Research Assistant and got it done. If the RA did not do it, he would not get his recommendation letter for PhD/post-doc at an American University.

10. Taking note of recent media developments, Board of Trustees dismiss the discredited author.

11. Dismissed author joins politics.

12. Repeat 4.

More links today October 6, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in assorted, humor, ideas, image, science.

MR has this interesting link :

Every year since 1976, the Monitoring the Future Study has asked around 3,000 U.S. 12th graders how important various things are to them. It seems everything is getting more important. Well, not quite. 13 of 14 issues have become more important. The only exception: “Finding purpose and meaning in my life”.

(Emphasis not mine)

Now, here is a cartoon that this finding reminds me of.  The very vast New Yorker Cartoon bank has a cartoon for many a situations in life.

Coming to the results of the survey itself, I am not really a fan of asking people what they think – we are all good liars, even when we are not lying to others, we are, to ourselves.  We are better off making several observations and make inferences based on these observations. For instance, instead of asking people how important they think is contribution to charity, have something that looks for evidence of it – tax returns for instance. (while recognizing that there are some who are willing but unable to make contributions.)


My last year’s post on anticipating the Nobel Prize (Economics mostly for a good reason) announcement. Not much changed.


In response to a question – ““WHAT IS YOUR FORMULA? YOUR EQUATION? YOUR ALGORITHM?””, here is what some of the really original thinkers had to say. Dan Kahneman. And Dawkins’ was probably the best.

Game of unglorious certainities :-) October 6, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in sport.
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Going by the record of the past one-day matches, India have won 2 out of the last 21 matches, making it a nearly 1 in 11. By purely inferring from past data, the scoreline for this series should be 6-0 for Australia.

Now, if we include matches where India batted second, we will have to go back to at least April 1998 when India won last. So, assuming the team played each other 3 times every year since then, we have played them about 30 times and probably 15 of them batting second. So our success rate chasing is 1 in 15.

Other than Ponting, there is nobody in the Australian team who has lost to India while defending. Baring Tendulkar, Ganguly and Dravid, none have an idea what it is like to chase down an Australian total. Just in case you did not get it, my rant of course is not about India’s recent losses. Its about all that has happened in the last 10 years. Just imagine in the light of all this, what is the frame of mind of the two teams when they walk out to play each other in a ond-dayer yet again.

So when millions of them are glued to the TV, including many in other time zones losing out on work/sleep, is it because they have a poor sense of history or poor knowledge of probability😀

I have posted on this before, and looking it up I realize I have written much the same before😦

Assorted links October 6, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in assorted.
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NYTimes article that compares outdoor sidewalk cafes in New York to those in Europe writes :

New Yorkers have a highly evolved, unrivaled knack for glossing over the limitations, absurdities and dubious habitability of an unforgiving metropolis.

They walk into a friend’s 545-square-foot two-bedroom (one bath, no tub) and stammer: “Just $4,965 a month for this?” They walk into the Spotted Pig at 5:55 p.m. on a Tuesday night and exult: “Only a 90-minute wait?”

And they sit in a sidewalk cafe — sirens blaring, vagrants swearing and jackhammers jittering all around them — and sigh: “It’s so relaxing to soak up the street life.”

I bet that would be true of Bombayites as well. ( And so not true about myself🙂 )


What perverse incentives do :

Did you know that Gurjjars get their children’s nappies engaged or that they sometimes marry children in the womb? Or that they worship the neem tree, don’t sell milk on special days dedicated to their deity Devnarayan and live up to the phrase “Dantli main myan nahin, gurjjar main gyan nahin” (A sickle has no cover and a Gurjjar has no knowledge). These quaint rituals and common phrases have become part of crucial documentation by the community to prove their tribal status.

For the last three months, Gurjjars have presented affidavits and made representation to the three-member committee headed by retired Justice Jasraj Chopra. In all of them, they have explained at length how backward they are.


Letter frequencies : To me this is like being on kryptonite🙂


You probably heard of postsecret. I remember reading about this in mid-2005 when it just started and telling myself of how this will become a record, albeit anonmyous (and potentially noisy due to dubious/untrue ‘confessions’ therein) of the confessions of a generation. Tyler points to one such confession and suggests its more common than one might imagine.

Update : And Vir Sanghvi has an article on the other side of this phenomenon :

In our minds, there was always enough intellectual sophistication to distinguish between American soft power (as in the power of popular culture) and American hard power (as in foreign policy).


Bragging rights October 2, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in littlerockers.

News just came in that my high school Biology teacher Mr. Harikrishna D. has won the Fulbright Scholarship. He will spend 5 months from Jan 2008-May 2008 on an American university campus. He is the only one from the state of Karnataka and one of the only 6 from 5 southern states.

Needless to say, but nevertheless said – I am very happy !😀 . Congratulations Sir.

This of course comes on top of the last year’s winners when my high math teacher Ms. Bindu Joseph winning the same award. Both the teachers in pictures here.

Meanwhile, Aswin has a post and pictures from his recent visit to the Little Rock campus.

Moving about moving September 30, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, reminisces-1990s, reminisces-2000.

Excerpts from a mail I received wrote today.

There is something moving about moving, about relocating, about transferring all your material possessions from one house to another. You first sit down to sort them all out into suitcases, cartons and bags and them sit down again with these boxes in a new house to find new places for them. They won’t always find a place that suits them, something they enjoyed in their previous house. If the house were really small, they may never even find a place and hence spend years in the basement.

Each time I pick up something, whether a business card, a cash voucher or a book, it sits there in my hand and tells me its story – where I bought it or got it, when and for what end. It also brings to light the larger context – was that a struggling me or an apprehensive one, a pensive self or a smug and accomplished one (ever??). And the best part is that often times these stories are about other people in my life and stories of their own. One after another these things take me to places I have spent time a fair time preparing for tomorrow (growing up, in other words🙂 ) – Manipal, Guwahati, Bangalore, Boston and Pittsburgh. Some of these are from several years ago – like the bill from a phone call I made home from a PCO in the Suratkal bus stand on the evening of May 29th, 2000. And then there is a badge given to me at my orientation at Carnegie Mellon from August 2005 that said – “Sharath Rao K., 1st year Masters Student”.

