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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.


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.


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.)

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.



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.

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 ?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

Counterfactualism August 31, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, people, science.

In counterfactual history, people debate over questions such as “What would have happened if …”, say the Atom Bomb was not dropped, India was not partitioned and the like. Now, its easy to say -“That is merely an an academic exercise (waste of time)”.

Is it ?

From an interview with one of my favorite academic/writer Steve Pinker :

DS: In your chapter, Cleaving The Air, you write of how people often mistake chronology for causality. As example, you cite two potential assassins who try to kill a man, and use this as an example of the ‘counterfactual theory.’ Please elucidate.

SP: Actually, the counterfactual theory arose to solve the problem that chronology is not causality. I take some herbs and my cold sore goes away. Does that prove that the herbs cured the cold sore? No, to show that you’d have to show that if the person failed to eat the herbs (the counterfactual scenario), the cold sores would have remained. The dual-assassin thought-experiment, for its part, was intended to make life difficult for the counterfactual theory. Specifically: two assassins conspire to take out a dictator at a public rally, with the first one to get a clear shot firing whereupon the other melts into the crowd. They end up killing him with simultaneously fired bullets. But if Assassin A hadn’t fired, the dictator would still be dead, and ditto for Assassin B. Hence, according to the counterfactual theory, neither one killed him! But that can’t be right. So the counterfactual theory has problems, too.

DS: In a sense, though, such an exercise seems akin to the Presidential parsings you mention. Also, it reminds me of one of Zeno’s Paradoxes- the one where one can never move because one would have to get halfway to a place, then a quarter of a way, then an eighth, and so on. Is counterfactualism merely mental masturbation?

SP: You haven’t watched enough Law and Order – courtroom examples pop up all the time. Can a widow of a smoking asbestos miner sue the tobacco company (who will say the asbestos killed him) or the asbestos company (who will say the smoking killed him)?

That last retort is interesting. See my previous post : Do Law.

Delog’s coffee and other economics blogs June 3, 2006

Posted by Sharath Rao in blogging, economics, education, people.
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After the bragging I did here, for a while now I have been meaning to make a long post. No, I really was – its not like how a friend you havent called for months calls you and you without sparing a moment, confidenctly say, “Oh ! I was just about to call you”. I dont know why I said what I did so far, because this is going to be one of the shorter posts.

Check this one out. Brad Delog is a Berkeley economist who was a top ranking official during a part of Clinton years. He has started this series Morning Coffee videocast as he calls it, probably paraphrasing FD Roosevelt’s radio fireside chats during his presidency years. In his first videocast here , he mentions the reason he wants to go about this – “in the attempt to raise the level of economic debate, to inform and entertain, to teach you something that you ought to know, to help to recreate the missing public sphere of rational discourse about our collective destinies ( pauses ..drinks coffee…), and also to drink coffee !! ”

I like the idea. I am getting access to free economic, public policy education/awareness from one of America’s top economists. I know its probably not as prestigious as being enrolled in a Berkeley economics program but thats the whole point. We need to create centers of excellence of knowledge and creativity like the research universities but their purpose is not practise to exclusivity. We need branding – but we must promote a brand not by creating a artificial scarcity shortage ( which, by the way, is exactly what is happening in case of IITs and IIMs in India ) but by promoting excellence and providing a vibrant research atmosphere.

Lets make knowledge as universally accessible as we possibly can. The MIT Opencourseware and the MIT Videos are two excellent examples of this. These, however are instances where the individual faculty members have to spend time making this feasible. In the former case, existing course materials etc. are made available to the general public for free. Why does Delog want to do it ? Why would he spend time maintaining the blog, recording these chats when there is no apparently monetary benefit – many of these blogs have no ads – and even if there are, with a limited audience consisting of academicians and policy wonks perhaps, these ads are unlikely to generate any significant revenue to justify the use of their time. And its not just Delog, but other blogs I frequent – Greg Mankiw at Harvard ( one of the best economics blogs ! ), Nobelist Gary Becker at Chicago among others who are also faculty members at elite universities maintain a blog – why do they do this ?

This post from Prof. Mankiw partially answers this question.

Kudos Rajat ! April 18, 2006

Posted by Sharath Rao in education, india, people.
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Rajat Gupta is one man to appreciate. He knows a thing or two ( and more ! ) about institution building. This man built up one up – the ISB – from scratch and is on the way to another.

Personally, I have no patience with people who attempt to cover up their selfishness and/or incompetence with their disguised/cultivated cynicism.

Some excerpts from his interview with Shekhar.

I was admitted to the IIM, but I went to Harvard because I had the best jobs coming out of IIT and had an admission in IIM. About Harvard, it was one of the best business schools in the US and everybody said there you can’t get any financial aid and can’t get an admission without experience. But it so happened that they not only gave me admission but also gave me full financial aid. I didn’t have any money to go. I remember the job offer I had was at ITC. Haksar was the chairman at the time and I sent him a letter saying I can’t join. He said nobody has turned us down so you have to come and explain why you can’t join. He’d sent me an air ticket to come to Calcutta. That was my first flight in my life. I told him, look, either I join you or I can go to Harvard Business School. And he said, go to Harvard Business School, he was a graduate himself.

Here he talks about our socialist mentality – which basically says – the cake is fixed and forever – we can only make smaller and smaller pieces from it until none is left.

I don’t believe you can solve it by quotas. I believe in expanding the opportunity, expanding the supply. If there were 10 times more IITs or IIMs, there will be opportunity for everyone.

Why I love economics April 15, 2006

Posted by Sharath Rao in economics, people.
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“Imagine that there are two countries – Japan and the United States. Japan sits on the top of a hill and the United States sits at the bottom. To get US goods to Japan, one has to hire porters to carry the goods up the hill. But the Japanese can put their products in a chute and let gravity do the work – costlessly transporting Japanese goods down the hill to the US market. Not a level playing field, you should be thinking. Japan is clearly in the advantageous position. Not so fast, I caution the students. Who pays for lugging the US products up the hill? Why do you presume it is the US and not the Japanese? This should get them thinking about elasticities of supply and demand. If US goods are in short supply and are desperately desired by the Japanese, while Japanese goods are
abundant and not much desired by Americans, then it is the US at the bottom of the hill that is in the advantageous position and it is the Japanese who pay for the lugging of the goods up the hill. If the Japanese build their mountain artificially with trade barriers that make it difficult to ship Washington apples to Japanese consumers, and if the Japanese consumers would pay any price for those apples while Americans could care less about the latest Sony gadget, then it is the Japanese who pay for the barriers, not the Americans. So be careful when you put rocks in your harbor. And be sure to wear the right kind of glasses when you are viewing the playing field. What looks tilted one way with your regular glasses may be tilted the other way with econ-oculars.”

Thats an interesting thought there.

This comes as a part of the a detailed book review of Friedman’s book – The World is Flat. Now, I have quoted another ‘review’ of Friedman ( not just his book ) before here, but this is no parody – this is written by a UCLA economist. I dont think any serious economist has found this book anywhere near making sense – now, that its in the NYTimes best-sellers says something about –

a. how Pulitzer Prize winners can get away with producing dubious works or plain trash.

b. how NYTimes best-sellers’ list mustnt be take on the face value

c. how readers are just too overwhelmed by the India-China story. Yes, we know its happening – but its not as easy as Friedman thinks its happening

d. readers can be fooled by his metaphors that he himself promotes so much that I ( and am sure many more ) have sworn never to use them again.