Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A Word Game

I’ve got almost three hours left, as these very words are typed, before I default on the grand promise made to myself of writing at least one post per ten days. So let me hurry up and write about a word-game I used to play quite often, long ago.

It’s about getting from one word to a totally unrelated word using synonyms.
All you need for the game is a tool (a Software or a Website) that gives you the synonyms of a word, e.g. Word-web, Dictionary.com. So here are the steps to play the game:

1. Think of any two apparently disconnected words like “Deep” and “Formula”.
2. Find Synonyms of the first word using the tool.
3. From the list of Synonyms, select a word that, you think, could take you closer to the second word.
4. Find Synonyms of the selected word in step 3.
5. If the second word (here “Light”) is not in the list obtained in step 4, then go to step 3. Else, celebrate.

So for the Deep-Formula example, the sequence using Word-web could be:

Of course, there is more than one solution in many cases. The most fun part is trying to get to the opposites through the chain of synonyms. Let’s kill the life:

Try and get to “Clear” from “Close” in minimum number of steps. Why don’t you put a challenging pair in the comments with the number of steps you took to reach the solution.

Not all pairs would have solutions; but that happens mostly if you choose a very restrictive first word, like “Calculator”. Otherwise, you almost always get to any other word through the synonyms. Now, what does that tell us about language and symbols and the way we communicate?

Let me know if you find the game genuinely interesting and whether you’ve seen something similar anywhere else. If it’s worth it, then I might create a Software (may be a Facebook application) that would help play the game. It would come up with suitable pairs which definitely have solutions and then show the user/player the route he is taking to get to the destination word. Taking a step further, the software can generate pairs at various difficulty levels based on the number of steps and choices required to solve the problem.

This also reminds me of the silly game of rhyming words, if I may call it so, that almost all of us would have played. Back in Kharagpur, me and one particular friend nicknamed Sanki, seldom had a conversation without the poetic touch. He would knock on my door and ask “Do you have a pen?”; the reply would be “Only if square of Pi is less than ten.” Yes, we were that bad. It did get emotionally draining to be always alert and continue doing so month after month. We earned many enemies in due course, some well-wishers turned agnostic too.

Putting stupid memories aside, let me request you to throw a few challenging pairs and then we can compare our solutions.

And am I glad to beat the deadline by a mighty margin of two hours :).

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Handshakes, Dating And Succumbing

Observing last few posts, I felt that the blog is getting too analytical and didactic. So the second part of the previous post has been postponed to next week without advance notice to whomsoever it may concern. “To whomsoever it may concern” has such an arrogantly apathetic and yet a pleading disclaimer-like tone to it that I wouldn’t have believed it to be one of the standard ways of formal addressing in written form, had I not been taught to use it in school. “Sincerely Yours” is another funny usage in application-letters and one learns due to it, at a tender age, that it’s okay to lie. Not many things can be undone; let’s move on and justify the title in three snippets:

1. The Firm Handshake: My previous company lost two of its clients I had been involved with. The first company I worked for doesn’t exist anymore and I hear that there is a huge crater now in the plot where the office building once stood tall. Contrast that with the current employer; I take two interviews daily during the worst slowdown since the great depression.

I should be a contended man, but for the self-help books and guides that teach you how to leave a good first impression. “Shake the interviewer’s hand with a firm grip” they say. “It shows confidence” they go on. I am particularly proud of my gentle, soft and slender hands that many girls would willingly exchange with theirs, if you remove the hair. It irks me no end when a palm, sometimes sweaty with nervousness, squeezes my hand tight enough to suck life out of it, when I meet the candidate. I feel like yelling at him (female candidates usually don’t offer their hand on their own and I don’t make the first move either) “THIS doesn’t work anymore. The other candidates know the secret too.”

As the Efficient Market Hypothesis tells us, once the wisdom is known to everyone, you cannot exploit it to your advantage. Nowadays, I rather appreciate someone who is confident enough to shake hands lightly; it’s better to rely on one’s instincts to judge the fellow.

2. Dating Punjabi Browns: This was googled by someone in Senegal to reach my blog. So that someone, most probably a lady, finally figured out that all “Browns” are not the same, especially when it comes to sensitive affairs like Dating. Maybe she had a terrible experience with a Gujju-Brown earlier who probably didn’t pay for the Dinner; maybe she had eight Browns as her neighbors sharing the apartment next door. Our Punjabi Munda might have got her interested and then she might have had doubts about his turban, the mark of a Punjabi-Brown, and would have been researching the implications that the turban has in romantic life.

This is an opportune time to explain “Brown Phantom”, the blog name. I was never fond of the comic-hero “Phantom”. Initially I planned to be anonymous and hence the word “Phantom”. And “Brown” was chosen as an acknowledgement of the above mentioned notions since I knew that despite being anonymous, the brown-ness would be clearly evident in my writing.

That lady spent a few seconds on this blog; long enough to figure out after looking at the profile picture that this Brown isn’t a Punjabi.