This whole process to me is another kind of resume – materialistic resume if you will, as opposed to a professional resume. You can pull out your professional resume created at regular intervals over the years to see all the places you have been and what you accomplished there. Similarly, each process of moving brings you face to face with all that you have accumulated in life, chronicling everything from the trivial to the momentous times. The difference of course is that each of us have such a resume, no matter how unknown and obscure we are, or how uninspiring our stories are or how insignificant an impact we have had on the wider world (something that is true of most of us).

People talk about how they lost that old pen the last time their family moved. Yes, we lose things when we move. But then we find things too, things we thought we had lost. Sometimes it is that old photo, but often its ourselves – our people and places, our mistakes and misgivings, our apprehensions and anticipation, our gambles and gratification.

I am in Santa Clara, CA. Moved into a new house and it is day one at work tomorrow.🙂

Books recent September 29, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in America, contemplation, economics.

Been reading 2 books sort of concurrently these days :

1. The Millionaire next door :

Its based on a study of millionaires in America and their findings are rather different from common perceptions that we have of rich people, almost to the point that most things we know about rich people (in America at least) ain’t true. Here are some :

* Only 19 percent receive any income or wealth of any kind from a trust fund or an estate.

* Fewer than 20 percent inherited 10 percent or more of their wealth.

* More than half never received as much as $1 in inheritance.

* Ninety-one percent never received, as a gift, as much as $1 of the ownership of a family business.

* Nearly half never received any college tuition from their parents or other relatives.

And they are rich because they are hardworking and lead mostly frugal lives and when its men, their spouses are almost always more frugal than they are. A typical millionaire is self-employed, and not on Wall street.

So, yeah while some are probably filthy rich, but some are just tidy rich. You can read the first chapter for free here.

2. The origins of life – Although this might end up as yet another failed attempt to become seriously knowledgeable in biology and genetics, what I have read so far has been interesting.

Last month I read “How Doctors think”. If you think that you will starting thinking even higher of doctors than you already do, then you will be disappointed. Its a very honest account of mistakes doctors can make, and how, especially in case of specialists, the rate at which they see new cases means they are not sure of the diagnosis. And most importantly, how they are susceptible to biases – action bias (doing something is better than doing nothing), confirmation bias (once you see a symptom that matches your hypothesis, stop searching for evidence against hypothesis), availability bias and anchoring. Do your own research if you think the doctor is not sure – there is enough online material that can help you get some idea on what the problem is and alternate approaches out there. Surgery is over-rated – once you cut through, its never the same again. MRI scans don’t always help because they give so much detail that you can find something wrong in even healthy people. And finally, the quote of the book :

There is nothing in biology that is so complicated that if explained in clear and simple language cannot be understood by any lay person. Its not quantum physics.

Read this book review, dont miss the part about the Vietnamese woman and her child.

Military history September 28, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in history.

Like Calvin’s cartoon about how there is so much to do that you are always behind, I think there is so much out there to just read, know and watch, I would be dead before I do it all😀 . Here is this amazing thing I read today – today being the Petrov Day. And why ? Because Mr. Petrov pretty much saved the world from extinction back in 1983.


Meanwhile, military history is interesting, filled with things that would have had definite and significant impact on our lives. Yet, its so vast, I feel hopeless to even begin reading it up seriously. Of course, we mostly read not so become experts and have exhaustive knowledge, but to just enjoy the process and the momentary kicks and highs. Here is one from Wikipedia entry for Able archer.

Thus, on November 2, 1983, as Soviet intelligence services were attempting to detect the signs of a nuclear strike, NATO began to simulate one. The exercise, codenamed Able Archer, involved numerous NATO allies and simulated NATO’s Command, Control, and Communications (C³) procedures during a nuclear war. It probably emulated the Pentagon’s Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP) which, at the time, named 25,000 military targets, 15,000 industrial targets, and 500 targets associated with Soviet leadership. Some Soviet leadership, because of the preceding world events and the exercise’s particularly realistic nature, believed — in accordance with Soviet military doctrine — that the exercise may have been a cover for an actual attack.

Those numbers I thought were mind-bogglingly insane – cataloging such a huge list of very specific places in a foreign country.

retrospectives out there September 27, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, life, people.
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The beauty of hyperlinking that takes you from page to page with seldom any restrictions has a good chance of stumbling at some beautiful prose. From a shortindiangirl I don’t know.

As a young child, you are complete with your parents. There are no others. No siblings (yet – or if they’re older, they’re already there), no children, and grandparents are still not yet quite as close as mom and dad. There are no voids in your life and the family circle is closed. Complete. Full of love and magic.

As we grow older, and more aware of the world, our lives grow more complex. And the magic erodes with layers of knowledge and weary cares. A toothache today, an exam tomorrow, an application next week, financial aid next month, tax returns next year. A grandparent’s funeral, the death of a pet, a lost friend. Our voids grow.

No more can a shower of colored sparks and a poof change our world. We “know” that the only thing that can is our own deliberate effort. No more can a petite caucasian lady with a blonde up-do and gauzy wings create a new world for us. We are the makers of our own reality.

Never more can the fairy dust encircle us again in a complete unit with our parents. We are adults with lives and loves that spread us out in vague, unfathomably complex and incomplete networks.

In a way, believing in God is like believing in Magic again. I see the appeal.

And while we are there, there is more from Priya, final year student at my Alma mater, KREC, Suratkal.

It’s just that it’s mighty frustrating to be told again and again of taking up a step that’ll ensure you a worry-free life, and later finding out that it’s not true, not entirely anyway. And I was too naive that I believed that such a band-aid solution was possible, that just a single step could ensure that the rest of your life stayed made. The truth is, it’s never over till it’s over. The reward for hard work is only more hard work, and anything else you get can only be a by-product, or a side-effect. So don’t put in hard work unless you are not afraid of seeing more of it, unless working is really what you enjoy.

