Friday, 31 July, 2009

Why is the US scared of Dr Kalam?

Our ex-president was frisked while boarding a plane for the US. By way of explanation, the airline, Continental, said, “TSA (Transportation Security Administration of US Department of Homeland Security) requirements impose a final security check in the aero-bridge just before boarding the aircraft. This procedure is followed by all carriers flying to the US from most of the countries in the world and there is no exemption to this rule.”

That coloured phrase (‘most’ but not ‘all’) gives all away. Entire (white) countries can be exempted, but not India’s ex-president.

PS: The TSA put out a press release saying, “On 21 April 2009, former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam was traveling aboard Continental Airlines flight 083 from Delhi to Newark. Dr. Kalam was required to undergo pre-board screening in accordance with the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) regulatory requirements immediately prior to boarding the aircraft. TSA requires that all passengers and their accessible property are screened for any items listed on the prohibited items list.

There are reports that the government of India has an official list of VIP’s and their spouses that are exempt from pre-board screening procedures. However, such a list does not mirror U.S. requirements for passengers that are exempted from pre-board screening when traveling aboard U.S. commercial aircraft. While traveling from an international location to the U.S. on an U.S. commercial aircraft, former Heads of State, and other VIPs, are screened according to the same screening procedures as for any other passenger. If requested, private screening can be provided.

TSA has reviewed the circumstances of Dr. Kalam’s travel and confirms that Continental Airlines implemented security measures in compliance with TSA regulations. TSA regrets any inconvenience that Dr. Kalam may have experienced as a result of our standard security requirements. TSA works closely with our international counterparts and our stakeholder air carriers to ensure a safe and secure transportation network.”

On reading this, I wrote to TSA asking exactly which regulations required Dr Kalam’s frisking. I strongly suspect they have recommendations but no regulations at all.

Here’s what they wrote back: “Thank you for your email message. 

Because this is beyond TSA jurisdiction we encourage you to contact your airline to obtain information regarding policies on this matter.

Please visit our website at for additional information about TSA.  We continue to add new information and encourage you to check the website frequently for updated information.

TSA Contact Center” (Emphasis mine)

Aren’t I glad these guys aren’t protecting me!

Wednesday, 29 July, 2009

Why movie stars pay the most tax

The film ads proclaim, “Rs 120 crore collection!” The seats are empty.

What’s up? Yesterday’s Times of India offers hope out of the mystery.

According to an article titled India makes almost as many films as US, Japan & China, an average Indian movie ticket costs $ 0.5 while an average American ticket costs $ 7.2 and a British ticket costs $ 9.5.

Now, Hindi, Tamil and Telgu films collect a good amount from overseas. A few reasonable assumptions and you have:

  Here US UK
Per ticket 0.5 7.5 9
Seats per hall 400 150 150
Shows per week 28 28 28
Weeks' stay 4 2 2
No of halls 100 30 20
% filled 15.85% 6.16% 4.25%
Seats filled per show 63 9 6
Tickets sold 4,50,27,370 1,43,630 45,455
$ earned 2,25,13,685 10,77,224 4,09,091
Total in $ 2,40,00,000    
in Rs 1,20,00,00,000    


Of course, films are imported elsewhere too. The Middle East must be a big market, at least wherever movies are allowed. And there’s Southeast Asia.

And I refuse to believe that the average ticket price commanded by a big movie in its first few weeks is as low as $ 0.5 (Rs 25). Surely they make much more in the multiplexes.

On the flip side, one wonders if Indian films get 4 shows a day throughout the week outside India. But we don’t need the details now.

The point is that with a weak rupee, a hit rate of1 in 25 should be good enough to turn any movie into a blockbuster, and Indian moviemakers need never look for non-Indian (Chinese, Western) audiences because Indians abroad are enough!

No wonder stars pay the highest taxes: They have so much to spare. The tragedy is that almost everyone else connected to movies – technicians, bit players, ushers - seem to be making a pittance. Why?

Monday, 20 July, 2009

If Ahmadinejad won hands down why didn’t he count the votes?