3. Succumbing: Months ago when the liquor-shopkeeper mentioned here robbed me of money and pride, I resolved to never deal with him again. Time heals. Weeks later, I was out to buy some Fosters from other shop, which is twice the distance away and one has to cross this cheater’s shop to reach it. The cheater had plenty of customers and he was frantically serving them. The lazy manipulator got into act “What’s the use of avoiding him? I am just ONE customer. What difference is that making to his business? Why walk extra yards for a false ego? Why give so much importance to one-self?”

The spineless pragmatic cut his route short. Beer did the trick for the night. The next morning as I walked past the shop again, guilt-ridden and self-loathing thoughts, which were conveniently ignored the night before, returned with a vengeance. Not being a man of principles is probably good for survival and longer life. God, can I have some strength back in my character please?

Recent observations suggest though that I am in for a long life. While in Goa, I was haggling for swimming trunks in a shop. He said 200; I told “150 is the best I could offer or I leave” and began to walk out of the shop. Outside Goa (and West-Bengal), you expect to here the last price from the owner when you are about to leave the shop. I didn’t know that such moves don’t work in Goa. We left the shop and as we moved towards the beach, the quoted price got higher and higher. We turned and went back to the same shop and bought the trunk for 200. “The other shops have only cotton trunks. We are in a hurry. Please give that one for 200.” were the sheepish words.

This reminds me that I was supposed to write a chain of posts on Goa as promised here. Of course, that hadn’t happened. I haven’t retuned “after a very short break”. But then, what else can one expect from someone who has been a wuss lately.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Demographics and Sports : Part 1

1. Why Indian Cricket team is likely to remain amongst the top three for decades?

2. Why England has won relatively low number of championships in most of the sports despite being probably the most sport loving nation?

3. Why most of the trophies/medals for India are going to come from individual games and sports? We might never see the golden days of Hockey again and we have little chance of success in sports like Football/Basketball.

This article is divided into two. The first part looks at the relation between demography and sports with cricket as an example. Second part explains the curious case of England, other sports in India, Olympic medals tally & Football rankings.

Here are some arguments which aim to partially explain some of the facts and speculations mentioned above. A nation’s success in a sport is a function of various parameters:

Success(sport) = f( Population, Per Capita Income, Level of interest in the sport, Average health, Culture, Random factors)

With the above formula most of the sports’ rankings in past and present can be justified. These are the fundamental factors. Some claim that Football in India isn’t a success because not enough money is spent on the game and cricket hogs most of the limelight. This is a na├»ve answer. It’s like saying that rain occurs because of the clouds; an unsatisfactory explanation with no attempt at understanding the dynamics of nature and weather cycles.

Let’s talk cricket first.
New Zealand : They just lost the One-day series 3-1 to India. That country’s population (4.2 million) is nearly half of that of Bangalore. For each New-Zealander, India has 200 heads. If one goes by population alone, then chances of prodigies like Sachin being born here are huge compared to NZ. Each player in Indian team is a 99.99999 percentile while in NZ team, he is 99.9995 percentile. India should have been mauling them in most of the games if one goes by population alone.

So what brings NZ at a competing distance to India ? I think the most important factors are active outdoor life and naturally better health (look at their average height). Their per capita income ($26,610) is more than 10 times that of India, which means a lot better infrastructure and financial support for the game and players. Yes, nowadays any Indian cricket players earn much more than a NZ player; however that happens only at the topmost level. There are a comparatively higher percentage of drop-outs at the club level in India due to financial insecurity.

Australia: There are five Australians for each New-Zealander and each Australian earns twice as much. The level of interest in cricket is higher in Australia as compared to New-Zealand where Rugby is the primary sport. Nearly 23.5 % Australians over the age of 15 regularly participate in organized sporting activities. One in four. How many of your acquaintances over 15 are regular with sports ?

Australia has probably the most efficient and competitive cricket system right from the school level; if a person is good, chances are very high that he won't miss the chance to play at the right level. However, India is now catching up due to growing economy and money being poured into the system. On the other hand, population is something that Australia would never catch up on. So, Indian team is expected to progress at a faster rate.

West Indies: WI cricket was a roaring success once upon a time. Tall, dark and ferocious players. Since last couple of decades, money has been drying out of WI cricket and at the same time Basketball is getting more and more popular due to American influence. Tall, well built players choose that game at school levels and we don’t get to see those intimidating players in cricket any more.

Pakistan: Back in 80’s and early 90’s , it was a common sight to see Pakistan team defeating India. They were just one fifth in population and per-capita-income was nearly the same. One can attribute some of it to “Random Factors” in the equation above. However, we must also not ignore that Pakistanis are ahead of Indians in terms of health and physique due to natural conditions surrounding their habitats. Who’s your favorite Bollywood actor? Chances are that he would be a Khan or someone with Punjabi blood in his family ( Hrithik Roshan, Akshay Kumar, Abhishek Bachchan, Ranbir kapur). Living in mountainous and cold region has its advantages.

