Browse Archives

By Category

By Date


My Friend Sancho

My first novel, My Friend Sancho, is now on the stands across India. It is a contemporary love story set in Mumbai, and was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2008. To learn more about the book, click here.


To buy it online from the US, click here.


I am currently on a book tour to promote the book. Please check out our schedule of city launches. India Uncut readers are invited to all of them, no pass required, so do drop in and say hello.


If you're interested, do join the Facebook group for My Friend Sancho


Click here for more about my publisher, Hachette India.


And ah, my posts on India Uncut about My Friend Sancho can be found here.


Bastiat Prize 2007 Winner

Category Archives: Essays and Op-Eds

The Balancing Act

This is the third installment of my weekly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

If Jimi Hendrix was a poker player, he might well have come up with an album called ‘Are You Balanced?’ The higher you rise up the stakes, the more you hear about balance from people. ‘Are you balanced in this spot?’ ‘I called because I thought, no way you’re balanced here.’ And so on. What does balance in poker really mean?

Balance has all to do with game theory, so let’s first look at it in the context of another game: Rock, Paper, Scissors (RPS). You are asked to design a strategy for an RPS bot, and to reveal it to your opponent before the games begin. What is the best strategy you can design? Game theoretically, it is to randomise completely, so that in the long run you will have an equal number of Rock, Paper and Scissor in your range. This is the only strategy you could have that your opponent simply cannot beat, even when he knows it in advance. It is game-theory optimal (GTO). And it is balanced.

Let’s turn to poker. You raise with AKcc, I call from the big blind. The flop comes KQ3 with two hearts. I check. You bet. I raise. What do you do here?

If you think I would only raise stronger hands such as KQ and 33, you can correctly fold here. If you think I tend to slowplay those hands and would only raise with a draw, you should continue. However, if my range is balanced here, and includes hands that beat you as well as draws and some air, your decision is harder. You could make a mistake by calling; and you could make a mistake by folding. You need to estimate the equity you have against my made hands, the equity you have against my semi-bluffs, the frequency with which I have hands in those two categories and then figure out the best line to take. If I am perfectly balanced, you’re in trouble.

In this example, there are future streets of betting left, so let’s turn to a simpler river spot. You and I are in a hand that reaches the river, where I make a pot-sized bet. You are getting 2-1 on a call, and my game-theoretical aim is to make you indifferent to calling or folding. Therefore, one-third of my hands should be bluffs. (Note that balance does not mean an equal number of bluffs and value hands. It depends on the odds being offered to the opponent.) If this is the case, I can never lose in the long term, but win if you fold too much or call too much.

It’s remarkable that if you can play GTO poker, you don’t have to take into account your opponent’s ranges or tendencies. You simply need to get your own frequencies and bet-sizing right, and design your ranges accordingly. But this is almost impossible to do in practice, and even the best players only try to approximate it. Besides, you’d need to play GTO poker only in high-stakes online cash games. In all the local live games you are likely to encounter, you should aim to be exploitive rather than balanced.

Let’s go back to RPS.If someone tends to go 70% Paper, playing GTO is not the most profitable line to take. You should exploit this player by increasing the Scissor in your range. In the first poker example above, against a guy who never folds top pair, I will only raise there with better made hands; against someone who folds too much, I will raise with a greater proportion of bluffs and semi-bluffs than is GTO.

Note that an exploitive strategy, by not being balanced, is also exploitable. If I adjust to the 70% Paper guy with more Scissor, it becomes easy for either him or another observant player to adjust to my adjustment with more Rock. If two players keep adjusting to each other optimally, they will eventually both be perfectly balanced. But in practice, this rarely happens.

All players make mistakes; all players have leaks. It is usually more profitable for you to be exploitive (and exploitable) than balanced. But knowing what is GTO in many spots will help you avoid mistakes and spot exploitable imbalances in others. In poker, as in life, balance is a good thing.

*

For more on the use of game theory in poker, here are three recent books I recommend highly:

Applications of No Limit Hold’em by Matthew Janda is a primer for GTO play in six-handed games. It’s an outstanding book, and I also recommend checking out his training videos on Cardrunners.com.

Expert Heads Up No Limit Hold’em by Will Tipton uses game theory to analyze heads-up play.

Poker’s 1%: The One Big Secret That Keeps Elite Players On Top by Ed Miller deals with optimal betting and calling frequencies, and how to construct ranges that can help you conform to those. Here’s Miller’s website; and you’ll find a recent interview of his on Andrew Brokos’s podcast here.

If you want to learn more about game theory in general, outside the context of poker, The Art of Strategy by Avinash Dixit and Barry Nalebuff is a fantastic introduction.

*

Previously on Range Rover:

The Numbers Game
The Bookshop Romeo

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 April, 2014 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport


The Language of Indian Politics

This is the third installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

Indian politics is a strange beast. I just completed an online politics quiz that promised to tell me which political party I should vote for based on issues. I answered questions on economics, foreign policy, healthcare and brands of dog food to be told that I supported 81 per cent, 78 per cent and 68 per cent respectively of the main three parties’ positions. In truth, I am repulsed by Indian politics – but that finding is not as absurd as it seems.

How does one think about Indian politics? In Arnold Kling’s excellent book, The Three Languages of Politics, he argues that American politics revolves around ‘three dominant heuristics (oppressor-oppressed, civilization-barbarism, freedom-coercion).’ Progressives look at the world through the prism of oppression, conservatives through that of Western civilisational values being under threat, and for libertarians, individual freedom is paramount. These three ‘tribes’ have their own political language which usually just serves the purpose of talking past the others, who they typically regard as ‘unreasonable’. They frequently engage in ‘motivated reasoning’ – parsing the facts for only those that support the conclusions they’ve already reached – instead of ‘constructive reasoning’ – analysing the facts on their own merit to try and arrive at the truth. Kling argues that the political space in America is getting more and more polarised because these three tribes just can’t talk to each other anymore.

Now, in a superficial sense, it might seem that these heuristics are relevant to Indian politics. The BJP, with its religious nationalism, might seem like an Indian version of American conservatism. The Congress, from Jawaharlal Nehru’s Fabian Socialism to Indira Gandhi’s ‘Garibi Hatao’ to Rahul Gandhi’s vacuous social welfare talk, might seem to fall into the progressive camp. Local political commentators have long been used to analysing Indian politics in terms of ‘left’ and ‘right’. This is misplaced.

In America, while the beliefs of each side might seem idiotic to the other, they are at least internally coherent. The political parties in India, in contrast, are all over the map. If you cut-paste paragraphs from the party manifestos and submit me to a blind test on who said what, I would surely fail. (The fault would not be mine.) And if we ignore rhetoric and examine the behaviour of the parties when in power, whether at the centre or state level, the difference between them is negligible. If the BJP is against free markets – witness their stand on FDI in retail – the Congress has always been an enemy of free speech – they are the ones who banned The Satanic Verses. Who is left and who is right?

There are two factors that shape politics in India. One is the nature and structure of government. Our government is far more powerful than it should be, with an excess of discretionary power over the common man. We are worse off under our government, regardless of which party is in charge, than we were under the British. Our government is effectively set up not to serve us, but to rule us – and to extract hafta from us as the underworld would. Think of political parties as rival mafia gangs fighting for the right to loot us for five years.

The second factor shaping our politics is the nature of our electorate. Most of our politics is local; and all of it is tribal. Our tribes aren’t formed around ideas or ideologies, though, but around identity. (Caste and religion, mainly, in that order.) And the art of Indian politics is creating and sustaining votebanks out of these many disparate tribes. The alleged pseudo-secularism of the Congress, for example, is a consequence of their wooing minority votebanks. The rise of the BJP in Gujarat in the late ‘80s and the ‘90s, in fact, was partly because the Patels and the Brahmins came into the BJP fold as a backlash to the Congress masterplan of consolidating their KHAM votebank (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi, Muslim) with the help of reservations. The Ram Janmabhoomi movement, a political masterstroke, finished off what was left of the KHAM alliance. There were no higher ideals being pursued here: Indian politics is about patronage, about mustering up enough votes to get to power; and then rewarding the folk who got you in.

Our two main parties are an abomination. The Congress is an empty shell devoid of belief, and tied up in a feudalism that has harmed our nation and made Narendra Modi possible. (India would be a better place if Kamala Nehru had had a headache all of February 1917.) The BJP has its roots in a religious outfit in which grown men show how macho they are by doing PT drill in khaki knickers, though I believe their leader is more in thrall of Mukesh Ambani than Veer Savarkar. Hindutva is just a political tool. Offer Modi a chance to rule in hell or serve in heaven, and he will choose hell. Power is the only religion.

AAP might appear to be an exception to this – but is it really? It defines itself mainly in opposition to the other players – ‘politicians bad, we’re the common man, vote for us’—but what exactly do they stand for themselves? How you you reconcile a party that brings together strange bedfellows such as Kumar Vishwas and Medha Patkar, Meera Sanyal and Prashant Bhushan? Arvind Kejriwal correctly focussed on a huge problem in our country – corruption – but came up with a solution that would make the problem worse. (Instead of reducing the discretionary power of government, which is the root cause of corruption, he wants to add an extra layer of discretion in the form of a Jan Lokpal. Like, duh, that will work, really?) They’re an outstanding political startup, but politics is to governance what courtship is to marriage, and we all saw how they behaved in Delhi. 

One remarkable thing about these elections is that it seems to have shaken the young, the urban, the middle-class out of their apathy. I can’t say the same for myself.  It’s going to be a long, hot summer, and I’d like some lemonade.

*

Previously on Lighthouse:

Politics and the Sociopath
A Godless Congregation

Posted by Amit Varma on 11 April, 2014 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Lighthouse | Politics


The Numbers Game

This is the second installment of my weekly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

‘Math is over-rated in poker,’ said a friend the other day. ‘Poker is about psychology, reads, getting inside your opponent’s heads. Math, shmath, pah.’ This is a popular view among many recreational players – but they couldn’t be more wrong. In my view, maths is the foundation of poker, and everything else feeds into it. If you do not master the numbers game, you cannot master poker.

Consider what a decision at a poker table involves. You’re in a hand against an opponent. From the information available to you, you try to put him on a range of hands, and modify that as the hand progresses. Your actions depend on two things: the equity of your hand against his range; and the likelihood of his folding or calling at any stage. Simply put, pot equity (PE) and fold equity (FE). Once you estimate those, it’s just a matter of crunching the numbers to come up with the mathemetically correct decision.

Now, your reads and psychological insights are not irrelevant. On the contrary, they’re among the tools you use to figure out your opponent’s range, and how likely he is to call or fold. In other words, they help you arrive at both your PE and FE in the hand. But having done that, it boils down to the math. Here’s an example.

Stacks are deep, you open with AJcc on the button. The big blind flats. The flop comes KJ2 with two hearts. BB checks, you bet, BB calls. You now put him on a range that includes any king he calls with preflop, any jack, middle pocket pairs like TT and 99, the open-ender with QT and any flush draw he called with pre. The turn is a brick, an offsuit 5. Both of you check. The river is another offsuit 5.  He now bets 75% of pot. What do you do?

You’d expect him to check back here with any jack, TT and 99. Let’s say he value-bets every hand that beats you, most probably top pair. And he bluffs with QT and every plausible missed flush draw. Against this range, we have 33% equity. Since he bet 75% of pot, we’re getting 2.3 to 1 to call here, meaning the call is justified if we have 30% equity. We have 33%, so we call.

But let’s say that you are an astute reader of this particular player, and of the situation. He tends to be passive, this session is almost over, he is about break-even after having been down. In this spot, you estimate he’d bluff with a flush draw or QT just 50% of the time, but would value bet a K every time. The numbers change: against the same range, but with the bluffing layer weighted at 50%, you now have 21% equity. You should fold.

Do you see what happened here? Your psychological insight and player profiling, maybe even a tell of strength you spotted, helped you make the correct play. But it was correct because the numbers said so, and your read merely helped you arrive at the right numbers. At the heart of it was the math.

Another example: A player raises from early position, you flat from the button. The flop is king-high with two hearts. He bets. If you choose to raise, what hands are you raising with here? That depends on both your equity against his range (PE) as well as how often he will fold (FE). If he is a nit who will fold 90% of the time, you can raise with complete air here. If he is a calling machine who doesn’t like folding, your hand needs to be stronger. If your reads help you come up with his folding frequency, math will do the rest.

Normally one puts opponents on ranges, and determines fold equity, based on observation and memory: from their past behaviour, we deduce their present tendencies. Psychology plays a part only at the margins. The great Indian offspinner Erapalli Prasanna once said in a cricketing context: ‘Line is optional. Length is mandatory’. Let me paraphrase that in poker terms: ‘Psychology is optional. Mathematics is mandatory.’

*

Last week on Range Rover:

The Bookshop Romeo

Posted by Amit Varma on 09 April, 2014 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport


The Bookshop Romeo

This is the first instalment of Range Rover, a new weekly column on poker I am writing for the Economic Times.

A young man enters a bookshop. He loves books. And he’s lonely. He spots a gorgeous young lady browsing a book by an author he loves, Milan Kundera. Their eyes meet; she looks away shyly. He decides to seize the day. He walks over to her, but just as he begins speaking—‘Hi, that’s one of my favourite Kundera…’—a hunky young man appears on the other side of this lady, and she squeezes his arm as he apologizes for having made her wait. Then they both turn to our young man. ‘Yes?’ she asks.

‘Erm, I was just saying, that’s my favourite Kundera book.’

They look at him blankly. ‘Who’s Kundera?’ she says.

And at this awkward moment, dear reader, I have a question for you: Did our hero make a mistake?

The answer to that lies in mathematics. And I will try and explain it through poker. Welcome to this first instalment of Range Rover, my weekly column on poker. The column is meant not for the complete layman, but for the hobbyist who knows the basics of the game. My reflections will be about the technical and mental aspects of the game – and also, sometimes,  about life itself. This first piece, with particular relevance to our Bookshop Romeo, is about ranges.

A mistake beginning players often make is of putting their opponent on a particular hand, and then seeing if they’re ahead or behind – instead of putting them on a range of hands, and calculating their equity against that range. For example, say you raise from early position with AKcc. Villain calls from the button. The flop comes Ks7h2h. You make a continuation bet, villain raises. What do you do?

In this spot, you need to figure out what range of hands villain could be doing this with. If he is a super-safe ABC nit who will only dare to raise here with hands that beat you—basically sets, AA and another AK, as no two-pair combo calls preflop—then your equity against his range is around 20%, and you must fold. If he is spewy-aggro and his range includes all flush draws and worse kings like KQ, KJ and KTs, plus some air, then you are around 60% in the hand and should continue. Now, sometimes you will call the spewy player and find that he has 22, but that doesn’t make your call a mistake: you made the right decision, but ran into the top of his range. Similarly, if you fold to the nit and he shows AK, it doesn’t mean you made a mistake there either.  The result of the hand has nothing to do with the correctness of your decision.

A beginning player would have put his opponent on a particular hand, and congratulated or berated himself based on whether he won or lost. But that would be a mistake, and there is a reason poker players are told not to be results-oriented. Your goal in poker should just be to make +ev decisions against your opponent’s ranges, and not think of immediate outcomes. To get the money in as a 60% favourite will make you rich in the long term – but losing four such hands in a row, as does happen, should not lead you to question the inherent correctness of your decisions. To paraphrase Krishna from the Bhagawad Gita, do the right thing, don’t worry about the fruits of your actions.

Let’s go back to our Bookshop Romeo. He is single, and sees a girl he likes. From the range of possible personality types, he narrows her down to potentially compatible ones because she is in a bookshop and holds a Kundera book. Furthermore, considering that the momentary embarrassment of being snubbed is not much of a cost to bear, given the benefits that are possible, he is getting practically infinite odds to make his move. So he does. It ends badly, but it wasn’t a mistake. Indeed, to not approach the girl would have been an error. He lost this hand – but he played it right.

Posted by Amit Varma on 02 April, 2014 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport


Politics and the Sociopath

This is the second installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

‘For those of us climbing to the top of the food chain, there can be no mercy. There is but one rule: Hunt or be hunted.’ – Frank Underwood, House of Cards.

I have often wondered, what kind of person wants to be a politician? Growing up, we gravitate towards our future professions on the basis of interests or aptitude or, often, just circumstances. What we are drawn towards depends on the kind of person we are: someone bad at maths in unlikely to turn to engineering or investment banking, just as an introverted geek is probably going to avoid a career in news broadcasting. So what are you like, then, if you aspire to be a politician and actually end up being good at it?

First up, the stated reasons are mostly bunkum: aspiring politicians want to serve the community or make the world a better place only as much as Miss India contestants want to be like Mother Teresa. No, with few exceptions, people are driven to get into politics by just one instinct: the lust for power. It’s primal, it’s hardwired into us—the chief of the tribe has the best chance of propagating his genes—but there are many who want what only a few will get, and the road to the top is always bloody. Those who navigate this road successfully need to possess ambition, charm and ruthlessness in equal measure.

The kind of person best suited to navigating this road is a sociopath.  A sociopath—the term is also used interchangeably with ‘psychopath’—is essentially a person who feels no empathy towards his fellow humans, a condition that is innate and originates in the brain. (Damage to a part of the brain called the amygdala is the most likely culprit.) The psychologist Robert Hare defined sociopaths as “intraspecies predators who use charm, manipulation, intimidation, and violence to control others and to satisfy their own selfish needs. Lacking in conscience and in feelings for others, they cold-bloodedly take what they want and do as they please, violating social norms and expectations without the slightest sense of guilt or regret.”

Needless to say, sociopaths are therefore cut out for some professions more than others. While sociopaths comprise upto 4% of the general population, they are estimated to make up over 20% of the prison population in the US, which is what you’d expect from people who lack any conscience. It has been theorized that they are also over-represented among trial lawyers, bankers and, you guessed it, among politicians.

A study published last year analyzed the 42 US presidents leading up to George W Bush and found a high degree of sociopathy in their personalities. But this is not necessarily a negative assessment. As Scott Lilienfeld, a psychologist who worked on the study, said, “Certain psychopathic traits may be like a double-edged sword. Fearless dominance, for example, may contribute to reckless criminality and violence, or to skillful leadership in the face of a crisis.” Indeed, over a century ago the philosopher and psychologist William James had said, “When superior intellect and a psychopathic temperament coalesce [...] in the same individual, we have the best possible conditions for the kind of effective genius that gets into the biographical dictionaries.” Sociopaths can aquire power more easily than others—what they do with this power is a different matter entirely.

While politics is the natural habitat of the sociopath, political systems differ across the world. Sociopaths are more likely to dominate politics in those countries where the state has more power and less accountability than it should. I would think, therefore, that there is a greater likelihood of finding a sociopathic politician in India than, say, in Scandanavia. Indeed, the disdain with which Indians regard politics and politicians in general indicates that there is something to this. In the general population, one in 25 people is a sociopath; list down the names of 25 Indian politicians and see, according to you, how many fit the bill.

There are exceptions, of course. In my view, the following gents don’t seem to be sociopaths: the hapless Manmohan Singh, an accidental politician; Rahul Gandhi, a buffoon trying to run the family business because he’s good at nothing else (or simply because it’s there); Arvind Kejriwal, a sanctimonious and misguided activist who took an unusual route into politics. But one man who seems to fit the bill, and who even his opponents would admit is remarkably talented as a politician, is Narendra Modi. To me, he seems to be a textbook sociopath, who believes in nothing, has no principles, and will simply do whatever it takes to get to power and stay there.

If you agree with my assessment, consider the implications: if Modi is indeed a sociopath, all the things you like or loathe about him may be misplaced. He may be neither a bigoted Muslim-hater nor a champion of development and growth, but simply an opportunistic politician pandering to different constituencies at different times. (On one side, the electorate of Gujarat, with whom the perception that he engineered the riots, whether or not he did, brought him much support. On the other side, the small business owners and industrialists who fund him, and spread the impression that he supports free markets while his actions reveal him, so far, to be no more than a crony capitalist.) Every aspect of his public image could simply be carefully constructed to get him political gain, and his actions if he becomes prime minister would be tailored around the constraints and opportunities of his political environment, which will be different at the national level from what they have been in Gujarat or on the campaign trail.

All this, I must clarify, is neither a defence nor a condemnation of Modi. Being a sociopath is biological destiny, just as being left-handed or gay or allergic to coriander is, but how you are born should be neither a reason to condemn you nor an exculpation for your actions. Men should be judged by what they do, not by what they are—and it is not the purpose of this column to examine whether Modi is a genocider or a developmental messiah, both of which are simplistic narratives anyway. Just consider this: If Modi is indeed a sociopath, whose public persona is constructed around whatever will get him to power in this democracy of ours, then whatever you like or dislike about him reveals less about him and more about the state of India itself. When India looks at Narendra Modi, it looks into a mirror. What you are is what you get.

*  *  *

Previously on Lighthouse:

A Godless Congregation

Posted by Amit Varma on 14 March, 2014 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Lighthouse | Politics


A Godless Congregation

I have just started a monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line, called Lighthouse. This is the first installment.

A few days ago, a curious thing happened at a friend’s place. Seven of us were sitting around a dining table enjoying the postprandial bliss that inevitably follows copious consumption of Coorg Dry Pork and Hanumantu Mutton Pulao, when somebody asked the question, ‘So, when did you first realise you were an atheist?’ We traded stories, and realised at the end of it that every one of us was a non-believer, thus making us surely the most godless dinner congregation that evening in Mumbai. A full table, and not one deity between us. How unusual – and how very strange that in the second decade of the 21st century, such a gathering should be unusual to begin with.

Let’s not talk about science and modernity – we still live in primitive times. There are 13 countries where people who admit to atheism face execution under the law – and even in the supposedly modern USA, being an atheist pretty much finishes your prospects as a politician. The Huffington Post recently reported that there are no self-declared atheists in the US Congress, and a study by the Universities of British Columbia and Oregon found that ‘atheists are among society’s most distrusted groups, comparable even to rapists in certain circumstances.’ This is no doubt true of India as well, where Arvind Kejriwal, once an atheist, rediscovered religion as he ran for public office, and breathlessly thanked ‘the Supreme Father, Ishwar, Allah, Waheguru’ when he became chief minister of Delhi. I will give him the benefit of the doubt and put those ravings down to cynical roleplay rather than to genuine self-delusion.

I was an atheist long before I knew I was one. Back in the day, I shared the common misconception that atheists are people who believe that there is no god. But this is a faulty definition. The dictionary will tell you that atheists are actually people who do not believe that there is a god. Consider the subtle difference: atheism is the absence of belief. Until something has been proven to exist, it is rational not to believe in it – and the burden of proof always lies with the believer. An absence of belief does not always correspond to a belief in absence, which explains why most nonbelievers are non-militant about their nonbelief. As a correspondent to the Economist put it a few years ago, atheism is no more a belief system or a religion than not collecting stamps is a hobby.

When I realised this, it struck me that I had never collected stamps. And as I grew older, the nonbelief that existed perhaps out of laziness was reinforced by learning about science and examining my own deepest fears. All these millennia, god had needed to exist for two reasons: one, to explain everything about the world that we cannot. (The God of the Gaps.) Two, to provide consolation for our deepest existential fears. Over time, and especially in the last century-and-a-half, the gaps in our knowledge have shrunk drastically, and we no longer need a divine explanation for natural phenomena. As Douglas Adams once said about the theory of evolution, ‘The awe it inspired in me made the awe that people talk about in respect of religious experience seem, frankly, silly beside it. I’d take the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance any day.’

A deeper reason for why god must exist, however, is to mask our own cosmic insignificance. We are tiny, temporary fragments of a universe far larger than our inadequate brains are capable of imagining – and we’re too scared and arrogant to accept this simple fact. No, we must build narratives of our centrality to the universe, and devise potential afterlives that help us stay in denial of the one simple fact that we will be dead one day, with no greater meaning or purpose to it all. It is said that humans are set apart from other species by our self-awareness – you could also call it self-delusion, perhaps?

It is easy to be a fount of rationality and say these things, of course – but beyond the chatter, we actually have to come to terms with it. It eats me up, knowing that I am just a speck of dust in the larger scheme of things, and that soon I’ll be gone, poof, just like that. What good is my existence if I won’t be around after the fact to reflect on it? As loved ones die and I grow older, I can’t help but envy those around me for their false consolations, their anesthesia: they cope, they thrive, they manufacture meaning in their lives. Our job is harder.

But that is a private matter, and I overstate the angst. Atheists don’t live their lives tormented by the absence of a man in the sky with a beard – and most of us, if I may use the collective noun for non-stamp collectors with little else in common, aren’t even militant about our atheism. Why, then, are atheists held in such poor regard by believers everywhere?

One possible reason is that this has nothing to do with religion per se, and more to do with how we construct our identities with the belief systems we follow. Liberals abhor conservatives and vice versa, and clashes of ideology can get deeply personal. Perhaps it is the same with believers and nonbelievers. Every atheist is, in a sense, a personified slap on the face of all believers, a walking, talking reminder of their weakness and their delusions. It is natural to react viscerally to this, is it not?

Believers sometimes rationalise their distaste for atheists by arguing that religion is the source of morality, and that atheists can’t possible have any incentive to behave ethically. Let’s leave aside the historical issue of the staggering amount of violence committed in the name of religion – there is also a case to be made that codes of conduct existed before religions did, and that religions merely codified what already existed, and might even have been hardwired into us. Ultimately, we behave the way we behave, do the things we do, out of regard for our fellow human beings, and for our own humanity. And if that is all we ever believe in, well, it’s good enough.

*

Previous posts on atheism: 1, 2, 3.

 

Posted by Amit Varma on 14 February, 2014 in Essays and Op-Eds | Lighthouse | Personal


I’m All In: Confessions of a Poker Obsessive

This personal essay by me appears in the winter edition of Forbes Life India.

I feel the ground sway under my feet as I get up. I gather my chips and walk unsteadily to the cashier’s cage. I’ve been playing poker for 40 hours now, and I’m up by the amount I used to earn in a month in my last job. But it’s been a swingy session, and I was down by a lot at one point till I fought back, and I was up by more than I am now till I lost a couple of hands. I’ve faced euphoria and devastation within 40 seconds of each other in the same hand, when I flopped the nuts—the best possible hand—on the flop, and my opponent, after going all-in on the turn, out-nutted me on the river. I’ve been on a high fueled by four Red Bulls and the excitement of winning, and now the ground is shaking and I wonder if I am about to faint and finally be punished for this brutal lifestyle. Then I realize, with some relief, why the earth is moving so gently under my feet: we are on a boat, after all—a floating casino in Goa, solidly anchored but still on water. I do not know what time it is, or what day, or whether I have missed my flight back to Mumbai. What I do know is that this session is over, I need sleep, and once I have rested I’ll be back for more.

I am a poker obsessive. This is a problem because it is difficult to state whether it is a problem or not. If someone is obsessed with tennis or chess or cricket, it becomes apparent soon enough whether they’re any good at it, and whether they have a future in it, because there are clear metrics to measure performance. If someone is obsessed with roulette or teen patti, it is equally clear that they are addicted to gambling, which can only be harmful in the long run. But poker exists in a twilight zone: it is both a game of skill, and a gamble. You could play it as a card game involving chance, and do it for the dopamine rushes that keeps addicts addicted; or you could study it as a science, bringing probability, game theory and psychology to bear on each carefully weighed decision. In the long run, a mathematical approach makes you money: If you keep getting your money in when the odds favour you, you will end up profitable. But in the short run, luck plays a huge role in the game. (The management of luck is the key skill in the game.) And in this short run, the wild gambler, the compulsive addict, can win huge amounts, while the skillful player can lose, and lose, and lose, despite constantly making the correct decisions, till he is emotionally imbalanced enough to actually start playing badly. Because this is a game that fosters self-delusion, that universal (and necessary) quality in human beings, it is impossible for me to say whether I am here as a gambling addict or as a serious sportsman. I know that I have both in me, and they battle every second that I am on the table.

I was drawn to poker, I suppose, for the same reasons that I was drawn to chess or scrabble: the intellectual challenge that it presented, and the competitive instinct that it fueled. I started playing the game three years ago, on the world’s biggest poker site, Pokerstars. Because of the difficulty in depositing money onto the site through Indian credit cards, which are barred by the RBI from depositing money on gambling sites, I used to play freeroll tournaments, that required no entry fee and had small guaranteed prizes. It was a good way to learn the basics of the game, and I followed it up by reading all the great instructional books in poker literature: the Sklanskys, the Harringtons, the Millers, the Brunsons, the Gordons. But this was all theoretical stuff, and I was itching to play live poker, with real people, who would give off tells when they bluffed me so I could make hero calls, like they do on television. None of my friends played poker, but early last year, I managed to get myself into The Sunday Game, a weekend gathering of poker enthusiasts in a suburban hotel in Mumbai. They’d book a room, organise a tournament, maybe two, with a Rs 3000 or 5000 buy-in, with 10% going to the rake to pay for the room, and the rest forming a prizepool for the top three or four players. Sometimes they’d play a cash game afterwards with a buy-in of Rs 1000. Looking back at the time, I realise that I was ridiculously bad: but playing with better players helped me, as did the fact that, being an obsessive with a steep learning curve, I worked hard on my game and got better really fast.

I still needed validation, though, and I got some when I went to Goa in June 2010 for the India Poker Championship, an event in which there were three tournaments held over the weekend at Casino Royale, a floating casino. Playing ABC poker, sticking to basics, I reached the final table of the main tournament, and got a modest payout for coming fifth. What was more thrilling, though, was how my cash-game sessions ended up. On the last day, I made a hero call against two all-in players on the turn, with one card to come, and won a pot worth Rs 1.5 lakhs. At the time, it seemed enormous to me, and I went home from that trip with a tidy profit.

Believing that mastery of the game was inevitable, I sought out cash games to play in Mumbai, and found one in a flat in Lokhandwala where I spent probably 100 of the next 120 nights. The apartment belonged to a player I shall refer to as Hunter, a savvy model and entrepreneur who conducted a home game every night, charging 2% of each pot as rake, and providing food and non-alcoholic drinks on the house. The first time I went there, the game had a modest Rs 5000 buy-in, with blinds of Rs 25 and 50. There was a raised platform on one side of the room, on which Hunter put a mattress, and we sat on that and by its side and played our game. Within three months, the blinds had increased to Rs 100 and 200, and the standard buy-in was Rs 20,000. Earlier, winning or losing 20 grand in a day was noteworthy: now, there could be three lakhs on the table at any given point, and you could win or lose a lakh in a day.

Naturally, Hunter had the platform demolished, and a new table and swank new chairs were purchased for us. My routine for about six months was this: wake up in the evening, pass time impatiently, and head off to Hunter’s place in time for the game to begin at 8 or 9 pm. The game would then go on till around 8 in the morning. I’d have a Red Bull while playing, and there would be chips and biscuits and fruits and other snacks. We could also order from any restaurant in the area, and ordering dal khichdi from Rhythm restuarant at 1am was, I recall, a common occurrence. At one point, Hunter decided that his players deserved healthier food. So a cook was hired for us, and though he was appallingly bad, at least we got home-cooked food in the middle of the night.

It was here that I discovered that the most important part of the game is the mental part: not in terms of calculating equity against opponent’s ranges and all that, which is of course essential, but in keeping your mental equilibrium through the inevitable swings of a poker session. I was given to steaming if someone gave me a bad beat after playing badly himself, and by allowing myself to feel angry or frustrated, I’d play worse than normal. I’d get bored and lose discipline and play more hands than I should, or passively chase draws even when the odds weren’t right for it. I’d lose more money playing badly than I won when I was playing well. The essential attribute of a poker player is that he must not be results-oriented, for good play is rewarded only in the long run, but must instead always focus on doing the right thing, making the correct play, regardless of its immediate consequence. (A la what Krishna said in the Bhagwad Gita.) It took time for me to cultivate that detachment in myself. (Having my iPod and Kindle with me helped conquer impatience.) Luckily, through that whole process, I remained a profitable player.

