Party Games

A year and half back, my wife had gone to Gurgaon on work. One evening, she called and told me that she was “going to go for a party at the guest house”, which I duly conveyed to our daughter.

The next morning, our daughter woke up and asked me about her mother’s party. Having been appraised of the proceedings late in the night, I shared the summary. “That is all fine, Appa”, she want, “but WHAT WAS THERE at the party?”.

I was a bit puzzled by the question and said there was nothing. “Why does a party need to have anything?”, I replied, “in this case there was big people juice, which people drank and talked to each other”.

It was in the course of that conversation that I realised that most kids’ parties usually have “something”. Some have bouncy castles. Some take place in play areas. Some people organise magic shows. Others have art workshops. And so on. A lot of kids’ parties are “structured”, with “stuff to do”.

Coming to think of it, this is not true of kids’ parties alone. Even a lot of adult parties nowadays have “themes”. So people have “poker nights”, or “board game nights”, or “movie nights” for which they call other people and socialise and together perform what can sometimes be a perfectly satisfactory single player activity.

Poker nights, I can understand, since it is sport, and one that can be much better played offline. However, I can’t imagine calling a bunch of random friends for a “poker night” – if it’s a poker night, it ought to be a bunch of people who are also interested in poker.

That aside, why should you bother hosting a party for a bunch of friends, and then not give them the opportunity to talk to one another, and instead subject them to some “party game”? “What is even the point of having structured activities at a party?”, my wife wondered loudly one morning.

My theory is this – not everyone is interesting and capable of holding an intelligent conversation. However, everyone has the need to talk to other people and socialise.

So if you are not sure about the quality of conversations that the people you are inviting to a party are likely to contribute, you want to somehow ensure that the party is at least somewhat interesting to everyone that attends. And so, you get rid of the upside (of some fantastic conversation happening at the party), and instead limit the downside (of everyone there getting bored), and put some structured activity on the party.

In other words, you put a “collar” on the party.

Collar – a derivatives strategy where you give up on upside to avoid downside

I have written here about the concept of “alcohol buddies“:

My friend Hari The Kid has this concept of “alcohol buddies”. These are basically people who you can hang out with only if at least one of you is drunk (there are some extreme cases who are so difficult to hang out with that the only way to do it is for BOTH of you to be drunk). The idea is that if both of you are sober there is nothing really to talk about and you will easily get bored. But hey, these are your friends so you need to hang out with them, and the easiest way of doing so is to convert them into alcohol buddies.

Now, there are some people who you can’t hang out with in “ground state”, but when one or both of you is drunk you can have an interesting conversation. Those are alcohol buddies.

However, there is a (possibly small) set of people who are fundamentally so uninteresting that even if both of you are pissed drunk, it is impossible to have a conversation is interesting to both people. And if you are having a largish party with a diverse set of guests, it is likely that there are many such pairs of guests, who cannot talk to each other even when pissed drunk.

And that is where having a party game helps. It prevents people from having random conversations and instead corrals (notice that wordplay there) everyone into the party game collar. No upside, no downside, nobody needs to find that there are others at the party who are absolutely boring to them. They all go home happy.

So far, we have resisted this “themed party” concept, except maybe in the context of NED Talks. Even our daughter’s birthday parties, so far, have been at home (once in Lalbagh during the pandemic), with the only “planned activity” being eating cake and snacks, and kids randomly playing in her room.

Let’s see how far we can carry this on!

Back to IIT

I hereby regret to inform you all that Sri Gurunath Patisserie, and everything around it including the Gurunath Stores and Moon Lab, is no more. There is no sign of its existence. Some new building, maybe an extension to the “giga mess” next door is coming up there.

Until this part of my walk early in the morning on the 15th of August, I had been thrilled to be back at IITM. Thanks to the kindness o the IITM Alumni Association, I had managed to get a room at the Taramani Guest House there for the morning, after my train had deposited me in Chennai at 4:15 am.

Of all the “institutes of national importance” I’ve visited in the recent past (last 1-2 years), IITM seemed the most friendly (and IIMB the least). This is ironic since as a student it was absolutely the other way round – the administration in IITM didn’t treat students well at all but in IIMB they were rather nice. However, now, post-pandemic IIMB has become a terror to get into, with some insane protocols and rituals.

At the IITM gate, though, all I had to do was to show a mail that I had a booking in Taramani House, and my auto was waved past. Delhi Avenue looks exactly the same as it did two decades ago, though maybe some new faculty blocks have been added to the sides. The stadium now has a sponsor (some Watsa – no Prem), and Gajendra Circle was all lit up for Independence Day. Else it was a very familiar ride in.

