Alphabet soup

A (for Aaron Aardvark)

These days, most kids born to people I know seem to have names starting with A. One of them is my sister’s kid, and being the doting uncle that I’d like to picture myself as, I wouldn’t want to change anything about him (unless of course it turns out that he prefers Vivek over Vadivelu).

However, I wonder about the plethora of names beginning with A in the sub-4 ft. brigade today. What’s the logic? It can’t be that it helps the kid go earlier when names are sorted in alphabetical order, for a number of reasons:

  1. If everyone’s got a name starting with A, it’s the second letter in your name that begins to matter. As it stands, if you name your kid “Baa” after the nursery rhyme, he’s still gonna be the last on the list.
  2. If they’re sorted in alphabetical order of last name, what are you going to do? Change your family name to Aardvark?
  3. If it’s important, then why not use numbers? Lower ASCII value, right?

Just for the heck of it, I’d like to come across a kid named ZZ Top. I’ll even buy him a fake beard for his birthday.

E (for what, exactleee?)

I can kinda-sorta understand when someone takes the word Shop, decides that it needs to get a little fancier, and uses the word Shoppe instead. The free dictionary tells me that it’s a variant of the word ‘shop’, and since I will believe almost anything I see on the Internet, I can live with that.

But Shoppee? Drive around Chennai and you’ll find scores of them. There’s a Singapore Shoppee on the way to Mahabalipuram, for instance. I’ve spent countless minutes wondering why. The possibilities I came up with were:

  1. Numerology: Just about any bad spelling decision can be blamed on this practice these days.
  2. Strategy: The shopkeeper took evening MBA classes but was so tired after a long day at the store that he fell asleep during strategy class. All he remembered at the end of it was the word differentiation.
  3. The French Connection: The guys setting up these stores are all from Pondy, where they spell Kangeyan as Kangueane and have streets like Rue de Manakkula Vinayagar. They figure, if we aren’t gonna pronounce the first ‘e’, we have no business complaining about the second.
  4. The Art of Living: If you can prefix an extra Sri, you can suffix an extra ‘e’ as well.

W (for Women)

I’ve noticed this in a number of garment stores and it’s never really made sense to me. Why do they put nipples on female mannequins?

Check out any store where they have a dress in the display window. Is this some sort of quest for anatomical perfection? And how come it happens only with female mannequins? You don’t see male mannequins with strategically filled out trousers anywhere, do you?

Complex finance

Disclaimer: “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” — Albert Einstein

As Havelock Vetinari once said, if you’re gonna have crime, you might as well have organized crime. With all the black money getting hoarded in numbered Swiss bank accounts and holding companies in Mauritius and God alone knows where else, maybe we ought to simply acknowledge this parallel economy and be done with it.

Aside: What’s with the term “numbered Swiss bank account” anyway? I’ve seen it in a bunch of places and it’s always puzzled me. All my bank accounts, none of them Swiss, none of them groaning under the weight of ill-gotten gains, are numbered. What’s so special about numbered Swiss bank accounts? And what is more, it gets mentioned only in connection with large sums of money. How does it work for some Herr Gottlieb flipping burgers at the McDonalds in Zurich? Does he have a named bank account? Does it get named after him, or do they just pick out a name at random? Is there a minimum balance restriction to get numbers?

Now, back to the business of organized black money. What if we allowed people to quote their assets as complex numbers? You know, in the form: x + iy. x, the real part, could represent the white money, while y, the imaginary part (for legal purposes anyway), could represent the black money.

Once the system takes hold, politicians could use the complex number system to talk about the number of votes they received in an election. Accountants (of the Enron and Satyam alumni variety) could build entire annual reports in the complex number system. Swiss banks don’t have to worry: they could just quote the imaginary part for numbered accounts and the real part for named accounts.

One problem with the whole thing is perception: when someone says that the real part of his net worth is 50 lakhs and the imaginary part is 2000 crores, it sounds so disproportionate that it causes people to get all outraged and wonder what brand of dog food the country might prefer. Therefore, I propose that we introduce a new currency unit called black rupee, defined as being equal to 1 mole of normal rupees. (1 mole = 6.023 * 10^23, in case your experience of high school Chemistry was limited to gazing at that cute girl/guy on the bench across from you in class.)

Now, all that remains is for us to understand how the real and imaginary parts interact and change from one to the other. Hopefully, one of the wonderful people involved with IPL will have some time during the post-season lull to pull out their complex analysis textbook and give me a tutorial. Watch this space for further mathematical revelations.

Ars Gratia Arse

My wife and I went to the Kala Ghoda Arts festival this weekend. It had all the usual stalls with handicrafts and clothing and assorted knick-knacks, so we indulged in some impulse-purchasing. Caught a bit of one of the performances — quite nice. Finished off with a cup of coffee at Moshe’s nearby. All in all, a few hours well spent.