Your life will be “made” the same way if you do a Commerce degree, crack the CA exam, do an articleship for a while after which you do an MBA from IIMX. It’ll also be “made” when you do a degree in psychology, turn homemaker for a good many years, try your hand at various different enterprises, and finally when your kids are grown and gone, discover your true calling lies in a teaching career, which you then start actively pursuing. It isn’t a much differently “made” life you have when you are passionate about the written and spoken word since your childhood, take up science at Pre-University due to parental pressure, deliberately mess up your math scores so as to prevent the onset of a possible Engineering career, take up Arts and a career in journalism.

My previous post echoing somewhat similar sentiments.

Graphs, Plots and animations September 27, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in humor, image, videos, weird.
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Following this blog for a while now, I sometimes am led to wonder if Jessica Hagy must be the one of most interesting people to talk with.

As an aside, a friend of mine talks about how he closes the bedroom doors when he is cooking. Apparently that way next morning his non-Desi colleagues wont know what he has had for dinner.🙂. Either you can keep windows open and invite dust into your house or use an AC efficiently keeping doors and windows closed all the time. In the latter case, also don’t forget to keep your clothing away from the kitchen.

Here is an independent confirmation of what Desi food (and its likes) do to you (and your house). As for me, I will anyway keep all doors and windows open and not use the AC if I can avoid it. Given my extremely picky nature especially with regards to food, the one place I really feel Indian (other than of course India itself) is when I am at a non-Desi restaurant.

For people who want to put off getting married.


Now here is something that is not a graph but an animation. Catch this video and everything else on the website. (Thanks to Youtube-freak Sanjika for that pointer)

On compound interest September 26, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in policy.

I remember reading somewhere ( and I hate starting sentences in that manner ) about how Benjamin Franklin is probably the most highly regarded American ever. Now something really cool from him.

Ben Franklin used the power of compound interest. Back in 1783, when Ben was 77, he added a new section to his will. He set up a codicil that was to last for 200 years after his death. Ben allotted $5,000 each to his favorite cities of Boston and Philadelphia. …

Each city’s fund, according to Ben’s will, operated for 200 years. After 100 years, each city could withdraw $500,000 from their funds and use the money for public works. The rest of the money would still be working for another hundred years.

Five thousand dollars isn’t a lot of money today, but stop and think: How much was each fund worth at the end of the 200 years (1991)? Need an aspirin? How about more than $20 million! And that was after each city took out half-a-million for public works.

Yes, now imagine that cute niece that you really really love. You can of course do her lot of good and give her an expensive toy costing say Rs. 2000. But then most people would be giving her toys anyway. But maybe you can stash away Rs. 2000 that at the rate of 9% annually compounded will give her either Rs. 16000 when she is 25 ( for that marriage jewellery) or 32000 when she is 33 or 5,00,000 at her retirement. (65 years)

I know you will hate me for even thinking along these lines. I know its not all about money and that you cannot put a number on everything. But its also true that the extra pleasure of having that one more toy barely counts or is cherished. And lets all be honest now – How many of you would rather have that expensive toy at age 1 or 5,00,000 when you are 65. Remember its not just having the amount at 65 but also that you have to save some amount less every month of your working life (25-65 years) because you have that Rs. 5,00,000 waiting there already at retirement. (which further invested will guarantee sizable monthly interest payments)

Being a little hard-hearted every once a while sure goes a long way.

Aid to Africa September 26, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in economics, geo-politics.

A hard-hitting speech from Ugandan journalist with his thesis asking people to

…to look beyond the media’s stories of poverty, civil war and helplessness and see the opportunities for creating wealth and happiness throughout the continent. Most important, he says, the solution to Africa’s problems is not more aid.

My favorite phrase from the speech – “cartel of good intentions”. Much beauty there. And pray, why does Uganda with a population about one-twentieth that of India’s achieve with 333 members of parliament !

Another journalist, similar sentiments here.

To be sure, there is no consensus on what really works for economic growth and does not. But of course, there is the other question of whether consensus (either way) isn’t rather over-rated in such issues.

How many cities do you ‘know’ September 25, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation.
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There is something about getting to know cities and large towns. When I say ‘getting to know’, I am talking about knowing your way around. And ‘knowing your way around’ includes –

a) Neigborhoods – residential and commercial. Maybe you know not what street is where – especially if they are named rather than numbered. But you know what is available where, which are the places to hang out, where the bus stops, tourist attractions, libraries (in my case) and food places are.

b) Navigation – and this includes how to get from A to B, either by road or public transport or just walking (includes knowing what is walkable and short cuts if any). Also how long does it take to get from A to B. It also means you know what areas to avoid for reasons like messy traffic or just shady and unsafe. You should be able to advise on how to get to and out of the city by air/train/bus/driving and be able to advise depending on criteria like time/cost.

c) Misc. – If a friend wants to rent a house, you should be able to give some advice depending on her/his needs and budget. And no, you dont have to have done a course in real estate or something. Just spent enough time. Another friend has one day in the city and you should be to advise on what are the places to really not miss. You get my point – these are subtle things but if you are confident, you can act in advisory capacity🙂

So now, how many cities do you ‘know’ ? Consider only cities and towns that have at least say train connection and population over 50,000. You need not have lived there, visiting often enough qualifies.

For me that would be Mangalore, Bangalore, Boston and Pittsburgh. And in a while, that list might grown to include San Jose, San Francisco and rest of the bay area.

P.S : I could probably add Guwahati to the list, but maybe not. Although Guwahati was the first city that I got to know and thats back in 1991-93. Many things, I am told, have changed so I give it a pass.

Update: I could make it harder by saying you must know the relative positions on the map. Is place C east or south-east of B. For Bangalore, I once proposed (to a friend) ‘convenient’ polar co-ordinate system (radius, angle) with Majestic being (0,0) and say Koramangala being (1, 330). My friend took 2 seconds to dismiss it as unwieldy. Maybe I just chose the wrong friend to throw this idea at.