Taramani House has turned around, though, with its entrance now facing the road between CLT and OAT, and not towards Narmada (my old hostel). The auto dropped me there, and I duly handed over the ?160 change I’d got at the gas station.

A security guard welcomed me and asked me to sit down as he went to fetch the night manager. It was “old style check in” as I had to enter details into a fat log book. The room key was “electronic” (the one you swipe), though, and was handed to me along with a bottle of water and a small cardboard box. Later I found that the cardboard box had a Medimix soap, a satchet of shampoo (hadn’t seen one of those in decades now!) and a toothpaste and toothbrush.

I set an alarm for 7:30 and crashed off. IITMAA had asked me to attend the flag hoisting ceremony “around 8am”, but hadn’t given me more details. I decided to go “in search of it”, and take a walk around campus while I was at it.

After failing to find the flag hoisting ceremony, I expectantly walked towards Gurunath to find that it was no more. And having gone all the way, I went to my hostel.

Again the security guard was rather nice, and just said “oh, visitor?” and waved me past. It was 8:30 am, and I walked through the hostel for about 10 minutes “completely unmolested”. I didn’t cross paths with a single student, or even see one within 20m of where I was. The room I used to live in was bolted from inside (indicating my room-descendent was there). However, when I knocked, there was no response.

This is what my room looks like now:

Where I lived between 2002 and 2004. The graffiti, I think, is a recent addition

Most of the daytime in the hostel was spent at the end of my wing, sitting on the ledge (I’d not yet developed my fear of heights then) and reading newspapers. This is that ledge area.

Again some graffiti

I walked all round the hostel. The mess has been demolished and rooms built in its place. There is a third floor now. Large parts of the notice board in front are behind a locked glass. Even the unlocked part of the notice board has NO GRAFFITI – I guess that’s reserved for the walls now. And I was sad that I didn’t meet anyone – I would’ve loved to talk to the current inhabitants and find out what life is like there.

I had planned to meet Mohan, the legendary quizzer who was one year ahead of me at IITM CS, for breakfast that morning. Not wanting to put too much fight, I asked him to come to the guest house itself, and we ate there. The pongal and vada were good, although the “independence day special kesari bath” (a weird pink colour) was gross. We didn’t even go near the orange white and green idlis.

And then we went off on a rather long walk across campus, mainly covering the academic sections. We saw the new computer science building, and debated on what was in its place twenty years ago. We found this rather interesting nook in that building  – at the end of a corridor, a simple table and stools, and a blackboard.

The nook in the new Computer Science Block

We then went to the Building Sciences Block, which used to host the Computer Science department back in the day. And then kept walking, exploring campus and talking about lots of fun things.

It was interesting going around the place with Mohan, since we were a year apart in college and hence didn’t have any particular shared experiences, though we had SIMILAR experiences because we did the same program. This meant there was a connection but not too much nostalgia, meaning we could explore lots of different things as we walked. Oh, he recommended this book to me.

After that I headed back to my room for a quick shower, and checked out. Once again, it was time to deal with Uber / Ola. That I was deep inside IIT meant that any cab that had to pick me up had to make the trek all the way inside, and the place where I was meeting Kodhi and Aadisht for lunch was not far away at all – implying a huge transaction cost.

At least 5-6 cabs (from both platforms) cancelled on me. The ones who would call would talk about some “distance” (what I could make out given my broken Tamil) and cancel. Finally, I got an Uber that was 14 minutes away (when I booked), and which actually arrived. Turns out it came with a passenger headed TO taramani house, and I got in as he got off.

I might have written here before – I quite like going back to IIT, even though it is in Chennai! I sort of feel at home when I go back there (unlike in IIMB, where I feel like I’m invading someone else’s personal space, unless I’m there to teach or for a reunion), though I’m still very sad that Gurunath is no more.

That was the one place where I had my best memories on campus, and kept me going through my last three years there. Most of the “network” I have from IITM consists of people I hung out with there. And it pains me that it doesn’t exist any more. I really wonder what misfit students do there nowadays!

Read Part One of my trip here.

Madras Mail

Earlier this week, I was in Chennai for a day. This is the first part of my documentation of my chronicles 

A month back, Kodhi suddenly messaged asking if I can travel to Chennai for the “Landmark” Quiz, now sponsored by Zifo. “Remember 2009”, he helpfully added. That year, the three of us (Kodhi, Madness and I) had won the Chennai Landmark, and then came close to winning the “national final”.

