Thursday, December 12, 2013

Momentous day

While recording only the third entirely sleepless work-night of my life last night, I submitted my last homework assignment at 4:30 pm today, exactly 24 minutes ago. Done with the last one. Well, hopefully.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013


For the last two months, I had been studying very hard. This mini-semester is famous for its insane inherent course-load, and to make matters interesting, I decided at the beginning of this mini that I would, on my end, also cover 3 full-semester CS courses in addition to my own course-load, during this mini-semester. I was working my way towards this fairly satisfactorily, and more often than not, the pain was sweet. Then yesterday, when I was coming to the college from the bus, I realized the bag was unchained when I got down, and the two registers of notes I had made over umpteen stolen hours on these 3 additional subjects had fallen from my bag. I lost them. Now it may not sound like a big deal to a distant listener, but to me, they were my single most valuable physical possession. I was really sad. And I could not concentrate on my studies the whole day yesterday, and the half-day that has passed today. It is not the first time something like this has happened: during the days I fancied myself a short-stories writer, my computer once crashed taking with it my twenty odd stories. True that I should have been careful. But, anyway.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Unknown Man.

He's all about the things he doesn't talk about.
He is puzzled by his irrationality, because he (thinks he) can identify it.
He works hard. He doesn't know what for or why.
He is self-effacing but not not self-centered.
He (thinks he) can explain yourself to you.
He can explain himself to you.
He can not explain himself to himself.
He loves some people, who can be classified into those who don't know this, and, those who don't want this.
He likes walking on unknown streets.
He wants to be remembered by those who don't remember him.
He wants to be forgotten by most who do remember him.
He likes studying probability and liked studying philosophy.
He can kick his own ass.
He can not kiss it.

Monday, September 9, 2013

The richest banker in the world

For an industry infamous for being too rich, its richest person comes in at a surprisingly low rank (46th) on the forbes richlist. Joseph Safra is the world's richest banker. And another interesting fact is that his family has been a major banking player since the Ottoman Empire. What'd'ya'say ya Rothschilds.

Since it is hard to have people see just what's written instead of reading in between the lines, I should emphasize that this post is not making a case for having a society with even richer bankers in the future. I just thought it was an interesting piece of trivia.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

More on Solitude

After an all too long intermission, my love affair with the idea of solitude continues (older entries here and here). Today, I read something on solitude that deeply affected me. Since it's not everyday that you read something that affects you deeply, it merits sharing.

So here goes: William Deresiewicz's lecture on 'Solitude and Leadership' in The American Scholar

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Losing all hope was freedom

It's very quiet, very quiet today. All I can hear is an exhaust fan, running somewhere far, far away.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

A little more on Truth

(My fanhood and fascination with the idea of truth continues. Older entries here, here, here and here.)

There are two kinds of people.

A:  Those who believe there is indeed a truth, and that it's the only thing that's constant.


B:  Those who think truth is somehow flexible, who say things like "Everyone has their own truth, and this is his truth and that is your truth", and those who sometimes will totally backtrack on their earlier declarations, and stand for something entirely at odds with their old stand while not admitting that the earlier stance was somehow wrong or misguided or false or just a lie but will rather protect it with statements like "that was the truth of last month and this is the truth of today".

It's only a subset of those who belong to the former group who will ever be willing to die for the truth. And it's only some out of those who'd be willing to die for the truth, that will make the world a better place.

You are one of A or B. And you always know who you really are. There's no fooling oneself.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Two bullshit pieces of advice

1. Set realistic goals.

2. Always have a plan B.

If doing great work, by which I mean work that you in your most honest and solitary moments can call truly great, as opposed to reaching prestigious positions that will get you the most number of congratulatory messages, is what you really want, the right advice is the very exact opposite of the two popular but pathetic bullet points above.

