Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Joy!

Of blogging, that is. About a year after I've started blogging, I'm finally doing it some justice. I've been writing more frequently, am gradually learning how to write shorter and (hopefully)more lucid prose and have finally realised the benefits of writing directly to a computer screen with various virtual tools to bail you out. No need to make messy cuts on the paper, simply delete and re-write. No need to draft, re-draft and then type the whole thing - just delete all and start over again if you're not satisfied. I am finally getting past what I stated here, and in the process also saving paper. (Ofcourse, determining whether the ecological impact of an hour of extra computer usage is lesser than that of a few wasted sheets of paper would involve some massive cost-benefit analsysis; but lets just go along some 'intuitive, seemingly correct' assertion for the time being). Today, I typed an entire post and closed the window without saving or publishing it. And then, astonishingly, found the patience to come back and re-write it after a small break. Ahh, the joy of blogging.

Guru (In which Mani Ratnam pulls off an Ekta Kapoor)

'Gurubhai Gurubhai aavya chhe...dhoom dhadhaka laavya chhe...gurubhai gurubhai aavya chhe...dhoom dhadhaka laavya chhe' (gurubhai has arrived, bringing the fireworks along with him). This ridiculous anthem blares at full blast while our protagonist marches on, literally and figuratively. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the world of Guru, a strange movie where an often brilliant attention to detail sits awkwardly with stylisations and cliches that would be more at home in a K-soap.

I was disappointed by Mani Ratnam's much awaited new release. Perhaps, it was a case of failed expectations as most of my friends, who have otherwise impeccable taste, loved it, and throughout the movie I was wondering why. There are things to be lauded in Guru - it is ideologically powerful, making a case for economic freedom, it is as true to reality as a fictionalised biopic can be, it is balanced in its portrayal of the lead protagnists, and the attention to a few details is staggering, for eg. the old railway compartment, the cloth market, the vintage cars etc. However, it never makes for a compelling drama. Not once in the movie is the viewer ecstatic, saddened, provoked to think deeply, or driven to rage. Guru is overlong, badly edited and failed to catch my attention for any sustained periods.

The screenplay leaves much to be desired, and never allows the actors to move beyond certain stylistics, acting-wise. AB Jr. is always slightly goofy early on, always slightly defiant later, Madhavan is always relaxed and self assured, and all the male characters are suitably stoic in death or defeat, as necessitated by the stereotype of the iron-willed male protagonist. Bleh. The songs are totally out of place, and stop the narative flow in a very irritating manner, with a tuneless ditty called 'Ek Nahin Do' being the worst offender. The climax with our beloved Gurubhai(he of the inane background score fame) is particularly tepid as it is a courtroom drama where the protagonist raves and rants a lot but never inspires, for he is a defendant in a case and never really makes a defence for himself. Worse, the scene is shot with all the cliches that would make Ekta Kapoor and KJo proud - there is a percussive background score, the camera zooms in and out of the faces of the jury (the villains about to have a change of heart, apparently), the protagonist is surrounded by stream of consciosuness voices and images, there is the obligatory public applause that gradually reaches a crescendo, and the jury pronounce Gurubhai a 'genius thug' with a loving indulgence. How could you Mr Ratnam? How could the man who gave us the most memorable melodaramatic climax of the 90s in Dil Se direct this kind of drivel? How?

AB Jr is good in the title role, depicting the transition from wonder-eyed and strong-willed to defiant and strong-willed in an adequate, though predictable manner. Aishwarya is ok, her attempts at playing an independent-minded girl and woman good, her attempts at getting into the skin of the character(while speaking Gujarati, for instance) palpable. MithunDa gives us glimpses of the actor who won the national award in his very first movie, with a stirring portrayal of Manek Gupta(or Ram Nath Goenka, simply) - his ego, his quirks, his character, his righteousness, his self-righteousness and the ultimate pointlessness of his rather moralistic fight. Madhavan is good again, but he is too much of a side-plot to make any real impact (incidentally, can anyone tell me who he's playing - S Gurumurthy or Arun Shourie). Vidya Balan is charming, and kisses on-screen with realism, ease and affection, with neither the hypocritical awkwardness nor the calculated sleaze that Bollywood smooches usually carry. The music, except for two great songs, is nothing to write home about.