I reversed my decade-long policy of not travelling for quizzes. I reversed my decade-long policy of not going to Chennai without a very good reason. I reversed my more-than-decade-long policy of not taking an overnight train to Chennai.

It is not like I didn’t have my share of jitters. There is something about going to Chennai that depresses me. I don’t know what it is – and that possibly explains why I hadn’t been there since 2012. On Monday night, I had finished work, had dinner at my usual time and was watching TV when the jitters came in.

I suddenly didn’t want to go. I wanted to feign illness and let my tickets lapse. I tweeted this

My wife pushed me out, saying I was being irrational and I should just go. And so I went.

The Train

This was my first Indian Railways journey since 2012. I took the metro to the railway station. The walk from the Majestic metro station to the railway station wasn’t particularly pleasant.

It was the first time in life I was travelling “2 tier AC”. I realised I’d forgotten how to climb into the upper berth. With some effort, I managed. There was a pillow and a thick woollen blanket on my berth. Presently, a steward brought a large paper bag with two (warm) white sheets and a small towel.

Then I had to pee. In the bathroom, I found a mug chained to the tap. There was also a health faucet – the first time I’m seeing one such in an Indian train. There was also a notice that we shouldn’t throw things (such as toilet paper) into the toilet. Maybe the waste doesn’t go down to the tracks any more?

I discovered that there was a curtain I could pull, to shield myself (and three others in my booth) from the corridor. Surprisingly for a train journey from Bangalore to Madras, I slept well. I started feeling less bad about going to Chennai.

At 4 am, I got woken up. Someone in the next booth had started playing Suprabhatam loudly on his phone. Then I heard someone tell him “stop it, others are sleeping”. The sound stopped. I don’t know if the two people were travelling together. Anyway, at 415, the train rolled into Chennai Central.

Indian train stations have always had homeless people sleeping in them. A new one was at Central – where I saw mosquito nets strung across dustbins, and people sleeping in them. This was just the first such example, and not a one-off.

Chennai Central at 4:15 am

The Auto

I got out of the station and booked an Uber. There was no movement in the taxi. Presently the driver called. Speaking in a mix of my broken Tamil and English, I understood he was asking me if I’ll pay cash. I said no, and he asked me to cancel.

I started booking an Ola. The inevitable thing that happens in Chennai Central happened. I got accosted by an auto driver. He initially quoted ?450 to take me “inside IIT”. I started with ?200, reasoning that it was twice of what I used to pay when I was a student. I’m not good at bargaining and I wanted to go continue my sleep, so I agreed for ?400, which was about what Ola promised to get me a cab for.

In the auto ride, I figured it’s 19 years since I graduated, and so a 4X increase in price is not that bad. I had also told the auto guy that I’ll pay him by “scan”, and he had agreed.

He presently stopped for gas, saying the lines would get longer soon. My bargaining power was low, and I agreed. Once he tanked up, he asked me to scan, for ?400 – the entirety of what I owed him for the ride. “No no, you’ll get the change in cash here. You can give that to me later”, he said. I acquiesced, collecting the ?160 in change.

At 4:30 am, Mount Road looked just like it did 20 years ago. Apart from one long and incredibly narrow flyover in Kotturpuram, nothing seemed to have changed in nearly 20 years, including the route to IIT. Oh – I saw some metro stations along the way on Mount Road.

To be continued…



4-2-4 and Huns

Last night, in the game at Stamford Bridge, Liverpool started with a formation that could have been described as a 4-2-4. While Cody Gakpo ultimately played in midfield, to make it a more conventional 4-3-3, he is ultimately a forward who was playing there, and made Liverpool vulnerable down the left side for the duration of the first half.

This wasn’t the first time Liverpool lined up in a 4-2-4 without an obvious holding midfielder. For a while during the title chase of 2013-14, Liverpool lined up broadly similarly, with Gerrard and Henderson in central midfield, and Sterling, Sturridge, Suarez and Coutinho forming a front four.

And the thing that characterised a lot of games in that title chase was Liverpool’s fast starts. I remember this game against Arsenal (I wasn’t watching) when Liverpool went 4-0 or something up very very quickly. That was emblematic of that half season – very very quick starts, lots of goals up front, and then quickly tiring and  having to hold on for dear life in the end of the game.

When Liverpool failed to score early, like they did in the game against Chelsea (when Gerrard famously slipped, and when Salah started for Chelsea), they would get immensely frustrated and look short of ideas. It was very different to recent years when Liverpool have been able to conjure up last minute equalisers and winnres.

