Sunday, June 11, 2017


Read Panama Papers for bearish worldview, avant garde journalism, and the red pill

There are some books which aim to deliver a sweeping commentary of the state of the world and humanity. They take you on a whirlwind tour of countries and cities, of ways of doing things (designing rockets, electric cars, managing offshore companies, illegal arms dealing, spying, etc), and different human motivations (save the world, make money, etc). I am currently liking such books. There are some books of this kind that make you bullish on the prospects of humanity - like Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance. Electric cars and Mars colonies to save the world. And then there are those that make you bearish- such as Panama Papers- very rich people enriching themselves even further at the expense of visibly poor they who can see around them everyday. There is deep pursuit in the common advancement of human consciousness (Elon Musk), vs. deep pursuit of advancement of an individual's consciousness (consciousness = bank balance in these cases) at the cost of the collective human consciousness. On the fiction side, there is Timelike Infinity- an impressive sci fi romp in which the last few humans together fight to save the race from anti-matter creatures, vs. The Night Manager - the fight of a few humans against the wrongful government / system.

Anyway, specifically on Panama Papers: I will not be too specific, of course- I don't want a contract put on my head: But impressive effort on the investigation- a worldwide consortium assembled quickly and working towards a collective goal over a year. Spectacular assemblage of bad guys- heads of states from really impoverished countries, sports stars, criminals, what not. A peep into new age investigative journalism- it's all about the data (terabytes of it). The movies Spotlight and Citizen 4 (On Edward Snowden), and now Panama papers- these three over the last couple of years have given me a good view.

I feel pleased with the fact that not a single Indian features in the book- perhaps one indication that our country does not fare too bad, relatively. If you compile a list of the Offshore country wrongdoing multiple- defined as the number of people of a country indicted by the book, divided by the country's per-capita-GDP - then India is right at the bottom of the list. Top most must be Guinea, and certain other African countries.

There is a powerful conflict of interest running in our current economic system. Politicians are financed by rich folk- who own the shell companies. So politicians are unlikely to support a clean-up drive. Media, too, is predominantly business owned - there again lies is a problem. Hard to see how clean-up drive will happen.

This book is like a "red pill" for the 99%- those who pay their taxes through the normal route. They are truly in the matrix! There is a great essay by the anonymous whistleblower at the end of the book- really nerve-tingling is the fact that we don't know who this person is, but we can read his thoughts and writing in a best selling book. The essay highlights several key issues in the economy today in the backdrop of shell companies, and also brings out his or her own fears- reg. how whistleblowers in the past have been given the cold shoulder.

So, imagine I'm Morpheus and you are Neo, a taxpayer who pays TDS. I am standing in front of you. In one hand I hold the TV remote, letting you go back to the Champions Trophy cricket. On the other hand, I have the Panama papers book. Neo- Blue pill, or red? 

Appendix: Shell company 101:

What is : Shell companies legally allow the owners of the companies to not be disclosed. Certain jurisdictions legally allow shell companies to exist.

Example deal: A company wants to bribe a dictator. They will just transfer the funds to a shell company owned by the dictator. Because the ownership is opaque, no one knows who owns the shell co.

First layer of protection: The offshore havens like Panama and Canary islands- allows shell companies to be registered, with undisclosed owners.

Second layer of protection: Nominee directors: Might be just a random struggler in a Panamian slum. In fact, the book identifies one such woman- a director in 25,000 shell companies. A nominee director is in the statement of incorporation of a shell company- the "Real owner" is not named. If the investigators investigate, they will be given the name of the nominee director.

Third layer of protection: "Inception": The shell company is owned by multiple shell companies, all of whom are incorporated in different tax havens. Like the Russian Matryoshka dolls, or like in Inception- dream in a dream in a dream.

Fourth layer of protection: Friends and relatives: the dictator himself is not the real owner, close friends of the dictator are.

Saturday, April 29, 2017


Vicious AC cycle: 1 cooling to you gives 15 heating to Atmos

These days, you're either subject to the harshness of the (natural) oven or you are under the benevolence of an air conditioner. I played cricket past two Saturdays, and got absolutely taken out. Before I could hit any stroke, the sun hit its stroke and I was down for the count. My friend ST's whatsapp status reads "Invincible summer".

(Distracting pun here; did not want to disturb the flow of the para above: A good sun stroke hits the sweat spot while a good cricket stroke hits the sweet spot)

Firstly, we corporate MBA types have been spoilt by air conditioning. As a kid in Delhi, my "PT" class was the last, and I would run around between 1 and 2 PM with merry abandon. Now look at me!

