Small talk

It’s always nice when small talk leads to some interesting insight into a person’s life or thought.  This is perhaps especially true when you only encounter the person for a short time, since you don’t have other information to bias or cloud your judgment.  On my way home from watching the latest Batman, I was doing the usual chit-chat with the taxi driver.  He told me he’s recently started listening to the words that people say in songs, instead of just the tune.  He likes following the words because, if you listen closely, they tell you about what people are thinking and what matters to them.  He especially enjoys country music.

We were earlier discussing the weather, how it’s much nicer in the night than in the day, and how both of us hadn’t fully experienced snow before moving to America.  He told me that in his childhood in Nigeria, it hailed once.  He had never seen anything like it, and has never seen anything like it since.  The hail felt like it was either some kind of joke or some kind of miracle.  His sister told him that it’s been hailing frequently in his hometown in recent years.  It might be due to climate change, but neither of us could say for sure.

He said that he if he ever wrote a song, it would be about that time it hailed.  Then I reached home.  I enjoyed learning about something significant in this guy’s life. 



Food and relativity

Berty famously said (I assume everything he said is now famous):

“Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. THAT’S relativity.”

I was reminded of this phrase recently while having the following conversation with two colleagues, Kennedy (a Catholic ex-seminarian from Kerala) and Ramakrishna (a Hindu from Tamil Nadu).

Ramaswamy: Hey Kennedy, I heard you’ve eaten all kinds of crazy things and that you eat beef for breakfast.

Kennedy: Yes indeed.  I was a seminarian in the Northeast (India) back in the day, and we ate dogs, cats, field rats…delicious

R: Wow!

Kabcity: Interesting. I ate donkey once. It was pretty good. Alligator and Ostrich at the Minnesota state fair were rather unappetizing.

R: You guys eat crazy things!

Kennedy: But don’t you also eat some crazy things in Tamil Nadu?

R: No no only goat and chicken, sometimes beef. But never non-veg for breakfast. The goat is delicious…especially the brain, blood, and feet.

Kennedy: Wow!

R: My favourite is the intestines. You must clean it though. It has waste. The entire stomach area is the best. But you must clean it. In hot water. Oh I love it!

Kennedy: That’s crazy

R: No, it is only a goat. It is not crazy. I can never eat a cat, and I will never eat beef for breakfast.

Kennedy: What is the difference – eating meat is eating meat.

R: You are right. I must try dogmeat when I am in Nagaland next week. But there is no way I can eat it for breakfast! That is crazy!! Haha!

Kennedy: haha!

City: That’s relativity (I didn’t actually say that, I just joined in the laughter)

Incentives and Development Conferences

A few days ago, I started studying for the GRE.  Needless to say, my dormant procrastination skills have awoken with rancour.  Today these skills are being put to blog use. 

Policy makers and development programme designers seem to love incentives.  Want women to deliver babies at accredited health centres?  Give them a cash reward for doing so. Need health counsellors to enrol more people for tuberculosis traetment? Try cash incentives.  Malawians don’t return to clinics for their HIV test results?  Give them some $.

Everyone loves a good incentive (source:

Humans do respond to incentives. So why not use them on ourselves?  More specifically, I’m thinking about international development conferences.

A few months ago, I went to a development related conference in Colombo.  It was hosted at a beautiful hotel on the coast and attended by people from all over the world.  A bilateral aid agency paid for my tickets and conference fees, and gave me a very large corpus of cash for other expenses (accommodation, local travel, dinner, alcohol, shopping, laundry, etc).  Without being in any way thrifty, I saved a few hundred dollars.  I did not need to submit any receipts and was allowed to keep the excess money.  I wonder if having an incentive to spend less could reduce the overall costs of such events.  Perhaps reimbursment based on actual expenses and a cash bonus to the person who spends the least?  The amount of the bonus would need to be precisely calculated, and there would have to be a mechanism to ensure that people don’t just say “I spent $0”.  So the bonus would have to be less than the actual expected expense, else everyone would just say “I spent 0”.  There would also need to be a cap on expenditure.  The admin costs of this system may negate the benefits, but I would be interested in seeing some experimental data – randomly assign some conferences to be fully lump summed, some to be have half participants on lump sum and half on incentive scheme, and some to have only the incentive scheme.  This could also give us some interesting insight into how much development professionals value these conferences…