If it is the other thing you really want, you should probably stick to the two points above as best as you can. And, good luck.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

A story from the pre-mobile-phone era

Mrs. Sarita Jaiswal waited for her son at the schoolbus' designated stop but the bus did not come. She sat anyhow under a warm Gulmohur tree. Every five minutes or so a bus passed, and at the sight of each of them she would stand up, anticipating her son, and then go back under the tree. She called Mr. Anand Jaiswal, her husband and a generally thoughtful person. He was not on his desk, being engaged in a generally useless meeting, and could not take her call, so Mrs. Jaiswal called Mr. Subhash Khatreja, her cousin and a generally business-savvy marble trader. His shop was close by, and in fifteen minutes he arrived at the bus stop, fetched his cousin sister and just as they sat in his car to go to the kid's school, the kid, Vasu Jaiswal, a class fifth student at Delhi's Frank Anthony school and a generally mischievous kid, jumped down from the tree to tell them he had been here all this while. But the car had left just before he could yell at it, and he was left standing there with nowhere to go. He knew that the house would be locked so he did not bother going home but left instead for the closest video game parlour. At Frank Anthony, his mother and uncle were worried on finding that Vasu had been dropped at the bus-stop, and rushed back home in a frenzy expecting him to be sitting tired and hungry at the doorstep. But when they reached he was still playing video-games at the parlour, so they contemplated calling the police. An hour passed, and they had almost dialed hundred, when Vasu came leaping and bounding after having won all his games, his shirt untucked, and necktie tied to his forehead like a headband. Mr. Khatreja approached him aggressively, intending to give him a verbal dressing down, but before he could, Mrs. Jaiswal ran forward to Vasu and hugged him tight and long, and kissed him numerously. Mrs. Jaiswal, after all, was his mother, and a generally cool woman. Mr. Jaiswal could not be reached, when he was called again, this time out of a need for storytelling. 

Moral of the story: The useless meetings are generally the longest ones.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

As we turn 66 ..

I have to admit I am pessimistic about India's future. When I first came to the US for graduate studies, India was definitely already on a declining track, but even so, I couldn't have imagined things were going to be this bad this soon. In its characteristic way of priding itself on things that deserve no pride, India has for the last several years prided itself on its attractive demographic dividend. There were doubtless proponents of this putative panacea elsewhere too. Many famous pop-thinkers such as Thomas Friedman, the big-4 consulting firms, even the likes of IMF never failed to remind us of what it means. Perhaps it would have paid to be careful to read it as what it 'can mean' than what it 'means'. Clearly, the demographic dividend comes with significant downsides too, that we didn't and in many ways still don't want to see. The foreigners' enthusiasm about it was justified; they didn't have to share the downside, and could participate in the upside at their discretion.  But for the Indian people and administration to be too happy about this demographic dividend, which is always a product of an uninhibited population growth rate, was like a stock-trader being too happy about financial volatility. True, the skilled and astute trader cannot make nearly as much money in a low volatility environment as he can in a high volatility environment, but a mediocre one invariably gets killed by volatility. Now the question that needs no answering is whether astute and skillful are words that better describe the Indian administration or is it words like mediocre. A huge percentage of Indian population today is already young, and unless population growth rate slows down, which it hasn’t been showing any signs of, the Indian population is getting progressively younger. If the Indian government and India Inc together are able to build the health and education infrastructure to support this huge young population, India can undo any and all of its previous failings. But that’s a big 'if' that we take very lightly. And it has gotten much bigger of late, with India's dismal current account deficits, depleting reserves, and the government's continuation of ever increasing and indiscriminate spending beyond its means. Foreign institutional investors have the most negative outlook for India amongst all emerging markets, and most if not all are decisively uninterested in having anything to do with India for quite some time to come. It is high time we face facts rather than languish mired in a web of emotional and ideology-ridden never ending discourse, and the fact of the matter is India has little chance of meeting its infrastructural needs for supporting the future of its young population in the absence of foreign investment. I hope that as Indians we show the courage to swallow the bitter pill for a brighter future, and I hope different people in different states of India, with vastly different and sometimes conflicting goals, can come together this time, because if we don't, the consequences are not pretty. A relapse into the sluggishness of the 1980s is not far, to begin with, but what lies ahead is more disheartening - an unimportant place in the global order, and maybe farther into the future, the need for foreign investment morphing into a need for foreign aid.

