Monday, July 31, 2006

Plugged-In Drug

J and her friends learnt some basic Japanese thanks to Miss W, their teacher at daycare from Okinawa. There was nothing formal about her method but all the kids learnt quite rapidly. She had taught them songs about colors and numbers besides the Japanese equivalent for commonly used words.

Soon after Miss W left, the kids started to forget what they had learnt from her. A year later J does not have the slightest recollection of Japanese. The early exposure to a foreign language had an unexpected side effect (maybe it is entirely expected and I am uninformed) - J wants to learn other languages besides English. She is eager to relearn Bengali, sing along with old Hindi songs and speak Spanish because her friend Anna knows how to.

I got her the Language Tree DVD - Spanish for Kids from the library hoping she could learn from it. J is an anachronism in her day and age given that there is not a TV in the household or any electronic toys. The occasional DVD she watches on my laptop is the sum total of her media immersion. She was very pleased with the Spanish learning DVD and did learn a few things watching it.

However, she was not demonstrating her characteristic desire to absorb everything the very first time. Miss W never had to repeat the Japanese word for the color red. J paid attention and got it right away. With her ability to replay the DVD as many times as she wishes, her incentive to focus and retain was non-existent.

By the time we were on volume 2, she seemed more interested in the replays than in learning. When I asked her to teach me what she had learnt she said "I need to watch it again, because I forget the moment its over. You need to watch it yourself and learn" Back in the time of Miss W, she would have never said that - I was force fed Japanese every evening after we got home.

I have been reading "The Plug-In Drug" by Marie Winn where she talks about how television impairs the cognitive abilities of the children. First published in 1977 and revised recently, much of the problems from back then are still completely relevant. She quotes sociologist Urie Bronfenbrenner as saying:

"Like the sorcerer of old, the television set casts its magic spell, freezing speech and action, turning the living into silent statues for as long as the enchantment lasts. The primary danger of the television screen lies not so much in the behavior it produces - although there is danger there - as in the behavior it prevents: the talks, the games, the family festivities and arguments through which much of the child's learning takes place and through which his character is formed. Turning on the television set can turn off the process that transforms children into people"

The DVD played in auto-replay mode stands in for the absent TV in our home and its effects on J were as deleterious as Bronfenbrenner describes. Under the "sorcerer's" spell, my otherwise alert and eager to learn child had been transformed to a zoned out zombie. Needless to say, her Spanish lessons taught by the friendly Senor Language Tree, have been deferred for a while - muchísimas gracias.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Biosimilar But Not Quite

If it impossible to characterize exactly how a drug does what it does why is a copy any different from the real thing since copy reproduces the behavior of the real thing faithfully.

..while it might be feasible to say what a new drug does, after extensively testing it in clinical trials, it's not possible to say exactly what it is. And if you can't describe the exact structure and essential nature of the original, then, naturally, you can't say that something else is an exact copy of it.

To a lay person this describes the efficacy of herbal remedies that have been around forever but cannot be characterized or synthetically replicated by "current analytical methods". Not surprising that these hard to define biopharmaceuticals the article describes are "complex proteins derived from living organisms, cultured from cells in a laboratory". I would rather go with the Golden Seal than a half-baked attempted at playing God in some high-tech lab.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Extended Stay

The case for why bicycling may end up costing the environment more than it saves it from is interesting. The main argument being :

  • Human-powered transportation can substitute for trips by single-occupant automobiles. This substitution has a direct and immediate benefit of reducing energy consumption, even accounting for the latent energy content of the food required for human power.
  • A substantial increase in the use of human-powered transportation would engage a substantial number of currently sedentary people in physical activity.
  • Physical activity by previously sedentary individuals increases their longevity, and therefore their overall energy consumption.
In the grand scheme of things it seems better for people to consume energy freely, live unhealthy lifestyles in a polluted environment and die early. Once dead they cease to burden the planet entirely. This line of reasoning is akin to domestic situations involving an eighty year old matriarch who is in the pink of health. She is a thorn on her family's side because they know she may have twenty more years left in her and may well outlive some of them.

When one starts of live on borrowed time, society bears the burden of this extended stay same as the immediate family and clearly it is not a burden borne cheerfully by either.

Friday, July 28, 2006

The Weakest Link

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link and everybody knows that except management levels in the organization that are too high up to be mucking around in the weeds. As it turns out very often the weakest link is buried deep in the weeds. A familiar problem pattern I have encountered at almost everywhere I have consulted involves an Excel macro on steroids trying to stand in for a missing workflow automation, business process management or in some extreme cases business intelligence tool.

