Friday, April 20, 2007


What a week! While the whole world has been focussing on the VTech massacre, I caught another piece of news from India that put things into perspective for me. I was referring to this. So Richard Gere kissed Shilpa Shetty! So what? She's neither the modicum of so-called 'Indian virtues' nor claims to be one. Who are these people who start demanding apologies and lodge police complaints when it is no business of theirs? Don't they have something better to do with their lives? I saw on TV all these guys burning effigies and dancing around them like illiterate morons. And these images were beamed all over the world. No wonder the westerners still think of India as a elephant-riding snake-charming country. While we are at it, can someone tell me if there is a effigy-making industry somewhere out there I'm unaware of? I mean, our junta keeps burning effigies of cricketers, movie stars and politicians all the time. So I would assume that manufacturing these effigies would be quite a lucrative business proposition. If there is no such effort going on currently, I would like to copyright it.

Coming back to the real story of the week, the Viriginia Tech incident is deeply saddening. But I don't really agree with those who say it is hard to understand what would push someone to commit a crime like this. There are 3 essential ingredients in making this potentially deadly mix:

1. The essential loner who doesn't fit anywhere, not really liked by anyone and hence seen as a freak.
2. A college campus that thrives on peer pressure, where people are either accepted or outsiders and where feelings of hostility and psychotic rage are free to foster and grow without being noticed by anyone
3. A country, that despite repeated demonstrations of the evils of guns, still refuses to bring a reasonable level of gun control. You can walk into a gas station and pick up a rifle and some bullets with an elementary background check.

I'm not trying to trivialize the problem or claim to have a blueprint for identifying potential psycho shooters. The human mind is complex. Though we would like to believe that humans are essentially good and moral, research has been showing us that this might not be always true. Infact, there might be no such thing as free will. And every decision we make is probably shaped by past events, our genes and our environment. When you consider all this, you will realize that any of us could turn into a mass killer if the other factors are right (or wrong!). And even if you identify such individuals, you can't really take any action against them unless a crime has actually been committed. This was the problem faced by VTech authorities. So the only way to stop these crimes is to make it hard for potential criminals to get hold of weapons that can enable them to wreak such havoc.

Ofcourse, the gun control lobby in the US is extremely powerful. If the Columbine shootings could not bring about a change, then I doubt if the VTech shootings are going to achieve anything. In the meantime, our hearts go out to all those innocent victims at Virginia Tech and their families.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Sun Tzu's Art of War

Do you remember a movie called Wall Street that came out in 1987? It stars Michael Douglas, a bad-ass wallstreet broker who takes a young and impressionable Charlie Sheen under his wings to teach him the fine art of cut-throat wallstreet wheeling and dealing. Its a compelling movie with quite a few interesting sub-plots, backstabbing, treachery, betrayals and what-not. My intention is not to review the movie. However, one of the famous quotes in the movie comes from Gordon Gekko (played by Mike Douglas) when he says "I don't throw darts at a board. I bet on sure things. Read Sun-tzu, The Art of War. Every battle is won before it is ever fought."

That's where I first heard of Sun Tzu and his famous work 'The Art of War'. And when I got into Kellogg, I put this on my list of pre-MBA reads along with the likes of 'The world is flat', 'Who moved my cheese?' etc. I've been reading Sun Tzu the past few days, and it is fascinating to say the least. The book, hailed as the greatest book on military strategy, was apparently written sometime around 500 B.C although there are people who argue that. Sun Tzu - a famous general, warlord, mercenary and military strategist all rolled into one - lays down the fundamentals of war in this book. He covers topics like what guarantees victory, what factors to take into consideration before declaring war, when to advance and retreat, how to deal with terrain and weather and make them your friends, and most importantly, how to win a war without a single drop of blood.

The last point is quite interesting, because this is what Gordon Gekko talks about. Sun Tzu says the smartest generals will never be the most famous ones and the famous ones are never the smartest. This is because only those leaders who have won a lot of wars and shed a lot of blood are likely to become famous. However, the smartest leaders win through strategy and deception, without the necessity for a war and without ever stepping on a battlefield. They mislead their enemies, employ spies and misinformation, break their enemies' allies and partnerships and generally demoralize them. When all this is done, the enemy's land is just waiting to be taken without the need for war. This, Sun Tzu says, is the greatest talent of a war general. In an age of mergers, acquisitions and start-ups, his philosophy still holds true today. And there are a lot of people in wallstreet who read and abide by Sun Tzu because his philosophies can be translated to any war-like environment or politics. Imagine if the US had done some background work before simply marching into Iraq. We could have predicted and destroyed various terrorist groups even before these guys ever thought about infighting and civil wars.