In the coming elections I am going to be rooting for Narendra Modi if for no other reason than that it would be a change from the present system. I do not think he is the miracle some people seem to think he is. It is important to notice that the state he inhabited as a chief and no doubt improved, was already prosperous, and had all the makings of a progressive society. Most of the rest of India is either only prosperous or only progressive or, in many cases, neither. Leading India with its remarkable heterogeneities is, if you ask me, a completely different ballgame. But he says that he can bring about a turnaround, and as a nobody, that and his past track record is all I have to go with. The other alternative that has recently emerged is AAP under the leadership of Arvind Kejriwal (who, most importantly, buys morning milk and bread from my best friend's general store but that falls just short of reason enough for me to support him). Despite his possibly good intentions, his campaign for the Delhi assembly elections proves beyond doubt that in finding the balance between populism and bitter-medicine, he tilts all too much towards populism. How else can we justify his plans for de-syncing of oil prices from the global markets, at a time when India's two biggest oil companies, both public sector undertakings, have already been incurring huge losses for several years running, owing to heavy government subsidies. How else to interpret a most juvenile claim to reduce electricity prices by seventy percent! Unless the power distribution companies are grossly manipulating their accounting statements, it seems unreasonable to believe that they can still be in business following a price slash of this magnitude. But besides these specific points, he has failed to come up with any ideas for India's growth going forward, except that he will let common people have their ideas implemented. This is what I have to say to that: the majority of the 'common people' are not intelligent enough (Actually they are not honest and well-intentioned enough either, but even if we assume they are) to guide India's road forward from the pit that we're currently in. And if it is true that the common people by and large will dictate India's economic, defence, home and foreign policy under a future AAP government, I am scared. And you should be too.

Things are not all bad, for sure. India still has vast untapped potential - no one can deny that. But potential alone is useless unless it can be tapped. While India Inc is getting increasingly disenchanted with India, and the government is as effete as it has ever been, India's social sector is also far from effective. Of the five nonprofits I closely worked with, two are downright corrupt, two are too lavish for a nonprofit and do creative things that really help no one, and the one that works hard is not well-funded. There are those like Teach-for-India which are great successes, but the number of such successes is very very few compared to how many we need. The most remarkable aspect of Teach-for-India's success is in being able to mesh the technically advanced graduates of IITs with the world of social work in a big way. We will need many more TFIs in the years to come. Broadly speaking, India needs more maths, more coding, and more manufacturing. I went to one of India's supposedly premier engineering colleges, and yet, I say with neither compunction nor doubt that most of my college's graduates were technically weak even in their own respective engineering trades, let alone the fact that an alarmingly high number of them didn't know how to code at all, and hardly any could code at a level that merits any special appreciation. Compare this to US universities, where everybody from Econ to Stat majors do a significant amount of coding. It might sound naive that I stretch the particular topic of coding so dear, but it is more naive yet to find it naive. All areas of enterprise, from manufacturing to banking to medicine, receive huge advancements in productivity from the simple sounding aspect of ‘coding it’ well. The thing common to the best mechanical engineers, best financial modelers, the best medical researchers, even the best movie studios of today is an abundance of coding talent. I cannot imagine a truly competitive economy of ten years from now, where a significant number of people cannot code well. Whether we like it or not, we today have huge unmet educational needs, and when your needs are as big as this, programs on philosophy and psychology are a forbidden luxury, and here I'm pointing to the massively expensive Nalanda University under preparation for the last few years. I truly hope India is rich enough one day to afford these indulgences, but till then that's what they are - indulgences we cannot afford, things to be put in the same bracket as the Commonwealth games.

Here’s wishing India well and hoping I can be of some use.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

A few good men

"I am very good my school is very good thank you"
So went the first letter of a wonderful kid in Algiers I've recently made kind-of friends with. We will be sharing letters in a rather charmingly old-fashioned longhand way. The one that I sent him, I now suspect, was a little too formal and self-conscious to have felt endearing, but I hope he liked it anyway. Hopefully, whoever read it out to him, in case somebody did, made it funnier.

In other news, I hope Banville wins the Nobel this year, or else the Nobel will have to lose all its remaining credibility. Ancient Light left me with the feeling that he was right on the top of his game, but so had The Sea, The Book of Evidence and The Untouchable. It seems like he is always at his best. I have read just one more novel of his, or quarter-read it, and that was Copernicus, and I'm more inclined to believe that it was too good for me than to believe that it was not as good as the rest. Anyway, really hoping he wins it. The last time I rooted for anyone so much was for Sachin to win the man of the series in the '96 Titan cup. And at that time I knew inside, even if I never let it show, that he did struggle to play Fannie DeVilliers even at the top of his respective game. He did win it, and I was punished the next morning for not having done my school homework. 

