Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Butter Chicken (Maybe)

Recipe for my experimental butter chicken.  Recipe is for 2 pounds of chicken, usually serves about 5 people.  Adjust ratios (or not) for different measures.  Use fresh ingredients when you can.  Will take about an hour and a bit if you're efficient.


  • Chicken thigh filet cut into small pieces (works with drumsticks and bone-in just as well; try not to use breast though; gets too dry)
  • 2 tablespoons ginger paste
  • 2 tablespoons garlic paste
  • 1.5 tablespoons of whole cumin seeds
  • 1 tablespoon red chili powder/cayenne pepper (adjust according to the heat you want)
  • 2 tablespoons coriander powder
  • 2 tablespoons salt
  • 2 tablespoons paprika for color 
  • 2 tablespoons of fenugreek powder or crushed dried fenugreek
  • 1 teaspoon garam masala
  • A fistful of unsalted cashew nuts (salted works just as well, just adjust for it)
  • 3 green chilies (chopped - again adjust for desired heat)
  • 2 onions (medium; chopped; red or white work just as well)
  • 3 tomatoes (medium; chopped)
  • 1 stick of unsalted butter (use real butter, non of that margarine nonsense)
  • A fistful of chopped cilantro for garnishing
  • Oil; water; heavy cream; ketchup

Marinate the chicken with half the garlic and ginger paste, red chili powder, coriander, and salt and set aside for a couple of hours if you can.  If not, no worries.  

Heat the oil in a large skillet, preferably stainless steel instead of non-stick.  When the oil is hot, flash fry the chicken.  Fry till chicken is "browned" (which is weird, because it turns white - *insert your own politically incorrect joke here*).  Don't worry if the marinate sticks to the pan.  Remove the chicken and set aside.  

In the same pan, add the cumin seeds, the onions, green chilies, the rest of the ginger and garlic paste, cashew nuts, red chili powder, coriander, fenugreek, and tomatoes - I prefer to do it in this order.  Then add the water and slowly scrape the browned masala from the bottom of the pan.  Cover, reduce the heat and let it come to boil.  Let it slow cook for an arbitrary amount of time.

Pour the mixture into a blender (Vitamix ftw).  If you don't have a Vitamix let the mixture cool a bit so you don't blow up your blender.  Blend into a fine paste or liquefy depending on the texture you want.

In the same pan, throw in the stick of butter, let it melt and the pan get hot.  Throw in any water that might have oozed out of the chicken that was sitting on the sidelines.  Add the blended mixture.  Add some ketchup (depending on how tangy you want it to be), add some heavy cream (depending on how creamy you want it to be), bring to a boil and then toss in the chicken, add the garam masala, reduce heat, cover and let it cook for an arbitrary amount of time till the chicken is fully cooked (I would say 10-15 minutes should suffice).  

Take off stove.  Garnish with some more heavy cream and the chopped cilantro.  Let it sit for a few minutes and serve.  Voila!  

Should look something like this

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

The Weak Suffer What They Must For the Greater Good?

By allowing people to declare their opinion on any event, Facebook has made it difficult to sway people's arguments using logic (or evidence), since we are less prone to change our mind if we have to redact our opinion or admit being wrong.  Which is why I try not to engage in debates on social media.  Nevertheless, perhaps this will take my mind off Trump.  This is by no means a research paper but all self selective citations are at the end of the post.

On a morning when Donald Trump is the new President-elect in America, I am hit with my friends and colleagues rejoicing in NaMo's demonetization plan to combat 'black' money, calling it "brave, bold, decisive, incisive" and other superlatives.  However, this issue is not, if you will pardon the pun, as black and white as one might initially think.

For the uninitiated, this is what happened.  On Nov 8, at 8 pm, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that effective that moment, all 500 and 1000 denomination currency notes will no longer be legal tender.  He explained that this decision will help curb black money and counterfeiting.  You can read a detailed account of what happened in this Reserve Bank of India press release.

Who would not be excited at the prospect of a "bold and decisive" government policy to curb black money, eh?  Certainly the neoliberals sitting in their ivory towers on Facebook love this idea. While the perceived intention of the policy is along the right lines, there are some issues worth considering here.

Modi's sudden call to demonetize, seems much like his earlier schemes like Jan Dhan Yojana... a jumla.  However, while the opening of millions of ‘zero balance’ bank accounts under the Jan Dhan Yojana was a harmless gimmick, the ill-conceived monetary decision this time will inflict costs on the public.

