Wednesday, 31 December, 2008

Minority is ok

Many tears are shed for callous citizens who never vote. Someone gets elected in spite of only 60% or so voting. Worse, he may have the support of the minority of those voters.

I can't understand what the hullaballoo is all about, because a little thought shows that the damage, if any, is only to the losing contenders. For the citizens, both non-participation and election with minority support are immaterial.

For why do we need to know each voter's preference when a representative, random sample should give us a very good idea of what people want? In a populous country like ours, even the voters in a municipal election will yield a sample size that's large enough to give a truthful picture of the population's preferences.

It may be argued that the voters do not usually constitute a representative sample. For instance, poor people are more likely to vote. So the richer classes would be underrepresented.

However, it can just as easily be argued that those who stay away have reasons for doing so. If an electorate (those who can vote) is 1% rich and 99% poor, does it really matter if its electors (those who do vote) are 0.75% rich and 99.25% poor? Is it unreasonable for the rich to believe that their concerns won't count in the elected body? Or that they will have to use something other than votes to make themselves heard?

In fact, it is the insistence on making every vote count that keeps many away from politics. Let me explain. Let's say the poor decide to vote en block for a certain candidate (and agenda). They vastly outnumber the rich. So some lazy poor decide to stay at home believing, rightly, that their absence will make no difference, more so because the rich will be underrepresented.

The rich, on the other hand, know that for their votes to count, they must turn out in full force. They are, to begin with, marginal. Now, let's say Rich Guy A says, "What is the probability that my neighbour will vote? 15%. That's slim. And the chances of my other neighbour's voting? Well, 20%. That's bad. I wanted to vote, and I know it's my duty, but thanks to the callousness of my class, my vote won't count. So, why should I waste my time? Let me watch a movie instead."

His neighbours have more or less the same thoughts and stay away, not just from the polling booth but also from the entire election process. In short, they are doubly damned: first, for being a minority; second, for thinking cynically.

Of course, you cannot have election an electorate formally divided by class, religion, caste, and the rest. That would divide our already fragmented society even more, and we'd forever be at each other's throats. So, we better not insist on representative sampling. But we can insist on random sampling, hoping, again very reasonably, that the sample that yields will be representative as well.

This may, who knows, bring the added benefit of improving overall interest in politics among the previously 'doubly damned', who should get rid of their cynical reasoning (for staying away) once they don't have to bother about 100% turnouts any more.

Let's look at the problem of getting elected by a minority. This is slightly complex. But let's take an imaginary situation where there are 5 candidates; 3 get 20% each; 1 gets 19% and the winner gets through with 21%. Only about 1 in 5 voted for him; 4 in 5 didn't want him. Bad? Yes, if you want a simplistic answer. However, if you take a step back, it hardly looks horrible.

The split of the vote says that while none of the candidates was very good, none were very bad either ('good' and 'bad' merely being measures of ability to align oneself with the electorates' preferences). So, how does it matter to the voters who won!

Perhaps no important legislation was to be decided in parliament. So the choice of legislator became a popularity contest. While who proves most likable matters to the contestants, it makes little difference to the public.

Perhaps the legislation was important, but debating it wasn't. For example, let's say a bill proposes, "No person can be executed without proper trial." It's critical, but scarcely debatable.

Or take a verdict that goes thus: Winner-31%, runner up-30%, spoilers-29%. Wouldn't we like voters to have indicated their second and third preferences in such cases? Such methods are actually followed in quite a few elections. But it may be quite unnecessary.

Because the moot question for the voters is not Who won? Instead, it's What happened because he won?

If you got through by the narrowest of margins, and wanted to improve your (or at least your party's) chances next time around, what would you do (Only a mad electorate will elect someone who doesn't want to be re-elected)? Would you become very biased? Not unless you can indulge in some large scale ethical cleansing. If you can't, you'll look after everyone's interests. In either case - can or cannot commit mass murder – your getting a minority vote is, by itself, no major tragedy. (If the winner can commit mass murder, elections and elected bodies have long ceased to make any difference.)

