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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.


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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

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?

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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.

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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.

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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.


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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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


There’s Nothing Wrong In Being ‘Commercial’

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

Wherever there’s big money floating around, politicians emerge and start squealing. The recent auctions at the Indian Premier League have roused the ire of both the Left and the Right of Indian politics. On the right, the inimitable Balasaheb Thackeray has described the IPL auctions as the “gambling of industrialists”. On the Left, Gurudas Dasgupta is complaining that this will make “every youngster not a good sportsman but a man hungry for money.” 

Sundry politicians and commentators are telling us that this obscene spending will corrupt the spirit of the game, that these players are selling their soul, and so on. They behave as if “commercialization”, a term used repeatedly by shocked observers, is The Great Indian Sin. I have a question:

What, precisely, is wrong with commercialisation?

If Thackeray and Dasgupta pondered the history of human affairs, they would note that human progress is possible only because of the profit motive. The only way to make a profit is to fulfill the desire of fellow humans, by manufacturing goods or providing services that they need. The search for profit fuels innovation and enterprise. It leads to new technologies and better service. People trade to their comparative advantage, they specialize, and this makes economies more productive, and raises everyone’s standard of living.

Without such “commercialisation”, we’d be stuck in the stone age.

Profit

If Thackeray really has a problem with industry - for that is what the industrialists he condemns are all about - then he should step wearing clothes. All the clothes he wears are produced for profit, by industrialists, who clothe him not because they care for him or want to defend Hindu culture, but because he pays them money. How vulgar!

If Dasgupta has a problem with people “hungry for money”, he should immediately go on a fast. The people he gets his groceries from provide it in exchange for money, as do the restaurants that serve him food. There is only one appropriate response to this shocking commercialisation and rampant consumerism: Stop eating.

One blogger bizarrely compared the cricketers up on auction to prostitutes. Firstly, in the absence of coercion, I don’t see what is wrong with prostitution, or why we should look down on prostitutes. Secondly, if selling a service makes one a prostitute, then I am unquestionably a lady of the night, and this is my short, black, leather skirt that you’re reading. We are all whores in our own ways - and there is nothing wrong with that.

Back to the cricket. Besides the mere fact that money is involved, many people are also complaining about the amount of money the cricketers are getting. Some say cricketers should not be so well paid when other sportspeople in this country are so poorly paid. Other say that it is an outrage that Ishant Sharma should get more than Chaminda Vaas, and Rohit Sharma more than Ricky Ponting.

Look, who determines these prices? In the long run, you and I do. The businessmen putting that cash on the table do so because they estimate that those are the returns they’ll get on their investment. Those returns will come from us: We’ll buy the merchandise, we’ll watch the matches - which determine the value of TV rights - and their appeal to us will determine the value of the endorsements that flood in.

What if the team owners are wrong, and overpay for some players? Well, then they’ll duly learn their lessons when their team’s performance doesn’t justify the investment, and their bottomline suffers. What if some players are underpaid? Well, if they perform beyond their renumeration, they’ll receive their rightful value when the transfer season begins.

Twenty20 is a new form of the game, and the IPL is a new venture. It will take some time for the market to start functioning smoothly, and getting the values right. Until then, there is no point begrudging these cricketers their earnings.

The argument that this money would be better spent on other sports is bogus. If you feel Indian football should get more attention than Indian cricket, then here’s what you should do about it: Go out there and watch some local football games. Put your money where your mouth is. If you contribute your eyeballs, advertisers will open their chequebooks. If other sports don’t have a following in India, it is not because people don’t put money into them - it is the other way around.

Competition

Back to the IPL. Despite the BCCI bungling up sp much of the process, I think the IPL, if it succeeds, will be revolutionary. The reason for that is that it introduces into cricket the best guarantee of quality and efficiency: Competition.

The market for cricket has so far been a monopsony: There has been only buyer for a cricketer’s services. An Indian cricketer who wants to play cricket at the highest level can only sell his services to the BCCI, and is dependent of its selectors picking him - an imperfect process open to politics and the whims and fancies of individuals. That will change if the IPL takes off. A young, talented cricketer will have a number of people he can sell his services to, from the Bangalore Royal Challengers to the Delhi Daredevils to the Chennai Super Kings. If he is good, they will compete for him, thus guaranteeing him his true market value.

The BCCI, when it comes to cricket in India, has essentially had a captive market. The IPL teams will have to compete. The competition will threaten their existence, and they will have all the right incentives to excel. They will eschew the local politics of selection. They will search for differentiators in terms of training and scouting new talent. Like some football clubs do in Europe, they might establish youth academies to find and hone new talent. They will do so not out of love or duty to the game, but with regard to their bottomline. Cricket will benefit, as its machinery will flow that much smoother. 

Tests?

For a cricket purist like me, there is a flip side to this: What will happen to Test cricket? If the IPL succeeds, Test cricket will surely suffer. Already, one hears rumours of the ICC schedule being subject to the demands of Lalit Modi and his men. Given the amount of investment, in terms of time, that Test cricket requires from its viewers, it is possible that Test cricket will slowly die out.

Hordes of commentators and politicians will then start squealing about how the demands of the market have killed Test cricket, and how the market is a cruel, malign force.

Personally, I believe that Test cricket will have enough of an audience to survive—even if it ends up being a niche audience. But if it doesn’t, here’s my question: Should people who don’t watch Test cricket be forced to subsidize it? Remember, commerce is all about giving you what you want. If Test cricket dies, the killer won’t be commercialisation, or the IPL, or the greed of businessmen - it will be us.

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Also read:

Dear Navjot Sidhu
The Twenty20 Age Begins

IBNLive and Rediff links via email from Praveen Krishnan.

For more, check out my essays and Op-Eds archive.

Posted by Amit Varma on 24 February, 2008 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Sport


Welcome to the Free World

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

“Where in the world are truly free markets?” a friend asked me the other day. “The kind of economic freedom you libertarians dream of just doesn’t work. Freedom leads to chaos. All markets need to be regulated by the government, which alone can safeguard the interests of the people.”

“Have you been online recently,” I asked.

“Don’t change the subject,” he said.

“I’m not,” I replied.

A couple of years ago, the libertarian blogger Warren Meyer was asked why there were so many, well, libertarian bloggers. His reply, in a nutshell, was that the internet is a libertarian space. “Libertarianism resists organization,” he wrote. Libertarians tend to be “suspicious of top-down organization in and of itself.  Blogging is therefore tailor made for us - many diverse bottom-up messages rather than one official top-down one.”

In many ways, the online world is like the beautifully functioning free market that governments have never allowed in meatspace (the ‘real’ world). To begin with, the government does not pose an entry barrier to individuals who wish to have a presence online. You want to start a blog? It’ll take you three clicks to set one up. You don’t need a license for it, and you won’t have inspectors coming over and scrutinising your methods of work.

The blogosphere is a meritocratic space. Each blog finds the audience it deserves. If you like economics, you’ll find tons of good economics blogs, often much better than anything you’ll see in the mainstream media, because they’re written by specialists, not generalists. You want gardening? Literature? Technology? You’ll find content in any niche you can think of.

There is a lot of junk on the internet, but readers navigate through it easily, and soon settle on a few sites they regularly visit. Information percolates so quickly that a good new blog doesn’t take much time to build a readership. You write something nice, people who like it link to you, their readers check you out, and so it grows. Marketing and hype are generally wasted, and everything is viral. If you provide compelling content, readers come. If you write rubbish, readers go. Competition is the best regulation.

The blogger Ravikiran Rao once speculated on what would happen if the government decided to protect users from “bad blogs”, and regulate blogging. If government babus started deciding what content was appropriate for audiences, good bloggers would be intimidated away, not bothering to enter a space where there were so many hassles. Established bloggers would lobby for regulation to protect them from pesky newcomers. The quality of blogging would go down, not up - and readers would be shortchanged.

Far-fetched? Well, it works that way in many fields - such as, as Rao pointed out in his post, “private schools and educational institutions.” Indeed, in India at least, it is pervasive.

If only our government understood the power of free markets. I wish our bureaucrats read “I, Pencil” by Leonard Read, one of my favourite essays. It is a first-person account by a pencil of its genealogy – and by the end of it, you realise that a mere pencil is such a thing of wonder that no government could have put it together. It takes legions of people, possibly across continents, doing disparate things without knowledge of one another to make sure that when you need a pencil, and go to the shop to pick it up, it’s there. It’s a miracle, almost beyond comprehension, and certainly beyond planning or oversight. It takes a free market, not a benevolent central planner - economists call this process spontaneous order.