I also grew close to some of the other poker obsessives I played with. There is a strange dissonance at play here: on one hand, I wanted nothing more than to take the money of these people I played with, and I knew they wanted to empty my pockets as well; on the other, some of them became close friends, far more so than colleagues in an office would. Perhaps that is not quite so surprising: this was not an ordinary workplace where we met every day, but an emotionally fraught battlefield, such an unusual one that none of our non-poker playing friends could ever understand what it was truly like.

I also spent a while playing at a nearby club where some informal poker tables ran, and between these two places, met a wider cross-section of people than I would in any conventional job. Any writer would cherish meeting so many unusual characters: S, the government contractor who did not understand the game, was a true addict, and would mechanically push chips to the middle, pot after pot, every night, until his sources of funding, a probable by-product of Nehruvian socialism, dried up and he disappeared; P, the Delhi businessman who reportedly dropped around 75 lakhs over six months, and had to take a large loan from M, a player-cum-moneylender, who lent money at exorbitant rates (M was barred from Hunter’s game, though, which was relatively clean); B, the 20-year-old whose parents thought he was away nights because he worked in a call center, and who is now a full-time bookie; R, a reckless young gambler who called himself the Tom Dwan of Lokhandwala, and got into debts that he paid off by selling seats to a college where his father was a trustee; and others such as a couple of Bollywood actors and a cricketer who was as fearless on the poker table as on the field. (I say this in a good way.) They were fascinating people by themselves, but even more so in the context of this dramatic game, where emotional upheaval is routine.

The swings had a huge impact on us. On a day when I won a lot, I’d walk out with a lilt to my step, on top of the world, filled with self esteem and confidence, and women on the street would turn to look at me. When I lost, I’d be deflated and depressed, asking myself metaphysical questions not just about the point of this pursuit but of any pursuit. Eventually we got used to these fluctuations, as we needed to in order to stay sane. Our approach to money changed as well. Quite often, we’d have breakfast at the nearby Lokhandwala MacDonald’s; but equally often, a couple of us would head to the Juhu Marriott for the excellent breakfast buffet there. Earlier, in my middle-class way, I’d consider a Marriott breakfast an occasional extravagance. But now, when we were winning or losing over 30k in a day, we felt entitled to it. It cost, after all, no more than six big blinds. Or three straddles. Half a c-bet. Looking at the world through this prism made everything seem cheaper—though while at the tables, we never thought of the chips in terms of their real value, or we’d have been paralysed into inaction. (‘I can buy two iPads with the money I’m about to bet. OMG!’)

All this while, I kept going to Goa regularly. Last year, there was at least one tournament series every month; this year, one can easily spend four weekends there playing tournies continuously. I ended 2010 well, reaching seven final tables out of 14 tournaments played, including a second-place finish. But as I spent the first half of 2010 running bad in tournaments, I would put down both my good streak and my bad one to variance: these were short-term results, and the sample size was so small that it would be foolish to read too much into them. My focus remained cash games—until May this year.

By May, I’d overcome a downswing in the first part of the year—January was my only losing month—and had arrived at a healthy daily rate of profitability. But my game had stagnated, and I felt I needed to up it a notch. I decided to give up the potential earnings of the live games I played, and instead focus in a direction where immediate payouts weren’t likely: online poker.

Online poker is far tougher than live poker. The world’s best players play online, multi-tabling furiously, using complex tools that analyse their opponents’ historical betting patterns and raising frequencies. It is an evolved, highly technical battlefield, and most local players I played with had, like me, been small net losers online—despite a good streak here or there. Unlike many of them, I did not want to rationalise this away by cribbing that online poker was rigged. I wanted to conquer the beast.

Around the middle of this year, I joined a team put together by Adi Agarwal, a 26-year-old from Kolkata who has won more than US$ 3 million online in the last four years. (This is a matter of public record, by the way: there are websites that compile online results across all major sites, and everyone’s results, provided you know their username, are publicly available.) He had also finished in the top 100 of the main event of the World Series of Poker, the de facto world championship. (He declares his poker income and pays his taxes, for what it’s worth.) Adi wanted to stake us to play online and local tournaments with his money: in return, he’d get 50% of all winnings. Most importantly, he would go through our hand histories and actively coach us, taking care of leaks in our games. This was a win-win arrangement: it was risk-free in terms of investment for me, and a top player would share his insights on the game with me—almost akin to a tennis rookie being coached for free by an elite pro. And if his team played well, Adi would also stand to make more money than he could just playing on his own. (Such staking arrangements are very common, and most top players, to reduce variance, are part of such staking stables.)

For the last three months, thus, I’ve been playing at home. I’ve invested in a giant screen for my desktop, on which I can tile 20 tables at the same time. At 9pm, I start my online grind. At peak frequency, around midnight, I’m playing around 12 tables. By the time the night winds up, at around 8 in the morning, I’ve played over 30 tournaments. There is a five-minute break every hour, in which I have to pee/make coffee/get Red Bull from the fridge/make my ham-and-salami sandwich and so on. I also have the team on Skype, and we discuss poker, and how we could have played certain hands differently, and so on.

There is a method to this madness. Luck, or variance, plays a big role in poker in the short run, and the best way to counter this is to bring the long run closer by playing a lot. Online, you play many more hands per hour than you do live, and you can play multiple tables at the same time. The volume of play you put it, thus, could make a night of online poker equal to two months of live poker. If you play correctly, you are much more likely to be profitable—and the fields in online tournaments are so large that the occasional huge payout is likely for a good player. Just a month ago, I was chip leader in the biggest weekly tournament, the Sunday Million, with 25 people left. The first prize was over US$ 200,000; I ended up 18th for a fraction of that. An online grinder can make a healthy living stringing together smaller wins; but when the big one comes, it can be life-changing.

I still play live tournaments in Goa, though, and have won two in the last month. Hunter’s game in Mumbai has shut down for a host of reasons, one of them being a comical raid by the Anti-Terrorist Squad—a surreal story for another day. As many as four of the other regulars from that game have turned pro, and two of them regularly play high-stakes games in Goa, and speak of winning or losing five lakhs in a session as they used to speak of 50k swings six months earlier. The poker boom has only just started in India, and despite pending legal issues, hinging around poker’s acceptance as a game of skill, poker seems almost certain to become one of the country’s most popular sports.

And what about the way poker has consumed my life? I write a blog named India Uncut, which at its peak, when I wrote five posts a day, got 10,000 pageviews a day and had 17,000 RSS feed subscribers. Recently, I went two months without a post. My first novel, My Friend Sancho, was well received and sold well, but I just haven’t made enough progress on another one. (Among other projects, I’m planning a crime novel featuring a poker-playing detective who uses the cognitive tools he’s refined through playing the game to solve cases in the real world. A good way to bring my passions together, you think?)

When I gave up the corporate life to be a full-time writer, I had decided that I would only have one yardstick to judge my life: Do I wake up every morning looking forward to a day at work? And hell, I certainly do begin every day just waiting to being dealt in. I even played through an entire session in a dream one day, figuring out ranges and calculating equity in hand after hand after hand. And while I’ve given myself a deadline to start writing seriously again, until then, I will give myself up to this obsession. My chips are in the middle—I’m all in.

*  *  *  *

And here’s a box that accompanied the piece:

There is an old saying that poker is the easiest game to learn and the hardest to master. Luckily, there are plenty of resources online you could use for either purpose. There are many sites where you could learn the basics of the game, but for a pithy explanation of the rules of the game, you could just start with Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Texas_hold_%27em

The best site to play online is Pokerstars, at http://www.pokerstars.com. It’s the world’s biggest poker platform, is reliable and trustworthy, and while it doesn’t accept deposits from Indian credit cards, there are other deposit options that could help you get around that.

The best poker forums are on http://www.twoplustwo.com, and I highly recommend them. You could also check out http://www.cardplayer.com, the online face of the poker magazine. A good site to follow live coverage of events and news is http://www.pokernews.com. And to get the latest dope on Indian poker, there’s http://www.Pokerguru.in. (Disclosure: I’m part of their pro team.)

Finally, here are some great poker books. To understand the fundamentals of poker, there is no better place to start than ‘The Theory of Poker’ by David Sklansky. To improve your live cash-game skills, check out ‘No Limit Hold ‘em: Theory and Practice’ by Sklansky and Ed Miller. To understand the basics of tournament play, read the highly influential ‘Harrington on Hold ‘Em’ series by Dan Harrington. Some online players find its concepts outdated, and two recent books that are closer to the cutting edge when it comes to online tournament play are ‘The Raiser’s Edge’ by Bertrand ‘Elky’ Grospellier and others, and ‘Secrets of Professional Tournament Poker’ by Jonathan Little. To get an insight into the thinking behind high-stakes online cash games, check out the cult classic ‘Let There Be Range’ by Cole South and Tri Nguyen. And finally, to master the mental aspect of poker, read ‘The Elements of Poker’ by Tommy Angelo.

Good luck at the tables!

*  *  *  *

image

Posted by Amit Varma on 28 October, 2011 in Essays and Op-Eds | Personal | Poker | Sport


The Prime Minister’s Speech

This is the 38th installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India.

Under attack from civil society activists, the media and some of his own party members, voicing the need for him to be more communicative over critical issues facing the nation, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is planning to speak out and answer his critics, possibly this week.IANS

Amid the image of a government under siege, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is set to break his silence. He will meet a group of senior editors of regional and national dailies on Wednesday and put forth his views.Indian Express

Good morning, gentlemen.

We all know why we are gathered here. My government has been much criticized recently, and there seems no end to corruption scandals. I wish to address these issues firmly, once and for all. In another 60 seconds, my humble servants will walk into this room bearing trunks full of currency notes. You will receive them, and none of your media outlets will write about corruption again. He he he, just kidding. The expression on your faces was priceless. Thank god for CCTV and YouTube.

I know you’re surprised to find me joking like this—it doesn’t quite go with my public image. But you guys are from the media, you know just what image is, don’t you? It’s the story you tell, and the story that you have told about me is that I am a simple, hard-working man of strong convictions and unwavering principles who just happened to wander into politics. I kind of like that story—but is it really true? Would I be a politician if it was?

Politics, at its heart, plays to the basest of all desires. As human beings, we are programmed to lust for power. That is in our genes. And there is no greater power than political power. Politics is a battleground of those who want power the most and those who want the most power. You do not rise accidentally in this battleground. If you do not feel that lust, and plan and connive and fight like an animal, you have no chance of survival here. And I have survived 20 years.

I did that with a keen eye towards my self-interest. Self-interest drives all of us—even when we do noble things, we do them because they enhance our self image. I was delighted to become finance minister of India in 1991 not because it gave me a chance to serve my country, but because of what it did for my self esteem. Finance minister of India! I thought of all my classmates and relatives as I got that job—of the awe and admiration and jealousy they would feel at my achievement. Think about it for yourselves, isn’t that what we strive for every day: to show that we are better than the next guy; and to use a creative euphemism of my own, that our portfolio is bigger than their portfolio? He he he.

I am given a lot of credit for India’s liberalisation in 1991. Look, it’s not like we wanted to liberalise. We did not want anything, in fact, but to keep the wheels of government turning. A good government is one that does nothing but grow. A good minister is one who enjoys the spoils of power, and makes sure that everyone who backed him gets their money’s worth. We did not care about freeing the economy. The only convictions we had regarded our own state of welfare.

But then we had a balance of payments crisis, and had to rush to the IMF for help. That set of events forced reforms upon us—once things were back to normal, the reforms eased, and the business of government continued as usual. Sure, liberalisation helped the sectors that we freed up the most, and much economic progress took place. But that progress is of no meaning to us per se. The two things politicians and political parties in India care about are these: One, how to get whichever votebank you are cultivating to vote for you; and two, how to keep your patrons happy—the industrialists and interest groups who fill your coffers and enable you to run for elections. The benefits of free markets are nebulous, and hard to grab credit for; direct handouts and bribes to the voters work better—like NREGA, for example, a policy debated less than it should be because it’s such a mouthful as an acronym, he he he.

All our acts as politicians are done according to our political calculus, and not any inner convictions or suchlike. In India, appealing to the baser instincts of our voters works the best. We learn in our history books that the British followed the policy of ‘divide and rule’ in India; with all our vote banks and identity politics, we don’t do any different.

Your newspapers and TV channels often refer to the party in power as the ‘ruling party’. That is hardly an appropriate term for a democracy. The truth is, surreptitiously, under the shadow of noble rhetoric, we have indeed become your rulers, your internal colonisers, your Britishers in brown skin.

As this is an informal speech, and I don’t have to worry about a teleprompter operator in a safari suit getting confused, let me go on a tangent for a moment about a pet peeve of mine. Even though we are Britishers in brown skin, consider how we maintain the illusion of being one with the people: by wearing kurta-pajama! In the North, you will notice, all politicians wear kurta-pajama, and in the South those Tamilian chaps wear their lungis and suchlike. And what a show it is! You think I like wearing kurta-pajama? All day I feel like it’s time to go to bed, and no doubt this is one reason so little work gets done. And peeing involves so much work that I find that my daily water intake has gone down since I joined politics. Ah well, at the very least it is amusing to see these young MBA politicians having to renounce their Armani suits and Calvin Klein jeans when they join politics here. I told Rahul the other day, ‘You can take over from me as PM, it’s your family seat after all, but you will never know the joys of a zipper.’ He he he.

But back to corruption. As one of my party colleagues remarked the other day, after finishing off a few bottles of the finest imported single malt, duty free, “If God didn’t intend countries to be looted, he would not have created them.” What is happening in India today is not new, it has happened since the founding of this nation. Corruption arises from excessive government power and discretion, and India’s founders, by creating such a top-heavy system of government, designed the country to be looted. Corruption is a natural feature of this system, not a bug. The 2G Scam and the Commonwealth Games have become fashionable subjects today, but think about it, when has India not been corrupt? Indeed, some would argue that the very point of government and politics is corruption. Why seek power if not for its spoils?

Of course, we are a democracy, and you the people get to decide who loots you, and which illusion you choose to believe in. But the bottomline is that this is the system, you know this is the system, and you don’t protest against the system itself, you take it for granted. So once you have voted us in, we loot you with your implied consent. I love the irony of that. Suckers!

But I agree with you that we need change. My government has received too much bad press, and this cannot continue. This is, to me, first and foremost, a public relations problem. I’m mulling over the prospect of setting up a committee to look into this, but in the long run, I think we might need something more concrete. I think I’ll just set up a Ministry of Public Relations for this purpose. And hey, while I’m on that subject, there are many more ministries I dream of creating, which will put us more in control of people’s lives, with more avenues for us to exploit them. Ministry of Manners, Ministry of Dreams, Ministry of Sexual Relations. (Imagine the nature of the bribes that will have to be given to obtain a license to copulate!) My favourite is the Ministry of Protest, which will be the ministry in charge of giving permission for all protests against the government. If you have a complaint against us, you have to apply to the ministry for permission. If you want to complain regularly—say, if you’re a newspaper—you need to apply for a license. Otherwise you can’t complain, he he he.

Does this seem draconian to you? Is it any more draconian, gentlemen, than all the ministries and licenses that now exist? Think about it—I give you permission.

All these new ministries will be paid for, of course, by your taxes. Ah, taxes! It is my dream that one day, taxes in India will be for more than 100% of income. Imagine how rich this country will be then! We will spend so much money on public welfare that enough of it will trickle down to some of the beneficiaries to actually benefit them. How funky is that? As for the rest of it… he he he.

Anyway, I have said all that I wanted to, not that any of this is a mystery to you. I mean, you all know that we are creatures of self-interest, and that the ‘public good’ is just a crafty rhetorical tool. I will prove this to you—consider that your reporting this speech is in the public interest. But is it in yours? Ah now, think about it, we are partners in crime in this merry game of power and money, and while you are happy to expose the random minister stupid enough to get caught with his fingers in the jam bottle, will you do anything to threaten the entire edifice—or your position within it? I thought as much. Let’s maintain this delusion, my friends: in just a moment, I shall count down from five, and then I will snap my fingers, and you will have forgotten that I ever said the words I just uttered. I will then begin a new speech—the one that you will report. Let’s try it: Five… four… three… two… one… SNAP!

Good morning, gentlemen.


*  *  *  *

Disclaimer: Needless to say, the above speech is fictional and a work of satire, and bears no resemblance to actual events.

Posted by Amit Varma on 30 June, 2011 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics | Viewfinder


India’s Second Freedom Struggle

This is the 37th installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India. It was published on June 23.

It was both ironic and poignant when, a few days ago, Anna Hazare remarked that his crusade for the Lokpal Bill was akin to a second freedom struggle for India. Hazare is fighting against the right things in the wrong way: as I wrote a few weeks ago, corruption arises from an excess of government power; creating an alternate center of power, as the Lokpal Bill attempts to do, which is neither accountable nor democratically elected, solves nothing. That said, Hazare’s rhetoric, borrowed from the likes of C Rajagopalachari from decades past, was correct: India does need a second freedom struggle.

Every nation is a work in progress, but India is more so because our independence was a job half finished. In 1947, we gained freedom from the British—but not from oppression. As the country heaved a long sigh of relief at gaining political independence, a new set of brown sahibs took over from the white ones. The great hope of this new democracy was that it would lead to a government that would serve us—but we found ourselves with one that continued to rule us, with laws either directly retained from the British, or even more oppressive than those that existed before. We were colonized by our own people, and eventually enslaved by ways of thinking that saw a mai-baap government as the solution to all our problems—even when it was often the source of them.

There is no Mahatma Gandhi to lead this second freedom struggle, and most Indians, complacent with how things are, would not even think it is required. But if it was to take place, what would its aims be? What would it fight to change? The goal of that first freedom struggle was to free ourselves of a colonial power; the aim of this notional second freedom struggle should be to drastically reform the system that denies us freedom in so many areas of our lives. From the classical liberal/libertarian perspective, here are a few things I’d love a second freedom struggle to strive to achieve.

One: Limit the power of government

As things stand, we are ruled by a government as oppressive as the British were. Ideally, the function of governments should be to protect our rights and provide basic services. But our government is a bloated behemoth whose tentacles, like a modern-day Cthulhu, extend into every area of our lives. This is hardly surprising: those in power are always looking for ways to extend their power, and government, if adequate safeguards are not in place, just grows and grows and grows. This is exactly what has happened in India—our government functions like an officially sanctioned mafia, controlling our lives and curtailing our freedom. It’s all a bit of a scam.

Two: Unleash Private Enterprise. Remove the License and Permit Raj

The liberalisation India carried out in 1991 was a half-hearted one, forced upon us by a balance of payments crisis and not out a genuine desire for change. The reforms halted once the crisis eased, and the License and Permit Raj largely remains in place. It has stopped us, in the past, from being the manufacturing superpower we should naturally have been, given the abundance of cheap labour in this country. It continues to act as a huge shackle on private industry: I’ve pointed out earlier the abominable fact that you need 165 licenses to open a hotel in India, including ““a special licence for the vegetable weighing scale in the kitchen and one for each of the bathroom scales put in guest rooms.” Every businessman in India has to go through surreal hurdles to go about his work, and given that businesses exists to fulfil the needs of the people, for how else can they make profits, it is doubly criminal of an inept government to stand in the way of private enterprise. In the areas where it has been allowed to operate, look at the impact private enterprise has had: consider how many years it took to get a telephone from the state-owned MTNL in the 1980s, and how quickly you can get one today. We are a resourceful people, and every problem of India can be solved by private citizens—if they’re allowed that freedom.

Three: Reform the Indian Penal Code

The IPC is an abomination created by the British in the 19th century to make it easier for them to rule us, and to impose their Victorian morality on us. That it still exists is a disgrace. It contains ridiculous laws like Section 295 (a), which makes it a crime to “outrage religious feelings or any class” and Section 153 (a), which criminalizes any act “which disturbs or is likely to disturb the public tranquility”: both of these have been used to clamp down on free speech in the country. So has Section 124 (a), which aims to punish anyone who “brings or attempts to bring or provoke a feeling of hatred, contempt or disaffection towards government established by law,” and could be applied to this column, as these laws are open to interpretation and discretion. Section 377, which effectively criminalised homosexuality, has thankfully been overthrown in a court of law, but other archaic laws remain on the books, including some that punish victimless crimes. Many of these threaten our freedom directly.

Four: Ensure Free Speech in India

The IPC alone cannot be blamed for the absence of free speech in India. Our constitution itself does not protect it, and while Article 19 (1) (a) pays lip service to it, Article 19 (2) introduces caveats to it under the guise of “public order” and “decency and morality”. Practically anything one says could be a threat to public order, depending on how it is interpreted, which makes it easy for those in power to clamp down on those without. If we don’t even have freedom of expression, how can we call ourselves a truly free country?

Five: Respect Taxpayer’s Money

I run a series on my blog called “Where Your Taxes Go”, chronicling the various absurd ways in which our tax money is spent by government. These including paying the salaries of 22,800 fake employees of the Delhi Municipality, a Rs 42 crore mansion for Mayawati on “a sprawling 1,00,000 sq foot area”, a school for monkeys, the sponsorship of second honeymoons for people who delay having children, and, most recently, on a newspaper advertisement where the chief minister of Karnataka challenges his predecessor to do ‘God promise’ on certain allegations he made. (Yes, you can’t make this stuff up.) Governments need taxes to exist, but if you strip our government down to its necessary functions, you might find that we will pay a miniscule percentage of what we actually pay now.

It’s ironic that Mahatma Gandhi’s famous Dandi March was held in protest against an unfair tax; most taxes today are far more draconian. Sit down sometime and calculate what percentage of your income goes into taxes: if you pay 33%—chances are you end up paying more, if you include indirect taxation—it means that until the end of April every year, you are effectively earning for the government. This is freedom?

Six: Treat the Right to Property as Sacred

In 1978, the 44th amendment removed the right to property from our list of fundamental rights. Even had this not happened, the poor of India are habituated to having their property snatched from them: eminent domain has long been used by corrupt governments in a crony capitalism system to line their own pockets. One of our biggest problems is that even after so many decades of independence, clear land titles do not exist in many parts of the country. (My fellow columnist, Mohit Satyanand, wrote about this a few weeks ago, as did Devangshu Datta in an old piece.) This makes it ridiculously easy for a ruling government to infringe on the rights of its poor people—and it stands as a huge impediment to economic growth.

Seven: Reform Schooling

The state of education in this country makes for black comedy: the government pours more and more money into education, and after decades of this, the results remain dismal. There are various complex reasons for this government dysfunction, but a huge one is that the private sector is hugely constrained from entering this area. As I wrote in this old piece, even desperately poor people have shown a preference for those low-cost private schools that do manage to exist, despite governmental hurdles, than inefficient government ones. It is ironic and tragic that while private enterprise is allowed to flourish in trivial areas of our lives, like the production of shampoos and potato chips, it is constrained from competing with the government in this most crucial field. I am not recommending that the government stop spending money on education: just allow private enterprise to flourish as well. Consider the cost and quality of air travel in India when we only had Indian Airlines at our service—and look at what it has become today. Isn’t education far more crucial to our progress as a nation?

Eight: Reform Agriculture

We romanticize the farmer, and we want to keep him poor. It is shocking that 60% of our countrymen work in the agricultural sector: the equivalent figure for most developed countries is in single digits. There are various reasons for this, one of many being that farmers are not allowed to sell agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes. This prevents an escape route for many farmers, and also hampers industrial growth in many parts of the country, which would automatically provide alternative avenues of employment. More industrialisation would lead to more urbanisation and greater economic growth, but we hamper this process right at the start. It is a vicious circle that traps poor farmers in poverty. As Manmohan Singh once said, “our salvation lies in getting people to move out of agriculture.” He is right, which is ironic, given that he is our prime minister and is doing exactly nothing in terms of reforming that sector. Words come so easy.

I can think of many other worthy aims, such as making government more local and less centrally directed, so that it is more responsive and accountable, and reforming our legal system. I’m sure you can add to this list. But at one level, India’s second freedom struggle remains a pipe dream. We are a nation colonized by the religion of government, and we display a lazy reverence for it. We look for specific quick fixes to problems, instead of recognising that many of them emanate from structural issues with our system of government—and from how we think about it. What is worse is that we largely do not even think of ourselves as unfree—so who needs a freedom movement then? Do we? What do you think?

*  *  *  *

Also read: this similar wishlist from another time.

* * * *

My thanks to Shruti Rajagopalan, Parth Shah, Arun Simha, Chandrasekaran Balakrishnan, Salil Tripathi, Deepak Shenoy and Gautam John for providing inputs to this piece.

Posted by Amit Varma on 29 June, 2011 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Old memes | Taxes | Politics | Viewfinder


The Tiger, the Painter and the Celebrity Machine

This is the 36th installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India. It was published on June 16.

One of the great delights of Indian newspapers is that they often report seriously news that is insanely, rotfl-ly funny. Take the following news headline: ‘Dhoni Keeps Promise, Adopts a Tiger’. On reading this story, you find that India’s cricket captain, MS Dhoni, has adopted a tiger called Agsthya in the Mysore Zoo. Javagal Srinath persuaded him to do so, and Dhoni isn’t the only early adopter: Zaheer Khan has adopted a leopard, Anil Kumble has adopted a giraffe and Virat Kohli has adopted a rabbit. (Incredibly, I’m making up only the bit about Kohli.) The tiger is 9 years old, so any questions about whether it will be nursed by his wife are out of place here. In any case, young Sakshi Dhoni would no doubt not want her Masaba saris to be peed on by a baby tiger, and I’m safely assuming that young Agsthya Dhoni will remain a resident of Mysore Zoo.

As you would guess, this reminds me of MF Husain. The celebrated painter died last week, and the media has been full of tributes to him. (My friend, the prolific Salil Tripathi, wrote four of them: 1, 2, 3, 4. My fellow Yahoo! columnist Girish Shahane also wrote one.) Husain is one of the most recognisable and familiar figures in this country: almost everybody surely knows his name. He was an uber-celebrity, which is ironic for two reasons. One: He was hounded out of the country by goons who believe that goddesses should not be painted naked. (Ludicrously, they believe in goddesses. WTF?) Two: Most of the people to whom he was such a recognisable figure, who would have burst crackers and felt mega-proud if a nobel prize for painting were instituted and given to him, wouldn’t be able to tell you what made him great. They wouldn’t have an opinion on what was notable about his art, and why his paintings are more or less compelling than those by Raza, Souza or Salman Khan. They’d know that he likes to be barefoot because Bombay Times (and Lucknow Times and Kota Times and suchlike) would have mentioned it a few hundred times, and they’d know he liked painting horses and developed crushes on Bollywood actresses from time to time. But that’s it. To them, he’s a celebrity because he’s a celebrity.

It’s a sign of the widespread shallowness of human beings that being celebrated and being a celebrity are two different things. People become celebrities by achieving something, or by being someone’s wife/husband/girlfriend/boyfriend/alleged shag. But once they make it to page 3 a few times, the original reason for their celebrity becomes redundant, and they become ‘famous for being famous’. First they get their 15 minutes of fame for XYZ; then they get a lifetime of fame for being famous for that original 15 minutes, and XYZ no longer matters. Husain the quirky public figure displaces Husain the painter. When he dies, we pretend to be celebrating his work, but we’re really just celebrating his celebrity, which is as much our doing as his. Then we move on to Dhoni’s tiger and Kohli’s rabbit. (I can’t get Kohli’s rabbit out of my mind.)

Why are we so shallow and obsessed with the superficial? One reason, undeniably, is that we are all voyeurs. I watch Bigg Boss religiously when it’s on, and spend as much time on Bombay Times as The Times of India. (This is because ToI is boringly awful and BT is glamorously awful, and I prefer pretty pictures.) Which of us doesn’t clamour for gossip on who is sleeping with who, and who had a wardrobe malfunction resulting in a near nip-slip (as if everybody doesn’t have two nips), or which designer flicked a design from which fellow designer (as if they both haven’t flicked from an old issue of Vogue)? We crave wealth and beauty, and are obsessed by the rich and the beautiful: that is in our genes.

Another possible reason is an evolutionary one, cited by Johann Hari in an old essay on the subject. It is possible, he writes, that “we are hard-wired to seek out Big Men (or Women) and copy them,” an instinct that evolved for our survival and has led to the flourishing of the tabloid media. We are drawn towards success and achievement and beauty; celebrity seems a validation of all these things; so we are drawn towards celebrity, ultimately for its own sake.

This is not necessarily harmful, unless we become stalkers or are stalked by them. But this celebrity thing can be taken too far—consider the temples built for this cricketer or that film star, and the near-religious adulation heaped upon them. This is especially dangerous when they enter politics, extending the halo of their celebrity into a field where you actually need to be competent, and merely being photogenic or charming or controversial or famous isn’t enough. The south has had its share of filmstar-turned-chief ministers, who gather cults, not followings. Their power makes them celebrities, their celebrity gives them more power, and the perpetual motion machine keeps running. This cannot be healthy.

We also make the mistake of assuming that because we are familiar with the public image of a celeb, we are familar with the celeb himself. If a particular cricketer is known for being humble and unassuming, it doesn’t actually mean that he is really that way. His public persona is being mistaken for his personality, which may or may not coincide, and if they do, that is bound to go to his head, so how the hell can he stay humble? Celebrity is tough.

Another mistake we make is assuming that being a celebrity extends your competence in fields other than what you are originally known for. The frequently naive views of celebs are given more importance than they deserve, often in subjects they know nothing about. (For example, Dhoni’s giving a lakh to Mysore Zoo does nothing for animal rights. It is a cosmetic gesture, though I have no doubt it is a well-meaning one, and he’s an awesome cricketer, so Agsthya is now my favourite tiger.) Sometimes, of course, they are sensible, but I am always surprised when that is the case. In general, celebs’ views on politics or economics are staggeringly banal or stupefyingly silly. But then, just as we get the leaders we deserve, perhaps we also get the celebs we deserve.

*  *  *  *

Going back to the news item on Dhoni, I notice his quote about the tiger being our ‘national animal’. WTF is a national animal? Is the concept itself not absurd, like a national bird or national sport or national colour or a national brand of underwear? It’s like an insecure nation reassuring itself with a signalling device. Why isn’t the donkey our national animal? There are more donkeys than tigers in India, surely? Is it because donkeys are vegetarian?

Dhoni should have thought about this and adopted a donkey in protest.

Posted by Amit Varma on 29 June, 2011 in Arts and entertainment | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Journalism | Media | Sport | Viewfinder


To Hell With Family Values

This is the 35th installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India. It was published on May 26.

As news items go, this one is both absurd and sad: the authorities in Bhakti Park, a 90-acre-complex in Wadala consisting of 24 buildings, have banned its residents from going to the terrace. The reason for this is two separate incidents, in different parts of the city, of housewifes pushing their kids off the building, and then jumping themselves. By cutting off access to the terrace, these authorities presume, they can prevent such copycat suicides.

I’d assume that if someone wanted to pop themselves, they could easily find other ways of doing so, like jumping off their own balcony. But leave aside methodology: while these recent incidents are tragic and poignant, and unusual in that they involved the murder of children, they are not an anomaly. Almost every day, you can open the newspapers and read about some housewife somewhere killing herself. (It is so commonplace that I wonder if it should be even considered ‘news’.) A week ago, in fact, my fellow Yahoo! columnist Deepak Shenoy pointed me to a rather telling statistic: going by data for 2009 (pdf link)—there’s no reason it should be any different today—around 20% of the people committing suicide in India were housewives.  Indeed, many more housewives commit suicide every year in India than farmers, despite all the hoo-ha around the latter.

For all this, I blame ‘family values’.