Anyway, yesterday seemed like 2013-14 again. Liverpool was clearly the better team in the first half hour, only a very tight offside prevented the game from going 2-0. The profusion of forwards, and Alexis Mac Allister pinging balls to all parts of the frontline, meant that Liverpool dominated.

Then the inevitable happened – Chelsea settled. Their midfield three got working and soon Liverpool were massively overrun in midfield. Chelsea quickly got one back, almost got one more, and dominated most of the rest of the game (until Liverpool took of Salah and Diaz for a pair of kids).

The thing with the 4-2-4 is that it is an unusual and incredibly attacking formation. The opposition will inevitably take time to settle down against it and figure out how to deal with it. And in that time, the attacking team needs to make merry and score as much as they can (Liverpool only got one).

Once the opposition settles down, the shortage of personnel in midfield can be quickly exploited and the opposition starts dominating the game.

As I was watching, I was reminded of the Age of Empires (2; the conquerors expansion) which I used to play back in college. There, you can select the civilisation you want to play as (sometimes it’s “random”). A few people used to prefer to play as Huns.

The thing with Huns is that they don’t need to build houses (they are nomadic), and so can grow very quickly very fast. And in an AoE game, if you are playing as the Huns, the only strategy is to attack quickly and cause enough damage to the opposition in the opening stages of the game that they can’t recover after that. Because once the opposition has settled down, the Huns’ speed advantage has lost its bite.

And so, playing a 4-2-4 in football is similar to playing as the Huns in AoE. You better make a good start and inflict enough damage on the opposition in the early stages so that they aren’t able to sufficiently damage you back after they’ve inevitably settled down.

Connecting these two topics – I heard on commentary last night that Liverpool has never won a game where a Hungarian has represented them. That trend continues after last night. Hopefully Dominik Szoboszlai can make amends soon.

Creative Cycles

When you’re doing creative work, your work broadly falls into two phases – the “invention phase” and the “implementation phase”. Both imply what they mean.

There are times when you are tinkering around and experimenting to find something fundamentally new that is cool. And then, once you have made the breakthrough in finding something cool, you need to make it useful. And this can take considerable amount of work, and its own creativity.

So if you are one person doing a “creative job”, your work will alternate in these cycles – where you create and you implement. The cycles are unlikely to be periodic. Some creative solutions are so creative that implementation is a breeze. In most cases, the inspiration is only 1% of the problem – the devil in the details for which you need to perspire.

When you are part of a creative team, this cycle thing can play out in different ways. Some teams form a caste system, where one set of people work purely on the invention phase, while the other works on the implementation phase. This is especially useful when solving highly complex problems, in which case the skills required for the invention and implementation phases are different.

The big cost of having separate teams like his is the cost of communication (AGES back, when GPUs were just becoming a thing, I was part of a committee that was exploring the use of GPUs in our work. One of the findings there was that GPUs can do the work incredibly fast, but the data transfer from GPUs to CPUs was slow, and could be a bottleneck. I assume that problem is solved now). People sometimes grossly underestimate the effort involved in communicating your solution to someone else. Even if you manage to communicate, there can be significant handholding that might be required to get the other team to take forward your invention.

And so this investment in communication cost is worth it if and only if the work is complex enough. Think of large industrial projects – such as the manufacture of the iPhone, for example – they are complex enough that you need several specialist teams to perform the entire creative process. And in the larger scheme of the complexity, the cost of communication across teams is small.

On the other hand, this usage of multiple teams to perform a creative process can be massive overkill for simpler work – there the cost of communication can far overpower the gains in efficiency through specialisation.

Anyway, I’m getting distracted here.

Coming back, the alternative is to have the same people or sub-teams perform the invention and implementation stages of the creative process. Here, I’ve seen things play out in multiple ways.

Some teams are uncorrelated – this means that different members or sub-teams are in different phases of the work. As a consequence, this kind of a team constantly provides creative output. When some of the people are deep in implementation, others are inventing. And the other way round. This means that the team is constantly both coming up with new ideas and delivering stuff.

Other teams can be more correlated – either everyone is working on the same thing, or the whole team moves in sync (invention at some points in time, implementation at others). Here the issue is that there can go long periods of time without the team really producing anything – in the common invention phase, no shit is getting done. In the common implementation phase, there are no new ideas.

This can lead to stagnation in the team, and frustration outside. And so not ideal.

The other related concept is in terms of management. Some managers of creative teams are better off at managing the invention phase. Others are better off at managing the implementation phase. Given that the creative process involves both, for the team to be effective, we need managers who can manage both as well.