Indian Post, American marriages, history and the present September 20, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in assorted, history, india, people, politics, statistics.
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Some cool but not-so-well known (to me at least) facts about India :

With 1,55,618 post offices and over 5,66,000 employees, India has the largest postal network in the world. We can also boast of the world’s highest post office, Hikkim (pin code 172114). Located at 15,500 feet, Hikkim is part of the Lahaul and Spiti district in Himachal Pradesh. And, if you’d like to know about one more postal record, the world’s first official airmail flight took place right here in India, on February 18, 1911. It was a journey that spanned 18 kilometres and lasted 27 minutes. Henri Pequet, a French pilot, ferried around 15 kilos of mail (approximately 6,000 letters and cards) across the Ganga, from Allahabad to Naini.


On the longevity (or the lack of it) of marriages in America.

More than half the Americans who might have celebrated their 25th wedding anniversaries since 2000 were divorced, separated or widowed before reaching that milestone, according to the latest census survey, released yesterday.

“We know that somewhere between 40 percent and 50 percent of marriages dissolve,” said Barbara Risman, executive officer of the Council on Contemporary Families, a research group. “Now, when people marry, everyone wonders, is this one of those marriages that will be around for awhile.”

That is down from 75% of marriages in the 50s lasting 25 years to about 46% for those married in the 70s.

Of course, one must remember that this has got not only with the fragility of marriage as an institution (though perhaps largely so), but also the fact that several marry very late in life, the above statistic also counts people’s second or later marriages, which more often (relative to first marriages) end with a death of one of the partners.

But yeah, think about it – when was the last time you were at a marriage in India and asking yourself about how long the marriage would last ? Or weirdly still, when was the last time you missed a marriage of one of your close friends and told yourself – “Its okay, there is always a next time.”😀


I wrote about the Smithsonian Museums in Washington D.C. in my previous post. And forgot to put their intriguing origins.

In 1826, James Smithson, a British scientist, drew up his last will and testament, naming his nephew as beneficiary. Smithson stipulated that, should the nephew die without heirs (as he would in 1835), the estate should go “to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.”

The motives behind Smithson’s bequest remain mysterious. He never traveled to the United States and seems to have had no correspondence with anyone here. Some have suggested that his bequest was motivated in part by revenge against the rigidities of British society, which had denied Smithson, who was illegitimate, the right to use his father’s name. Others have suggested it reflected his interest in the Enlightenment ideals of democracy and universal education.


I like what this article says – on Sarkozy’s France – and the way it says it.

@DC, @ the movies, not @ all in France September 20, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in assorted, general, image.
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I was visiting the Smithsonian Museums past weekend in Washington D.C. As soon as one enters the National Air and Space museum, there is a box that solicits voluntary contributions from the visitors. Among the various dollar bills, Chinese Yuans, there was one 10,000 Zimbabwe dollar bill.

At the moment, that is worth about 1.75 USD. I would still take my hat off to the person who made the contribution – I know its meant to be a good-will contribution rather than a substantial one. Even though we know that if Mr. Robert Mugabe has his way, that will soon be worth next to nothing.

By the way, D.C. is a such a beautiful city. The view from the top of the Washington Monument is brilliant. And so is the view of the National Mall area at night. I drove 30 miles into D.C. in the middle of the night just to catch that view. Even the Library of Congress is such splendor. Or the National Archives, where I got a chance to see the original American Constitution, Bill of Rights, Declaration of Independence and the Magna Carta. The founding principles of this nation although today seem rather common place (notwithstanding the recent foreign policy excesses and experience with slavery) is something I have lot of respect for. It may not be the perfect thing out there as liberals like to remind everyone, but its been better than other horrors the world has seen.

Of course, I still do wonder why office buildings like the Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Labor Statistics and such should have been as grand as they are – the bureaucrats have power enough anyway, why those seats of luxury.


Movies watched past week :

The Graduate, Pulp Fiction, The Departed, Taxi Driver, Tsotsi, City of God, Fun with Dick and Jane and Superbad

To put it in perspective, thats more movies than I watched in the past 2 years. I imagine shooting for most movies on this list – the IMDB Top 250. … Some day, for I am starting work in 2 weeks from now and life won’t be the same again.


Liberty. Equality. Fraternity. And now, dental caries.

The article quotes a pair of dentists, one from a Paris teaching hospital and one from the French dentistry association, and offers the following statistics (without citing sources).

– one million French citizens never brush their teeth

– half of all French do not brush their teeth in the evening

– 57% of French children under five have never brushed their teeth

– the average French citizen uses between one and two toothbrushes in a year

Krugman’s grouse with the media September 20, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in America, politics.
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Enter Paul Krugman, with a brand new blog. He points out something I have found myself amusing over too – at times, I feel the level of political discourse here is mature and high and just when I am beginning to be sure, I am treated to some rather puerile political commentary.

As Krugman says :

To a remarkable extent, punditry has taken a pass on whether Gen. Petraeus’s picture of the situation in Iraq is accurate. Instead, it was all about the theatrics – about how impressive he looked, how well or poorly his Congressional inquisitors performed. …

But here’s the thing: new polls by CBS and Gallup show that the Petraeus testimony had basically no effect on public opinion: Americans continue to hate the war, and want out. The whole story about how the hearing had changed everything was a pure figment of the inside-the-Beltway [the Washington D.C. area] imagination.

If you don’t know what I mean, recall how the media analyses the State of the Union address and the hidden messages behind it or how it compared to previous addresses and when was the last time the president used the word “x” within the first 10 minutes of the address. Or wait until next elections and see how the media dissects the the presidential debates ( who wore what, who was sweating more, and who appeared more presidential etc. )

A sample here from the Seattle Times.

Kerry seems a little high on himself. Kerry is shaking his head (when there’s a cutaway while Bush is speaking), writing something down. It bugs me. He also keeps looking at somebody in the audience. He’s not connecting with me. He’s not telling us how to he’s going to go from ‘O’ to ‘X.’ Bush does make a kind of scrunch on his face when he doesn’t agree with Kerry. But he seems more personable.

