How to catch a killer or a spy

How to catch a killer.

Murders happen all the time. As reported by the UN, there were at least 37,000 murders in India in 2002 making it at least one of the top two “killer nations” that year (since China did not openly disclose this sort of data). In addition to the reported numbers, there are death that go unreported, as well as deaths that aren’t definitively determined to result from homicide. How many of the reported murders actually get solved? I’m curious to know the numbers for India, but interestingly, in the United States, one of the most advanced nations on the planet in terms of forensic technology, the numbers aren’t stellar compared to what they were only a few decades ago. It is estimated that around 90% of murders in the United States were solved in the Sixties compared to about 65% nowadays. Clearly, improvements in technology and training have not been able to deter all criminals or bring them to justice.

Now, I want to put aside these sobering thoughts and mention a murder case that actually did get solved.

A body of a man was retrieved in a village in China, On examination, it was found that the man had been stabbed to death. The investigator, wanted to know more about the instrument used to stab the victim, so he obtained the carcass of a dead animal. By stabbing the carcass with various sharp instruments and comparing the wounds on the carcass to the that of the dead man, he was able to determine that the victim had been stabbed to death with a sickle.

Having established the type of weapon that was used to commit the crime, the investigator set about to identify the criminal. Now, a sickle is a very common farming implement in many parts of the world. In those days, it was common in China too. The investigator decided to start the process of interrogation in the village. He asked each villager who owned a sickle to meet him for questioning. All the villagers who owned sickles obliged, and one was immediately apprehended. On further interrogation, this villager broke down and admitted that he had committed the murder.

How did the investigator determine the identity of the killer? Although the killer had wiped the sickle clean, flies were attracted to only his sickle. The astute investigator had been able to connect the dots and to pursue his line of questioning with that incidental clue.

By now, you may be wondering what was so special about the resolution of this particular case. Modern forensic entomologists use their knowledge of insects all the time to determine time and place of death. What is amazing is that the incident I recounted occurred in 1235 and is the first recorded case in forensic entomology.

How to catch a spy.

In the fog-of-war it is imperative to obtain actionable intelligence in a timely manner. Chanakya, prime minister to the first Maurya emperor Chandragupta, provided a detailed discussion on the use of spies in the defense of the realm in his magnum opus, Arthashastra. Similarly, in the Art of War, Sun Tzu mentions five classes of spies: 1) local spies who actually live in the territory of an enemy, 2) moles who are traitorous officials in the employment of the enemy, 3) double agents, who keep up the deceptive appearance of being a spy for the enemy, 4) doomed spies, who are sent with the purpose of providing false information to the enemy, and 5) surviving spies who successfully bring back information from enemy territory.

In the height of the Cold War the intelligence agencies of the two superpowers played a constant game of cat-and-mouse and the term surviving spy became something of a euphemism. Soviet agents tried to utilize US sources to gain vital information on American national security. Similarly, American agents entered the Soviet Union with hopes of being able to report back to their home bases. The American spies underwent extensive training to fit into Soviet settings. They knew how to speak perfect Russian and dress like the Russians. They had all the right papers including fake Soviet passports. On paper, it seemed like the perfect plan. In reality, hundreds of the American spies did end up getting caught.

How did the Soviets successfully pick out the American spies? Simple artifacts found in the KGB museum in Moscow point to the answer. The fake Soviet passports were identical to the genuine ones in every way, save one important detail. The staples. The pages of the fake passports found on the American spies were held together by staples made out of stainless steel and therefore did not corrode, while the genuine Soviet ones rusted. By the simple test of adding a drop of water to the stapled portion of the passport and observing the next day, the Soviets were able to pick out the forgeries. One seemingly minor detail turned out to be the undoing for hundreds of intelligence agents.

Moral of these two stories:

Le diable est dans les détails. Details, details, details. No machine can do the job of a dedicated analyst. Technology can aid in investigation, but cannot replace astute observation.