And this is easier said than done in a single person, and so you need a management team. And what you find is that you have a “complementary number two” (no pun intended). If you as the team leader is better off at invention, you get a number two who is better at implementation. And the two (or more) of you together manage the process.

I’ve spoken about this before – this can sometimes lead to suboptimal succession. Let’s say the inventive head leaves. The organisation promotes the implementation number two. Now, it is contingent upon this new number one to get a (inventive) number two asap. If that doesn’t happen, invention can cease. The team will carry on for a while implementing the already invented stuff, and then grind to a halt.

Similarly if an implementation head leaves, the inventive number two gets promoted. And unless a new implementation number two is hired, you’ll see lots of proofs of concept and little actual implementation. Again suboptimal.

Channel Coding Theorem in Real Life

One of my favourite concepts in Computer Science is Shannon’s Channel Coding Theorem. This theorem is basically about the efficiency of communication over a noisy channel. And as I was thinking a few minutes back, this has interesting implications in real life as well, well away from the theory of communication.

I don’t have that much understanding of the rigorous explanation of the theorem. However, I absolutely love the central idea of it – that the noisier a channel is, the more the redundancy you need in your communication, and thus the slower is your communication. A corollary of this is that every channel has a “natural maximum speed”, and as long as you try to communicate within that speed, you can communicate reliably.

I won’t go into the technical details here – that involves assuming that the channel loses (or garbles) X% of bits, and then constructing a redundant code that shows that even with this loss, you can communicate effectively.

Anyway, let’s leave behind the theory communication and go on to real life.

I’ve found that I communicate badly when I’m not sure what language to talk in. If I’m talking in English with someone who I know knows good English, I communicate rather well (like my writing 😛 ) . However, if I’m not sure about the quality of language of the other person, I hesitate. I try to force myself to find simpler / more obvious words, and that disturbs my flow of thought, and I stammer.

Similarly, when I’m not sure whether to talk in Kannada or English (the two languages I’m very comfortable in), I stammer heavily. Again, because I’m not sure if the words I would naturally use will be understood by the other person (the counterparty’s comprehension being the “noise in the channel” here), I slow down, get jittery, and speak badly.

Then of course, there is the very literal interpretation of the channel coding theorem – when your internet connection (or call quality in general) is bad, you end up having to speak slower. When I was hunting for a job in 2020, I remember doing badly in a few interviews because of the quality (or lack thereof) of the internet connection (this was before I had discovered that Google Meet performs badly on Safari).

Similarly, sometime last month, I had thought I had prepared well for what I thought was going to be a key conversation at work. The internet was bad, we couldn’t hear each other and  kept repeating (redundancy is how you overcome the noise in the channel), and that diminished throughput massively. Given the added difficulty in communication, I didn’t bring up the key points I had prepared for. It was a damp squib.

Related to this is when you aren’t sure if the person you are speaking to can hear clearly. This disability again clouds the communication channel, meaning you need to build in redundancy, and thus a reduction in throughput.

When you are uncertain of yourself, or underconfident, you end up tending to do badly. That is because when you are uncertain, you aren’t sure if the other person will fully understand what you are going to say. Consequently, you end up talking slower, building redundancy in your speech, etc. You are more doubtful of what you are going to say, and don’t take risks, since your lack of confidence has clouded the “communication channel”, thus depressing your throughput.

Again a lot of this might apply to me alone – I function best when I’m talking / writing at a certain minimum throughput, and operating at anywhere below that makes me jittery and underconfident and a bad communicator. It is no surprise that my writing really took off once I got a computer of my own.

That was in the beginning of July 2004, and within a month, I had started (the predecessor of) this blog. I’ve been blogging for 19 years now.

That aside aside, the channel coding  theorem works in non-verbal contexts as well. Back in 2016, before my daughter was born, I remember reading somewhere that tentative mothers lead to cranky babies. The theory was that if the mum was anxious or afraid while handling her baby, the baby wouldn’t perceive the signals of touch sufficiently, and being devoid of communication, become cranky.

We had seen a few examples of this among relatives and friends (and this possibly applies to me as well – my mother had told me that I was the first newborn she ever handled, and so she was a bit tentative in handling me). This again can be explained using the Channel Coding Theorem.

When the mother’s touch is tentative, it is as if the touchy channel between mother and child has some “noise”. The tentativeness of the touch means the baby is not really sure of what the mother is “saying”. With touch, unlike language or bits, redundancy is harder. And so the child goes up insufficiently connected to its mother.