We Indians tend to pride ourselves on our family values. The typical middle-class Indian is brought up with the default programming that they’ll get married in their early-to-mid 20s, have kids within a few years of marriage, and have steady settled careers in conventional professions. This default programming is horrible for women. Many of these women who killed themselves no doubt grew up daydreaming about the domestic bliss that lay ahead of them. They did not try—or were subtly discouraged from trying—to turn themselves into proud independent women who did not depend on others for subsistence, and whose self-esteem did not need validation from a man and his family. They duly got married, some of them had kids, and when the marriage went bad, when the man turned out to be an ass, they could not find a way out. Even if they could have supported themselves, what about the social stigma of a broken marriage? And so, in dispair, they walked up to the terrace.

A few years ago, I’d written a piece titled ‘We Should Celebrate Rising Divorce Rates.’ I continue to get more hate mail for that piece than any other I’ve written, but I couldn’t stand by it more strongly. As I wrote then, rising divorce rates are “the single best statistical indicator we have of the empowerment of women.” If divorce was easy and socially acceptable, and if every father in the country brought up his daughter to be independent, we’d have far fewer housewives committing suicide. Indeed, we’d have far fewer men taking their wives for granted and treating them like shit. Marriage would not, then, be the prison it is for so many women.

*  *  *  *

I know many couples, married and otherwise, who have decided not to have any children—much as I have. It exasperates us all a little to be questioned about this. Being a parent transforms your life, and limits the options open to you in terms of career and lifestyle—especially for women. The question ‘Why?’ to my mind should really be asked to those making this huge choice, rather than to those who choose not to have kids. Not having kids should be the default.

Of course, this will never be the case as natural selection has programmed us to be procreating machines, and too many of my friends go oooh, how cuuuute when they see a noisy, messy baby I would be glad to deposit inside a mixie. But that’s okay. We’ve all got a right to make our choices—just don’t look at me as if I’m nuts when I tell you I don’t want to be a father.

Indeed, speaking of producing kids, you could say that I enjoy the journey but never want to get to the destination. Natural selection, go screw yourself!

Also read: Philip Larkin’s great poem, ‘This be the Verse’.

*  *  *  *

I’d also love to see the day when marriage is no longer so sacrosanct in India. If two people are in love, what is it between them that a piece of paper can change? Either they’re committed to each other, in which case who needs it registered in a government office, or they’re not quite that committed, in which case why trap yourself? And why marry someone without living with them first to see if it works? Would you buy a car without test-driving it, or a pair of headphones without checking out the sound first? Isn’t selecting a spouse a far more important decision?

The only plausible reason to get married is if you want to have kids and being married makes it easier for them in a society like India’s. Otherwise, as an expression of love, it seems a bit overblown to me. Is it insecurity, and a need to assuage it, that drives some of us to marriage? Is that a good reason?

My arguments aren’t prescriptive, of course. You have to do what works for you. Just think about it first, is all I’m saying.

*  *  *  *

A final thought on that database of suicides that I linked to earlier in the piece. If you go through it carefully, many interesting narratives come up. One of them is this: despite more than 60% of our population being involved in the agricultural sector, only about 14% of people committing suicide are farmers. That would indicate that, despite the rhetoric of the likes of P Sainath and Pankaj Mishra, there is less average misery among farmers than among non-farmers. So however many anecdotes they may come up with about farmers driven to kill themselves by unscrupulous moneylenders, the fact remains that the plural of anecdotes is not data. And the data tells quite a different story.

But that’s a subject for another column on another day, so I’ll let it pass for now.

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 May, 2011 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Viewfinder


The Game of Skill

This is the 34th installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India. It was published on May 12.

I’ve been in Goa for the last ten days or so, grinding out poker tournaments and cash games. There are a bunch of other regulars following a similar routine in a busy month for poker, and all of them would be a bit befuddled by the title of economist Steven Levitt’s newest paper: ‘The Role of Skill Versus Luck in Poker: Evidence From the World Series of Poker’. To us, the answer is self-evident, as obvious as a question about whether skill really helps in playing cricket or whether Roger Federer’s achievements are a fluke. Nevertheless, in somewhat harrowed times for poker players, Levitt’s excellent paper, written with Thomas Miles, is hugely welcome.

As of April 15 this year, which the pokerverse refers to as Black Friday, US players were effectively barred from playing online poker at three online sites, including the two biggest in the world, Pokerstars and Full Tilt. This completed a series of actions that began in 2006, when the senate majority leader, Bill Frist, was scrambling furiously to get online poker banned in America. Since a bill to this effect was unlikely to pass on its own merits, he tacked on the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) onto legislation about protecting the ports of the country, and got it through at the fag end of a session before the senate went on recess. The bill didn’t ban online gambling per se, but prohibited the use of US banks and credit cards for depositing money into those sites.

While that hurt online gaming, Americans continued to play poker at sites like Pokerstars and Full Tilt, as the sites presumably used a variety of methods to get around the issue of accepting and giving payments. They were indicted on Black Friday, though, as the legality of some of these methods came into question, and American players have been barred from playing at these sites. This has hugely affected the livelihood of many online grinders, who played poker for a living. Besides that, it is also an infringement on the rights and freedoms of Americans from their own government, which is depressing, considering that in other aspects, like freedom of speech, America sets an example to the rest of the world.

This will get sorted out. Sooner or later it will be legally settled, once and for all, that poker is a game of skill and not luck. The UIGEA will cease to apply to it, and the debate will be moot. Levitt and Miles’s new paper might well play an important part in that. It’s something most Americans understand anyway: poker is a quintessential American game, and it can even be argued that its history would be different without it. Richard Nixon funded his first political campaign through his poker winnings, and Barack Obama, according to David Remnick in The Bridge, used poker sessions with local bigwigs as a networking opportunity during his formative political years in Chicago. (By all accounts, he is tight-aggressive: cautious when it comes to entering a hand but, as his recent play in Abbottabad shows, not afraid of putting all his chips in the middle if he feels the situation demanded it.)

Given the legal status of gambling in India, a US ruling about poker being a game of skill would also help the game grow in India. At the moment, poker tournaments and cash games are legal only in the offshore casinos in Goa. An underground scene thrives in every city—and that’s understating it—but it’s all a bit precarious. Once it is as legal as, say, Bridge, I predict a poker explosion in India that will make it, within five years, the second most popular sport in India, after cricket. You’ll have the whole gamut of entertainment options: televised tournaments, high stakes cash games with hole cameras, poker celebrities as instantly recognisable as Gautam Gambhir. All stoked by the illusion that we all get the same cards, and any of us could be up there in the spotlight. It will happen; remember that you read it here first.

*  *  *  *

I’ve written in the past about why poker is a game of skill, so rather than go over old territory, let me direct you to some old Viewfinder columns on this subject:

The Beautiful Game of Poker
Throw a Lucky Man into the Sea
Poker and the Human Brain

You can also check out my bi-monthly column for Cardplayer India, Pocket Quads.

*  *  *  *

At one level, the argument about whether poker is a game of skill or not should be irrelevent in a legal sense, because it is my contention that even games of chance should not be banned. There are two reasons for this: One, as I’ve argued before, practically everything we do in our lives, from investing in the stock market, selecting a job or choosing a spouse is a gamble of some sort, in the sense that we make an estimate of the odds of our investment leading to a good return, and act accordingly. In many of these matters, we are sometimes too optimistic—but that’s life.

The second reason is more fundamental. What I do with my time and money is my business alone, as long as I do not infringe on anyone’s rights. This right of mine, over my life and my property, is something that the government is supposed to protect. For it to actually curtail and infringe these rights defeats the purpose of government itself. Governments exist to serve us, not the other way around. And yet, we the rulers allow ourselves to become the ruled. On a matter or principle, thus, all laws against gambling are wrong.

That said, from a poker player’s perspective, proving that it is a game of skill is lower-hanging fruit. Let’s get there first.

*  *  *  *

Since we’re talking poker, I’ll end by telling you about a sick call I made the other day. I’m at the button in a five-handed game, with the blinds at 100-200, and stacks ranging from 30k to 100k. It’s five in the morning, and the game has become very loose and aggressive. Everyone limps to me, and I look down at red pocket 8s. I raise to 1000, and everyone calls. The small blind, who has been very frisky and seems to be tilting, announces “check in dark.”

The flop is Ac2sAc. (Two aces, two clubs.) I’m ready to give up the hand if someone bets, as one of the callers could easily have an ace, but the action checks to me, and I choose not to build the pot by betting: I check. Before the turn opens, the frisky small blind announces, “Bet in dark. Four thousand.” (Into a pot of five.) The turn is the king of clubs; there are now three clubs on the board. I’m ready to fold if someone calls or raises him, but the action folds to me. My read is that he does not have an ace, which he is trying to represent, because from what I know of him, he wouldn’t play it like this. I call.

The river is the ten of clubs. There are four clubs on the board, and also two aces, one king and one ten. Any of them beat me. Frisky boy bets 16 thousand into a pot of 13. You’d think this is where I fold, but wait, not so fast. I tank, and think through what he might have. His range, in my view, is very polarised. Either he has the nuts or he has nothing. I can’t see him betting a random club here because he has showdown value. Ditto a king or a ten. He wouldn’t bet trips here because there’s a flush on the board. He wouldn’t bet a flush because there’s a repeat ace on the board, my preflop raising range has many hands with an ace in it, I did call his turn bet, and I’m capable of slowplaying a full house. In my estimate, either he has some sort of full house, and is overbetting the pot to get value from a flush, in case I have one, or he has nothing.

I talk to him. He talks back, smiles sheepishly. The physical tells I’m getting are of weakness, so I call. He mucks his hand, and I take down the pot with two red eights on a board with four clubs, two aces and two other overcards. I don’t show emotion much at a poker table, but I’m overjoyed at my analysis and my reads turning out to be right, and I punch the air. “Come to Papa,” I exclaim. Poker is a game of luck, you say? My ass it is.

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 May, 2011 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | Sport | Viewfinder


The Godman’s Blessing and the Sportsman’s Curse

This is the 33rd installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India. It was published on April 28.

Exhibit A is an international sportsman at the very peak of his career. Exhibit B is a middle-class man who’s been dealt a series of cruel blows, and is beginning to feel that life is not worth living. The sportsman attracts multi-million-dollar endorsements and makes it to the cover of several magazines, including the one he most covets, Sports Illustrated. The middle-class man considers slashing his wrists, but has too many responsibilities to give up so easily. So he makes a journey to an acclaimed godman, whose blessings alone have been known to turn lives around. Sure enough, things take a turn for the better. Meanwhile, the sportsman’s career starts going downhill.

What do these two stories have in common? Plenty. They are, in a statistical sense, the same story. Let me explain.

The sportsman is a victim of The Sports Illustrated Jinx. This is an urban legend based on the observation that a disproportionate number of individuals and teams who appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated subsequently experience a downswing in their careers. Appearing on the cover of that prestigious magazine, it would seem, jinxes you.

There is a simple explanation for the apparent jinx, though. Sportspeople’s careers go through peaks and troughs, with periods of immense success followed by periods of baffling failure. After each peak or trough, there is regression to the mean. They are most likely to be featured on the cover of SI when they are at their peak. A downswing after that is natural. (For someone like Michael Jordan, who was on the cover 49 times, the mean might itself be extraordinary enough for such a regression to make no apparent difference.) And when their performance dips to their normal levels, we mistake correlation for causation, and attribute it to their appearing on the SI cover. But it isn’t a jinx at all.

The godman’s blessing is a similar phenomenon, viewed from the other side. People tend to turn to God and godmen when they are at their lowest ebb. Let’s say the godman blesses them, or gives them vibhuti, or suchlike. Then their lives regress to the mean, their run of bad luck ends, and whoa, they’re devotees for life. Indeed, since they were inclined to be believers to begin with, they are likely to attribute any swing in fortunes to God or the godman, and ignore further downswings as part of their general bad luck. (This is the confirmation bias kicking in.) Or even, if they’re really thick, to karma.

Thus, the belief of many people in godmen and new age gurus is based on false foundations. If they understood the role of luck in our lives, and the randomness of the universe, they would be less inclined to look to divine forces (or charlatans claiming divinity) for answers to their problems. A godman’s blessing should never be more than a source of amusement to you—and if he gives you sacred ash, remember to wash your hands before your next meal.

*  *  *  *

That said, I am not mocking belief. The fundamental truth about human beings is that of our mortality. One day we will die, and that’s it. This is a difficult truth to come to terms with, for it carries at its heart

a message about our utter insignificance, and natural selection has programmed us to regard ourselves fairly highly. (For obvious reasons—otherwise why would we enthusiastically procreate instead of generally moping around?)

For this reason, we tend to seek comfort over truth. Religion and superstition and spirituality give us comfort. Given how harsh life can be, I’m not going to stand around passing judgment over religious people. I understand why they believe—even if what they believe in is mostly utterly ludicrous.

*  *  *  *

And yes, I’m somewhat baffled by the the number of devout followers the late Sathya Sai Baba seemed to have had. It’s one thing to believe in God, and quite another to believe in a man who called himself divine, and would prove this not with miracles of any value, but through cheap conjurer’s tricks that any average stage magician could have pulled off. (There are many YouTube videos about them; check out this one.) There have also been hazaar unsavoury controversies around the man; read Vir Sanghvi’s take on him, as well as

Vishal Arora’s superb feature for Caravan. And yet, presidents and prime ministers have gone to take his blessings, and top sportsmen broke down at his funeral. All this, I suspect, illustrated their frailty more than his divinity. But we are all frail, and deal with it in different ways, so who am I to judge?

*  *  *  *

Also read: An old personal essay by me,

“What’s Consolation For an Atheist?”

Posted by Amit Varma on 29 April, 2011 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Old memes | Astrology etc | Sport | Viewfinder


The Rorschach Effect in Indian Politics

This is the 32nd installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India. It was published on April 21.

Consider this man: He runs a village in rural Maharashtra as if it is his personal fiefdom, like an authoritarian feudal lord. He is a fan of Shivaji, and admires him for once chopping off the hands of a man who committed a crime. In that vein, he passes an order that anyone found drinking alcohol will be tied to a pole in front of the village temple and publicly flogged. Several men undergo this, one of whom, a vice sarpanch of the village, says: “I was drinking. I was ... tied to the pole and flogged two-three times. It is normal. [He] will try to make you understand once or twice and thereafter, he will beat you badly.” He believes in “rigid implementation” of family planning, including forced vasectomies. Male labourers in his village are paid Rs 50 a day, while female labourers get just Rs 30. He supports Narendra Modi, and is politically active, routinely resorting to a form of blackmail known as threatening to fast unto death until his demands are met. He believes that corrupt people should be hanged—literally hanged to death. He is Anna Hazare.

In the last month or so, the 71-year-old Hazare has become a middle-class hero and a “youth icon” in India. This is baffling, given the biographical details in the above paragraph. (I got them from Hartosh Singh Bal’s article for Open magazine and Mukul Sharma’s piece in Kafila.) Hazare is popularly described as Gandhian, but, as Bal points out, if the forced vasectomies are anything to go by, he brings Sanjay Gandhi to mind more than Mahatma Gandhi. Sure, he is fighting against corruption, but both his method (of blackmail via the hunger fast) and his remedy (creating an alternative center of power and discretion instead of tackling the root causes of corruption) are dubious. Then why has middle-class India turned him into such a hero?

I believe it is because we are lazy. It is true that we are disgusted by corruption. We are sick of reading about the telecom scandal, the Radia tapes, the Commonwealth games. More than that, corruption has become a virus that plagues our everyday lives, and we’re appalled by it. But we’re too damn lazy to go out and vote and actually participate in our democracy. We’re apathetic, and believe, perhaps correctly, that our feeble middle-class vote won’t make a difference. And yet, we want to express our disgust at the way things are, take the moral high ground, and feel like we really are doing something, because hey, that helps our self esteem. Then along comes this venerable activist who wears khadi, lives a spartan life, speaks out against corruption in high places, and goes on a hunger strike to influence the implentation of a bill that aims to tackle corruption. Naturally, we make him the repository of our hopes and our values, speak out in his defence at parties and cafes while hanging out with friends, and even light candles in his support. And there, our job as citizens is done.

The intellectual laziness here is obvious. We make him our hero though we know little else about him, and when his weird history comes to light, we rationalise it away. We ignore the fact that the Lokpal Bill, which he is fighting for, does nothing to tackle the root causes of corruption, and might actually be a step in the wrong direction. We treat attacks on our new hero—if the behaviour of some of his defenders on TV is anything to go by—as personal attacks on us. We start dealing in absolutes, as if anyone against Hazare must, by default, be a supporter of corruption and the status quo.

The Anna Hazare phenomenon is what one could term the Rorschach Effect in Politics. A couple of years ago, Barack Obama wisely pointed out, “I am like a Rorschach test.” During his presidential campaign, his supporters saw in him whatever they wanted to: an anti-Bush, a liberal messiah, a pragmatic and non-partisan moderate, and suchlike, some of it without any evidence, some of it contradictory. (Similarly, his opponents projected their fears or fantasies onto him.) Needless to say, when he did come to power, he disappointed many who had voted for him, because hey, he couldn’t possibly live up to being everything to everybody. (For example, lefty pacifists were disappointed that he stepped up the war in Afghanistan, even though that’s exactly what he said he’d do while campaigning.) He was a blank slate no more.

Hazare is a similar beneficiary of the Rorschach Effect. Although he has been an activist for decades, he’s exploded into the national consciousness in just the last few weeks. And a politically powerless middle class has projected its hopes, its self-righteousness and its sense of moral superiority onto him. But Hazare is no Mahatma Gandhi, and I think disillusionment, both with the man and the Lokpal Bill, is bound to set in sooner or later. Unless indifference and apathy precede it.

*  *  *  *

Another of Rorschach’s children is Rahul Gandhi. He’s been hailed as a youth icon and the face of new India, and Page 3 celebs routinely describe him as one of their favourite politicians. But apart from the fact that he’s good looking and belongs to the Nehru-Gandhi family, we know very little about him. What are the values that he stands for? What are his views on economic freedom and the license raj? What are his views on freedom of speech? (If he supports it, is he then in favour of repealing the ban on Satanic Verses?) What does he feel about reservations? (He has spoken out against the caste system, and reservations do, after all, perpetuate discrimination on the basis of caste.) He has spoken out for inner-party democracy, which India needs so badly, but is he doing anything to drive the Congress towards a system where party leaders are elected from below, not anointed from above? Does he hope to be prime minister one day? If so, why? What kind of a person is he, really?

Gandhi is as blank a slate as you can get, in the sense that he won’t address any of these issues, and most of the public pronouncements we hear from him are platitudes that express good intention, which is meaningless. If that is a deliberate political strategy, it is masterful. Whether it will work, in this age of identity politics when votebanks are fragmented and all politics is local, is uncertain. But I guarantee you one thing: he’ll have middle-class support.

*  *  *  *

My column today is meant to address the nature of middle-class support for Anna Hazare, not the folly of it,  but if you’re interested in checking out some of the arguments against it, do read these pieces by me, Mohit Satyanand, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Shuddhabrata Sengupta and Salil Tripathi. A common response to these has been: At least Hazare is doing something; what solution do you offer?

My response to that is that firstly, as the pieces above argue, the solution he is offering could actually make the problem worse, and are a step in the wrong direction. That is reason enough to oppose it without needing to propose an alternative. Secondly, the alternative is obvious: if we are to tackle the root cause of corruption, then we should campaign against excess government power and discretion, starting with any particular domain that grabs our fancy. That said, I don’t think I’ll see Anna Hazare go on hunger strike anytime soon protesting against the license-and-permit raj or all the redundant rent-seeking ministries in government. And while I will continue writing about these issues, as I have for years in the only form of protest most writers are capable of, I will not be going on a hunger strike anytime soon. Why risk acidity?

Posted by Amit Varma on 25 April, 2011 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | News | Politics | Viewfinder


Where Anna Hazare Gets It Wrong

This is the 31st installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India, which resumes this week. It was published on April 14.

Today’s column begins with a fashion update: A ribbed, silk green gown from Vivienne Westwood’s spring/summer 2010 collection has been selected as Fashion Museum’s Dress of the Year. Androgyny has become the latest trend on the catwalks. In India, The Times of India, who should know, informs us that “yellows are in.” And oh, have you heard about Anna Hazare? He’s quite the flavour of the month.

Yes, that’s right, I’m an Anna Hazare cynic. I understand that like Yuvraj Singh, he’s in the zone right now. I get it that he stands for the battle against corruption, one of India’s gravest problems. But I’m amused that most people supporting him haven’t read and understood the draft of the Jan Lokpal Bill, which Hazare has been fighting for. I’m appalled that they don’t understand that this bill does nothing to fight the root causes of corruption, and may instead add to the problem. And yes, I’d be astounded if they care about this bill or the man two weeks from now, when the fashion would have changed, yellows would be out, and purples would be, like, so in.

That corruption is one of the biggest problems India faces is a banal truism. But where we go wrong in thinking about it is that we treat it like a disease, when it is really a symptom. Corruption arises from power. When people have power over our lives, they will misuse it: that is inherent in human nature. When you need 165 licenses to open a hotel in India, including “a special licence for the vegetable weighing scale in the kitchen and one for each of the bathroom scales put in guest rooms”, there is a recipe for corruption right there. When every government servant you encounter while doing some routine work, from a driver to a peon, can delay you or derail you, corruption is inevitable.

Corruption is inevitable in India because the government has too much power. If a hotelier did not need 165 licenses—and there is no reason why he should need any—that would be 165 bribes less to pay. (I’m assuming one bribe per license, which is honestly quite optimistic.) If our mai-baap sarkars did not have control over so many elements of our lives, there would be less scope for chai-paani. In practically every area of our lives, there is government interference or oversight, either overt or covert. And, to repeat that old cliche one more time because it is both pithy and true, power corrupts. That’s just human nature.

So what is the solution to corruption then? Since the problem lies with power, you need to tackle that first. You need to, first of all, question the many ways in which the government controls our lives. Completely dismantling the license-and-inspector raj is one way to do. Scrapping every ministry that has no reason to exist, at both the central and state level, would be another. (We’d be left with just three or four of them.) Governments should exist to implement law and order, to protect our rights, and to provide basic services—nothing else. The more we move towards this ideal, the closer we come to rooting out corruption.

Obviously these specific goals are high-hanging fruit. Those in power will never willingly give up any piece of it. But an equal part of the problem is our default attitude that our government exists to rule us and not serve us. This must change. Equally, we seem to believe that the solution to bad government is more government. This is exactly the opposite of the truth, and broadly the mistake that Anna Hazare is making.

The Lokpal Bill does not tackle any of the root causes of corruption. Instead, as Pratap Bhanu Mehta puts it in his wonderful critique, the bill amounts to “an unparalleled concentration of power in one institution that will literally be able to summon any institution and command any kind of police, judicial and investigative power.” In other words, in a situation where the problem is power, we create an entity that has even more power and, what is more, has appointed officials instead of elected ones. As Shuddhabrata Sengupta writes, this is not “the deepening, but ... the profound erosion of democracy.”

I’m not as skeptical of Hazare as my friend Manu Joseph is—I think Gaurav Sabnis’s view is more balanced. I’m sure the man is well-intentioned, and has achieved much in the past. But he is fighting for the wrong thing here. You do not cure a diabetic man by feeding him sweets; equally, you cannot root our corruption by creating more centres of power.

I must admit, though, that Vivienne Westwood makes some funky dresses.

*  *  *  *

I’m always amused to see how a worthy cause acts like Red Bull to our chatteratti. From the meaningless, feel-good candlelight vigils after 26/11, to countless self-righteous online petitions about this and that, to support for Anna Hazare, the new middle-class icon. (Who woulda thunk?) Why, I even heard about a movement on Twitter that was trying to get everyone to fast for one day in solidarity with Hazare. One day! How far we have come: from “fast unto death” to “fast until midnight.” This is progress, India.

*  *  *  *

Speaking of androgyny being in fashion, it strikes me that most foreigners, when they hear his name, must think Anna Hazare is a woman. I would so love to see a desi Lady Gaga clone on MTV soon, calling herself Anna Hazare. She’d have to be really thin, of course, because not only is that fashionable, she’s been fasting. I have the title of her first single already “Would you like to be my lokpal, baybeh?” I can see her in my mind’s eye, and lemme tell you, it’s corrupting me.

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 April, 2011 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | News | Politics | Viewfinder


The Thunderous Silence

This is the 30th installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India, and was published on November 25.

Indian journalism stinks right now.

A few weeks ago, a plagiarism controversy broke over at India Today. Content theft is alarmingly common in Indian publications, but this was different because it involved the editor. Aroon Purie’s bylined editorial had lifted a few sentences, verbatim, off a piece written on Rajnikanth by Slate journalist Grady Hendrix. In Twitterverse and the Blogosphere, parallel universes that mainstream mediawallahs generally manage to ignore, poop hit the fan. Eventually, Purie came out with an explanation that was at once shameful and shameless: he was jet-lagged, he said, and someone else had written the piece for him. Hendrix duly ridiculed the explanation (scroll down to his comment here).—it couldn’t have been very hard to mine it for humour.

There were three issues that Puriegate highlighted. One, Indian publications don’t give a damn about plagiarism, which is a sackable offence in any respectable publication in the West. Over the years, established writers like film critics Nikhat Kazmi of the Times of India and Gautaman Bhaskaran of the Hindu have been caught plagiarising, and they have continued in their jobs. (Kazmi was exposed by fellow Yahoo! columnist Jai Arjun Singh; Bhaskaran was outed here.) While those were the high-profile cases, numerous other mainstream media plagiarists have been exposed in the last few years, but none punished. In fact, an India Today journalist was accused of plagiarism not long ago, and the magazine turned a blind eye. All of this amounts to an admission by editors that they do not believe that their writers are good enough to produce quality content under pressure, and so it’s okay to steal. That makes it ironic that they so often take the moral high ground, ranting and raving about corruption in public life, while they harbour thieves themselves.

The second issue, a rather comical one, was that Purie doesn’t write his own editorials. This has been known for years—as many as three different friends of mine have ghost-written his edits in the past—and it’s absurd. Purie is the editor of a major national magazine, and he’s incapable of writing 800 words of coherent text? No wonder he condones plagiarism, as does the institution he has built. No wonder their standards are so shoddy, their prose so uniformly insipid, their journalism so mediocre. And while that last sentence is true of India Today and Purie, it is also true of practically every major Indian newspaper and magazine today—and Purie is probably no worse than most other editors. So there you go.

The third issue, the most serious one according to me, is how the media closed ranks to support Purie. So much so that a column Mitali Saran wrote for Business Standard highlighting just these issues was spiked by the paper. Saran’s column, Stet, had run in BS since 2006, and its distinctive authorial voice made it one of the most highly regarded columns in the country. Then she wrote this piece; BS refused to carry it; and she walked away. Consider what she had written: “When our [media] is confronted with its own scandals, you can hear the clang of a fraternity closing ranks, followed by the weird sound of thousands of furious back-scratchings, followed by the thunderous silence of stones not being thrown in glass houses.”

That thunderous silence can be heard this week as well. I haven’t gone through the transcripts of the Niira Radia tapes, and I don’t have an opinion on the controversy itself. But it clearly is a major issue that should be covered by all major newspapers and TV stations. And yet, as The Hoot and blogger Harini Calamur point out, the media has mostly ignored their story, as if it doesn’t matter. But if this story doesn’t matter, then the media doesn’t matter, because this strikes at the heart of what journalism is and should be about. The media isn’t willing to do this self-examination—for obvious reasons. So much, then, for the notion of our journalists being the watchdogs of society—these dogs guard the burglars who strip our houses bare. Such it goes.

Posted by Amit Varma on 25 December, 2010 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Journalism | Media | Viewfinder


It’s Only Words

This is the 29th installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India, and was published on November 18.

The world is so insane that it is a wonder satirists have a job. I read recently in Hindustan Times—yes, HT, not an Indian version of The Onion—that the makers of Golmaal 3 have been sued by The Indian Stammering Association “for mocking people who stammer.” Shreyas Talpade stammers in the film, and the other characters reportedly keep making fun of him. (I haven’t seen the film.) So this organisation of stammerers is upset about it, and they’re going to court. So far, an association of mute people hasn’t surfaced to join in the revelry—Tusshar Kapoor plays a mute character in the film, and ends up landing the heroine, which does not surprise me: which woman can resist a man who just shuts up and listens?

Seriously, are we a society of eight-year-olds? Even if the explicit intent of the film was to make fun of people who stammer—and it obviously wasn’t—so what? Such mockery always reflects badly on those doing the mocking, not on those being mocked. Why be so sensitive to criticism and mockery (or even abuse)? How insecure do we have to be to let mere words affect us so much?

A few months ago, a salesman from an finance company called me a couple of times to try and sell me an insurance package. I was irritable that day, and the second time I said something to the effect of “... and don’t f***in’ call me again!” before hanging up. 30 seconds later, the phone rings. It’s the same guy, demanding to know “Why you call me f***er? WHY YOU USE BAD LANGUAGE?” I lost it this time, and unleashed a string of pejoratives at the fellow. I hung up again, he called me again. Though I did not answer any more of his calls, he called me about 35 times in the next two days, and his number is still saved in my mobile phonebook as ‘Birla Sunlife Troll.’

Why did it matter so much to him that a random stranger called him X and Y? He screwed up his peace of mind, agitated over it for a couple of days, and it is likely that it affected his interactions with other people around him as well, besides endangering his job. It was irrational—but we are an emotional species more than a rational one, so it is understandable that one gets upset about it, even though being called a ‘bastard’ or a ‘bhainchod’ does not literally make one a bastard or a bhainchod—and hell, we don’t even know what ‘chootiya’ means. But while being upset at abuse or mockery is understandable, what is bizarre is that we expect the legal system, like a school teacher in a yard full of unruly schoolkids, to take over and punish the bad boys. What is even more bizarre is that our legal system actually has provisions for this.

I’ve written before about how certain provisions of the Indian Penal Code make it a crime to give offence in certain contexts, and how the Indian constitution does not provide adequate protection to free speech. All that is a shame, and an example of what’s wrong with our legal system. But there is also something wrong with us, that so many of us take offence so easily at something we could so easily ignore. It speaks of low self-esteem and diffidence, the very qualities that a stammering association should be trying to eradicate in its members. That makes this court case especially ironical, doesn’t it?

*  *  *  *

My respect always goes up for people who show they can laugh at themselves. The sardar who tells sardar jokes, the fat guy who jokes about his paunch, the poker player who mocks his own poor plays, these are my kind of people. They are comfortable in their own skins, and they get that we are a bumbling, imperfect species doomed, biologically, to self-destruct—so some things are just not worth getting het up about. The biggest human failing is that we take ourselves too damn seriously. When we do that, the universe laughs at us.

Posted by Amit Varma on 25 December, 2010 in Arts and entertainment | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | Viewfinder


No, We Can’t

This is the 28th installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India, and was published on November 11.

Barack Obama’s visit to India has made him such a huge celebrity here that it’s a wonder he hasn’t yet been asked to appear on Bigg Boss. I can imagine the housemates being given a task: ‘The President is coming, prepare for the president’s visit.’ So they get all set to greet Obama: Veena Malik puts on her best make up and pouts in front of the mirror, Dolly Bindra personally supervises the making of special gaajar ka halwa with secret ingredients, Ashmit Patel and Hrishant Goswami trim their eyebrows again, Shweta Tiwari puts on a finely-tailored, figure-hugging anarkali churidar kurta, and choreographs a dance for herself, Manoj Tiwari composes and practises a Bhojpuri song written specially for the occasion, Mahabali Khali practises punching through walls to impress the president, Sara Khan decides that she will try and call Obama ‘Pops’ so as to cuddle up to him, and they all line up in the garden as the moment nears. The gates swing open. Pratibha Patil walks in.

Okay, this is unlikely to happen—as unlikely as our country is to ever throw up a politician quite like Obama. A few months ago I was invited for a television talk show to discuss “Who is India’s Obama?” I couldn’t participate because I was busy at the time, but I found the question ridiculous. For a political figure like Obama to rise in India would be as unusual as growing palm trees in a snowfield. India’s political system would never allow someone like Obama to rise, and would disincentivise entry in the first place.

