Towards liberalism

I was raised in a fairly conservative family; my father’s atheism not preventing him from being socially conservative. Until I went to college, I never blew candles for my birthday, for they were deemed to be “against Indian culture” at home. I went to RSS Shakhas, my seniors at RSS stuck BJP posters on my door, and except for the 1989 Assembly elections when BJP didn’t put up a candidate in Kanakapura, my parents always voted for that party.

My wife comes from a different kind of family. They are religious but can be described as being more “secular” (her name (Priyanka) might suggest to you their political leanings). So she grew up doing poojas and keeping vratas on all sorts of random Hindu festivals, but also blowing candles on her birthday and calling up “Santa” and getting Christmas presents also. Yeah, you look for compatibility on several axes when you’re searching for a long-term gene-propagating partner, but political leanings are usually low down on that compatibility list.

Last year, I totally and completely failed to appreciate her celebration of Christmas, instead treating it as yet another random holiday, before and after which nobody did anything at work. I failed to give her any gifts, or organize any “christmas events” for her. Yeah, the in-laws came over, we had set up this little crib based on dolls we’d purchased in Sri Lanka on our honeymoon and all that (unfortunately we misplaced that set, else we’d’ve displayed it as part of Dasara too, this year), but I must admit I’d failed to “celebrate” the festival. And in my defence, it was never a festival that I had celebrated, so “forgot” was actually a valid excuse.

So this year we decided to have a Christmas party at home. Basically called a few friends over, most of whom responded with astonishment (thanks to my RSS legacy), but were kind enough to land up. And once again we searched hard and found that “crib set” and set it up. And started playing Christmas carols, until I got bored and switched the music to Black Sabbath, which nobody really minded. Much alcohol was consumed (especially wine, given the Christmas spirit), plum cake was had and Chinese food ordered in.

In the intervening years I’ve found myself becoming more and more socially liberal. It probably started when I moved to IIMB; I think that was the time I stopped being judgmental of people based on their backgrounds, and stuff. That was the time when I started respecting individual rights, and those leanings got stronger as I slowly opened up, joined a libertarian-leaning mailing list, and realized that this was actually what I (as a person, irrespective of my background) was about.

On a foreign vacation earlier this year, thanks in part both to the lack of interesting vegetarian options and the availability of fairly succulent-looking meat, I stopped being vegetarian. A few months after that I participated in a “Ramzan meat walk” (though I didn’t consume much meat during the walk, since a lot of it was ‘hardcore’). I find it silly now that I’d actually joined a group of hostel-mates that campaigned for a “vegetarian table” at the hostel mess because the non-veg food “looked too gross”. But when someone starts singing “Silent Night”, I only remember that variation that a chaddi dost and I had come up which changes the song’s lyrics in a way that it ends with “and two souls become three”.

Given a chance, if I were to register as a voter and there were elections tomorrow, I might still vote for the BJP, following family tradition, but that would be more in line with economic thought and lack of options rather than my conservative background. I oppose the forced 11pm shutdown of Bangalore pubs, but don’t care about it enough to join protests on that front. If the government subsidizes Haj and Kailas Mansarovar Yatras, I demand that I get funding to attend the Pastafarian conference in Texas. And I still intend to open my autobiography (whenever I write it) with the lines “As Babri Masjid came crashing down, I celebrated. It was my tenth birthday and we had a party at home … “.

Teaching Sustainability

So I was at an aunt’s place last night to celebrate Diwali, and we were celebrating with fireworks. Don’t raise a stink about my carbon footprint here since that’s besides the point. Also besides the point is that I spent a long time playing on the swing in my aunt’s house and thoroughly enjoyed himself.

So the deal is that most “night fireworks” are lit with sparklers (sursurbatti in Kannada). So in order to keep the fireworks going, it is important that there is at least one burning sparkler at any point in time. Now, it is a big pain to light a sparkler directly, using something like a matchstick or a candle. The easiest way to light a sparkler is from another sparkler. I’m reminded of the technical definition of a chain-smoker, who is defined as a smoker who uses only one matchstick a day – the rest of his cigarettes being lit from other cigarettes.

Anyways the point is that in order to light fireworks “sustainably” it’s important to keep a chain of sparklers going. It is important that before a sparkler burns out, you use it to light another, and so forth. That way you end up wasting little time in terms of lighting new sparklers from candles. So it is usually the duty of an “elder” (a role that I took upon myself last night) to keep the chain of sparklers going, so that the rest can have uninterrupted fun.

So what I found last night was that my niece and nephew, in their eagerness to play with fireworks, would end up taking sparklers from my hand faster than I could build the chain. It happened way too frequently. I would have just lit a sparkler when they would take it from my hands and not return it, thus preventing me from keeping the chain going. Clearly, they didn’t know how to light fireworks “sustainably”. They prioritized immediate gain to the “loss” in terms of time wasted in lighting new sparklers.

So it was down to incentives. Whenever the chain of sparklers was broken, it was up to either me or one of my cousins to make the effort to light a new sparkler “from scratch” and start a new chain. The kids weren’t involved in this, and were oblivious of the pain that their unsustainable practices caused. And got me thinking about how I could “safely” align the kids’ incentives with sustainability.

Soon the lamps in the garden ran out of oil, and that changed the whole ball game. Now, every time the chain got broken, someone had to go into the house to light a new sparkler and restart the chain. And being one of the younger ones around, it fell to my niece to go in each time the chain was broken and get her mother to light a sparkler. The incentives had changed.

Suddenly there was change in my niece’s behaviour. She suddenly became active in terms of keeping the sparkler chain going. She never took sparklers from me when I didn’t have a spare that would keep the chain going. When she saw sparklers in my hand burning out, she would bring new sparklers to me so that I continued the chain. Her change in behaviour was sudden, and significant. Her brother, who was deemed to be too young to run in to get new sparklers lit to start new chains, however continued in his profligate ways.

So this is like one of those posts that I call as “management guru” posts. Where I tell a long-winded story to describe a simple concept. The concept here being one of sustainability, and aligning incentives. So the point is that if you want to encourage sustainable use of natural resources, users’ interests should be aligned to sustainability. They need to be punished in the short run for drawing too much.