The second similar area where incentives could be used is choosing locations for conferences.  I am not sure how this is presently done, but surely there should be an open bidding process for the larger events.  Recently, the 10th International Conference on Aids in Asia and the Pacific was held in Busan, South Korea.  It is unlikely that Busan, as wonderful as it may be, was the most efficient venue for this event.  Korea is one of the more expensive countries in Asia, and getting to Busan is not nearly as convenient as hubs like Singapore, Bangkok, or Hong Kong.  In addition, Korean is not widely spoken in the region, and I don’t know how many Busanese speak English.  To be sure, there are advantages of hosting in a wealthier city – it’s likely that Busan has more stable water and electricity, as well as access to other facilities, than Ulan Bator or Port Moresy.  But either way, an open bidding process, where potential organizers in different cities can bid for larger conferences, could incentivize more tightly managed international development events.  Big agencies should also publish data on how much these events cost.

Coming soon:  a series on auto economics.  That’s not doing economics on oneself.  It’s the economics of auto rikshaws in Delhi.  Should be fun.

Grandfathers and other thoughts

This is a post about three unrelated topics.

1. I visited my grandparents in Bombay two weeks ago.  In recent times, Dadaji (my paternal grandfather) has gotten into full story-telling mode.  Needless to say given that he made a 3-month voyage from India to the US in 1948 on a cargo ship, he has some amazing stories to tell.  This one, which I like to call “The Luddites of Pindi”, is my current favourite:

Dadaji was born in 1927, only 5 years after electricity reached Rawalpindi, a city now part of Pakistan.  By the time he started going to school, most of the city was electrified (not sure if this is the right word), but people had yet to embrace this technology.  “Don’t put on the light at night”, the dadajis of that generation would say.  “That’s enough now…put the lights off”, even when my dadaji was trying to study at night.  The reason?  “This electricity thing is a ploy by the British.  It’s going to make us all go blind”.

Another story I loved was about when M.K. Gandhi visited Rawalpindi.  Dadaji’s dad ran a shop and couldn’t leave it unattended, so he told 13 year old Dadaji to go see the Mahatma and donate one rupee to his cause.  Dadaji went to the event and thoroughly enjoyed listening to Gandhi speak.  As Great Soul and his entourage got on the train, Dadaji remembered that he needed to hand over the one rupee given by his dad for the cause.  So he chased after the train and, in a moment reminiscent of the iconic DDLJ climax , a Gandhi posse member held out his hand and Dadaji, at full sprint and full stretch, handed over the one rupee.

2. I was hanging out with ethelnmc a few days ago, discussing some of the problems faced by female workers, when we came up with this thought: what if there was an equal probability that men could get pregnant too?  If pregnancies were distributed equally and randomly across men and women, that would probably change a lot of things.  For one, it would reduce a major disincentive to hiring females (maternity leave).  Might it also reduce rape?  Would it lead to more responsible financial decision-making?  What are other things that could happen if getting pregnant were not an exclusively female trait?

3. India is in the midst of a big anti-corruption protest.  While I applaud the sentiment of this movement (“corruption is bad”), I find the means of protest – a hunger strike in New Delhi by a high-profile activist – irritating and dangerous.  Irritating because it is so well-designed to garner media attention, and dangerous for the precedent it could potentially set for unelected people or groups writing legislation.  Dr. Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian constitution and perhaps one of the most underrated “superhero” level political leaders ever, seems to have foreseen all this when he made his speech at the signing of our constitution in 1950.  Unfortunately, I have seen only one mention of Dr. Ambedkar’s thoughts in all the media coverage of the protest.  The other major source for the text below is Ramachandra Guha’s “India After Gandhi“.

Dr. Ambedkar (source:

Dr. Ambedkar warned the new republic that there were three things its people must be wary of. First, he advised that since we now have constitutional mechanisms that represent the people, we must not rely on civil disobedience and Gandhian stunts like hunger strikes to affect change.  For me, it is hard not to think of the current hunger strike as anything more than an attempt to hold the government hostage to the demands of an unelected group of people.  Even though I agree with some of their demands, the overall argument, “discuss my bill in parliament or I will fast to death”, terrifies me.  Yes, constitutional systems are slow and often feel unresponsive.  But that’s the price we pay for living in a system where we are governed by people we choose.