Royalty-free images courtesy of spekulator@SXC

© 2010-2012, Anirban

10 lines from Hindi movies that warn of imminent danger

I am no astologer and the following lines from Hindi movies may seem quite harmless, but they are ominous. If you’re unfortunate enough to say any one of these lines, you’ll suffer the consequences I mention.

  • Babuji, kya sheher ke saare log burre hote hain? (Dad, are all the people from the city evil?)

Two hours later: After a decade-long misunderstanding, your love-child sings a sappy song that brings you back together with your lover.

  • Daulat se sabh kuch kharida ja sakta hai (You can buy everything with money)

Two hours later: After losing your family in a natural disaster, going blind, and begging for forty years, you are reunited with your family on your death-bed. The same thing happens when you say main bhagwan nahin maanta… (I don’t believe in God…)

  • Itni raat gayi kahan ja rahi ho meri rani? (Where are you going so late in the night, my queen?)

Ten minutes later: The hero comes out of the woodwork and ends your diabolical laughing, lip-licking, and chest-scratching by beating the crap out of you.

  • Tu chinta mat kar, main teri school ki fees bhar doonga (Don’t worry… I’ll pay your school fees)

Two hours later: Your brother shoots you down like a dog on the street for not turning yourself in to the police.

  • Agar mujhe kuch ho gaya to meri biwi ko yeh chitti pouncha dena (If anything happens to me, make sure my  wife gets this letter)

Two hours later: Dressed in a white sari, your widow collects a gallantry award on your behalf during Republic Day.

  • Saab, hum unionwaale garib zaroor hain, lekin izzat se jeena chahte hain (Sir, the workers of this factory might be poor, but we’d like to live with dignity)

Two hours later: You son, Vijay, finds the factory-owner (who is actually the leader of a global smuggling ring) and avenges your death.

  • Chalo hum tum picnic pe chalte hain… (Let’s the two of us go on a picnic)

Two hours later: Your kid ends up hating you for what you did years ago on that stormy night. Often goes together with line 1.

  • Mere khilaf is gaon mein koi kuch nahin kar sakta (No one can do anything against me in this village)

Two hours later: The son of the farmer you murdered in broad daylight leads a peasant revolt and burns down the haveli you live in.

  • Main bhoot woot nahi manta (I don’t believe in ghosts)

Two hours later: You admit to your possessed wife that you killed your mistress, and then you die a gruesome death in the woods next to your haunted bungalow.

  • Mujhe nahin lagta tum zindagi mein kuch kar paoge (I don’t think you’ll ever achieve anything in life)

Two hours later: Your son proves that you are a royal idiot by becoming the most successful businessman, singer, sportsman, or patriot since Independence.

© 2010-2012, Anirban

A pyramid scheme that I am delighted to be a part of

A few days ago, I wrote a post about a world famous scam. In the meantime, the wonderful blogger who goes by the creative moniker Lazy Pineapple (“no fruit mostly humor…”) gave me a Beautiful Blogger Award. I figured she wasn’t talking about the way I look because she’s not a mean, cynical sort of creep like I am.

Makapu'u Beach

I mean it isn’t a real award like a gift-card from Amazon, but it is an honor that I accept with gratitude. Plus, it is better than the shirt I got recently which I’m using to clean up the kitchen. As part of the rules of the award, I am nominating a few other blogs for this award and mentioning seven things I find beautiful. There are so many amazing blogs out there and so many beautiful things that I could have a hard time trying to pick and choose, so I’ll go with the first seven I can think of. Detailed rules of the tag at the end of the post.

I nominate Sharmila, Gurdit Solitary Kid, Desi NinjaLEB, Jaky AstikRachit, Indrajit, and Shivani for the Beautiful Blogger Award.

Seven things I find beautiful that come to my mind in random order:

1) India-Pakistan Quarterfinal match in Bangalore at the 1996 World Cup

2) Warm rain beating against my face like splinters as I  accelerated on my bike in college

3) Picking up the first Tintin adventure I ever read in school – Tintin in Tibet.

4) First glimpse of Makapu’u Beach in Hawaii, 2009

Island in the Sky

5) Pindrop silence standing centimeters from death at Island in the Sky, 2009.