Reflects very poorly indeed on the world’s oldest democracy.

Parking lots and patrons September 19, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in America, image.

I have a thinking-loudly kind of observation through which will likely require you to either undertake some detective work🙂 or recall something you may have already seen but not taken note of.

There are two major temples in Pittsburgh. Temple A is the Hindu-Jain temple and temple B is the Sri Venkateshwara Temple (subsidiary of the Tirupati Devasthanams). Walking around the parking lots as I inspect the make of the cars, I see one of the parking lots is far more likely to have BMWs, Lexus and Audis, while the other is dominated by Toyotas Camry/Corolla and Honda Accord/City ?

Of course, I just have one data point, but have you seen any discerning trend along the above lines ? (Images of temples are useful cues).

P.S : No racist/xenophobic comments please. Mere rational inquiry suffices.


Existentially yours, Lord Ram. September 19, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in india, science.

One of Abi’s best posts here on the rather laid back attitude of the Indian scientific fraternity (sorority??), something that bends over backwards to avoid confrontation with the establishment and the public opinion. No excerpts, no clues, just go read it.🙂

A contrarian (and only slightly more palatable) point of view here.

Digression : Can you “bend over backwards” if you are “laid back” ? Pray, am I becoming Tom Friedman ??

R.I.P. Times Select September 19, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in media, reminisces-2000.
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NYTimes is considered America’s most pre-eminent papers of record and naturally therefore, I thought highly of the paper growing up. And this was even before I had a chance to read it, which I only did in 2003 and that too not on a regular basis. Once I became a regular reader of the paper in 2004, I found myself not too much in agreement with their editorial positions.

That of course does not mean I will jettison the paper altogether (Much like my attitude towards The Hindu). I still thought they had some great material, especially some of the special features – Science Times on Tuesday, Technology/Business, their Modern Love column, not to mention Op-eds from David Brooks, Frank Rich, John Tierney, Paul Krugman (though Tom Friedman was waste of time). Their list of most emailed articles generally are a good point to start.

This ofcourse was until mid 2005 when much of NYTimes went paid. I was so addicted that I even paid $8 per month for a few months. And then one day I just let it pass.

Now though its back again. No, I am not paying them all over again. Infact, no one will. I am so glad this is happening.

The New York Times will stop charging for access to parts of its Web site, effective at midnight tonight. The move comes two years to the day after The Times began the subscription program, TimesSelect, which has charged $49.95 a year, or $7.95 a month, for online access to the work of its columnists and to the newspaper’s archives.

And why do this ?

What changed, The Times said, was that many more readers started coming to the site from search engines and links on other sites instead of coming directly to NYTimes.com. These indirect readers, unable to get access to articles behind the pay wall and less likely to pay subscription fees than the more loyal direct users, were seen as opportunities for more page views and increased advertising revenue.

Amazing, isn’t it, just how powerful a driver of revenue and business models advertising can be ? Heck, thats where Google makes most of its money after all.

One of the unexpected benefits is the access to the NYTimes archives. In fact, I remember back in 2004-05 as a subscriber to the Time Magazine, I found that the magazine issues were less interesting an offering compared to the unlimited access to their archives. I would just go search for “India” in issues from June 1947 to Sep 1947. Or the issue soon after Gandhi’s death, Emergency (June 1975) and see just what was being said.

Linked from here.

Stray indulgences once a while September 13, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in life, weird.

Like this book quiz.

You’re Siddhartha!

by Hermann Hesse

You simply don’t know what to believe, but you’re willing to try anything once. Western values, Eastern values, hedonism and minimalism, you’ve spent some time in every camp. But you still don’t have any idea what camp you belong in. This makes you an individualist of the highest order, but also really lonely. It’s time to chill out under a tree. And realize that at least you believe in ferries.

Take the Book Quiz at the Blue Pyramid.

Some ‘inspiring’ music September 13, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in movies.

Reader Achala sends me this really cool link – the title of the page does not mince words and I should just let you follow the link.

Just as a sample of the very explicit ones – compare this one (“Say You Love Me”) and this one. (Mehbooba Mehbooba).

And the somewhat less obvious (Babuji Dheere chalna) but copied from here.

There are so many Anu Maliks in the list as one might expect. But there is RD, OP Nayar too.🙂

Assorted links September 13, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in assorted, politics.
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I like Arnold Kling’s very personal thoughts on 9/11, almost every single thing he says and hence worth reading in full. The last sentence of his post – “My guess is that if the United States becomes less nationalistic and less assertive, then the world as a whole will take a turn for the worse rather than for the better.” – might be too controversial, but people on either side of the divide have the advantage of never being able to know and demonstrate what if it were not so.


Fighting Black poverty : This is very interesting.

It’s the first day of school, and Victoria is considering potential investments. In particular: How Mattel’s toy recall is impacting the company’s stock price. It’s hardly a typical 13-year-old’s concern. But then, Ariel Community Academy is unusual. Its 420 students, nearly all black and about 81% from low-income families, are testing an intriguing proposition: Can teaching urban black kids finance and economics help some of them escape poverty — and shake African-American skepticism about Wall Street?

A relevant reading would be this article that shows that poorest regions of Africa today are those regions from where the most slaves were ‘exported’ to the Americas. Not of course to say these are the sole reasons for Africa’s backwardness, but impossible to deny it was one of the major factors.


Tyler Cowen’s views on Philanthropy.


Amusing thing day-before-yesterday : Seeing a billboard ad in the New York City Times Square that says : “Welcome to the center of the Universe”.

Some things NYC September 11, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, image, sport.
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My visit to New York City over the weekend was rather different from my previous 3 visits ( excluding transit ) where were mostly about ‘checking out’ the various landmarks, either by myself during vacation or taking parents around. This was a single point agenda – The US open. Although I would have preferred to watch the men’s final, I managed to get the tickets for the women’s final – Henin Vs Kuznetsova. Quite an experience, especially given that it was my first time being present to watch a live sporting performance of any significance.


