Thursday, March 29, 2007

Let me ease out of this hallway please

If I say esoteric, people say it’s a word difficult to fathom. But then, I point out that exoteric—the well-known and the widely understood—stumps them too. Do these words mean anything at all?

When I drink, I smoke. And I try to maintain an optimal proportion of both, when in simultaneity. 3 drags and a swig. I’m never satisfied though. Therein lies the puzzle. I’m happy, but the niggling details refuse to let go. Too much for the lungs, too little for the liver, or viceversa. If I concern myself with the details, I just cease to enjoy the moment.

At bedtime, I agree that it has been a happy day. The hours conflate, translating into a balmy feel; yet, the analysis of the minutes vex me. If I choose, still, to be happy, the other me reminds me that there has been disregard of slights. Thoughts have not been thought over. The saner me says, “Rub those stains off for tomorrow, please. Or else they will notice and comment.” I’m many different persons while talking to myself.

So, smart and sprightly, up and running, I stand at the threshold of existence to welcome the daylight of life. Shuttling between existence and life though are the moments.

Between the perfectly done hair and new shoes lies a trepid heart, and beneath it are two cold feet.

She grew up by the sea with the rustle of sand-filled breeze. I step out and the blare of incessant honking and the cry of too many babies stupefy me. Reality distorts dreams many times over.

It has been seeping into me that no lesson lasts a lifetime. The agenda always outsmarts the plan.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Full circle in half pants

When I was in the 3rd standard, my uncle took me along to play cricket with his friends. For the next 4 years, I was almost always the youngest one on the small rectangular field, bordered by houses on 3 sides, with a cemented pitch at the centre. With Cosco tennis balls for which all but I contributed, we would play 16 over matches in the summers and 14 over ones in the winters. Since there were so many waiting, batting came at a premium. And as the kid on the field, batting was all that I could do. I almost never got a chance to bowl. I would be sent out to open in the hope that I would come back soon.

I remember the first ball that I faced. I just didn’t see it. I closed my eyes, swung my bat, and then, seeing the ball in the gap, ran as hard as I could. For quite some time, that’s all I did. I tried to see the ball, put bat to it, and ran desperately. Seeing how badly the odds were stacked against me, I held onto everything. If I was out first ball, I would spend the entire evening sulking, and my mom would’ve a hard time cheering me up. But come next morning, I would be up and looking forward to afternoon. Always the first one on the field, putting the stumps, sweeping the dust off the pitch.

In my 4 years at the Universe Cricket Club, I never realized what it bequeathed me. It all came back a full circle much later, during engineering. As the 2nd year Mechanical team in the inter-branch tennis ball tournament, we didn’t really have a chance. Our college has a huge cricket culture, and guys there are really good (FYI, Kumble is an alumnus). We got a scare in our first match. From then on, everything was a blur. We won match after match against much more fancied teams. I don’t even remember how many 50s I scored in those 10 over matches. I guess while the others just wondered how I was so good, I knew what fighting for each of those scampered runs had taught me.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

a tale of 2 Ants

On a spiteful afternoon, two ants scooted on the face of a parched patch. They flitted aimlessly on tip-toes, not resting anywhere. The crevices that had opened up the dry land offered a quick respite, but therein lurked great dangers. The Great Black Ants hunted there—laying low, waiting for easy preys. The darting minnows were mindful of this; their trepidatious existence had taught them better than to succumb to such everyday temptations.

Amidst this flurry, they, with a big fat chunk of luck, chanced upon a morsel. Forsaking this crumb meant forgoing a sumptuous meal. Pausing for a few moments that labored slowly in the hot spell, they deliberated over the status quo.

The weight of the grain slowed them down considerably, and now every step of theirs was fraught with an ominous possibility. Trudging under the shared load, they sighted a man sleeping under a small tree. Only his face was in the shade; the rest of him lay bare in the sun. Even then he was in a sound nap, with a spluttering chainsaw for a snore. With a gargantuan effort, the ants pulled themselves up along with their prize onto the man’s nose. Once there, they sighed in relief. The black ants wouldn’t dare venture there, for their heavy steps would immediately invite their host’s attention.

“Such a barren expanse! Nothing grows here these days,” the older ant remarked. The younger one, too spent to be bothered by the bleakness in the comment, just gazed into the distance.

“It wasn’t this bad earlier. We used to chance upon something without much effort,” the patriarch continued, shaking a helpless head at the turn of events. Now hollering his lament, “There is hardly a blade left on this earth, and we still haven’t stored a thing for the rains.”

Unmindful of these words, the younger one was already nibbling at the morsel. Perching his legs high over its surface, and rolling it to and fro to get a good bite, he feasted on the speck. Stretching a wee too much, he lost his grip over the slippery grain and down it trundled. Aghast, he stretched every sinew of his in a desperate attempt.