6) Knowing what love feels like for the first time and hanging on to it.

7) Sharing a bond with Life through biochemistry and evolution.

Rules of the tag:

1) Thank the person who gave you the award.
2) Paste the award on your blog.
3) Link the person who nominated you for the award.
4) Share 7 things you find to be beautiful around you.
5) Nominate 7 bloggers or more

Update: Darsh has just awarded me a similar award. I’d like to thank her for reading and recognizing my blog too!

How to write an application letter in Indian English

Pappu Patligali, our perennial hero, recently moved to India after spending years abroad working on various IT projects. Pappu studied in English-medium schools before completing his engineering degree from a state engineering college in Karnataka. In school, Pappu enjoyed reading novels written by Enid Blyton, but was not thrilled with studying English. He didn’t know why his teachers insisted that he study grammar from Wren & Martin, a book originally written for children of British officers in 1935 (during the reign of King George V) .

Pappu wrote in a very ornate style before moving abroad for higher studies. He soon learned how to write letters and emails in a more direct manner.

So, upon his return to India, he applied to join the local Housing Cooperative with the following letter:

Dear Sir/Madam:

My name is Pappu Patligali. I’ve recently moved into the neighborhood and I’d really like to join your Society as a full-time member. I’ve enclosed a completed application form along with all required fees. I’d really appreciate your help in expediting the process.

Please feel free to contact me if you need any further information. I look forward to meeting you in person!

Thanks in advance,

Sincerely,

Pappu Patligali

On submitting the letter, Pappu was told brusquely that he didn’t know how to write in English and that he needed to resubmit in triplicate with full particulars per the approved sample proforma letter. Of course, there was no use telling the Society’s members that the National Council of Educational Research and Training now publishes a textbook recommending that letters be written in a modern style.  Pappu just ended up showing his NRI ignorance.

Ultimately, Pappu followed the prescribed proforma and sent the following letter in triplicate:

Respected Sir:

Respectfully, I beg to state that I am Pappu Patligali, son of Sri Jhappu Patligali currently domiciled in Nayaghat within PS- Kotwali in District Uttar Dinajpur under the jurisdiction of your esteemed Society.  My permanent address is Village Rampur, of aforementioned District and police jurisdiction. It is hereby requested forthwith that I may please be enrolled as a Member of your Society under the provisions of Bye-laws and State Act of 1962 the Rules framed thereover and thereunder.

Therefore, I seek to humbly request herewith to deposit the prescribed amount as payment in cash the membership fee and the entrance fee today for which kindly money receipt from branch-office near Hanuman Mandir may please be issued on paper in my favour. Further, I am to forthwith state that I shall endeavour to solemnly and most faithfully abide by the rules and Bye-laws of the Society as Member of the Society with my firstborn forfeit and under pain of death (as per provisions articulated in Byelaw No. 221 Part C dated Jan 20, 1962).  Moreover, sir, it is my heartiest and most humble entreaty to you to kindly and most generously look into the matter and do the most needful at your earliest convenience.

I remain, yours obediently,

Full signature of Pappu Patligali

Place :

Date :-

(s/d attestation of first-class gazetted officer)

Needless to say Pappu’s letter is currently in a file under a stack of similar letters awaiting review by the Secretary of the Society.

Footnote: Although I’ve written both letters specifically for this post, I’ve been heavily influenced in the second letter by actual examples on the internet including this one.  If you have time, take a look at question 17 of the 2009 UPSC General Ability Test which asks test-takers to look at the following sentence: “Respectfully I beg to state that I am suffering from fever for the past fortnight.”

Read about Pappu’s next misadventure here.

© 2010-2012, Anirban


Food at the cultural divide – the burrito and the salad sandwich

There is a very poignant scene in Mira Nair’s cinematic adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, The Namesake. Having recently arrived in the United States, Ashima Ganguli, finds Rice Krispies in the cupboard and proceeds to eat it as she would the Bengali snack, jhalmuri. Watching the film again, the scene reminded me of a moment of culinary awkwardness I faced years ago when I arrived in the United States for higher studies.