For a operation running out of the CEO's basement that would be easy to justify - getting any fancier is too expensive to be an option. When a company with a few billion dollars in revenue and in possession of state of the art technology allows an Excel macro to feed into business critical applications, it does not make as much sense. Particularly when instead of going after the root cause a dozen Big 5 consultants are brought on board to business process reengineer.

I have tried to understand the Excel macro phenomenon that I have seen repeated almost everywhere I have worked. It usually starts with a bunch of business users who are unabashedly and incurably non-technical. Whereas IT types are routinely hectored to acquire business savvy so they are able to understand end-user pain and solve for it intelligently, business types are not encouraged to reciprocate by understanding the toolset that IT would employ to solve their problem.

This is a serious limitation because the lines between business and technology are blurred with sophisticated tools and solutions that strive to put the end user in the driver's seat. The goal is to eliminate dependency on IT in a business as usual mode of operation. When end users refuse to educate themselves about options that technology offers, they set themselves up for failure. Instead of providing direction, they expect IT to broker between their needs and available solutions.

This engagement model is fraught with trouble all the way and everyone suffers. IT only half understands business-ese, and with that limited understanding they translate it to technology. Once translated business users can no longer validate that the proposed solution does what they require it to do. When at last the solution is delivered, they discover that it meets close to none of their expectations and have no use for it.

Enter the Excel macro. A low-fi, side of the desk, seat-of-the-pants hack that acts as band aid for what has proven completely impossible to translate from business-ese to technology. Typically it is created by one of the frustrated business analyst types who gets business-ese somewhat and is good enough with logical constructs to put together a Visual Basic script. Despite familiarity with both business-ese and technology, the analyst fails to create a bridge between the two worlds due to a variety of reasons - lack senior management support being the most likely cause.

The macro starts out being a little job aid that makes the analyst's life a little less hellish. Soon, he discovers potential for improvement and soups it up some. Over the years, fortified by knowledge gleaned from Visual Basic for Dummies, the macro is doing a devilish amount of processing and the consumers of data that it spews out are blissfully unaware of how their data came into being. Often this is the most authoritative system of record and the source that will feed a host of internal and external systems - astounding as it may seem, it could well be what drives the business engine.

So there is this entirely bizarre situation where terabytes of data get crunched, sliced and diced to make critical decisions, content management integrates with workflow automation and CRM tools spew a ton of metrics - and yet at the core of this fantastic operation is a humble Excel macro running on the desktop of a business analyst. The powers that be may or may not know of its existence - they most certainly don't recognize it to be the weakest link in the chain that it really is.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

An Old Friend

Dear Sheila,

I wonder if you remember me. We met at Vaishali's a couple of years ago. I am the photographer dude that was in the States on an assignment for a museum and you had said "You must be our desi Ansel Adams. Code coolies are dime a dozen but a professional photographer is like wow" How have you been ?

Take care,
Arun.

Hey Arun !

What a pleasant surprise. In response to my "wow" You had said "I am merely a digital archival coolie. Soon the likes of me will be dime a dozen too" What have you been up to ? I remember our discussion about finding "the one" and how our criteria made them more elusive than they needed to be. I continue to seek and am yet to find. How about you ?

Ciao,
Sheila.

Dear Sheila,

Nope I have not met anyone yet. Like yourself, still single and looking. The women in my city - they don't want to live here. They all want to go abroad and settle there. Then there is this influx of westerners coming to Bangalore for BPO training and management. These guys stand a far better chance than someone like me.

I did meet a wonderful woman here soon after I returned from the museum assignment. She was recently out of a very violent marriage and quite terrified of men. I stayed with her until she recovered and got some control over her drinking problem. Once she got back on her feet, I moved out to give her space and time to decide what she wanted to do with her life. We are the best of friends. I would have loved to marry her but was so busy helping her get back on track that the romance never really sparked between us. Hopefully some day she will thank me and be in a good relationship with someone else.

My job takes half of my time and the other half goes into travel and photography. The woman in my life has to be equally passionate about her career and hobbies and want to live in India. My ex was just the kind of woman I would love to be with. Mature, head strong and ambitious… but then tough luck....she wanted to be with her boyfriend and that is where she is now and a happy mother too.

