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Book Review – Panic: The Story of Modern Financial Insanity

February 26, 2009 Leave a comment

Michael Lewis, a Wall Street bond salesman turned author of best-sellers like Liar’s Poker and Moneyball, takes the reader on a fascinating journey through financial meltdowns in Panic: The Story of Modern Financial Insanity.

Starting with the crash of 1987, and moving through the Asian financial crisis, the Russian default,  and the Dot-com Bubble, the books finishes with the current Sub-prime fiasco.

With a 20/20 hindsight, it would have been tempting to simply offer solutions and crisp cause-and-effect scenarios while compiling a book like this. It to Lewis’s considerable credit that he resists this temptation and instead provides the reader with far more interesting stories and insights about financial markets, media and human behaviour.

The basic structure of the book, while dealing with each crisis, is that of providing some articles/excerpts published before, during and after the crisis. The selection of articles captures perfectly the prevailing zeitgeist of the times preceding the crises. It is somehow therapeutic to remember that there was a time, not too long ago, when merely launching a website caused a company’s stock price to rise astronomically. Articles published during the crises serve to highlight the desperate attempts to make sense of extremely complicated situations, while those published after the crises reflect the vague general consensus on the most likely culprits or causes.

The book also serves to point out that everybody didn’t lose his/her mind in the euphoria that preceded each crisis. There were people who were blowing whistles with all their strength, it is just that nobody was listening.

The seemingly inevitable cycle of booms and busts is as sad a reflection on human behaviour as it is uplifting in the current economic climate. The next boom is just around the corner. Look out for whistleblowers when it happens.

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Categories: Books Tags: , ,

Success of a Campaign

February 25, 2009 Leave a comment

Over at Nanopolitan, Abi criticises (once, twice) the Mint over an editorial. Read both the posts to get the context of this one.

I have no comment to offer on the original campaign or the Mint editorial. However, I have a minor quibble with Abi’s “business case”:

By any yardstick, getting 50,000+ people to support a movement in less than 10 days is an amazing feat. That the Pink Chaddi campaign used its ideas, people, technology and resources so well to beat back — using chaddis as their non-violent weapon — a bunch of violent street thugs is a huge achievement. A clear victory for peaceful protest. For innovative thinking. For the mobilizing ability of those who put this campaign together. For women. And also for men who are not Muthalik, SRS goons or their supporters.

Mint cannot even bring itself to recognize this achievement. It calls it, grudgingly, “a victory of sorts.” Why? [Nanopolitan]

Because getting more than 50k Facebook users to join an on-line group is really, really far from “success” in any meaningful way. Calling it a “victory of sorts” is rather generous, if you ask me.

Joining an on-line group or signing an on-line petition is a zero-cost way of registering one’s “protest”. In fact, sending lightweight parcels is also a very low-cost method (which is probably why the campaign used this strategy to brilliant effect – hats off to them for that).

I would have loved to see how many people would turn up for, say, a “Rally to Protest against Gender Inequality” in Bangalore, especially from outside the city (because once again, showing up at such a rally is rather low cost for many Bangaloreans). Not many, I guess.

Since this is a rant, I can’t help adding here that this is pretty much the curse of our generation – this obsession with taking the easier way, walking the well-trodden path, following the herd etc. Loads of people are willing to write frothing, angry critiques of Mahatma Gandhi on Orkut, Facebook and on E-mails. Not one of them is willing to fight for his/her ideals to the extent Gandhi fought for his own, and led millions of others to join him. I wonder when, why and how this change happened in the Indian milieu.

It is noteworthy that the Obama campaign got a lot of American youth to get out and undertake high-cost ventures, and that gives me hope for Indian youth as well. This is one instance in which I wouldn’t mind Indians copying the West at all.

Categories: Rant Tags: ,

Indian Complexes

February 25, 2009 4 comments

Writing for The Times (UK), Tunku Varadarajan feels that Indians are the most complex and complexed people (link via Confused):

Maybe it’s a result of 200 years of colonialism, but Indians are world champions at caring – really caring! – about what foreigners (more accurately, Westerners) think or say about them. They will live blithely with impressively foetid slums in their midst, thinking nothing of the juxtaposition of Victorian-era poverty and world-class, 21st-century living standards. But the national outrage stirred when a Western film-maker uses “slumdog” in the title of his film is an incandescent sight to behold.