Guru is ideologically strong and high on realism, however as a movie, as a work of art and of entertainment, it fails on many counts. Average by any standards and mediocre by Mani Ratnam's.

Rating - 5/10

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Images from Techfest 2007

The lure of John Nash, Arun Netravali and the Royal scoiety exhibitions, as well as the thought of attending atleast one edition of Asia's largest campus technical festival made me change plans last minute and stay back in Mumbai for two more days. Can't help feeling a little shortselled after what transpired next, and thats why this post.

A quick look at most of the events, and I was reminded again of why I have had no enthusiasm for these festivals in the past. Most of the competitions involve robotics, and I hate robots. Now there are some issues about robots that are very fascinating, including the fundamental question of the possibility of machine consciousness, but that is more AI and philosophy. Beyond some utility purposes, in terms of shopfloor automation etc., I see no point of robots as they are today. Robots that can swim, jump, play football, fight against each other...bleh - they are simply mechanical devices (I refuse to call the ones we commonly see as machines), and very pointless ones at that. For the life of me I cannot understand how some people, mostly Japanese, are actually interested in robot dolls or robot pets. The Japanese must be the saddest people on earth - they have zero population growth rate, get no real sex, wear boring suits, have humourless TV shows, get portrayed as sad in sad Bill Murray movies, produce really weird porn, really weird cartoons, inspire shitty Quentin tarantino movies, and are in love with robots. But I digress. The point is, there are some things that are considered cutting edge in terms of technology - robots and computer game animation - that the Japanese are considered masters of, and I have zero regard for them. A significant amount of talent at the very top of computer science goes into these fields, and I have a very strong feeling that it could be utilised much better elsewhere. In societal terms, there is simply not enough return on investment in these fields, though they perhaps make good localized business sense. Besides, robots are ugly.

The two guest lectures were also disappointing. The Video conference with Dr Netravali was reduced to an audio conference due to the repeated failure of the video connection, and because the talk was as general as 'the future of digital communications', most of it was uninspiring. There were a few interesting things however, including some of his predictions for the future and his exhortation to current students to implement certain tech advances that he termed 'gifts'. The converse happened with Dr John Nash's lecture. The communication links worked perfectly, however the talk was extremely specialized - 'Agencies In cooperative games', and a large part of the audience had gathered only to get a glimpse of the man made famous by 'A Beautiful Mind'. (not their fault entirely, the IITians had themselves hyped up the event in similiar terms and I was surprised that 'A Beautiful Mind' featured more in their promotions than 'Game Theory'). The talk was very specialized, and worse was not even a talk really, for Dr Nash actually only read out and tried to explain large portions of small-font typewritten text that no one in the audience could understand. It would have worked much better as a face to face lecture rather than a videoconferenced talk. I must also share part of the blame, for not having read game theory fundamentals before I went in to attend a talk with a rather specialized focus.

The Royal scoiety exhibitions were also OK, with the Mind Reader catching my interest. I'm convinced that cognitive science is the field in which we will have our next scientific revolution, and the nature of the field means that there is finally an area of study that can do true justice to the interdisciplinary tag.

All these things notwithstanding, I think I'm still better off having attended the two days. Also, got a Shell t-shirt as a freebie for some quiz question at one of these events!