The complacency about winners with a minority of the votes becomes more justifiable these days because many of our governments are post-election alliances. The very fact that politicians can get into bed after blooding each other's noses in public shows that they were fighting for power (which concerns them) and not principles (which concerns us).

Actually, in a democracy with a diverse population, it's high turnouts and overwhelming majorities that we should be worried about.

When everyone turns out to vote, they are probably worked up about something. Either riot is in the air, or revolution. And an overwhelming majority can only be a goon's. 

Tuesday, 23 December, 2008

Hang Kasab

He’s a terrorist. We have enough evidence, tapes and eyewitnesses, who have seen him kill. Why do we need a trial? As Bal Thackeray has suggested, he should be hung before the Taj, and the world be invited to watch and learn how we deal with terrorists. One noted lawyer, Masjid Menon, has said that he won’t defend Kasab because he’s indefensible. His guilt is beyond any doubt. A Muslim organisation has argued that executing him is in line with the divine law of an eye for an eye.  

Other voices argue that we should have due process precisely because we are not barbarians like Kasab and his ilk are. 

What both sides miss is that trying him is not necessarily to just affix his guilt and punish him – his guilt doesn’t need more proof; nor his punishment much debate – but to find out who else was involved and how. 

A trial is a logical end of an investigation. This devil was trained, equipped and financed. Those behind him are just as guilty as he is. Their names need to come out in a court of law, unless there are deep and indisputable reasons for keeping their identities and involvement secret. 

(Of course, we know who’s responsible. Pakistan is. So? Imprison the whole country? Hang the lot? Can we? No wonder those suave Pakistani diplomats snigger at us, adding insult to injury.)  

Also, some guilt needs to affixed, again in a court, on those who let him through (though I am far less sure than the rest of my countrymen that he was stoppable in the first place). Or is all that talk about accountability just gas? 

Hang terrorists by all means, even if it makes them martyrs for a batty fringe. However, make sure you try them first, to find out who else was behind the terror. (There is no record of Hitler killing anyone with his own hands, is there?)

Suppose you were to be 10 feet tall...

10-feet tall men have no place outside fables. However, they sometimes get into bad science fiction, forcing saner writers to point out that such giants are biologically impossible. 

I get a sense of déjà vu while reading books on the stock market. “Suppose you were to hold such and such a set of stocks over such and such a period...” a guru would begin, then go on to show what a silly fool you’d be if you did that. 

Now, how many actual investors get into the situations illustrated in these books? If not may do, why talk about these? Are these to be taken solely as constructs for instruction? Well, there is merit in that, more so when you consider how far science has come with theoretical models that grossly simplify the natural world. 

Yet... it somehow doesn’t jell. The scientist is well aware that he’s approximating within the limits of computing power and perception (the greatest mind would burst if it was to have a handle on every gory detail). Does the stock market guru? More importantly, does his reader? 

Why 40:40:20 is 40:40:20

The 40:40:20 rule says that 40% of the ‘success of direct mailer’ depends on the list, another 40% on the offer and only 20% on the creative (all inclusive, copy, layout, plain Jane or 3-D, bells & whistles). 

So creative is less important than list and offer.

I never understood what this rule really means or how it came about. It probably means that ‘40% of the variation can be explained by the list’ and so on. 

Anyway, let’s take the somewhat vague meaning given in the first paragraph. Can it lead to the conclusion that creative is relatively unimportant? Actually, it can’t. Because the creative is never randomly selected in a test! Each competing piece is produced by a competent team, judged, revised and, within the limits of practicality, perfected. Why on earth should you expect creative to make much difference?  

To draw a parallel, take basketball players. All of them are giants. Naturally, height and muscles cease to make any difference.  