Besides, it is only now that Indians have become aggressive; we didn’t have it in our culture back then. When Sachin as a teenager was hitting sixes in Peshawar, Abdul Qadir walked up to him and said “ Bachchon ko kyon maar rahe ho, humein maar ke dikhao”. Imagine Venkatpathy Raju doing the same to Shahid Afridi. One more controvertial factor, many claim, for India’s poor record against Pakistan in those days, was biased umpiring in Sharjah-Cup which we never won for years. Sachin, later in that match, hit Qadir in an over for 6,0,4,6,6,6. India still lost.

Sri Lanka: This team has risen only after the mid-nineties. However, they are seldom in top three in the rankings, which is expected given their corresponding values in the equation. I attribute the 1996 world cup win to ‘Random Factors”. “Random Factors” must not be taken as sheer luck, but more as short-lived reasons. The rise of Kaluwitharana and Jayasuriya at the top of the order was something world was not prepared for. Greats like Muralitharan are born and they can skew the expectations. However, if he or someone of Jayasuriya’s caliber was to be born in Bermuda, that team wouldn’t have won the world-cup because other parameters of the equation (mainly level and history of interest) are still very weak there.

Rest of the analysis follows in part 2. One important reason for splitting the post into two is to be able to justify any anomalies or questions that some of the readers might point out in this part.

Meanwhile, would you be kind enough to check out my other blog which is a live-story in progress of the start-up Easysquarefeet.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

How not to get duped at the petrol pump

It’s that time of the month again when Vinnie needs her food. I usually get the tank full at the petrol pumps for three reasons. This avoids extra trips to the pump and it is good for the engine since it results in reduction of the amount of time the level of petrol remains low in the tank. The third reason is to avoid the prospect of a confrontational situation which is explained below.

During initial days in Bangalore, I noticed that my spending on petrol has gone up quite a bit even though the distances covered daily were less than those in Gurgaon. I attributed that to nearly 15% difference in petrol prices and slow moving traffic here. However, with time, it came to notice that there were fluctuations in mileage in Bangalore itself; thousand rupees petrol sometimes lasted 15 days while other times it got over within 10 days.

It must be mentioned here that I am not someone who keeps a notebook on expenses per month and then sits and analyzes them. It’s just that I have a fondness for numbers. I remember quite a few of them and catch any inconsistencies easily. That had led to the blasphemous allegation that I am an extremely caring person just because I never forgot anyone’s B’day. Now I deliberately don’t wish people even if I remember their all sorts of anniversaries. Enough of me, let’s move to the point now.

Since petrol-pumps were the only variables in this situation, it was natural to suspect them. However, even for the same petrol pump, there were considerable variations sometimes. It was turning out to be an intriguing problem. So this one particular time, I decided to be more observant and asked the guy to fill petrol worth Rs.500 instead of the usual Rs.1000. Here is what happened:

I parked my car and got out of it in order to observe the meter closely.

“500”, I said. It’s fun to communicate with as few words as possible.

“Zero Sir”, he pointed to the meter.

“Sir, Cardaa or cashaa?”, another guy approached me. Happens always; get your payment done while the tank is getting filled. Parallel processing; no rocket science here.

I gave him the credit card without uttering a word, which, later I realized, also meant that my attention was diverted.

“Sir! Over. 200.” the first guy pointed to the meter.

“But I asked for 500; you never listen properly. Last time too you did the same thing”, I replied irritatingly.

“Sorry Sir, see zero again”. He went on to fill 300.

Satisfied, I signed the credit card receipt and started the car. Surprisingly enough, the petrol indicator hadn’t moved to half of what it used to move for 1000. “Must be a calibration error”, the forgotten and ignored Instrumentation Engineer in me tried to soothe the rest of me and succeeded for a while.

However, as soon as the car moved, I had the Eureka moment. In the first half of the filling, the full 200 never goes in; there is a button or a trick which when used, directly jumps to that mark. Asking for a credit card, or car wash/paint are tactics to divert the attention. The lost 200 was a smaller part of 1000, but this time when asked for 500, the difference was clearly noticeable.

I got down the car and confronted that guy. Initially he insisted that he heard 200 first. My line was "how come you always hear 200 instead of 500"; not a very persuasive one; all rhetoric and no evidence. There was a deadlock in arguments and it seemed useless to fight with the group. Threats of never visiting their pump didn’t earn any respect either.

Logic came to rescue once again. The car was definitely having some petrol (though not much) before they poured any into the tank. The tank, when empty, used to get filled in around 1700 when you convert currency to liters. The capacity of the petrol tank cannot be disputed. So, if he had already filled in 500 worth of petrol, then he must not be able to fill in worth 1200 more. I asked those guys to go for a full tank and if the amount crosses 1200, then I wouldn’t be paying a single penny. Of course, they didn’t have any comeback for this; that’s the best thing about maths, number of people on the wrong side don’t count.

I had been tricked in such manner more than once at other locations too. When checked with friends, nearly all of them recalled getting duped similarly quite often. Easy money.

So now I always say “full tank”; it cannot be mistaken for 200 or 100. Coming back from Goa I had a thousand rupee note, which I had to dispense off. On my next visit to the pump, I raised 10 fingers and said “Thousand, and don’t play that 200-waala trick with me”. A few extra words, but they were necessary.