I hope you have been making judicious choices and have at least met some nice men. Feel free to ask for advise from someone older, wiser and previously married to boot - all the qualifications that you lack :)
I am going to be in your neck of the woods next month. Vaishali and Rishi insist that I stay with them instead of some seedy motel. I look forward to seeing you then.

Take care,
Arun.


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Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Observing Rain

..he was one of those men who like to be observers at the own lives, any ambition to participate in them being considered inappropriate.

It will have been noted that such people observe their destiny much as most people tend to observe a rainy day.

Thus ends chapter 4 of Silk by Alessandro Baricco. All I can say of the book is that true to its name it glides smooth as silk and weighs nothing at all. You finish reading it too quickly and wonder if there were messages in it that you missed. One of the lines that I revisited was about observing one's destiny like one might a rainy day - I wanted to understand that parallel more and how it applied to my life.

I have observed a rainy day in many different ways. In the carefree years of childhood, it meant being able to walk through puddles on the way back from school, drenched to the bone. As a young girl in love for the first time, rain could make me dreamy and bring on an urge for poetry.

The clouds, a mighty army, march
With drumlike thundering
And stretch upon the rainbow's arch
The lightning's flashing string;
The cruel arrows of the rain
Smite them who love, apart
From whom they love, with stinging pain,
And pierce them to the heart.

-from The Seasons by Kalidasa

Rain never cast its magic spell on the loves of my adult life. Then I became mother and a blinding downpour when I'm driving to my child's daycare to pick her up fills me with irrational fear.

Of indissoluble grudge and aspiration:
Original milk, replenisher of grief,
Descending destroyer, arrowed source of passion,
Silver and black, executioner, source of life.

-from Jersey Rain by Robert Pinsky

As much as my relationship with rain has changed, I have never been a detached observer. Like Herve Joncour in the story, I have observed rather than participated in the shaping of my destiny and suffered the consequences of inaction - it did not help I was never dispassionate about my observations.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Language And Other Gaps

An online ad for HSBC bank, I saw on MSN recently shows a young woman traipsing into her room with a pair of distressed jeans she has just bought. While she is out, Mom comes in and shakes her head sadly at the state of the jeans. The next scene has her working on the sewing machine repairing them. It does not take much imagination to figure what happens next.

There comes a time when children no longer speak the same language as their parents – a pair of distressed jeans can be high fashion or clothing in state of serious disrepair based on point of view. There is no happy medium where these divergent interpretations could meet. In a similar vein, Sarah Hepola writes about her father who speaks a tongue only her mother can understand.

Generation gap has always existed except with accelerating pace of change in a connected world we risk falling out of step with our children much faster and much further apart. Any time I feel challenged by J, I try to go back in time to when I was her age to see if perspective will afford clarity. It rarely does because I have now receded even further from her zeitgeist. What I gain in perspective, I lose many times over in time and distance. I wonder if teachers are closest to feeling the pulse of our children’s generation – they have opportunity to see them as individuals and in social situations with their peers.

A diligent parent does get to know the person their child is growing up to be but there is lot more to a young person besides their individual identity. As we come of age, the part of us that interfaces with the world outside often holds surprises for our parents. And that is not a bad thing unless the surprise is of the unpleasant kind.

It seems that the ideal way to “know” children specially in their social context, would be to become one of them – like that new kid on the block who is hazed at first and then becomes part of the gang. But it is not a not a choice for a parent because they would lose their hard earned and constantly challenged credibility as an authority figure.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Movieoke

For the seriously cine-addicted, movieoke may be just the thrill they have been waiting for.

Anastasia is a filmmaker living in New York City, who originally hails from Los Angeles. The idea for Movieoke came from a 25 minute film that she wrote, directed and starred in which features a character who could only speak in movie lines. Whereas that character ended tragically, having become completely alienated from society, Anastasia used the same structure to create Movieoke in order to achieve the opposite end: bringing people together based on their love of movies past, present, and future.

The character from the film the FAQ references to reminds me of a flower seller (as opposed to a florist) in my town in India where I grew up. Back in the day, Anil Kapoor was still hero material and this flower seller looked like they had been separated at birth. The signature hair style, moustache and gait only added to the effect.