First, nobody knows how much black money is actually in cash, and how much in other tangibles (Hindustan Times).  The 2012 report on the 1978 Janata Dal/Morarji Desai demonetization found that the majority of black money is in benami land, gold, and off-shore accounts.  It did little to combat black money in the "long run". I will admit that there are stronger tracking systems in place now, but there are also knew avenues of laundering (Indian Express).  The big fish have long devised much more sophisticated ways of stashing their money.  The current demonetization is unlikely to touch anything more than a fraction of the present stock of black money in India (HT).

This is what the policy has done so far: In Gujarat, sale of gold increased on 9 November with an increased 20 to 30% premium as people bought gold in exchange of their unaccounted cash.  The Hindu reported that such transactions have been made back dated.  The targets for this policy is already gaming the system, and the working class that barely have any money, let alone black money are the ones paying the toll  (The Hindu).  The liberal elite do not seem to understand this, calling it "a minor inconvenience that will be over in a week".  The worst statement I have read is a comment: "We have to take care of our domestic helps, that's our responsibility."

Having said that, there is definitely an argument to be made for this policy to lower corruption at the mid-level.  My friend Tanmay Shukla made an argument, which I am going to paraphrase:

When folks with black money buy a house in India, to avoid stamp duty people pay half in cash right?  Not jewelry or bullion or other properties.  When a bureaucrat pays another to get a promotion he has to use cash to avoid a second round of negotiations over the value of what he is offering as bribe.  Politicians, whose main reason for being corrupt is that they need a lot of funds, and need to make a lot of payments to stay in power.  So disrupting the currency supply should disrupt corruption.  We are not sure why it did not work in 1978 but casual observation goes against this idea that black money is not stored in cash.  However, one problem with this initiative is that it disrupts the flow and not stock of black money.  It can temporarily cripple people and make them fearful of being corrupt, but then Modi has to take advantage of their handicap to force a more permanent change.  We don't know what he is up to behind the scenes so it might be worthwhile to wait and watch.  Then again it might not.

Second, the demand for Aadhar and PAN cards while exchanging these notes at banks or the post office is an affront to the poor - most of whom are without these documents or the cultural capital to haggle with the institutions demanding them.  According to UDAI statistics, as on Nov 2016 about 80% of the total population have an AADHAR (1.07 billion issued) identification card.  Not including children, that leaves about 200 million people with no way to work around this policy. (UDAI stats shows more than 100% issuance rates for some states, so I would take their numbers with a grain of salt - this is not the first time the administration has inflated numbers, remember the new GDP estimators?)

Moreover, getting an AADHAR card doesn't happen overnight, particularly in remote places - what will they do in the meantime?  I think it is unfair to justify a "long term solution" with such a massive cost, which can have enormous long-term consequences.  Having an attitude that the poor can deal with this minor inconvenience for a couple of days, is naive and high-handed.  The government can do issue some studies of the expected cost to the economy and tax payer through demonetization and re-issuance, and some evidence to support that the black money recovered or destroyed will significantly trump that, otherwise it is simply not justified.  I want to see the mathematical logic of why and how this will work, especially since it did not in 1978.  I can't believe I am actually siding with Mamata Banerjee and Sitaram Yechury on this issue.

The government pushing for demonetization and asking the Reserve Bank to tag along also brings to question the separation of powers between the executive and the central bank.  If this excerpt from former RBI Chair Raghuram Rajan, is anything to go by, I do not think he would have supported it.
"There are alternatives to fighting..."
The decision has created chaos (Reuters), ordinary folks who work on daily wages are stuck with worthless cash and cannot buy basic supplies.  Certain shops are charging a 4:5 ratio to convert cash because banks and ATMs are shut - the BSE SENSEX tanked 6.3% and is forecast to lose more as the economy comes to a grinding halt over the next few days.  It is all good if you have a card and shop at Metro Mart, but it is a difficult disaster to survive for a substantial chunk of the country - the informal economy, which contributes about 20% to the GDP (Guardian).

Starting the 11th of November banks and post offices will allow people to convert their old bills for smaller denominations, but there is also a limit to cash conversion - Rs. 4000 per day.  The cost to banks and folks going to the bank to convert their money everyday will be stressful and hurt business.

Markets in Calcutta were closed today as the majority with purchasing power have very little low denomination cash on hand.  ATMs and banks are closed till the 11th - so what do we do in the meantime?  People are panicking because not everyone has plastic, in fact, the majority live on daily wages, so if you're sitting on Rs. 1,500 in 500 rupee notes and no one is accepting them and you have to change it in a bank and you don't have an ID - you do what anyone else would do - you panic.

Additionally let's not forget the Muslim population who do not use traditional banking systems - they are left out in the cold.