Friday, 19 December, 2008

The simple economics of frightening Uncle Sam and his nephews

 I am listening to a series of lectures on international affairs by a Stanford professor. His analysis offers a simple explanation on why America should find the 'war on terror' very hard to win, and should it emerge victorious, the victory will almost certainly be a Pyrrhic one.

In war, the Americans have always emphasised materials over men. (Cynics may add myths to materials, but that's not the point; in fact, myth-making may be democratic necessity.) Most of America's wars were against weak powers, both relatively and absolutely, like Mexico, Spain, the tiny Caribbean islands, Iraq, and, lest we forget, Vietnam (They killed far more than they lost, never gave up territory, and pushed back all attacks, including the famous Tet Offensive. Yet, the body bags had them losing the war, first in their minds, and then at the conference table). In the Second World War, the preponderance of material in the American contribution becomes easily apparent when one compares the blood split by America to that lost by Germany, Japan and Russians. Americans believe, reasonably, that they came out tops in the Cold War because they outspent the USSR.

All this, plus the geographical isolation of mainland USA, gives the American citizen almost the god-given right to expect bloodless victory. The first Iraq War demonstrated that this presumption was not misplaced.

However, crushing your enemy with the quantity and quality (technological superiority) of weapons is expensive, more so for a government described as a 'retirement fund which happens to have an army'.

Now, the terrorist strikes, mostly at client states and accomplices, sometimes at embassies and tourists, and once, with devastating effect, at symbols (churches?) of American (big) business and military.

The staggering military might of the American state renders inadmissible anything less than complete, fail-safe and deathless security. Providing such security to voters requires wars of propaganda (for morale), denial of certain values (liberties) that they assume essential, perhaps unique, to their particular civilisation and, above all, lots of money.

The terrorists' main cost, on the other hand, is time and lives, both of which they have in plenty. 

What makes matters worse for the US is that its juniors, like Pakistan, India and Israel, demand that it protect them – at any rate, their elites – from terror too. Unfortunately, the Americans can't colonise these places (in the sense that they could take over, say, a Pacific island inhabited by some aborigines during WW2), yet need them for bases and cannon fodder. Worse, these juniors are often at each other's throats and justifiably or not, like to trace their problems to Uncle Sam. An expensive and complicated war becomes more of both. 

In a nutshell, America must maintain perfect Pax America. It must be the world's sole army and main police. And the terrorist needs to only keep up a steady stream of suicidees to bleed America dry. 

Monday, 15 December, 2008

Terror script

The other day we had a filmmaker over to talk about her experiences in Kashmir during the riots about the Amarnath shrine. She was scared, of course. And felt very odd at the way Kashmiris thought of themselves as different from other Indians. But she also talked about mass murder, mass rape and mass terror by the Indian army. The national shame made more credible by admissions to personal, normal (Just like you) fear and bewilderment (“They don't think like we do. Which becomes understandable when you consider the circumstance they have lived under for the last sixty years.”) And by putting faces and places to the suffering (“Her husband has been missing for the last 16 years. He was picked up at the bazaar.”)

And she's going to turn her observations into a feature film about these poor women.

There's something not quite right here. Can I stay with a Muslim family for a fortnight and understand enough about the 'Muslim problem' to write even an essay on it? If not, are two visits and an abiding interest enough for a script? What does one have to do to write a script? How long must a man walk in others' shoes to talk about them? How many different shoes must he wear? Can you write anything if you have to tell everything? Valid questions. And they do need answers.

Why USA is in recession

My brother and sister-in-law went to Wal Mart to pick up some gifts for her office, and couldn't find a shopping cart. He was bewildered that there were no carts when the American economy was in recession. She replied saying that it was in recession beause all the carts at Wal Mart were taken, that too during recession. That's telling.  

Who will take care of poor us?

Down with the politician. 

Fair enough. They are all fat and ugly. But who will rule us?

Why, we. You and me. The educated middle class.

We! We can't even run a housing society. Every housing society president acts as if he's god. While the rest of us simply refuse to follow any rule that our own society may make. We even make the security guard run personal errands, security be damned. 

