An Experiment With Pigeons

Walking is a supposedly mundane activity, generally made interesting by a hip music player bellowing music into the ears of the walker (the hip is quite essential). I’m patriotic about my voice, so my throat usually replaces the music player during walks. This not only spares my ears from imprisonment by earphones, it also allows my eyes and ears to work as a team in appreciating the wonders of daily life.

One such activity that I have been carrying out over time concerns pigeons. Years of observation has led me to posit that pigeons are an attractively stupid lot, irrespective of country of origin. Some of their behavioural characteristics are remarkably similar to human beings, which make us (un)attractively stupid, too. But we won’t get there.

The observations began in Threadneedle Street, London. Apart from sporadic threats by its resident ghost, Threadneedle Street is a wonderful place to relax with a triple macchiato in tow. The ghost loved it, humans loved it and so did pigeons. The pigeons loved the place so much that they would turn out in large numbers, gracing the area with their shitty presence.

A soul, human, was noble enough to arrange for food supply for the hungry pigeons, every day. The food was spread around the place and randomness ensured that food density in some places was higher than neighbouring areas.

A group of pigeons would swoop by daily. The leader would scan the place with satisfaction and then proceed to an area rich in food. The followers would oblige. Soon there’d be about 15 – 20 pigeon-folk, stooped down pecking in the same area, catering to their bellies. Needless to add, food supply would diminish quickly. It so happened that there was a smart alec in the pack. Before the food was completely devoured, this chap would scan nearby locations for food. The simple mechanics of supply and demand rewarded his brilliance abundantly. Off he would go to uninhabited areas and enjoy his meal, alone.

Other members of the herd would continue in Place #1 until food was exhausted, would look around incredulously, then scoot away.

After a few days, some members noticed smart alec’s behaviour. Noticing that he continued to forage enthusiastically even as they chose flight, they decided it was probably worthwhile to follow him. After finishing off at Place #1, they would proceed to Place #2. This pattern was firmly established over time. What began as a trickle eventually led to the entire pack following smart alec, until the new place was conquered.

Smart alec was now at a loss. He observed that his contrarian behaviour paid-off handsomely, initially. When the crowd followed, his edge diminished and beyond a point, was extinct. In order to recreate the edge, he decided to make a pre-emptive move.

This is where stupidity overpowered him.

He moved back to Place #1, which had very little food supply! Silliness writ large on his otherwise smart face, he noticed the lack of food and then enacted Act 2 in stupidity. He rejoined the herd in Place #2 rather than looking at the vast arena, which lay unexplored. Having done all the hard work, smart alec ignored the wonderful lessons that experience had taught him. Forsaking a method that worked well and adopting one that guaranteed failure expunged his edge completely.

I learned later that pigeons do not suffer from short-term memory loss and are capable of remembering patterns of events in their recent environment. In which case, their behaviour corroborated my stupidity hypothesis.

Pigeons in other parts of England exhibited similar manners, which led me to hypothesize that probably pigeons, specifically in the Queen’s Land, were of a mental bent inclined towards foolishness. Empirical evidence from India negated this.

Besides, Indian pigeons adopted a cavalier attitude towards other bird species. They were particularly severe on sparrows and birds of smaller size. When larger birds competed for food, pigeons dejectedly made way. The same behaviour is observable, crudely first in school bullies and then polished to perfection in the world of business.

I tried testing if pigeons exhibited smarts in nest-construction. Twigs, which are the basic building blocks, are universally accepted material. When plant stems that resembled twigs were carefully placed in the path frequented by pigeons, the birds were smart enough to ignore them. It appeared that I would have to reconsider my stupidity hypothesis.

To carry the experiment a step further, I painted the green stems with a coat of brown so they resembled the dry, stiff twigs’ natural colour. This duped the pigeon, which carried the ‘twigs’ away. What happened to the nest is best left to speculation.

This leaves two possibilities. (1) My experimental methods need to get smarter, when I was being stupid in application, it would be erroneous to assign foolishness to the poor pigeons, or, (2) Pigeons are indeed rather stupid, colour-blind or both.

Before postmen, email and social networking put them out of business, doves discharged their mail-delivering responsibilities well. This punctures the hypothesis.

The onus is now on the pigeons to transfer the title of stupidity to my head, but only through diligent observation and carefully constructed experiments aimed at testing idiocy.

 

 Source: Wikipedia

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A Socialistic Plutocracy

Numbers are sometimes useful in clearing a cynic’s attic. Here goes. A quick comparison of UK and India:

Entry car price / average graduate starting salaries: UK = 35-40%. India = 75-80%.

Petrol prices are about equal, so are personal income tax rates, so are real-estate rentals/capital values  (in Tier 1 cities). I could go on…

…so I will.

So are cappuccino prices, so are typical eat-out prices, so are F1 ticket prices (sans mongrel performances)…

The NHS in the UK, though battered and bruised, does its job decently well, generally. So does Social Security. (St. Paul’s Cathedral tent-bearers and Occupy Wall Street notwithstanding).

Indians are self-governing NHSes, each individual relying on instant outlays from one’s already tax-lightened wallets to ensure continued healthy existence. Health Insurance claims? They discharge their wallet weight reduction responsibilities reasonably well; while taking great care to ensure their own coffers are well-inventoried.

Probably it makes sense to peer at the Gini Index (a measure of income inequality. 0 being no inequality, 100% being maximum inequality). India figures at about the same levels as UK but below China.