In another news, my dad will retire from work in a few days. For me it's hard to even imagine my dad not a government servant. He has always been a big, big influence over me, and I have always felt incredibly lucky to have the most honest man with the most unbelievable goodness of heart, as my father. He worked for this organization for something like 38 years, much greater than all the time I've been in this world, and I'm sure his bank will miss him a lot, and I'm guessing he'll miss it a little bit too. I sometimes wonder about how to jazz up his post-retirement life, and then I realize the funny arrogance of my wondering - as if he needs me, he whose jazzed up my very thoughts all my life - to jazz up his days. He will light up, and lighten up, whatever he does.

Friday, August 9, 2013

When historical correlations fail to hold up

This summer had investors across asset classes and geographies puzzled by the "wrong" correlation between treasury yields and risk assets (such as corporate credit and equities). Historically, it was argued, that the correlation has been strongly positive. That is, when the treasury yields rise (or fall), the prices of risky assets rise (or fall). I would argue that the dismay with the rationality of this year's correlation was misguided in more ways than one. Firstly, when we talk of historical correlations, we tend to think of a continuous time series between, let's say, 40 years ago (assuming that to be a ballpark time at which markets, at least US markets, decisively matured) to today. While it is true that this correlation shows itself to be markedly positive, a strong positive correlation needn't necessarily allude to an economic thumb-rule. And in this case it doesn't. It is important to see that there have been pockets of time in the last 40 years when the correlation was negative, but since they weren't the norm, they don't affect your long term coefficient of correlation in any big way. But just because they weren't the norm does not mean they were periods of random noise. It might do us good service to identify those specific time-periods and then analyze the difference between those time periods and the rest of history. From a study such as the one I just outlined, my far from exhaustive observations suggest an element of causality as a big differentiator in the correlation behavior. That is, it is important to consider what's causing the rates to rise - good economic outlook (in which case the positive correlation does indeed make complete sense and holds up almost always) or something else (lack of confidence in the government (as in 2008), or Bernanke sneaking away his Santa Claus hand (this summer)).

Traditional wisdom for the positive correlation goes like this: The rise of treasury yields (or in other words the falling of treasury bond prices) reflects a transfer of the world's funds from riskless to risky assets and vice versa. Naturally, as a result of this transfer of funds into risky assets such as high-yield credit and equities, they rise. All very well, except this and that and that. We saw this in 2008 at the time of the financial crisis that the treasuries fell (yields rose) and equities fell too. Any positive correlation between yields and equities was thrown out of the window. Now lets try to see why the traditional wisdom is far from a holistic perspective. Most of all, it's because it relies too much on correlation and correlation alone, while only superficially digging into causality. At its core this conventional wisdom makes one grand assumption, that money either flows from risky assets (HY, Equities) to riskless assets (treasuries, gold) or the other way. Such a transfer always gives us a conveniently positive correlation between treasury yields and risky assets, and we rejoice. What it does not take into account is that in times of unprecedented uncertainty (such as Bernanke leaving the markets alone, in the present case) people don't necessarily merely shift their money from one asset class to the other - they may wait for the uncertain period to pass, holding cash, and taking off again only when the sky gets clearer. In such times, it is not uncommon to see both sovereign bonds and equities falling, as we saw this summer, and have before. This is also the reason why the 'aberrations' or breaks in the utopian positive correlation between yields and equities are much more common in the rising rates environment (associated with things going wrong) than in the falling rates environment.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Nonlinear jump diffusion

In wintry dims of after-rains
like filigree my fingers shiver
as does my mind, 
jumping back and forth in time,
one moment I remember
lying in my balcony in 1999
reading with teenage fascination
about Mohenjodaro at 2 in the night
and thinking "wow, how cool"
living vicariously in BC 2000,
as I now live in AD 1999,
and sometimes, farther back in time,
my dad, who lost to me in 100m sprints
to make me feel victorious and vain,
until he met with an accident,
in September, 1994.
After which I won no more.
And then I sit and wonder what
it must have been to have continued
watching "Johnny Gaddaar" that day in '09.
After all, it had been a wish of mine.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Growing up