Each time you visit NYC, you see new things and you hear new sounds (to sound like a foreigner who is speaking about India :p) . Like this time two short Mexican guys who just walked into the train, played some really cool latino music ( so Goan actually ) and made good bucks in between train stops, when its time to hop onto another coach. Much like previous visits, I walked around a lot – but this time looking for used book shops, lying down in the parks reading something, feeding on peaches, cherries and apples from the farmer’s market at Union square. All those green places, the so many parks in Manhattan – just lie down somewhere in Central Park and you are completely oblivious to all that chaos out there – hats off to the New Yorkers. I remember reading about some part of the newly released textile mill land in Bombay which some citizens want turned into urban spaces – I am absolutely for such an idea.

Then there are some weird things like coming out of an underground subway station to find yourself completely disoriented about the four directions. Of course, this likely happens elsewhere but identical (to an untrained eye) square blocks of Manhattan take it to the extremes. And then finding thousands of boards with notices that sign off as “By order from Michael Bloomberg, Mayor of New York City” …I wonder if all those boards have to be repainted when the mayor changes ! Most places just mention the designation.

Like many people I know, I love visiting NYC, but don’t see myself living there. People talk of big cities/urban centers as modern, fast, lot of privacy that the countryside does not bring. I am not sure, for I think NYC has more anonymity, but less privacy. Those little spaces, many of which are really carved out of what used to be just one big house, sharing kitchens and bathrooms with several random folks. Its okay as part of the single, young, college-going chaotic bunch, but not later in life. I know its more about personal preferences and upbringing, much like some of the Mumbaites would give anything to get out of Bombay and several outsiders would only consider short visits.

Follow-up post on NRI women September 10, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in America, culture, india.

Sorry guys, I had been traveling and hence have not been able to reply to your several comments to my previous post. Thanks for all those comments – and quite a windfall at that – and Proses Anonymitus’s very informative and humorous post. Let me try and distill your comments and add a little bit that occurred to me since I wrote the post and which was not touched upon in the follow-up posts/comments so far.

Firstly, the topic of returning to India per se has been often discussed and much has been written on it by people at all points in the spectrum – those who did return and those who did not and everyone in between (see Vishnu’s links here). We are talking about how differently (if ever) women and men approach this question, with the hypothesis being that women have more compelling reasons and show more conviction when it comes to staying back abroad.

Abi, in his post, suggested that it is likely that once we have an opinion on this issue, we are primed to think of examples and no counter-examples, a sort of confirmation bias. We should probably keep that in mind when we think of candidate examples. But once we have sufficient number of people thinking this issue through, we will have a sizable number of both examples and counter-examples. Ideally, this will still be in the ratio of how the initial opinion is and hence, not a random sample. Nevertheless, I believe just having enough cases provides some insight into what are issues out there. So Abi, I am glad you linked to the post and helped initiate this discussion.

Let me address the issues raised in the comments. There appear to be several trails leading out from this topic as complex as this. But as I read each comment, it occurred to me that most of these trails lead to a single underlying reality. That no matter how much India has changed over the years, marriage still changes more things for women than men. This is no secret and is probably true in most societies to varying degrees. The consequences of this phenomenon are as wide-ranging as its prevalance.

From the discussion, a few factors that determine whether women choose to stay back or return appears to depend on –

– Upbringing (from Natasha, Aparna)

This is indeed interesting. On one hand, there may not be any relative improvement for women (relative to men) who already have been brought up in a liberal setup and so that aspect of the appeal is not really there. But as Aparna suggested in-laws not being similarly liberal would deter them from returning to India. Besides, issues relating to extended families and that of colleagues’ (who increasingly comprise social circles) and the general neighborhood that Proses Anonymitus raised are also relevant, no matter how liberal the parental upbringing has been. Women have to adjust more to their in-laws and general neighborhood than men to theirs (do they?).

Whether they came here of their volition (studies, work etc.) or if they came here after marriage (Joy’s comment)

There is little contention one can have with Joy’s comment here. Women who have come here for studies have already made that leap of faith, in terms of leaving behind ties to motherland (in some sense) and heading to an anonymous location thousands of miles away. While homesickness may still be there to start with, come what may they are here at least until completion of their studies (1-2 years). By the time they have completed studies, they are likely used to the system. And several of them have taken loans and would likely want to work here to help repay loans. Those who have no such financial commitments would want some international experience. By the time its all done, they are even likely married to guys here. Why would someone want to disrupt a well-settled married life to head back? Call it status-quo bias !

Of course, much of the above is true of men as well. But there is one aspect of the above that is not yet the same. And it comes down to the fact that the difference between the married life in India versus outside is more often than not, larger for women than for men.

Whether they are married at all and if so, the chemistry with their in-laws (from Sailatha, THE_GIRL_FROM_IPANEMA)

The “Chemistry with the in-laws” comments from Sailatha are critical and take us back to where we started – women have to adjust to their in-laws, men seldom need to. If they are married with dependent visas, then Aparna’s argument – “The class of women that come to the US on dependent visa after marriage are the ones that experience sudden freedom, self-expression and independence. These are the kind of women that would want to stay abroad considering purely these factors.” holds in a large number of cases. If they were here anyway, then we are back to Joy’s point.

This may even depend on more complex attributes like whether the groom has male siblings and if so, whether he is the eldest of the male siblings (especially in communities where the in-laws often stay with eldest son). As a slight digression, we need a freakonomics-like study which must investigate the dependence on families returning depending on the birth position of the man in question and presence of male siblings.😀

– How supportive their husbands are (Panjumittai Porivilangaurundai, from here)

Panjumittai warned Indian women without supportive husbands to not return to India. That is sane advice, except of course it begs the larger question (but not dealt here lest we digress) of why should anyone put up with nonsupporting husbands spouses in the first place?🙂

– How long they have been outside India (Achala)

True, along with the (somewhat amusing) corollary being that if the husband is keen on returning to India, he should do so before his wife is acclimatized to the place.

Some points not raised earlier :

Whether it was a love marriage or an arranged marriage.

