Friday, June 29, 2007

How to create comic strips

I've always wondered how comic strips are created. It turns out now that all you need to do is get yourself a banana, diet coke, cat and the right kind of computer. Hard time believing me?! It's all in the Dilbertblog.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

On average, you're mean

I suppose all those fusty, badly-dressed statisticians get to revel in their profession and throw up puns like the one on the title of this post, for at least one day. Mark your calendars, for its day after tomorrow - National Statistical Day. How many professions even have their own day?

Number crunchers can thank a shadowy figure from history, one whose name was virtually unpronouncable, at least until I found he was Bengali. Prof. Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis was born on this day, June 29th, 1893. He founded the Indian Statistical Institute and is even named after a statistical principle - Mahalanobis distance (click at your own peril!).

The reason I'm referring to him, is that he was the architect of India's 2nd five-year plan (1956-61) which took India towards industrialization. The period we're talking about resulted in the building of massive dams, steel plants and power plants - all the building blocks of modern India. The country took turns that were to influence society, economy, politics and foriegn relations for a better part of 40 years. Of course, many of the above 'achievements' had unintended consequences and there is much debate today about the effectiveness of following such a policy.

Yes, I continue to be influenced by Ramachandra Guha's India after Gandhi.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

'If he is a bastard, at least he is our bastard'

Q. Who said this? And how does it explain why India tilted towards Russia, despite Nehru's original non alignment stance?

A. Ramachandra Guha, in his comprehensive history of India after independence, attributes this statement to John Foster Dulles, the secretary of state when Nehru visited America in 1949. During the Cold War, the US was suspicious of any nation that said it was neutral ("if he's not with us, then he's against us"). Guha writes,

"Generally speaking, dictators who toed the American line were to be preferred to democrats who didn't"

Nehru is quoted as well in one the letters he wrote to K P S Menon in 1947,

"We must be friendly to both and yet not join either. Both America and Russia are extraordinarily suspicious of each other as well as of other countries. This makes our path difficult and we may well be suspected by each of leaning towards the other. This cannot be helped. "

As Nehru feared, the US grew increasingly suspicious of India. Dulles offended India by suggesting that Portugal could continue to keep its colony in Goa as long as it chose to. And he was instrumental in signing a pact with Pakistan in 1954, further alienating India. Guha also suggests that,

"Nehru's vigorous canvassing of the recognition of the People's Republic of China, and his insistence that it be given the permanent seat in the UN Security Council...was also not taken to kindly by Washington".

So now I know a little more about what had been a mystery to me. Of course, Guha explains that Nehru's false reading of Russia's intentions (perhaps fired by his idealism) led to India gravitating towards the Reds. No doubt there are a cocktail of reasons that dictated India's choices just after independence, but Guha's book is a good starting point.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Anatomy of an apology

Tim Harford's column on apologies (link via India Uncut) reminded me of what I'd learnt soon after landing up in Delhi for a new job in news. I'm sorry, I said to my boss one day, after committing a pronunciation mistake of the sort one tends to see a lot on TV (I said kaun-stituency instead of constituency).
The incident itself wasn't of much importance, but my ready apology surprised him, and I could almost see his mental gears shifting. His new opinion of me seemed to be that I was a pushover. Bad mistake. Days later, I was told someone else would be in charge of our team, although I had the relevant experience.

Alright, it's an apocryphal example, that story. The actual facts are far more complicated. But the point is that an apology has its costs as well as benefits. To quote from Harford's column,

"... apologies make us more likable but also make us seem incompetent - an intuitive response backed up by psychological research. For example, the psychologists Fiona Lee and Lara Tiedens showed subjects some edited footage of Bill Clinton talking about the Lewinsky affair.
After viewing the clips in which Clinton seemed apologetic, the subjects said they liked him more but respected him less. This suggests that an apology is not cheap talk at all: it represents a choice to appear loveable but bumbling. The alternative is to admit nothing and look like a competent hard-man..."

My own view of an apology is simply: if I'm wrong, I should apologise. The trouble arises when I'm only partly wrong. My habit is to acknowledge my mistake even if my part in the 'error' committed is so minuscule so as to warrant no apology. Consequently, I apologise when I shouldn't be doing so. And to let off the set of frustrations that go with behaving in that fashion, I don't apologise when I should be. I'm trying to be a little more sparing in my manner now, but I wonder what all this has done to my image.

The final word in this topic should belong to my wife of 6 months, to whom I've probably apologised to a thousand times. I ask her what she thinks of my habit. She says, "you don't ever apologise, you only offer justifications".

Ah well, whatever.

Dear reader...

It's not like I've stopped writing out my thoughts. The reason I'd stopped publishing them was because I wanted the writing to be less self-indulgent. Having tried out blogs related to specific topics in the hunt for more focus, I think I've arrived at a compromise. I'll still write about anything that's fit to print (with apologies to the New York Times), but hopefully with greater purpose.