Other lives

When I was in middle school I used to regularly attend a “bible class.” Twice a week, we had about an hour of rather generic discussions at a priest’s house, after the music class that he taught (yes, I played the recorder, too). It was actually not bad at all, in contrast to the vacation bible school at the local church that my parents made me try at a younger age, where I absolutely refused to return after the first day. There was never any question of doubting the basic tenets (tenet, I suppose), and no one was discussing politics, as it was just whatever a group of pre-teens could relate to. And who could object to not lying or stealing or “being mean”?

One day, it so turned out that it was just me and a bunch of girls. None (I don’t even remember the exact number any more, but the possible total was never more than 3 or 4 in any case) of my friends had showed up. I was around 11 or 12. Girls were both weird and, occasionally, scary. It so happened that I was having some adolescent spat or the other with one of the girls present. I don’t know quite how the conversation got here, but at some point she declared quite confidently that I couldn’t find more than 5 people in class who “liked” me.

I had always been rather socially awkward, and in any case generally preferred a good book or movie to sports or things other people did together, so in the sense of not having more than 5 people who enjoyed regularly spending time with me, this wasn’t necessarily an outrageous proposition. And yet, it rankled. What did “like” mean, anyway? Surely I was liked. I decided to find out. I bet her she was wrong, went a few rounds of verbal football, and the next day, I went around the classroom asking people to sign a piece of paper saying they liked me.

Everybody signed, if I remember right. In some sense I suppose it’s hard not to, when someone is asking you to do something so ridiculous . Emboldened, I even took it to my teachers. I went into the staff room during the lunch break and passed around this little sheet. My science teacher – this I do remember perfectly – refused, saying she didn’t need to sign some paper to show that she “liked” me. I pushed a little, but not very much. After all, I had already surpassed the required number several times over.

At the end of the day, I went and showed this girl the paper. She grinned and said I had won the bet, in a way that I then took to mean sheepishness, but in retrospect could well have been some combination of amusement or scorn.

I remember feeling positively giddy with happiness for a few minutes, before I felt downright miserable.

This story has no point.

The Economics Platform

I’m listening to old NPR Planet Money episodes and they have this whole sequence about what “economists agree on” and what their “fake presidential candidate” would run on. And wouldn’t you know it? It’s basically the Sane Left-Libertarian Party platform. Legalize marijuana. Cut the corporate income tax. Cut mortgage interest deduction. Cut income taxes entirely, replace it with a consumption tax. Add a carbon tax to make up the rest. Thats just the obvious stuff.

Particularly interesting is episode 406, where they bring in the political consultants, who tell them they don’t have a hope in hell, because nobody votes for anything sensible. I’m paraphrasing, but not by much. Listen to it, it’s an entire government internship worth of idealism-busting.

Of course, in this country you only need to turn on any news channel to achieve that effect.

Monday morning

Sadness is irritating. Melancholy steals up as self-pity at the oddest moments, with no warning whatsoever. It then quickly generalizes. Sadness is contagious in a different way than happiness is. (But thank God happiness is.)

I just watched Beginners. It was sweet. And sad. Melanie Laurent cries beautifully.

My first offshore hitch is just about to end. There’s something very freeing about having the logging unit all to myself and not having to share it with someone else. Loneliness is sort of inherent in the situation anyway. If you only have a limited set of people that you’re trapped with in the middle of the ocean (or a few miles from shore, as the case may be, you need a chopper to get you in anyway) then the chances are you’ll get sick of them sooner or later. Rationing is critical.

I still haven’t managed to catch a sunrise or a sunset, even though I’m awake at both times, usually. The sunrise is on the side that the mast and most of the hoopla of the rig is, but I bet I could still click some lovely pictures if I tried.

I am listening to Elvis croon love Me Tender and dissolving in a placid puddle of self-absorption.