I will never forget my first encounter with the burrito. For those unfamiliar with Mexican cuisine (or American variants), a burrito consists of a flour tortilla wrapped around fillings consisting of rice, beans, and meat and vegetables. To elaborate further, the flour tortilla is the closest relative of the desi roti you will come across easily everywhere in North America. I had no problem eating either the tortilla or the fillings. In fact, I quite relished it. My issue was with the packaging. In India, I had grown up eating rotis alongside rice, but the concept of filling a roti with rice was very alien to me. For the longest time, I had a hard time wrapping my head around the whole idea!

If you’re from India and you’ve never come across rice packaged inside a roti, how would you feel about eating a burrito?

I am sure North American readers will wonder what the big deal is here. Well, let me pose a similar scenario. Would you eat a sandwich that didn’t have a patty, but instead had a salad inside? I am not talking about a tuna salad or a chicken salad, but a house salad. Sure you might be able to get one easily if you wanted to, but if you’re not vegetarian the thought might seem offbeat to you.

Then, it will surprise you that the most American of all establishments, McDonald’s, sells a sandwich in India with primarily lettuce, tomato, onion, and salad dressing. Called the Salad Sandwich, this entree item sells  where a large chunk of the population is vegetarian and has no problem eating a salad inside a sandwich bun.

How would a culinary creation like the Salad Sandwich do in the land of the Big Mac?

Hmmm… now there’s a thought!

Footnote: Now if you really want to taste a mainstream dish that boggles the senses, I’d recommend fried ice cream.

Burrito image:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/sweetonveg/ / CC BY 2.0

Salad Sandwich Image © McDonald’s India. Fair-use rationale: not-for-profit commentary of product using a very low-resolution image.

Worst Valentine’s Day gifts in India

Valentine’s Day is almost upon us. I know there is a big fuss in India over whether anyone should be allowed to celebrate it because it is a foreign import. Me? I personally draw the line at World Toilet Day (even though it is for a good cause).

As a public service, I’ve gone out to find the worst possible Valentine’s Day gifts. A warning: don’t blame me if you find these gift ideas tasteless. I only report what I see.

Worst Valentine’s Day gift to give to your boyfriend or husband:

So what if it doesn't snore?

The “Boyfriend Pillow” was originally created for single Japanese women who wanted a pillow in the shape of a man’s torso and arm so that they could cuddle up to it. It was marketed as a substitite for a boyfriend, and I’m sure some women appreciated the fact that it didn’t snore, eat in bed, or take up more than half of the space.

But why should Japanese women be so special? A variation of the boyfriend pillow, is available from Amazon and will ship to anywhere in India.

But despite the name, it is not a gift you should give your boyfriend (or husband). Apart from the fact that it is downright creepy, it sends the wrong sort of signal to the man in your life. Yes, I know the pillow comes with a “removable microfiber shirt for easy care.” It might even be great for snuggling up to since it has extra support for the neck and upper back.

What you should be asking is this: does the man in your life really need a pillow in the shape of another man complete with arm, hand, and fingers to cuddle up to? And we are not being judgmental here: this has nothing to do with how he feels about others, and everything to do with how he feels about himself.

Worst Valentine’s Day gift to give to your girlfriend or wife:

pagla gayi ho ka?

I’ve seen a lot of weirdness in my time including the Bollywood film Khopdi – The Skull, but the title of this album of Bhojpuri music made me burst out laughing. It was the only thing I could do to keep myself from crying.  If you cannot read Devanagari script, I apologize: I will not translate out of fear of attracting the wrong sort of web-traffic!