Conversely, later on in life, these tentative mothers tend to bring in redundancy in their communications with their (now jittery) children, and end up holding them too hard, and not letting them go (and some of these children go to therapists, who inevitably blame it on the mothers 😛 ). Ultimately, all of this stems from the noise in the initial communication channel (thanks to the tentativeness of the source).

Ok I’ve rambled on here, so will stop now. However, now that I’ve seeded this thought in you, you too will start seeing the channel coding theorem everywhere (oh – if you think this post is badly written, then that is again like reading this over a noisy channel. And you will get irritated with the lack of throughput and pack).

Strategic Wallis Simpsoning

While University Challenge lasted all of two seasons in India, it gave rise to some memorable memes. For example, our episode against Hindu College (2003-4) gave birth to the term “chimpanzee question”, which has since been shortened to “chimp”. Enjoy the etymology here:

Two rounds later, we got thulped by KREC (featuring Mukka, Ganja, Peeleraja and Rajat). I’m unable to find the video of that, but I clearly remember this question from later on in the quiz, at a time when we were well behind.

Shamanth (pictured above in the featured image of the YouTube video) buzzed and gave a long answer about the woman whom Edward VIII married. It didn’t matter – Quizmaster Basu wanted the name. The question passed to the opposition, and Mukka immediately buzzed and said “Wallis Simpson”.

Unlike Chimp, this didn’t catch on, but briefly at IIT, we used “wallis simpson” as a generic term in a quiz where you give most of the answer, but not the full answer, which means the team next in line can then “cash” on your descriptions and take the points.

I guess the term was too long (“chimp” became a thing because “chimpanzee question” got shortened to “chimp”). Also, unless you are interested in British monarchs, Wallis Simpson is “floyd” (a fairly vague funda). That said, it’s appeared enough times in quizzes to be called a “peter” (from “repeater”).

Anyway, here is a picture taken of the IIMB team after we had won Nihilanth in 2005. Shot by Pota, we later decided that in this photo we look like a band. And that the band would be called “Peter Floyd and the Chimpanzees”.

Bottom left in this picture is Mukka, who answered “Wallis Simpson” in UC in 2003.

Speaking of Wallis Simpson, the nomenclature just didn’t catch on, but the concept has always existed in quizzing. I got reminded of it last week, and thought it can be rather “strategic”.

Since the pandemic, the world has been flush with online quizzing league. I had steadfastly refused to take part in them, forever maintaining that for me “quizzing was a social activity”. Recently, though, I happened to go for a few quizzes with Kodhi (top right in this pic, with his fist to his chin), and he convinced me that I should give it a shot. FOMO having been lit, I signed up for a league called “B612” (that the league is seemingly named after my birthday further encouraged me to sign up).

The league is two weeks in. I won my first round fairly easily (and it left me so stimulated that I couldn’t sleep half that night), and then had a really bad day in the second round last week.

Maybe it was because the quiz happened at 6pm, just after I had returned from work. Maybe because the Swiss League pitted me against stronger opposition, given I had won the first one. Maybe I hadn’t relaxed enough before the quiz started. I was in really poor form, missing some absolute sitters.

Halfway through the quiz, it was clear I wouldn’t win. However, second place was still gettable (I was then third). That’s when I got a direct question where I “knew the funda but not the answer”. If I got it wrong, the question would pass to the person then in fourth place, and then to the person then in second (the quiz follows a format called “Mimir“, which is like the US sports draft system – people who’ve attempted less on the pass get precedence).

While I was in bad form, I realised that I could “strategically Wallis Simpson”. It was my turn to answer, so I could give out all I knew about the answer, even though I didn’t know the answer itself. That would maximise the chances of the person then in fourth place to answer, which would mean the question wouldn’t pass to the person then in second (thus denying him an opportunity to pull further ahead of me).

If the question were to, after me, pass to the person then in second place, I would have simply passed – there was no way I would have done him favours. However, in this particular question, the person in fourth stood a chance of preventing the person in second from answering – and so I had to give him (#4) all the help he needed.

And so I said something like “I know it’s the Toronto basketball team that won NBA recently but I’ve forgotten its name. So I’ll say Toronto Maple Leafs“. As it happened, neither the person in fourth nor the person in second could build upon my clue. The leader, who ultimately won the quiz easily, answered Raptors – though I don’t know if my clue helped him.

As it also happened, by the time the quiz ended, the person in second pulled away from me, and the person in fourth caught up with me – we ended up joint third. That wasn’t a possibility I had been playing for when I decided to “strategically Wallis Simpson” him! There is no reward without risk.


