Randomising wear and tear of safety razor

A few months back, having mostly given up on my Gillette Mach 3, I decided to go all old school and get myself a safety razor. While I cut myself occasionally (one day I cut myself right on my Adam’s apple, giving me a minor scare that I’d slit my throat), I’m significantly happier with the results of this razor, compared to the Mach 3.

I find that I need to shave only a single time, compared to two rounds with the Mach3, and cleaning the razor in the middle of the shave is also far easier. And while it isn’t absolutely smooth, it leaves me mostly satisfied at the end of the shave. And I’m not even mentioning the cost saving here!

The only “problem” with using an old-school safety razor is that it takes in double-edged blades. Having used multi-blade cartridges all my shaving life thus far (my father had bought me a Sensor Excel when I was first ready to shave, which I later traded for a Mach3), I started using a single side of the blade to complete the entire shave.

In my experience, a decent blade should last about 6 shaves, as long as you use both edges of the blade equally. The challenge here was to know (visually) which side of the blade you had used, so that you could get the maximum out of the blade!

Initially I thought of using stickers or some such paraphernalia to indicate which side of the blade I’d used each time. After a little thought, however, I realised that if this was a common problem, the razor itself would’ve come with an asymmetrical head, so I could keep track. There should be a better way to keep track, I reasoned.

And so I decided that I would use each edge of the blade half-and-half in each shave. The first day, it worked. The second, I had finished shaving half my face, when I realised I’d suddenly forgotten which side I’d used. An improved method was required.

So the solution I’ve finally hit on is to randomise the edge of the blade I use each time I rinse my blade in the middle of the shave. So each time I rinse the blade, I give it a random twirl, and use whatever edge that twirl turns up for my next set of strokes. And so forth. This way, in terms of expected value, both edges of the blade are likely to wear by a similar amount by the end of each shave!

And so if I find one day that an edge is blunt, it is highly likely that the opposite edge is also as blunt, and it is a clear indication to put in a new blade!

It is remarkable how so often randomised algorithms can help you trivially solve problems that cannot easily be solved by deterministic methods!

Offshoring and the daNDapiNDagaLu moment

Sometime in the early 2000s (2000 or 2001, if I’m not mistaken), there came a sitcom on Kannada television (Udaya TV, if I remember correctly) called “daNDapiNDagaLu” (no direct translation to English available, but it translates to something like “waste bodies”).

The sitcom was about the travails of five boys who had studied one of {B.A., B.Sc., B.Com. } and were subsequently unemployed. Directed by Phani Ramachandra, of the Ganeshana Madhuve and Gowri Ganesha fame, it was rather funny and mostly well received. The most memorable part of the sitcom, however, was the iconic title song (the version on Youtube is audio-only, but that will suffice for our purposes).

For non-Kannada speakers here, the song is about people who study B.A., B.Sc. or B.Com. and subsequently fail to find a job, and then roam the streets with little to do. The song also talks about the unwillingness of these people to do menial jobs, of not being of the “right caste” to avail reservations, and not having the ability to get good marks which can get them a job.

Thinking about it, the song was extremely appropriate for its times, and the release of the serial coincided with the low point of the value of a B.A., B.Sc. or B.Com. degrees in India (I remember feeling rather proud when the sitcom came out that I was studying engineering, and hence wasn’t one of “them”).

Until the 1980s or so, the possession of a bachelor’s degree qualified you for a large gamut of opportunities, mostly in the government. So it didn’t matter that much what you studied, and if you weren’t particularly useless, you’d find a job to get by on.

To take an example, my mother had a bachelor’s in biology, but spent most of her career in an accounting job (she entered the workforce in the 1970s). In other words, it didn’t matter what degree you had, as long as you had one. So people gladly did whatever degree they could get into.

In the 1990s, however, with the government sector on the decline and liberalisation not having had enough of an impact to massively expand the job market, there was trouble for these graduates. Government was no longer recruiting as it used to, and the private sector wasn’t picking up the slack either. It was at this time that most such graduates started going jobless, and the value of these degrees diminished like crazy.

It is no surprise that around the time I finished high school (2000), everyone wanted to study engineering – opportunities for most other degrees were very few. With liberalisation in the education sector having kicked in, supply in engineering college seats expanded to meet the demand (in some states at least). It was a popular meme in those days that anyone who studied for a B.A. or a B.Sc. did so only because they couldn’t get an engineering seat.