The internet benefits from this freedom. Consider Wikipedia, for example. It once used to be laughed at - how can a few volunteers produce better content than experts? - but is now a classic example of what spontaneous order can achieve. It is much broader than the Encyclopedia Britannica, and often deeper as well. It has its own self-correcting mechanisms, and its rules of use have evolved from the bottom up, and not been enforced from the top down. It shows that the voluntary actions of people working towards their self-interest is a far more powerful force than the self-important and sanctimonious supervision of governments. Online, we’re all free.

Supporters of free markets stress on the importance of the rule of law - and the internet is not a lawless zone. The laws of the real world apply to what we do online - sometimes to worrisome effect, as jailed bloggers in countries like Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia have discovered. But on the whole, the internet is free of the kind of needless, suffocating government regulation and barriers to trade that bedevil the rest of the world. Long may it stay that way.

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Also read: In Defence of Blogging.

You can browse through more of my essays and Op-Eds here.

Posted by Amit Varma on 23 February, 2008 in Blogging | Economics | Essays and Op-Eds


Where is Inner-Party Democracy in India?

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

The US primaries have been so much fun to follow over the last couple of months. The candidates of each party have gone from state to state mingling with people, answering questions, making the same speeches over and over again, revealing themselves, attacking others, trying to project themselves as something they aren’t even as 24-hour coverage allows them no time away from the flashbulbs, talking policy, spewing spin, and sometimes, rarely, letting the mask slip to reveal the man or woman behind the brand. There has been heartbreak and drama and tears and bravado and raw, naked ambition. All this to elect, not the president of the United States of America, but the candidates of the two main political parties, which are as democratic as the nation they aim to serve.

Contrast that with India. 

When the time comes to select the leader of the Congress Party, can you imagine Sonia Gandhi going from town to town trying to persuade Congress workers why she is the best person to lead them? Can you imagine LK Advani in a televised debate against Narendra Modi and Uma Bharati? Can you imagine the elite Politburo putting Prakash Karat and Sitaram Yechuri in front of Communist Party workers and saying, “right, choose now.”

There is a cliché that India is the world’s largest democracy. Technically, that is true - there are more voters here than anywhere else in the world. But none of the parties we have to choose from are democratic within. They are feudal beasts. 

History

Ironically, it began thus. Just before India became independent, the Congress Party had to choose a president who would then go on to become India’s first prime minister. That leader was not elected from the bottom, but appointed from the top - Mahatma Gandhi chose Jawaharlal Nehru, and got the other possible contenders, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, to endorse his choice.

In India’s early decades, the Congress enjoyed a large majority by virtue of being a driving force behind India’s independence. Meanwhile, within the Congress, Nehru consolidated his power. Patel died in 1950, C Rajagopalachari, a dissenter when it came to Nehru’s economic policies, was marginalised, and Nehru faced no challenges while he was alive. 

When Nehru died in 1964, no one could have foretold that the Congress would become a feudal party. The main contenders for the prime ministership, K Kamaraj, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Morarji Desai, were all popular leaders in their own right. Shastri got the job, but didn’t live long. Indira Gandhi was appointed prime minister by a group of party heavyweights who thought they could control her. Heh.

A sycophant of Indira Gandhi, DK Barooah, would say years later, “Indira is India and India is Indira.” Well, Indira certainly was the Congress. She took over the party, filled the key positions with her sycophants, and even ran a dictatorship for a couple of years, aided by her son, Sanjay. The Congress became dependent on the charisma of her family and the brand value of her family name. After she died, Rajiv Gandhi took over. After he died, his Italian non-politician widow, Sonia Gandhi refused the job. She eventually returned to it, and her son Rahul is being groomed to take over.

India, meanwhile, has moved on from the Congress. For such a heterogenous country to be so dominated by one party was an aberration, and it will never happen again. Politics in India is now local. People choose their MPs based on local considerations, sometimes at the constituency level, and sometimes at the level of the state. National trends have ceased to matter. The coalitions that come to power after an election may change, but all talk of “the will of the people” is naïve generalization. 

There is no more something like a national mandate. Hundreds of millions of voters vote for hundreds of millions of different reasons. You can spin these reasons, but your spin affects nothing but the gossip of the chattering classes and newspaper columns by pundits.

Fragmentation

One would imagine that if all politics is local, parties are forced to be democratic. Well, here’s an exercise: Go out and try to be a member of the Congress Party. Or the BJP. Or the Shiv Sena. See what happens.

Our political parties are still ruled by closed elites, driving policies from the top rather than having their ear to the ground and listening to the people. Yes, the Congress has lost and lost and lost in the time that Rahul Gandhi has been active. But it is hard to say that the cause of this is the absence of inner-party democracy. Which party is democratic today?

All our politics is identity politics. Politicians go out there claiming to represent different minority groups - for all groups are minority groups in our countries, even Hindus, split by caste and region and language - and get people to vote for them for visceral, emotional reasons. The loyalties they evoke are tribal ones. I am a Dalit and I will look after all Dalits. Or I am a Yadav and I will look after the interest of all Yadavs. Or I am not a Muslim, but I will fight the BJP on the behalf of Muslims, and am the most viable alternative to the BJP out there.

And so on.

So naturally our politics is then feudal. Kanshi Ram becomes larger than life within his party and the groups that feel such tribal loyalty towards him, so his chosen successor Mayawati inherits that mantle. Their parties are their fiefdoms. You will never, I guarantee you, see Mayawati standing for elections within her party.

Obsolescence

India has among the oldest active politicians in the world. Manmohan Singh - nominated to his post by Congress owner Sonia, and not elected to it, for all practical purposes - leads the government at 75; LK Advani, the leader of the opposition, is 80. Contrast these leaders with Gordon Brown (56), Nicolas Sarkozy (53) and Angela Merkel (53). Barack Obama (46) is an embryo compared to our leaders.

The reason for this is obvious. In the absence of robust, inner-party democracy, young leaders find it hard to rise within the system - unless, like Rahul Gandhi, Sachin Pilot, Manvendra Singh, Akhilesh Yadav, Omar Abdullah and Jyotiraditya Scindia, they’re some bigwig’s son taking charge of an inheritance. The old fogeys stay in charge, consolidate their positions, and promote their sycophants. Is there hope for change, then?

I would say there is. We are a maturing democracy, and we are also a growing economy. As we open up to the world, we will become less insecure about our place in it, and more inclusive of new ideas and values. Identity politics will slowly become less pervasive, and people will demand more from their politicians. Their politicians will have to adapt to them.

The political parties who don’t listen to market signals will wither away. The ones that do will profit. And one day, I wishfully think, Indian parties will have elections as vibrant and democratic as the two large parties in America. Would you like to see that? 

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Check out more essays by me in my essays and Op-Eds archive.

Posted by Amit Varma on 10 February, 2008 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics


Profit’s No Longer a Dirty Word

The Library of Economics and Liberty (or econlib.org) is one of my favourite websites, and has many superb essays on economics. I’m happy to say that an essay I’ve written for them has been published today: Profit’s No Longer a Dirty Word: The Transformation of India. Do read.

Posted by Amit Varma on 05 February, 2008 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics


India’s New Role Models

This piece of mine was published today in the Wall Street Journal Asia.

Twenty years ago, no one could have imagined that four of the 10 richest chief executives in the world could be Indian. But Forbes recently released a top-10 list showing how much India has changed. Lakshmi Mittal, the steel tycoon, was ranked second, followed by Mukesh Ambani (sixth), Anil Ambani (seventh) and Azim Premji (ninth); Warren Buffett came in first.

One can quibble with how the list was compiled, but there is no doubt that India has become a force in the world of business. The leading bidders for Jaguar and Land Rover are the Indian automobile companies Tata Motors on one hand, and Mahindra and Mahindra on the other. In 2006, Mr. Mittal brought the European steel behemoth, Arcelor, into his empire. Last year, the Tata Group took over Britain’s Corus, another large producer of steel.

Just as significant as the success of Indian businessmen abroad is a shift in the way they are viewed at home: The biggest names in Indian business are among the biggest heroes of India. The society pages of newspapers show them at parties, the gossip columns feature them, and young men and women name them as their icons, even as those youths prepare for their own MBA entrance exams.

It wasn’t always like this. In the early decades of our independence, businessmen were not looked upon highly. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, famously once told the business tycoon J.R.D. Tata that “profit” was “a dirty word.” Indian films routinely portrayed businessmen as evil capitalists out to exploit the poor. Ironically for a country that was so poor, the pursuit of wealth was looked upon with suspicion.

Mr. Mittal had to leave India to build his empire. Dhirubhai Ambani, Mukesh and Anil’s father, built his business by manipulating the system in the finest traditions of cronyism. The businesses that did exist were protected from competition by the high entry barriers placed by the government, at the cost of consumers.