Secondly, coming to the nub of the matter here. So, it's getting hotter. We use the AC for longer hours. We expel all the heat from the heat exchanger, and make it even further hotter outside. Further, we've anyway generated more than 50% of our electricity from coal, having already added a good amount of CO2 to the atmosphere. What's going to stop this vicious thermodynamic cycle? I'm just saying thermodynamic because I remember all those Pressure and Enthalpy cycles we used to plot during UG days (Thermodynamics 101), and also perhaps to add some gravitas to the writing.

Actually going to the thermodynamic heart of it, the underlying thermodynamic cycles of thermal power generation and the air conditioning are inherently inefficient- can't go to 100 no-sir-no. The efficiency of ACs in India (some kind soul did a survey, link below) is 20%. On top of that, factor in the 30-40% efficiency of coal plants (wikipedia confirming vague memory from "Power Plant Engineering" course; that's around the theoretical maximum of the "Rankine cycle"). And then the 20% transmission losses to get it to you here via power lines. So when NTPC burns coal, only 0.2*0.4*0.8 =6% of that is coming to you. Rest is all heat dissipated into the atmosphere.

One way to think about it: for one cooling unit into your room, you have let out 15 units of heating into the atmosphere. As you put out 15 units, it becomes hotter. And you have to release 2 units of cooling into your room in the next hour. But wait, you've released 30 units now.

Now I'm supposed to give solutions, like a lame, formulaic essay? Ok, so go out in the sun in the mornings, and thus get used to the heat more, and after that maybe you'll need the AC less number of hours. The 175 GW Solar target set by GoI will help. Lastly, watch the lights at home. If not the AC, save in some other form. Oh, and read the biography of Elon Musk, so that you get inspired and purchase a Tesla (whenever feasible) and install solar on your roof. Oh, and you upwardly mobile MBA types- purchase a fuel efficient car, not an SUV.

Link to kind soul's work:

Friday, March 17, 2017


Beware of tennis seeping into your cricket

So I've been fortunate to be playing a fair bit of both for the past two months. I am a left-hander in cricket, and I used to feel fairly pleased with the synergies between my tennis backhand and my batting. Many of my tennis backhand strokes reek of cricket.

However, after a few mediocre outings in the nets and in cricket matches, I have realized that there are clear differences, and one should be very wary of picking up some habits from one's tennis game and bringing to cricket. Here we go:

1. All tennis backhands are classic "across the line" shots, which of course are to be shunned in cricket- play straight! A medium pace ball from over the stumps was on my 5th stump (outside off) and I was trying to flick it. I played inside the line, and was beaten, and left ashamed. And at that point, while I stood there blushing to the same red as the SG cricket ball, it struck me- that was a standard tennis backhand shot. Tennis backhand shots are by nature "across the line"- you end up fetching balls from outside your off stump and hitting it towards say midwicket.

2. Tennis backhands are only towards the (theoretical) midwicket/mid-on region; at most at times to mid-off (the down the line shots). In cricket, you have the whole square to consider.  

3. In Tennis, you necessarily play away from the body. Both in forehand and backhand, you position yourself such that you get room to swing your arms. However, in cricket, you want to move your foot such that you get to the "pitch of the ball" and play close to the body.

4. In tennis, you should meet the ball early. If you meet the ball ahead of your body, it's an aggressive shot. However in cricket, you can take your time- you can play late off your backfoot- you do not always have to reach for it.
The other way round, too, there are some aspects you should not bring from cricket into tennis. This below point I learnt early on only (the above 4 are fresh ) but just putting this one here for completeness sake, maybe I'll add more later.

1. In cricket, you play your shot according to the length which the bowler gives you. If it's short, you play your backfoot shot, if it's full you drive. However, in tennis, because you have more freedom to move up and down, you have to make your length such that you hit the ball at the optimum point.

One should be wary and conscious of all of these because in principle, cricket and tennis are bat -hitting-ball kind of games, and there is a risk of these characteristics being passed on from one to the other.

Sunday, December 11, 2016


Learnings from a Pasting received at Railways Ground, Parel

Can't simply bowl after a month and expect to hit the right areas! My warm up balls today were despatched for 2 sixes to the square leg fence and the long on fence. The one despatched to the long off fence was actually on the off stump and a decent ball, but was just not fast enough to get the better of a remarkably good batsman. The guy- the right handed opening bat-was doing a Sehwag- no foot movement and then giving the ball a solid thwack.  I came back fairly strongly in my second two overs- the highlight being two yorkers on the trot- one of them squeezed out by the batsman and one of them crushing toe and getting me an LBW. This yorker, btw, was the stuff of dreams- maybe there was some reverse swing too :) Also learnt from teammates that I generate good bounce- which means that I should pitch it up more, and if I pitch it short then it may sit up and I might get the treatment that I got on this day!