The first time I stayed in a resort was during my honeymoon in 2010, when we stayed at the Vivanta in Bentota (Sri Lanka). The travel agent (yes, we still paid them good margins on those days) had convinced us to stay two nights there. Friends had told it is “romantic”. Our room got upgraded to a suite.

And then we got bored. Our boredom occurred on several fronts. Firstly, there was nothing much to do there. Both of us being good south indian middle class kids, our idea of a “holiday” had then been the package tour with a tightly packed schedule. Suddenly, two days at a single hotel was incredibly boring.

Then, we got bored of the food. Back then I was vegetarian, which meant we could realistically only go to one of the three or four restaurants in the resort. By the time we finished a day there, we were completely bored of the food.

Then there was nothing much to do. The swimming pool was crowded, having been monopolised by a large and noisy tour group. The beach was okay, nothing compared to that at Trincomalee on Sri Lanka’s east coast (which we visited in 2014; oh, and by the way, my wife has started a new newsletter with her  travel experiences. The first episode is called “paid sex in Sri Lanka”).

Over the years, we have kept going back to resorts, and seldom enjoyed them.

I mean, spending one night at a resort, like we did during our recent travel to Tamil Nadu, is good. You are in the vicinity for something else, and it gives you a nice place to relax and recharge, and before you get bored of the place, you are out of there.

Any longer than that at a resort, unless there is something compelling to do, is a disaster. You get bored. The food starts becoming monotonous. You start doing things just to fill your day – and that thing is usually NOT reading the book you took on vacation. You might drink excessively. And so on.

Then there is the size of the resort. If it is too small, it can easily get monopolised by one large (ish) group, making it unpleasant for everyone else there (this has happened countless times now). If it is too large, it can get a bit impersonal (though one time we stayed at a really large resort, in Maldives, we loved it).

The other issue with resorts is that you are forced to follow their schedules. As a family, for example, we have our dinners around 6pm, which is normal for some parts of the world but rather early for India. Most resorts force us to wait till 8pm (or even 9pm) for our dinner, thus upsetting our schedules and sleep.

Another annoying thing I find about resorts is their desire to “add value”. From a resort’s point of view, they want guests to stay for longer, and that means offering them more things to do (unless there is something “natural to do”, such as a good beach, near the resort). And so the resorts pack themselves with all kinds of “activities”.

On Saturday, for example, at a resort near Kumbakonam, they had arranged for a classical dance performance. The number of times they reminded us about that was not funny. And some of the other “things to do” sounded like things you would write in a Social Studies exam to make your answer longer – “feed the fish in this pond”, “light a lamp, make a wish and float it in that pond”, and so on.

All this said, I was happy to be in that resort for that night (apart from the late dinner, which affected my sleep). Some people are of the opinion that on some kinds of holidays, the quality of the hotel doesn’t matter since “you only need a place to sleep”. As far as I’m concerned, though, I don’t mind paying the premium for a nice place so that the sleep is (sort of) guaranteed, and we are able to properly relax.

I thought I was done with this post, and then realised I’ve written about resorts once before.


The highlight of today, day three of our Tamil Nadu trip, was this temple called Thirumayam that we discovered. It’s a Vaishnava temple built into a hill, not far from chettinad, on the way to thanjavur.

And it was to thanjavur we were on our way to when we saw the Thirumayam fort and temple near the road, and decided to make a short detour and stop. In other words, later today we went to the Brihadeeshwara Temple (or “big temple” as it is known in these parts), and yet the highlight of the day remained Thirumayam.

For some of you that may not add up. So let me explain.

Over the last four years, we’ve done quite a few family road trips. Most of them have been in Karnataka. During one of the earlier ones we discovered that all of us quite like going to “ASI temples” – those that are currently maintained by the archeological survey of India.

Many of them are obscure. In some, we are the only ones around at the time we go. Some may have some worship, but many don’t since the idols have been damaged during one invasion or the other. That doesn’t matter to us.

What does is that these temples are incredibly pretty. Most have nice carvings on them – hence the archeological value. And most are old.

There was a coffee table book on Karnataka’s temple architecture I had got several years ago. We’ve planned entire itineraries based on that book.

I remember going to Tirupati around Christmas in 1991. It was so crowded and the lines were so long that I didn’t want to go back. My wife had a similar independent experience about the place whenever she first went there.

It was a similar experience in Mantralaya, or any other popular temples I’ve been to. The crowds are quite off putting. Especially if you are not of a particularly religious persuasion (and we are not religious) you start wondering what the point of jostling with such massive crowds is.