A Hasty Theory of Social Networking

Facebook succeeds so well at capturing our attention because it elevates the mere living of our lives into a performance, and there are surprisingly few who do not revel in it. We don’t fear the panopticon, we embrace it! Of course, it works precisely because it doesn’t see all. But we are happy to disgorge vast quantities of ourselves in order to craft an identity we consider even a marginal improvement on what we feel we truly are.

A Fairy Tale

White-haired and -bearded wizard with robes an...

An otherwise intelligent friend who tends to read about this sort of thing a lot forwarded me this link about “The Law of Attraction” (ala The Secret). After I delivered a somewhat immoderate blast about the nature of reality and how consciousness, while certainly a mystery and all that, is misplaced in this sort of discussion, he asked me to pretend he was my 4-year-old and to tell him a “bedtime story” that represents my idea about “the universe.” This is how I obliged. I’m not sure he got the allegory, but I thought it was rather obvious.

Once upon a time there was a young prince who went out into the woods to find some treasure. He walked around for hours and days and months, but he couldn’t find any. Then, he went to a wizard. The wizard told him: “If you want to find treasure, you must first learn how to search for it properly.

And the prince stayed with the wizard for 7 years and 7 months and 7 days and read a lot of books and thought about a lot of things and the wizard taught the prince how to tell when he was close to treasure. He also taught the prince how sometimes, even if he thinks he’s close to treasure, he isn’t, really. And sometimes even if he’s really sure he’s right, he should still think about all the things the wizard taught him to make sure, and if they didn’t agree, he should be really, really sure before he ignores what the wizard said.

And then the prince went out and searched for years and years. Finally, he did find some treasure, but it was a lot less than he had hoped for, and he was disappointed. But along the way he found a princess and found out a lot of cool things, and had a lot of fun. So he was still happy that he had gone out to find the treasure instead of sitting around in the castle all day.

In the end, he and the princess took the treasure and went back to the palace and lived happily ever after.

(In another version of this story he finds a lot of treasure. In another version a bandit kills him before he meets the wizard at all. In another version the prince is gay.)

I should add that I find the basic argument of the article (positive thoughts seem to help, so regardless of whether the mumbo-jumbo is true or not, why not try heeding the advice?) more or less sound. The immoderation was provoked by the other parts of the article and how the author makes a feeble attempt at “science”, and the discussion was more a continuation of similar discussions we have had before. Also, the many-worlds hypothesis, which apparently this guy has never heard of.

PS: This quote from T.H. White’s The Once and Future King is one of my absolute favourites.

Odalarevu Diary


I am wallowing in the utter despair of being paid to loll around on a beachfront sipping beer, making my way through The War of the End of the World (Mario Vargas Llosa) and not being able to put any of it up on Facebook. Or do anything online, for that matter. Or charge my iPad, which refuses to acknowledge that it is being charged even if you connect it up and the little red light on the USB-power adapter blinks bright enough to disturb my sleep.

My grandmother thinks I should write some barebones description of the places that I travel to for work, so here goes:

Assam is wet and green and pot-holed and populated entirely by paan-chewers. Abu dhabi is dry and sandy and glitzy, even if it’s less glitzy than Dubai. The Krishna-Godavari basin in Andhra Pradesh, currently being developed (exploited, if you prefer) for oil at a feverish pace, is also green, but less pointedly so. It has very long bridges across very wide rivers. And some very nice, empty beaches with jack-up rigs dotting the horizon.

Mumbai is Mumbai and enough has been said about it elsewhere. Stick to the western suburbs if you want some semblance of livability, else find some expensive wholly redeveloped area, carved out and separated from the rest of the city, like the one my company crams us into.

Going back to parts of Kerala from most indian cities one has the feeling that one is going to an altogether different country, not because of any geographical distinctness- this Andhra beach is as white, as studded with coconut palms, and the fields around as green- but because the culture and general prosperity, not to mention idleness, seems akin to, say, the south of France (which I should point out i have never actually been to.) It’s a little enclave from the rest of this “developing country”, really, some half-baked realization of Keynes’s hope of a prosperous future where people work only 20 hours a week and use the productivity gains from technological advancement (in this case, technological advancement elsewhere, and the oil in the middle east that fuels it, and the double shift working non-resident keralite who forms the backbone of that economy) to live a comfortable if not luxurious life. You could point out that we have virtually no industry, that easily 20% of the economy consists of remittances, and that youth unemployment typically hovers around 25%, but that’s really just a problem with your metrics, counting all the young men taking several years off before they find their fortunes in “Gelf” as unemployed.