In school I always wanted to be a good boy. If only a teacher ever came to me and told me she's naming her newborn after me, because 'you're such a good boy', it would have been the most delightful thing to have happened to me. But now being good is not that important. Being perceived good is to an extent still fairly important. And that's not entirely a bad thing, because to be perceived as good, invariably the most straightforward way is to actually be good. So while not much of a difference if you think about it this way, there is a major difference, if you are the kind that likes truth and wants to see truth. And the difference is what is popularly called 'the loss of innocence'. It's a big difference, and sooner or hopefully later, you'll realize why it is a 'big' difference.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Writing me down

A month ago I started keeping a diary. At first it was merely one of the many diversions I had been trying. Except that this was one that began to take a life all its own, other than solely its diversion aspect, its reason of being. The first day I wrote a diary, there were only bad things to write. Actually, to be honest, that wasn’t just the first day. As noble as this month-old tradition now seems, its beginnings were rather rheumy. I distinctly remember the third day. Each new letter on that day’s entry seemed to me at that time an unwelcome, almost officious, replacement for a fullstop. I still call it a fullstop and not a period, as is the norm in polite society; I guess I’m somewhere still a stickler for dramatic effect. But when I look back today at that day’s page, it does not seem all that bad anymore. It does make me sad to read it, but then I notice that even at the tenterhooks of that sepulchral, sodden stillness I managed to make the cursives look delicately done and had made sure that the commas and semicolons were given their just due in the world. And then it’s better, in the worldy way.

Sometimes I write in the middle of a crowded subway ride, and it does occur to me when I do that that somebody might imagine me lunatic, but if reading tomes in the subway is kosher, I think that writing a page down shouldn’t be too conspicuous. Sometimes I write my diary sprawled prostrate in the Central Park. That is, now that I think of it, my favourite place to write the diary. With its vast green expanse all around you, and from beyond it peeking at you the colossal skyline of centuries of human enterprise, and all of it umbrellaed under the same blue sky that I gazed at as a four year old in Ranchi – the place has an aura of grandeur and intimacy all at once, and for a moment it feels like writing down the little details of my comparatively featureless life is the most natural thing to do, as if under this vast umbrella the trivialities of my day will assume a vastness themselves, an importance, a place.

The first time I went and lay down in the Central Park after work, I felt like sleeping there under the sun. And so I slept, in the crisp formals that interns at investment firms invariably wear. When I woke up a couple of hours later in the crumpled bleached white shirt and the crumbling green grass specks all over it, I felt the best I had felt in days. A feeling washed over me: that I was still a good person, despite whatever. Unreasonable, yes, that sleeping in the grass should in any way have that self-fulfilling consequence, but why would I complain.

When I woke up, people were hanging out all over the park. Couples mostly, all of them happy and uninhibited. There was also the occasional gang of girls. And then there were the solitary reapers, the people photographing everything and everybody. And of course kids. Kids and moms, actually. I realize that the women that I am most attracted to without personally knowing them at all, are increasingly women with their little kids. Sometimes pushing their little ones in a baby-walker while they shop at a mall, but more often playing with them at a park’s swings and inclines. It’s a dangerous predisposition, I know. “I don’t act upon it” as they like to say.

I didn’t write anything about work. I am not sure what to write here about it. You are never sure about these things – what would be appropriate, what would be deemed crossing the line, and all those auxiliary doubts. But I will mention that I had a conversation over lunch with someone who was some time ago the chief economist to the Treasury Secretary. I even had a theory about why the historical positive correlation between sovereign bond yields and risk assets is not holding up anymore, and he seemed happy with the reasoning. Somewhat cool, I guess.

Don’t know what else to write. Will come back, hopefully.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

On being back in India after an year in US for the first time

Relatives like to ask you rhetrorically "wahan pe hain aise majey?" You have to stop yourself from saying "haan hain, isse zyada hain." even though if you said this you'd just be replying truthfully. But then hamaare kuch sanskaar hain.