Just see the sports page of any newspaper and you'll be nauseated the extraordinary amount of mudslinging and underhand deals that go around every sports body election. Who populate these bodies? There may be a politician at the top, but the voters are largely middle class fellows. (Not the economic middle class, but the self-declared real middle class, because class is perception that decides reality.)

We can't run a company without flouting laws and rules. Of course, we know that all laws that make us pay bribes were framed for the express purpose of collecting those bribes. But why begrudge the politician the same cynicism. He can just as well argue that conventional morality exists merely to turn him into a convenient scapegoat.  

Ok. Then let's outsource then. We'll get Israel for internal security, USA for external security, Chidambaram can run the economy, Narayan Murti will be made benevolent dictator to run the rest. 

Don't know about the last two gentlemen, but how is a country bogged down in two silly wars, and sundry even stupider civil wars qualified to look after us? What's their record? Ok, mainland USA hasn't been attacked since 9/11, but just too many people under US safeguard - in Europe, Iraq and Afghanistan - have been killed for any sane man to seek such safeguard. 

Moreover, if one looks at the cost of wars, and the stuff that money could have otherwise bought for the American voters, their government looks even worse. Can we afford such expensive security? At least, let them get rid of those Hummers, which, incidentally, didn't save GM from begging, before we say yes. Perhaps careful analysis would show them to be the best among alternatives, but lets at least look at China before choosing.

As for Israel, here's a police state with suicide bombings every month. This in spite of almost all their prime ministers being ex-generals. They may give the Palestinians a hiding from time to time, with helicopters, tanks and rockets (That's what we want to do to our minorities, don't we?) but they haven't been able to stop the killing of their own people, in spite of winning the War on Terror over the last six decades. 

Now, we are clever people. We don't care about hollow honour, do we? We think profit? So, do the Israelis run a profitable show in terms of protecting Israeli lives? For sure, we're buying lots of weapons and security systems from them, but should we give them charge to run our show as well? 

Again, we need some cost-benefit analysis. Reportedly, some Israeli security expert (and who isn't an expert these days) was quick to announce that hadn't Indian commandos blotched up, the rabbi family at Nariman House would have been saved. Now, how did he know they blotched up? Who told him what happened there?

Wednesday, 3 December, 2008


Throughout my copywriting career, my account servicing people’s constant favourite word has been ‘simple’. Make it simple. Better still, ‘Keep it simple, stupid.’

I wonder if any one of them have every stopped to think what ‘simple’ means.

Take walking. To you and me, it’s very simple. But to a physiotherapist, it’s probably a fairly complex process. 1 + 1 = 2 if simple for us; hardly so for the philosopher. So simplicity, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder.  

Or take a briefcase book, the type one picks up before a flight, at the airport bookshop. Typically, it’d quote two score research studies. ‘Research shows this and researchers say that’. Nine times out of ten, the data is meaningless. You can twist it and quote it at a cocktail party, but if you try to take a decision based on it, you’re inviting woe. The barebones is useless - worse, counterproductive - without the flesh and blood. But the worthless ‘basics’ may sound simple. 

Or do they think simplicity lies in boiling down the world into rules? Keep to the left. Sell dear, buy cheap. Honesty is the best policy. The boss, and the customer, is always right. 

Even a baby knows that if he tries to live by the rules, he’d be dead. A world without ifs and buts will collapse under its inherent contradictions before it can begin. Then why bother with such simplification, that the mind will reject alertly if not intuitively? 

Rather strangely, this drive for simple runs parallel to the rise of the visual, with pictures of ever-increasing complexity (that is, loaded with culture-specific clues) being used in all sorts of communication. 

One reason for this shift is that we do diagrams because we can. Click on a few dingbats, and you have a diagram. Never mind that the diagram is completely unnecessary, takes up far too much space, and illustrates something you’ve already written. It’s supposed to make the whole thing friendly. 

Friendly for whom? Someone who has neither time to read or think but has the time to act or buy? 