Finally, the skeptic methinks this is a ploy to reduce cash circulation as the UP elections are coming up to prevent ballot capturing.  The idea of issuing 2000 rupee notes will simply reset the system, so how is this a long term solution?  (Economic Times)

The arguments that this policy will do wonders for promoting e-commerce as well has the whole "India Shining" issue written all over it.  As for the contribution of this move in combating terrorism, it is a red herring.  The role of opaque instruments like Participatory Notes, used by FIIs operating in the Indian stock market, are more relevant for financing terrorism than Indian currency notes of high denomination (HT).  However, there is an argument to be made for the short-term increase in the value of the Rupee as there will be a heavy liability lift on RBI's books.

As Prosenjit Bose writes: 

"The real problems ailing the Indian economy lie elsewhere. The amount of stressed loans in the Indian banking system has crossed a whopping Rs. 9 lakh crore, a bulk of which is owed by domestic corporations to the public sector banks, causing a huge debt overhang.  Despite doubtful claims of fast economic growth, revenue mobilization has not shown any signs of improvement and consequently, re-distributive policies have been rolled back.

Under the Modi regime, substantive measures to promote investments, economic growth, revenues and welfare expenditure have been supplanted by gimmicks, PR spins and a brazen pursuit of select corporate interests. The latest instance of a conflict of interest lies in today’s full page newspaper advertisements by an online payment service provider congratulating the Prime Minister for the demonetization announcement."

It seems that the argument is that it is okay for a government to destroy the wealth of several hard working and honest citizens some of whom are in the poorest strata of society because they have no recourse (I include myself in this as I am sitting on cash here in the US and in my apartment in Calcutta that will essentially go to waste) @ 11,000 crore rupees cost to the tax payers to print new money (not including all the legitimate cash that will be destroyed and loss to business and waste of time and energy), create chaos and confusion, slow down the economy, disrupt regular business, not catch any of the really big fish because they have land, gold, and offshore accounts, make no arrests, and reset the black money counter in February after the elections?

Oh, and by the way, those Whatsapp messages your aunt sent you about nano GPS trackers in the new 2000 rupee notes is a hoax.

So what are the alternatives to this sensationalist stunt that hurts the working population instead of actually hitting the real criminals?  For starters, let us get a better understanding of why people engage in the black money economy.  Admittedly, the initiatives by the government to renegotiate the double taxation agreements with Cyprus and Switzerland - great idea.  Convictions based on Panama Papers - super.  Tougher auditing measures - great.  All of these target the top 1% who have about 74% of India's documented and undocumented wealth.  Can we give the poor some respite for a change and hit the ones who really need a punch in the bracket?

16 Nov 2016 Edit: The PM has asked for patience till Dec 30 - I will wait, I wonder if the poor can...

Resources and articles:

Friday, November 04, 2016

Adventures in Rock: Part 1

Part 1: Opening Doors in High School

"There are things known, and things unknown, and in between are the doors" 
~ Ray Manzarek [1] 

Writing about something as subjective as music is a curious and precarious task.  So instead of attempting to create an objective list, let me talk about my personal journey and experiences in discovering rock, naive and sparse, and at times embarrassing, it may be.

Govinda is awesome and I will not apologize for it.
Born in a musically devoid home and educated in a missionary elementary school, by the time I went to high school, my knowledge, exposure, and understanding of music was accidental at best, and abysmally tasteless at worst.  My early years at Doon reverberates with the memory of the common room stereo blaring a combination of David Dhawan's Govinda "Number 1" soundtracks, some version of Now That's What I Call Music, and techno - which is what all the cool kids were listening. At one point, I could sing most of the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears discography.  Rarely did I hear anything else, particularly since we had no access to the internet or international radio stations in 1998.  MTV and Channel V, though available, had limited diversity and we did not get a TV in the dormitory till 2001, and probably only tuned in to MTV "Most Wanted" for Shenaz Treasurywala.

One of reasons 90s MTV was fun
All that changed in tenth grade.  My friends and I sneaked into the Oberoi House dormitory common room to play table tennis at 7 in the morning on a Sunday morning only to find a senior, Abhishek Singhania, listening to music at a near muted volume.  We spent the morning in quiet harmony, Singhania listening to Simon and Garfunkel and Metallica (an odd pair) and me playing table tennis.  What stayed with me from that morning was a realization of how little I knew about the world of music.
"Like a Bridge Over Troubled Waters" ~ S&G
That summer I picked up a G3: Live in Concert audio cassette from the local Archies store in Dehra Dun on a whim.  I quite enjoyed listening to the distorted guitar sounds of John Petrucci (I didn't know Dream Theater then), Eric Johnson, Steve Vai, and Joe Satriani.  Admittedly, part of the appeal was hipster-ish.  Yes, I also see the irony.  Stemming from G3, I dabbled in picking up some random "rock" albums - Now That's What I Call Progressive, which had no Genesis, King Crimson, Rush, or Yes; Best of Alternative - which introduced me to Puddle of Mudd, Five For Fighting, and POD, Linkin Park, and Limp Bizkit - dark days...