Aside from Meg Cabot’s oeuvre of teenage romances, over the past several weeks I read Neal Stephenson’s “In the Beginning was the Command Line”. It’s a slim booklet explaining the history of and differences between Windows, Macintosh, Linux, and BeOS, which was actually a contender at the time; according to Neal and many others, it seems to have been really worth trying, and I regret that I didn’t have the chance before it went bust for good. The book is rather dated, but it is worth reading for precisely that reason: it was written at an interesting time in the history of Operating Systems, and should prove fascinating to even the least geeky member of my audience. As with anything else written by Stephenson, it zooms in and out an pans all over the place over the course of completing its central narrative. Excerpt (yes, endorsed):

“The global anti-culture that has been conveyed into every cranny of the world by television is a culture unto itself, and by the standards of great and ancient cultures like Islam and France, it seems grossly inferior, at least at first. The only good thing you can say about it is that it makes world wars and Holocausts less likely–and that is actually a pretty good thing!

The only real problem is that anyone who has no culture, other than this global monoculture, is completely screwed. Anyone who grows up watching TV, never sees any religion or philosophy, is raised in an atmosphere of moral relativism, learns about civics from watching bimbo eruptions on network TV news, and attends a university where postmodernists vie to outdo each other in demolishing traditional notions of truth and quality, is going to come out into the world as one pretty feckless human being. And–again–perhaps the goal of all this is to make us feckless so we won’t nuke each other.”

Makes sense, right?


The Immortals of Meluha

OK, you can call me a fan. I picked it up at the airport bookshop mostly because at 200 Rs and 400 pages it seemed like a rather low-cost bet, and I figured that I could use it to while away at least some time after my phone battery runs out. I ended up almost finishing it over the course of the next 3 hours, and I could hardly wait to finish the last few pages after I got back home.

The Immortals of Meluha

The Immortals of Meluha (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The book is set in some version of the Indus Valley Civilization called “Meluha”, and this first volume of the Shiva trilogy tells the story of the young tribal chief Shiva and his introduction to Meluha society and their acceptance of him as the “Mahadev”. It is a fascinatingly plotted tale and it is told at a very joyful speed, even where the issues are grave and complex. I am the sort of reader that looks to lose myself in books, if only they would let me. This book certainly does that, even if the writing can tend to chunky and there are occasional errors (phrases are repeated in conversations, and not to good rhetorical effect; at one point it uses “council” for the verb “counsel”, etc). It deals with a variety of moral issues without appearing to proselytize, and it is easy enough to empathize with the characters in their moral quandries, something that most authors cannot get me to do. Even when I harboured suspicions that I was being “sold” some version of Hinduism in the guise of fiction, I was able to find something to empathize with, so that at least it is a version I would probably be able to live with.

I doubt that it is in any way intentional, but I found the similarities between Meluha and Eragon, by Christopher Paolini, quite striking. The way Shiva approaches the Meluhans’ “perfect” civilization is very much like Eragon and the elves; the way Eragon/Shiva falls instantly and deeply for the “perfect” aristocratic lady with a tragic past (a 100 years older than the respective messiahs in both cases); the initially divided, eventually faithful responses of the Elves/Meluhans to Eragon/Shiva – it’s an arc joined at many points, but since both stories keep me entertained I shan’t complain.

The author Amish Tripathi goes by just “Amish” on the cover, and is (yet another) IIM-grad/former financier turned immensely popular fiction author. I’m really looking forward to reading the next two books, which I believe are already out.