Consider how Obama climbed the ladder in politics. He wasn’t from a privileged background or a political family: he worked as a community organiser in Chicago in the 1980s, and then graduated from Harvard Law School, where he was editor of the Harvard Law Review for a while. He worked as a professor at the University of Chicago Law School for a few years, and wrote an acclaimed memoir. Given that background, you’d have expected him to stay in academics and write more books, maybe even winning a Pulitizer along the way. (He’s a very fine writer.) But he saw a different calling for himself.

It might have been idealism that motivated him to join politics, but he also possessed the pragmatic street-smartness without which you can’t rise in that profession. He networked superbly in the local political scene and built a base for himself. (Interestingly, poker was a part of his tactical mix, as James McManus points out in this article in the New Yorker. For more on the role poker has played in American public life, I strongly recommend you read McManus’s magisterial history of poker in America, Cowboys Full.) But Obama’s rapid ascent in national politics was not a result of backroom wheeling-and-dealing, but of the power of ideas. He came on the national scene when America, tired of the Iraq war and the growing partisanship in politics, was ready for a change. Obama, a thinker of much nuance, was also a speaker of great clarity and eloquence, and galvanized a nation with his words alone. Despite being criticized for his lack of managerial experience, he also ran perhaps the greatest political campaign in American history.

Now, can you imagine a similar career graph for a politician in India today? America is the most meritocratic of all countries, and their politics is truly democratic, which is why they have an incumbent president whom pretty much no one outside his city had heard of just ten years ago. India, on the other hand, as I have written before, has a feudal political system, and none of our parties are internally democratic in the true sense of the term. All our promising young politicians are scions of political families who have been handed an inheritance. The time is past when someone like Obama could emerge on the scene from nowhere and rise to the very top in Indian politics through the force of his ideas. An Indian Obama would be a professor at a business school, a top manager in a multinational company, an acclaimed writer with a modest income—or he would simply have gone abroad, where the opportunities are far greater.

Obama’s visit hasn’t prompted any self-reflection in our political elite or our media, though. We gush over him, we get orgasms when he praises India or disses Pakistan, but we don’t think a little harder and realise that what Obama says about India not being an emerging nation any more is just sweet talk. We are still a backward, emerging nation, and this is amply reflected in the poverty of our political landscape, where Ashok Chavan and Suresh Kalmadi stand for the quintessential, typical Indian politician. Can India produce an Obama in this kind of system? No, we can’t.

*  *  *  *

Needless to say, my admiration for Obama doesn’t necessarily translate to support for his policies. While it’s heartening to see a politician who doesn’t speak in platitudes and is capable of intellectual depth, Obama inherited an enormously difficult set of circumstances, and I find aspects of his approach to the economy somewhat dubious. (Indeed, when it comes to expanding the role of government in America, there isn’t much difference between GWB and BHO.) That said, even Lincoln and Roosevelt, it could be argued, were not confronted with two problems quite as complex as this economic crisis or as nebulous as the war on terror. But that’s a subject for another day.

*  *  *  *

Speaking of young politicians, check out England. Their prime minister, David Cameron, is 44 years old. His deputy prime minsiter, Nick Clegg, is 43. The Chancellor of the Exchequer (their equivalent of a finance minister) is the 39-year-old George Osborne. The leader of the opposition (and of the Labour Party) is Ed Miliband, who turns 41 this December. In contrast, Indian politicians in their 50s are often described as “young and upcoming”. It’s crazy—but perhaps a dysfunctional system deserves senile or our-of-date leaders. Such it goes.

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 November, 2010 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics | Viewfinder


Traffic Lights and Potholes

This is the 27th installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India, and was published on November 4.

It’s absolutely freaky, the shit that happens in the USA. A few days ago, my friend (and renowned former blogger)  Manish Vij lodged the following complaint online about a traffic signal (reproduced with permission; I’ve changed road and city names):

“The traffic signal on [AB-CD] Rd. at [XY] Dr. needs to be adjusted for traffic at night. The last five nights, the signal for through traffic on [AB-CD] has been red for up to 2 minutes when I’ve hit the signal between 1 and 4 am. It’s especially odd because [XY] is a small street which T intersections into [AB-CD], and even during the day rarely has more than a handful of cars turning left onto [AB-CD].”

Within two hours—yes, two hours—he got the following reply in his email inbox:

“Hi Manish,

The signalized intersection at [AB-CD] Rd. and [XY] Dr. is on a recall timing because of the recent construction of the new ramps some of the traffic detector loops have been cut. We have scheduled them to be replaced soon after the ramps at the intersection are all complete.

Thank you,

[Name here], P.E.

Associate Engineer

City of [AB] - Public Works”

In other words, he made a complaint to the local government, as a common citizen, without going through any contacts or other such loops, and actually got a reply the same day. That’s just crazy. Can you imagine that happening in, say, Mumbai? If a local traffic signal is malfunctioning, or neighbourhood garbage isn’t being cleared as regularly as it should, or the road outside my house is full of potholes, I wouldn’t have the slightest clue about where to go to complain. And if I did know where to go, I wouldn’t bother wasting my time for something that is merely a minor irritant for me, because I know that my government does not consider itself accountable to me. And there is not a damn thing I can do about it.

(On a tangent, if I did complain about potholed roads, I would be laughed out of whichever decrepit government building I lodged my complaint in. Everyone knows why Indian roads have potholes: so that they can be repaired, which means more commissions and kickbacks for everyone concerned. The government servants who look after our roads are incentivised, in a system where corruption is the norm, to build (or repair) roads badly so that they need to be repaired again soon. Rinse and repeat. For the common man, the roads are the point; for our government, the potholes are the point. The roads are merely the means to an end: the destination is the potholes.

Okay, end of bizarre parenthetical roads rant.)

What causes local governance to be so inept here when compared to the US? Well, firstly, it’s the incentives within our system of government. Our government is top-down and centralized. For example, it’s Sonia Gandhi in Delhi who will decide who becomes chief minister of Maharashtra, not local party workers driven by local concerns, and accountable directly to us. In an ideal system, government would be local at its core, like the Panchayati Raj kind of model, where we elect our local officials based on our immediate concerns, and their incentives are aligned towards servings us well—a sentiment that then travels upwards. But, as I wrote in an earlier column, ‘Politics and Inheritance’  there’s no inner-party democracy in India, and no local accountability (though tools like the RTI are a big step forward.) Our parties are effectively competing mafias. Consider the recent Adarsh Society scam, where a chief minister was found to have dubious dealings, and the party is still hunting around for a clean replacement. Well, here’s stating the obvious: There isn’t one. Politics in India is inherently dirty business, and you can’t rise to the top here without playing by the rules of that game.

The biggest cause for the state of governance in India, though, is our own attitudes. After I wrote in my last column that our governments believe they exist to rule the people, not serve them, my friend Vinay Suchede wrote in to elaborate: “Something that has irked me is the media itself uses phrases such as ‘Cong rule, BJP rule, Cong-ruled state, BJP-ruled state etc’. It promotes the notion that we are subjects and that we are ruled.” That’s a good observation, and illustrates that despite our managing to be rid of the British empire in 1947, we’re still not quite independent. We still have rulers, we still have royalty, and as long as we do, we will have potholes on our roads, garbage on our streets, and problematic traffic lights. And those are the least of our problems.

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 November, 2010 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics | Viewfinder


Kindle Your Children

This is the 26th installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India, and was published on October 28.

Growing up, I was a lucky kid. My father was an avid reader, and his collection of books numbered in the thousands. It wasn’t a surprise, then, with books all around me, that I became a keen reader as well. At an age when other children dream of being astronauts or movie stars or cricketers, I wanted to be a writer. And I wasn’t just reading Enid Blytons and Hardy Boys—at age ten, I discovered a book called The House of the Dead, thought the title indicated a thrilling read, and embarked on my first foray into serious literature. It happened to be written by a dude named Dostoevsky, and while it didn’t contain the ghost stories I expected, it got me hooked. Dostoevsky was my first favourite, and I admit that looking back on it, I find it a bit freaky that I read all the major Russian novelists at age ten, and all of Shakespeare as well. (I liked Titus Andronicus more than Macbeth, so it’s fair to say that my tastes weren’t all that refined.)

My reading habit ebbed and flowed over the years. From a weird-ass, serious geeky kid who read a lot, I turned into a rebellious teenager who wore torn jeans, listened to alternative rock and didn’t read all that much. But one thing didn’t change: the desire to be a writer. After college, I wandered into copywriting, then into writing for television, then journalism, then blogging, and then after years of procrastination that I blame on my half-Bengali genes, I finally wrote my first novel a couple of years back. None of this would have been possible if my dad hadn’t been such a collector of books, and if serendipity hadn’t started at home. Forget the fact that I am a writer: I’d be an entirely different person if I hadn’t been the kind of reader that I was. My life would have been diminished.

As it happens, I have become a bit of a book collector like my father was, and while he lived in large, spacious bungalows all his adult life, I have lived in relatively small apartments in Mumbai for much of mine, and the thousands of books I own have created a major storage issue. The bookshelves are overflowing; all the beds with storage space are filled with books; there are three cupboards filled with books; the tables and sofas in my living room overflow with them. So it’s a surprise that I held out for so long before buying my first Kindle.

One reason I didn’t buy the Kindle earlier is that I like the feel of books in my hand. (Not so much the much-touted smell of paper, because years of sinus issues have ravaged my sense of smell.) Also, I used to think that I wouldn’t like the Kindle because one can’t read off a computer screen for too long. However, on using a friend’s Kindle, I discovered that the E Ink technology that the Kindle uses replicates the look of print on paper almost exactly, and is easy on the eyes. (No backlit screens and all that.) Also, the marketplace, which was once a bit limited, has now expanded, and book prices are quite affordable: often cheaper than you’d get in a real bookshop, and when it’s not, the premium is worth it in terms of convenience and storage space. So I’ve gotten myself a Kindle 3, and I love the machine already: it’s lighter than a paperback, can contain thousands of books, and the look and feel is just wonderful.

But I’m not writing this column to evangelize the Kindle as a device. I’m writing, instead, because while browing the online store, I remembered my privileged childhood. I bought a handful of books on my first day with the machine, but the vast majority of the hundreds of books I downloaded in my first few hours with it were free. Every book published before 1924 is in the public domain, and therefore free to download. So there I was, reliving my childhood, downloading Dostoevsky and Turgenev and Dickens and Shakespeare and Mark Twain and even some of Agatha Christie and Wodehouse on my Kindle—for free. In half a day, I put together a collection of books that must have taken my father years of perseverance and saving up to compile. To me, that is a matter of great wonder.

For someone who doesn’t like children very much, and chose long ago not to have any himself, I will now have the audacity to give the parents reading this piece a word of advice: kindle your children. The biggest thing you can do for your kids is open up the world to them, and reading is a great way of doing that. One can’t force kids to read, of course, but merely having books around the house is often enough. (Most avid readers I know picked up the habit that way.) The Kindle—or any other ebook reader that you prefer—saves you a lot of trouble and makes it easy to put a world of books at your kids’ disposal. So here’s what I suggest: gift your kid a Kindle, load it up with a library of free classic books, and set up a one-click payment system through a debit card with a monthly budget so that your kids can buy a reasonable amount of books themselves, regularly, without your supervision. Give them the power—and set them free. There is a good chance that, 30 years later, they will thank you for it. And, thanks to the wonders of technology, it will take you far less effort than it took my dad.

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 November, 2010 in Arts and entertainment | Essays and Op-Eds | Personal | Science and Technology | Viewfinder


Politics and Inheritance

This is the 25th installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India, and was published on October 21.

One of the defining images of Indian politics of recent times came a few days ago in Mumbai when Aditya Thackeray stood on a stage at a Shiv Sena rally, drew a sword out of its sheath, and held it aloft. He had just been handed his inheritance—not the sword, but a political party. His grandfather Balasaheb Thackeray had just launched him in politics, and told the world that the Shiv Sena would now belong to him. (Not in so many words, of course: he asked SS supporters to ‘bless’ the young man.) And thus, a political party in the world’s largest democracy was handed over.

With a couple of exceptions, this is the fate of almost all Indian political parties. They are feudal and are run by dominant families like family-owned firms—which some might consider apt because the business of democracy is, after all, a business. The Congress is owned by the Gandhis: Rahul is almost uniformly considered to be a future prime minister, and most of their young leaders are themselves children of prominent politicians (there is no other way to get to the top on your own steam). But even here, there is a heirarchy, which is why there is no way Jyotiraditya Scindia or Sachin Pilot or Milind Deora is considered a future PM the way Rahul Gandhi is, because, like a kind of caste system, the heirarchy of families within the party percolates through generations.

Most regional parties are also like this. In Tamil Nadu, it is understood that after M Karunanidhi passes on, the DMK will pass on to one of his children. In Andhra Pradesh, Jagan Mohan Reddy reacted with shock and horror when the state Congress wasn’t handed over to him after the death of his dad, the former chief minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy. (It was like his dad died and suddenly some random stranger started living in his family home.) From Mulayam to Akhilesh, Narayan to Nitesh, Jaswant to Manvendra, Indian politics is one long family soap, with plenty of drama and predictable outcomes. (Indeed, think of the Congress as a saas-bahu saga, and there you have it, the last 45 years.)

I don’t have an issue with politicians’ children taking up their parent’s profession. Anyone should be free to enter politics, and the kids of a politician would have such an early and constant exposure to that world that their interest in it is quite natural. (Besides, power is intoxicating and addictive, a factor that would not feature in most other professions.) My issue, rather, is with the way our parties are structured: despite being players in a democracy, none of them are democratic themselves.

A political party should ideally be a democracy within a democracy. In the US, if you want to run for election as a Democrat or Republican, you first have to win primaries within the party. Even if you are from a royal family of politics, you need to get out in the political marketplace and convince the members of your party that you have what it takes. You need to be clear about where you’re coming from ideologically; you need to discuss policies in concrete terms; you are under public scrutiny, held accountable for your words. Even George W Bush and Hillary Clinton and Ted Kennedy weren’t handed their party on a platter: they had to go out and get the votes.

Well, over here, parties don’t have primaries, and are run by insiders in proverbial smoke-filled rooms. Rahul Gandhi or MK Azhagiri or Uddhav (or Aditya) Thackeray do not have to campaign for votes within their parties and win party primaries—they are anointed, not elected. By saying this, I am not knocking them, but the systems they have inherited. Politics should find its expression from the grassroots up, but instead we have top-down politics, with all our parties—and therefore every government—believing that it exists to rule the people, not to serve them. Political parties, for all practical purposes, are competing mafias, battling for the spoils of power and the right to take hafta in a particular neighbourhood. The Thackerays are not all that different from the Corleones.

*  *  *  *

To his credit, Rahul Gandhi has made the right noises, spurning positions in government even as he speaks of introducing inner-party democracy in the Congress. His mother had also chosen to relinquish the prime minister’s seat, and for that, they have my respect, and the benefit of the doubt. But here’s the thing: despite his being such a prominent politician, a probable future PM, we know next to nothing about what Rahul believes in or stands for. What are his views on economic reform? What does he feel about greater fedaralism and smaller states and more local self-governance? What are his recipes to tackle the many ills that ail our society, from poverty to corruption to (the lack of) universal education? What does he think is the most likely practical solution to the Kashmir problem?  In the US, he would have to spell all this out in some detail, in TV debates and otherwise. Here, barring a few bromides and soundbytes, he has offered little.

How odd it is that in this political marketplace, we, the consumers, know so little about the products and brands we have to choose from. To a large extent, the fault is ours. We need to be more demanding of the people who take and squander our taxes. But our daily lives have enough to occupy us, and apathy comes easy. Isn’t that so?

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 November, 2010 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics | Viewfinder


Such a Wrong Journey

This is the 24th installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India, and was published on October 14.

You have to feel sorry for poor Rohinton Mistry. A few years ago he cancelled a book tour in the US because on its first leg, “as a person of colour he was stopped repeatedly and rudely at each airport along the way - to the point where the humiliation of both he and his wife [became] unbearable.” This was in the aftermath of 9/11, with racial profiling in full swing and Mistry, brown and bearded, having the wrong kind of looks. Still, he could have consoled himself with the thought that the US isn’t where he’s from, and he would never be treated that way in Canada, where he lives, or in Mumbai, where he was born. Right?

Ah well. While Mistry in person hasn’t been harrassed, his Booker-nominated book, Such a Long Journey, was recently withdrawn from the Mumbai University syllabus because of a protest spearheaded by Aditya Thackeray, the 20-year-old grandson of Bal Thackeray. Thackeray Jr., who is being launched in politics as the head of the Yuva Sena, a youth wing of the Shiv Sena, reportedly instigated the student wing of the party, the Bhartiya Vidyarthi Sena, to launch a protest against the book. The reason, according to the BVS chief, was that the book “uses extremely obscene and vulgar language in its text and also makes anti-Sena remarks.” The university’s vice-chancellor, presumably not wishing to be beaten up by Shiv Sena thugs, duly took it off the syllabus.

Thackeray Jr. justified his decision in an interview to Mid Day saying, “It is a question of people’s sentiment and India is a very sensitive country. There is a man (Balasaheb Thackeray) who has millions of followers and the author insults him purely on the basis of his own opinion and not the facts. That is where the problem lies.” Watch the video of the full interview on that page, it’s fairly amusing—and also quite scary. When Thackeray says, “You can’t just abuse someone,” it’s not just the immature voicing-off of a random 20 year-old kid, but a portent for the future, from the inheritor of a political party that uses intimidation and thuggery as its political weapons of choice. True, it is not the only party doing so—but it is the primary party responsible for what my friend Salil Tripathi, in an excellent column published today in Mint, calls “Bombay’s decline into Mumbai.” This is what we are becoming, and these are the people who will take us there.

*  *  *  *

The Sena does not have a monopoly on intolerance: instead, it is actually written into our laws, and in our constitution, neither of which respect free speech. (I’ve been writing about this for years, for example in my old piece, ‘Don’t Insult Pasta.’) The Indian Penal Code, framed by the British in colonial times, contains a number of laws that make giving offence a crime, and throttle free speech. For example, there’s Section 295 (a), which makes it a non-bailable offence to “outrage religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.” There’s Section 153 (a), which seeks to punish “any act which is prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony between different religious, racial, language or regional groups or castes or communities”. There’s Section 124 (a), which prescribes life imprisonment for anyone who “by words or expression of any kind brings or attempts to bring or provoke a feeling of hatred, contempt or disaffection towards government”—something that any critic of any government could be accused of.

The constitution, framed not by the British but by the freedom fighters who got us independence, cops out when it comes to free speech. While Article 19 (1) (a) pays lip service to it, Article 19 (2) lays out “reasonable restrictions” such as when it applies to matters such as “public order” and “decency or morality”, matters which are, of course, open to interpretation. I’d love it if we had something like the First Amendment of the US Constitution, which contains no such caveats—but sadly, we don’t.

Adults should not run around complaining about the words of others. Even in school, the kid who ran to the teacher demanding that the boy who called him a monkey should be punished was laughed upon by everyone. But in our public life, it has somehow become quite okay to complain that someone who has offended you should be punished. If giving offence is a crime, then free speech is impossible, because anything you say can potentially offend someone or the other. And people who take offence so seriously are demeaning both themselves and the entities on behalf of which they are getting offended.

If Bal Thackeray is indeed such a great figure, then why should the words of one Rohinton Mistry bother him? Are any of our religions so fragile that they need to be protected from the criticism of mere humans? God, if He existed, would no doubt be exasperated by the things humans do on His behalf. “Am I so powerless?” I can imagine him asking. “Am I so petty? Jeez, you humans suck. Stop this videogame already.”

My fellow Yahoo! columnist Nitin Pai coined a term a few years ago that I find very apt: Competitive Intolerance. It’s become a rising trend in politics in recent years, especially in Mumbai, where the Shiv Sena and the MNS, with their warring Thackerays, are constantly finding grievances to complain about. These have nothing to do with the state of public services or infrasructure or poverty or any of the urgent issues that should concern us all, but silly things like mere words in a book. Like, really, come on.

*  *  *  *

It, of course, remains a lasting matter of shame that India, the world’s largest democracy, was the first country in the world to ban The Satanic Verses. Until that ban is reversed, do not tell me that India is a free country. We accomplished part of the job in 1947—but much remains to be done, in so many different areas. Sadly, most people don’t care. Do you?

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 November, 2010 in Arts and entertainment | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | Viewfinder


The Pursuit of Friendship

This is the 23rd installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India, and was published on October 7.

Money can’t buy you love—but it can rent you friendship. I was taken aback yesterday by an interesting report on the BBC website about how “friend rental services are launching in more and more countries.” The report focuses on one such service named Rentafriend, which was originally launched as a “a friendship-cum-social networking site, designed to take advantage of the fact that nowadays people often live far away from where they grew up and work long hours, leaving limited time to meet new people.” It is “explicitly stated” on the site that it is “not ... a form of escort or dating service,” which the report bears out.

To use the service, you need to sign up, pay a membership fee, and browse for a friend who you’d like to hang out with. You then rent their time, paying for all expenses incurred while you’re spending time with them—like buying them coffee or tickets to a movie. Then, when the meter runs out, you bid them goodbye—or maybe take an appointment for another hangin’-out session.

At one level, this seems weird and pathetic. How sad does your life have to be if you need to rent a friend? And yet, there is clearly a market for this, and it is not hard to see why. You could move to a place where you have no friends, and no social outlets for making new buddies. You may want to chat and hang out with someone without invisible strings attached, the pressure of needing to fit in or be interesting, or the subtle social tensions that dog most of our interactions. After all, if there is nothing unusual in paying for sex, why should it be so weird if we pay for ‘friendship’? In a world where nothing lasts forever, and everything sometimes seems contrived, what’s the difference between friendship and ‘friendship’?

*    *    *    *

When I read the BBC report on my netbook, I was sitting in front of my television, the volume on mute, waiting for a commercial break to get over and for Bigg Boss to resume. I don’t watch much television, but every year, I religiously follow Bigg Boss. This does seem rather low-brow of me, but I have a rationalization for this. Pundits say that the purpose of art is to reveal the human condition, and in my view, few things reveal it quite as well as a bunch of disparate people shut up in a house for a few weeks, away from the rest of the world.

Sure, they know there are cameras around them, and they are performing for the cameras. But we know they know this, and their carefully constructed artifice is as revelatory of their true nature as the cracks they carelessly leave. As the weeks go by, and they get used to their new environment, we see more and more of the people they really are—and find that our celebrities, whatever they may be celebrated for, are as petty or vapid or insecure or mixed-up as, well, us. That’s the human condition.

Since we’re on the subject, it’s also interesting to see how friendships form inside the Big Boss house. As in the outside world, inmates are drawn to people of similar social backgrounds or interests, and form alliances based on strategic considerations and conveniences. But it’s a zero-sum game, and you only win if everyone else loses. The real world isn’t like that, though we sometimes treat it as it is. So would a friendship you build on a show like Big Boss be as genuine and long-lasting as, say, one that you form in your office? If not, why not?

*    *    *    *

While I was waiting for the Bigg Boss commercial break to get over, reading that BBC story, I also had the Pokerstars client running on my machine, and was waiting for a Pot Limit Omaha Hi/Lo Sit & Go to get started. I play much more offline than online these days, though, and the people I spend the most time with, therefore, are fellow poker players. Most of them do not share any of my interests or obsessions (except poker), but I think I can safely say I’ve made a few new friends among them. That is a bit unusual, because we meet in a zero-sum environment, for the sole purpose of taking money off each other, and spend most of our time together trying to deceive the other person, and to make them believe our lies. Unlike in other social interactions, though, this is explicit. Still, cash games at the stakes I play can get intense and personal, and there is an uncomfortable edge to some of these friendships. It’s a whole new dimension.

*    *    *    *

Who says men can’t multi-task? While I was waiting for Bigg Boss to resume, the Pokerstars Sit & Go to begin, as I read the BBC story, I had Facebook open on another Firefox tab. As of now, I have 846 Facebook friends—and I admit that I haven’t met many of them in meatspace. It could be alleged, as William Deresiewicz does in this superb essay on friendship, that I have allowed Facebook to turn my friends into “an indiscriminate mass, a kind of audience or faceless public.” According to Deresiewicz, Facebook turns friends into “simulacra of my friends, little dehydrated packets of images and information, no more my friends than a set of baseball cards is the New York Mets.” When we leave a status update on Facebook, he adds, “we address ourselves not to a circle, but to a cloud.”

I get his point, but I think he addresses a straw man. I use Facebook quite a bit, and I don’t believe that I, or any Facebook user, takes the ‘friend’ part of ‘Facebook friend’ too literally. (It’s just a term we use, and we could easily say ‘Facebook contact’ or ‘Facebook connection’, except that that chaps at Facebook used ‘friend’ to begin with, which is warmer and, well, alliterates when used in conjunction with Facebook.) Facebook friends haven’t replaced our meatspace friends, but added a new dimension to our friendships (and other social relationships), by giving us an additional way to stay in touch with what’s happening in our friends’ lives, and updating them on ours, without having to email them and ring them up individually. Given our typically busy lives, and the clutter of information around us, this is a useful service.

Also, I don’t think any of us are any less social because of Facebook. If I feel like going and hanging out with friends at a cafe, I do just that. I don’t say to myself, Hey, screw the cafe, let me sit at home and put status messages on Facebook instead. Who does that? Nobody. Straw man.

*  *  *  *

Once this article is published, I shall post a link to it on Facebook and Twitter. Now tell me, in a pre-internet age, would I take Xerox copies of this article and hand them out personally to each of my friends? I don’t think I would—and if I did that on a regular basis, they would be justified in not wanting to be my friends any more. There are limits even to friendship.

*  *  *  *

And here’s a possibly related piece: Society, You Crazy Breed

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 November, 2010 in Essays and Op-Eds | Viewfinder


Let’s Talk About Sex

This is the 22nd installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India, and was published on September 30.

Location: A small preview theatre in South Mumbai. Characters: Five members of the Censor Board for Cinema in India, and a young bespectacled man, his brows furrowed, looking younger than his years despite streaks of grey in his hair. They are watching a film called Lunch, Snacks aur Dhokla.

The film is centred around the instinct to eat, and the desire for food that is an undercurrent in all our social interactions. Through the film, hidden cameras show people engaged in the act of wanting to eat, plotting about eating, dreaming of food and, in a scandalous five-minute scene, two characters actually sitting at a table and eating food. It is a provocative sequence: two people, alone together with their desire, shamelessly, repeatedly, keep thrusting food into their oral orifices, and then chewing, chewing, chewing.

So far, the censors have been tolerant. Barring the occasional small change, such as asking that a clearly racist putdown of black coffee be chopped, they haven’t been demanding. But at the end of this bold scene, they ask for the film to be paused. The censors whisper among themselves, so softly that the director can practically hear his racing heartbeat. Finally, the chief censor asks the director to step forward.

“This is too much,” says the safari-suit clad optician. “We cannot have this scene. You must cut it.”

“But I’ve applied for an ‘A’ certificate,” says the director. “What’s wrong with it if only adults see it?”

“Our society is not ready for it. Even our adults need to be protected from themselves. We know what’s good for them, trust me. Cut that scene.”

The director swallows his pride, forgets all his logical arguments, and begs. This works. The censors allow him to keep half the scene. Five minutes becomes two-and-a-half minutes of raw, unrestrained, uninhibited eating. It is more than the director could have hoped for 20 years ago—but that’s poor consolation. He gets home just in time for dinner and, while having sex, starts crying.

*  *  *  *

The scene above is my reconstruction of what the film-maker Dibakar Banerjee might have gone through when the censor board saw his film Love Sex aur Dhokha, based on my friend Rahul Bhatia’s report in Open magazine. The only difference is that I’ve replaced sex with eating. This is a significant difference, and turns the scene at the censor board from one that is routine and expected to something surreal. And yet, in my view, it is absurd that this difference should exist.

Sex and eating are both acts that are central to our existence. We are hardwired for hunger and lust.  These are the primal instincts that drive us, and are at the heart of all our motivations. And yet, our attitudes towards them are so different.

We eat openly, and talk about food openly. It is not socially unacceptable to ask a friend of the opposite sex if she has tried the seafood risotto at the new Italian restaurant down the road—but ask her if she’s tried the reverse cowgirl position, and you’ll get some strange looks, especially if there are other people around. We can ask people out for dinner—and yet, not ask them casually if they’d like to have sex with us. (Though the former is often intended as a prelude the latter.) We have to find roundabout ways of getting to the point. (In evolutionary terms, the only point.)

We might admire foodies for their taste and discernment, but we look down on a woman who ‘sleeps around.’ (Indeed, the word ‘slut’ is a pejorative, which is so WTF.) We don’t talk about sex openly, and in some cultures more than others, feel embarrassed by public displays of affection. Most bizarrely, in an Indian context, we censor the depiction of sex in our movies, even in those certified for adults alone, as if we became a nation of more than 1 billion people by kissing with our lips closed. It is absurd—as absurd as the scene that begins this piece.

*  *  *  *

Thankfully, literature does not have to deal with the restrictions that film-makers face. Those battles were won long ago, and it is not uncommon for a mainstream novel to feature detailed and evocative descriptions of all kinds of sexual acts, with a straightforward frankness that most cinema, even in the West, cannot match. I say ‘thankfully’, because of a recent assignment I’ve just taken up: I’ve been asked to put together Electric Feather 2, Tranquebar’s follow up to Electric Feather, the groundbreaking anthology of erotic fiction from South Asia, which was edited by the novelist Ruchir Joshi. I’m excited by the task ahead of me, not just from the point of view of enjoying erotic writing, but also from a literary point of view.

The Indian subcontinent is a sexually repressed region which is just beginning to stumble towards modernity. This is a land where the 19th century coincides with the 21st—and they often share a bedroom or a head. Sex is one of the major fault lines in our society, and a literature that attempts to capture these times will, at some level, have to enter that territory. An anthology of erotica from the subcontinent is, thus, much more than a chance to create a naughty collection that you can read in the loo: it is a serious literary project than can aspire to make contemporary readers sit up with the shock of recognition—and readers a hundred years from now to say, ‘Ah, so that is how it was.’

I’m already approaching writers I admire for submissions to the anthology. And I’m also open to new voices, or voices that I may simply not be aware of, in my ignorance. So if you are a writer and think you’d be interested in contributing, do write to me at amitblogs[AT]gmail[DOT]com.

*  *  *  *

It’s a little ironic that I should be editing this collection, because I find writing about sex immensely hard—only partly because of the absurdity of the act itself. As a fiction writer, I try to keep my writing at a minimal and functional level. I don’t have a taste for baroque, expressionistic writing, and I also do not like writing that shows a fetish for description. Given that writing about sex is usually descriptive, and often lushly so, I tend to skim over those bits when they pop up in books. The subject is such that you have to be pitch-perfect when you attempt it, and that makes it very hard. No wonder so many otherwise great writers have performed so ineptly at writing about sex, as a glance at the past shortlists of the Bad Sex Writing awards would demonstrate.

That said, I’d rather have the writers in this anthology overreach instead of holding themselves back. As in sex itself, if they avoid self-consciousness and just enjoy themselves, it should work out okay.

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 November, 2010 in Arts and entertainment | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Personal | Viewfinder


Not My Festive Season

This is the 21st installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India, and was published on September 23.

I write these words in my living room as a cacophony of drumbeats assails me from the streets outside. This is not an accompaniment of my own choosing: for the last hour, I’ve been listening to my iPod to keep the noise away. Sarah McLachlan, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, John Mayer, AR Rahman and Monsters of Folk have all tried their very best, but there’s only so much music one can listen to, and I can’t take the bloody drumbeats any more. “Go, thee, to the sea,” I feel like proclaiming, “and drown thee, just for me.”