It was around this time, the absolute low point for B.A., B.Sc. and B.Com. that daNDapiNDagaLu came out. The sitcom lost its relevance rather soon, though.

With liberalisation in full swing in India,development in communications technology, and slowing growth in developed markets, “offshoring” became a thing. Companies in developed western markets figured out that they could get routine stuff done for a lot cheaper by “offshoring” them to emerging markets, where labour was a lot cheaper.

And some of those jobs came to India, which had a large pool of (hitherto unemployed) graduates, most of whom spoke English. It started with call centre jobs (where Indians were trained to get Western or “neutral” accents, and Janardhans became Johns). Then came slightly higher value adding jobs, like accounting, secretarial services, etc. Business Process Outsourcing was soon a thing, and it didn’t take Thomas Friedman too long to write The World is Flat.

With the coming of these jobs, the market for people with B.A., B.Sc. and B.Com. was suddenly opened up, and there was a range of jobs these people could do. Today, someone with one of these degrees, as long as they are reasonably capable, can expect to find a job after graduation.

Society hasn’t kept up, though. A lot of people are still in the daNDapiNDagaLu mode, and consider those studying B.A., B.Sc. or B.Com. as potential “waste bodies”, not realising that the time now is different!

Callousness of the callus

When my wife went to the University of Michigan as an exchange student, she embarked on a “social experiment” that I later termed “Lord of the ringless” (I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned here already  that she’s a big fan of social experiments).

The hypothesis, based on advice from a senior in her own college, was that a married exchange student was unlikely to win too many friends, and find too many people to hang out with. With a number of potentially interesting conversations and friendships at her “home school” IESE having ground to a halt the moment the counterparty noticed the ring on her finger, she decided to leave her ring behind at home when she travelled to Ann Arbor.

The social experiment worked, for a while at least. She managed to find herself a solid assignment group, and a bunch of friends to hang out with, before she got “outed“.

Back home in Bangalore last December, she wore back her ring, and promised she would never take it off again. Simultaneously, she made me promise that I would never take off my wedding ring, either. I accepted conditionally. “Most of the time I’ll wear the ring”, I said, “but I need to take it off when I’m deadlifting. Else it will give me calluses”.

“Oh, but I love picking your calluses! Don’t deny me that opportunity!”, she shot back.

I may not have mentioned on this blog that she’s always been a big fan of picking out scabs and calluses, right from the time she was a kid. For a long time, this was restricted to picking out her own, but then once she found me, she has ensured that no scab or callus of mine has gone unattended.

And so, thanks to this arrangement, I continue to wear my ring while lifting, and that gives a big callus at the base of my right ring finger. And my wife enjoys picking out these calluses, and now she has her own incentive to make sure I remain fit and go to the gym regularly!

Though I’m considering buying a pair of weightlifting gloves now!

Bloggers and anti-bloggers

I know this post “dates” me as someone who started blogging back in the peak era of blogging in the mid 2000s. But what the hell! 

I think you can consider yourself to have “made it” as a blogger when a post that you write attracts abuse. Sometimes this abuse could be in public, in the comments section of the blog. At other times, the abuse is in private, when someone meets you or calls you, and abuses you for writing what you wrote.

As long as you’ve been reasonable in your blogging (which the early years of this blog’s predecessor cannot exactly claim), abuse on your comments section is more of an indicator of the thin-skinnedness of the abuser, rather than you crossing lines on what you should write about.

At this point in time, it is pertinent to introduce the class of people who I call as “anti-bloggers”. Sometimes they might themselves have a blog, but that is not necessary, what is necessary is that they have a “holier than thou” attitude.

Anti-bloggers are people with especially thin skins who are always on the lookout for something to outrage about, and blogs, which allow people to express themselves freely on a public forum without editorial oversight, are a common whipping boy.

This outrage could come in several forms. The thicker-skinned version of this outrage happens from people who abuse you only if they think you’ve abused them on the blog (good bloggers take care to never mention names in a negative manner, so this is usually a case of “kumbLkai kaLLa heglmuTT nODkonDa” (the pumpkin thief looked at his shoulder; it’s a Kannada proverb meaning something like “every thief has a straw in his beard) ).