I have known women who think that inter-caste/inter-religion marriages have a better chance of success for couples abroad. Apparently, men have more confidence about ‘making it’ back home, but women somehow think distance helps cool off things or make them matter less. I don’t know how much of this is really true, but just floating ideas I have heard.

Any ideas ?

– Career-orientation/employability of the women in question

Career-oriented women (or men for that matter) who are not professionals (like doctors/engineers/MBA) have a hard time getting a work-permit as long as the spouse does not have the PR status. This can be frustrating and should lead to the woman arguing for a return to India. ( See this article from the Post ) But how often does that happen ? Does it indicate that workplace issues are really less of a concern than family issues ? Interestingly none of the comments elaborated on workplace differences between India and the US for women. Are there none? ( I have never had a job in India, besides I am a guy  …so no sarcasm there).

Selection Process

For arranged marriages, when alliances are sought for the girl, some parents prefer grooms who are already abroad (some only consider grooms abroad). Their assumption and expectation is that the guy is well-settled abroad and their daughter will have a good future, employed or otherwise. This is a trivial case – a lady in such a marriage already has a strong preference to stay abroad, irrespective of whether the husband changes his mind. The way this process is structured, it ‘selects’ (statistically) girls who intend to stay abroad.

I suspect the reason this might be less applicable for guys is that women who have already spent some time and are currently abroad prefer grooms from more liberal backgrounds and are familiar with her expectations as a married working woman abroad. My guess then is that they are more likely to choose guys already abroad or who have spent some time abroad. It’s a signal (who reliability is debatable, in my opinion) of one’s liberal credentials to have lived and prefer to live abroad.

Some form of selection bias, if you will. Any thoughts from single, studying/working Indian women abroad ?


As an aside, a lady friend of mine has so far rejected several proposals because grooms intend to settle in the US or at least are non-committal either way. It appears that finally she is getting engaged on the pre-condition that they return to India within 3-4 years. All (my) eyes are now on how this plays out.🙂

Staying back in US – men and women September 7, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in America, contemplation, life.

In a conversation with a good friend of mine (Male, 26 yrs, in the US for over 2 years), we were talking about a common friend’s marriage announcement. I then asked him about his own plans of getting married. He said he would like to hold it for a while and the reason he gave went along these lines.

He said that he would like to return to India within the next 5 years and getting married will hamper those plans. Apparently, in his experience Indian women are more likely than men to want to stay back in the US. Even when entire families have stayed back, its because the wives, irrespective of being employed here or otherwise, have insisted on this. Although my friend has no data to back this claim, he has tens of examples to show and few, if any, counter-examples.

As I listened he went to say that if one were to compare the marginal improvement in quality of life (India vs. US) for men and women, women get a better deal. Of course, whether there is an overall improvement in quality of life is debatable. But lets say we have a pool of 2000 Indians – 1000 men and 1000 women – who already claim that they see a better future for themselves in the US compared to India, and then see how much that improvement is, women have more to show. In particular, the independence, self-expression and freedom from harassment, from colleagues at workplace and from in-laws and extended family at home, are factors that dominate the reasons women have to insist on ‘settling’ down in the US.

Now I am a feminist, not the sloganeering/activist/street-fighting type, but of a passive, private variety – so I would love to see counterexamples. Yet, as I mentally sorted through people I knew, I found that in each case the above hypothesis held. Now this still does not mean the theory itself holds. But what has your experience been ? What about people you know ?

Update : A follow-up post based on your comments is here.

Assorted links now September 6, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in assorted, geo-politics, policy, science.
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Some really abstract thought today –

But rather than seeing culture as patriarchy, which is to say a conspiracy by men to exploit women, I think it’s more accurate to understand culture (e.g., a country, a religion) as an abstract system that competes against rival systems — and that uses both men and women, often in different ways, to advance its cause.”

Now, where do we go from here ?

What percent of our ancestors were women? It’s not a trick question, and it’s not 50%. True, about half the people who ever lived were women, but that’s not the question. We’re asking about all the people who ever lived who have a descendant living today. Or, put another way, yes, every baby has both a mother and a father, but some of those parents had multiple children.

Recent research using DNA analysis answered this question about two years ago. Today’s human population is descended from twice as many women as men.

So what, you ask ? How does this morph into a theory of gender differences ? Its fairly complicated to explain right away, so catch this piece for a summary. Better still, catch this entire speech transcript for more details.


Bill Clinton now has a new book Giving, “an inspiring look at how each of us can change the world.” More on that.

I was reading the description over at Amazon (above link) and found this piece interesting.

Heifer International, which gave twelve goats to a Ugandan village. Within a year, Beatrice Biira’s mother had earned enough money selling goat’s milk to pay Beatrice’s school fees and eventually to send all her children to school—and, as required, to pass on a baby goat to another family, thus multiplying the impact of the gift.

Thats a cool business philanthropy model there !


Some in the Chinese media has interesting (and amusing) things to say about India and its defence forces.

The Indian army is undoubtedly the most active armed force in Asia today, allegedly stationing forces in Tajikistan, establishing surveillance stations in Africa, sending aircraft carriers to Bay of Bengal for exercise, etc. Indian army makes it to the military news almost every day, yet the outside world knows so little about it

That was informative, if true. But where did this come from ?

It (the Indian Army) has top weaponry, but before a battle, its solders pray to their gods without exception; it has 1.3 million personnel in service, but you seldom run into one wearing military uniform in the cities; it is like a melting pot, but servicemen of different religious sects stare at each other when they meet.





Un-detoxifiable beauty September 6, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in humor, movies.
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A sufficient (but not necessary) reason to not think highly of our film stars’ intellects would be their tendency to change the way their names are spelt to bring good fortune or sustain the already existing one (read pedigree). So imagine what it might be like to have a conversation with some of them. How do you react when people say stuff like this :

My look is very different from all the get-ups and roles I’ve done till date. It’s so stark that people won’t even recognise me. It’s very dark and they’ve tried to deglamourise me. They’ve tried to make me look as ugly as possible and it was a difficult job I must say !

Pity those film journalists.