It is not that I have anything against Ganesh Chaturthi per se. Ganesh Chaturthi was turned into a mass festival by Lokmanya Tilak for a reason: as Wikipedia puts it, “to bridge the gap between Brahmins and ‘non-Brahmins’ and [...] generate nationalistic fervor among people in Maharashtra against the British colonial rule.” It seems that “the festival facilitated community participation and involvement in the form of intellectual discourses, poetry recitals, performances of plays, musical concerts, and folk dances.”

Well, where are the intellectual discourses, poetry recitals, performance of plays? For the common man, such as me, the festival is an endless array of disturbances, especially on Visarjan days, when hordes of people troop to the sea with their Ganesh idols, banging drums, blasting music, blowing whatever those local vuvuzela thingies are called. Besides the traffic being disrupted, the noise is deafening. Local laws prohibit public gatherings from playing music at night at a fraction of the decibel levels these blokes churn out, but where there is religion and cultural nationalism, what good is the law? If I take a procession down the street on Beth Orton’s birthday playing “Central Reservation” at half this volume, the cops will come and dunk me into the sea.

I don’t want to pick out just Ganesh Chaturthi: I’m an equal opportunity festival basher, and disapprove also of Holi (with its socially sanctioned hooliganism) and Diwali (with its severely polluting firecrackers, which once used to trouble bronchial ol’ me, though I’m no longer assailed by those issues these days). My issue is not with festivals per se, though, but the way they’re celebrated by some people. (Also, in the case of Diwali, one does see hazaar shopping, and for an evil capitalist consumerist like me, there is nothing better than the smiles on people’s faces after money well wasted. The women also dress up quite prettily, serving a reminder of how Indian women are so much better looking than Indian men—not a matter you will find me complaining about.)

It’s not just the festivals: any occasion of celebration in India, be it New Year’s Day or winning a cricket match, brings out the worst in many people. No doubt sociologists would have theories on the repressed Indian (male) masses letting loose at every chance they get, and there might well be socio-economic factors here, but I’m not going to pontificate on all that here. (Also, you might think I’m an elitist, trying to drown out the Real India [TM] with my noise-free Bose headphones, while farmers are dying in Vidarbha.) All I want is for the noise to end so I can get on with my life, and living near the sea is no longer a nuisance. Until next year.

*  *  *  *

Don’t you think there is something terribly poignant in hordes of people who live sad and sordid lives taking idols of their deity every year to the sea, dunking them there, continuing with their sad and sordid lives for 12 more months, without the divine intervention that should logically follow the dunking, and then rinsing and repeating? I know it could serve as a metaphor for the larger pointlessness of things, but isn’t this particularly pointless? Do these guys not get it? There’s no one up there, duh.

That said, modaks are okay. There’s always a flip side.

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 November, 2010 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Viewfinder


Society, You Crazy Breed

This is the 17th installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India, and was published on August 19.

Earlier this week, my friend Arun Simha directed me to a post by the American writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, ‘The Woods’. Arun wrote, “Now that you’ve gone to your hideout, you will no doubt, relate.” I haven’t gone to any hideout, but I can understand why others get that impression: I’ve gone cold turkey on the internet, and much to my own surprise, have practically stopped blogging after six years of daily posting. So it seems like I’ve disappeared into the woods, though I’m still trapped in the city.  Arun was right about one thing, though: I did relate to Coates’s post.

Part of it deals with the need to get away. Coates writes: “Years ago, when I was trying to be a poet, a good man told me ‘You can’t get better in a crowd.’ I thought about that after I broke my Iphone. I felt rather silly for ever even owning one, for advocating for one, because I think my need was essentially built on a desire to not be alone, to not face the terror of my own singular thoughts.”

I get that completely, because I’ve made the same cop-outs. I realised earlier this year, after a second self-aborted attempt at writing my second novel, that I needed to get away if I was ever to write seriously. I needed to escape both the city, with its crowds of people, and the internet, with the intellectual overload that it provides. Most importantly, I needed to escape the clutter of my own thoughts. I had to get to a quieter place, free from traffic (I don’t mean cars and bikes), and allow myself to discover the stories I wanted to tell.

I am not denying that we are a social species, or that people need people. One of the downsides of leaving regular employment to be my own master was that I was alone so much. I missed the water-cooler conversations, the idle office chatter, the bitching and the banter. I enjoyed the fact that the local Landmark Bookstore is in a mall, so after my book-and-magazine buying trips, I could hang out at the food court, nurse a double-shot Americano and observe life in action. (And in air conditioning.) I would often meet friends there and, I suspect, talk too much.

But society kills us also. When we are with other people, we aren’t quite ourselves. (Unless we’re really comfortable with them, in which case we could be accused of taking them for granted.) Always, in some small way, we are anxious. We want to be loved, respected, accepted, validated. That makes every human interaction, besides those that are sexual or violent, a charade of some sort. But this is not grand drama, it’s petty drama. It’s theatre that takes us away from ourselves, from “the terror of [our] own singular thoughts.”

Much of this drama is futile. Georges Simenon, when asked in a Paris Review interview (pdf link) in 1955 about the dominant themes of his work, replied: “One of them, for example, which will probably haunt me more than any other is the problem of communication. I mean communication between two people. The fact that we are I don’t know how many millions of people, yet communication, complete communication, is completely impossible between two of those people, is to me one of the biggest tragic themes in the world. When I was a young boy I was afraid of it. I would almost scream because of it. It gave me such a sensation of solitude, of loneliness.”

That solitude is inevitable, whether we are amid people or not. We are all lonely in crowds. But we are also often not ourselves in crowds. So there is a point to getting away, and sooner or later, I must do that.

*  *  *  *

If you want a soundtrack for this piece, you could try Eddie Vedder’s ‘Society’, from where I’ve adapted the title of this post. Or one of my favourite songs of all time, ‘Unsatisfied’ by The Replacements.

*  *  *  *

In his post, Coates also talks about his disillusionment with debate on the internet. I relate to that as well. Over the years, I’ve been in countless internet debates, across blogs and Twitter and all of that. I’ve argued for free speech and free markets and accountable governments and this and that, and I’ve come to realise that most of those arguments were not about free speech or free markets or accountable governments or this or that, but simply about one thing: whose dick is bigger.

Think about it, why do these discussions often get so heated and personal? It is not because there’s anything at stake—most of us can’t affect policy or shape public opinion, and much of what we argue about doesn’t even affect us directly. Instead, we take it so personally because our worldviews are part of our identity. They are how we make sense of the world and ourselves. So if someone attacks a part of our worldview, we react as if we ourselves have been attacked. In public. So we respond accordingly, unwilling, for the most part, to accept that we might be wrong, or that the truth might be too complex for any of us to fathom—or that this shit doesn’t really matter.

All the self-importance and self-righteousness you will find on the internet and elsewhere is self-delusion. It’s also peacock strutting, signalling, territorial display. It’s ‘My dick is bigger than yours’, gender no bar. (We find less loony women on the net, though, which surely says something.) There’s only so much one can take of that.

Needless to say, I’m not dissing the internet, or blogs. Blogging, as I have written before, has changed my life, and I’m grateful for that blessing. (Grateful to no one in particular, of course, being an atheist.) But more and more, I find myself uninterested in the conversations around me. What is there to be said that hasn’t been said already? What do our own words matter in that din?

*  *  *  *

Back to Coates. In a blogosphere full of urgency and topicality, I find Coates’s blogging, laidback and introspective and so honest, a welcome break. Consider, for example, his post from last October, ‘Shame’. Look at those last two paragraphs. That is how it is done. It is timeless and transcendent.

Posted by Amit Varma on 22 August, 2010 in Essays and Op-Eds | Personal | Viewfinder


Poker and the Human Brain

This is the 16th installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India, and was published on August 12.

I spend as much time playing poker these days as I once would spend reading and writing, and my friends sometimes ask me in jest what literature and poker have in common. My reply is that both provide an understanding of human nature. I am not being facetious.

Ever since I started playing poker seriously, I’ve held the view that poker reveals the way our brain is wired. For example, if we carry a list of cognitive biases with us to a poker session, and tick off the ones we witness in action, we’d probably run through the entire list by the end of the evening. If we’re aware of this, we can exploit these missteps in others—and avoid them in our own play.

In writing this article, I run the risk of revealing to my regular opponents a few of the tricks of my trade. But for the greater good of humanity, I shall lay those considerations aside. Here, then, are a few of the cognitive biases that come into play on a poker table.

1. The Sunk-Cost Fallacy. Suppose you are in office one day, and there is much buzz about a new Japanese restaurant that has opened round the corner. “Let’s go there for lunch,” you suggest. All your regular cronies concur, except one girl who says, “I so want to come, but I’ve got lunch from home, and it will be wasted.” That is her only reason for not coming. She doesn’t want the packed lunch, and would vastly prefer some unagi, but the Sunk Cost Fallacy comes in the way.

The logical way of thinking about this is that the packed lunch is a sunk cost—and that if she would otherwise prefer to come to the new Japanese restaurant, then she should ignore that sunk cost and come anyway. This is the same mistake many stock market investors make. They will buy a stock for, say, Rs 70. It will slip to Rs 60. Its downward momentum will make it logical to sell the stock, but they will reason that they have already lost Rs 10 on it, and will keep the stock in the hope of recovering that money somehow.

Poker players make the same error by throwing in good money after bad. Let us say that you have pocket aces. You raise pre-flop, a loose player calls, and the flop comes AQJ with two hearts. (You have none.) You have a set, but slow-playing is dangerous because of the flush and straight possibilities out there, so you make a pot-sized bet. Your opponent calls. The turn is a ten of hearts. You make a bet two-thirds the size of the pot, and your opponent raises three times that. For any good player, unless you have a read that the opponent is weak, this is an auto-fold. There are four cards to a straight out there, three to a flush, and if your opponent has one of those, you have exactly ten outs to a full house or quads, and the odds don’t justify continuing. But you say, “I have already spent so much money on this pot. All that will be wasted. I can’t leave now.”

Good poker players know that the money already in the pot no longer belongs to you, and that at every street you must make new evaluations about how to proceed. But we are human, we have put money in the pot, and it’s so hard to let it go. Isn’t it?

Also see: Escalation of Commitment.

2. The Endowment Effect. The above poker example also illustrates the Endowment Effect, which Wikipedia describes as “a hypothesis that people value a good or service more once their property right to it has been established.” It’s been much written about recently in a slew of books about behavioural economics, and is a bias we often see in poker when a player ‘falls in love with his hand.’ In the above example, if you are a spectator watching the hand, it is obvious that the set of aces should be folded. In the middle of the action, though, you ascribe more value to the hand than you would if some other player held it because it’s your hand, and it’s so hard to let it go. Almost all regular players have faced a situation where they play AK, flop top pair-top kicker, but their bet on the flop encounters a big raise (or even an all-in) from a solid player who doesn’t make crazy moves. Seen from the outside, it’s time to consider folding, because he could have a set or two pair, but if you’re the guy holding AK, it’s so much harder to make that dispassionate decision.

When I started playing poker, I’d refer to this as the Starting Hand Bias. Weak players who hold JJ will often be reluctant to fold to a bet following a flop that has two overcards, and players who have AK or AQs will find it hard to give it away when they don’t connect on the flop. It takes discipline to overcome this bias and throw the hand away.

3. The Normalcy Bias. Wikipedia defines this as “an extreme mental state” that “causes people to underestimate both the possibility of a disaster occurring and its possible effects.” This is related to the Availability Heuristic, “a phenomenon in which people predict the frequency of an event, or a proportion within a population, based on how easily an example can be brought to mind.”

Two examples come to mind from my own play, against the same opponent. In one case, there were four cards to a flush on the board, with no repeat cards, and I had the ace of that suit—in other words, the nut flush. But the four cards were connected with a gap in between, and there was the small chance that my opponent had the one card that made her a straight flush that beat my hand. I raised, she insta-reraised, and my read was that she was very strong. But I thought, “Nah, straight flushes are so rare, she can’t possibly have one.” I did refrain from re-reraising all-in, though, and merely called, to be shown the only hand that could beat mine.

In another hand, I had a full house and was reraised on the river. The only hand that could be beat me was quads, and my opponent, who is not difficult to read, showed immense strength. Quads are so rare, though, that I ignored my read and called. You guessed it: Black Swan event.

We see the same phenomenon when a player flops a low flush, and is quite happy to reraise all-in, assuming that his hand is surely the best hand, because hey, he can’t remember the last time two players flopped a flush. That’s exactly the kind of hand that busts players out of tournaments.

4. The Recency Effect. This can be defined as “the tendency to weigh recent events more than earlier events.” Wikipedia gives an example: “If a driver sees an equal total number of red cars as blue cars during a long journey, but there happens to be a glut of red cars at the end of the journey, they are likely to conclude there were more red cars than blue cars throughout the drive.”

In poker, this can lead us astray against loose opponents. Let us say that in the last half an hour of a session, you have seen a player raising with KQo, QTo, 79s, A6s and even 58o, all marginal (some outright dubious) hands, especially from early or middle position. So you’re in a hand where he’s raised from early position, and you have AJs. You reraise, he calls. The flop is A23 rainbow. He checks, you bet the pot, he reraises by three times, a move that recent evidence indicates he is capable of making with nothing. What do you do?

I’ve gone all-in a similar situation, only to be shown AK. I had fallen prey to the Recency Effect. I’d made a move based on his recent play, quite ignoring that even loose players get good cards, and that my hand, because of the jack kicker, was not quite a monster.

This is a bias that good players can exploit successfully by changing gear in the middle of a session. Play loose for a while, then suddenly go tight, and you will get paid off on premium hands. Play tight for a bit, and then make a bluff, and your opponents will give you more credit than is due and fold.

Also see: The Primacy Effect, “the tendency to weigh initial events more than subsequent events”. You often see sharks exploit this by starting a session with some loose play, for advertising effect, so they get paid off on their premium hands later by players overvaluing marginal holdings. In other words, these sharks behave like fish at the start of a session, and later go chomp chomp chomp.

5. The Confirmation Bias. This is the tendency to ignore all information that contradicts our preconceptions, and to treat all other information as evidence. People who believe in astrology, for example, will remember all the instances when an astrologer’s predictions came true, and ignore all the times they did not. Ditto homeopathy, and suchlike.

I see this all the time with poker players. I know players, for example, who love to play hands like 58o and 63, and will call big preflop raises with them. They have stories about how they once flopped a straight with 63, beating two opponents who had AA and QQ, and so on. Another player I know has a goofy theory that if two or three players have shown strength with preflop raises and reraises, and he has two low cards, he should call because the other all surely have high cards, so there is a greater probability of low cards hitting the board. (Go figure.)

Players with beliefs like this remember the handful of times such play works for them, and ignore all the other times when it doesn’t. If you play a hand like 85o, you will flop two pair or better approximately one in 34 hands. The rest of the time, you are basically losing money. Weak players remember the one time they hit—not the 33 times they don’t.

Also see: The Semmelweis Reflex.

*  *  *  *

This is a subject on which I could go on and on: there’s no end to the cognitive biases one sees at a poker table, from Loss Aversion to the Choice-Supportive Bias to the Ostrich Effect to the Belief Bias and obvious ones like the Optimism Bias, the Over-Confidence Effect and the Neglect-of-Probability Bias (duh). Check out this list of cognitive biases at Wikipedia: if you are a poker player, you will surely recognise many of them.

For a while now, I’ve been mulling over the idea of writing a book about how the game of poker reveals how the human brain is wired—so this may not be the last you hear from me on this subject.

*  *  *  *

Previous articles on poker:

The Beautiful Game of Poker

Throw a Lucky Man into the Sea

*  *  *  *

Previously on Viewfinder

Throw a Lucky Man into the Sea

The Big Deal About Blogging

The Oddly Enough Species

The Beautiful Game of Poker

Beauty and the Art of Winning

Football and a Comic Marriage

Beware of the Cronies

Indian Liberals and Colour Pictures

We are All Gamblers

Homeopathic Faith

Give Me 10,000 Hours

Match ka Mujrim

The Man with the Maruti 800

Internet Hindus and Madrasa Muslims

The Hazards of Writing a Column

Posted by Amit Varma on 14 August, 2010 in Essays and Op-Eds | Personal | Sport | Viewfinder


Throw a Lucky Man into the Sea

This is the 15th installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India, and was published on August 5.

“I don’t play poker.” The protagonist of “The Crack of Doom”, a wonderful installment of Alfred Hitchcock Presents from 1956, says these words to a friend near the start of the film. As it proceeds, we find out why. When he was younger, his life was shaken up by the game. He got some bad beats at a poker session, lost his buy-in, and, his ego hurt, decided to buy back into the game and recover his losses. But it was night, his bank was shut,  so he took four thousand dollars out of a ten-thousand dollar stack that had been given to him for official purposes. In case he lost it, he intended to pay it back the next morning by dipping into his savings account, where he had nine thousand dollars. Well, he lost it. So he went home, looked into his passbook, and found that his wife had withdrawn all their savings. He woke her up to ask her what had happened to it, and she tearfully confessed that she had blown it up in the stock market. (A more foolish option than investing in poker, if you ask me.) Our man was devastated. He faced humiliation and possibly jail for his behaviour. He was, effectively, a thief. He was doomed. Unless…

You got it. He went back to his office, took the remaining six thousand dollars and went back to the poker game, where he found himself, as the title suggests, on the crack of doom. I shall give no more away, you have to watch it for yourself. (The film is online in two parts, you can see it here: 1, 2.)

The form of poker they were playing in the film was five-card stud, which is rarely played these days: Texas hold ‘em is the most popular form. But apart from that, if you adjust for inflation, the film seems like it was made yesterday. Every regular poker player will find echoes of himself in the film: the compulsive need to get back to the table, the belief that a good run is just around the corner, the despondency on our hero’s face as he loses, and loses, and loses. We’ve all had sessions like that.

I’ve written in an earlier piece—‘The Beautiful Game of Poker’—about how poker is essentially a game of skill. The skill comes in being a winner in the long run, but in the short run, luck plays its part. People chase gutshot draws at a cost that is not justified by the pot odds and catch it on the river, 82 suited kicks the ass of AA after a pre-flop all-in is followed by a flush on the flop, a flopped straight is beaten by a runner-runner full house, bad beats pile up on bad beats. The thrill of being part of this action is similar to any other casino game where there is no skill involved and the odds are against you—roulette, for example.

Many poker players, such as me, disdain most other casino and card games—we treat poker as both a science (of mathematical probability and expectation) and an art (of reading people and navigating the shores of human behaviour), and certainly not as pure gambling. Not all poker players are like that.  I play poker regularly in Mumbai and Goa, with different groups of people, and many of my poker buddies are in it for the thrill of gambling. They know the numbers, they understand the skill aspect of the game, but they don’t come to the tables because they value the intellectual and sporting challenge, but because they need their fix. They’re addicted.

In his recent book, What’s Luck Got to do With it?, Joseph Mazur speaks about how “recent research, using PET scans, suggests that pathological gamblers, alcoholics, and drug addicts have similar patterns of neural activity when exposed to their individual addictions. [...] PET scans of pathological gamblers show increased levels of dopamine during play and even more substantial increases during high-risk, high-stakes playing.” Such gamblers find it hard to stay away from the tables; they focus on their winning sessions and ignore their losses entirely; and they have weird notions of the lady we spend our lives wooing: Luck.

There are two fallacies in particular that help gamblers rationalise their behaviour. One is the Monte Carlo Fallacy, also known as the Gambler’s Fallacy, or the “law of averages.” As this post on the subject defines it, this is “the belief that the likelihood of a random event is influenced and/or predicted by other independent events.” For example, a roulette wheel comes up black five successive times, so you decide to bet on red because red “is due.” Or you flip an evenly weighted coin eight times and it lands on tails each time, so you figure that it surely must land on heads the next time it’s flipped. (The probability remains 50%; coins don’t have memories.) Compulsive gamblers fall prey to this fallacy all the time, telling themselves that their luck has been so rotten that things will surely change now, and that a good session is due. Of course, if they’re playing roulette or any of the casino games where the house has an edge, or if they’re playing poker without regard to its mathematical aspect, they are bound to lose in the long run, irrespective of the winning sessions that are inevitable (like a coin landing on heads five times in a row if you flip it long enough), and that they’ll selectively remember to justify their continued gambling.

The other fallacy is the Hot Hands Fallacy. This is the reverse of the Gambler’s Fallacy; in Mazur’s words, it is the tendency to “expect long runs of the same outcome to continue.” For example, if an evenly-weighted coin lands on tails eight times in a row, you expect it to land on tails the ninth time as well. If you flip a coin long enough, there will be successive streaks of the both tails and heads coming up too many times in a row for it to seem random, even though it is exactly that. Mazur writes, paraphrasing Amos Tversky, “People reject randomness and the mathematical expected number of runs because the appearance of long runs in short samples seems too purposeful to be random.”

I see this all the time in my poker sessions. Often, a losing player will get up from the table and say something like, “Yaar, aaj mere patte hit nahin ho rahe. Better not play any more today.” Or if he’s winning, “Today is my lucky day. I can feel it. And I have a good feeling about these cards.” And then he plays 85o and flops a straight, reinforcing his belief that luck is on his side. (If the flop is AKK, he folds and forgets that he had a ‘feeling’.) In Goa a couple of months ago, I sat at a cash table where a loaded gambler repeatedly called down a young man’s raises with shit cards, all the time saying things like “I shouldn’t play these cards, but I’m only playing them because you’re in the hand. My luck is running well against you.” He kept sucking out in outrageous fashion, and the youngster, a Ranbir Kapoor lookalike with curly hair, was sucked out of three or four buy-ins and went away shattered, his poor girlfriend in tow, unable to hang it out for the long term in which the fish’s ass would certainly have a hook through it.

In most facets of life, an irrational belief in luck is harmless. When it comes to gambling, though, it can cost serious money, and destroy lives. Mazur quotes an old Arab proverb in his book: “Throw a lucky man into the sea and he will come out with a fish in his mouth.” The truth, especially when it comes to poker, is that if you throw a gambler into the sea, he will be eaten by sharks.

*    *    *    *

Just as we seek patterns where there are none on a roulette wheel or a poker table, we construct those narratives in life as well. The world is maddeningly complex, unfathomable and tragic. (Why tragic? Well, we all die and that’s that: there is no greater meaning or purpose behind the randomness of nature that created us.) To comprehend it, we try to fit everything into patterns, and build narratives that help us make sense of it. Some of these narratives happen to be true; many, when the truth is beyond us, are not. Religion is an example of this—but even though religion is irrational, it is perhaps necessary for a weak species like ours, which makes it rational to be irrational for many of us. But I’ll write about that some other day.

*  *  *  *

Previously on Viewfinder

The Big Deal About Blogging

The Oddly Enough Species

The Beautiful Game of Poker

Beauty and the Art of Winning

Football and a Comic Marriage

Beware of the Cronies

Indian Liberals and Colour Pictures

We are All Gamblers

Homeopathic Faith

Give Me 10,000 Hours

Match ka Mujrim

The Man with the Maruti 800

Internet Hindus and Madrasa Muslims

The Hazards of Writing a Column

Posted by Amit Varma on 10 August, 2010 in Essays and Op-Eds | Personal | Sport | Viewfinder


The Big Deal About Blogging

This is the 14th installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India, and was published on July 29.

At about the time this column is published, I’ll be speaking at the Asian Bloggers and Social Media Conference in Kuala Lumpur. The organisers contacted me a few weeks ago and asked me to give a half-hour talk on blogging. My first reaction was, Oh no, what can I say about blogging that hasn’t been said already? The subject is so 2004, and anything one can say about it sounds obvious: Yes, blogs make the tools of publishing available to all of us, democratise free expression, and yada yada yada. Yawn.

I thought about it some more, though, and realised that the subject is a very personal one for me. Over the last seven years, blogging has changed my life. As a medium, it has offered me opportunities I did not have as a mainstream journalist. It has broadened and deepened my perspectives of the world around me. It has sharpened my craft as a writer. It has introduced me to ideas and people I’d never otherwise have known. How this has happened, how this medium can be so powerful as to have such an impact on my life, seemed worth exploring. So I agreed to give the talk, which is titled, What’s the big deal about Blogging?

A little background: In 2004, I was a mainstream journalist. I had worked in television and written for newspapers, and at the time was the managing editor of Cricinfo. It was a fun job, and a great place to work in, but I was itching to go beyond the usual formats offered to me of cricket coverage: the match reports, the analysis, the colour pieces, the features, the news reports. These were all categories with familiar templates, and not much scope to go beyond them. I was just beginning to read blogs from around the world, and thought I’d try this new medium. 23 Yards was born.

I had taken baby steps into the medium. I did not use a blogging software for 23 Yards, but improvised within the content management system that Cricinfo then had. Some of my posts, when I look back on them, make me cringe. There are parts that are wordy, preachy, self-important, self-conscious, and lacking of the economy I would come to pride in myself in the years to come.

In December 2004, I started winding up 23 Yards, having decided that I was sick of cricket, and needed to detox. I began India Uncut. I planned it as a filter-and-comment blog. Several times a day, I would link to pieces on the web that I found interesting, and share my views on them. I would intersperse that with ruminations on issues that mattered to me, and occasional reportage, when I was travelling and there was the scope for it.

At the end of that month, the tsunami struck Asia. A friend told me that he was going to travel down the coast of Tamil Nadu, and would be glad if I would accompany him. I accepted his offer, and for the next few days, we went from one tsunami-affected area to the other. I felt the need to write about those experiences, and rather than use my journalistic contacts to write about it for a newspaper or magazine, I chose to blog. I’d keep taking notes, and every time we saw a cyber cafe, we’d stop for a few minutes and I’d upload a few posts.

I returned home to find that my posts had been linked to by bloggers and mainstream publications across the world, and the traffic was stratospheric. Once the initial spike had settled down, I realised that I now had a regular readership. And as I continued to blog steadily, it continued to grow. It didn’t matter that I was nobody, that I was new to this, that India Uncut was so fresh into the world. As long as I consistently put out compelling content, I would have readers. The only limit on me was me.

That period taught me a few important lessons about blogging—and many more would follow in the years to come. I’ve summarised a few of them below. (Note that when I use the term ‘blogging’, I include much of ‘social media’ in it. Twitter is micro-blogging, after all, and I was writing posts of that length and Twitter-like frequency on IU before Twitter existed—many Facebook posts are also effectively blog posts.)

1. Blogging captures the moment. One of the most attractive things about blogging to a mainstream journalist is that it has immediacy, and is not a slave to news cycles. A newspaper journalist, if he sees something today, will find it published tomorrow. A blogger can put it out there within five minutes, and it can be read (and linked) around the world in ten. Today, when everyone’s using Twitter and newspapers handle their websites much better, this doesn’t seem like a big deal. But when I was travelling through coastal Tamil Nadu in 2004-05, in the aftermath of the tsunami, it was huge.

2. Blogging frees you from the dictates of length. In a newspaper or magazine, one is bound by word limits. But when you’re writing for the internet, word limit does not matter. Your posts can be as long as you want, and you do not have to trim needlessly or submit to a sub-editor somewhere doing so. Also, importantly, your posts can be as short as you want. Sometimes, you might want to share a simple thought or an anecdote, which would otherwise not bear expanding into a full-length piece. Blogs allow you that luxury. Consider, for example, these posts of mine from the time of the tsunami: 1, 2, 3, 4. What could I do with them if I wrote for a newspaper?

3. Blogs contain multitudes. A blog post can have added dimensions in ways that a print article can’t. For one, you can use hyperlinks to encompass immense content that might otherwise have to be explained to the reader. Because of that, the need to simplify or give context is reduced—and you provide a valuable service to your reader in the process. Two, whether or not a blog has comments enabled—some high-traffic blogs disable it because they can’t control the noise-to-signal ratio—a blog post or a tweet stands a high chance of becoming part of a larger conversation, with other bloggers linking to it, commenting on it, tearing it apart and so on. There is much value in this both for the reader and the blogger, who can grow intellectually if he has the humility to listen.

4. Blogging enables greater breadth of coverage. This point is especially important during a catastrophic event of such magnitude that it stretches the limits of traditional media. While newspapers and television channels struggled to cover the tsunami adequately with their limited resources, bloggers posted regular updates, and one now-defunct website even posted SMS updates that enterprising citizen journalists sent in. (Those were pre-Twitter days.) More recently, during 26/11, the most immediate coverage was to be found on Twitter, which provided a more vivid and powerful picture of proceedings than the TV channels could manage. Once the channels and newspapers got their act together, it was different, but in the immediate chaos that day, the best news was crowdsourced.

5. Blogging enables greater depth of coverage. The biggest problem with mainstream media, especially in India, is that journalists are generalists. They don’t have specialised knowledge about any subject, and consequently often get the nuances wrong, and are unable to cover any issue in great depth. The reason for this is simple: specialists are busy doing whatever they specialised in, which is, for them, more lucrative or satisfying than journalism. Where is their voice to be heard?

In blogs, that’s where. A specialist may not have time to write for a newspaper, but can certainly blog about the subject, at his own pace and convenience. This vastly improves the depth of coverage of practically any subject you can think of. As an example, see the difference economics blogs like Marginal Revolution, EconLog, Cafe Hayek and the Freakonomics Blog have made to the coverage of economics. Not only do you have specialists from across the spectrum expressing themselves on the subject, but there is also a continuous dialogue on these subjects, happening across blogs and Twitter streams and continents. We take such depth for granted today—but isn’t it astonishing?

6. Blogging keeps Mainstream Media honest. Much of the mainstream media, especially in India, is immune to criticism, but the Blogosphere (and the Twitterverse) does play the role of a watchdog of sorts. Bloggers have exposed plagiarism in the mainstream media (1, 2), regularly catch journalistic sloppiness, and all this attention surely plays a part in making journos (and their editors) wary of screwing up. It’s no panacea, of course, especially in India, where one of our biggest publishing houses continues selling editorial space despite years of screaming from all of us. But we’ll keep screaming, and one day we’ll be loud enough. I hope.

7. Blogging keeps bloggers honest. Bloggers need watchdogs as much as the mainstream media does, and the Blogosphere plays this self-regulating role. Every post you write, every errant sentence, is liable to be taken apart by a fellow blogger somewhere—especially if you write about hot-button topics like politics, economics or Himesh Reshammiya. Trust me, the criticism is never-ending, and while much of it can be superfluous, some of it can also be sharp and precise. The result of that is that you cannot slip up, and be sloppy in either your thinking or your writing.

8. Blogging enables the Long Tail of Opinion. Sorry for the jargon—and this is, again, a fairly obvious point. Blogs enable relatively rare strands of opinion to find their rightful constituency through the internet. Libertarianism in India, for example, was surely non-existent, or at best fragmented, before the internet came about. Thanks to my blogging, though, I discovered a host of fellow libertarians around me, met them in person, made friends with them. Since we kept blogging about our ideas, that way of thinking found an audience out there it would not otherwise have had. Since ideological opponents kept engaging us, we had to question, sharpen and refine those ideas, which made for much better dialogue all around. I use Indian libertarianism as just one example, but this is true for just about any kind of ideas out there—including the Cult of Cthulhu. Fhtagn, okay?

9. Blogging breaks down geographical barriers. This again sounds banal, but let me give you a concrete example of this. A few years ago, the Indian government, in its efforts to ban one particular Blogspot site they found objectionable, ended up blocking all of Blogspot. So suddenly, one day, tens of thousands of Indian blogs were inaccessible to Indian readers—and even their authors. Naturally we kicked up a fuss, and the matter got sorted out. But while that happened, guess who came to our rescue. A group of Pakistani bloggers got together and created and popularised proxies through which all these Blogspot blogs could be viewed by readers in India. (IIRC, they had been through similar censorship issues, and had the tools ready.) We were divided by geography and popular political rhetoric—but united in our commitment to free speech. Blogging enabled us to find (and support) each other.