Inevitable Aggregation

    Suppose that [“a mythical visitor from Mars”] approaches the Earth from space, equipped with a telescope that revels social structures. The firms reveal themselves, say, as solid green areas with faint interior contours marking out divisions and departments. Market transactions show as red lines connecting firms, forming a network in the spaces between them. Within firms (and perhaps even between them) the approaching visitor also sees pale blue lines, the lines of authority connecting bosses with various levels of workers. As our visitors looked more carefully at the scene beneath, it might see one of the green masses divide, as a firm divested itself of one of its divisions. Or it might see one green object gobble up another. At this distance, the departing golden parachutes would probably not be visible.

No matter whether our visitor approached the United States or the Soviet Union, urban China or the European Community, the greater part of the space below it would be within green areas, for almost all of the inhabitants would be employees, hence inside the firm boundaries. Organizations would be the dominant feature of the landscape. A message sent back home, describing the scene, would speak of “large green areas interconnected by red lines.” It would not likely speak of “a network of red lines connecting green spots.”

Herbert Simon in 1991 via In Soviet Union, Optimization Problem Solves You .

I would like someone to actually do this, please. An infographic on the sizes of major companies normalized by national (should it be global for MNCs?) GDP and their relationships to one another with thicknesses corresponding to volume of trade. I don’t think my graphic design skills are quite up to the task, although it’s mostly just that it would take simply ages. Maybe just in one sector, for just the US and China? Say, technology and communications companies? There will be inevitable spillover that we can depict with lines leading nowhere.


Quick heads up: I had heard about Radiolab before as “a cool science podcast” but it was Ira Glass’s admiring essay that really made me want to take it seriously, and I am so glad I did! He’s right, it IS the best podcast ever! It’s almost like the platonic ideal of podcasts*. When I first started listening to podcasts, I heavily favoured the easy conversational style of, say, the Overthinking It podcast (well worth listening to if you’re into pop culture and a certain hipster aesthetic) and for a long time I couldn’t get into the much more slickly produced nature of Freakonomics or most other “proper” shows. Radiolab, as Ira explains, easily captures the best of both worlds.

And the music! And the topics! I don’t like to think of myself as a cynical man but I have come to the conclusion that I probably am, all the same. Well, most of the time it only takes a good xkcd comic to arouse a sense of “enchanted naturalism” in me, but that is fickle, and Radiolab seems like it could do the job quite consistently. I’m really looking forward to catching up on their shows.

*OK, so the voicemail-as-advertisements/sponsorship messages thing kind of turns me off a bit, but other than that… it’s really good!


There is an argument for spending on travel and experiences compared to more durable goods that goes like this: one should spend on travel or a good meal even though it is such an ephemeral thing compared to jewelry or a gadget or something actually useful not (simply) because the “satisfaction”, vaguely defined, is somehow more “real” but also because the memories that one forms are, in fact, durable goods in the same way and yield more pleasure than the others. Think about it. Most people don’t REALLY enjoy vacations all that much when they’re on them. They enjoy the anticipation when they’re toiling away at work- even, one assumes, when the work is their calling, because there is always toil- and they enjoy reflecting back on it later, but most vacations are stretches of logistical nightmare punctuated by flashes of upliftment… A brilliant landscape, a rare moment of levity, the occasional chemically induced state of exhilaration. But thanks to the wonderful propensity of men to drown out the bad and remember the good, the memories are far more uniformly blissful.

Every time I listen to Mumford and Sons now I think back to ENG-1, which is when I first discovered them, about 2 years late. That was barely 2 months ago, so it’s not a surprise that the memories are vivid. But the really weird thing is that every time I hear Winter Winds what I think about is the time in ENG-1 that I spent thinking about times some 6 months before that. Apparently our memories are re-written and consolidated anew every time we revisit them. That would certainly explain why all of these things are now so inextricably linked to each other.

Everything is a version of everything else.

Maybe at some point there is a condensation into a singular state of being, a true representation of the man as he is, a collapse of the wave function into some semblance of coherence, but somehow I don’t think so.

Oh man, their songs are so good.

PS: Evidence.