Not pictured: Steve Morse (Deep Purple), John Petrucci (Dream Theater), Yngwie Malmsteen,
Robert Fripp (King Crimson)...
My eleventh grade exchange program to Wanganui Collegiate School in New Zealand was the first time I found a music mentor.  Harvey, who was the house captain of my dorm aptly also named Harvey, was one of the most charismatic people I have met, and quite the ladies man (as much as a high school senior can be).  Harvey literally opened the doors to his music (he had a nice CD cabinet) and for the first time I was introduced to The Doors (again, I had not seen the Oliver Stone film at this point).  Surrounding The Doors were assorted windows to newer scenes like Incubus, Weezer, Pennywise, and the Dave Matthews Band.  But "The Doors"... man.  The extended jam  on "Light My Fire", "Soul Kitchen", "Peace Frog", and of course, "Roadhouse Blues"... I did not smoke weed but Morrison et al made me feel like I understood what it must be like.  Their 1967 eponymous debut album The Doors would be a good gateway drug.

"People are strange when you're a stranger."
Somewhere in between, my English teacher Salim Yusufji brought out Prince and the Revolution.  I was thirteen, in an all boys boarding school.  I would not be caught dead listening to a short effeminate man in frills.  My naive prejudice meant it would be several years before I would re-discover the prodigy of The Artist Formerly Known As Prince - but more on that later.

A seminal experience for me upon my return from New Zealand was getting a copy of Electric Ladyland by The Jimi Hendrix Experience.  By the time I reached "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)", the last song on the album, I felt I was living on the wrong side of 1968.  This moment sparked my exploration of the 60s - 70s rock scene, what we colloquially call "classic rock" - the subject of Part 2 in this series.

"Excuse me while I kiss the sky."
Quick Fact [2]
"Rock n Roll: The Alan Freed Story": "Rock and Roll" was coined by DJ Alan Freed sometime in the late 60s.  While most people in the music industry in the US would like to forget him after the outbreak of the Payola scandal, Freed's influence and audacity brought R&B to the mainstream at a time when it was considered "black music" and shunned by the bourgeoisie, remains pivotal in the development of modern rock music.
The Father of Rock and Roll
[1] This quote is often attributed to Jim Morrison, but was actually first used by The Doors co-founder Ray Manzarek.  It is likely that the quote is influenced by a line in William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: "If the doors of perception were cleansed, every thing would appear to man as it is: infinite", or Aldous Huxley's "The Doors of Perception".

[2] I will include one quick fact at the end of each part.

Sunday, August 07, 2016

The Beauty of Mathematics

In the Spring of 2016, I gave a series of four hour long public lectures on the "Beauty of Mathematics" at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, Medford, MA.

Lecture 1: "Fractals! The Language of Nature" 
18 February, 2016
Where we explore the curious world of shapes and fractals, love, betrayal, duels, and multiple dimensions.

Lecture 2: "The Inanity of Infinity" 
3 March, 2016
Where we delve into the mysteries of the world of Cantor, Russell, and Tarski, and the paradoxes they left us with.

Lecture 3: "What are Numbers? Reality and Chaos" 
18 March, 2016
Where we ask questions like, is mathematics invented or discovered?  Does mathematics represent reality?  What is chaos?  How do computer passwords work?

Lecture 4: "The Ancients: From the Vedas to Al-Jebr" 
21 April, 2016
Where we explore the mathematics and its relationship to religion in the ancient world - the Egyptians, Babylonians, Chinese, and Indians.  The knowledge that was lost and mysteries that we still have not solved.  With special guest: Hungyen Ngyuen.