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Land, again

Just had to write about this ever since it has struck me. With all this controversy about the Singur acquisition, why is is that none of the commentators on the blogosphere find it fit to criticise Tata Motors for their role in the whole controversy. Is it because that will mean opposing a business house, a capitalist, an epitome of a liberal economy? Or is it because criticising the government is the more 'done' thing as part of the liberal discourse, the easier way out in any controversy? The Tatas have enough MBAs, economists and general other such informed souls to know and understand the concept of individual freedom, property rights, and suchlike. If the government is acting as a land recovery agent for them, surely it is because they have asked the government to do so. If there has been an underpayment to the people losing their land, surely it is in part to indirectly subsidise the costs to Tata Motors. Why have they taken these route, and more importantly, why have they not been criticised, except by politicians/activists who will anyway attack any corporates as and when they want?

Yes, I know the obvious answer. Tata Motors will act in their rational self interest, if there aren't provisions for direct sale, and there are provision for government backed acquisition, why wouldn't they use these provisions? The government however, represents the people. It must take decisions and make and implement policies for the representative or the individual's interest, etc. Sorry, but this logic runs thin. The government is not the 'government', some abstract quantity, but the particular individuals and officials making up the government legislature and executive. When they strike a deal with Tata, they are also acting in their 'rational self-interest'. We expect better from them because they are the 'government', they run on our taxes, they represent us etc. but if we do so, we must also expect a certain ethical high standard from the corporate houses, whether they directly represent us or not. A liberal citizenry and a liberal government needs corporates that believe in the same tenets of liberalism - crony capitalism is a two-way wrong.

I would probably not have thought about this so much had it not been for the fact that this is the Tatas, the guys who set up the Tata Memorial Cancer Hospital, the IISc, TIFR, Air India, the Taj Mahal hotel. The Tatas, the relatives of Homi J Bhabha. The one business house that I have admired without any reservation whatsoever. Rational or irrational, I expected better from them.

Another interesting thing is the fact that most bloggers have also criticised this acquisition as being typical 'communist' policy. Just as the left-liberals have certain pet targets that must come up, irrespective of relevance (America, upper caste Hindus, all corporates, etc) the free market liberals have their own straw effigy to be burnt at every instance - the communists. Thin logic again. Bengal is not the only state acquiring land aggressively for SEZs etc, and most of the other states are not ruled by communists. India's socialist past may have given these governments the tools to indulge in some self-gratification in the name of development, the urge to act in 'rational self interest', however, is not a by-product of socialism/communism. Truth is, the inherent properties of communism or any other ideology have nothing to do with the current spate of land acquisition by the state governments, it is just that when it happens in a communist-ruled state, the hypocrisy is more evident, which really is tangential to the central issues of land ownership, property rights, industrialization and government intervention.

Also, read this Modi on liberalization
The man all liberals love to hate is the only one who is absolutely clear and categorical about the liberal way to industrialize. What irony!

Thursday, January 11, 2007


Yes I know the title I have used is a very tired cliche. Lets just attribute it to my lack of imagination and move on. Of course, I am about to pour gyaan on the entrance test that has caught the fancy of everyone who is anywhere in the vicinity of any media whatsoever. Since most reactions to the various changes in pattern, marking etc. tend to be either disgustingly predictable 'Expect the unexpected in CAT' or knee-jerk and inflammatory ' CAT this year was a mess, the IIMs didnt select me, I seriously dont know whats wrong with them they'll all burn in hell and die etc etc', a slightly informed critique is rather necessary.

First of all the basics for those who are as yet uninformed - 75 questions 300 marks...equally distributed over the three sections, very easy quantitative section, very ambiguous verbal section. Assuming that the shift to easy math and inference based english was not a result of accident, it is worthwhile to examine why the shift was effected in the first place. There is but one obvious answer - Indian students in general, and techies and managers in particular, are renowned for their quantitative skills and the general impression, not entirely untrue, is that the communication skills of even the best among them are not of equivalent level. Standardized tests administered by the US agencies, for eg SAT, GRE and GMAT tend to have much simpler math sections and conversely, have verbal sections that are either equivalent to or tougher than their Indian counterparts. It is not uncommon to see Indian engineers with GRE scores of 1300 with a break-up of Math:800, Verbal:500. Inspite of this, I have always believed that the American tests cannot be considered ideal in their balance either. To this day, I vividly remember the absolute shock I got when I realised that the first question in Math in the SAT I exam was basically asking me to subtract 6 from 11. I mean, was this what 12th graders were supposed to be asked? Ofcourse, at the same time I was also expected to know the meaning of the word 'marionette' which I didn't know then, and I've seen used only once in all of my habitual readings of newspapers etc in the 6 years that have passed by since that exam. So while a move towards giving equivalent weight to quantitaive and verbal skills is most necessary for CAT, I don't think a sudden dumbing down of the math level and a corresponding exponential leap in the verbal section was the answer.