All this changed when India liberalized in 1991. As India opened up to the world, its entrepreneurs sprang into action. The middle class grew, the quality of life in cities improved, and tens of thousands of young men and women went abroad as the software industry boomed. Indians realized that free enterprise was providing them with the opportunities they had lacked in the socialist years.

Consider that earlier this year, Ratan Tata, the successor to J.R.D. Tata’s empire and the chief of Tata Motors, unveiled the Nano—a car expected to retail for approximately $2,500. Some complained about the increase in pollution that it might cause, and other worried that it would add to traffic congestion in big cities. But most of India applauded.

Mr. Tata’s ingenuity and vision will bring vehicle ownership within reach of millions of people who could otherwise have never dreamed of it, and it demonstrates what business does best—improve the lives of people, and help them fulfill their dreams, all in the quest of that “dirty word,” profit.

The heroes of the old India were film stars, cricket players and, perhaps, freedom fighters and politicians. The heroes of the new India include businessmen. In 2003, when MTV India held a poll among its predominantly young viewers to pick the Icon of the Year, Anil Ambani won. The people he beat included filmstar Shah Rukh Khan and cricket hero Sachin Tendulkar.

India’s successful businessmen, even as they enter lists such as the one compiled by Forbes, embody the hopes of their country more than their elected government possibly can. India is finally beginning to give them their due.

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For more such pieces by me, check out my Essays and Op-Eds archive.

Posted by Amit Varma on 01 February, 2008 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | WSJ Pieces


We Indians Are Proud Of All The Wrong Things

This piece of mine appeared today in Mail Today.

Sometimes satire simply cannot keep up with real life. A few days ago I read a piece in the Indian Express about a 28-year-old gentleman based in Bhopal named Prakash Kumar Thakur. Thakur specialises in persecuting those who ‘insult’ India’s national flag. He recently filed a court case against Sania Mirza because she was photographed with her feet on a table on which the Indian flag was also kept. The case was filed under something called - I’m not making this up - the Prevention of Insult to the National Honour Act.

The maximum sentence under this act is three years in jail. A distraught Mirza reported that she considered quitting her sport. Thakur reacted to that response by calling it “emotional blackmail.”

Thakur, the report tells us, had earlier filed cases against Sachin Tendulkar and Mandira Bedi. Tendulkar had cut a cake designed like the tricolour. Bedi had worn a sari with the flags of various countries, including India, on it. 

Thakur’s advocate, RK Pandey, had filed a similar case against MF Husain. They recently also sued a publisher of a class VI textbook for not printing the tricolour properly.

In the best line of the report, Thakur is quoted as saying: “Me and my friends will move around the city from 2 pm onwards on Republic Day collecting flags lying everywhere and destroy them in private with full dignity.”

Yes, even flags have dignity. And, presumably, feelings. I hope Thakur and his friends had a good time yesterday.

Patriotism

The national flag is not the only symbol of national pride that patriots like Thakur worry about. There’s also the national anthem, which was allegedly “insulted” last April by NR Narayana Murthy. Indeed, in Mumbai, it is played in cinema theatres before the start of every film, and it is compulsory to stand. 

This is what we’ve reduced patriotism to.

In my view, there are two kinds of patriotism. The first kind involves feeling that your country is, in some way or the other, greater than others. Often, self-esteem is involved. Patriots of this kind will want others to share their feelings about their country. They might feel offended if someone suggests that their country is not all they imagine it to be.

The other kind of patriotism involves loving certain things about one’s country. This is a personal love, different in each individual’s case, and patriots of this sort will enjoy their patriotism without demanding that others share it.

If we were to be flippant about such grave matters, we could call these kinds of patriotism Mera Bharat Mahaan and Mera Bharat Mujhe Pasand

I see myself as the second kind of patriot. When I think of the things I love about India, I think of concrete things in the real world, such as its food, its music, the languages that I’m fortunate to know. These don’t blind me from the many things wrong with the country - nor do I have any desire to impose my preferences on others.

The Mera Bharat Mahaan kind of patriot, on the other hand, is involved with a narrative of greatness. A key part of his identity is his Indianness. For this reason, he needs to believe that India is a great country, superior to others. 

Symbols like the flag and the anthem are, thus, important to him. They represent his nationalistic fervour. Equally, a display like the Republic Day parade makes him feel proud. Its purpose is validation.

Pride

This need for validation was understandable in our early years as an independent country. We’d just gained independence after decades of being humiliatingly colonised. It was a mini-miracle that we existed, bridging such linguistic, religious and cultural divides. We needed to believe in ourselves as a nation. 

And, let’s face it, there was a bit of a collective inferiority complex running through the country.

Sadly, even after 60 years of independence, that craving for validation remains. Why else do we make such a hue and cry every year about India’s entry to the Oscars, and ignore our own national awards? Why else do we rush to claim any foreign achiever with an Indian background as a national hero? (Sunita Williams, born in Ohio and raised in America, has been awarded the Padma Bhushan this year.) Why else do we go gaga with excitement when we hear of Madonna practising yoga or Gwen Stefani putting a Bindi on her head? Why else do we celebrate when Shilpa Shetty wins Big Brother, and ignore poor Rahul Roy, who won the desi version?

India has advanced leaps and bounds in the last couple of decades, but we still haven’t acquired the self-confidence that a mature democracy should have. Too many of us are still sensitive about symbols of our nationhood, and that’s a pity. We are proud, I believe, of entirely the wrong things.

As a nation that won its independence with such difficulty, if there is one thing we should be proud of, and should continue to aspire towards, it is freedom. Not just the freedom to vote, but freedom in every social and economic sense. As long as we don’t infringe on the freedom of others, we should be free to express our sexual preferences, to trade with others, to watch the films we want, to read the books we want, to say what we want. And yes, free to disrespect a flag or refuse to stand up when the anthem is played. 

What’s the point of being a free country otherwise?

Freedom

The main issue involved in all the cases that Thakur has filed is not patriotism - Thakur has the right to feel warmly towards the national flag. But he does not have the right to impose his feelings and his preferences on others. The issue here is freedom.

India, sadly, has never given freedom of expression the level of protection it deserves. Article 19 (1) (a) of our constitution speaks of protecting free speech, but Article 19 (2) immediately limits it by making it contingent on concepts like “public order” and “decency and morality”, which are open to interpretation by bureaucrats, judges and mobs. The Indian Penal Code (IPC) has a number of laws which effectively make it a crime to give offence. 

Section 295 (a), a non-bailable act, is particularly notorious: It punishes actions “intended to outrage religious feelings”, and has been used against Ravi Shastri when he said he liked eating beef, and against a publisher for publishing a Santa and Banta jokebook. 

The IPC, of course, was drafted in the 19th century. It needs an overhaul - as does the attitude towards national pride that many of us have. We are a vibrant democracy now, and the idea of India cannot be harmed any more by a few displays of disrespect towards emblems and symbols. We should stop insulting our country by behaving otherwise.

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My thanks to Himanshu for pointing me to the IE story. Some related pieces by me: The Anthem and the Flag. Don’t Insult Pasta. Indian Idolatry.

You can check out more essays by me in my essays and Op-Eds archive.

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 January, 2008 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India


Cracking the Logic of Life

This review of The Logic of Life by Tim Harford has appeared in today’s edition of Lounge, the Saturday edition of Mint.

If Tim Harford was born 150 years ago, he would have provided strong competition to Arthur Conan Doyle. Sherlock Holmes, Doyle’s creation, unveiled the mysteries of human behaviour using nothing but cold logic and immaculate observation. Harford’s undercover economist does the same in his two books, The Undercover Economist (2005) and his new release, The Logic of Life. But there is one difference between the two: While we ordinary mortals can never hope to match Holmes’s skills, we can all aspire to be like Harford’s invisible alter ego.

Harford uses the tools of economics to crack some of the mysteries of life. Those tools are available to us as well, and are easy to use. Indeed, by the time you finish reading The Logic of Life, you might feel equipped to do a little sleuthing yourself.

The engine at the heart of The Logic of Life is rational choice theory. “If you do not understand the rational choices that underlie much of our behaviour,” Harford writes, “you cannot understand the world in which we live.” His basic premise: “Rational people respond to trade-offs and incentives.” Using this as a starting point, he then demonstrates how drug addicts, teenage muggers, suburban sprawl, inner-city decay and endless meetings at the office are all rational.

It is not Harford’s point that “people are always and everywhere rational”. They obviously aren’t. But, he writes, “[P]eople are rational nearly enough and often enough to make the assumption of rational choice a very useful one.” He elaborates: “In the hands of economists, ‘rational choice theory’ produces an x-ray image of human life. Like the x-ray, rational choice theory does not show everything. Nor is the picture necessarily very pretty. But it shows you something important, and something that you could not see before.”