10. Blogging can help you find your voice as a writer. When you write for a mainstream publication, you are bound by house style, and the whims of the editor or copy editors you work with. The copy you write is seldom quite the article that appears. A blog, on the other hand, is all you. It gives you the luxury of space and time to find and refine your own voice as a writer. You might initially be awkward and self-conscious—but as time passes, you will get into your groove. Pick any blogger who has been writing for a few years, compare his early posts with some recent ones, and you’ll see what I mean.

11. Blogging sharpens your craft as a writer. When you write a blog with one eye on building a readership, you cannot bullshit. At a functional level, your writing has to be spot on. Your readers have countless other things they could be doing with their lives, and hazaar links to click on if you bore them. You cannot be self-indulgent, and your prose cannot be flabby or long-winded.

When you write regularly for such readers, your writing is bound to improve. I wrote an average of five posts a day for the first few years of my blogging—my frequency has dipped alarmingly since, alas—and have probably written more than 8000 posts across blogs and platforms. That kind of practice is bound to have an impact on your writing. Many of my early posts make me cringe today, and I’ve clearly improved hugely as a writer. And as I keep writing, hopefully I will keep improving. (Also see: Give Me 10,000 Hours.)

12. Blogging rewards merit. As I learned after my coverage of the tsunami, the blogosphere is meritocratic. Not only is there no entry barrier, all you need to do to build a readership is consistently produce compelling content. It is my belief that writers on the internet invariably get the audience their work deserves. (Size may not always be an indicator of quality, as a good niche blog may have less readers than a so-so mainstream blog, but my point is that it will find its potential readership.) The internet is viral, social media is social (duh!), and the word gets around.

13. Blogging expands your world. From a reader’s perspective, the sheer variety of content that blogging enables introduces one to ideas and content we may not otherwise have come across otherwise. There’s a lot of such content out there, and over time we find out own filters to navigate this content. Thanks to blogs, I’ve learned much more about the world than I otherwise would have.

From a blogger’s perspective, the world expands as much. Most of my close friends today are people I met through blogging—many of them also bloggers. At a personal level, this is what I cherish most in my journey as a blogger—the people I have met, the friends I have made. Much as I mock the term, maybe there is something to be said for ‘social’ media after all.


*  *  *  *

Earlier pieces on blogging:

In Defence of Blogging

Blogging Tips From a Jaded Veteran

*  *  *  *

Previously on Viewfinder

The Oddly Enough Species

The Beautiful Game of Poker

Beauty and the Art of Winning

Football and a Comic Marriage

Beware of the Cronies

Indian Liberals and Colour Pictures

We are All Gamblers

Homeopathic Faith

Give Me 10,000 Hours

Match ka Mujrim

The Man with the Maruti 800

Internet Hindus and Madrasa Muslims

The Hazards of Writing a Column

Posted by Amit Varma on 02 August, 2010 in Blogging | Essays and Op-Eds | Journalism | Media | Personal | Viewfinder


The Oddly Enough Species

This is the 13th installment  of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India, and was published on July 22.

We’re a weird species that takes itself far too seriously, and it is my theory that if a true picture of the human race is to be found in journalism, it will emerge in the odd news sections of most papers and news sites. In today’s column, rather than focus on a serious world-changing topic that requires your immediate intervention, let’s look at some of the odd news from around the planet.

Reuters’ ‘Oddly Enough’ section is a reliable source of laughs—and revelation. Take this story headlined ‘Chinese police beat official’s wife by mistake’. Here’s what happened: the lady in question tried to enter the building where her husband, “a provincial law enforcement officer,” works. The cops outside, “assigned to guard the office building and ‘subdue’ petitioners”, thought that she was a petitioner and set about subduing her. According to a local report, “a strong wave of fists rained down on her for more than 16 minutes.” She ended up in hospital with “a concussion, and damaged brain and nerve tissues.”

The report says that “ranking police officers apologized profusely”, and a Communist Party chief explained, “This incident is a total misunderstanding. Our police officers never realized that they beat the wife of a senior leader.” Beating anyone else, of course, is totally okay.

Now, that’s a story in the weird news section. But I don’t think it’s weird at all. I think it’s good journalism that goes to the heart of the society it reports on, and illustrates the system of governance and the role of power. Also, it has resonance beyond China.

Another weird headline from the same section: ‘Bridge game fights “led man to murder wife.”’ This story is about a 52-year-old man who stabbed his wife to death following arguments that were ostensibly about her bridge-playing capabilities. He and his wife apparently played much social bridge together, and a fellow player said that he had “started drinking heavily which led to ‘vicious’ criticism of his wife’s prowess at bridge and a deterioration in his own game.” Once, in the middle of a card game, he “shouted at his wife and threatened to throw her off the balcony.” Eventually, he killed her.

At one level, this is just a weird story. At another, it’s a portrait of a relationship that is fairly typical—marriages of this sort are common, and I’m sure every reader of this column knows a couple where the woman is forced into a submissive role by an insecure, demanding prick of a husband. That this one involved arguments about bridge and ended in a stabbing make it unusual—but apart from that, it’s commonplace.

Another headline from the same section: ‘Romantic comedies affecting off-screen love lives.’ It seems that “a poll of 1,000 Australians found almost half said rom-coms with their inevitable happy endings have ruined their view of an ideal relationship.” An Aussie ‘relationship counsellor’ has said, “It seems our love of rom-coms is turning us into a nation of ‘happy-ever-after addicts.’ Yet the warm and fuzzy feeling they provide can adversely influence our view of real relationships.”

The tyranny of the imaginary over the real is reflected not just by romantic comedies, but also by porn. Women have long complained that men get idealised notions of sex and female bodies by watching porn, and that regular women can’t match up. (It’s probably truer that porn can act as a substitute for real-world intimacy rather than a benchmark for it.) This works both ways, of course, as few men have organs quite as extravagantly elongated as some male porn stars do, but women seem to prefer romantic comedies to porn, and I suspect they expect more from their men with regard to romance than sex. (The ideal man is gifted at both, but is either gay or married.)

You can go look up such weird news in that Reuters section, or websites such as Fark.com, or even in all our local newspapers, which are full of them. They reveal human nature as well as the state of our society far better than all the serious news out there about politics and economics and so on. For example, in our Indian papers today, we can read about the female Congress MLA breaking flowerpots in the Bihar Legislative Council and having to be dragged out. We can read about Sachin Tendulkar’s blood being distributed along with a special edition of his biography. Or about how “bugs and roaches” set off a “passenger revolt” at a train terminus. All of this is weird, yes—and all of this is us. This is how we are.

Previously on Viewfinder

The Beautiful Game of Poker

Beauty and the Art of Winning

Football and a Comic Marriage

Beware of the Cronies

Indian Liberals and Colour Pictures

We are All Gamblers

Homeopathic Faith

Give Me 10,000 Hours

Match ka Mujrim

The Man with the Maruti 800

Internet Hindus and Madrasa Muslims

The Hazards of Writing a Column

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 July, 2010 in Essays and Op-Eds | Journalism | Media | Viewfinder | WTF


The Beautiful Game of Poker

This is the 12th installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India, and was published on July 15.

The essence of sport is not triumph but tragedy. Every year, 128 men take part in the Wimbledon Men’s Singles, and 127 end their journey gutted, trying to smile while their insides are churning. For most of the 219 men racing the Tour de France this year, there will be more heartbreak than glory, and much pain along the way. Sport is not just the Spanish celebration of the recent World Cup, but Asamoah Gyan holding his head in his hands—not just after one missed penalty, but for the rest of his blighted life.

In poker, that tragedy is about the bubble. While most sports fans are detoxing from the football or following cycling or cricket or golf, a bunch of us have our eyes trained, through the lens of internet updates, on the main event of the World Series of Poker—the de facto World Championship. 7319 players entered this year, and 747 people were in the money. (747th prize is US$19,263—the winner will take home US$8.9 million.) The player who comes 748th is considered to be the ‘bubble boy’—or ‘in the bubble’.

Two hands of sporting tragedy. First, Angel Guillen, with all-powerful pocket aces in the hole, shoved all his chips in the middle, and was called by pocket jacks. Guillen had an 81% chance of winning the hand and surviving. The 19% held up, a jack came on the flop, and a dream was over. Guillen was 749th out of 7319 people, and had been busted with the best hand. In a parallel universe, the dealer did one final shuffle of the deck, Guillen got 27 offsuit, folded the damn thing and survived.

And then there was Tim McDonald, who went all in with pocket queens against A2 suited—at 68% to win. But life is cruel. When the hand was done, Pokerstars reveals, McDonald “stood there like the loneliest man at a bachelor auction.” Let me tell you something: there isn’t a poker player in the world who doesn’t know that feeling.

*  *  *  *  *

Poker is an amazing game. It astonishes me sometimes that it is considered by some people to be a form of gambling. Friends of mine who play both bridge and poker often assert that poker requires more skill. Indeed, as a former chess player, I find it a far more demanding sport to master. In chess, all the action is on the chess board in front of you, and there is an objectively correct move for most complex positions. In poker, you’re not just playing the cards on the table, but also the players around you. Every situation is unique and filled with imponderables, and it is often impossible to ascertain the right move at the time.

The most popular form of poker is Texas Hold ‘Em, and in a nutshell, here’s what it’s about. Each player is given two cards face down at the start of the hand. After this, five community cards are dealt, in groups of three (the flop), one (the turn) and one more (the river). Of these seven cards—the five everyone shares on the board and the two in his hand—each player has to make a five-card hand. (Here’s the hierarchy of hands.) The best hand wins. There are four rounds of betting—after the hole cards are dealt, at the flop, at the turn and at the river—and, sometimes, a showdown at the end.

At its most basic level, the game demands maths. Say I am dealt AJ, both spades, a fairly strong hand. I raise, an opponent calls, and we see the flop. It comes 72K, with the 7 and the 2 being spades. My opponent, who has a short stack, goes all in. My sense of the situation is that he has a king in his hand, probably AK, and therefore the best hand at the moment. There are nine spades left in the deck that give me this flush: thus, I have an 18% chance of completing my flush on the turn, and a 36% chance of completing it by the river. Because my opponent is all in, there will be no further bets, so 36% is the key figure here.

Now, whether or not I should call the bet depends on what is known as pot odds. Assume there are 1000 bucks already in the pot, and my opponent’s all-in bet amounts to 800 bucks more. That means that to enter a pot of 1800 bucks, I need to pay 800—or odds of just over 2 to 1. As my odds of hitting the flush are 2 to 1, slightly better than the pot odds, I should make the call. However, had his bet amounted to 2000 more, that would have meant investing 2000 to enter a pot of 3000, at odds of 1.5 to 1. My chances of ending up with the best hand would have been worse than that, thus mandating an automatic fold.

Every decent poker player develops an intuitive sense of pot odds, so we don’t even need to calculate them. If a poker player consistently gets his money in the middle when the pot odds are in his favour, he will make money in the long run. In the short run, he will suffer what poker players call bad beats, losing hands he is the favourite to win. Indeed, he may get all his money in the pot six times in a row when he is 70% favourite to win and lose each time. Such swings happen. But as long as he plays with a small percentage of his total bankroll (look up ‘bankroll management’), he can tackle these swings (look up ‘variance’) and come up a winner. Chris Ferguson, the former world champion, described the role of luck in poker thus: “On any one given hand, it might be 99% luck and 1% skill. Over the course of a tournament, it might be 30% skill and 70% luck. Over the course of a month, maybe it’s 30% luck and 70% skill, and over the course of a year maybe it’s 90% skill and 10% luck.”

But the maths is just one part of playing the game. It is a hygiene factor, something every good player must master, just as every batsman needs to learn how to keep his elbow straight while straight driving. But maths involves just the cards on the table, while every competent poker player will tell you that in this game, you play the people, not the cards. You need to be able to deduce, from betting patterns and physical behaviour, what kind of cards your fellow players are playing with, what cards they think you have, what cards they think you think they have, and so on. At that level, the cards you have often don’t matter—if you can get into the other guy’s head better than he can in yours, you win. As a recent Economist report revealed, a 2009 study analysed 103 million hands played at pokerstars.com and found that more than 75% of them never even reached showdown. So much for the cards.

While this incredible sport has become hugely popular in the US and Europe—the Economist piece I linked to earlier has more—it is just beginning to boom in India. Sadly, the gambling laws in the country make playing poker for money effectively illegal in India, which is why tournaments here have to be organised on one of the two offshore casinos in Goa. (I came fifth in one of them a few weeks ago, and am headed to another one tomorrow.) I have two issues with this: One, despite the short-term element of luck, poker is not gambling in the traditional sense of the word, but a game of skill. Two, in any case, gambling should be legalised. Even if you do not grant me the second point, the first should be indisputable to anyone who’s played the game.

*  *  *  *  *

I can’t end an article on poker without a bad beat story now, can I? Yesterday, my run of 12 consecutive winning sessions came to an end when I received one bad beat after another in a session with friends. The worst moment: I had AQ suited, and the flop came 7J2 rainbow (different suits, so flushes ruled out.) The turn came Q. In my estimation, from previous betting and the expression on my opponent’s face, he had a lower pair—probably the 7. So, confident that my top pair was the best hand at the moment, and that he would call any bet because he was playing that way, I went all in. He called and showed K7 offsuit—my read was correct, and the math was on my side: my opponent had an 11% chance of sucking out on me. Well, yes, you guessed it—the river was one of the two 7s left in the deck, my opponent had trips, and I was busted. It was the last straw in a haystack full of them in a day filled with suck-outs, and I stood up, threw my cards on the table, and uncharacteristically exclaimed, “F*** man, f***ing river.”

That sentiment united me with Angel Guillen, Tim McDonald and every poker player who’s ever seen a hand through. F***ing river. But we come right back and keep on playing, because in poker, the right decision sometimes leads to the wrong outcome, and vice versa. You just need to think of the long run and keep on doing the right thing. Indeed, that’s something the Bhagwad Gita could tell you. The lessons we learn in poker are lessons we would do well to apply in life—so shuffle up and deal.

Previously on Viewfinder

Beauty and the Art of Winning

Football and a Comic Marriage

Beware of the Cronies

Indian Liberals and Colour Pictures

We are All Gamblers

Homeopathic Faith

Give Me 10,000 Hours

Match ka Mujrim

The Man with the Maruti 800

Internet Hindus and Madrasa Muslims

The Hazards of Writing a Column

Posted by Amit Varma on 20 July, 2010 in Essays and Op-Eds | Personal | Sport | Viewfinder


Beauty and the Art of Winning

This is the 11th installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India, and was posted on July 8.

A few months ago, a friend and I had an argument about Roger Federer. Both of us are Federer fans, and the argument wasn’t about his greatness. Instead, it was about a parameter of that greatness. Federer, my friend said, was the Greatest Of All Time (GOAT) in his sport partly because his tennis was so beautiful. His aesthetic appeal was a key part of his GOATness.

I disagreed. No one would deny that Federer plays beautiful tennis—but sport is about winning or losing. To be considered great, you have to win a hell of a lot. To be considered GOAT, you have to win more than anyone else, and achieve dominance in your era. Federer fulfills all these criteria, his record against Rafael Nadal notwithstanding. The beauty is a perk.

GOATs of other sports—a phrase I never thought I’d use, by the way—weren’t all pretty. (Don Bradman was thought of by some as being unorthodox and even ugly.) Also, beauty is necessarily subjective, and I know people who find Nadal’s tennis prettier than Federer’s. (Fellow Yahoo! columnist Jai Arjun Singh, for example, mentioned in an email conversation once that he found “genuine artistry in some of Nadal’s cross-court play and running forehands.”) To some, form follows function, and the beautiful player is the effective one. Also, perceptions of beauty vary depending on one’s understanding of the sport as well as one’s approach towards it. As a teenage chess player, for example, I found great beauty in some of the explosive tactical play of Mikhail Tal—but as I grew older, found a more enduring grace in the subtle positional machinations, in seemingly quiet positions, of the likes of Anatoly Karpov. Beauty depends.

I thought of beauty in sport, of course, because of the ongoing football World Cup. This is one game where debates about beauty and efficiency are old hat, and it is almost fashionable to bemoan the death of artistry at the altar of results. The teams we remember with the greatest fondness are the ones that gave us beautiful football—Brazil in 1982, for example. But they weren’t necessarily the teams that won World Cups, who were sometimes uninspiring and ugly, such as Germany in 1990. This is inevitable—we associate beauty with an open game, with players given the space and the canvas to display their artistry, but in the modern game, no good team will give an opposing player that space. As Jonathan Wilson wrote in his excellent book Inverting the Pyramid, “The dribbling technique of Garrincha or Stanley Matthews doesn’t exist in today’s game, not because the skills have been lost, but because no side would ever give them the three or four yards of acceleration room they needed before their feints became effective.”

Modern football is about pressing for the ball, about controlling space, about formation. Brazil’s team of 1970 was perhaps the last great team of the pre-modern age. Football like that, beautiful as it was, would not win World Cups today. In his book, Wilson pointed to the Brazil-Italy match of 1982 as the day “a certain naivete in football died; it was the day after which it was no longer possible to simply to get the best players and allow them to get on with it; it was the day that system won. There was still a place for great individual attacking talents, but they had to be incorporated into something knowing, had to be protected and covered for.”

Diego Maradona, as a coach in this World Cup, seemed a throwback in the sense that he seemed to “simply to get the best players and allow them to get on with it.” It’s ironic, because in 1986 he helped Argentina win the World Cup under a coach who believed in efficiency over beauty. Carlos Bilardo summed up the modern ethic when he said: “Football is played to win… Shows are for the cinema, for theatre.” (The quote is from Wilson’s book.)

Perceptions of beauty change with the times, of course. I watched Spain’s semi-final win against Germany with my father last night, and he was disappointed at the seeming lack of action in the middle. I was enthralled, though, by Spain’s pressing game, and the manner in which they controlled possession, and set the rhythm of the game. (Much like Barcelona vs Arsenal not long ago—and this Spain side is more or less the Barcelona side.) There was some astonishing, subtle artistry on display—and I dare say it was beautiful. It was also effective. Same difference.

To end on a personal note, that also sums up my ethic as a writer. I’m one of those who believes that style must always be a slave to substance, and that writing that draws attention to itself is bad writing. Rather than lose myself in self-indulgent dribbles and feints, playing to the gallery, I’d prefer to move relentlessly towards my goal—and if you’ve gotten so far in this piece, I’ve scored. Now bear with me while I remove my T-shirt and do cartwheels.

Previously on Viewfinder

Football and a Comic Marriage

Beware of the Cronies

Indian Liberals and Colour Pictures

We are All Gamblers

Homeopathic Faith

Give Me 10,000 Hours

Match ka Mujrim

The Man with the Maruti 800

Internet Hindus and Madrasa Muslims

The Hazards of Writing a Column

Posted by Amit Varma on 13 July, 2010 in Essays and Op-Eds | Sport | Viewfinder


Football and a Comic Marriage

This is the tenth installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India, and was posted on July 1.

We humans are a funny little species. We’re limited by mortality, reside on a tiny planet that whirs around one of countless stars, with a scale and complexity we do not have the tools to fathom—and yet, we behave like masters of the universe. It reminds me of Douglas Adams’s puddle.

The ongoing football World Cup is a microcosm of this comic marriage of frailty and arrogance. Take the wonderful game between Germany and England. Exhibit one: Human frailty. There is no way any referee is equipped to adjudicate on the kind of situation brought about by Frank Lampard’s almost-goal. If the referee is on one side of the goal line, with the ball falling on the other, and he is both at a distance and a height from it, it is hard for him to tell for sure which side of the line it landed. (Among other phenomena, the parallax error comes into play.) The closer the ball to the line, or the further away the referee, the closer his decision will be to guesswork. In a tight situation, he cannot know.

Exhibit two: Human arrogance. For years, FIFA has refused to entertain the idea of using technology in such situations. They have presumably believed that the referees are up to the task. I suppose they consider it an insult to their judgment for it to be implied that the referees they pick aren’t good enough for the job. Well, they aren’t. A referee and his team of linesmen are limited by the human failing of not being able to take in all the action on the pitch at the same time, and even if a ten-headed (and maybe ten-bodied) Ravana referee miraculously appeared, there are some decisions he’d get wrong even if he was looking straight at the action—like the Lampard-Hurst kind of goal.

This World Cup, like any other, has been full of dubious refereeing decisions. The offside goal by Carlos Tevez in the Argentina-Mexico match. The red-carding of Kaka in Brazil’s game against the Ivory Coast after Bollywoodesque over-acting by an opposing player. Penalties not given, hand balls not seen. These mistakes aren’t necessarily caused by incompetent refereeing, but by inevitable human error. (Indeed, human error is inevitable precisely because we’re human.) What I find tragic is that each of these errors could have been avoided if technology was used. Hawk-Eye at each goalpost would solve the Lampard-Hurst kind of problem. A facility for an overrule within 30 seconds by a match referee watching replays would sort out most of the others. Players take that long to celebrate and regroup anyway, so it wouldn’t affect the ebb and flow of the match at all.

After the bloopers involving Lampard and Tevez, and the consequent uproar, Sepp Blatter has said that FIFA will consider implementing the use of technology for such decisions. Like a politician, he is responding to his market, and may forget about it when the uproar dies down. In any case, why on earth should it have taken so long for football to wake up to the uses of technology? Football has been a huge-money game for decades now. There is so much at stake.

Blatter said that he apologised to the teams at the receiving end of the bad decisions. A fat lot of good that does. Had Lampard’s goal been allowed, the score would have been 2-2, and the rhythm of the match would have been different. The butterfly would have fluttered its wings one way instead of another, and the storm might well have been elsewhere. Instead, England is out of the World Cup, and will wonder forever what might have been.

To add insult to injury, someone stole their underwear.

*  *  *  *

In one respect, football referees and cricket umpires are like governments. I often rant on India Uncut about how governments are supposed to serve us, but somehow contrive to rule us. Similarly, referees and umpires are there only to implement the laws of the game and keep it going smoothly. They are servants of the game. You’d think otherwise to see the hubris some of them display. Power intoxicates us, so much so that we might sometimes forget why we were granted that power.

Those referees and umpires who speak out against the use of technological aids do themselves a disservice. Technology is no more a threat to them than an oven or microwave is to a chef, or a laptop is to a writer like me, who hasn’t used a pen in years. It won’t make them redundant; instead, it will help them do their job better.

Consider how ludicrous it is that during a televised match, thanks to technology, every viewer can see exactly what happened on the field of play—except the one man actually making decisions about it. Referees are judged by tools that are not made available to them. That is both unfair to them and a betrayal of the sport.

I remember the time when the idea of TV replays were first mooted for run-out and stumping decisions in cricket. The usual objections were made, about how technology would dilute the human element of the game and suchlike, as if spectators flocked to the grounds to see the umpires perform. Today, replays for line decisions are so much a part of the game that we can’t imagine cricket without them. Also, since TV replays were introduced, no umpire has copped criticism for getting a run-out wrong. I suspect Hawk-Eye, another tool used to judge umpires but not made available to them, will also one day be a fixture in the game—and then we will wonder how on earth we managed all this time without it. (Around six years ago, I wrote a few pieces examining Hawk-Eye, and answering objections to its introduction. Here they are: 1, 2, 3, 4.)

*  *  *  *

While technology can play an important role in enabling a sport to run smoothly, I hate it when technology takes center-stage, where the players are. One of the things I love about football is that it is such a basic sport: just 11 men running around a field kicking a ball, in a display of pure skill and character. The more technology becomes essential to the playing of a sport (as opposed to the refereeing), the less I am drawn to it. Formula 1, for example, leaves me cold. If you switch the teams of the top and bottom performers this season, I’d wager that the bottom guy would start outperforming the top guy—that’s how much difference the car makes. Even in cricket, heavier bats and better protective gear have been transformative—when top-edges go for six, the game loses some of its charm.

A sport I love for the way it pits a man against his own limitations is cycling. The Tour De France begins on Saturday and runs for 22 days. I am looking forward especially to the mountain stages, where the peloton will fall apart and a handful of men will battle gravity and their own bodies to try and survive and get ahead, even as it hurts so damn much they just want to give up, stop, lie down. That’s like life—and thus the best that sport can be.

Previously on Viewfinder

Beware of the Cronies

Indian Liberals and Colour Pictures

We are All Gamblers

Homeopathic Faith

Give Me 10,000 Hours

Match ka Mujrim

The Man with the Maruti 800

Internet Hindus and Madrasa Muslims

The Hazards of Writing a Column

Posted by Amit Varma on 13 July, 2010 in Essays and Op-Eds | Sport | Viewfinder


Beware of the Cronies

This is the ninth installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India.

In 1944 a group of seven businessmen, including JRD Tata, GD Birla and Kasturbhai Lalbhai, came together to produce a document titled A Brief Memorandum Outlining a Plan of Economic Development for India. As the name indicates, it outlined an economic vision for soon-to-be-independent India. It envisioned a mixed economy with strong government intervention in markets, a huge public sector, and much protectionism so that Indian companies would be sheltered from foreign competition. Jawaharlal Nehru’s eventual economic policy would be on the lines of what this document laid out, and one of its authors, John Mathai, was even a finance minister in Nehru’s government. Because ‘A Brief Memorandum Outlining a Plan of Economic Development for India’ is a most unfunky name, the document eventually came to be called The Bombay Plan. (Just as Hindus may be offended at their religion being associated, in name only, with the Hindu Rate of Growth, I am not too happy about that document being named after my beloved city. Ah, well.)

In his fine book, India After Gandhi, Ramachandra Guha cites the Bombay Plan as an example of the support Nehru’s Fabian Socialism got from industrialists of the day, and writes, “One wonders what free-market pundits would make of it now.” At a colloquium of classical liberals I attended a few days ago in Bangalore, one attendee wondered why more industrialists in present-day India don’t speak up for economic freedom. The answer to this is simple: big business is as much the enemy of free markets as big government is.

The cornerstone of free markets, competition, is great for consumers, as it delivers better-quality products and services at lower prices. But it is terrible for established businesses, which are constantly under pressure to keep prices low and salaries high, and may be wiped out by more innovative and efficient competitors. There’s nothing they’d like more than high entry barriers in their industry, so that their place is secure. Thus, to expect the established industrialists of the 1940s to support free markets would be naive: economic freedom is actually against the interests of big business. The journalist Seetha Parthasarathy pointed out at the colloquium I attended last week that the Swatantra Party, which spoke up so ardently for free markets in the 1950s and ‘60s, hardly got any funding from businessmen and industrialists of the day. That makes perfect sense: they would have felt threatened by it.

This is why it irritates me no end when critics of free markets point to the evils of big business as a repudiation of our principles. The truth is that a libertarian or classical liberal is as wary of big business as a socialist is. Indeed, now that communism is dead, one of the greatest threats to freedom everywhere is not socialism, but crony capitalism. To look after the interests of the common man, we must beware of the cronies.

*  *  *  *

Death, taxes and crony capitalism are inevitable. When I am in a pessimistic mood, generally after a bad meal or a spell of television surfing, I lose hope that we will ever have economic freedom. Free markets, indeed, seem slightly utopian. After all, we don’t live in an economy that is a blank slate. We live in times of big government. Big governments only get bigger, not smaller. (This is true even in the West, when the size of government expanded even under fiscal conservatives like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.) It is not in the interest of those who run governments to curtail their power or the money available to them. (Like, duh.) It is a beast that keeps on growing, and feeding on us.

Power and money always go together. The more power government has, the more it can subvert markets, the more big business runs to it, with big money, to safeguard its own interests. Crony capitalism is inevitable. Big government is one ass cheek, big business is another, and together they’re shitting on capitalism.

*  *  *  *

What about the recent financial crisis in the US? The notion that it illustrates the inadequacy of free markets is a simplistic one, like most narratives generated by the media. The crisis came about because of a melange of complex factors, and we’ll be debating the respective merits of those for decades. There is no shortage of actors to blame. The low interest rates of the Fed in the early 2000s played a key role. (It amuses me when Alan Greenspan is sometimes described as a libertarian. Whatever his youthful infatuations may have been, the chairman of a central bank can no more be a libertarian than General Dyer was a freedom fighter.) Defenders of free markets will also point to the Community Reinvestment Act, and the role played by Fannie and Freddie, both quasi-government entities. But it is true that there were structural issues with the way markets themselves functioned at the time.

Short-term incentives in the finance industry weren’t aligned with long-term interests. If you worked in Lehman Brothers, and had to choose between chasing massive short-term profits (with the consequent bonuses for yourself) that carried a long-term risk to your company, and a prudence that would put you out of step with your peers, for absolutely no benefit to you and the risk of losing your job, what would you do? C’mon, it’s human nature. As Chuck Prince famously said, “As long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance.”

How does capitalism deal with this? Simple: when companies screw up, their bottomline gets affected, and sometimes they go bust. The learning percolates through the markets, and the incentives change for future players. The problem here is that when the long-term consequences of their short-term behaviour hit the finance industry, the government stepped in. Lehman Brothers was allowed to go bust, but others were bailed out on the grounds that they were ‘too big to fail’, and that their failure threatened the entire economy. (Was this really so? We’ll never know. We’ll just have to take their word for it.) The result: Moral Hazard. The sort of short-term risk-taking that led to the crisis wasn’t punished, and the incentives haven’t changed. On the contrary, the financial whizkids out there will now be further emboldened to keep taking wild risks, secure in the knowledge that when things go bad, the government will bail them out.

What would you call this? Free markets? I don’t think so.

*  *  *  *

Until 1991, capitalism in India was crony capitalism. The license raj ensured that the markets were a tijori and the government held the key. All big industrialists had liaison offices in Delhi whose job was to deliver adequate chai-paani to government officials in exchange for licenses and other favours. Money chased power; power sought money.

The liberalisation of 1991 didn’t really change much. Firstly, it was a limited liberalisation, and most markets in India remain unfree. Secondly, the government still retains enormous power. As this paper (pdf link) points out, crony capitalism continues to thrive in India. R Jagannathan wrote in DNA last year: “In his current avatar as PM, Manmohan Singh, architect of the initial reforms involving delicensing, deregulation and downsizing, has presided over the largest expansion of government spending in living memory. In the current fiscal year (2009-10), government will borrow more than Rs 400,000 crore (probably Rs 500,000 crore, if you consider off-budget items like oil bonds), a figure that’s larger than the entire central expenditure for 2004-05, the first year of the UPA. Large government is invariably accompanied by crony capitalism. Reason: when government spends more, private companies do more business with it.”

And here’s an excerpt from a speech Manmohan gave in 2007: “Are we encouraging crony capitalism? Is this a necessary but transient phase in the development of modern capitalism in our country? Are we doing enough to protect consumers and small businesses from the consequences of crony capitalism? [...] Do we have a genuine level playing field for all businesses? What should be done to inject a greater degree of competitiveness in the industrial sector?”

One has to wonder, why on earth was he asking those questions? He’s the prime minister, no?

*  *  *  *

So should I be pessimistic? Naysayers of free markets argue that they’re a utopian construct, and that a perfect free market, with a government that limits its role to administering the rule of law and enforcing contracts, does not exist anywhere. Perhaps. But here’s the thing: perfect good health is also a utopian construct, and there is no one in the world who is perfectly healthy. And yet, it is something to aspire to, and as individuals, we’re constantly trying (or should be trying) to get as close to it as possible. (Just don’t ask me what I had for dinner last night.) Similarly, it is my contention that free markets are the surest route to prosperity, and we should keep fighting to make our markets as free as possible. We, the people, the consumers, are the biggest beneficiaries of this. Not the fat-ass businessmen, in bed with the sleazy politicians, who just want to milk us dry. As long as we are aware of this, there is hope—for we do live in a democracy, don’t we?

*  *  *  *

Further reading: I’d written a column on this subject a couple of years earlier: ‘Arpita and the Bombay Plan’.

My column last week was on a related subject: Indian Liberals and Colour Pictures

Also, here’s a superb debate on Cato Unbound: ‘When Corporations Hate Markets’.

