Friday, July 30, 2010

Prisoners' dilemma at the ping-pong table

At my workplace, we have at least one Ping Pong table on each of our floors. Next to each table we used to have a box with 4 rackets and a ball. People came, played, and then left the rackets in the box. Since not everybody was careful with them, the rackets we found were usually in bad shape, which was rather disconcerting. Some smart guy found a solution; the next time he found a racket that was relatively new, he didn't place it back in the box but instead he took it back with him, and it's possible that he (involuntarily) prompted his mates to do likewise.

So now the situation is a classic tragedy of commons. If you find a racket in the box, you can slink away with it or be a saint and put it back in the box. If you nick it, you'll probably get to play whenever you feel like. Keep it back and you'll probably never see it again. So everybody claims any racket they find. They don't do it out of malice, but simply because it is a rational being's dominant strategy. Consequently, people like me who've not (yet) shoplifted a racket never get to play. At least, not on a whim.

What got me thinking is that the people in this "experiment" (I call it that because it makes me less frustrated) are some of the most pampered folks in this country. They earn enough to satisfy their needs, wants and more, and could easily afford a racket or thousand, and our office is arguably one of the best workplaces around. If this is an indication of how highly educated, privileged people instinctively treat their shared resources, then the outlook for humanity must be rather bleak.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Zenrainman museum addendum

I couple of months ago I wrote a post on Zenrainman's house. I missed out a very important feature of that house, the view from their window. Here it is:

Friday, July 16, 2010

Short note on why I support caste-based census

For a very long time I was a typical urban-educated upper-caste twit who balked at the idea of Reservations (or was I just being what the economists call a Rational Individual?). Some time in the last decade I became convinced that in a massively unbalanced society like ours equity can only restored with the helping hand of affirmative action. I won't go into the details of why I reached that conclusion, but I am a supporter of reservations, although I have huge issues with how it is being implemented; I'd prefer it to be timebound, statistics-based and more importanly executed on economic rather than religious lines. However, we are where we are and in order to get to the claimed objectives, we should be able to measure what percentage of a particular caste benefits from the opportunity handed out to them. We need to compare the stats across castes, states and over time to evaluate the efficacy of this scheme . For all this it's important to document the numbers and I can't think of a better way than through that mammoth data-collection activity that we already indulge in. While a caste-based census carries the risk of perpetuating divisions in society, not collecting numbers is bound to lead to massive abuse and a total lack of accountability.

Having said that what really gets my goat is that I can't mark my religion as "none" on the census form.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Give me back my zero!

I hadn't heard of Joel Stein until I came across a piece he wrote for Time called My Own Private India. It was one of those pieces that make you prime yourself for a laugh or two, but you end up not even cracking a smile. After I finished wondering about the point of that whole piece, I did concede a belated grin; not because the commentary was humorous, but because it poked fun at Indians and that was going to elicit a lot of drama. We weren't going to dismiss this insult and move on, because our skin might come in different shades of brown but it's uniformly thin as muslin. We are a nation that took to the streets when Billu Barber was released because, well, it offended barbers by calling them barbers.

I was hoping for boycotts, statements of outrage issued from the highest diplomatic echelons, burnt effigies, garlanded donkeys. Inexplicably, nothing happened. Not even that customary, time-honoured email forward that says "17% of NASA engineers are Indians. Indians gave the world go join this facebook page to register your protest". Just when I was going to give up hope some dude called Rahul Parikh appointed himself leader of the chest-beating orchestra and wrote this masterpiece in overreaction. His hyperbolic sign-off read "...the Statue of Liberty should shed a tear. And Mahatma Gandhi just did". Just to educate the ignorant Joel Stein, Mahatma Gandhi was our former minister of Trivial Pursuits and Hypersensitivity.

I have a feeling that 5 years hence, when the two authors read their respective pieces, Parikh will be the more embarrassed one.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010


There are several things to like about the Netherlands. I love the dutch language. I really like Amsterdam (there's a lot more to that city than nudge-nudge-wink-wink). Apart from one incident when a dutchman, having caught me leaning against his car -I was doing that to stabilize my camera- called me a "Pakistani" (totally diluting the intended insult in the process), the people there are universally sweet and pleasant. On occasion they've showered me with a lot of adulation. But perhaps my favourite thing about the Netherlands is their football team.

I fell in love with the Oranje when that old show on DD called "The World of Football" featured Johan Cruyff and his brand of Total Football. Even in those grainy video clips the fluid movements of the players in orange was as trance-inducing as a space cake in an Amsterdam café. The addiction has lasted a long time. My fanaticism continued when I was in high school although the only thing I knew about dutch football was what I learnt from the backs of the sport cards that I got free with Champ chewing gums. Even with that limited exposure I was a fan of Ruud Gullit and Marco Van Basten. Later on, I continued to follow them through the reporting in the Sportstar. That magazine also gave me a Dennis Bergkamp poster that adorned one of the walls in my room.

Even after I outgrew sport cards and posters, I continued to root for them in every single competition. While watching football in the pubs I remember passionately making a case for my favorite dutch players; Zenden, Overmars, the De Boer twins, Seedorf and so on. Even now I retain an affection for the Robbens and the Sneijders that's as illogical as the passion for one's own team. While I make this post, Spain and Germany are fighting for the right to play against the dutch. Both these teams look better than the Netherlands, but my loyalty is unconfused.