Another point that Sun Tzu repeatedly makes is this - "Be swift, whether in attack or defence". He goes on to add "There has never been a country that has benefited from a protracted war". How true and prescient this sounds, especially in today's context! The protracted Iraq war has drained the US resources and resolve and has destroyed Iraq as well as American morale and economy. This is exactly what Sun Tzu predicted 2500 years ago.

The book is well-written with a lot of interesting examples and anecdotes from ancient Chinese history. China, in those times, was a mess. There were a few major clans who constantly kept warring against each other, gaining and losing land repeatedly. War was a constant way of life. It was put on hold only when the peasants had to sow and reap their farms. Summers were too hot and winters were too cold, so they might temporarily take a break. But on most days, you could wander to a nearby paddy field or mountain pass, and witness a couple of clans with their few hundred thousand peasant-soldiers cutting down each others' limbs and heads. Must've been interesting times!

One of the biggest fans of Sun Tzu was none other than Mao Zedong, or Chairman Mao. He led the Red army to victory against the mighty Nationalist Party of China (that was heavily supported and funded by the US at the time). The book takes excerpts from Mao's own book about war strategy, where he has repeatedly referenced 'Art of War' and how he employed Sun Tzu's ideas at different places to gain unlikely victories. The Red Army starts off with nothing more than a bunch of poor, hungry and disillusioned peasants who are ready to fight against the fat and corrupt establishment. The directives and funding comes from Moscow along with Leninist ideas. Mao rises quickly in the Red Army through his impressive tactics. He improves the morale of his soldiers, and forces the establishment to fight on his own terrain where he quickly demolishes them. He employs a lot of Sun Tzu tricks like misinformation, strategy and hitting weak enemy spots in quick bursts.

Sun Tzu himself seems to have been a freelance military strategy consultant. And ruthless to boot. One episode from the book stands out. A particular king invites Sun Tzu to his palace and asks him to demonstrate an army marching strategy. The king brings out his harem of mistresses to help with the demonstration. Sun Tzu splits the women into 2 groups. He picks two of the king's favorite women to head these groups. Then he issues them a series of instructions on how to follow his marching orders. When he starts the demo and issues his marching orders, the women all start looking at each other and giggling. Undaunted, Sun Tzu admits loudly that if the army does not understand the general's command, it is the general's fault and goes on to repeat his instructions painstakingly. When he starts the demo the second time and shouts out his orders, the women again look at each other and giggle. This time, Sun Tzu declares that if the army does not understand orders the second time, it is time to replace the group leaders. He orders the beheading of the 2 leaders - the king's favorite mistresses. The king, who was watching this demonstration from his balcony, is psyched and comes and pleads with Sun not to harm his girls. Sun Tzu calls him 'weak' in his face and goes ahead with the beheading. He replaces them with two other women. And guess what? This time when he issues his marching orders, there is not a pip or a wrong step from the women. That's the kind of man Sun Tzu was.

Ultimately, what matters is his approach to war. Sun Tzu says "war is a serious matter and should be approached as such". And that "you should know thyself and thy enemies before you step onto a battlefield". These might sound trivial or redundant. But history is full of examples of botched military operations and ill-timed strategies. Kudos to Sun Tzu for figuring all this out before anyone else. This is not a book that everyone will enjoy. But if you push past some of the tedious stuff, there are some real pearls of wisdome hidden in there.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Malakar Mania!

Are you asking me why would I be writing about a show and performer I have absolutely no interest in?

Why not? Everybody is doing it. Why shouldn't I?

Without watching a single performance of Sanjaya Malakar, I have gathered the following titbits about him. Some of them might be true and some of them might not. Readers of this blog should know by now that I don't care much for veracity.

1. He's the worst contender to come this far on American Idol

2. He's the most yahoo-ed and google-ed American Idol contestant ever

3. Simon Cowell has threatened to quit of Sanjaya wins (I'm keeping my fingers crossed that this happens. If Simon quits, Idol will stink and sink. And not a day too soon!)

4. Along the lines of point #3, there is a web-site now Apparently, people come up with the worst thing that could happen to them, and put this down after "If Sanjaya wins ...". For example, here are a couple:

If Sanjaya wins, I will go on a date with Michael Richards to a 50 Cent concert.
If Sanjaya wins, I will tongue wash all the toilets in Grand Central Station.