Previously on Viewfinder

Indian Liberals and Colour Pictures

We are All Gamblers

Homeopathic Faith

Give Me 10,000 Hours

Match ka Mujrim

The Man with the Maruti 800

Internet Hindus and Madrasa Muslims

The Hazards of Writing a Column

Postscript:  My thanks to Chandrasekaran Balakrishnan, Mana Shah, Raj Cherubal, Sumeet Kulkarni, Deepak Shenoy, Vikramjit Banerjee, Parth Shah, Seetha, Arun Simha, Sunil Laxman and Devangshu Datta for their part in discussions that helped me refine my views on this subject.

Posted by Amit Varma on 25 June, 2010 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | Viewfinder


Indian Liberals and Colour Pictures

This is the eighth installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India.

Earlier this week, I spent two days at a fascinating colloquium on Indian liberalism in the outskirts of Bangalore. At night we slept in airconditioned tents, and in the day, gathered in a conference room and discussed weighty matters like the definition, relevance and scope of Indian liberalism. I was awed by the intellectual firepower that I was privileged to be in the company of—but, at the same time, there hung in the air a whiff of the same kind of dissonance that the airconditioned tents evoked.

To begin with, what is ‘Indian liberalism’? The term ‘liberal’ has been so debased and so variedly used as to have practically no meaning left in it. I consider myself a classical liberal, believing in individual freedom, negative rights and a free society, which is how liberals in continental Europe would see themselves. Yet, in the US, the term means practically the opposite, as American liberals, from the Left, are opposed to free markets, which makes their appropriation of the term oxymoronic. (Some of my friends would remove the ‘oxy’ from that judgment.)

In India, the term is used in a woolly way, and one can never quite be sure what it’s meant to mean. Ramachandra Guha, in his essay ‘The Absent Liberal’, referred to PC Mahalanobis as a liberal, and in a talk he gave us before the conference, to Jawaharlal Nehru as one. Labelling people is a complex matter, especially when they are politicians and contain multitudes of multitudes, and such a label is often both true and false, depending on perspective, as with Nehru. (His institution building and commitment to democracy and secularism mark him out as a great liberal; his economic policies, which so ravaged India, do not.)

Almost all of us at the conference were classical liberals, at siege in a world where the values we believe in have either not been accepted or are being questioned. The broad theme of the conference was how to spread liberal ideas, and the task seems hard for a variety of reasons. Firstly, the classic truths of liberalism are all counter-intuitive, such as the non-zero-sumness involved in progress, the concept of spontaneous order, and the fallibility of all human beings—the last especially important in the context of the blind faith we have in government, which is always a collection of flawed human beings, often with perverse incentives.

Secondly, economic liberalism is under increasing attack from people who point to the economic crisis in the US as a failure of free markets, or wonder why India has so many inequalities despite being supposedly liberalized. These kind of attacks deserve a serious and respectful response, but I don’t see much of that in the media around me. In next week’s column, I will attempt a partial response, and share my views on why neither the financial crisis nor India’s inequalities represent a failure of free markets. But for now, let’s get back to the subject of the colloquium, and this column: how can we spread classical liberal ideas in India?

Some of my fellow participants referred to the Swatantra Party, and were exploring whether a classical liberal party of that sort could build a following in the politics. More power to those who try, though I believe that such a political party is a pipe dream, and a waste of time. (I didn’t always hold this view.) A political party might start out liberal, but the many necessary compromises of politics will soon dilute any ideological stance it takes, till it ends up indistinguishable from the parties around it, slave to the imperatives of the political marketplace, where niches are formed more on the basis of identity than ideology.

Instead, I think classical liberals need to ask themselves the question, Why are we liberals? For me, the answer is not just that liberalism gives me an intellectual framework with which I can make sense of the world, but also that I believe that it has solutions to most of the political and economic problems that the world, and modern India, faces: from farmer suicides in Vidarbha to rising prices to deepening inequality. If this is the case, and my liberalism follows from the practical utility that it provides, then what I need to promote is not liberalism itself, but these immediate solutions to the urgent, pressing problems of our times, whose merit lies not in their being liberal but in their being both right and practical. Then I can avoid labels and focus purely on solving real-world problems with all the real-world constraints that a utopian vision of the world does not always taking into account.

This being the case, we do not need a separate liberal political party to spread liberal ideas. Instead, if we offer practical ways to make the world a better place, our ideas can spread through osmosis into every political party. Liberalism can then triumph in the political battlefield by winning in the marketplace of ideas—perhaps without the label attached, for ideological labels often hinder the spread of good ideas.

*  *  *  *

One example of such real-world problem solving comes in the work of Parth Shah, the founder of the Center for Civil Society in India, and the moderator of the sessions at the colloquium. For years now, Parth and his team have been promoting the concept of school vouchers. Many dogmatic classical liberals would be opposed to this idea, for it assumes state spending on education. But India is a poor country, education is key to our progress, and it is a given that the government will spend money to make this happen. The problem here is that our government, over the last 63 years, has achieved very little in this space. How can it spend its money more efficiently?

School vouchers, first championed by Milton Friedman, enable competition and the free market to lift the standards of education. The quality of government schools is abysmal, teacher absenteeism is a constant problem, and the incentives are all skewed. There’s one way to change these incentives, and to bring accountability into the system: fund the students, not the schools. If the students are given school vouchers, which they can take to whichever school serves them best, whether it is public or private, schools are forced to lift their standards in order to survive. The power shifts to students and their parents, and the quality of education necessarily rises.

Instead of writing op-eds and policy briefs about school vouchers from an armchair somewhere, Parth and the CCS gang have spent years talking to politicians and bureaucrats across the country to make it happen, offering real-world models of implementation, alongside studies of how low-cost private schools are already transforming education for the poor. To see the pilot projects that are already in place, and the difference they are beginning to make, check out their website. (Also, here are my earlier articles on this: 1, 2.)

*  *  *  *

Another of the participants at the colloquium, Raj Cherubal, offered me his prescription for how liberals can drive change: ‘colour pictures.’

Cherubal works as a coordinator at Chennai City Connect, and holds the view that politicians and bureaucrats, sometimes caricatured as the villains in the piece by dogmatic liberals, are often on our side, and agree with us about the nature of the problems. But giving them abstract ideas about what to do is pointless, for they don’t have the bandwidth to take them further. The only effective approach is two-pronged: One, show them case studies to demonstrate that our solutions have worked elegantly elsewhere; Two, give them a detailed road-map of how to implement the solution.

Raj offered an example of this from the domain of urban planning. His team went to the Chennai city authorities with a proposal to modernise LB Road. The babus were skeptical, and threw up various objections to this, such as how there wasn’t enough space to get the job done, what would happen to the hawkers, and so on. Cherubal and his team then walked the streets, measured every inch of space available for themselves, and drew up elegant redesigns and colour charts (‘red for footpath’) that showed exactly how the street would look when redesigned, how much space was currently being wasted, and the precise actions that could be undertaken to transform that space, right down to costs and so on. The project was approved, and is now underway. What made it happen? “Colour pictures,” said Raj.

In a similar proposal about transforming the T Nagar neighbourhood, Raj’s team showed the Chennai authorities detailed photographs of identical streets in Bogota and Manhattan as an example of how these Chennai streets, with identical space, could be transformed. (T Nagar’s Panagal Park can be just like Manhattan’s Union Square, Raj tells me.) Again, the colour pictures made all the difference.

Raj uses the term ‘colour pictures’ as a metaphor and a proxy: what he actually showed these men in power was “a vision for a better future”. He made it compelling and tangible, with no vague head-in-the-clouds talk about grand ideas. These examples are not examples of liberal ideas per se, but this is exactly the approach that classical liberals in India should take: Eschew the grand talk, get down to brass tacks, bring out the colour pictures.

An aside: The airconditioning in those tents actually worked wonderfully well. Who woulda thunk it?

Previously on Viewfinder

We are All Gamblers

Homeopathic Faith

Give Me 10,000 Hours

Match ka Mujrim

The Man with the Maruti 800

Internet Hindus and Madrasa Muslims

The Hazards of Writing a Column

Posted by Amit Varma on 19 June, 2010 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | Viewfinder


We Are All Gamblers

This is the seventh installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India.

Atish is 24, tall, dark, okay-looking, middle-class and drunk at this suburban pub in Andheri. He sees a pretty girl across the room, sitting with her friends, sipping on a cocktail, and the way she smiles is so beautiful, he cannot take his eyes off her. He has met her once before, at a friend’s party, but he cannot remember her name. He found her attractive then; he aches with longing now. Maybe it’s the beers—or maybe, he thinks, destiny. She gets up to go to the salad bar. She glances at him once—her eyes linger for a second longer than they should, and then she looks away. This is the moment to go up to her, reintroduce himself, and make casual conversation. Will he make a fool of himself, or will this be the start of something beautiful? He weighs up the odds, and decides that he has more to gain than lose. He gets up and walks towards her.

Two tables away, Mr Chaddha is nursing a glass of Black Label, along with grievances that carry a stronger aftertaste. His friend, Mr Bhatia, told him three months ago that he had inside information about a company whose stock was sure to take off, that it was the right time to buy. Mr Chaddha parked 16 lakh rupees in that stock. That investment is now worth 3 lakhs. Mr Bhatia also lost money, and was last seen muttering about ‘black swan events’ and suchlike. Mr Chaddha wishes he had invested in a mutual fund instead. Little does he know that he will do so and, a year later, regret it as bitterly. The scotch will continue to flow, as inevitable in Mr Chaddha’s life as shehnai at an Indian wedding.

As Atish walks towards the salad bar and Mr Chaddha looks into his glass of whisky, Meena walks past outside. Meena is 21, dusky, tall for a girl, graceful, a little introverted, a journalist. She has always liked to write, and her first poem as a child was: “My mommy, she has lovely hair/ My daddy is a grizzly bear/ My sister’s skin, I love to touch/ I love them very, very much.” She was seven then, and 14 years later, she decided that she did not want to get married so young, that she did not need to walk around a fire seven times to have sex with young men, and that she wanted to be a journalist in Mumbai. So she fought with the grizzly bear and made her mother with lovely hair cry, and landed up in Mumbai, where she got a job in a women’s magazine. As she walks past, she is thinking of how much she hates her boss, her job, the lecherous peon in office named Mishra, and these new shoes of hers that are biting her feet as if in mockery. But it could be worse. She could be trapped in a bad marriage like her friend Geeta, whose husband beat her up last Thursday and, when Meena reacted in horror on the phone, said, “Maybe it’s my fault, maybe I did something wrong.” Who wants to live like that?

Decisions, decisions, choices, choices. Every day in a hundred different ways, we gamble with our lives. We weigh up the odds, calculate pros and cons, and choose which way to act.

Atish’s decision to go and talk with that pretty girl is, to my mind, not very different from a poker player’s decision to bet half the pot when he sees he has middle pair on the flop. Mr Chadda’s investment decisions occupy the same moral and mathematical space as a punter who lays a bet on all odd numbers between 13 and 24 on the roulette wheel. Meena is thinking about giving in to her parents by moving back home to Chennai, but continuing to be a journalist there, which on a Blackjack table could be considered ‘surrender’. In the casino of life, they are all gamblers—and so are we.

This is why I am outraged that ‘gambling’ is banned in India. Firstly, such a ban is morally wrong. If an adult makes a decision about a particular course of action, or two consenting adults enter into an arrangement about anything at all without infringing the rights of anyone else, it should be nobody’s business but theirs. The government is violating their rights by getting in the way.

Secondly, such a ban is hypocritical. We already allow most forms of gambling, so to ban just a few makes no sense. Investing in stocks, for example, is as risky for the average investor as most things you could do in a casino. All the governments that have refused to legalize gambling have themselves gambled consistently: consider the Emergency, the politicisation of the Mandal Commission Report, the BJP’s decision to stick with Narendra Modi after Gujarat, and the decision of the UPA to push away the Left Front so that the nuclear deal could proceed. Some of these backfired, some did not, and some are still open to interpretation. But these were all gambles by governments that don’t allow gambling.

What sense does that make?

In these modern times, government should exist to serve us, not rule us. Yet, our government routinely behaves as if we are mere subjects. It patronisingly tells us that we are not mature enough to decide many things for ourselves, and furthermore, should not have the right to do so. It censors the films we watch, even the adult ones. It limits our freedom of speech so that we don’t offend anyone, as if we are children in a playground. Besides taxing us prohibitively, it does not allow us to decide what to do with our money. What business is it of any government if I wish to bet on the outcome of a cricket match or at a Blackjack table?

Besides the moral argument, there is also a practical case for legalizing gambling. When you outlaw what is essentially a victimless crime, such as gambling, you don’t finish it off, you merely drive it underground. Gambling thrives in every city and town of India, but is run furtively from shady rooms by unaccountable operators. Often, it runs on trust, and no one gets ripped off. But where it gets most lucrative, the underworld is involved, and things get dicey. If gambling was legal, and the entities that ran it were as respectable as HSBC or Kotak Mahindra, I doubt there would be matchfixing scandals. There would be transparency, accountability, and though my libertarian friends will hate me for saying this, I would not object to regulatory oversight by the government. The incentives of the operators would then change, as would those of punters, who would no longer need to be underground with the underworld.

The other practical reason for legalizing gambling is the revenues this would bring the government. Ten years ago, it was estimated that “during an India-Pakistan match over Rs 10,000 crore is reportedly generated in the country.” A tax of 5% of that comes to Rs 500 crore for just one day. I have heard estimates of the amount of betting during the IPL that dwarf this. And these figures are just for cricket. I’m willing to wager, if I am allowed to, that if the government legalized all forms of gambling, and taxed them conservatively, it would make enough money from it to cover the expenses of the NREGA. And much more.

To summarize, gambling should be legalized on a matter of principle, because what consenting adults do with their own money should be nobody else’s business. It should be legalized because if it is not, it remains a victimless crime, a category that makes no sense. It should be legalized because doing so reduces the scope of the underworld to exist. And finally, it should be legalized because the revenues that would then go to the government instead of the black economy could fund many of its pet projects. Legalizing gambling is a no-brainer, and I am sure that if the government weighs up the odds, it will see more pros than cons. Will it fight inertia and make this play? I hope it does.

Also read: Laws Against Victimless Crimes Should be Scrapped.

Previously on Viewfinder

Homeopathic Faith

Give Me 10,000 Hours

Match ka Mujrim

The Man with the Maruti 800

Internet Hindus and Madrasa Muslims

The Hazards of Writing a Column

Posted by Amit Varma on 11 June, 2010 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Viewfinder


Homeopathic Faith

This is the sixth installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India.

I was delighted this Monday when my fellow Yahoo! columnist Girish Shahane took on homeopathy in his column ‘Sugar Pills and Skepticism’. It needed to be done, but while I found myself agreeing with much of his piece, I was disappointed by the last paragraph, in which Girish said that he uses homeopathy occasionally, and that it sometimes seemed “to have an effect, particularly with respect to allergies.” This is a fairly common view among many people, who admit that while homeopathy has no scientific foundation, ‘it seems to work’. For many of my friends, this puts homeopathy in the category of things that conventional science can’t explain yet, rather than those that have no scientific basis at all.

I used homeopathy for a few years when I was much younger. I believed then that it worked on me. I still have much fondness for my erstwhile homeopath, who I believe to be neither a fraud nor a fool. And some people close to me still pop sugar pills when they are ill. Yet, I now believe that homeopathy is no less ridiculous than astrology or numerology, and no more scientific than them. I’ve travelled the entire arc of belief when it comes to homeopathy, from an automatic, peer-influenced faith to skepticism to unbelief and contempt—and that is the subject of my column today: why so many people believe in homeopathy even though it is, to put it plainly, nonsense.

I won’t do a detailed debunking of homeopathy here. For that, I refer you to books like Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science and Simon Singh & Edzard Ernst’s Trick or Treatment, as well as this classic talk by James Randi. To summarise, the methodology of homeopathy makes no sense whatsoever, and scientific trials, when carried out with proper rigour, have shown homeopathic medicine to be no better than placebo, the standard for judging the efficacy of any new medicine.

The most bizarre thing about its methodology is the composition of the medicine itself. In homeopathic medicine, the substance being used to treat a patient has to be so diluted that there is generally not a chance that a single molecule of the substance remains in the medicine a patient is taking. In Randi’s video, for example, he displays a homeopathic sleeping aid that contains, as its active ingredient, caffeine. (Homeopaths believe that the substances that cause a particular condition should be used to treat it. Go figure.) The dilution of the caffeine in the medicine: “10 to the power of 1500.”

Randi asked the maths writer Martin Gardner if there was a way of explaining to the layman how much that really was. Gardner explained, “That’s equivalent to taking one grain of rice, crushing it to a powder, dissolving it in a sphere of water the size of the solar system, with the sun at the centre and the orbit of Pluto at the outside, and then repeating that process 2 million times.”

In Bad Science, Goldacre offers another analogy: “Imagine a sphere of water with a diameter of 150 million kilometers (the distance from the earth to the sun). It takes light eight minutes to travel that distance. Picture a sphere of water that size, with one molecule of a substance in it: that’s a 30c dilution.”

By these standards, there are so many impurities in regular drinking water that we are probably being treated for every major disease anyway.

Leave aside methodology. Maybe modern science hasn’t advanced enough, and we just don’t get it. Methodology would not matter if homeopathy actually worked. The standard test in medicine for seeing whether a treatment works is a double-blind placebo-controlled test. In this, patients are randomly divided into two groups, one of which is given the treatment being tested, and the other is given placebo—such as pills that look like real ones, but are actually inert. Neither the patients nor the doctors know which group is getting the treatment and which the placebo (that’s why it’s ‘double-blind’), thus eliminating psychological biases on their part. The mere belief that they are being treated often helps patients, so the true test for a treatment is if it can do better than placebo.

Homeopathy has failed such trials consistently. (Bad Science covers this subject in some depth, and also explains why some of the trials homeopaths claim have been successful have had methodological flaws, and suchlike.) There was a time when I wanted to believe the damn thing worked—but there is no evidence of it.

That brings us back to belief. Why do so many immensely smart people around us believe that homeopathy works if it does not? Surely they can’t all be deluded?

One reason why homeopathy seems to work on so many people is the aforementioned placebo effect. This is a remarkably powerful phenomenon, one that medical scientists are still studying with wonder. In Bad Science, Goldacre wrote about Henry Beecher, an American anaesthetist who operated on a soldier with “horrific injuries” during World War 2, using salt water instead of morphine, which was not available. It worked. Similar stories abound through the history of medicine, and the placebo effect is an established part of medical science. If you believe you are taking medicine, that belief itself might help you get better, and you will naturally ascribe the recovery to the medicine you took. This is why, for any medicine to get the approval of the scientific establishment, it has to be shown to be better than placebo—otherwise what’s the point?

There is also a phenomenon called regression to the mean which comes into play. Many diseases or physical conditions have a natural cycle—they get worse, and then they get better, quite on their own. This can be true of backaches, migraines, common colds, stomach upsets, practically anything non-major. If you take homeopathy during the course of this, and you get better, you might well ascribe causation where there is only correlation, and assume the medicine did it. As Simon Singh puts it, you may take homeopathy for a cold or a bruise, and “recover after just seven days instead of taking a whole week.” And there you go, you’re a lifetime fan of Phos 1M right there. (This is known as the Regressive Fallacy.)

I suspect this was one reason homeopathy became popular in the first place. Back in the 19th century, conventional medicine was in its infancy, and as Goldacre wrote in his book, “mainstream medicine consisted of blood-letting, purging and various other ineffective and dangerous evils, when new treatments were conjured up out of thin air by arbitrary authority figures who called themselves ‘doctors’, often with little evidence to support them.”

Indeed, seeing a doctor or visiting a hospital probably increased your chances of dying. Atul Gawande, in his book Better, tells us in another context that in the mid-19th century, at the hospital in Vienna where the doctor Ignac Semmelweis worked, 20% of the mothers who delivered babies in hospitals died. The corresponding figure for mothers who delivered at home: 1%. The culprit: infections carried by doctors who did not wash their hands. (Semmelweis tried to reform the system and was sacked.) This, then, was the state of mainstream medicine when homeopathy began gaining in popularity. In contrast, homeopathy was harmless, would not make you worse or give you an infection and kill you, and if you recovered in the natural course of things, you would give it the credit and tell all your friends about it. The growth of the system, I say with intended irony, was viral.

When it comes to any kind of belief, the confirmation bias comes into play. If we use homeopathy, we do so because we are inclined to believe in it, and our ego gets tied up with that belief. After that, we ignore all evidence that it doesn’t work, and every time we pop a few sugar pills and get better, we give homeopathy the credit. Also, the fact that so many other believers exist reinforces our own belief, for all these people surely can’t be wrong.

In a way, belief in homeopathy is similar to religious belief. (Yes, I’m an atheist as well.) I don’t berate my religious friends for their beliefs, because even though they might be wrong, there is often comfort in that kind of wrongness, especially when dealing with issues of mortality and insignificance. Similarly, if someone I know wants to pop homeopathic pills for a stomach ache or a common cold, I’ll let them be, both because of the power of the placebo effect, and because they’re likely to get better on their own anyway. (Also, I’d rather see them taking sugar pills than, say, antibiotics for something so trivial.)

But just as religious belief can be taken too far, so can homeopathic faith. When people treat serious ailments with sugar pills instead of proper medicine, matters get problematic - especially if they force such treatment on others, such as the Aussie homeopathy lecturer Girish wrote about and I’d blogged about once, who killed his daughter by insisting that her eczema be treated with homeopathy alone. That demonstrates that while blind faith may have its consolations, it can be lethal when taken too far. If only it could be given a homeopathic dilution.

Previously on Viewfinder

Give Me 10,000 Hours

Match ka Mujrim

The Man with the Maruti 800

Internet Hindus and Madrasa Muslims

The Hazards of Writing a Column

Posted by Amit Varma on 04 June, 2010 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Old memes | Astrology etc | Science and Technology | Viewfinder


Give Me 10,000 Hours

This is the fifth installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India.

I don’t watch much television—some cricket once in a while, and Bigg Boss when it is in season, for its unwitting insights into human nature. But one of the shows I do follow regularly when it is on, and am a bit of a fanboy of, is American Idol. A few hours ago I saw the final two contestants, Lee DeWyze and Crystal Bowersox, battle it out for the crown. They’re two of my favourite AI contestents ever, and I’m convinced both will have glorious careers, regardless of who wins. (The winner hasn’t been announced at the time of writing this.) And Bowersox blew me away with her final song of the day, a cover of Patty Griffin’s “Up to the Mountain”.

“Up to the Mountain” is inspired by Martin Luther King’s classic “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” speech, which he delivered in 1968 the day before he was assassinated. It’s a powerful song, and has been brilliantly performed in the past by the likes of Solomon Burke, Kelly Clarkson, Susan Boyle and Griffin herself. Bowersox’s version lived up to all that. The emotion in her singing was palpable, and she barely held back her tears as she improvised and sang the words “It’s been a long time coming….” When I watched it for a third time, discreetly wiping a tear because men are not supposed to be moved unless by force, I wondered whether, while rehearsing the song, the thought struck Bowersox that it had been a long time coming for her as well.

Bowersox has been a musician since childhood. She was used to public performances as a kid (such as this one, at age 13), and used to busk at train stations in Chicago as she grew older to support herself. She wrote and recorded a bunch of stirring songs, some of which are up on You Tube. (Check out “Farmer’s Daughter” and “Holy Toledo”.) She had years of struggle and music behind her before she decided to take part in AI, partly so that she could give her child a better future. (She is a single mother.) She had paid her dues.

Talent shows such as AI are often portrayed as platforms where great natural talent is discovered and nurtured and allowed to bloom. But Bowersox’s story is actually typical of the great singers it has showcased. Kelly Clarkson was singing seriously from the time she was in school, and performed in a number of musicals. Carrie Underwood performed prolifically as a kid, and almost got a record contract with Capitol Records at the age of 13. Adam Lambert did musical theatre from before he reached his teens. Clay Aiken sang in school and church choirs, performed in musicals, and had his own band. Chris Daughtry, David Cook, Fantasia Barrino: they all started young, they all paid their dues.

You’ll find the same phenomenon in pretty much any talent show, anywhere. Natural talent alone isn’t enough to make you good. You have to work damn hard, and practice damn hard. Some researchers have even put a number to how many hours of practice you need to achieve excellence: 10,000 hours.

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell cites a study conducted in the early 90s by the psychologist K Anders Ericsson at the Berlin Academy of Music, which was renowned for its training program for violinists. Gladwell writes, “With the help of the Academy’s professors, they [Ericsson and his colleagues] divided the school’s violinists into three groups: [...] the world-class soloists ... the merely ‘good’ ... [and] students unlikely to ever play professionally. All of the violinists were then asked the same question: over the course of your entire career, ever since you first picked up the violin, how many hours have you practised?”

After doing the match, the study found that “the elite performers had each totaled ten thousand hours of practice… the merely good students had totaled eight thousand hours, and the future music teachers had totaled just over four thousand hours.” The part of the study that I find astonishing is that not only did all the top performers have over 10,000 hours of practice to their credit, but everyone who put in 10,000 hours was a top performer. The key to excellence was not natural talent, but hard work. (Caveat: this is not to say that talent doesn’t matter at all. Firstly, as the researchers pointed out, there was a minimum level of talent required to get into the Academy. Secondly, a completely untalented musician would probably not get the positive feedback for his work that would motivate him to put in 10,000 hours in the first place.)

Ericsson and his colleagues elaborated on their theory at some length in their famous paper, “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance” (pdf link). Gladwell, illustrating it in his book, turned to examples like the Beatles, who spent months doing live shows in Hamburg long before they made it big, and Mozart, who, for all his prodigiousness, was composing since early childhood before he produced his first acknowledged masterwork at the age of 21—around the time he might have been winning American Idol if he was a singer who lived in our times.

The 10,000-hour rule might seem a bit pat, in terms of the number itself, but the general principle, that hard work matters far more than talent, is one I find credible. Look at our own geniuses, here in India: Sachin Tendulkar might have been born with a special talent, but the most memorable stories of his younger years are those that speak of his hard work: he would spend hours at the nets, perfecting his cricketing reflexes, and would get his coach, Ramakant Achrekar, to ferry him around on his scooter from one match to the other so he could play as much cricket as possible in a day. Another genius, AR Rahman, was a keyboardist in Ilaiyaraaja’s troupe at the age of 11, and played and arranged music for a number of bands in his youth. At the time Roja released, in 1992, he had been in the music business for 15 years. I suspect if you ask them to comment on this, they would agree that if you take away the toil, the 10,000 hours, they would never have made it here.

I feel a personal connection with the 10,000-hour-rule, for it holds true not just for geniuses, but for anyone who wants to improve his skills at anything. Given a certain baseline of talent, it really is hard work alone that makes the difference. (And luck: being in the right place at the right time. But that’s an uncontrollable element.) Ordinarily, this would have been bad news for someone like me a few years ago, aspiring to be a writer but as lazy as a brick. I was lucky, though, that the internet came of age with me, and I started blogging when I did. Blogging was fun, and never felt like work. Motivated by a growing readership, and the pleasing validation it brought, I blogged voraciously, averaging about five posts a day on India Uncut for the first four years of my blogging life. (I’ve gotten tardy, and barely manage that many in a week these days, a matter I intend to remedy.) I’ve lost count of how many posts I’ve written, across blogging platforms, but my last estimate was over 8000. Put it together with the journalism I did, the columns and suchlike, and that’s a hell of a lot of hours. I didn’t realise it at the time, but looking back at my earlier writing, much of which makes me cringe, the 10,000 hours I metaphorically put in made me a vastly better writer than I was. (This is relative, of course, and maybe ten years later I’ll read this piece and cringe.) I’m far from being the only writer to benefit from blogging: close to home, the lucid prose of Annie Zaidi’s recent book, “Known Turf”, surely owes a debt to her many years of blogging over at her blog, Known Turf.

At one level, the central point of this piece seems obvious. Of course hard work is important: that isn’t rocket science, and we don’t need an academic study or my anecdotal endorsement to tell us that. Nevertheless, practically every day I come across the attitude that ‘talent’ brings with it an entitlement to fame and recognition. (It is mostly the untalented who have this attitude, ironically enough.) I see this in talent-show auditions, where people sing all flat and besura, and act outraged when they are rejected. I see this when young people ask me for advice on how to become better writers, and are surprised when I say ‘read and write as much as possible’. (A good writer must be a good reader, so you need 10k hours of reading as well.) I know writers who have written one book and will never write another because now that they haven’t been acclaimed as geniuses, what’s the point in writing any more? I sit in the local Barista at Versova and see the Bollywood wannabes all around me, the self-conscious actors, the scriptwriters bent over their laptops, and so often I overhear them cribbing about how their talent gets such a raw deal. Well, maybe sometimes it does.

And sometimes, you have to keep at it.

*  *  *  *

Whoops. As I’m getting ready to wind it up and send in my piece, I read that Lee DeWyze has just been crowned the new American Idol. Good for him. He’s no overnight success either, having released three indie albums before he made it big here. Star World shows AI episodes three days late, so rather than wait, I will now start downloading this final episode. Given the perilous state of my allegedly broadband connection, I can only hope it doesn’t take 10,000 hours.

Previously on Viewfinder

Match ka Mujrim

The Man with the Maruti 800

Internet Hindus and Madrasa Muslims

The Hazards of Writing a Column

Posted by Amit Varma on 28 May, 2010 in Arts and entertainment | Essays and Op-Eds | Personal | Viewfinder


India Doesn’t Need Olympic Pride

A shorter version of this piece was published in Friday’s edition of The Wall Street Journal Asia.

It was a gunshot heard across a subcontinent. On Monday, Abhinav Bindra, a 25-year-old shooter from India, took aim for his final shot in the 10-meter air rifle event at the Olympic Games. The pressure was intense, but Mr Bindra shot an almost-perfect 10.8 to win the gold medal. His fans and supporters jumped up in delight in the stands, as wild celebrations began across the country. India’s 24-hour news channels became 24-hour Bindra channels, and there was much talk of national pride.

Mr Bindra’s achievement warrants such celebration. On a national level, this was, astonishingly, the first gold medal India has won in an individual sport in any Olympics. And on the more important personal level, it was a testament to the years of single-minded hard work Mr Bindra dedicated to his sport. Not surprisingly, the government immediately took credit for his achievement.

India’s sports minister, Manohar Singh Gill, came on television and said, “I congratulate myself and every other Indian.” But while India’s shooting association is better than most of the bodies that run sport in the country, it was Mr Bindra’s family that enabled his success. Mr Bindra was lucky that his father is an industrialist who dipped into his personal wealth to support his son. He built a shooting range for Abhinav in his farmhouse in Punjab, and made sure he never ran out of ammunition, which is not made in India and has to be imported.

India and China are studies in contrast. The full might of the Chinese state goes into creating sportspeople who will bring it pride. The Indian government, on the other hand, does a pathetic job of administering sports in the country. Rent-seeking bureaucrats run the various sporting federations – or ruin them, as some would say. A great illustration of this is hockey, a sport once dominated by India, which failed to qualify for Bejing. Even though there is no Indian hockey team at these Olympics, four hockey coaches have duly made their way to Beijing. Franz Kafka would feel at home as an Indian sports journalist today.

Most of India’s finest sportspeople are self-made athletes who owe nothing to the system – Viswanathan Anand, the world chess champion, is a case in point. The sport where India has been most successful, cricket, is not administered by the government. Surely, nationalists would argue, there is a case to be made for pumping more money into our sport.

Such arguments are wrong. India’s leaders need to have a clear sense of priorities, and there are two things they would do well to consider. One, despite the gains sections of our economy have made since the liberalization of 1991, India remains a desperately poor country. Two, unlike China, India is democratic, and its government thus carries a certain responsibility towards its people, and the taxes it collects from them.

Any money that the government spends on sport could be better spent on building infrastructure: roads, ports, power-generating units etc. It would also do a lot of good simply left in the hand of the taxpayers, who would then spend it according to their own individual priorities. Hundreds of millions of Indians are forced to part with their hard-earned money through direct or indirect taxes, and it is perverse if that money is spent towards something as nebulous as an outdated notion of national pride.