If you see, I have completely steered clear of the numbers here- suffice it to say that i got a royal pasting fro Sehwag. I bowled only one bad ball in the second spell- and that was because halfway through the run up i was toying with whether i would bowl a slower ball but then i ditched it. Decide fast and stick to that decision! In bowling as in life, eh?

I made a measly 6 (5) while batting. I was middling it well- though there was a nicked 4 to the fine leg boundary which is as legit as an edged 4 gets because I was anyway flicking- so what if the ball got less of the bat than desired! I got out to a very good ball- in my defense. Outside off, good length, seaming away, and I nicked it to the keeper. It is the best ball I have gotten out to, and would have made the highlights reel of the bowler's career. But yeah- served up in reality what's served in telly all the time- new ball at good length outside off- you could let it go.

A run out followed immediately afterwards- because the non-striker V (who went on to make 47) did not set running policy at the start of their partnership. I am a scamperer and pretty quick between wickets and stolen singles are important component of my runs, but not everyone is like that. V continued scampering even after i left, and other partner N did not scamper, and the poor guy fell short. So many context elements- N had kept wickets earlier- so N and V should have had the conversation at the start about running policy.

Also learnt a lot about field placements, today- learnt more about how to quickly move the fielders rather than the actual placement. We wasted a lot of time in setting fields, and were almost docked an over. Also, was faced with the question of "when to react"- after you realize the batsman is despatching short ones, pack the square leg field- mediately? or wait for one more despatch!?

We lost the game, by the way.

Also, ITC grand central looks good- it overlooked our stadium:

Saturday, December 03, 2016


Himalayan vulture and nature momentum

Notes on the above comic:
On the trek up Nag tibba, spotted a few Himalayan vultures soaring effortlessly. They are pretty massive. They ventured close to us- enabling the DSLR holder in the group to capture a few shots, and I could also see the body- all furry. I was seeing them second time- saw them first soaring NYC-skyscraper-high above me at Mcleodganj. They have this distinctive black and white underside of the wing which can enable you to clearly distinguish them - I've tried to capture that in the picture above. Also, for a full 5-10 minutes, I could not see them flap their wings at all! Wikipedia later told me- "They soar in thermals and are not capable of sustained flapping flight" . Also, apparently, this is the "largest and heaviest bird found in the himalayas"

During the Nag tibba trek, the highlight national geographic moments were the spotting of a black and white woodpecker and witnessing the "starry starry night" (all right, Alt tabbed and played it). P had chosen to hum Coldplay's "sky full of stars" that evening, equally apt.

Infusion of energy by the spotting of the black and white woodpecker
On an arduous trek, when my energy is draining and spirit is fading, or during times when the plodding steps seem like boring rigmarole, all it takes is a piercing bird call  from a seemingly viewable range, to perk up the spirits a notch, and when the spotting happens, vigour levels are shooting through the roof. This happened ~1 km downhill in the 9 km downward journey, with this episode becoming all the more interesting because I saw it coming from much before. A couple of hours ago, 1 km before reaching the peak, I saw a few holes in the tree trunks and asked our guide if there might be some friendly woodpeckers around, knock knock knocking on tree's barks. He shrugged and said indeed, there might be, and we let that pass. Now, a couple of hours later on the way back, I heard the shrill repeat bursts which would be either from a kingfisher or from a woodpecker. Drifted off the path, chased the sound down, and there it was. Black and white as a zebra, knocking away on the bark of a tree, hopping straight up vertically in characteristic woodpecker style. Excitedly pulled N and a fellow trekker in the group off the trail and showed them Mr B&W. I got pretty energized and after this subjected our our Trek leader to much chatter. Including one very fun activity of setting up an abandoned Bacardi rum bottle on a ledge and taking stone pot shots at it. While i scored many pebble hits, the TL scored a rock hit which dramatically shattered the bottle to pieces.

"Sky full of stars" or "Starry Starry night"- play one of them now as you read this
That evening was the starriest I've seen in my life. An arm of the Milky Way was like a white stain of star dust across the black sky, and I realized the aptness of the name. Trek leader Jude pointed out Pleides- a bright cluster. We saw many shooting stars. Another shining object slowly trailed across the sky, and J told us that that's a satellite. We also observed Princess Cassiopea posing for her beach calendar shoot. Orion, usually right over head in the city sky, we saw rising from the horizon at 7 PM odd and reaching by 10 odd the point were we are used to seeing him. The sky was truly marvelous. Made me later wonder, interest among kids in astronomy would be so much more in places where kids can just see the stars at night. Reminds me of the line from Interstellar- "We used to look up at the sky and wonder about our place in the stars. Now we look down and worry about our place in the dirt".