Secondly, and more importantly, even if the basic plan was perhpas spot-on, the implementation was far from it. It is easy to see that if the relative toughness of a section is either very high or very low, people who are naturally more skilled in that department start with a huge advantage over those who are only moderately good in that section but more balanced. For eg, a very tough math section would mean that there would be a lot of questions that only people with strong mathematical backgrounds will be able to attempt. Also, if the math section is much easier than average, those who are good with numerical speed have a huge advantage over the others. To give most people a fair shot in quant. and to ensure that it doesn't become make or break, it is absolutely imperative that the section is of average difficulty.

As far as the verbal section goes, the huge amount of ambiguity introduced by the fact that most questions were inferential in nature rendered the concept of the 'educated guess' equivalent or even inferior as a tactic to wild guessing. The only safe option was to attempt a fewer number of questions, to basically be more risk-averse, which is not necessarily a quality that managers in the current Indian context should possess. More pertinently, atleast some questions had answers according to the official IIM key that could be debated for hours on end. There was a paragraph completion question, where the paragraph was taken from a paper by Noam Chomsky and the key obviously showed the answer as the sentence that Chomsky had himself used in his paper. Now Chomsky may have used those words because they seemed to him as most appropriate to carry forward the general idea he was propagating through the paper(as opposed to that one particular paragraph), yet there was nothing in the given four lines to suggest that the sentence given in the official answer key was more appropriate to round off the paragraph than atleast two other options that were given. This year's verbal section can be described as a test of a particular way of thinking, rather than that of a general proficiency in communication and language, and there's no reason to presume that people with that way of thinking would necesarily make better students/managers.

And then ofcourse there was the case of the cut-offs decided by IIM-A. This institute had very initially declared that sectional cut-offs will not be less than 25% marks, and it stuck to its word, with the Verbal cut-ff being the lowest at exactly 25 marks, which gave a percentile of 95.33 in that section. Now, this percentile was strangely extended to the other two sections in an extremely rigid algorithmic fashion, ensuring that those with a score of 45% in DI/LR(95.22 percentile) and 50% in math(95.27 percentile) lost out on sectional-cutoffs by extremely narrow margins, despite some of them having brilliant overall scores. Ahmedabad may have had its reasons, the number of students they wanted to shortlist for the interviews seems like a highly possible one, but I genuinely feel they have lost out on a significant number of very brilliant students who will probably grace one of the other IIMs.

And now for the facts ....

1) The topper had 204 marks
2) 100th percentile was achieved at 195 marks
3) The highest percentage in the three sections was, respectively, 86(DI/LR), 61(VA) and 100(QA).
4) A total of 123+ with a sectional distribution of 46+, 25+ and 51+ would ensure all six IIM calls.
5) The total marks obtained by the students seemed to fit beautifully in a log-normal curve, with a mean of around 36 and a standard deviation of around 41 on the positive side.