The thinner skinned version of anti-bloggers find it even easier to find things to outrage about. Look at the Bangalore post I’d written ten years back. There was no hint that I’d written about anyone at all, but the post received heaps of abuse, from people who manufactured some kind of entity that the post purportedly offended!

The most annoying anti-bloggers are those that abuse you when you simply pen down an observation that is there for all to see. I won’t take specific examples now, but sometimes the simple act of reporting a fact that is evident to everyone can offend people, for its existence on paper (a website, rather) gives it new-found legitimacy!

This last bit can also help explain the annoyance of some sections of the “mainstream media” with “social media” such as blogs/twitter. The worthies in the mainstream media had established certain unwritten rules by which certain facts/events wouldn’t be put down on paper.

The mention of these events in social media (which is unedited) suddenly gave these events/happenings sudden legitimacy, which steered the overall narrative away from where it existed during the mainstream media monopoly, annoying the mainstream media!

One penultimate point – anti-bloggers are the same people who talk about the glories of the days prior to social media (this piece in The Guardian is an especially strong specimen), when people could only read news that was filtered and possibly censored by newspaper editors.

And finally, ever since my credentials as a blogger were established about a decade back, some people have started explicitly mentioning to me when they are saying something “off the record”. And I’ve always respected these conditions!

Varamahalakshmi and Organic Chemistry

Today is Varamahalakshmi Vrata, a minor festival for South Indian Hindus. It is major enough, however, for a sufficiently large/influential proportion of the population, that schools declare a holiday on this day. It is not major enough, however, for the day to be declared a public holiday.

Mine is one of those families where this festival is not major enough to be celebrated. “It’s not an important festival for people of our caste”, my mother told me, though this now confounds me since this is a rather major festival in my wife’s family, and she belongs to the same caste as me.

The fact that this festival has been rather minor has meant that I don’t have much memories of past occurrences of this festival. There is one exception, though, which is what I want to talk about in this post. Varamahalakshmi Vrata of 1999 played an important part in shaping my performance in the IIT-JEE ten months hence.

In 1999, I was in class 12, and had spent the holidays between classes 11 and 12 attending the International Maths Olympiad Training Camp (IMOTC) in Mumbai. While I didn’t ultimately get selected to represent India, I had an overall great time at the camp, and learnt a lot of maths.

By the time I returned to Bangalore, though, class 12 had already started in school, and classes were also underway at my JEE factory, which I had joined just prior to my travel to Mumbai.

With the school teachers intending to finish the entire academic year’s portions by November, classes had been scheduled for Saturdays as well. This, combined with my JEE factory having classes on Friday and Saturday evenings and all day on Sunday, this left me little time to do pretty much anything.

It wasn’t that I wanted to do too many things – my focus that academic year had been to simply focus on the IIT-JEE and (to a much lesser extent) my class 12 board exams. Yet the near non-stop schedule at both school and factory had meant that I was constantly “running” to catch up, with little time for independent study outside of school, factory and their assignments. I desperately needed a holiday to slow down, grab my breath and catch up.

It is a quirk of the Indian festival calendar that there are few holidays between May Day and Independence Day (August 15). If one of the Muslim festivals (which move around the year) doesn’t occur in this time period, it is possible to not have any holidays at all. 1999 was one such year. And this is where Varamahalakshmi Vrata came to the rescue.

I don’t remember the exact date it occurred on in 1999, but it was a Friday (it always is). I had been especially struggling with organic chemistry in the past month, totally unable to grasp the concepts.

Now, the thing with class 12 organic chemistry is that there are lots of patterns, which you need to learn to recognise. Simply mugging is an option, of course (and I suppose a lot of people take that path), but the syllabus is so voluminous that you rather take a more scalable approach. Learning to recognise patterns, however, means that you be able to spend a sufficient amount of time on the concept without distractions. It takes a special kind of focus to be able to do that.

And so I sat down on the morning of Varamahalakshmi Vrata 1999 with “Tata McGraw Hill guide to IIT JEE Chemistry” (forget precise name), and started doing problems. I didn’t intend to discover patterns that day – simply to solve lots of problems so that I’d somehow get a hang. The fact that the festival wasn’t celebrated in my family meant there was no disturbance (of bells and prayers).