Another reason may be the hope that since computer drawings are such fun to make, they’re fun to see too. And whatever is fun, is good. 

Anyway, let’s come back to simplicity. My firm belief is that ‘simple’ actually means ‘different’. And ‘different’ means ‘what I think’. Long before a client starts a job, he makes up his mind about what he wants. The copywriter, because he starts with another point of view, or with none at all, arrives elsewhere. That may not necessarily be a bad place, but it’s not where the client wanted to go. For him there is only one road and one Rome. Anything else is complicated. 

So guess, guess and guess again.

And if you somehow guess right, if it fits, you’ll be crowned with Simple.

Tuesday, 2 December, 2008

For honest government, vote rich

We are routinely shocked by the asset disclosures made by election contestants, as millionaires and billionaires line up to represent the downtrodden. But their concern for the poor is actually our only hope out of the cesspool of corruption. Here’s why? 

First, as every economics book tells us, the rich are the salt of the earth and will turn this place into heaven if we let them seek profit unhindered. Out of self interest, that is, to generate goodwill for their businesses, they will serve us diligently.

Second, if the rich are greedy, they’ll very greedy. 

If you have a million, a thousand won’t interest you, because the marginal satisfaction is minimal. So you’d become incorruptible for most direct supplicants. There remains the question of indirect bribes, i.e., your share of the smaller bribes collected by underlings, that collectively come to a tidy sum. Well, here you’ll doubtlessly want more than the career politician, thereby oppressing the people under bribes so heavy that they’ll rise in revolt and establish the altruistic people’s republic. 

Now, since the rich are wiser than they are greedy, or since their greed makes them wise, they will never allow the revolution. In other words, they’ll ensure honest government and happiness for all.

Third, the controlled corruption the oligarchy will usher in will untimely make us all rich. Any money given to the rich, lawfully or illicitly, is good for society because the rich create wealth, i.e., multiply money. While career politicians will use a large part of their ill-gotten wealth to get re-elected, and the rest on vulgar display of wealth and power, the rich will first increase the amount obtained, then use some of the ‘profits’ for re-election. 

The cycle will shift from an entirely vicious one to one that is largely virtuous, though somewhat circuitously. One can call it a forced investment from a public which will, foolishly, not invest otherwise.

Monday, 1 December, 2008

Votebank terror

One of the strangest things we keep politicians that their opponents are 'soft on terror because of vote-bank politics'. In the same breath, they declare that everyone is against terrorism. In other words, no voter has any sympathy for terrorists. Which means, does it not, that for a politician to do or say anything that favours a terrorist is to go against his vote bank? 

There can be only two ways out. Either we are probably far more evil than we realise; or Deputy-CM RR Patil is right, and terrorism doesn't in fact matter: We just don't care if a politician is soft or hard on terror.

Hang the politician?

Ever since the terrorists landed at the Taj, politicians of every hue have been under attack by the talking heads on TV, the general population on streets, and each of us over emails, posts and blogs.

I’m sure the politicians are at fault in many ways. The way that the opposition has sought to gain from this crisis is disgusting too. Yet, I believe we are getting it frightfully wrong by making politicians the scapegoats.

First, by doing so, we do precisely what the terrorists want. They want us to be headless, have no faith in democratically elected leaders, and even ask for military or foreign takeover. Of course, the leaders have done little to deserve our faith (What have we done to deserve better?) and blaming them is logical, but that misses the point.

Terrorists wage psychological, not logical, war (if there is any logic in killing). Under terrorist attack, we need to rally around something, to fight the terrorist in our heads. By definition – ‘terror’ is the operative word here – that’s where the war will be fought for most of us. Probability dictates that far more among us will die under the wheels of a car in an accident than by a terrorist’s bullet or bomb.

The rallying point is the state, and the person who rallies the people is their leader. We don’t have even one leader who can do that. We are making matters worse by displaying our paucity to the world.