Apparently, Ahmadinejad’s victory in the presidential polls in Iran was a surprise only to Western columnists, who had taken Tehran, the capital, for Iran, the country. While Ahmadinejad isn’t popular in Tehran – and didn’t get votes there – he did well everywhere else.

This fortnight’s Frontline writes, “From the outset, it was only the Western media pundits who were predicting a victory for Mousavi. There was no doubt that he swept the poll in northern Teheran and other affluent suburbs in various Iranian cities. But the majority of Iranians, who continue to be poor, obviously preferred to renew their trust in the incumbent President…

…Most of the pre-election opinion polls conducted since March showed that Ahmadinejad was a clear front runner. The only poll conducted by a Western agency, on behalf of the BBC and the NBC, predicted an 89 per cent voter turnout. The poll conducted by the independent Centre of Public Opinion (CPO), which is backed by the Rockefeller Foundation, a few weeks before the election revealed that Ahmadinejad had a nation-wide advantage of two to one against his closest rival, Mousavi.

In the actual election, the turnout was 85 per cent, with Ahmadinejad getting 66.2 per cent of the votes polled and Mousavi 33.8 per cent. The Western media mainly covered the big rallies addressed by Mousavi in Teheran and other cities. Ahmadinejad criss-crossed the country addressing hundreds of equally well-attended rallies. In the 2005 presidential election, too, Ahmadinejad got almost the same percentage of votes. His rival, Rafsanjani, secured 35 per cent of the votes.”

Some people of Tehran have made the same mistake as Western commentators. They keep asking, “Where’s my vote?” Ahmadinejad’s answer should be: “Your vote’s been counted and your candidate lost.”

Fair enough. Only, it’s not so easy. Because last fortnight’s Frontline wrote, “Mousavi’s camp knew that it would have to fight hard to get as many votes as possible from the 46 million voters that comprise Iran’s electorate. Ahmadinejad was declared winner after only 20 million of the ballots had been counted.”

In other words, Ahmadinejad was declared the winner prematurely. We cannot say whether he had an insurmountable lead unless we know where his opponents stood (at the point when results were declared). Why did their election commission declare the results before counting all the votes, more so because pre-poll surveys showed the result to be a foregone conclusion? Very strange… 

Friday, 10 July, 2009

Why New Orleans looted and Bombay didn't

In late August 2005, the American Gulf Coast was hit by Hurricane Katrina. Along with large scale destruction, there was, supposedly, a breakdown of law & order, and a great deal of looting.

About a month earlier, there was a massive flood in Mumbai. This too caused great destruction, but there was no looting at all. In fact, the then president drew attention to this contrast in a speech. 

Somehow, it didn't make sense. Perhaps all this has something to do with the fact that many of Hurricane Katrina's victims were black. But what?

Today, I got an answer. I was going through lecture notes on Stereotyping by Prof. Jacob Groshek of Iowa State University. In his section on stereotyping of blacks, he had this cartoon.

For once, a picture was worth a thousand words.

Tuesday, 7 July, 2009

South Bombay gets its comeuppance

Our princesses and nobobs were delighted when The Decent Papaji made it on his own, under madam's guidance, and without the left. We'd turn right, but without paan-chewing knickerwallas. Bombay will be Big Apple; Sanghai is too small a dream for the i-generation.

Well, Congress ka haath, aam admi ke saath. And baba saw that only too well. So dada and didi were told to go socialist with a vengeance. And South Bombay's princesses and their stockbroker husbands got aam admis' jhapad in the form of two budgets, one for railways and the other for the country.

Why are they complaining now?

And why is this not a 'reform budget'? You had free market since 1991. Going back to socialism is reform, isn't it. We got to lose our 'pro-poor = sop, pro-rich = reform' glasses once in a while.

However, dada is wiser than he seems. How does one pay back the contributions made by big money during the pools? Simple. Make infrastructure, mostly in backwaters (anything outside South Bombay, New Delhi and Infosys Campus, Bangalore). Which means no journalist, leave alone any columnist, will bother to bother the big money contractors while costs quadruple on bridges and flyovers.