So it happened sometime around noon, or a bit later. I had started the morning mostly struggling with the problems, and having to put major fight to be able to solve them. Over time I had gotten better steadily, but slowly. Now, suddenly I found myself being able to solve most problems rather easily. I had to only look at a problem before I could recognise the pattern and apply the appropriate framework. Organic chemistry would be a breeze for the rest of that academic year.

It’s funny how learning happens sometimes. There is usually a moment, which usually comes after you’ve spent sufficient time on the problem, when there is a flash of inspiration and it all falls into place. It has happened to me several times hence. So much so that I fundamentally believe this is how all learning happens!

Or at least so I believed back in 2004 when I had to give a lecture on “Quality takes time” (this was part of a communications course at IIMB). Watch the video:

Dogs of Jayanagar

Fifteenth Cross is a fairly important road in Jayanagar. A rather wide, and widely used, road, it has two other names – “South End Main Road” and “Nittoor Sreenivasa Rao Road” (you must hear the Google Maps navigator pronounce the latter).

Fifteenth Cross is also an important “boundary road”, in more than one way. The part of Jayanagar to the North of it is part of the “Jayanagar” ward in the metropolitan corporation (BBMP), and part of the Chickpet Assembly constituency. The part to the south of Fifteenth Cross belongs to the Yediyur BBMP Ward, and part of the Padmanabhanagar Assembly Constituency. Fifteenth Cross is also a boundary between Jayanagar Second Block (to the North) and Jayanagar Third Block (to the South).

And these are not the only boundaries demarcated by Fifteenth Cross – it marks a frontier of canine territory as well.

Jayanagar Third Block, part of Yediyur Ward, has something that Jayanagar Second Block, part of Jayanagar Ward, lacks – garbage. There is this spot next to a triangle-shaped park, and across the road from an empty site, where people dump their garbage. This is on account of door-to-door garbage collection in Jayanagar Third Block not being up to the mark.

Jayanagar Second Block, being part of the generally (seemingly) better administered Jayanagar Ward, lacks such garbage “hotspots”. Thanks to this, stray dogs in that ward looking for a late night (or midnight) snack have nowhere to go. And so they look to cross into Third Block, hoping to find something in its overflowing garbage bins.

The small problem, of course, is that Jayanagar Third Block has its own fair share of stray dogs, most of which have made a home near the garbage dump near the triangle park, across the road from the local mosque (it’s funny that dogs have their home so close to the mosque, considering puritanical Islam considers dogs as being haraam). And they like to guard their territory fiercely.

And so if you live anywhere close to the triangle park and were to get woken up around 2:30 am (which I’ve been for the last week or so), you’ll get to witness this grand canine battle of Jayanagar. The dogs of Second Block trying to make their way to the garbage dump in Third Block, and the Third Block dogs doing their best to scare them away.

From the sounds of it, there is little bite, mostly bark. And from the sights of it, it is interesting how the dogs orient themselves. Each dog positions itself in the middle of a street intersection (most of these in Third Block are rather brightly lit), and facing its adversary, howls. Howls and barks are returned. Other dogs (from both the aggressor and defender parties) join into the cacophony, and soon there is a crescendo.

Not to be left alone, the house dogs in the area join in the party, adding their own barks, though it is unlikely that the street dogs care too much about them – they continue their battle regardless.

This morning, after an hour of tossing and turning, I stepped on to my balcony to survey the scene below. The home team (Third Block dogs) had situated themselves at the intersection closest to my house (Sixteenth Cross), standing abreast and watching quietly. Three dogs from the away team (the raiding party from Second Block) were quietly making their way back across Fifteenth Cross, their raid over, and possibly unsuccessful. The house dog in the house opposite continued to bark, but no one cared about him!

The Third Block dogs stood at the intersection until the raiding party was safely past the Fifteenth Cross boundary, before returning to their business, whatever that is. And the house dog across the road continued to bark.

I don’t understand the strategy of the Third Block dogs. While they control a great amount of garbage, and have access to plenty of food thanks to that, their strategy of defending it through the night doesn’t make sense – for in the morning a BBMP truck visits the garbage spot, and takes it all away.

