Retired politicians

I must admit a particular fondness for former External Affairs Minister Natwar Singh’s biweekly column in the Business Standard. I was not a great fan of him as a politician, and was happy to see him go when he was accused in the Iraq cash-for-food scandal, but there’s a certain freshness and honesty in the column that I’ve learnt to appreciate. Having had a colourful political career, he has a lot of stories to tell, and though some of these are already well-known, there is value in reading the way he narrates them.

This makes me crave for more such pieces, but the unfortunate fact about Indian politics is that there are few retired politicians. Unlike in developed countries where most politicians go out of office before they are seventy, and then hang around making money by giving speeches and critiquing their successors, the people here continue in active politics even after they’re well into the proverbial seventh age. Look no further than LK Advani who, well into his eighties, still harbours the hope of becoming India’s prime minister one day.

While one result of this is that senior citizens occupy all the posts that matter in a country like ours that is so young (in terms of median age), this also means that there are no retired politicians. This means that there are few people who have seen it all, from the inside or the outside, who are now free from any contractual or political obligations, and so can afford to educate us about all that they’ve seen.

Now that makes me think that our political parties are afraid of people who are still around but out of the system, since their personal and party incentives are not aligned any more. Hence, it might be a possibility that political parties give out posts to senior party members as a sort of dole, so that they don’t retire and tell the wider public all that they know.


This is my first ever handwritten post. Wrote this using a Natraj 621 pencil in a notebook while involved in an otherwise painful activity for which I thankfully didn’t have to pay much attention to. I’m now typing it out verbatim from what I’d written. There might be inaccuracies because I have a lousy handwriting. I begin

People like models. People like models because it gives them a feeling of being in control. When you observe a completely random phenomenon, financial or otherwise, it causes a feeling of unease. You feel uncomfortable that there is something that is beyond the realm of your understanding, which is inherently uncontrollable. And so, in order to get a better handle of what is happening, you resort to a model.

The basic feature of models is that they need not be exact. They need not be precise. They are basically a broad representation of what is actually happening, in a form that is easily understood. As I explained above, the objective is to describe and understand something that we weren’t able to fundamentally comprehend.

All this is okay but the problem starts when we ignore the assumptions that were made while building the model, and instead treat the model as completely representative of the phenomenon it is supposed to represent. While this may allow us to build on these models using easily tractable and precise mathematics, what this leads to is that a lot of the information that went into the initial formulation is lost.

Mathematicians are known for their affinity towards precision and rigour. They like to have things precisely defined, and measurable. You are likely to find them going into a tizzy when faced with something “grey”, or something not precisely measurable. Faced with a problem, the first thing the mathematician will want to do is to define it precisely, and eliminate as much of the greyness as possible. What they ideally like is a model.

From the point of view of the mathematician, with his fondness for precision, it makes complete sense to assume that the model is precise and complete. This allows them to bringing all their beautiful math without dealing with ugly “greyness”. Actual phenomena are now irrelevant.The model reigns supreme.

Now you can imagine what happens when you put a bunch of mathematically minded people on this kind of a problem. And maybe even create an organization full of them. I guess it is not hard to guess what happens here – with a bunch of similar thinking people, their thinking becomes the orthodoxy. Their thinking becomes fact. Models reign supreme. The actual phenomenon becomes a four-letter word. And this kind of thinking gets propagated.

Soon the people fail to  see beyond the models. They refuse to accept that the phenomenon cannot obey their models. The model, they think, should drive the phenomenon, rather than the other way around. The tails wagging the dog, basically.

I’m not going into the specifics here, but this might give you an idea as to why the financial crisis happened. This might give you an insight into why obvious mistakes were made, even when the incentives were loaded in favour of the bankers getting it right. This might give you an insight as to why internal models in Moody’s even assumed that housing prices can never decrease.

I think there is a lot more that can be explained due to this love for models and ignorance of phenomena. I’ll leave them as an exercise to the reader.

Apart from commenting about the content of this post, I also want your feedback on how I write when I write with pencil-on-paper, rather than on a computer.


Wedding Invitation Prefixes

It seems simplest in Tamil Nadu, where the  girl’s name is prefixed with “Sow” (or “Sou”; for Sowbhagyavathi) while the boy’s name is prefixed with “Chi” (for Chiranjeevi). Considering most Tams have only one initial to their names, this sounds fair.

As we move to Andhra, the boy’s prefix remains “Chi” while the girl’s prefix gets elongated to “Chi Lax Sow”. I guess this is in line with the practice of three or more initials in Andhra.

In Karnataka, where two initials are dominant (at least were dominant in my parents’ generation; though not in mine (for eg. my father decided “Gollahalli” sounded too country to be part of my name so he dropped it and gave me only one initial) ) both boys and girls have two syllable prefixes. Girls get “Chi Sow” (for chiranjeevi sowbhagyavathi i guess). Boys get “Chi Ry” (I have no clue what Ry stands for. Maybe Karnataka boys show a special fondness for rye-based drinks).

Found this pertinent given that this afternoon I journeyed to Sultanpet and bought cards on which we’ll print our wedding invites.

why is the level of English in North India so low?

I had sent this mail to a mailing list of 60-odd super-intelligent people. unfortunately, in their fondness for Savita Bhabhi, Vidarbhan farmers and child-eating, they weren’t able to come up with any convincing explanation for this. So I thought you super-intelligent readers of my blog might be able to help. I begin.

Three months back I moved to Gurgaon from Bangalore. And one thing I’ve noticed is that here practically no one can speak English. I’m referring to service providers here, people who are typically from the lower middle class. Taxi driver. Electrician. Waiter. Accountant. etc.

None of them can speak a word of English, and  I mean that almost literally. In Bangalore and Madras, we can see that people in these professions at least make an effort to speak English, and even if you don’t know their local tongue you will be able to communicate with them and get your work done. Here, unless you know Hindi, it is impossible. There is only so much you can communicate in Dumb Charades, right?

I suppose one argument will be that people in the North would have never had the need to learn English since most people they come across can speak Hindi. And that since linguistic regions are much smaller in the South, there is greater incentive for people to pick up and learn new languages. And since they know that a knowledge of English helps get them more business, they make an effort to pick it up.

But again – even if you exclude those who haven’t gone to school, the knowledge of English here is horrible. Isn’t it aspirational in North India to send kids to English medium schools? If not, I wonder why this is the case – given that in the South practically everyone want to send their kids to English medium schools.

Ok here is my hypothesis – remember that it is a hypothesis and not an argument. I wonder if people who are native of regions where the same language prevails over a large geographical area are linguistically challenged. because everyone they need to interact with know their language and there is no need for them to learn any new language. and this affects their ability to pick up new languages. on the other hand, people from linguistically diverse regions will tend to find it easier to pick up new languages.

extending this, it might actually help if the medium of instruction in your school is not your native tongue. having learnt a new language early, you will find it easier to pick up new languages as you go along.

sometime last month I was at a high-end restaurant with a couple of friends. spoke to the waiter in English and he didn’t understand. one of my friends who was with me said “don’t bother talking to these guys in English. if they knew some english, they’d’ve been working for Genpact and not become waiters”