Dr. Ambedkar’s second warning was about “bhakti“, which basically means devotion.  He believed that Indians were especially inclined to hero-worship, and warned that this was a dangerous characteristic that could blind us to the follies of “great men”.  It’s perhaps this belief that ensured Ambedkar has never been as worshipped as some other freedom struggle personalities.  But this cult of personality is exactly what seems to be driving a lot of the anti-corruption energy.  Anna Hazare, the figurehead of the movement, has inspired slogans like “Anna is India, India is Anna”.  His movement also consciously and constantly insinuates that Hazare is some sort of ideological descendent of Gandhi, with his stage frequently having large photos of Gandhi as the backdrop.  I hope I’m not the only one disturbed by this.

Hey I'm hanging out with MKG! (source:

Finally, Dr. Ambedkar warned that even though the constitution guarantees legal equality, we must not forget that the social and economic spheres continue to be plagued by discrimination.  Specifically discussing caste, he states that “Indians today are governed by two different ideologies. Their political ideal set in the preamble of the Constitution affirms a life of liberty, equality and fraternity. Their social ideal embodied in their religion denies them.”  Curiously, I think corruption is that rare attribute that cuts across government and private life.  It is difficult to find an auto in Delhi that will immediately agree to go by meter.  The way people drive shows scant regard for rules (government) or other vehicles/pedestrians (private life).  It is hardly considered unethical to fabricate medical bills in order to maximize tax savings.

So let’s not forget Dr. Ambedkar.  We definitely need to become less corrupt as a society and the government should set an example, but the way it’s being done now is far from ideal.

This ended up being far ramblier than I meant it to be.  Much gratitude for sticking through to the end if you’ve made it here.

Will Inter Dominate Again? You Decide!

A STUDY has shown (therefore it must be true) that beautiful people are happier and more successfull than average looking people.  A notable case study that provides supporting evidence is the story of my beloved Inter.  Examining the data from the last 10 years, it becomes apparent that we do better under attractive and generally “classy”-looking managers. Under ugly Marco Tardelli we were crap. The more dignified looking Hector Cuper did better, but further analysis shows he’s kind of ugly too.  Ignoring our one game caretaker manager Corrado Verdelli, we reach Alberto Zaccheroni. This marked further ugliness and further failure.

And now finally we enter the glory years.  For your viewing pleasure, messrs Mancini and Mourinho:

Needless to say, we dominated under these guys, especially the gorgeous Mr. Jose.  For some reason, the powers that be decided to change this highly successful managerial appointment strategy and hired this guy:

Disaster followed, until the leadership realized that we need to bring sexy back and hired Leonardo:

Leonardo has now left, and Mr. Gasperini will soon take over.  So will we succeed?  YOU DECIDE!

Fiorentina – Inter liveblog

If all goes well, we should be live 15 minutes before kickoff.

Unfortunately wordpress doesn’t allow the coveritlive console to be embedded, but clicking on the link below should open the liveblog:

Fiorentina-Inter Liveblog

Dreamless People

I wrote this post when I first thought about starting a blog, but I didn’t publish it because it seemed far too serious for something called KabCity.  But I’ve been inspired by the latest post on the incredible Tomzanian, and since this follows a similar theme I thought it would be a good time to share.

Dreamless People

Back in Mirambika, when I was probably seven or eight years old, our class was asked to draw our present and future selves.  For my present self, I drew a kid in a red shirt playing football.  For my future self, I drew an astronaut.

Around the same time, an uncle asked me what I wanted to be when I grow up (a favourite adult question to kids), and I told him I’d like to be an astronaut but I was worried that it was a dangerous vocation, so I might chose something safer like professional cricket or Bollywood superstardom. My uncle laughed at my response and I returned to the room where all the kids were playing.

At some point, I wanted to become an engineer, then, during the internet bubble years, an I.T. genius. My drawings of my future self have changed, but even during my most existential moments I’ve never truly stopped thinking about some kind of future me. Even if it was one-week-in-the-future me, there was still some consideration of how my decisions will affect my future.

For the last week, I’ve been working in a very poor village in north-western Odisha, studying the well being status of people, especially the gap between the general population and people from scheduled castes and scheduled tribes.  What has really struck me is the complete absence of dreams in this community.  People just don’t seem to care about their own or their children’s futures. There are many problems in this village, like an understaffed school, poor access to government services, corrupt medical structures etc, but when we asked people about changes they would like to see, they simply had no response.

“In a dream scenario, what would you like to see your child grow up and become?”

“I don’t know…”

“Do you want her to stay in school?”

“I don’t know”

“Is there any way your village could be better?”

“I don’t know.  Ask the panchayat leader.”

So we asked the panchayat leader. And the Anganwadi didi and ASHA worker and school headmaster and farmers and shopkeepers. And none of them had any dreams.

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