That foreigner’s neologism (“slumdog” doesn’t exist in real parlance in India, although gali ka kutta, or alley-dog, comes close) is thought to heap more shame on the land than the slums themselves. And yet when that same film, with that same neo-imperialist title, is fêted by tuxedoed Americans at an awards ceremony watched across the globe, Indians burst with pride. Eight Oscars, yaah! Isn’t that a record? Isn’t A.R. Rahman the best composer in the world? Isn’t Bollywood bloody wonderful? And aren’t our slums a lesson in how to overcome adversity and cruelty?

Aren’t our slum people stoical, resilient, self-reliant, courageous, fraternal, resolute and inventive? Aren’t our slum people the world’s best slum people? [Times Online]

I would guess that the hypocritical Indians that Tunku Vardarajan is talking about are actually not a block. There are those who disliked the film (for technical, aesthetic or other personal reasons) before Oscars, and continue to do so now. There are those were were offended (on behalf of India) by the title and/or the content of the film before the Oscars, and continue to do so now. There are, of course, those who love A.R. Rahman’s work, both before Slumdog Millionaire and in it. And there are countless other such categories of opinion on every issue (including the depiction of slums in the film) pertaining to Slumdog Millionaire.

As to the awards themselves, plenty of people don’t care. Plenty of them do. Sure, in a large set of more than 1 billion people, there will be some hypocrites. But probably not enough to generalize “Indians” as a “complex” and “complexed” people on that basis alone.

I am also assuming that Tunku Vardarajan is drawing his conclusions not on the basis of first-hand research, but on the basis of the tone of media coverage received by the film. I am fairly certain that he can’t point to a specific person whose opinion pieces reflect the kind of complexes and shifts of opinion that he is talking about. You’ll find that such divergent opinions are usually held by different people. That the media choses to highlight one sort at a certain time and another sort at another time, is not the fault of “Indians”.

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My Oscar Scorecard

February 23, 2009 Leave a comment

Looks like I got most of the predictions right. The only major award I was wrong about was Best Actor, which went to Sean Penn rather than Mickey Rourke. Well, I should have guessed that the Academy is going to make a political statement with that one.

I’m very happy for A.R. Rahman, who snagged 2 Oscars. Slumdog Millionaire itself bagged 8, which is very good. If it gets some of the Indians associated with the film (looking at you, A.R. Rahman and Resul Pookutty) good Hollywood work, that would be a huge positive for the Indian film industry as a whole.

Categories: Movies Tags: , ,

The Oscar Predictions

February 22, 2009 1 comment

Here are mine:

  1. Best Film: Slumdog Millionaire
  2. Best Director: Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire)
  3. Best Actor: Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler)
  4. Best Actress: Kate Winslet (The Reader)
  5. Best Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight)
  6. Best Supporting Actress: Penelope Cruz (Vicky Christina Barcelona)
  7. Best Animated Feature Film: Wall-E
  8. Best Documentary: Man on Wire
  9. Best Animated Short: La Maison en Petits Cubes
  10. Best Documentary Short: The Witness
  11. Best Live Action Short: Spielzeugland (Toyland)
  12. Best Original Screenplay: Milk
  13. Best Adapted Screenplay: Slumdog Millionaire
  14. Best Art Direction: The Curious Case of Banjamin Button
  15. Best Cinematography: Slumdog Millionaire
  16. Best Film Editing: Slumdog Millionaire
  17. Best Foreign Language Film: Waltz with Bashir
  18. Best Costume Design: The Curious Case of Banjamin Button
  19. Best Sound Mixing: The Dark Knight
  20. Best Sound Editing: The Dark Knight
  21. Best Original Score: Slumdog Millionaire
  22. Best Original Song: Jai Ho (Slumdog Millionaire)
  23. Best Makeup: The Dark Knight
  24. Best Visual Effects: The Curious Case of Banjamin Button
Categories: Movies Tags: , ,