Same nature momentum propelled me next weekend
Next weekend happened to be in the beaches of Andaman- this is probably the most exciting three weekends I've had in recent memory. Imagine a game of football between the teams "Happening  weekend" and "Sedate weekend". Commentary- "Hills with the ball but face to face with the defender Rainy-weekend, Hills passes to Beach, OOO bad tackle by Fever-weekend but Hills gets the ball to to Sports-weekend.....GOOAAAL- Sedateweekends has been thrashed!!". Anyhow, I learnt at Andaman from V that you can see the international space station at night, so what i saw at nag tibba was perhaps the ISS. When faced with the starry night in the beach at Havelock, I could coolly pull out my fresh gyaan (from just the week before) and enlighten my "starry eyed" teammates. Then, i saw on a nature trail a black and white woodpecker yet again. It made such a din with its pecking- it was very loud especially given the silence of the evergreen forest. A smart Woodpecker can be hired by a rock band for playing the drums.

Saturday, November 12, 2016


Name of the rose NOTR- same league as LOTR

As AA said, this one's written in shorthand, but I had to get it out of the gate because I was overwhelmed by the book, and I had to rush to catch a flight.

The plot is ever-thickening, the numerous arguments are enrapturing, the abbey life is intriquing, the references (Borges, Conan Doyle, Aristotle) are rich, the history-politics (13th century Europe) is captivating. NOTR- sounds like LOTR, and in the same league.

The plot
William of Baskerville is inspired by Sherlock Holmes, and Baskerville by the story of the Hound. 

Numerous wide-ranging, passionate conversations about the nature of religion (should the church accumulate wealth?), about the nature of heresy (laughter? Illustrations), secular clergy vs. ecclesiastial clergy. 

Abbey life
The monks, novices, abbot, librarian, glazier,'s a world unto itself. Walks in the cloister, the hours of prayer, the perpetual discourses, the fear of "temptations of the flesh"

Aristotle's works, the teachings of the foremost gurus of the time (St Francis of Asisi) , the title of the book, acrostics..

History politics
Church vs empire, the politics of heresy, wisdom in the ivory towers of abbeys vs. the common men


Friday, November 04, 2016


The Subarnarekha Sandbar

Troubled bridge over waters
Come Friday afternoon, and we clamber aboard the Innova and brace ourself for the rocky Jamshedpur-Ranchi ride, the travails of the travel described in a dedicated post here. Today's post expounds on a particularly remarkable leg of the journey- the Crossing of the Subarnarekha sandbar.

There are two routes we can take- one via a village called Chokha and the other via the village Chandul. Now the Chokha route is shorter and more of a road, while the Chandul alternative can be better described as a rout than a route. However, journeying via the Chokha involves crossing a dubious bridge across the river Subarnarekha.

I first saw it in May- it's made of sand, and nothing more, and around 5 metres across and 200 meters in length. Imagine the symetrical and confident looking cables of the Bandra Worli sea link- well, this one's the other end of the spectrum of India's motorable bridges. Before the monsoons, we used to calmly cross, leaving Innova tracks on the mud behind us. This sand, I am told, is not even specialized bridge sand- it is just alluvial deposits picked up from the bottom of the river- ingenious "jugaad", at your service.

Warnings signs, and the fall
In June, there was a warning sign- One Friday, we saw as we approached the bridge that a truck had slid off and been submerged in the water. We neared a crane which was lifting the truck out of the waters, with the truck suspended ~20 feet in the air. Now we are always in a bit of a rush, on this journey, because we have to make the Indigo flight. As a line of cars waited for the operation to complete, we passed them by, coolly driving right underneath the suspended truck, much to the surprise of the crane operator and all the waiting cars.

As the warning sign foretold, this bridge was washed away during monsoons. And people in J-town said it quite matter of factly, to us- "Sirs, we cannot take the Chokha route, you see the bridge has been washed away". And thus, we broke our backs on the Chandul route, with the vertebral column being squashed into a jelly.

Bridge is back, and my back is bridged
I am pleased to report that today, I was back on those sands. Now that the monsoons have abated, kind municipality souls dug up the river banks put the sandbar back together- in service till the next spell of rains. Yes sir yes, in all its former glory, behold the Subarnarekha sandbar bridge, shot from the rear window of the Innova after yet another successful crossing:

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