This might appear to rest on a picture of us as “consciously calculating beings.” But rational behaviour doesn’t always arise out of a conscious process. Harford writes: “We often aren’t conscious of the calculations of costs and benefits that we make when we act rationally—just as, when someone throws a baseball for us to catch, we aren’t conscious of our brain solving differential equations to work out where it’s going to land.”

Another objection to this focus on rational behaviour might be that much of our behaviour is driven by our emotions. Harford writes: “[O]f course we feel passionately about sex, love, crime, and all sorts of other things… The whole purpose of acting rationally is to maximize our emotional pay-offs.”

Is there an issue that involves our emotions more than love, or the mates we choose? In my favourite chapter of the book, “Is divorce underrated?”, Harford demonstrates how economics can unveil the mysteries of love and mating.

“Lovers plan, strategise, negotiate and deal with the harsh realities of supply and demand,” Harford writes. He recaps how men and women are hard-wired differently by evolution, and how women are more attracted to high-earning men than the other way around (he presents data to back this up.) This explains why there are more women in most cities than men—men are more likely to respond to rising rents by moving out, while women have more reason to stay, because they are more likely to meet desirable mates. This also explains why “unskilled urban jobs [like waitressing and secretarial work] that could easily be done by either sex would tend to be done by women.”

“[I]n places where men are scarce,” Harford writes, “women respond by staying in school longer. In cities where men are particularly rich, women are particularly plentiful.” Harford writes about how the contraceptive pill has changed society by changing our incentives. Because the pill makes it “easier for men to get sex outside of marriage”, there are fewer marriages.

Women respond to this by studying harder: “four US women [graduate] from college for every three men.” Being able to delay having babies also enables women to make income gains because of “the economies of scale in education and work which reward those who spend a long time in college and then work long hours early in their careers.”

This also explains the “divorce revolution”. The family has always been a powerful unit, and a rational one, because of the economic forces of the division of labour, economies of scale and comparative advantage. But the contraceptive pill changed the equations within a marriage, as women became “more highly educated, career-minded and employer-friendly”. They were also aided by household technology, which vastly reduced the time that household chores took up. As the incentives changed, so did the need to be married, or to stay inside a bad marriage. All these trends, of course, were entirely rational—but this rationality was hardly a conscious process.

The Logic of Life is so compelling not just because of Harford’s sleuthing, but because he is such a powerful storyteller. Writers of popular thrillers would be proud of the narrative momentum he maintains in his chapter on game theory, “Las Vegas: The Edge of Reason”, which brings to life fascinating people like John Von Neumann, Chris ‘Jesus’ Ferguson and Thomas Schelling. But it is packed with insight as well—it explains how addiction can be a rational thing, how it involves warring parts of our brain, and how I can explain my coffee addiction to my partner—hopefully without altering her incentives too much.

It also uncovers minor mysteries along the way, such as why advertising for nicotine patches and gum seems to lead to an increase in teenagers taking up smoking: “The advertisements tell them that there are new ways to help them quit, so rationally it is less risky to start the habit.”

Throughout the book, Harford doesn’t merely speculate, but uses research and empirical data to reveal the rational thread running through our behaviour. The economics and the writing are first class, and The Logic of Life is both entertaining and enlightening. Picking it up, I assure you, is quite the rational course of action.

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Also read: My review of Harford’s earlier book, The Undercover Economist: Economics as a guide to human behaviour.

Slate has published a couple of excerpts from The Logic of Life: 1, 2.

Also check out Harford’s website and blog—the latter is one of my favourite blogs.

Posted by Amit Varma on 19 January, 2008 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds


How To Save The Hapless Cricket Umpire

This piece of mine was published today in Mail Today under the headline “High tech input can give better umpiring”.You can download a pdf here.

I feel sorry for Steve Bucknor. In 2004, he had a horrid Test at Sydney, making a series of errors that prevented India from winning the series. A few months ago, he had a lousy World Cup final, displaying a shocking ignorance of the rules. And now, after another Sydney Test full of blunders, his career is close to winding up. It’s been tough, but my pity isn’t based on the brickbats flung his way being undeserved – he has long been an incompetent and arrogant umpire. I feel sorry for him because all this is really the ICC’s fault.

In 1988, Bucknor was a FIFA referee at a World Cup qualifier between El Salvador and the Netherlands Antilles. Why isn’t he still a FIFA referee today? Well, FIFA has a compulsory retirement age of 45 for its umpires. They feel that a referee’s job imposes physical demands that make it hard for someone above that age to do the job effectively. So they say, “Thank you, you were good, but run along now.”

The physical demands on a cricket umpire don’t seem to be so great. He may be on the field of play longer, but has no running around to do. Nevertheless, it is my contention that umpiring requires an extensive use of physical faculties that decline with age. And for a man is his 60s to be doing the job is ludicrous.

Consider what an umpire has to go through. He has to stand on the field and concentrate hard for six hours of play – this sometimes for five days in a row. His eyesight has to be perfect. He has to be quick – the shift in focus from the bowling crease, which he needs to watch for a no-ball, to the batsman isn’t easy. He has to evaluate what he sees within split seconds, factoring in all the optical illusions that typically come into play, such as the parallax error. (Because the umpire stands at a height above the stumps, balls that would go over the stumps appear to be hitting.) His depth perception has to be perfect, and his brain has to process all these multiple inputs to come up with a correct decision.

Age

The faculties required for all this diminish with age. You wouldn’t put a 60-year-old man in a Formula One race, because he could kill others, and himself. (Besides, he would be no good.) A 60-year-old man umpiring a cricket game can end careers, or decide matches, and series. (Besides, he would be no good.)

What is happening to Bucknor is not new. We saw this happen to David Shepherd as well. Shepherd, one of the great umpires of the game, declined rapidly towards the start of this century, making a series of infamous howlers in the 2001 England-Pakistan series. It was all downhill from there – and what a pity it was.

Should the ICC have a mandatory retirement age, like FIFA does? While it would act as a safeguard, I will be perfectly happy if they don’t. While Bucknor and Shepherd felt the ravages of age, some remarkably well-preserved umpire might not. But what ICC does need to do is recognise that a good umpire isn’t good forever, and have regular tests and evaluations carried out. The ones it has in place are obviously not good enough.

And it should also pay attention to the feedback that captains are required to give on umpires at the end of every series. Sourav Ganguly, India’s captain in the 2003-2004 series against Australia, gave Bucknor an extremely negative report. The ICC should have paid attention to it then. I wonder why they didn’t.

Technology

Let us consider the role of umpires in cricket. Are they participants in the game of cricket? Do the crowds come to see them at work?

My answers are no and no.

Umpires are nothing more than facilitators. Eleven men take on 11 other men, and the sport is about them. Umpires are there to enforce the rules of the game, so that the result is fair, and the team that plays better wins.

So when the attention of the commentators or the crowds is on the umpires, something is wrong. It means they made a mistake. It is an aberration, something that should not happen. The ICC should do everything within its power to prevent it.

The ICC should recognise that umpires are just the means to an end. They are not the point of the game. It should also recognise that they need help. And the technology exists to help them.

How do we know when umpires make mistakes? Some mistakes are visible to the naked eye. But for others, we go to technology. We see a ball hitting middle-stump on Hawk-Eye and exclaim, “That’s plumb, how could he not give that?” We see a snick via the Snickometer, or notice via the tram lines on the screen that the ball pitched outside leg, and we go, “What lousy umpiring.”

We judge the umpires using technology. Would it not be fair, then, to make that same technology available to them?

Critics have created a false dichotomy between umpires and technology. Using technology does not mean doing away with umpires or having androids on the field. It simply means giving umpires the tools to do his job better. We make his life easier, and ensure more accurate decisions. Isn’t that the whole purpose of umpiring to begin with?

Hawk-Eye

But is some of the technology out there accurate enough? Some of it – using TV replays for line calls, for example – is non-controversial. Some isn’t. Hawk-Eye has been at the center of much controversy, and is mocked by many who then, ironically, use it to point out umpiring errors. Many of the objections against it, though, are based on misconceptions. I think Hawk-Eye would be a fantastic tool for umpires, and would make contentious lbw decisions a thing of the past.

(Disclosure: I used to work for Cricinfo, which was owned by Wisden, who acquired Hawk-Eye in 2006. I’m no longer associated with Cricinfo, which was sold to ESPN last year and is no longer associated with Hawk-Eye.)

The predictive technology behind Hawk-Eye is similar to that used in missile-guidance systems and instrument guidance for brain surgeons – it’s designed for extreme accuracy. To answer the objections against it in detail would require a full piece, but suffice it to say that whatever the umpire can do, Hawk-Eye can do with greater accuracy. Experts of the game implicitly acknowledge this by turning to Hawk-Eye whenever lbw decisions need to be evaluated.