Well, that's about it. Sanjaya already has a wiki page. I wasn't surprised. But what shocked me was that his sister Shyamali's name was mentioned with her own wiki reference. Yes, that's right. She's the hooters girl who got eliminated early. Her only claim to fame being that she was an Indian girl working at hooters. And ofcourse, she's Sanjaya's sister. Thankfully, when I went to her wiki page, I found this:

It is proposed that this article be deleted, because of the following concern:
Lack of noteworthiness warranting its own page
Thank God for those wiki soldiers (read 'editors' or 'gatekeepers') marching on tiressly bringing some order and sanity to our lives.

It is a well-known fact that past American Idol contenders have been 'carried' by certain segments of population irrespective of how they actually perform each week. The public pick their favorite contestant right at the start of the season and continue voting and canvassing for him/her through the season. If only, these leaders of tomorrow put some of this thought and energy into presidential elections.

Now, the million-dollar question is whether desis are carrying him in this competition. We desis, as everyone knows, are hypocrites. We cannot stand another desi getting popular, showing off, doing un-desi things, being talked about, bringing all Indians a bad name, everyone stereotyping Indians etc ("do you go to school on elephants?"). We'll be trashing them and distancing ourselves. At the same time, we'll also be proud of having 'one of our own' enter the mainstream consciousness of this country. So which way do we sway in Sanjaya's case? I do believe that desis who've been regularly watching the show and voting for idols are firmly supporting Sanjaya. This comes from a carefully mutated genetic tendency to "stick to your own" that has been the boon and bane for us desis in this country. How else would you explain a mediocre singer like Sanjaya making it thus far in this competition?

Here's another thought. Maybe, in this show - as in real life - its not always the best singers who come out successful. Its the complete package - talent, showmanship, looks, age, style, gender etc. And probably Sanjaya has hit something there that we aren't aware of.

Well, whatever the reason be, I don't begrudge Sanjaya his 15 minutes in the limelight. Regardless of what the media, public and Simon think of him, he's been smiling his way to the top every week. Or so I hear! You have to give it up to the guy for believing in himself and not taking shit from anyone. Maybe if he makes it to the final show, I might just get myself to watch him. Secretly, ofcourse...


How would you like to drive at around 450 kmph in your car? Ever wonder what it would feel like? Saw this video and went bonkers. Take a look...

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

April Fools Day

There are 3 characters in this story - the husband (X), the wife (Y) and the husband's elder sister (Z). The alphabets in the parantheses are not real names ofcourse. Read on...

Wife calls up husband's sister.

Wife: Hi Z. How you doing?

Husband's sister: I'm good Y. How about you?

Wife: I guess I'm ok. Listen, have you heard from X today? Has he called you?

Husband's sister: No. Why, what happened?

Wife: We had a small fight and he's gone missing.

Husband's sister: Oh really? Since when?

Wife: Since yesterday night.

Husband's sister (now a bit alarmed): What are you saying?

Wife: Yeah, he left in a huff yesterday night and hasn't come home all night. I tried calling all our friends here, but noone's heard from him.

Husband's sister: What a bum! How can he be so immature! He really needs to grow up and sort his problems out like an adult. You don't worry. I'll try to track him down. And when I get hold of him, I'm gonna blast him. you sit tight.

Wife: Thanks Z. I knew I could count on you.

Husband's sister Z now calls up the husband X.

Husband's sister: Hey, what you doin'?

Husband: Nothin' much. Just chillin' at home.

Husband's sister: Don't lie to me. I know you're not at home. Where you at?

Husband: Err... In a hotel. How did you know?

Husband's sister: Y said you guys had a fight and she's very worried about you. What's going on?

Husband: Its all her fault. She keeps fighting over little things.

Husband's sister: That's not an excuse. You need to deal with this like an adult. You can't just leave your wife like that and walk out. Will you go home now?

Husband: (silence)

Husband's sister: What? Promise me you'll go home now.

Husband (relunctantly): Okay.

Husband's sister: Good.

Husband's sister hangs up. In a minute, she proceeds to call the husband's wife Y back to update her on his findings. She's feeling quite proud of herself, having presided over and solved this domestic dispute with a mature head and heavy hand.

Husband's sister: Hello?

Husband: Hello!

Husband's sister ( a little confused since she had called Y's cell phone): Hi 'pisaasu' (monster in tamil)... what are you doing here?

Husband and wife in chorus: APRIL FOOL!!! APRIL FOOL!!!

Husband's sister: YOU GUYS SUCK!!!

So this is how my wife W (one of the most devious minds to walk the planet) and I fooled my cousin sister on April 1.