You picked up a habit abroad: you say thank you to everyone - barbers, tailors, vendors, gatekeepers, doctors. No one responds. Most look back at you in bewilderment. But this is still OK, really. Then there are times you say thank you to friends or cousins too, when then they curve a contemptuous lip and go "Saale bhai ko thanks bolega!"

You notice how the following of queues is a philosophical abstraction, not a reality. And you suffer for it. Time and time again.

Girls once again start giving you the "come a step closer and I'll call the police" look when you weren't even thinking about her until she gave you this look. And there it starts feeling like home once again.

It feels very, very, very hot for the first day or two. But it takes a really short time to get used to it again if you've spent your whole life here.

Something quite the opposite of what happened when you first went to US happens. When you first go to US, you look at the simplest sandwich - this is at a grocery, mind you, not some fancy eatery - and see 6.99 and quickly convert it to something close to 400 and go "screw you" in your head, "I don't need this shit. No way." Now you come back to India and you want to have one samosa and your first impulse is to convert it into dollars, but no dollars dude, this is just 25 cents. Goodness gracious me, I'll eat four!

You appreciate how judiciously all resources are utilized in India. The West appears once again what it appeared to be when you first arrived there - a place where people waste things a lot.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

April: The Month of the Library

Hunt Library, 29th April 2013

I spent all my April days at the Hunt Library. Somewhere between the last day of last year and the first day of this year, my relationship with my girlfriend of a little more than three years ended and I wallowed in a thick jelly of retrospection and introspection, oft times irrational and maudlin, for a long, long time, as is the case with me after every big loss, but towards the beginning of April a sort of panicky realization came over me. It occurred to me that my time at Carnegie Mellon was limited, and that when I had first come here I had been madly awed by all that it had to offer. But soon enough I had come back to my equilibrium state of procrastinating my assignments till hours before they were due, rambling on phone with my then girlfriend, chattering with whoever of my classmates wouldn't at any time be studying, making plans to study and circumventing them, issuing library books and returning them unread after some days etc. And then after January this year months passed without anything I would in my later life call constructive or even simply correct. Coming to the point, at the beginning of April I decided to spend more time at the library studying, and mastering the material that my superb professors so wonderfully and painstakingly introduce to us in the most lucid way, in my opinion, possible. At the back of my mind was the hope that even if I spend a lot of time not actually studying -- my focus and concentration of late had been as stable as a pigeon's neck -- the time that I spend not studying would be better spent in and around books than if I spent it on my bed thinking self-detrimentally about the past or if I spent it with my laptop, swimming through an ocean of 99% crap and 1% value which is invariably forgotten -- and is therefore in a way also useless -- after another hour of surfing because it is by then obscured by more of the said crap.

The last paragraph was just an apology for spending so much time, practically living, in the library. The main point of writing this post is something else. Since even now my focus levels are far from their best, I often get up from my desk and roam about the shelves. And I find that I am invariably attracted towards dusty, hardly-visited bookshelves like a hot girl to bad boys. These deserted bookshelves carry in their isolation old books and journals usually from the first quarter of the last century, with their pages ranging the whole gamut from yellow to downright brown in color. And when I look over their pages, half understanding their contents, I cannot help but think how their authors must have dreamed their works to outdo time. Having been an aspiring writer once, I can't help but think about how these authors must have imagined that these books which took years out of their respective lives to write, will still be read and discussed a hundred years later. And then to think how they are biting dust in a secluded, forgotten corner of a library. (But here's the important, although meta, part..) And then to think that a hundred years later I am (and maybe several others are) drawn to them everyday, that I am wondering about their 100 year old history, that I am writing a blog post about them.

I think if I were a writer I would have been happy with that fate! Guess they didn't fall too short of that, pardon the following clumsy words, hyperreal ultralonglivedness.

Thursday, May 9, 2013


Someday I'll get around to drawing Mehdi Hassan too.

Monday, April 22, 2013


(n.) What it takes smart people to go from being creators of intelligent and diligent C++ code of real value and give it away for free cause they believe in OpenSource, to being hagglers of greater and greater prices for their bland and formulaic powerpoint presentations that add no value to anyone but them.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Statistically Significant Inference

The lesser I write, the more fake I become.