The most popular misconception about Hawk-Eye is that it would take time to get a decision, as one goes to the third umpire for a replay, and so on. This is not true. What we see on television is a just a graphical representation of Hawk-Eye, and Hawk-Eye’s decision would actually be delivered within a second or two to the umpire, via a handheld device: out or not out, pitching outside leg or on line, and so on. At the click of a button, umpires would save themselves much embarrassment.

And contrary to an old canard, technology does not take “the human touch” out of anything. People like “maa ke haath ka khana” even when she uses a microwave. Umpires who use technology will remain human – but they will get more decisions right. We should give them the tools to make that happen.

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I wrote a piece on exactly the same subject four years ago after the last Sydney Test: “On age and technology.” Such hopes of change I had…

I also argued for Hawk-Eye in a series of posts on 23 Yards, which I now find long-winded and poorly written, though I hold the same opinions: 1, 2, 3.

Also on Hawk-Eye, read these two pieces by my ex-colleague, S Rajesh: 1, 2.

You can read more essays and Op-Eds by me here.

Posted by Amit Varma on 13 January, 2008 in Essays and Op-Eds | Sport


Our Unlucky Children

This is the 48th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

Last weekend, I went through the typical routine of watching a film and then doing a week’s worth of shopping. First I watched the beautiful Taare Zameen Par. Then I spent an hour inside the nearest hypermarket.

The amount of choice inside the hypermart was staggering. I counted more than 30 kinds of cheese, 60 kinds of biscuits, 50 types of papad, and quite as much variety across soaps, soft drinks, farsaan, cooking oil, pickles and so on. I needed shampoo, and I walked past two shelves of it before finding something for “normal hair.”

Some people complain that there is too much choice on offer, but I find the variety wonderful. It caters to individual taste. For example, there is shampoo available for people with “dry, rough, sensitized hair”, “dry or damaged hair”, and “weak, fragile, difficult to grow long hair”. To those of us who do not fall into these categories, these might seem excessive, but clearly they exist because they sell —and fulfil someone’s needs.

Isn’t it wonderful how the free market does this? Instead of shoving one or two types of each product down people’s throats, it effectively treats us as individuals. Entrepreneurs, seeking to find market niches to make a profit, end up empowering us as consumers. Without knowing anything about me, the market caters to my personal needs to a degree my grandparents would have found unbelievable.

Watching Taare Zameen Par, however, reminded me that in the area where it matters most, our children don’t have the same choices open to them.

Aamir Khan’s film is about a dyslexic boy let down by his school. His teachers do not recognize what makes him different and treat him as if he is stupid, shattering his self-esteem. Then Khan comes in as a sensitive teacher and turns things around.

This only happens in films, of course, and most kids in that situation would not be so lucky. They would be able to buy potato chips in the precise flavour they might desire—“classic salted”, “sour cream and onion” or 40 others—but would be denied of an education tailored to their needs.

This is not just something that applies to dyslexic kids. All children are unique. Some are better at languages than in math, some have short attentions spans, some have high learning curves, and so on and on. And yet, when it comes to education, they are treated as if their needs and abilities are identical.

This rigidity applies not just to schools but also to higher education. “Arts”, “science” and “commerce” are segregated streams, and a young man who wishes to study both physics and 19th century English literature would have a problem doing so.

You might argue that when it comes to education, it is logistically impossible to cater to individual needs. After all, schools and colleges have limited resources, and a teacher-student ratio can only go so far. Individual attention seems an impossible pipe dream.

I would argue, though, that our failure to imagine a way forward does not mean that none exists. All successful innovations work precisely because no one thought of them before, and they fulfil a need somewhere. If we give entrepreneurs the scope to innovate, they will find solutions. The problem with our education system is that the government has a stranglehold on it, and severely restricts private participation.

For example, it takes 14 licences from four authorities to open a private school in New Delhi, which could take years. There are all kinds of bizarre parameters schools have to fulfil to open a school—such as playgrounds of a specified size—and, most absurdly, they aren’t allowed to operate for a profit. They get around this by opening trusts and suchlike, which restrict their scope for further investment.

When will our government learn that the profit motive is a good thing? It spurs innovation and benefits fellow human beings, for that is the only way to make a profit.

Besides these entry barriers, there are other restrictions on what these schools must work towards. If they are not affiliated to a government-approved board with a government-approved syllabus, such as ICSE or CBSE, their students are going to find it hard to get into government-approved colleges down the line. Everything has to be government-approved, which stifles innovation.

I can barely imagine what products my hypermart would contain if all the industries that produced them were run by the government as education in India is. There would be fewer product categories, virtually no choice within those categories, and everything would be more expensive. Thanks to competition and relatively free markets, that is not the case.

When it comes to trivial things such as potato chips and garlic sev, we have been empowered with choice. When it comes to something as important as education, we have not. Isn’t that a disgrace?

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Also read: My piece on school choice in India, Fund Schooling, Not Schools.

My thanks to the members of the Satin e-group for their inputs on this piece.

You can browse through all my columns for Mint in my Thinking it Through archives.

Posted by Amit Varma on 10 January, 2008 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Thinking it Through


Some Saxy Resolutions

This is the 47th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

It is January 3, and I have already broken my New Year’s resolution. Don’t ask. So, I decided to find out from some of the notable people in our country what their New Year’s resolutions were.

First I called up Sonia Gandhi. “My New Year’s resolution is to learn more Hindi,” she told me.

“Hindi?” I asked. “But your Hindi is just fine, Soniaji.”

“No, we lost the Gujarat elections because of my Hindi,” she said. “You see, while campaigning in Gujarat, I wanted to tell the people of Gujarat that we would develop Gujarat better than Narendra Modi. So, I asked one of my minions how one says that in Hindi. My minion said, say ‘Narendra Modi maut ka saudagar hai.’ So, I said that, and see what happened.”

“What happened to the minion?”

“Don’t ask.”

Next I rang up Manmohan Singh. “What’s your New Year’s resolution, sir?”

There was a moment of silence. Then he said, in a sad voice: “I’ll have to check.”

After this, I dropped in to meet Prakash Karat. His answer:

“My New Year’s resolution is to oppose whatever the UPA does.”

“But why’re you supporting their government then?” I asked. “Why don’t you just withdraw support?”

Karat sighed. “This is the problem with you neoliberal, consumerist, imperialist bourgeois, call-centre pigs,” he said. “If I withdraw support, there will be mid-term elections, after which we may not be in a position to damage the country. I don’t want that, and neither does Beiji… I mean, neither does Brinda.”

“You don’t have to call me names, you know.”

“I head the politburo, not the polite-bureau. Now run along before Buddha’s party workers saunter along and I set them on you.”

I ran along, and called up Narendra Modi. “Sir, I wanted to ask, what is your New Year’s resolution?”

“If you find a cockroach in your kitchen,” he asked, “you tell me, what should be done to the cockroach?”

“Kill it, kill it.”

“Well, that is it. Do I have to take Sonia Gandhi’s permission to do that?”

I needed a break from politicians. One fellow called me names, another was eyeing my cockroaches, what’s a columnist to do? I called Rakhi Sawant.

“Amitji, in this New Year, I will be more saxy.”

“Rakhiji, you are already very saxy,” I replied.

“Are you making fun of me? I did not say saxy. I said saxy.”

“I know, saxy.”

“Not saxy. Saxy!”

Arre, saxy, na?”

“Not saxy! Saxy! Abhishek, cum here, yeh mera mazaak uda raha hai!”

Then she burst out crying and I hung up. Next target, Javed Akhtar.

“Sir, what is your New Year’s resolution,” I asked.

“I will be the judge on a reality show,” he told me.

“But sir,” I remarked, “you have already done that many times this year.”

“No Amit, you do not understand me. You need to do more riyaaz of asking questions. You see, I want to be the judge of a reality show for judges of reality shows. In the show, the judges of reality shows will be contestants, and I will be their judge.”

“And what will you judge them on?”

“I will judge them on how well they can lecture contestants,” he said. “They should be able to burst into monologues about women’s liberation or secularism without any reason for it. Someone sings a random song, they should deliver a lecture on male chauvinism. Someone dances, they should preach about the values of the new generation. I want to create many Javed Akhtars to make this world a better place. Run along now.”

I ran along, and bumped into Pratibha Patil. “Pratibha tai,” I asked, “What are your New Year’s resolutions this year?”

“I have decided that 2008 will be a different year for me than 2007,” she said.

“How’s that?”

“Well, in 2007, everyone made fun of me for speaking to spirits, and my comments about burkas and compulsory sterilization and so on. Even you did, naughty boy. So, this year, I have decided to become more like my popular predecessor, APJ Abdul Kalam. I will emulate certain carefully selected aspects of his persona.”