However, it is important to zone in on how the things that count are counted.

Scratch the surface a bit and it turns out that the Indian measure has historically considered consumption expenditure and not incomes in measuring inequality. Given the each-to-his-own Social Security situation, saving rates are higher than the West. When income is taken into account, India races ahead of China on inequality.

So, we have a situation where prices of common consumption goods are generally on par with UK, income inequality is higher than its self-confessed economic competitor, China; service levels leave much to be desired…and yet, prices keep inching up.

While this grand entertainer is underway, the economists powers-that-be claim inflation is 10-11%. A few trips to the countryside will quickly puncture this hypothesis. A burger in a rural town costs only slightly lower than in a Tier 1 city. Considering that store rentals are a fraction of a city outlet, not to mention income levels, it is intriguing to see outlets prospering with such pricing.

Many will be quick to pounce on me, alleging that I have presented only a rudimentary picture of reality. It is probably a good idea (for the pouncers) that I stick to rudimentaries. When one pencils in the chasm in service quality levels, the divergences in consumption versus incomes become stark.

We are moving towards a picture of reality that points to the following:

  • Indian consumption patterns are evolving. And, rapidly. An increasing share of an individual’s wallet is being directed towards consumption. As a result, prices are galloping ahead of income growth and is likely to continue to do so. I can hear the dusty debt clock ticking
  • The parallel economy continues to exert a major influence on prices. A thorn named Anna Hazare could prick this bubble. While one remains skeptical, sustained momentum on this anti-corruption/black money front could trigger a reflexive correction in prices

The above scenarios point to two divergent implications for investing. If the first dominates, consumption appears to be an enticing story. If the latter gains ascendancy, the opposite positioning is called for.

More importantly, on the humour front, the contradictions are noteworthy. The supposedly capitalistic UK (and West, in general), debt-drowning problems notwithstanding, has a socialistic character; while the economic plutocracy known as India masquerades as a socialism!

The supposedly poor live in ornately constructed mansions in the countryside, deriving incomes from farming and land-leasing that generally do not disturb the tax coffers. But (un)surprisingly, they continue to appear poor. The wealthy, on the other hand, live in cities but do their best to re-emphasize their roots to poverty and/or farming at every possible opportunity. The incentive system goads the poor to continue remaining poor, or at least project an illusion of poverty; while the  wealthy are heavily incentivized to continue in their state of inertia.

What about the unwearying middle-class, tax-paying common man?

Source: Unknown

The Potato Effect

An Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder with anything and everything to do with the environment seems to be the flavour of the current century, so far. Paranoia has received a major boost following the emergence of the Go Green fixation that has gripped the developed world. And, worryingly, it threatens to spread its tentacles to other parts of the globe, who are still toddlers in the Art of Refined Pollution.

Yes, it is essential to preserve Mother Earth from alien or man-made obliteration. Yes, it is just to try to break the natural Law of Nature to preserve herds of rather useless organisms from extinction. Condolences if morally commendable acts lead to evolutionarily lamentable consequences. Yes, it is reprehensible to poke un-Facebookish holes on the ozone layer, either from noxious industrial or, more virulent, human gases.

Political science followers are well-versed in Interest Group Theory, where opposing groups slug it out, furthering serious agendas, often through laughable means. Interest Group Theory, the term, sounds as dreary now as it did when I sat through engrossing (really) discussions at University. I shall concoct a new term for the phenomenon that appeals to my razed imagination – The Potato Effect.

So, the British have long been enamoured by the Adam of vegetables, the potato. Over time as potato consumption increased to a point when the human form evolved to resemble the very vegetable it enjoyed consuming, one (couch-potato) group sprung into action. Potatoes-are-good-for-you was replaced by anti-potato rhetoric. In a blow to Mae West, the anti-potato group decided that too much of a good thing wasn’t so good after all. This propaganda caused some consternation among the potato producers community. And so the endangered species promptly gave birth to a group that was opposed to cuts in potato production. Then a third group took shape, to act as crusaders against potato wastage. Spewing a barrage of statistics quantifying annual potato wastage, this group stoked dormant altruistic tendencies in human beings, citing hungry and deprived humans in other parts of the planet. How could someone waste so much? Wasn’t it wiser to transport excess potatoes to the less-privileged? Resounding story line, indeed. But they quickly ran into a problem. The don’t-poke-the-ozone group invoked the Law of Transport Pollution and contended that transporting potatoes to faraway lands would be damaging to the atmosphere, the fauna, the flora and all other species known (and unknown) to Man.

Lost? Here’s a summary.

One group focused on maximizing potato production that another group urged not to consume that another group was loath to waste that another group did not want sent elsewhere. You produced what could not be consumed, wasted or shared.

 

It seems the very act of acting is enough to kill everybody.

The Potato Effect is a hilariously threatening ailment to this part of the world, which is still finding its Pollution Quotient. As Steel, Automobile and Power plants’ commissioning hit roadblocks, the Potato Effect seems to be taking root. This nation has a long way to (d)evolve before the extremes of the Potato Effect become visible but one sees the signposts.

The present state is a nation which, in aggregate, does not produce what it consumes, wastes and seldom shares. To move to a state where one produces what cannot be consumed, wasted or shared is probably going to be one of the most enthralling transformations in the 21st century.

In the long run we are all dead, said John Maynard Keynes. As we continue polluting ourselves into extinction, could someone lend me a pack of potato chips please?