When he had an audience to indulge him, he out Aniled Anil Kapoor in his dialogue delivery. You could see it was painful for him to be in the mundane business of weighing marigold, jasmine and chrysanthemum by the kilo and transacting with his customers like a common vegetable seller. If ever there was a man who was in need of the movieoke it was him - what a profound difference it would have made to his life.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Of Boys And Men

A few weeks ago, I signed into a long forgotten, half-way abandoned Yahoo account. There was a whole bunch of spam and I was about to empty the contents of the Inbox when I noticed what appeared to be a long e-mail thread. The names were exclusively Desi and appeared to be real. After reading a few messages, I realized that my id had been inadvertently included in the class of ’92 mailing list of a well known engineering school in India.

Reading some more, I noticed the absence of any females in the group – I should have clued into that sooner given the frequency of risque humor and the terms of endearment that people employed to address each other. The only time the group curbed its enthusiastic use of expletives was when someone announced the birth of a child accompanied by pictures of the infant.

The politics, psychology, physics and metaphysics of the Zidane head-butt was discussed for several weeks. Of course, I did not see the point given India does not make it even to the qualifying rounds of the World Cup. Most other conversations were idle ramblings or read like announcements on a bulletin board (A changed jobs, B moved cities, C is organizing the Alumni meet at Phoenix this year, D is going to be in Norway for six months anyone else out there ? Anyone know the whereabouts of E who has been unaccounted for since 1997 etc)

A couple of things about this group and the their mailing list got me thinking. The frequency of the mailings was nothing short of alarming. Averaging between 20 to 30 mails a day, they had inundated my mailbox in a little over a month. I am assuming in addition to this there were private message threads being exchanged on a one to one basis. Though they had very little of consequence to talk about as a group, they seemed to care a lot about banding close together as they must have doubtless done 14 years ago.

That is a lot of e-mail traffic for anyone who has a job to keep, children to rear and bills to pay. These are men approaching 40, doing well professionally (by most standards), husbands, father of children, responsible for making mortgage payments among other things. Work and higher education had dispersed them geographically and I would think given them opportunities to meet new people and interface with new cultures.

Being more like the E who has been “unaccounted for since 1997”, I find it hard to imagine what a group of 40 odd that first came together as adolescents corralled for four years in the same college campus could have in common in their late 30s. I can understand an Alum organization serving as a professional or even personal network but this group had way more passion than it takes to sustain a mere "network".

I had to wonder if their lives were so empty that they needed a relic from the past to imbue it with a sense of purpose and fullness. Or perhaps no achievement in their lives compared to being accepted by a top tier engineering school in India – it probably short circuited brain receptors that enable normal people to savor their post-collegiate existence.

If not anything a mistaken email identity gave me opportunity to see the dynamic of desi-male bonding from the vantage point of a fly on the wall. I left feeling that the state of jejune juvenilia is permanent with the desi-male. They never quite break free from the familiar cocoon of the college fraternity. Their identity at middle age is still defined by nicknames bestowed upon them as 18 year olds by other 18 year olds and 20 year old jokes regurgitated ad nauseum. I would have expected a discourse more sophisticated, eclectic and mature from a group of well educated men of their age and circumstances in life.

It’s not often that a mailbox clean-up exercise puts my dating disasters in such clear perspective. Now, this E sounds like a man after my own heart – small wonder then that he is MIA since 1997.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

A Fine Read

I have to admit I was daunted by the size of A Fine Balance. I like finishing the better part of a book in one sitting which could last up to six to eight hours and then return later to finish what it left. Tentatively, I started to read. I could not get past page three and was not even sure I wanted to return. Many months later, I borrowed it again and yet again failed to make it past the first few pages. Despite being a laborious read there was an unmistakable tone of authenticity about this book that made me persist. It was good thing because the third time proved lucky.

I made it past the ten page barrier with grim determination. Chapter two and beyond flowed effortlessly. My experience with reading this book reminds me of childbirth. It is a horrific struggle to bear just under nine dols of pain, you feel like your body can take no more and yet it is just a little bit more that leads to deliverance and joy of motherhood.

Despite the use of Bollywood-ish flourishes, this is a book I am glad I read. Mistry puts a human face to the grime, squalor, poverty and over-population that a lot of us either seek to escape or have indeed escaped. He tells his story with such brutal honesty that it will deeply trouble the conscience of any bourgeois Indian.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Jaded Wanderlust

In their book Two For The Road Jane and Michael Stern write:

A quarter-century ago, the American landscape was very different from what it is today. We feel 150 years old to admit that when we started hunting for roadfood, there were no Wal-Marts, no Kmarts, no Home Depots, no Targets, no Outbacks, no Olive Gardens, no Red Lobsters, and no Starbucks. There was fast food, but it wasn't everywhere. This was a good thing.

