The Ambareesh Principle and First Come First Served Nature of Calendars

The story goes (this is third hand information, so take it with adequate amount of salt) that a few years ago a bunch of people went to actor (and now Minister) MH Ambareesh’s house asking him to be a chief guest at a function they were going to organise three months hence. Ambareesh, it is said, gave them a funny look, saying it was impossible for him to commit to something so far away. He asked them to get back to him ten days before the event.

Based on this (possibly apocryphal) story, I christen this the “Ambareesh Principle” – when someone invites you for an event or meeting that is way too far away for you to plan, you refuse to commit and ask them to come back to you a reasonable number of days before the event. (Perhaps Ambareesh might not like his name being attached to this principle, but since he is a public figure, I’m entitled to use his name).

The problem with calendars (of the variety we use on our computers, like iCal or Outlook) is that they operate on a “First Come First Served” basis. The way calendars are designed, you need to decide whether you are going to attend an event or not in an “online” fashion – without knowing what other event might come up at the same time. This can at times lead to suboptimal decisions, and unsavoury cancellations, for you have to go back on your commitments when something more interesting comes along.

Because of the FCFS nature of our calendars, you have people (the usually busy types – CEOs and suchtypes) who have their calendars blocked for ages together, and in order to get an appointment with them, you have to take one a long time in the future. And with such appointments you never know if you might get pre-empted by something else “more pressing” that might come along in the meantime. Leading to lower efficiency all round.

The question is if we can redesign the calendar, and the “blocking time” system in order to make it more efficient, and make it compatible with the “Ambareesh principle”. Is there a way that we can respond to far-flung meeting requests with “too far to take appointments. Ping me <= X days in advance”, or set some kind of a auto reply to our calendar systems to send the above message for meeting requests sent too early?

And what is going to happen when CEOs and other such “important people” decide to implement such a scheme where they don’t take meeting requests more than N days in advance? Maybe we should get Ambareesh to answer! 🙂

Fighterization of Government

The problem with the proposed Jan Lok Pal bill is that it’s highly personality dependent. Given the kind of powers they want vested in the Lok Pal, it is clear that the proponents of this bill (Anna Hazare and co.) have simply assumed that a “good and incorruptible person” will occupy this post. What they don’t seem to have considered is that governments usually mess up in such appointments and it’s not guaranteed that a “good and incorruptible person” will always occupy this post. And that for that precise reason it’s dangerous to create an institution whose performance is highly dependent on the person occupying the post.

I’m reminded of two “high offices” to which people are appointed by the Central Government. Both these offices have gained prominence due to their occupation by high-quality people who did much to enhance the stature of this office, but have been undermined later by the government (UPA 1 and UPA2 in this case) appointing people with shady backgrounds to this post.

The first is the office of the Chief Election Commissioner. While this post has existed since the time of the first general election, the office was brought to prominence by former CEC TN Seshan. He was followed by a few other respectable gentlemen (James Michael Lyngdoh comes to mind). But then who did the UPA appoint to this post? Congress crony Navin Chawla, who in his earlier avatar as an IAS officer had been indicted by court as being “unfit to hold public office”.

The other case refers to the Central Vigilance Commissioner. By definition, this is a vigilance office and one of the implicit duties of this job is “vigilance”, which implies action against corrupt practices. You can think of this post as being a sort of a “mini Lok Pal” (for bureaucrats only, politicians being excluded). Again, when this post was created it was assumed that “honest impeccable incorruptible persons” would occupy it. And who did the UPA try to put there (before the Supreme Court struck down the appointment)? PJ Thomas, who had been indicted in a scam about 10 years ago.

There is no guarantee that people like Chawla or Thomas could come to occupy the post of the “lok pal”, which will completely undermine the purpose of the institution. I hope the thousands of people who are blindly supporting the “Jan Lok Pal bill” (and this includes you, Bharatiya Janata Party) take this little technicality to note. I exhort them to ask themselves if they’ll be ok having Navin Chawla or PJ Thomas as the Lok Pal. If they think it’s ok even if such people were to occupy the post, they can go ahead wiht their support. My assumption, though, is that most people haven’t really thought about this angle and are blindly supporting the anti-government agitations.

Coming to the title of this post, what we need is to create institutions that are not personality-dependent. We need to create institutions and systems with appropriate checks and balances such that even if people of “lesser integrity” were to occupy it, it wouldn’t be possible for them to significantly undermine the office. We need to effectively “fighterize” these posts in order to ensure that it’s not possible to sabotage them by means of a few bad men occupying them.

And the way I see it, the institution of the Lok Pal as envisaged by the Jan Lok Pal Bill (or by the government-sponsored bill for that matter) is highly personality dependent. And that is one of the reasons I’m opposed to this current Anna-Swami-Baba movement.