For too long now, India has been an insecure nation craving validation from the West. Even many of us who speak of India as a future superpower have one ear cocked towards the west, straining to hear similar forecasts in a foreign accent, ignoring the condescension that such pronouncements sometimes carry. Similarly, we look to the sporting arena for affirmation of our self-worth. That attitude might have been understandable during the days of the cold war – but it no longer is.

Sport is a zero-sum game – for one nation to win, another must lose. But real life is non-zero-sum, and nothing demonstrates the win-win game of life as well as globalisation, with nations (and individuals) trading with each other to mutual benefit. In these times, it is clear we do not need Olympic medals to be a great nation, but economic progress that all Indians have access to. It is beyond the scope of this piece to spell out the many reforms that are needed for that happen – but spending taxpayers’ money responsibly is a key part of the puzzle.

I shall go against the prevailing wisdom, then, and say that I don’t mind if our government spends less money on sport, or even none. Where will our Olympic medals come from then, you ask (as if the last few decades have brought us a slew of them). Well, lift enough people to prosperity, and the sporting laurels will roll in. Ask Abhinav Bindra.

Posted by Amit Varma on 18 August, 2008 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Old memes | Taxes | Sport


Quizzing is Not Just a Trivial Pursuit

This piece of mine was published on Sunday (June 29) in Mail Today.

It’s Sunday, and you’ve had enough of boring op-eds and opinion pieces all week. So let me start this piece with a quiz question about cards: In Texas Hold’em Poker, which hand is known as ‘six tits’? 

If you don’t know the answer, I encourage you not to shift your eyes to the end of the piece, where I reveal all. Just look at the question one more time: as the Beatles would say, you can work it out. 

Every two Sundays, a diverse group of people meet in an office in a Mumbai suburb and ask each other questions like this. They are the Bombay Quiz Club (BQC), a group I co-founded on April Fool’s Day, 2006. Most Indian cities have clubs with a much older pedigree – the Karnataka Quiz Association of Bangalore celebrates its 25th anniversary today, and the K Circle of Hyderabad predates that by a decade. But the kind of quizzing all these clubs do is rather different from what most Indians understand of the term.

Workoutable

To most Indians, quizzing is about knowledge. You are asked a question: you either know it or you don’t. If you don’t, the quiz is terribly boring. There might be drama about who is winning or losing, but beyond that narrative, your brain isn’t being made to work. You might as well watch a soap opera.

But attend a quiz by the BQC or by any of these other quizzing clubs and you’ll find a different dynamic at play. You will find that the quizzing they do is not so much about knowledge but about problem solving. Even if you don’t know a question, you can still work it out by clues given in the question. Sure, you still need to know things: but if you’re intelligent and have a basic interest in the world, you have a crack at solving any question. A 100-question quiz then becomes not a boring event where you know some things and are clueless about others, but a challenge in which you try to solve 100 brainteasers, often with the help of team-mates in a collaborative process that is immense fun.

For example, here’s a question I asked in a quiz last year: “X is a unit of hype. One kiloX is equal to 10.42 days. One MegaX is equal to 28.5 years. What is X, and why is it so called?”

When I asked this question, I also advised the teams to use their calculators. The team that cracked it was the one that figured out that X was equal to 15 minutes. The answer, then, was obviously Warhol, who had famously said: “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” Now think of what a boring question this would have been if I had simply asked: “What is the unit of hype?”

Eureka!

Every well-framed quiz question should lead to a Eureka moment. You are asked a question, you search it for clues, one teammate suggests one strand of thought, another suggests an alternative, you rack your brains and suddenly it all falls into place. My friend J Ramanand, the last man to win Mastermind India, expressed it beautifully when he wrote: “Working out answers is sometimes like tugging at the loose thread in a sweater. A decent yank & the whole thing unravels magically.”

To illustrate this, here’s a question framed by the quizzer Arun Simha: “H0H 0H0” is a postal code used by Canada Post for routing letters sent in Canada to which person?”

The question is bewildering – until one notices that H0H 0H0 can also be read as Ho Ho Ho. Yank that and you come to Santa Claus. (Jabba the Hutt is also associated with that laugh, but any reasonable quizzer would eliminate that option, for why would Canada Post care about Jabba the Hutt?)

Here’s another question, framed by a BQC quizzer, Sumant Srivathsan: “If ‘three short - three long - three short’ (. . . - - - . . .) is Morse code for SOS, where would you be most likely to come across ‘three short - two long - three short’?” 

The ‘three-shorts’ are the clue. Clearly the second code stands for S-something-S, and when you work that out, you start thinking of what the missing letter could be. M? SMS? And then you remember the default Nokia ringtone for incoming messages (“beep-beep-beep, beeeep-beeeep, beep-beep-beep”) and the answer falls into place.

Imagine how boring the question would be if it was framed thus: “In morse code, which letter does ‘two long’ stand for?” Or “What is the default Nokia ringtone for incoming messages inspired by?”

I was recently asked by a friend, whose only acquaintance with quizzing is via Kaun Banega Crorepati, how I prepare for a quiz. The answer, of course, is that one can’t prepare for this kind of quizzing. Schoolkids may buy Malayalam Manorama and learn capitals and currencies, but the best quizzers are simply people who live life fully. They show an interest in the world around them; they read a lot; they watch films and listen to music; they are culturally aware; they keep in touch with the news. And when quiz questions pop up that touch on any of those areas, they have a chance at cracking it, even if they don’t know the funda behind the question.

Ah, fundas! Quizzers use that term a lot. What does it mean? Loosely speaking, a funda is an interesting fact at the heart of a question. Every good question contains a little nugget that tells you something you didn’t know already. Sometimes this is trivial, sometimes not. But the net effect of a good quiz with solid fundas is that you end the quiz not just entertained by it, but also more knowledgeable about the world in a meaningful way.

Connect

A connect question in a quiz is one in which you are asked to find the common thread running between a few different elements: four visuals, say, or a video, an audio and a picture, and so on. But, in a way, all of quizzing is about connecting. We look for something in the question that we are asked that we can connect with the world we know. And when a funda is new to us, it expands that world. If it’s interesting, it might even increase out interest in a particular area of knowledge. We might finish a quiz wanting to see a certain film or read a particular book, or simply looking at something in an entirely new way. To extend Ramanand’s analogy, after we yank the thread and the sweater unravels, we find other uses for that wool. 

So the next time you’re playing poker on a Sunday and your opponent beats you with a hand that has three queens in it, congratulate him (or her) for holding six tits. Then walk right out and find a good quiz to take part in. It’ll be worth your while.

*  *  *

I’ve earlier written on this subject here: The Joys of Quizzing. Also check out this three part primer by J Ramanand and Niranjan Pednekar: 1, 2, 3.

I do all my quizzing at quizzes organised by the Bombay Quiz Club, and if you’re in this city and would like to try out quizzing, please do. For other cities, check out the KQA (Bangalore), K Circle (Hyderabad), Boat Club Quiz Club (Pune), QFI (Chennai) and the Qutab Quiz Club (Delhi).

More more essays and op-eds by me, click here.

Posted by Amit Varma on 02 July, 2008 in Essays and Op-Eds | Personal


What’s Consolation For An Atheist?

This piece of mine was published this Sunday (June 15) in Mail Today.

Even an atheist is tempted to believe sometimes. My mother died about three weeks ago, losing a long battle to cancer, and I found myself faced with false consolations. Ma had been a believer, and the others in my family also tend that way. They could console themselves with the thought that there might be an afterlife, that perhaps she was now in “a better place.” Friends who came to see us told us that they were praying for her soul, and that God had been merciful to her, and that it could have been worse. All this was useful for others – but not believing in God or souls, I had to deal with death as death.

I’ll come to terms with my mother’s death – with some sorrow, one moves on. But I think about my own, and that is harder. If I cast aside the existence of a higher being, I have to accept my own insignificance in the world, and that when I die, that will be that: no soul, no heaven or rebirth, no greater purpose to my mundane life. At low moments, it makes everything seem pointless. 

And yet, being an atheist is not a choice I have made, choosing one belief system over another. This is because atheism is not about belief at all: it is about the absence of belief.

Nonbelief

Some people think that atheism means believing that there is no God. This is a flawed perception. The primary meaning of atheism that most dictionaries will give you, though there are secondary meanings that have evolved from bad usage, is of “disbelief” in God or a deity. That means that atheists are not people who believe that there is no God, but people who do not believe that there is God. The difference is huge.

The conviction that there is no God is irrational because one cannot prove a negative. (How do you prove that something does not exist?) However, it is entirely rational to not believe in something whose existence has not been demonstrated. I don’t believe in dragons or fairies because no one has yet proved to me that they exist. Ditto God. I am not asserting that God does not exist, but simply saying that I don’t believe in the existence of God because I see no evidence of Him (or Her, or It). This is not a dogmatic position: if you can prove to me tomorrow that God or dragons exist, I will start to believe in them. Until then, I remain in disbelief. That’s atheism.

People often speak of atheism as if it is a movement or an organised belief system – or even a religion of sorts. That is not true. The Economist published a letter from Chad English of Ottawa a few months ago that summed it up well: “Atheism is a religion in the same way that not collecting stamps is a hobby. When you understand why there are no ‘aphilatelist’ conventions, you will understand why atheists don’t congregate.”

Agnosticism

It is a common mistake to view belief in God as running along a continuum in which we have theists (who believe), agnostics (who are undecided) and atheists (who don’t believe). This is based on a misunderstanding of agnosticism, which doesn’t deal with belief at all, but with knowledge. The word ‘agnostic’ is a combination of the Greek α (without) and gnōsis (knowledge), and refers to a person who believes that the truth about something, in this case the existence of God, is unknowable. It has nothing to do with believing or not believing.

Indeed, it is possible to combine agnosticism with either theism or atheism. A believer may choose to believe in God while accepting that some things are fundamentally unknowable. An atheist may agree with that view. I see myself as both an atheist and an agnostic: an atheist because I do not believe in God, as His/Her/Its existence has not been proved; an agnostic because I believe that on this matter, we may never know the truth for sure.

For that reason, I am not militant about my atheism. What other people choose to believe in is none of my business, and I respect their right to their beliefs. But the right to religion does not imply the right to force it on others. I object when people try to coerce others into conforming with their beliefs, believing that their religion gives them the license to infringe on the rights of others. Religion in the private domain and in community settings can be useful, and a force for good, but too often in recent times, it has been used to justify the worst excesses: genocides, riots, terrorism, and all kinds of coercion. We have seen deplorable instances of this from every major religion in the last 100 years (including communism, which relies as much on faith as any God-based belief system). 

Thus, it is not religion per se that is a problem, but our attitudes towards it. The right to religion is a human right that should be contingent, like all other rights, on respecting the corresponding rights of others. But many ‘religious’ people have the arrogance to believe that they, the enlightened, are due special privileges that would otherwise be unjustifiable; and many ‘secular’ people are inexplicably keen to pander to them. This endangers the basis of a free society, where artists have been terrorized into thinking twice before drawing a cartoon of another man’s god or painting another man’s goddess, not by the alleged power of those gods and goddesses, but by the primitive fury of their followers.

Consolation

I may not believe in God, but I have no doubt that belief in God serves a purpose for many people. In primitive times, before we understood what the sun was or why there were eclipses and storms, the world must have appeared a terrifying, bewildering place. Religion offered an explanation for everything, and made us believe that we weren’t as small and insignificant as, well, as we are. Besides rendering the world explicable, it made mortality bearable. When someone close to us died, we could tell ourselves that they were in a better place.

As science has gradually filled up the gaps in our knowledge, the God of the Gaps has shrunk, almost becoming redundant. And while the consolations of belief are useful, I would rather reject those false certainties and look for consolation in smaller, surer things. As Austin Cline once wrote: “A person who truly enjoys and appreciates their life will take pleasure in it and enjoy it regardless of whether any sort of afterlife exists. They might believe in an afterlife and even in some sort of wonderful heaven, but they won’t depend upon the existence of such a heaven in order for their lives to have meaning or purpose.”

*  *  *

I’ve written on this subject a fair bit on my blog; a few posts: 1, 2, 3, 4. If you want to read more about atheism, I can’t think of a better site than About.com’s section on atheism, written by Austin Cline. The left sidebar there has some links to some fine pieces by Cline.

And for more essays and Op-Eds by me, click here.

Posted by Amit Varma on 19 June, 2008 in Essays and Op-Eds | Personal


Some Things I’ll Remember From This IPL

Here’s the latest installment of Over the Wicket, my column for NDTV: The best and worst of the IPL.

The column’s supposed to be fortnightly, but as the IPL just got over, we figured we’d finish off this month’s quota with one burst—thus the two pieces this week.

Posted by Amit Varma on 05 June, 2008 in Essays and Op-Eds | Journalism | Media | Sport | WTF


An IPL XI To Outplay Mars

I’m a huge fan of lists, and there’s one in the latest installment of Over the Wicket, my cricket column for NDTV: An IPL XI To Outplay Mars.

Now I’m going to get withdrawal syndrome.

Posted by Amit Varma on 02 June, 2008 in Essays and Op-Eds | Sport


Accountability and the IPL

Here’s the second edition of Over the Wicket, my fortnightly column for NDTV Convergence: Yes, the IPL really is about accountability.

Related pieces:

The IPL reveals India’s bench strength (May 8, 2008)
Celebrating Twenty20 Cricket (April 20, 2008)
Opportunity, choice and the IPL (March 13, 2008)
There’s Nothing Wrong In Being ‘Commercial’ (Feb 24, 2008)
The Twenty20 Age Begins (Aug 8, 2007)

Posted by Amit Varma on 21 May, 2008 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Sport


We Should Celebrate Rising Divorce Rates

This piece of mine was published this Sunday in Mail Today (pdf link).

We live in times when progress is often denoted in statistical terms: the Sensex rises by this much, the economy grows by that much, inflation is so much, poverty is that much, and so on. In a complex world, any single piece of data always tells just part of the story. So which statistics do a good job of illustrating India’s progress? One very good one, in my view, is the divorce rate.

Divorce rates are going up across India. The figures that exist for our cities and towns show a sharp increase in the last decade or so. Many commentators bemoan this trend, speaking of the breakdown of families, the loss of family values and the influence of the West. But to me, the rising rate of divorces is a trend to celebrate. It is the single best statistical indicator we have of the empowerment of women.

Rising divorce rates tell us one thing for sure: that more and more women are finding the means, and the independence, to walk out of bad marriages and live life on their own terms. If we judge ourselves as a society on the state of our women – and surely that must be a parameter – then this is good news. We do not need to credit either feminism or Western culture for this – the emancipation of women in real terms, across the world, has been enabled by technology, and can be explained most easily with economics.

Economics

In economic terms, the biggest factor behind human progress is the division of labour. If we all hunted our own meat and grew our own food, we’d still be hunter-gatherers. Adam Smith used the example of a pin factory to illustrate how division of labour improves productivity: if one man attempts to make pins all by himself, he might make about one pin a day; but his productivity can increase by as much as five thousand times if every person in the factory focuses on just one aspect of the pin production. This is true of everything in our lives, such as this newspaper you are holding: if every employee of Mail Today set out to write, design and produce the whole newspaper, it would take weeks for each person to put together a single issue, and they would all be substandard in one way or another. Instead, they specialise, and the result is in your hands every day.

Well, in the words of Tim Harford, who devotes an excellent chapter to this subject in his book The Logic of Life, the family is “the oldest pin factory of all.” In old days, before the advent of modern technology, for a single man or woman to earn a living and look after the household all by himself or herself was immensely difficult. It became a little easier if two people came together and split both tasks half and half. But it became exponentially easier if they specialised. For evolutionary reasons, and because women were stuck with child-bearing, it so happened that men traditionally got the role of earning a living while women raised kids and looked after the house. 

These gender roles evolved out of circumstance, and not necessarily because women weren’t capable of earning a living. Indeed, in cases where the wife was better at both earning a living and keeping house, the traditional role allocation would still make sense for them as a unit if the husband was especially bad at housekeeping. (Economists call this “comparative advantage”.) Thus, the incompetence of men at keeping house might have played a greater role in the perpetuation of gender stereotypes than any shortcoming women might have had in the workplace.

These gender roles got reinforced culturally. If men earned a living and women looked after the house, it made economic sense to bring up children to specialise in those areas. Thus, the boys got a better vocational education while the girls were taught to cook. This also reinforced prejudices in the workplace, intimidating women from taking up a profession. Women thus became dependent on men, unable to break out of bad marriages because they simply didn’t have choices available to them. No wonder divorce was so rare.

All this changed in the 20th century. The catalyst for these changes was technology.

Technology

Technology freed women in two ways in the last century. One, household technology made it possible for women to finish off household work quickly, while it was otherwise enormously time-consuming. The cooking range, the microwave, the mixer-grinder, the pressure cooker are all commonplace kitchen items today, but imagine how arduous preparing a meal was before they existed. (It still is in poorer parts of the world and our country, which partly explains why the oppression of women varies with class.) Once these gadgets entered the kitchen, women found themselves with more free time at their disposal, which they could use to take up a job or to get an education.

Two, the pill allowed women to delay child-bearing and plan parenthood. This meant that they could be sexually active without the risk of pregnancy, and thus delay marriage. That allowed them to study further and be as qualified as men for the workforce. And, most importantly, it gave them options.

A qualified woman who chose family over work is much better placed than a woman who hasn’t got any skills to help her earn a living. She has more leverage within the relationship. One, it is easier for her to quit the marriage if she feels unhappy with it. Two, because that option is open to her, her husband cannot take her for granted, and has to treat her better than he otherwise would.

Harford, in his book, points to a study by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers that showed that as states across America passed ‘no fault’ divorce laws, allowing women easier routes to divorce, “domestic violence fell by almost a third.” When incentives were in place for men to behave better, men tended to behave better. Thus, technology not only enabled women to walk out of bad marriages, it also made them more powerful within a marriage.

In India affluence acts, in some cases, as a substitute for technology. In Mumbai, for examples, the typical middle-class house is too small for household devices like washing machines and dishcleaners. But in families that can afford household help, maids take care of those functions, freeing up women’s time in ways that technology does in the West.

Tradition

Families have such sanctity in Indian tradition because until recently, people needed the division of labour that a family provides. Indeed, joint families used to be common here because, when we were a poorer country, they made economic sense. (A common kitchen for 20 people provided economies of scale.) But times have changed, incentives have changed, and to value these things for the sake of tradition alone is irrational. 

As a society, our highest value should be to ensure that every individual has the maximum opportunities possible to find happiness. This means educating our daughters to be independent and removing the stigma that comes from a broken marriage. Every divorce means that two people have a better chance at finding fulfillment than they did in the marriage, and that is surely cause for celebration. In America, divorce rates climbed back down after the surge of the 1970s, mainly because young people took greater care in getting married, and premarital relationships were not considered sinful. Change is happening at different rates across classes in India, and the divorce rate will continue to rise for many, many years. That is a sign of progress, and we should be happy about it.

*  *  *

For more on this subject, I highly recommend checking out the chapter on divorce in Tim Harford’s The Logic of Life. It’s written in an American context but its insights are universal, and it cites a number of studies that you can Google and read for yourself. My review of Harford’s book is here. I’ve also briefly touched on this subject in these two old posts: 1, 2.

For more essays and Op-Eds by me, click here.

Posted by Amit Varma on 19 May, 2008 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Science and Technology


The IPL reveals India’s Bench Strength

I begin a fortnightly column on cricket today for NDTV Convergence called Over the Wicket. Here’s the first installment: The IPL reveals India’s bench strength.

Related pieces:

Celebrating Twenty20 Cricket (April 20, 2008)
Opportunity, choice and the IPL (March 13, 2008)
There’s Nothing Wrong In Being ‘Commercial’ (Feb 24, 2008)
The Twenty20 Age Begins (Aug 8, 2007)

Posted by Amit Varma on 08 May, 2008 in Essays and Op-Eds | Sport


Laws Against Victimless Crimes Should Be Scrapped

This piece of mine was published in today’s edition of Mail Today.

DC Madam is dead

Three days ago, Deborah Jeane Palfrey’s body was found in a shed outside her mother’s home in Tarpon Springs, one of Florida’s top tourist destinations. Palfrey had earlier been convicted of running a “high-priced call girl ring”. She was awaiting sentencing. She did not want to go to jail. A nylon rope was handy.

It’s easy to imagine the emotions that must have run through Palfrey’s mind in her final moments: despair, fear, loneliness. It would be ironic if remorse was one of them. For Palfrey hadn’t harmed anyone. The tragedy of her case is that she was the victim.

The purpose of laws, I think you’d agree, is to protect the rights of individuals, and to punish those who infringe them. Every law that exists should serve these ends. But there is a category of laws, not just in the US but in India and everywhere else, that punish what are called “victimless crimes.” They are used to prosecute people who have harmed no one. They come about because of the universal human tendency to impose our preferences on others. And there is nothing we try to impose as much as our morality.

Read more...

Posted by Amit Varma on 04 May, 2008 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom


Celebrating Twenty20 Cricket

This piece of mine was published in today’s edition of Mail Today.

A few hours before writing this, I tuned in to watch the live telecast of the first match of the Indian Premier League. The Bangalore Royal Challengers took on the Kolkata Knight Riders. The stadium was full. The crowds were screaming. Imported cheerleaders danced. Some young men in the crowd, in their enthusiasm, held up their posters with ‘6’ written on them upside down, so that it now read ‘9’. That was apt. Twenty20 is cricket on steroids.

Purists – and I used to think of myself as one – often speak of Twenty20 cricket disparagingly, as if it has reduced the fine game of cricket to something absurdly simplistic, where sloggers rule, hand-eye co-ordination matters more than finely honed technique, and bowlers are irrelevant. If you’ve been watching, you’ll know that isn’t true. Twenty20 is not a dilution of the game but an intensification of it.

Read more...

Posted by Amit Varma on 20 April, 2008 in Essays and Op-Eds | Sport


There’s No Drama Like American Politics

This piece was published today in Mail Today. Here’s a PDF.

All pundits know that political commentary is best done in hindsight. The ongoing primaries to pick presidential candidates in the USA bear that out. For more than 60 days now, the political stage has been beset by twists and turns that no writer of thrillers would dare use in a novel -which reader could keep track of so much? - and commentators have consistently read the tea leaves wrong, for no fault of their own. The real world is so complicated, with so much happening, that political analysis, when it is not safely in the past tense, is like predicting the weather by doing a survey of how flags are blowing. 

Consider the primaries last week in Ohio and Texas. Hillary Clinton won those two states, thus keeping her campaign alive, and pundits are unanimous in agreement that this is significant for John McCain, who was confirmed as the Republican nominee on that day. But in what way?

It is possible that Clinton’s wins boost McCain’s chances. It ensures that Clinton and Barack Obama stay at each other’s throats for the next few weeks, damaging each other, as the Democratic Party gets more and more polarised internally. If Clinton is the nominee, many Obama followers, disgusted by the tactics of her campaign, won’t vote for her. If Obama is the candidate, many Clinton fans, who have been convinced that he is not worthy of being president, will withhold their vote. Even if they don’t vote for McCain, they do enough damage by not voting at all—such elections often come down to mobilizing the base. 

This holds even if Clinton and Obama are somehow persuaded to come together on the ticket. After projecting himself as a harbinger of change, Obama will lose his campaign’s raison d’etre if he agrees to serve as the vice presidential nominee under someone he has painted as a Washington insider, representative of the same-old same-old. And after banging on for weeks about how Obama isn’t ready to be president, what pitiful rationalisation can Clinton trot out to be his vice-president? 

There is also a view that the ongoing Democratic battle hurts McCain by denying him media attention. All the drama is now in the Clinton-Obama brawl, and that’s what the press will focus on, with McCain delegated to the inside pages. Also, by the time the Democratic nominee emerges, he or she will be battle-tested rather than damaged. 

Both views could be wishful thinking, depending on which camp you’re in. Or they could be sage prognoses. We’ll know later.

Unforeseen

Only a high dose of a potent hallucinogen could have prompted a pundit to predict this scenario just two months ago. McCain, for one, had been out of the reckoning for months. His campaign had imploded around the middle of last year, and Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson and Mitt Romney had led the polls since. Thompson had fallen off a bit, but was the only credible conservative left in the race, while Mike Huckabee made a strong surge in the Iowa polls just before voting season began. Then the planets, no doubt with eyebrows raised, aligned themselves.

As the Economist wrote - in hindsight, of course - for McCain to win the Republican nomination, “Mike Huckabee had to beat Mitt Romney in Iowa, Rudy Giuliani had to pursue a deranged strategy, Fred Thompson had to contract narcolepsy, and the ‘surge’ had to go well.” Check, check, check, check. Send a Hollywood suit such a script and he will reply, “This is too far out, make it real.”

On the Democratic side, Clinton was inevitable before Iowa, and history after she came third there. But then she baffled commentators by winning New Hampshire, which some pundits ascribed to her tears on the campaign trail when asked about how she copes with the rigours of lusting for power. (Well, not those exact words, but you get the drift.) Apparently, she was ‘humanised’ by that.

It had been forecast that Bill Clinton would be Hillary’s biggest strength, but he charged onto the scene and cost her votes. He referred to Obama’s opposition to the Iraq War as a “fairy tale”, and by comparing Obama’s win in South Carolina to Jesse Jackson’s wins there, insinuated that like Jackson, Obama’s appeal was restricted to African-American voters. Condescending to Obama’s supporters wasn’t the smartest thing to do; neither was failing to plan after Super Tuesday, assuming that Clinton would be the nominee by then.

Brawling

Obama won eleven in a row after Super Tuesday, as Clinton became more and more desperate. But Obama was no more an unstoppable force than Clinton had been an immovable object. Clinton needed to win in both Ohio and Texas to stay in the hunt, and a series of events gave her an opening.

First, Obama was caught pandering, which should be as routine for a politician as swimming is for a fish - but voters mind when it is transparent. Free-market supporters had been worried at Obama’s anti-NAFTA rhetoric, and had hoped that he was just pandering to the base, and would shift to more sensible policy talk after he won the nomination. Well, his chief economic adviser, Austan Goolsbee, was revealed to have told a group of Canadian officials exactly this, to assuage their concerns. When the news became public, Obama’s campaign mismanaged it, at first denying that such a meeting took place, which was proven to be false. 

At around this time, Obama’s controversial friendship with a shady Chicago real-estate dealer, Tony Rezko, resurfaced in the media as Rezko went on trial. And Clinton released a rather Republican commercial, claiming that if your kids were asleep at 3am and the phone rang in the White House, you’d want Clinton to pick it up, because she had the experience to deal with it. Obama’s campaign created a brilliant counter to this, pointing out that you’d want the phone to be picked up by someone who had made the right call on the Iraq War - but apparently that wasn’t enough.

Did Clinton win Ohio and Texas because of her negative campaigning, the Obama goof-ups regarding Goolsbee and Rezko, or because of the demographics, which favoured Clinton? Even in retrospect, it is hard to say - and the Obama camp is painting those losses as a victory for him, because he cut Clinton’s double-digit losses to much smaller margins. Still, one thing is clear - barring a miracle, or some seriously mischievous planets, Obama will have won more pledged delegates than Clinton at the end of this. So why is she still in the race?

Endgame

To win the nomination, Clinton will have to convince the superdelegates - Democratic Party officials who will effectively decide the nominee - to ignore the results of the primaries. She can give a number of reasons for this: If she manages to win the popular vote by then, which is possible if she wins the remaining races heavily, she can cite that as a reflection of the popular will; or she can point to the fact that she’s won the bigger states; or she can argue that the states that will be crucial in November are the ones which she has won; or she can point out that many of Obama’s wins came not in the primaries but in the caucuses, which attract a lower turnout and are, thus, ‘less democratic’; or she could ask them to vote with their conscience and select who they personally prefer; or, if push comes to shove, she could speak her mind and point out that she is a Clinton, she’s entitled to power, and anyone who stops her is part of a vast right-wing conspiracy.

Meanwhile, in the midst of the drama of last week, George W Bush endorsed John McCain for president, and no one noticed. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I’m sure the pundits are divided on the matter.

*  *  *

Click here for my posts on politics.

You can read my essays and Op-Eds here.

Posted by Amit Varma on 09 March, 2008 in Essays and Op-Eds | Politics


Politics and the Role of a Lifetime

This piece of mine was published today in the Indian Express.

This year’s Oscars were quite good, weren’t they? For a change, some excellent films got nominated and actually won, with directors taking risks and actors pulling off difficult roles. But the finest acting, the most elaborately constructed show business, was taking place in other parts of America, as Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain hit the campaign trail.

The most important political skill of all is acting. Politics is not about public service, as some people naively think, but about power. All of us lust for power to varying degrees, but politicians are more driven by it than others, by the very nature of their chosen calling. In a democracy, the only way to get power is by appealing to others, to pretend to be what they would like to see in a leader. This requires acting of the highest standards.

I don’t mean that all politicians are necessarily insincere. But there is deception at the heart of the political process, for politicians have to pretend that they want to serve the people, while what they really want is to rule them. Also, the right course of action may not always be the popular one, and to get into a position to do the right thing, politicians have to promise to do the popular thing first. How politicians project themselves in public can never, over the course of a career, be the same as who they truly are.

The American presidential elections are particularly demanding for the thespians who choose to stand. First, in the primaries, they have to appeal to the extreme left and right of the Democratic and Republican parties respectively; then, if they win their party’s nomination, they have to swing to the centre in the main election to appeal to independent voters. Throughout this process, they have to make sure that the roles they adopt don’t clash with things they might have done in the past — their whole lives become, retrospectively, an audition.

There are three ways of failing in a political campaign. One, the block of voters that you choose to appeal to may not be influential enough to win the elections for you. (Think Mike Huckabee, Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul.) Two, you may not act well enough — or someone may play a part that appeals more to the voters you are targeting. (Fred Thompson and John Edwards.) Three, you may not suit the role you choose to play, as it may be inconsistent with your past actions, and would thus lose credibility. (Mitt Romney.)

The survivors at this stage of the elections are politicians who happened to make the right choices, and played their parts exceedingly well. John McCain, a few months ago, seemed to have chosen the wrong strategy. The persona and positions he chose would appeal to independents in the main elections, but seemed certain to hurt him in the primaries. He upset the conservative base of the Republican Party with his positions on immigration and torture. He was lucky that the other candidates were flawed in different ways, and a credible Reaganite conservative never emerged. Also, McCain’s refusal to pander earned him the reputation of being a man of principle and character, which will help him in November.

Barack Obama is now the favourite for the Democratic nomination after a brilliant campaign. He knew that he could not out-wonk Hillary Clinton on issues, so he focussed on persona. His background made him an embodiment of the American Dream, and he projected himself as someone who would transcend the divisive, partisan politics of the last few years. A country tired of political bickering took to him. Obama’s oratory is outstanding, and his consistent refusal to engage in the dirty, negative tactics that typify presidential elections has earned him respect.

Obama also fired up the base with populist rhetoric and leftist policy proposals that had only minor differences with Clinton. She couldn’t take him on when it came to issues, so she projected herself as an experienced warrior, in contrast with the callow Obama. He pointed to her support of the Iraq war, arguing that she might have experience, but he had consistently showed better judgment. He made her seem old, the kind of establishment figure the country was tired of.

If Obama wins the nomination, he may not find the main elections quite so easy. McCain will be shrewd enough to know that he can’t win in a battle of personalities, so he’ll divert attention to the issues. Having pandered to the base with template leftism, Obama will have to convince independent voters at the centre that he is their man. He is such a good performer that he might just pull it off.

*  *  *

Click here for my posts on politics.

You can read my essays and Op-Eds here.

Posted by Amit Varma on 01 March, 2008 in Essays and Op-Eds | Politics


Page 1 of 3 pages  1 2 3 >