If the word I just made up in the post’s title has you worried (for the English language), head over to this video.

Divine intuitions in economics September 5, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in economics, intellectual.
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From a profile of Robert Barro, the most cited economist of all time, I extract this bit quite unrelated to Barro himself :

During the 1960s, belief in government’s ability to do so was at an all-time high, bolstered by what appeared to be a stable statistical relationship known as the Phillips curve. The experience of the 1960s suggested that the government could put people in jobs (reduce the unemployment rate) simply by printing more money (raising the inflation rate). In the jargon of economists, the Phillips curve seemed to imply that monetary policy could have real effects.  To conservative economists such as Milton Friedman, the Phillips curve made no sense: it seemed to suggest that a government could achieve something real—create jobs—by doing something that was fairly costless—printing money. It was as though one could make people taller merely by measuring them with a ruler marked in centimeters rather than inches.

Reminds me of answers from undergrad studies to questions like – Could you connect a motor and generator together such that motor rotates the shaft of the generator which produces electricity that runs the motor ?  Answer of course is that you can’t because there are losses in form of heat/sound and some external energy has to come in to account for those losses.

And even if you do manage to bring in that external energy, then what ?  What is the point of such an arrangement which cannot generate any energy that is not already used in generating it. :)  [ Elec-geek DK may want to add something to this, or correct me where I might be inaccurate.  ]


Staying on intuitive beauty of some economic explanation that apply elsewhere in life, here is something more :

It assumes that, absent mistakes and misdeeds, we might remain in a permanent paradise of powerful income and wealth growth. The reality, I think, is that the economy follows its own Catch-22: By taking prosperity for granted, people perversely subvert prosperity. The more we — business managers, investors, consumers — think that economic growth is guaranteed and that risk and uncertainty are receding, the more we act in ways that raise risk, magnify uncertainty and threaten economic growth. Prosperity destabilizes itself.  This is not a new idea. Indeed, it explains why terms such as “the business cycle” and “boom and bust” survive.

Yeah, we all know about the market leader/class topper which/who was too good for its/her/his own good.

Sometimes there are neither virtuous cycles nor vicious ones, there are just natural ones😀 .  I don’t deny there are nuances, ifs and buts out there, but core idea does not change.


Teachers’ Day Greetings September 4, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in education.
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To all my teachers, wherever you are. Or well, at each of these places to be precise. Or maybe just about any teacher, anywhere.🙂

 Update (9/12) : A related post from a teacher.

How much money ? September 4, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in economics, life.
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How much cash do you carry, asks Bryan Kaplan.

At a recent GMU lunch, two economists sparred over the optimal quantity of cash to keep in one’s wallet. Economist A holds very little cash, on the grounds that you can pay for virtually everything with credit cards. Economist B holds lots of cash, on the grounds that the foregone interest is virtually nothing, and his time is very valuable.

Whose side do you take, and why? Value of time and foregone interest calculations are welcome.

I have so far been a student with rather paltry disposable income, so maybe I don’t count. Nevertheless, to offer an opinion, I generally cash of around $10-$15. ( Take it ! all you muggers out there😀 ). I pay by credit card whenever I can, and pay the whole balance at the end of the month. So I don’t pay interest. I have a fair idea of where my bank ATMs generally are ( like we do in India), so I don’t generally pay the $2.00 transaction fee (using other ATMs). Except when I am traveling, in which case I might be carrying upto $50, but never more. All of these habits are in keeping with the minimalist I (think) I tend to be. At least in this case I think calculations of time saved is an overkill. My 30 seconds count for nothing compared to the peace of mind carrying cards.

In India until 2004, I would be carrying an average of Rs. 50. But thats as a student. I have no idea what I would have been doing as a working professional. No, I do – I guess pretty much the same as above to the extent I could.

P.S : For the last few days I have been carrying a 5 rupee note alongside the dollar bills. One of these days I am going to offer that at the counter and see what happens. :p

“Hey, cops cops !” September 4, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in America, economics, policy, weird.
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Over the last 3 days, 5 of us drove around 1400 miles covering states of Delaware, the Carolinas, Virginia and Maryland. Throughout the journey, while one person drove, at least one other person was looking out for the cops (both undercover and er….”over-cover”), since we were generally cruising (only slightly) above speed limit. There was talk of being caught and fined etc. In North Carolina interstates, there were what appeared to be about ten ‘abandoned’ police cars for every police car with a cop at the wheel, perhaps just as a deterrent to the drivers. In the context of this experience, this study comes across as interesting –

They examined every warning and citation written by police officers in all of Massachusetts, excluding Boston, during a two-month period in 2001 — over 60,000 in all. Their conclusion wasn’t shocking to an economist: money matters, even in traffic violations. They found a statistical link between a town’s finances and the likelihood that its police officers would issue a speeding ticket. The details are a little sticky, but they show that tickets were issued more often in places that were short on cash, and that out-of-towners received tickets more often than drivers with local addresses.

They also found that out-of-state drivers were more likely to fined than within-state drivers, who were more likely to be fined than in-town drivers. This has got to do with police not wanting to piss off the locals🙂

Of course, the fact that poorer counties/districts are more strict in enforcing rules and collecting fines is no secret, you hear it all the time. But its one thing to listen to speculations and anecdotes and quite another to see the numbers !!

Another word about the cops is in order. I like them, they are generally great to talk to and very polite. They are rather non-intrusive, although they are very much there – whether its a concert, open air movie screenings or the like. They even betray a sense of humor with strangers like us. As a result seeing them on the road causes no change in behavior, except of course, if you are on a highway behind the wheel. I think thats how it is for most law-abiding citizens whose only chance of being ‘caught red-handed’ is for speeding, thats the only time we ‘feel like criminals’. 😀

I have very different things to say about cops in Bangalore. Though the ones in small-town Manipal/Sirsi are slightly better.

P.S : I like the cartoon on that page as well. And the title of the article too.

Hiatus August 31, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in blogging.
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5 hour bloggathalon later, I rest. Will be travelling over the weekend. No posts likely.