A fair bit of space in the art festival was allocated to exhibits by contemporary artists. There was an imposing tower that seemed to be made entirely of plastic mugs and water bottles. And exhibits that critiqued the current state of our lives, consumerism and what not. Some of these were pretty interestingly done, whereas some others were… oh, well.

Anyway, since mucho banner space was spent promoting the concept of recycling, I decided to pull out yet another old piece of mine and update it. (Yeah, this is beginning to become a habit. Don’t worry, when I write something fresh, you folks will be among the first to know.)

This particular rant is about art. Of the abstract variety. And I mean the intentionally abstract stuff. Not like my paintings, which are intended to be stick figures but end up looking a lot more abstract.

Several months ago, a friend of mine proposed an idea for a piece of software that could, given a particular painting, automatically identify the artist.


The friend I was talking to is Angshuman Saha. He’s the only Homo Sapien I know who can tell the difference between Monet and Manet. He can actually distinguish between impressionist and post-impressionist stuff like they were chalk and cheese. (To me, they’re both just splotchy stuff on canvas. Come to think of it, I’m not even sure I can tell the difference between chalk and cheese.)

Angshu’s own artistic ventures are somewhat minimalist bordering on wierd. My favourite work of his is “Black straight line on ruled paper No. 32″. Then there’s “Fish in a Napthalene Ring”, “Default risk model”… you get the idea. I’ve been thinking about writing a piece on him called Portrait of an Artist as a Middle-Aged Statistician but haven’t gotten around to it yet. Someday…


Nude Descending a Staircase

Marcel Duchamp: Nude Descending a Staircase

Now, back to automatic artist identification. Seriously, this can be a fairly difficult task. For one thing, great artists may take a while to evolve their own signature style – their early work may have elements of other artists’ styles that they tried to emulate back then. For another, it may be easier, sometimes, to try and identify a certain school of art (impressionism, surrealism and whatever else) than a particular artist. Maybe you could look at some very specific things relating to certain artists. For instance, if you see a soft watch, it’s either Dali or someone trying to imitate him. If you see a badly drawn anorexic horse, it’s M. F. Hussain. And so on and so forth.

But then there’s the case where the whole damn canvas makes no sense. If there was only one school of art that did this, then you could use it as a default option if you found no pattern whatsoever. The problem is, there’s more than one school. Different forms of chaos, if you will. Then what do you do?

The conversation segued from there to the arbitrariness of art in general.

Consider Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, for instance. Do you see the nude? Do you see the staircase, for that matter? Heck, do you even know if the painting is hung right side up?

Le Bateau

Henri Matisse: Le Bateau

Sometimes, even the experts can’t tell. Take Henri Matisse’s Le Bateau . Apparently, it was hung upside down for 47 days in the New York Museum of Modern Art and no one noticed. Frankly, what shocks me is that the phrase “no one noticed” is often followed by an exclamation mark when this painting is mentioned.

And don’t even get me started on Martin Creed, the guy who won the 10000 pound Turner Prize for his exhibit Work No. 227: The lights going on and off. Are the judges on that panel the same guys who would stuff their kid with ADD medication if the brat kept switching the light on and off in their living room?

And what’s with this business of numbering paintings, huh? If you can spend so much time working on it, you can damn well spend a couple of minutes naming it, okay? 

There’s a good reason why artists like these don’t rule the world. Imagine what it would be like if Duchamp and his ilk took over Playboy magazine. That painting by Duchamp could be Miss January. “Our playmate of the month likes long walks on the beach, working out on the stairmaster and making out in the MoMA while everyone’s looking.”

Hell, the Matisse painting could be Miss January – what bloody difference does it make?

Or if Dali and assorted surrealists decided to remake Superman:

Bystander 1: It’s a flying tiger with an elephant coming out of its mouth!

Bystander 2: It’s a violin playing goat!

Bystander 1: And don’t forget the giraffe with brightly colored machine tools in the bathtub on the side.

Bystander 3: No, it’s Gala posing as both Superman and Josef Stalin at the same time, depending on which way you look at it!

Not that I am against abstract stuff per se, mind you. Part of the fun of being an artist is seeing the world in one’s own way, I’m sure. But when it gets to the point where you can pretty much put anything together and sell it on the strength of your interpretation of it, one begins to wonder where art ends and marketing begins. 

Part of this marketing exercise seems to involve putting the work in a particular genre. Consider the term “Modern Art”. Kind of a cop-out, isn’t it? It’s like naming a newborn baby “Baby”. (Hold on, they actually did that in Dirty Dancing.) 

At least the Dadaists had the sense to just open a dictionary and pick out a random word and name their genre after it. Can’t give them points for effort, but at least they were honest.

I don’t follow these trends too closely, but not too long ago, “post-modernism” was the flavour of the month. I asked Angshu what it meant and he said, tongue firmly in cheek, that “Postmodernists express incredulity to the metathesis.”