Resting on the bridge thus far, the elderly ant now sprinted as fast his creaky legs could carry to salvage the lost meal.

Just then, the rumble stopped. Only the hustle on the nose hung heavy in the dry air.

A hand rubbed the nose, crushing both the ants.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

rock concerts and capital markets

Although I say this to convince myself, let the others be privy too: Academicians aren’t always that boring. While spending their lives doing research, examining studies, and developing frameworks with quirky names, they sometimes freak out and do something worthwhile like attend rock concerts. 2 such rather sociable geeks, at a concert, question banks that they were, funnily wanted to know the reason for the huge attendance. They asked, “Are people here because of their personal/individual choices or is there a collective preference that drives mass choices?” After an analysis they proposed the theory (in ways you wouldn’t want to rack your brains about) that most individuals were influenced by their immediate environment—friends, family, place, etc. These people then made their choices, which is to say they duplicated those of a few others, and thereby formed groups based on such common behavior or herd mentality. Slowly, such groups grew in number and size. If things went adequately well, many stable groups sprouted, and the concert was a hit, or at least the tickets were sold out.

This inference just whetted the appetite of the geeks in question; they then attempted applying it to a more understandable field—economics. Capital markets. They studied how individual investors made their choices.

Investing in the stock market simulated attending a rock concert. What?
Investors were swayed by a similar process of “imitation.” How?

Initially, a few enthusiastic potential investors tried to make sense of the financial condition of firms: balance sheets, revenue statements, and the likes. These enterprising ones realized that they understood ECG reports better than all those annual statements. All that financial information didn’t light a Mentos bulb in the brain (those big bands you somehow didn’t have a clue about: awesome bass, brilliant rhythm, strong vocals?) So, they did the next best thing. They looked at others with similar interests (friends, family) and tried to imitate the ones who were making the most in stock markets or were sure of big payoffs (the most die-hard fan maybe, who made you feel that the concert was really worth something). In the market, such entities were the big institutional investors, funds, or even high net worth individuals. On a more specific level, the investors matched sectors, discerned trends, and made their choices (better rock than Carnatic; this alternative shit is in, man). That is, they decided upon whom to follow. This started a process. Each of them in turn influenced several others and a group began to be formed. Such a group, and many such groups, snowballed, witnessed a sedated increase, or just sank, depending on the spread of information. New members begot newer ones. More people, more money, more secure investments. The value of corporations swelled (tickets of the concert sold at inflated prices).

However, there was a hitch. Not everyone in a group was of the same stature. The old ones, the more experienced ones, if geometrically represented, lay in the centre of the group. The newer ones, ones with low investments or a more roving eye, sat on the fringes. These peripheral members were the ones who, maybe, had eggs in other baskets and were weighing the more lucrative baskets among them (a cheaper concert of a lost pop group (Viva?), or a 4 starred movie reviewed in TOI (K3G?)). These fringe members were the most liable to change. Their decisions could be easily swayed, any change in them easily triggered. Now say, investor X, a very old investor/fund/institution moved out of the group. All of a sudden, the value that had been built up fell (your rocker friend, the one whom you thought was crazy about the band, around whom your group of friends revolved, decided to sell his ticket). The confidence of other lesser investors dwindled. Their choices (imitation) were now changeable. If all this happened quickly enough, a collapse in the group(s) was triggered. Investments were pulled out with immediacy and market erection shrunk.

Now, a little peek into the past. Ethical accounting practices have been perceived to be important. Firms released true, accurate information on their financial condition. But sadly, since the average investor couldn’t differentiate chalk from cheese, all that voluminous financial truth made little sense. This sowed the seeds of collusion between accounting firms and companies. Shady stuff like window dressing and creative accounting happened (tweaked information was spread: 6 million copies of the band’s last album, which perhaps included 3 million pirated copies in China that didn’t bring a penny to the label). And while all this went on very dynamically, we, even the Economic Times conversant ones, saw the effects of such deep, widespread causes turning awry only when we, surfing channels, heard about the bankruptcy of Enron or one fine morning.

However, capital markets, free markets, possess stable self-correcting mechanisms. So, even if false information is disseminated, investor interest is revved up, which is what ultimately matters. If this hype is strong enough, the stocks in question perform and people make money. Purists would say the market fundamentals are shaky, or that it is being driven by temporary bullish runs (your die-hard pro-Kishore Kumar uncle would proclaim that this rock-shock won’t last, quality music is what will eventually be heard).

However, what about spontaneous order: the social theory that says individuals follow their own self-interest, without a central authority designing a “plan” for everyone, thereby creating an ordered system? Don’t free markets subscribe to this?

Perhaps, what constitutes a voluntary choice isn’t really clear. But, anyway, the next time you decide on something, ask yourself how you really made that choice. And dont forget nerds can be cool too.