Selected references and sources:
"Arcadia", Tom Stoppard; "Numberphile"; "Vsauce"; "StandupMaths" - Matt Parker; "An Imaginary Tale", Paul Nahin; "Fractal Geometry", Benoit B. Mandelbrot; "Alex's Adventures in Numberland", Alex Bellos; "Whom the Gods Love", Leopold Infield; "Logicomix", Doxiades et al; "Love and Math", Edward Frenkel; "God Created the Integers", Stephen Hawking; "Godel, Escher, Bach", Douglas Hofstadter; "Spiked Math"; "XKCD"

Saturday, August 06, 2016


(For the 25th Anniversary of Oberoi House, 2015)

I’m sitting in The Fletcher School library on a surprisingly chilly Boston summer day trying to collect my thoughts and hammer out a piece about the Class of 2003 for Oberoi B and I’m not getting anywhere.  To begin with, I’m not even sure how long it should be.  I could write a book with the material I have. Should I try to be funny or nostalgic, should I mention the darker shades, or should I just concentrate on the lighter moments? No, that’s not right, we are the sum total of all our experiences, good and bad, and whatever we do is etched in our memory forever.  This is really hard.  The bonds that tie the eleven of us are drenched with too much history and emotion to disentangle with just a few words, but I will try, and hope that someone will edit this into something worth reading.

I do not claim that the ’03 OB boys were any tighter than any other house or class, but to me, they represent something ineffably special.  Perhaps that sounds hollow, but this is one of those instances where the cliché, “you had to be there”, is most appropriate.  I cannot and will not list all the spectacular (mis)adventures we shared, but here are some vignettes of our time in that magnificent collection of white washed bricks and mortar that was home, and will always remain so…

My earliest memory of Doon is my B-form guardian Thakur teaching me how to curse like a proper Dosco on my first day.  I was sharing a quad with Aman Sinha, Rishabh Jaiswal, and Karan Singh. Next door resided the rest of our batch, Divyam Singh, Vikramjeet Singh, Rahul Goyal, and Pranav Prakash.  Strangers that time would forge into some of my closest friends.  We are not sure why the eight of us were thrown into main house straight in D-form, but for now let’s assume, it is because we were and are exceptional.  So the eight of us did not enjoy the cocoon like protection of the holding houses; we were exposed to the elements called seniors quickly and I like to believe we grew up pretty fast because of it.

I remember BLD breaking up a late night “intro” session in the common room where some of us acquired nicknames that we use even today.  Right, Mani?  There were the raids of tuck, the haftas paid to Mrinal to protect our Maggi, chotts fagging, and squabbling in the showers to get the last drop of hot water.  We learnt to navigate the murky waters of “quiz-ego”, “bagsing” the good stuff, striking deals in the CDH, trading chores, and hiding from the ubiquitous gaze of favor seeking seniors.  Through all that, within our little crew we joked, jeered, jammed, joshed, and jonsied away like pups in a litter.  It wasn’t always fun and games, but I would not change an iota.  If it wasn’t for all of it, I wouldn’t have anything to reminisce and write about today.

The following year, we were joined by three other characters who perfectly complimented our already motley crew; Rahul Singh, Ravinder Brar, Pranav Rastogi, and for a while Shyam Arya.  That completed our dysfunctional little family.  Like any other dysfunctional family, what I laugh about most in retrospect are the fights (yes, I know, I’m surprised too that porn didn’t make it to the top of the list), and we had a lot of them.  But it was odd I realized.  It was okay for us to fight, but if some “outsider” stepped onto our turf – that’s when the real loyalty emerged. The epic throw down by PP, “tune mere bhai ko mara”, or Karan Singh’s infamous “Ma ne bomb phodna nahi sikhya kya?” when confronted by a bunch of pesky Welham Boys on Diwali will remain indelibly carved in my memory.

No tribute to the class would be complete without a mention of our housemasters.  SDB – the kindest man who taught math but didn’t dole out food at tutorials.  JJR – about whom we wrote a song that you should ask Jaiswal about if you see him at Founders.  HMD – who escorted us on one of my favorite midterm to Kothri Sanae along with SAY and our OA counterparts.  When was the last time you tied up your housemaster and beat him up thinking he was going crazy to the tune of 90s Prodigy classic “Smack My Bitch Up”?  DMF – who I personally learnt so much from and of course, PKN and how he tricked us into revealing all the secrets of internal O-House politics before he took on the role of Housemaster.  I suppose a belated thank you is also due to JHH and BLA for not ratting us out after we were clearly caught jamming midterms in Mussoorie.

The OB class of 2003 is an accomplished bunch, not just at Doon, but in the world today, and although I do not have enough space to outline their achievements, I am damn proud of them.  As I finish writing this, I am filled with the shame of all the stupid, mean, and obnoxious things we did to each other and the absolute sheer joy of our shared adventures. But above all I am filled with a profound longing for my friends, all of whom I miss dearly.  So Oberoi B, Class of 2003, here’s to you.  You’ve been there for me through the teething of adulthood, and no time and space is ever going to change the respect, camaraderie, and love I have for each of you.  Thank you, mes amis. Vive le Oberoi!