And as it got reinforced during our trip to the Brihadeeshwara this afternoon, I’m actually claustrophobic. Big crowds of people, or people walking past me and close to me, really put me off.

We entered the main temple, and the queue to see the idol stretched till the entrance. One look and we decided we’d had enough and put exit. Earlier, when we had gone to drop out shoes in the shoe stand, the absolute chaos of (lack of) organisation there meant we just left our shoes there without bothering to take a ticket for them (they were there an hour later when we returned).

Even on Thursday when we went to the Madurai Meenakshi temple, the crowds were big enough to put us off from wanting to see the idol – seeing the temple and its architecture and beautifully carved pillars was Darshana enough for us.

And so while the Brihadeeshwara was fantastic, and I’m really glad I finally saw it, our experience there was discounted by the crowd. And that made the place far inferior.

Later, we went to the similar but smaller temple at the nearby Dharasuram. We went at a time when there was no worship, but I enjoyed that much better than Brihadeeshwara, all due to the relative lack of crowds.

Crowds put us off, disorderly crowds even more so. And if that means we don’t see the main idols at several temples, so be it. Seeing the temples and the carvings and architecture is more than good enough.

At Thirumayam (picture above) we were possibly the only “tourists” (that was clear from our appearance and dressing, and our lack of proficiency in Tamil). And I was amazed to see how nice everyone around was.

One of the priests took a few minutes off his worship to explain the temple and other deities there to us. Another pilgrim (possibly a local) shared some of her Prasada (rock sugar or Kallu Sakkare) with us – unprompted.

The vibe – which can come from the lack of crowds – was incredibly friendly. And that’s been our experience in all the seemingly underrated temples with good architectural value.

The problem with supply of visitors being too high is that the attention goes down. And that makes the experience inferior. Unless of course you believe that catching a direct line of sight to the idol is going to compensate for this – which for a lot of people matters, which explains why demand sustains despite the inferior overall experience.

The Krishna principle

However much you try to protect yourself the enemy will find a way to get to you

I’ve written here a fair bit about the gods. It’s largely been about Ganesha and hanuman, though and there is very little about Krishna that I’ve written here. However an incident at today’s dinner suggested there is an important life lesson to be learnt from Krishna as well.

I was wearing my white T-shirt. Rather, I was wearing one of my two plain white Zara T-shirts. I’ve abused them both a fair bit ever since I got them. It’s inevitable that when i wear them I end up soiling them by spilling some food stuff. So far it’s not been too expensive – each time the shirts come out of the washing machine fully clean. I don’t know how long this will last.

We were having dinner at our hotel in chettinad – the generally excellent CGH earth Visalam. It was a sit down banana leaf dinner, but there were napkins provided with knives and forks (no clue what purpose the latter served!).

I’ve had a complicated relationship with napkins. In nursery school I remember they would make us tuck napkins into our shirts while eating. I hated that (also a reflection of the quality of napkins we got in 1986-88). and so I started considering napkins as a downmarket thing.

And then over the course of life I found that putting the napkin on your lap was more elegant – shirts weren’t protected now but it was far less awkward. Growing up I figured the napkin could be used to signal to the waiter when you were away from the table – on the chair means you’re going to be back, and on the table meaning you were done. Etc.

Anyways so today at dinner I remembered that I’d dirtied this shirt for the last 2-3 times I had won’t it. And so I decided to protect it by wearing the napkin in the way it was taught to us in kindergarten – tucked into the front of the collar.

For readers more familiar with Greek myth than with hindu myth. Krishna has an “Achilles-like” story. It goes that his mother dipped him into a pool of liquids with immortal powers. However since his mother held him by his heels they didn’t touch the water and so remained mortal. Finally he died by a hunters stray arrow that hit his heal.

And this is the principle I’m talking about – Krishna’s mother wanted to make him immortal (especially given the looming Kamsa thread). But the part with which she held the baby remained mortal. And that caused his downfall.

So the Krishna principle says – however much you try to protect yourself (or a loved one) there will always be a vulnerability, that the enemy will exploit.

And so today I was happily enjoying my dinner, with my napkin tucked into my front collar, seemingly safe in the knowledge that my shirt was safe.

Then they served crab. As I tried to break one of its claws, it squirted some weird liquid. Which splashed right into the sleeve of my shirt!’! and so it went.

Hopefully this shirt will survive this wash as well. Tomorrow I’m going to be wearing its partner – the “mid weight” Zara T-shirt. I’m hoping I’ll be able to protect that one from culinary damage!

At the cost of one shirt stain, I’m happy I’ve managed to get an interesting concept.