“Such as what?”

“Well, I’ll start with the hairstyle.”

I ran along. Then I thought I’ll make just one final query for the day, and hope something interesting came out of it. I dropped in at Abhishek Bachchan’s house. As Ash bhabhi made tea, I asked the small b:

“Abhishek, dude, I’m writing a column about New Year’s resolutions, and I wanted to know what yours was.”

He looked at me with red eyes. “I will find that tree,” he said, “and I will kill him.”

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You can browse through all my columns for Mint in my Thinking it Through archives.

Posted by Amit Varma on 03 January, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics | Thinking it Through


A Wishlist For 2008

Pragati, January 2008

The cover story of the latest issue of Pragati is by me, and though I carry it in full below, I encourage you to download the full issue (pdf link), as it has some excellent articles. You can also find archival issues here.

To survive in India, I sometimes think, one needs to be a wishful thinker. There is much about India that is beautiful and inspiring, but there’s quite as much that is terribly frustrating. For decades since our independence, we have languished as a poor country - and even though we opened up parts of our economy in 1991, much of the country is still desperately poor. Our imperial overlords handed over power in 1947 to a government that was almost as oppressive - one that we now take for granted. There are so many ways in this could be a better country, even a leader among nations.

So as 2008 begins, I present to you my wishlist for the new year. This is all fantasy - none of these wishes may actually come true this year. But they give us something to aim for, and hopefully we’ll get there one day - and truly be a free country.

1. Get over the religion of government. For all our problems we turn to government. This is folly. Government consists of human beings as fallible as us, in whose hands we place enormous amounts of power and money. What’s more, the incentives of these people are aligned towards increasing their power and their budgets, and not necessarily towards serving us. We should stop empowering it with our blind faith, and demand that it lifts all restrictions on private enterprise - there is no surer route to prosperity.

2. Start questioning taxes. If you were forced to work for the government for four months of the year, you would call it slavery. Paying one-third of our income in taxes is no different - and yet we do not protest. Most of this is wasted by the government in tasks it has no business doing. Sure, taxes are necessary to sustain a government that defends our rights and provides some public services - but our government does far, far more. Let us at least start questioning this, and not demand government spending for everything as if that money comes from the skies, and carries no cost.

3. Abolish most of our ministries. Most ministries are redundant. (For example, the ministry of information and broadcasting.) We should do away with them. Those worried about how those ministers or civil servants would be employed can donate their own money to support them, and not force it on others.

4. Support free speech. As long as giving offence is a crime, free speech becomes redundant. We should do away with Section 295(a) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), and amend away the caveats placed on free speech in Article 19 (2) of the constitution. And those who claim to support free speech should not be hypocrites about it: both MF Husain and the Danish cartoonists deserve our support.

5. Stop punishing victimless crimes. Let us respect individual choice, and not punish any act that does not infringe on someone else’s rights. Section 377 of the IPC, which effectively criminalizes homosexuality, should be scrapped. And we should rethink our attitudes towards prostitution and drugs - we would be able to protect the rights of prostitutes and drug users better if they were legal.

6. Make the right to property a fundamental right. Well, it started out that way. Then, in 1978, with the 44th Amendment, it ceased to be one. It needs to be reinstated, so that battles for justice as at Singur, Nandigram and even Narmada can be fought on the basis of principle, not emotion.

7. Oppose all tariffs and subsidies. They all amount to forced charity - certain producers benefit at the expense of us consumers. We don’t owe those producers a living.

8. Stop trying to protect the corner store. Same principle as above. Businesses exist for the benefit of consumers, not the other way around. If - and it is a big if - consumers abandon kirana stores and shift to big retailers, we will do so because we save money and time doing so. We will do something else with that money or time, and the economy will accordingly benefit. That is how economies grow - through the voluntary and unrestrained actions of consumers and producers. We shouldn’t mess with that process.

9. Fund schooling, not schools. Our education system has failed because parents have no choice. Two things can change this. One: We should allow private schools to open and run without any conditions at all. Two: Instead of funding schools, we should give school vouchers to parents, empowering them with the power to choose whichever school they want for their kids. 

10. Stop assuming that Big Business = Free Markets. Big businesses don’t often speak in the interest of free markets. Typically, they lobby politicians for protectionist policies that protect them from competitors. We should be wise to this, and should not confuse cronyism for free markets. The biggest beneficiaries of economic freedom - We, the People - should take it upon ourselves to fight for them.

11. Stop playing cards. Earlier this year, the Congress pulled off a supposed coup by playing the gender card in the presidential elections. Elsewhere, we have played the Dalit card, the Muslim card and so on. Enough already. The business of running the country is not a game.

12. Stop tolerating mobs. An individual can’t get away with burning a bus, but collect a mob, and anything goes. Especially in the name of religion. We should be more tolerant of the diversity around us, and of free speech, and completely intolerant of mobs. 

13. Realise that Hindutva is not equal to Hinduism. As Ranjit Hoskote once wrote: “[T]he roots of Hindutva do not lie in Hinduism. Rather, they lie in a crude mixture of German romanticism, Victorian puritanism and Nazi methodology.”

14. Bring delayed justice to the victims of past massacres. Let us bring to justice the perpetrators of New Delhi 1984, Mumbai 1992-93, Gujarat 2002 and Nandigram 2007. Let us not let politics get in the way, and shout against one or the other.

15. Reform agriculture. Around 60% of our country depends on agriculture and allied sectors for a livelihood. This is unsustainable - the figure in developed countries is closer to 5%. There are a variety of ways to reform agriculture, such as allowing farmers to sell agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes and removing the restrictions placed on farmers that prevent them from selling their produce outside a limited area. But what farmers really need is alternative career options, for which:

16. Remove all restrictions on business. Let’s dump all that’s left - and there’s a lot of it - of the License and Inspection Raj, reform our labour laws, carry out product market liberalization and, essentially, remove all restrictions on free enterprise. Then we can finally become the manufacturing superpower we should have been 30 years ago, and provide feasable options for our beleaguered farmers.

17. Demand more of our politicians. Our prime minister is 75 years old. The main leader of the opposition is 80. Most young politicians in the country are scions of politican families. None of them have expressed any new ideas. For India’s sake, let’s set higher standards for the people who run our country.

Phew. That’s a long list, and I’m sure any reader of Pragati could easily double it. There is so much to do, and so little will. And yet, it is important to keep shouting from the rooftops about what India needs to fix, and Pragati will continue to do just that. Are you with us?

*  *  *

On a lighter note, check out my earlier piece, A Blogger Looks At A WTF 2007.

Posted by Amit Varma on 01 January, 2008 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics


A Blogger Looks At A WTF 2007

This round-up of WTF posts by me was published in today’s issue of Mail Today. You can download a pdf of the page here.

It’s that time of the year when newspapers and TV Channels round up the year with great ponderousness. Well, I’d like to present some snapshots from the year as well, but not one that looks at big events of great importance. Instead, handpicked from my blog India Uncut, here are some WTF moments from 2007. (WTF, if you must pretend not to know what it means, stands for What The Fug.)

The year begins with reality-show WTFness. In January, Rakhi Sawant steams it up on Bigg Boss, with one choice conversation being the bit where Roopali Ganguly tells her that she hasn’t been kissed in three years. “Tere hont kunwaare hai,” Rakhi tells her. “Tujhe jung lag chuka hai.” 

Meanwhile, Shilpa Shetty enters Celebrity Big Brother saying “I’m very synonymous with glamour”. While teaching Yoga to a fellow contestant, she says, “You’re not breathing right. We’re so occupied with life and the stuff we have to do that we don’t breathe.” Later, a racism row erupts, and the Indian government wastes taxpayers money protesting, panting and puffing while Shilpa stays calm, presumably breathing. 

Headlines of the month: “Lalu sets Ghost after Nitish.” “Sadhus go on Rampage.” “Cong, Sena fight over damaged auto.” “Kalam wants to see Indian on Mars.” 

In February, a report informs us: “More and more couples are exploiting Caesarean sections to manipulate the horoscope of the baby.” A Bajrang Dal actvist protests Valentine’s Day because “exchanging cards at a young age is against Indian culture.” 

Prediictionss

In March, astrologers such as Bejan Daruwalla and Sanjay B Jumaaaaani give us their predictions for the World Cup, and get it wronggg. An astrologer in Tamil Nadu gets into trouble by “allegedly predicting a long life for a dead man.” A gentleman from Mumbai approaches the Bombay High Court demanding that they declare him to be God. In Orissa’s Jagannath Temple, food worth Rs 10 lakhs, meant as a holy offering, is destroyed because a foreigner had entered it - “an act seen as defiling the premises.”