All factual analysis is courtesy the information gleaned from the discussion forum at


The previous post was inspired and informed by a few brilliant blog-posts and articles, apart from my own views. Here are the links

  • classic-example-of-government-dacoity

  • shallowness-of-west-bengal-land

  • imminent-danger-of-eminent-domain

  • shallowness-of-the-west-bengal-land-reforms
  • Land

    Land is the ultimate property, indeed it is very often the only real property, fittingly called real estate. Some considerable amount of thought has me convinced that the fundamental difference betwen the capitalist and the socialist forms of governance, the head-on conflict about private vs. public ownership w.r.t the means of production has its clearest and most basic manifestation in the issue of the ownership of land. The reason I have been compelled to go back to terms I first read in the 9th standard economics textbook is the recent spate of land acquisition by the various state governments to develop SEZs as part of the 'reforms' process and the Singur controversy in particular.

    The West Bengal government has used 'eminent domain' to get part of the 1000-odd acres that they have acquired for the Tata Motors plant at Singur, while mouthing the official line of 'We are trying to get consent'. They're also in the process of similiarly acquiring some 19,200 acres of land in Nandigram for an SEZ. Without delving into the political gimmickry surrounding both these acquisitions, the core issue on hand is something that is extremely fundamental to the basic model of governance, economic and otherwise, that a nation or a government adopts.

    Simply put, eminent domain is the right of the government to forcibly acquire land from its current owners or residents (I say residents because ownership can be a very tricky thing) at a price that it deems fit, if they refuse to sell it to the government. It has traditionally been used for projects that involve infrastructural development, the Sardar Sarovar project on the Narmada being a classic exmaple. The most common moral rationale given for such acquisition is 'greater common good', a term that is viewed, often rightly, with huge skepticism by liberal intelectuals.

    Working under the assumption that no one in their right mind supports a collectivist approach to land ownership, it is fascinating to examine the two basic approachs that remain, one that of liberal free-market capitalism and the other a more sitting-on-the-fence centrist approach that tries to find the middle ground. A libertarian viewpoint would put individual property rights above anything else, and argue that governance that is based on any sense of a unit that is more of a 'community' than an individual is bound to be subjective, hypocritical and open to flagrant abuse by the authorities and those close to them. While such a stand seems absolutely logical theoretically, it also reeks of moral grandstanding. A call of 'only private property' is fundamentally not very different from 'no private property' in its ideological absolutism. Transport, drinking water, etc. are integral to basic national infrastructure and it is the job of a government, even in a libertarian set-up, to provide for them. Railroads have to be built, roads have to built, dams have to be created. Some land will be required, some areas will be submerged, and some people will have to move. Ofcourse, it would be brilliant if the transaction happened through a proper consensual sale, but that is a truism, lets tackle the areas that are contentious. If you will criticise the government for acquiring land inspite of its residents' unwillingnes, and criticise the government for not doing enough for the infrastructure if it doesn't do so, and criticise it for wasting the taxpayers' money if it tries to find the middle ground by opting for an economically less viable project that goes through previously uninhabited land, you really do not leave the government with any choice, and are not helping the situation at all. Eminent domain has a purpose, and it must exist.

    The concept of 'greater common good' also does exist, but is nearly impossible to formalise. I have been told that its currently accepted definition is 'benefit whoever you want to, but do not degrade the existing standard of life of those you are affecting'. Cultural and emotional issues notwithstanding, 'do not degrade' would simply mean adequate compensation. Even assuming that there do exist correct formal methods of determining 'adequate compensation', the beautiful definition quoted above is, like most such beautiful definitions, a convenient truism. What if basic amenities to 50 people can be provided only by degrading the standard of life of some other 5? Should the government go ahead? What if the numbers are more evenly balanced, say 50 against 40? Should the government go ahead now?