Which, in plain English, (apparently) means that they don’t believe in categories. Kind of a safe haven if you can’t quite figure out where to put yourself, ain’t it? And what is more, even the term “post-modern” is sort of a cul-de-sac. You already have modern, and now you’ve got post-modern. Where are you gonna go from here? New and improved modern? With active salts?

Come to think of it, the active salt idea might work. I could exhibit a tube of toothpaste. Maybe they’ll even put it up in Kala Ghoda next year.

Full (sheepish) disclosure: I actually love some of the artists I mentioned in my rant. Dali’s Metamorphosis of Narcissus absolutely blew me away. It was that painting that got me interested in art in the first place. For reasons I don’t completely understand, when I see  pictures of Jackson Pollock’s paintings, I feel *something*, even if I can’t define what I feel.

But you gotta admit, pretending to be the unartistic boor who ought to know better is a lot more fun when you’re blogging.

No wait, I am an unartistic boor who ought to know better. 

Short takes

Open question #1: I saw a “Buy One Get One Free” offer at a shoe shop the other day (Cosmos Mall in Bangalore, if you have money to burn and feel particularly pyro today). Do they mean pairs of shoes, or is it like the “Free Hotmail Account” offer I saw ages ago at a Net surfing place in Kolkata?

Open question #2: There’s a brand of bottled water (Manikchand, I think) that has the term Oxyrich on the label. Now, we’re talking water, right? Two parts hydrogen, one part oxygen, last time I checked. But an Oxygen atom looks like Godzilla next to the Hydrogen atom, so two of them still doesn’t mean much. So how the heck does Manikchand manage to make water more oxygen rich than it is?

More later. Do write in if you have any more open questions to add to this list.

The tag for this port is a reference to my favourite open question of all time: If you eat a dish made out of Venus Flytrap, can you consider it vegetarian? Maybe Sharanya Manivannan could answer this one 😀

What am I?

I came across this lovely blog post by Sharanya Manivannan this morning: 

The Venus Flytrap: Just Ask Jeeves « Sharanya Manivannan 

It reminded me of a little something I had written ages ago, so I thought I’d post it here.  



The other day, I was at a family function and an elderly relative of mine asked me for my contact number. I gave him my business card, and the first thing that caught his attention was the strange sounding bunch of words just below my name. Now, for most people, the strangest sounding bunch of words in that card is my name itself. However, this gentleman is the type who thinks Harihararamasubramanian is a perfectly normal moniker, so there.

So anyway, he asked me what my designation meant. I told him that I was torn between General Handyman and Lord of the Rings, and this seemed somewhere in between. He gave me the sort of look he reserves for cockroaches he’s about to kill, then smiled and went to talk to my sister. Who, thankfully, has a simple-sounding designation: Associate.

Since I am predisposed to spending large quantities of time trying to answer questions of earth-shattering inconsequence, I ended up thinking about this problem in my workplace. Why are these designations so important anyway?

In my distracted state of mind, I almost bumped into the guy who was trimming the hedges on our campus. My first words out of my mouth however, weren’t “Excuse me.” It was “What’s your designation?” I half-expected General Handyman, but he just gave me that cockroach look and continued trimming. I put the question to Ratul and his answer was immediate: Plant Manager. He’s held designations such as Executive Assistant to the CEO, so I figured he knew what he was talking about.

It made sense. And what is more, it opened up an entire universe of options. If you’re the guy that operates the fax machine in your office, you could be Associate Vice President, Corporate Communications. Given the current market scenario, this might well be true in a lot of investment banks. If you’re a security guard at an ATM, you could say you work in Fiduciary Access Control. If you’re the CEO, you could call yourself Vito Corleone.

In my happy, delusional state, I even wondered if I should send the idea to Scott Adams as a suggestion for his next strip. But before I could do that, my broadband connection went kaput and a Customer Service Executive helpfully informed me that she would pass the problem on to a Technical Support Executive who, in all likelihood, would take two days to fix it.

ps: Every once in a while, I plan to post something “off-topic” on this blog. This is the first of that lot. For an explanation of the category this post is filed under, please see the panel on the right hand side.


No, I’m not discussing Kurt Vonnegut, in case you were wondering.

A colleague of mine who just got back from NY told me that, whenever Paris Hilton was mentioned on TV, the prefix “jailbird” was attached to her name. Sure, the girl must’ve found it a lot more difficult than The Simple Life in there. But think about this: this is publicity you can’t buy.

My prediction is that, within a year, Paris is gonna launch a new line of fashion accessories called Jailbird. It might even have gaudy pink handbags that say “That’s hot” in her voice when opened. Remember: you heard it here first.

Okay, I was kidding about the handbags.

Okay, I wasn’t. Paris might actually do that and make tons of money on it. In which case I want a cut.