Cops bust a rave party, and we are told that the cops are “thinking of invoking provisions of the IT Act against them because the invitations for the party were sent via the Internet.” The All Kerala Drinkers’ Welfare Association, which “pledges to protect the rights of alcoholics … [presents] the government with a 15-point demand that includes a room for the lower-middle class drinker.” In Mumbai, the publisher of The Santa and Banta Joke Book is arrested for outraging religious feelings. Headline of the month: “Kalam trips and falls, is unhurt.” 

In April, a controversy erupts against Sachin Tendulkar for “cut[ting] a cake in the colours of the national flag.” Narayana Murthy allegedly insults the national anthem, which promptly goes and sulks. The hit story of the month on television: a baby monkey with its head stuck in a bucket. Karan Thapar asks Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi what constitutes good taste and bad taste. The reply: “When the committee feels it’s good, it’s good, when it feels its bad it’s bad.”

The headline of May: “Train passengers asked to get out and push.” This is in Bihar. In Kolkata, a man throws his wife out because she wears salwar kameez. When the case goes to court, he tells the judge: “We are an orthodox family. We cannot accept such dresses, she should wear a sari.”

In June, Amitabh Bachchan is in the news. “Amitabh no Farmer” screams one TV headline. Filmmaker Robby Grewal then offers him the role of Krishna, and says: “Only Mr Bachchan can play God convincingly.” Amitabh, on another issues, clarifies: “Ash is not married to a tree! [...] It’s a challenge—please show me the tree she married!”

The headline of the month is a non-event: “Rani Mukherjee is not engaged to Aditya Chopra.” Also: “Abhi-Akshaye to star in lesbian drama?” Quote of the month: Bobby Deol saying “I am the son of Punjab-da-puttar.” Picture of the month: Himesh Reshammiya in a burqa.

In July, Renuka Chowdhury, the Women and Child Development Minister, announces that she wants every pregnancy in the country to be registered. (Big Sister is watching your foetus.) Pratibha Patil, who speaks to spirits and supports compulsary sterilization for people with hereditary diseases, becomes India’s latest WTF president.

Quote of the month: Murali Manohar Joshi saying, “I think the government wants to import the western culture of sexual relation between student relation to India.” Picture of the month: Lalu Prasad Yadav tying his pajama’s naada

August is notable for Rakhi Sawant’s fabulous quote, “Item dance is not a crime. It’s an art and I pursue it with a vanity. it’s takes a lot of hard work to perform. Gandhiji also believed in working hard.” And there’s also Ram Gopal Varma: “I don’t think Gabbar from Sholay was a negative character. He was a villain who did a heinous act of killing people.”

Headlines of the month: “Chutiya tribe to organise massive agitation for ST status.” “China bans Buddhist monks in Tibet from reincarnating without government permission.” “Bachchan crazy for wife Aishwarya.”

In September, the Allahabad High Court rules, “[I]t is the duty of every citizen of India under Article 51-A of the Constitution - irrespective of caste, creed or religion - to follow the dharma propounded by the Bhagvad Gita.” BBC reports: “Nepal’s state-run airline has confirmed that it sacrificed two goats to appease a Hindu god, following technical problems with one of its aircraft.”

The quote of the month comes from BP Singhal: “Anybody who wants to denigrate another religion, I call him a Christian. You must find out Ambika Soni’s religion.”

Chicken

In October, we find that “some civic bodies in Madhya Pradesh are contemplating issuing licences to … genuine [eunuchs] to prevent the fakes from decamping with alms.” Mumbai Mirror speaks to a source who saw Kareena Kapoor and Saif Ali Khan dine at a restaurant, who says: “From the dishes that they had ordered, it was pretty apparent that Saif and Kareena love chicken.” Raima Sen says of her sister Riya, “She has breasts and hips truly measuring up to Bollywood standards.” S Sreesanth remarks: “I know I am handsome but all the actresses can wait.”

In November, the temple manager of Kerala’s Sree Krishna Guruvayoor temple reveals, according to IANS, that “the deity [is] unhappy over the entry of women in salwar-kameez.” Aburadha Sawhney of PETA, complaining about an SBI commercial featuring a chicken, says: “It is obvious that the chicken would never have done any of these stunts willingly.” Narendra Modi says, “Scavenging must have been a spiritual experience for the Valmiki caste.”

Headlines of the month: “Sonali Kulkarni bares her back.” “Why was Rakhi sad on her b’day?”

In December, a case is filed against Anil Ambani for sardarji jokes sent on the Reliance Network. BBC reports: “A judge in India has summoned two Hindu gods, Ram and Hanuman, to help resolve a property dispute.” Bushes and trees in Bangalore’s Lalbagh are trimmed “to ensure that young couples can’t steal a kiss behind them, all thanks to complaints from regular joggers.” Rediff asks its readers: “What do you think about Kangana going bald? Tell us!” It also asks Klaus Meine of the Scorpions: “Have you thought of introducing hip hop in your music to keep pace with the newer generation?” 

Headlines of the month: “US says it has right to kidnap British citizens.” “Sushmita in a legal hassle over ‘virginity’.”

See? Our country is so much more fun than all this talk of nuclear deals and Gujarat elections and Nandigram and suchlike. Have a great WTF 2008!

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For more WTF posts by me, check out my WTF category page.

Posted by Amit Varma on 30 December, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Journalism | Media | News | Politics | WTF


The Expanding Circle

This is the 46th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

Would you put a man in a cage? Last week, the blogger Hari Balasubramanian wrote a post about how, in 1906, “Ota Benga, a pygmy from the Belgian Congo, found himself sharing a cage with an orang-utan at the Bronx Zoo as part of a tableau intended to illustrate the stages of evolution.” Benga had filed teeth that came from “a tradition of cosmetic dentistry followed by his people,” but his captors mistook that for “a sign of cannibalism.” They duly “scattered bones in the cage.”

Having related Benga’s tale, Balasubramanian asked:

“The outrage we feel today about this scarcely believable story from just over a century ago is an indication of just how much sensibilities have changed. But to me the key issue is not what happened to Ota Benga; rather, it is this: What is it that most of us do not condemn today and are complicit with that will in 2107 seem utterly outrageous?”

Read more...

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 December, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | Thinking it Through


Let’s Rethink Doping

This is the 45th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

“Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play,” George Orwell once wrote. There seems to be plenty of recent evidence to back that up. Former US senator George Mitchell recently released a report on performance enhancing drugs in Major League Baseball (MLB) that revealed that 78 past and current players had used banned substances. Last week, Marion Jones was stripped of the five medals she won in the 2000 Olympics, following a confession that she had taken steroids at the time. Earlier this year, the Tour de France was beset by controversy, with Michael Rasmussen withdrawn by his team while he was leading the race on allegations of doping, and pre-race favourite Alexander Vinokourov busted for an illegal blood transfusion.

You could look at the glass half empty and bemoan the fact that doping seems to be so widespread in sport. You could look at it half full and feel glad that the cheats are finally being caught. I believe that we’re looking at the wrong glass.

In my view, doping in sport will be an issue no one bothers about in a couple of decades time.

Read more...

Posted by Amit Varma on 20 December, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | Sport | Thinking it Through


Our State Religion is the State

This piece of mine was published today in Mail Today, a new paper started in Delhi by India Today and The Daily Mail. You can download a pdf here.

“Thank God India doesn’t have a state religion,” a friend of mine said to me a couple of days ago.

“Indeed,” I replied. We’re both secular, in the original sense of the word, and believe in the separation of church and state. Religion, we believe, should be restricted to the private domain. It should not be forced upon anyone. And so on.

And then it struck me that for all this talk of separating church and state, we might just be missing one important thing: in India, the state is the church.

Read more...

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 December, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics


Nadiraji Wants Your Money

This is the 44th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

A few days ago, the respected theatre artist Nadira Babbar spoke to the newspaper DNA about the state of theatre in Mumbai. She felt that there weren’t enough good auditoriums in the city. “My appeal to the government is to build small, simple auditoriums with basic infrastructure,” she said. “I am seriously thinking of meeting the chief minister and put before him certain stark realities of the state of theatre. Some of my proposals are to subsidize the rates of the halls. Secondly, it would be of great help if they subsidize the rates of placing advertisements in newspapers; not only for the theatre events, but also for other cultural events.”

Most of us would sympathize with her. The arts are essential to a civilized society, and deserve our support. And there are many neglected areas of it, besides theatre, where an infusion of funds would help. Traditional folk arts are dying out, literature in regional languages gets a raw deal, and so on. So, naturally, many of us turn to the state.

But should we?

Read more...