    Coming back to Singur, it is easy to see that the primary reason for the controversy is the fact that Tata Motors is a private enterprise and hence the use of eminent domain for land for the 'Rs 1 Lakh car' factory just cannot be viewed at par with its use for land for say, railway tracks. What makes the situation truly scandalous is the fact that the government has a monopoly on the sale of agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes, which basically means that the farmers in Singur cannot sell their land to Tata directly, even if Tata was offering them a briliant deal, but Tata Motors can always lobby with the government and hence get the land at any rate that the government decides. This monopoly over the market for agricultural land was part of the land reforms carried out by successive state and national governments, in continuation with the abolition of the Zamindari system. The rationale is simple to see, the government didn't want the Zamindar to scoot after booking his profits by seling the land that was tilled by others but owned by him. The opposing rationale is simpler to see, and is far more convincing. The presence of government as the monopolistic intermediary increases the number of transactions points, the number of vested interests, the number of rent-seekers and those who make a 'cut' and is a stark example of a legislation that breeds crony capitalism instead of the intended socialist democracy. It is a classic demonstration of the fact that the tools that are required by a collectivist government to take from the rich and give to the poor are the exact same tools required to take from the poor and give to the rich. The rationale behind land reforms, however cannot be faulted as a whole. A defence of private property rights is not an adequate argument for the rights of the 'Zamindars' and the Zamindari system had to be abolished. Like so many things however, land reforms in India have been carried out insufficiently, indiscriminately and with the use of heavy handed statist legislation instead of a judicious centrist balance.

    The inherent problem with the centrist approach that I take is that it can be easily accused of hypocrisy and subjectivity unless a specific concrete model outlining the basic points of balance is presented. Here goes then, my set of conclusions.

    1) Eminent domain must stay. It must however, be used only in government projects that can be counted as integral to the basic national infrastructure and nation-building. The dam on Narmada should have been built, else large parts of Saurashtra may have never recieved clean drinking water. However, the Tata Motors plant in Singur, irrespective of the revenue or the employment that it will generate, cannot be counted as integral to public infrastructure and the state or the national government should have nothing to do with land acquisition for the same.

    2) The government monopoly on the sale of agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes must go. If Tata Motors has to lobby with someone to acquire land at Singur, it should be the villagers or the Gram Panchayat directly. The compensation deal, in terms of money/employment/education/whatever should be directly between the company and the farmers, and if the farmers still refuse, the company must search elsewhere instead of asking the government to play mai-baap.

    3) Atleast some part of the relief and rehabilitation work in any project where the government does use eminent domain must precede the work done by the government for the project itself.

    4) SEZs are a sham. If a rule has to be relaxed for the economy to prosper, there is no reason why it must be relaxed only in a particular area and only for those companies that are big enough to manage to get land in those areas. If the reform process has to be gradual or humane(whatever that means), the relaxation of the rules may be more gradual in pace, but whenever implemented, it must be implemented for the entire nation at a go. A couple of days ago, the PM said something to the effect of 'the government will acquire land aggressively to force the pace of industrialisation'. Mr Prime Minister, reforms are about removing the stumbling blocks in the setting up of private enterprise, not about 'forcing the pace of industrialisation' which is simply Stalin-talk thinly veiled as a proactive approach to reforms. The Soviet Union was also highly industrialized and also showed aggregate increase in economic prosperity. Government backed land acquisition for private players, while seemingly different from dirigiste practices, is actually very similiar. The spoils will simply be shared by the government and a handful of big private players, instead of only the government, as was the case in USSR.

    Post conclusions, as a loosely related aside, it is also very interesting, if cynicism-inducing, to notice that even in those cases where the land acquisition does not happen through the government, the basic element of coercion is ever-present. Say a large company wants to develop a large xx.yy lakh square feet mall in a city that it has previously no operations in and ties up with a local player to acquire land for the same. From first-hand knowledge, I can tell you that most of these local players are nothing but local real estate mafia and the 'acquisition' is a straightforward case of bullying and threatening and violence that is at times lethal. Ofcourse, I can also tell you that the people who are already present on many of these lands are also simply closely-knit communities of strong-men with various day jobs (the Bharwads in Gujarat, for eg.) who have no real claim to the land that they are occupying. Ownership, like I said, can be a very tricky thing.Reminds me of something that Mark Twain said - 'No individual or nation occupies a piece of land that was not once stolen'.