In any case, when it comes to music, I’ll listen to anything once. After you’ve grown up around Bappi Lahiri’s Rock Dancer which had toxic songs like “launda badnam hua” and “you are my chicken fry”, you develop that sort of mental strength. As your trusted reviewer, I heard a little bit of the album from the preview site. From what I’ve heard, the music is far better than the crass title of the album. Of course, I understand that this isn’t a very useful review to you because that gives me a titanic margin of error. In any case, this should not be given to anyone (and certainly not the person you love the most)

Bottom-line: Ladies and gentlemen, if want to live a happy and prosperous life beyond February 14, remember the lessons of the Valentine’s Day Massacre.  Don’t buy these gifts if you have any dream of self-preservation. And now, that I’ve had my say, I feel so much better.

Fair-use rationale for album cover image : not-for-profit review of work using low-resolution image where no free equivalent is available. Image copyright: T-series.

Text, © 2010-2012, Anirban

Shri 419: the Nigerian scam

Section 420 of the Indian Penal Code has given us a lively term for cheaters – the “420″. If however, you search for “419,”  you will find that this number refers to a section of the Criminal Code of Nigeria dealing with various types of advance-fee fraud.

Why does this matter to you? Well, you’ve probably received some version of the following email which I fished out from my spam folder:

Sir/Madam:

Reaching you is courtesy of my favourite international business directory, which vividly tells your position and capability to execute this business presently with me in my office. We have Twenty Million, Five Hundred Thousand United State Dollars only, ($20,500,000.00) which we got from over-inflated contracts awarded to foreign contractor in the Federal Airport Authority of Nigeria (F.A.A.N).

We are seeking your permission to transfer this money into your bank account.  This money will be shared between you and we (Colleagues) over here in Nigeria.

We have agreed to share the funds as follows:
I. 30% of the total sum for you (Account Owner)
II. 65% of the total sum for us (The official involved)
III. 5% of the total sum of setting all financial expenses been incurred by you and us in the course of this transaction.

We will visit you immediately we include this transaction to collect and invest our share of total sum into any viable business you may advise in your country. Please, let me know if you are interested in this business by replying urgently. Full details of this business will be sent to you upon receipt of your reply.  For the purpose of communication in this matter, please give us your telephone and fax numbers including your private home telephone number.

We await your urgently reply and be rest assured that this transaction is 100% risk free, there is not risk involved on both sides.

Yours faithfully,
Geoffrey Chaucer

I have not changed the name since fraudsters are known to impersonate prominent individuals (like 14th century English authors). The grammatical error in the last sentence is also unaltered and amusing. I imagine that the fraudsters meant to say “no risk on either side,” but blurted out the truth: of course the risk is completely on the recipient’s side.

As soon as you contact the fraudsters, they inform you that certain “processing fees” are required to release funds and that you will be contacted as soon as funds become available. Of course this is a hoax and soon you are have lost your hard earned money.

With the globalization of world economies in the early Nineties, unscrupulous individuals in West Africa (and primarily in Nigeria) began to use the internet to send out unsolicited invitations to hundreds of thousands of unsuspecting individuals. The widespread availability of email and pharming software transformed local cottage start-ups into multinational corporations complete with offices, machinery, and salaried staff.

India’s first 419 victim was Piyush Kankaria who registered a section 420 complaint in 2003. Unfortunately, most victims do not get any form of compensation due to the international nature of the racket and the connections of the educated, management ranks that run the scam corporations. A report in Wired in 2006 estimated that Americans lost around $200 million that year to West African 419 scams. A more recent report mentioned that 419 scams resulted in worldwide losses estimated at over $9 billion making it anywhere from Nigeria’s fifth to third largest industry. Estimated rates of success via unsolicited email spamming vary from one in one thousand to one in ten thousand.

In fiction, Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani’s celebrated debut novel I Did Not Come to You by Chance provides a humorous fictional perspective on the lives of scammers. But 419 scams don’t just result in loss of money, many are tied to kidnappings and murders.

In scanning recent headlines, I came across the news-story of a woman in New Zealand who stole NZ $450,000 from her employer in the hope of cashing in on millions. She had planned to pay her employer back once she received money, which of course never happened.

I am shocked by incredulity of the situation. What toxic mix of greed and incomprehension compels middle-class white-collar workers to resort to criminal activities?

Text: © 2010-2012, Anirban