We have a right and a need to be angry, but that can be directed at (a) asking meaningful, not oratorical, questions and (b) taking whatever immediate steps we can.

Thankfully, many are already doing the first. Each day newspapers and websites are coming out with questions from ordinary Indians. Some professionals, ex-cops and ex-soldiers, are asking even tougher questions: One cannot accuse them of being theorising cowards, because they have been in the line of fire. Incidentally, most of these questions are to the police, the military and to the management of the hotels.

A fewer number suggested training to face crisis and use arms as well. Guests and staff outnumbered terrorists 100:1 at both the Taj and the Trident. The former were not lacking in courage; there are enough eyewitness accounts to prove that. Yet, they could only take bullets, not fire back. If some of them were armed, we might have had a very different story today.

To come back to the main point, blaming the politician also shows we don’t quite understand what their role can be under our system of government. We think they are our mai-baap, expecting far more from them than is possible under a democratic set-up, where their job is primarily to legislate, scrutinize (ask questions in parliament, etc) and set the overall policy (as ministers).

The enormous gap between the nature of the system and our expectations from it may be at the root of many of the ills that besiege us, now literally. When things don’t happen, we bribe politicians to exercise power, forgetting that their influence, and duties, should be very limited in the first place. In fact, the politician’s job is supposed to be voluntary. We are supposed to send our best and brightest to legislature to speak, think and vote on our behalf for a limited time, welcoming them back to their previous lives once they have done their work to the best of their abilities. Obviously, that is very far from how the system functions, but its design, and our minds, refuses to take reality into account.

So, I fail to see how a chief minister or even a legislator can be directly responsible for fire brigade trucks and bulletproof jackets. Police and fire brigade are services bought with, in the end, tax money. We are also supposed to pay for them by volunteering time. So, caveat emptor? Well, no customer has the right to expect a service provider to lay down his life on line of duty. Nonetheless, some questions and rage ought to be directed at lower rungs, babus and municipal counsellors, rather than at MPs and central ministers.

Besides, what did we do as citizens (service customers) to protect our own backs (literally again) besides cheat on tax and make snide remarks now and then? How many of us know the names of our local counsellor, the chap who’s supposed to see to it that our streets are patrolled and fire engines have pipes? If we know the system is rotten, and have known it all along, why haven’t we replaced it?

We have set up, by voting with our feet, parallel education, medical and distribution system (private schools, hospitals and shops) respectively. Since we’ve done that, we refuse to ‘subsidise’ the corrupt and wasteful state systems, by not paying taxes. Perhaps that is fair.

Anyway, we underestimated the odds of terrorist attack, and didn’t set up parallel security and damage control systems. We guessed wrong. We’re paying the price - psychologically now, materially later. If the politician has done nothing since the 1993 blasts, neither have we. If the politician has repeatedly come in the way of investigation, administration and reform, surely he knew very well that none among us bother to even ask if he has any right to influence what he supposedly dictates.

Finally, do we know what we want from politicians? I’ve repeatedly heard the terms ‘soft state’ and ‘tough terror law’ over the last few days. Does one need tough terror laws to act on tip-offs? To have trained and well-equipped police? To learn how to use a gun? To hang condemned criminals? Are we mad that we need new laws to submit to security checks conducted for our own safety? Is there any evidence that hard states (Who? Israel and USA?) Do better against terrorists than soft states (Who?)? Why should a suicide bomber fear a law, no matter how tough it is? Or are these laws targeted at local operatives? Are we sure the locals are sinning for money alone?

Or do we want them to bomb Pakistan? Are we sure that bombing Pakistan will not have the Pakistanis and Chinese nuking us in return? Has bombing Iraq and Afghanistan has solved America’s problems, or anyone’s problems, except the terrorists’, by turning their own hate into entire populations’ hate? Anyone who thinks beyond Stage One can figure out that even if war can stop direct terror killings, and there is no evidence that it does, war’s price invariably leads to far more deaths than it prevents.