Posted by Amit Varma on 13 December, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Old memes | Taxes | Politics | Thinking it Through


Punish Rioters, Not Writers

This is the 43rd installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

A friend of mine, Mint contributor Salil Tripathi, recently drew my attention to a wonderful poem by Amit Chaudhuri. The poem, called The Writers, was based around “constantly mishearing ‘rioting’ as ‘writing’ on the BBC”. It began: “There has been writing for 10 days now/unabated. People are anxious, fed up.” And so on. You get the drift.

Chaudhuri’s poem felt especially apt given the events of the last couple of weeks. In this time, our cops and politicians have forgotten the difference between rioters and writers. Rioters came out in Kolkata to protest a writer’s words. It was the writer who then had to run around, evading accusing eyes and fingers. Eventually, it was the writer who apologized for her words—the rioters haven’t yet apologized for their actions. Indeed, it could be argued that the rioters have won—as they do every time.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 06 December, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | Thinking it Through


The Hypocrisy of Indian Politics

This piece of mine was published today under the headline “Politicians can be so boringly predictable” in Mail Today, a new paper started in Delhi by India Today and The Daily Mail.

Many years ago, before the satellite TV revolution, there used to be a video newsmagazine called Newstrack that I rather enjoyed. There is one scene from it that I still remember. If memory serves me right, it began with a shot of the bottom of Devi Lal’s sports shoes as he reclined on a garden chair, his foot rested on some kind of support. (I could be wrong, but I vaguely remember he wore a banyan and a dhoti on top.) An interview began, and the interviewer asked him why he had made his son, Om Prakash Chautala, the chief minister of Haryana. Devi Lal replied:

Tho kya Bhajan Lal ke chhore ko banaaoo?

An English translation —“Then shall I make Bhajan Lal’s son the chief minister?” –cannot match the rustic delight of it. I loved that riposte, and remember it still, because it was a rare moment of honesty from an Indian politician. Devi Lal could have said that his son was a fine leader, and had served the people of Haryana. He could have said that it was a democratic decision by the party. But his statement made no pretence of denying what we all already know: Politicians are motivated by nothing other than a lust to power, and once they acquire it, they want to pass it on, like a material possession, to their progeny.

Now imagine Sonia Gandhi, asked why Rahul Gandhi has been elevated in the Congress Party, saying: “Tho kya LK Advani ke chhori ko banaaoo?

Young Rahul has received many fulsome tributes recently, but has no political achievements to his credit, and hasn’t come up in the party the hard way. (Unless waiting is considered hard, as it might well be for a crown prince.) But no one in the Congress Party will have the cojones to admit that Gandhi’s position comes from Gandhi’s name, and nothing else. The language of politics is couched in doublespeak, and Indian politics is all about double standards. Dynastic politics is not the only example of this, and it is certainly not restricted to the Congress Party.

Convenience, not principle

Consider the nuclear deal, to take a recent example. The BJP has opposed it, with Rajnath Singh saying that “it is not good for the future of the country,” and Murli Manohar Joshi claiming that it will make India “a junior partner of the US.” But can anyone have any doubt that if the NDA had come into power in the last elections, and a BJP prime minister had brought an identical deal to the table, the party would have supported it vociferously? There would have been much nationalistic rhetoric about how the deal would take India into the league of superpowers, and how we would have a decisive advantage over Pakistan, and so on.

And the Congress would have opposed it tooth and nail.

Now consider Nandigram. I have no doubt that if an identical crisis had erupted in Gujarat, the positions of the parties involved would have been reversed. The BJP would have spoken about how the state needs to be industrialised, and the Left parties would have agitated for the rights of the poor peasants who were forcibly being deprived of their land. Er, actually, wait a minute – remember Narmada?

When the BJP wanted to discuss Nandigram in parliament recently, the Left protested, saying that it was a state subject. The BJP ridiculed that assertion. How easily I can imagine those positions being reversed on the issue of Gujarat 2002.

Indeed, it is mildly amusing to see the self-righteousness of the Congress and the Left on Gujarat. The 1984 riots in Delhi and the brutality at Nandigram differ from Gujarat 2002 only in matters of detail. Indeed, one can actually take the quotes and the principles espoused by all these parties on any one of these issues, shift the context, and boom, the same quotes apply, if uttered by a different party. Everywhere, same difference.

I was immensely amused recently to hear BJP leader VK Malhotra speak out in favour of free speech. He demanded that Taslima Nasreen “be given full protection and citizenship” and said that “India believes in freedom of speech.” MF Hussain must be chortling in Dubai as he reads that, if not positively choking on a frappe.

If the BJP supports free speech, Mother Teresa danced at the Moulin Rouge.

The truth is that the only politicians in our country who actually act on the basis of principles are a few deranged souls on the extreme right and the extreme left. Not a single mainstream politician in this country cares about principles. They are motivated by one thing only: what Devi Lal would refer to as gaddi. When they claim to espouse principles, they do so as a tactical ploy of the moment. As the moment changes, their principles change.

Our opposition parties, in fact, understand only one dharma: to be in opposition. No matter what they otherwise claim to believe in, they will oppose everything the government does – as the BJP’s stand on the nuclear deal indicates. Indeed, if the UPA government was to announce tomorrow that it is building the Ram temple in Ayodha, the BJP would certainly find a way to oppose it. Perhaps they’d bring Vastushastra into it, or they’d claim that the temple toilet faces Varanasi and is an insult to all Hindus, or some such humbug.

It’s all sauda

Isn’t politics everywhere like this? Well, yes and no. Politicians everywhere are human beings who respond to incentives, and they’re obviously in it for the power. If they only wanted to do good to humankind, they’d be social workers or businessmen – successful businessmen are successful because they serve the needs of people – or columnists. (The last is a pathetic justification for my own vocation.) Not politicians.

Still, if you compare Indian politics with American politics, it is easier to find politicians there who stand up for certain principles even when those are unpopular. Consider the ongoing US primaries, for example: John McCain consistently speaks out against torture, even though the Republican base prefers a more macho position. (Mitt Romney panders to them by suggesting that the size of Guantanamo be doubled.) Rudy Giuliani is pro-choice, a position that would normally doom him among the Christian conservatives who dominate the Republican primaries. Hillary Clinton has repeatedly refused to apologize for her 2002 vote for the Iraq War Resolution, or admit that it was a mistake, despite the Democratic base being so strongly against that war.

In America, the character of the leaders you are voting for matters, as do the policies they support. People vote for whichever politician comes closest to their worldview, and that worldview is a mix of complicated factors, from economics to politics to identity. In India, identity dominates.

Most Indian politics is identity politics. Mayawati’s rise or Lalu’s long reign in Bihar stand testament to the power of saying: “You guys have been screwed over for too many years now. Put me in power, and I will distribute the spoils to you.” It’s also entitlement politics, a politics of give-and-take, of promises made, sometimes material – remember Karunanidhi and his nine million colour TVs? – sometimes pertaining to jobs and power. But higher principles are entirely absent from such politics. And yet, our politicians couch their rhetoric in the language of principles, fooling only the wilfully self-delusional.

I have one question at the end of this: I think it is obvious, and we all accept, that our politicians are deeply dishonest when it comes to politics. Why, then, do we expect any different from them when they are in government?

Posted by Amit Varma on 02 December, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics


The Origin of Human Rights

This is the 42nd installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

This is the 42nd installment of Thinking it Through, and over the last 41 weeks, I have often bored my readers with talk of “rights” and “freedoms” and so on. Such talk is everywhere—politicians love to speak of rights to display their compassion, and of freedom to display their liberalism. Often, though, these terms are dreadfully misused, and hide double standards that none of our politicians are exempt from. With a humble ponderousness alert, allow me to explain my notion of the basis of human rights.

In my view of the world, the most basic right of all is one that we are born with: the right to self-ownership. All legitimate human rights emerge from this. If we own ourselves, we obviously have the right to life, and to live as we please. Our thoughts and speech belong to us—thus, the right to free speech. Our labour, and the fruits of our labour, belong to us—thus, all property rights. And so on.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 29 November, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | Politics | Thinking it Through


Beating Terrorism

This is the 41st installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

US President George W Bush never ceases to amuse. In a recent interview with ABC Television, he explained that while he wanted democracy in Pakistan, he thought highly of General Pervez Musharraf. According to a report by Voice of America, Bush said: “[Musharraf] has…advanced democracy in Pakistan. He has said he will take off his uniform. He has said there will be elections. Today he released prisoners. And so far I have found him to be a man of his word.”

Right. Bush, of course, had praised Vladimir Putin three years ago as “a strong leader who cares deeply about the people of his country”, and in different circumstances, had Eye-Raq been an ally of the US when he took power, might even have praised Saddam Hussain’s commitment to civil rights. It is clear that the fuel that drives the Bush administration is self-delusion—and nowhere is this stronger than on the issue of terrorism.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 22 November, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | Politics | Thinking it Through


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