So everyone is happy, except poor rich South Bombay.

Monday, 6 July, 2009

Poor man's business channel

Why isn't there be a TV channel or a newspaper aimed at people who don't play the stock market but are, nevertheless, interested in the economy and business. Particularly, those who don't believe that everything that favours business are 'reforms' and anything that favours poor people is a 'sop'. 

That doesn't mean it'd stay away from the stock market. However, it does mean that analysts will take off their rose tinted spectacles while looking at Dalal St. 

Importantly, it'll have a heavy dose of technology, investigating it's impact on business. Let me take a specific example to explain what I'm getting at. Ambani is considered a great visionary because he gifted us with cross-country phone calls that cost less than a post-card. What is less well remembered is that other operators matched his prices all most immediately. One strongly suspects that the operators already had the technology to provide cheap calls; it's just that they didn't want to pass on the savings to consumers. Ambani had the foresight and the financial muscle to break the cartel, real or imaginary, and all credit to him for that. All the same, let's give technology its due too. 

More importantly, telling people what can be done should encourage them to ask why it's not being done. 

Similarly, we need economists who are not on the right of Ronald Reagen. Again, let me pick an example to explain what good that'd do. Every 'free market' columnist urges the government to close down all government schools, privatise education, and give education coupons or cash handouts to the poor to educate their children. Their pet justification is that the government schools are nothing but a drain on the tax-payers' money. (It helps that income tax-payers rarely send their children to government schools.) 

That read ok till I read Jayati Ghosh's column, titled Services for All, in this fortnight's Frontline. Says she, "It is often pointed out that the quality of education in government schools is poor and occasionally abysmal, but it is rarely noted that this closely tracks the spending per student. The Kendriya Vidyalaya system is run by the government, and there are few complaints about its quality. Yet this is a privileged part of the government school structure, with the cost per child currently in excess of Rs.13,000 per annum. By contrast, most school education in the country is operated on a pittance, of an average of around Rs.600 per student per year. So it is not surprising that there are inadequate facilities and uneven quality of teaching in such schools."

More such hard facts need to be put before us. 

But how would such a poor man's business channel make any money? Should it be a public service channel, run on 'government largesse'? Well, why can't it run like entertainment and sports channels run? On ads for things other than mutual funds?

Jews made Hitler hate them. Why blame him?

A good deal is being written, online and off, on the attacks on Indian students in Australia. Strangely, some of these articles have tried to explain why Indians are so hated (curry, part-time jobs, ghetto culture).

First, I wonder if Indians are hated at all. I mean there will always be compulsive haters in every community and country. To take their behaviour, or misbehaviour, for their communities' feelings is very strange sampling, to say the least.

Even assuming that Indians haven't been accepted and 'assimilated' all that nicely, how does that begin to explain racial violence. Racial violence is a subset of race relations, and the most visible part. But mixing the two too much ends up blaming the victim. The perpetrators cannot be blamed if they get the impression that society supports, or is at least sympathetic to, whatever they're up to.

Why can't the media act with sense of proportion for once, and send out the message that violence is not a continuation of communication by other means than 'war is merely the continuation of politics by other means'? If that sounds too naive, can't they, at least, shut up?

Wednesday, 1 July, 2009

They know no English

Was having lunch with a friend the other day. He works for a great advertising mind these days… Canas jury and all that. Was telling me how took apart a rookie copywriter for daring to presnet an English idea for a bank targeting second tier towns.

Now, I don’t know what you mean by ‘second tier towns’ in a world where most parts of most big cities don’t qualify for human habitation.

But if that means India outside Bombay, our genius is dead wrong. We talk English, we walk English as much as the big city guys do. There are fewer English types in any small city, but that’s because there are fewer people in any small city.

Mr Genius comes from a somewhat poor family in a small town, but is that any reason to assume that all small town folks are ill-off.

We small town guys are all sorts. I thought that was obvious. But then I’m a small guy.