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  • Daniel Defoe died three centuries ago. Yet, in December 2003, at a Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm, the world listened to him musing on Robinson Crusoe's later career. The voice and imagination were those of J.M. Coetzee, who co-opted the earlier author and his creation for his enigmatic acceptance speech. Those familiar with Coetzee's oeuvre realised that this allegory of language and representation harked back to his fourth novel, Foe.

    That may be the most unusual case of an author borrowing another author's character, but it's by no means the only one. The best-known examples are those of Conan Doyle's Holmes and Watson, with everyone from Michael Dibdin to Michael Chabon having a go. British novelist Jasper Fforde has even made something of a career by populating his novels with characters from Conan Doyle, Dickens and Bronte — to name a few — in his series featuring the "literary detective", Thursday Next.

    That this is something that can be taken too far is evident from the many

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  • The Game of Skill

    I've been in Goa for the last ten days or so, grinding out poker tournaments and cash games. There are a bunch of other regulars following a similar routine in a busy month for poker, and all of them would be a bit befuddled by the title of economist Steven Levitt's newest paper: 'The Role of Skill Versus Luck in Poker: Evidence From the World Series of Poker'. To us, the answer is self-evident, as obvious as a question about whether skill really helps in playing cricket or whether Roger Federer's achievements are a fluke. Nevertheless, in somewhat harrowed times for poker players, Levitt's excellent paper, written with Thomas Miles, is hugely welcome.

    As of April 15 this year, which the pokerverse refers to as Black Friday, US players were effectively barred from playing online poker at three online sites, including the two biggest in the world, Pokerstars and Full Tilt. This completed a series of actions that began in 2006, when the senate majority leader, Bill Frist, was scrambling

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  • Loaded In Disfavour

    "Bring back the entry load" seems to be the cry among distributors and advisors of mutual funds, as the new chairman of SEBI, U.K.Sinha, appoints committees to look into various aspects of the regulator's functioning. Mr. Sinha was the head of UTI Mutual Fund earlier, where he had complained about the SEBI move to remove entry loads altogether in 2009 — the intermediary community now desires that he reverse the earlier SEBI decision.

    First, what do I mean when I say "distributor" or "advisor" or "intermediary"? For the most part, they mean the person or company that sits between you and the actual mutual fund. They all perform the exact same function — filling out a few forms, collecting and filing certain documents. Some of them actually go the whole yard and provide advice. For this, they would earlier get a commission out of your investment — so if you put in 100,000, a 2.25% entry load would give them Rs. 2,250, and what was invested was the rest — Rs.97,750.

    SEBI's view was that

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  • Indian commentary following the killing of Osama bin Laden by a United States commando team on May 1 has come to three conclusions, two of them completely contradictory to each other:

    - This is the end of the US-Pakistan relationship. The Americans told the Pakistanis nothing about the bin Laden operation and Washington, DC, loathes and completely distrusts the politicians in Islamabad and the generals in Rawalpindi.

    - This is a new beginning in the US-Pakistan relationship. The Americans and the Pakistanis worked in conjunction and (a section of) the generals in Rawalpindi betrayed bin Laden to rid themselves of Al Qaeda and strengthen the bond with Washington, DC. The Pakistanis are now pretending they knew nothing but that is for public consumption.

    - The Americans are looking for an excuse to exit Afghanistan. The bin Laden killing is just what they need. President Barack Obama will declare the war on terror over, say Al Qaeda has been decapitated and call the troops home.

    Read More »from India is the Great Game’s great spectator
  • Osama, icons and iconoclasm

    Accounts of the life and death of Osama bin Laden typically describe him as, 'an icon to the cause of terror', and, 'the face of global jihad'. Bin Laden's face became iconic because of the way the world saw him: in interviews, snatches of archival footage, and video recordings made to spread his vision. His sensitive eyes, calm demeanor and softly enunciated speeches were unlikely and compelling transmitters of a virulent ideology. He understood the power of television and used the medium as no other terrorist has come close to doing. Recently discovered tapes, released by the US government as part of its propaganda war, reveal the extent of Osama's preoccupation with his own image.

    His deployment of that image is deeply ironic given the nature of his faith. He adhered to a strand of Islam called Salafism or Wahhabism which strongly opposes any kind of human representation in art and religion. In this view, the power of images makes them dangerous; they seduce humans into worshipping

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  • Reinventing the Zero

    After the United States Navy successfully killed Osama, many people have pointed out or expressed regret that India cannot do similar things. America can conduct a military operation inside Pakistan and get away with it, but we can't. America can catch Osama in Abbotabad, and we have to live with Dawood Ibrahim living it up in Karachi. It's very galling.

    But there is a silver lining. True, America is a global superpower, has freedom of speech, a judicial system that doesn't have a twenty year backlog, and academic and business institutions that attract the most talented people in the world. But India can point with pride to two things it has that America doesn't: assjets and missed calls.

    The assjet, also known as hygiene faucet, is that specialised small spray tap with a lever control that you use to wash your bottom. This is much more elegant, refined, and hygienic than fiddling about with toilet paper or the dipper that our fathers and forefathers were forced to use. Yes, less than

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