In other words, the sources of food these dogs guard is a perishable commodity, thanks to which there is little benefit in defending it. They might as well share the loot with their brethren from Second Block without much cost, for what is defended now is gone a few hours later.

But then, maybe they just want to send out a signal. Defending their loot, even if it isn’t valuable to them, might be a way of sending a credible signal that they will defend their territories in the face of any other attack.

Or maybe they’re just being dogs!

Nomenclature

One of the fundamental methods in which we humans understand the world around us is by means of classification, and one of the fundamental steps in classification is nomenclature. When we give an object (animate or inanimate) a name, we take a massive step towards understanding it and appreciating it. An entity without a name is extremely hard to fathom, and it can be argued that the lack of a name can turn something into a non-entity.

It is thus standard practice that when something is created, it be given a name. And this applies to fellow human beings as well – until a name is applied, a newborn Homo sapiens remains an “it” – almost a non-entity. With the application of a name, “it” becomes a person, and gets an identity of its own.

As we have been discovering over the last few months, finding a name for a t0-be-born baby is a non-trivial process. The number of considerations that must be taken into consideration is humongous, for this set of words is going to fundamentally determine how this to-be-born will be viewed by the world for the duration of its lifetime.

For starters, the name should sound pleasant, and should be reasonably easy to pronounce for most of the people the to-be-born will encounter during the course of its life. Second, the name in entirety should seem cohesive – think of all those names where some part of character is lost because first and last names somehow don’t “match”.

Then, while there might be an argument that the name is simply an identifier for the said entity, we should also take into consideration the meaning of the said collection of syllables. This meaning should be something aesthetically pleasing to both the parents, and (hopefully) to the to-be-born.

Some people go so far as to name their kids after certain qualities, either physical or otherwise, and then it becomes a lifelong (and sometimes futile) adventure of the said kids to simply live up to their names!

And then there is a separate set of factors that many might find trivial, but can nonetheless be important. One must consider, for example, the possible nicknames and diminutives that might stem from the name, and these (apart from the name itself) need to be palatable. Next, the name should be “contemporary”, so that the to-be-born’s name doesn’t look misplaced in terms of era.

Then, this is a possibly recent phenomenon, but there is the uniqueness factor. As one hostel T-shirt at IIT Madras in the early 2000s put it, “na bhUtO, na bhavishyati” – there should never have been one, and there should never be one other with the same name. And so people try to find names that are unique – but not so unique that it (the name) becomes a point of ridicule.

And then there are constraints on the language of origin of the name – in case it means something. And some people like to name their kids based on where they expect it to stand in class – this is one reason for the profusion of “Aa*”s in recent times.

Given that we know the gender of our child already, there is added pressure on us to come up with a name quickly – at least by the time she is born. With a name by the time of birth, she can start her life of an independently living Homo sapiens as a “person”, and won’t have to be an “it” for too long.

A friend with a two-year-old daughter recently remarked that “naming a girl shouldn’t be hard. So many abstract nouns in Sanskrit denoting qualities are female”. Another friend with a much younger daughter supplied us with “rejects” – names he had considered but ultimately didn’t use. Yet, it is of no avail, as we continue to be clueless in our nomenclature.

And it’s not just the first name that’s up for grabs – we need to decide what our daughter’s last name will be as well. The “default option” is to continue the patronymic (using father’s first name as last name), but the wife thinks “Karthik” makes for a lousy last name, so there is some debate on that front as well. Another option is to use my father’s given name (which is my last name) as my kid’s last name, but I find that simply weird.

Then there is the option of reviving the name of my ancestral village (which was part of my father’s name, but is not part of mine), but it sounds “too country” (translates to “village of cowherds”). Another option is to use the gotra (which is what the wife, or rather her parents, has used), but that will lend a casteist element to the name, which we’re not particularly comfortable with.

Yet another option is to dig into my paternal ancestry to look for suffixes that can be used as last names (this supplies “Rao”, “Shastri” and “Bhat” – and I know this because this is necessary information for performing death ceremonies), but that somehow that sounds too manufactured. Another common option is to use the place of birth, but “Bangalore” (where we expect our daughter to be born) just doesn’t sound right.

And all this is for the last name, which you might think must be straightforward! Imagine the amount of effort involved in coming up with the first name!

Whoever said nomenclature is an easy process!