Every place we went looked different. Today a lot of Connecticut looks like Arizona, which looks like North Carolina, which looks like Illinois. It is possible to crisscross the country and never eat, shop or stay in a strange place. This is not a good thing.

When I first came to America, I rejoiced at every opportunity I had to travel. Unless it was an unreasonable distance to drive, we drove and the standards for reasonable were quite unreasonable. Today I would fly instead. As much as I longed to see and discover new places, the utter uniformity of America soon dampened my wanderlust.

In time, I was no longer interested in visiting "just another city". In the absence of history of any significant antiquity, unless the natural geography made the place unusual there was not much else that attracted me. Growing up in India, where traveling a hundred miles in any direction led to discovering new cultures, languages, history and geography I expected to be transported more than the mere distance when I traveled and was much disappointed by my American travel experience.

My first trip back home after coming here was when outsourcing was gathering a huge momentum. The smallest city was getting to enjoy a bit of the action. Cyber cafes dotted roadsides around the country. I had opportunity to revisit some cities I had grown up in the 80s but had not visited since. I could not tell one apart from the other. The stark distinctions had grown blurred. We seemed to be headed the American way.

It was only the multitude of languages, cultures and traditions that kept our vibrant diversity alive even if precariously. In time call centers will move to the hinterlands bringing English in its wake.

Speaking and understanding the same language, will have a leveling influence on all factors that differentiate our people. To quote the Sterns "This is a good thing". However, the richly fulfilling experience that travel in India used to be will become a thing of the past and "This is not a good thing"

Thursday, July 20, 2006

A Few More Of Me

Last week was insane at work. Any time I got a chance to breathe, I counted the days, hours and finally minutes left to the weekend so I could get some rest. As luck would have it, J came down with a fever on Friday evening on our way back from an open-air concert.

At first I wondered if the high decibel noise (80s rock is not Js' most favored genre) had made her ill. It was more serious than that and the weekend, as my old buddy Than would put it, was "toast". At times like this, I wish there were a few more of "me" so the sum total of "my" work could be spread around more equitably.

Maybe if I wait a few more years my wish can come true. I am already jealous of the generation that will spend its days reading for pleasure while sipping martinis on the beach as their android selves took care of mundane chores like working to pay the bills. Neros of the future could be fiddling as Rome burnt and be none the worse for it - they could blame it on android malfunction.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Musical Nostalgias

Reading this essay on the relation between music and memories (specially those having to do with love and heartbreak) got me thinking about my own musical nostalgias

I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Whitney Houston) - About fifteen then, maybe younger. It was A's birthday party. I was one of the last arrivals and he played this number to time with my coming into the living room. He was too shy to ask me for a dance and it did not help that our friends teased him mercilessly. The song brings back memories of an innocent, happy and carefree time.

Tender Hands (Chris De Burgh) - The college years. P hummed the song sometimes almost absently long before he actually told me how he felt about me. He lent me the album and "forgot" to take it back with great deliberation many times. When he finally took it back, he gave me a mixed tape -the first of many. We had in a sense graduated in our relationship.


Wild Women (Michael Learns To Rock) - The second job after school in a small boutique software product development company. The coolest thing was the huge music system in the middle of our work area where we played whatever we liked. The public reactions to individual choice ranged from amusement, to agreement to WTF. The CEO was big on jazz and he converted quite a few of us to his tribe. Every once in a while S would play this MLTR number. He was engaged to be married and yet we were strongly (and noticeably) attracted to each other. The gang called this song "The S Confessional" and always let him play it. Such bitter-sweet memories...

Love Is All Around(Wet Wet Wet) - M called me at 5:30 in the morning. "Missed you and thought of a song at the same time so had to call" he said as soon as I answered. He sung it for me. "Why this song ?" I asked. "Because you're so cold. So if you really love me Come on and let it show". We broke up a few months after this. It was a relationship that left behind memories disproportionate to the short amount of time we spent together.

And there is so much more...

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

A Moat And A Wall

Sheila met Anmol through a mutual friend Gagan, who thought they'd "click" at least as friends if not more. The introduction came about through e-mail since they lived on opposite coasts. Anmol was a Jersey transplant now firmly rooted in San Francisco. He told her almost right away that moving back east was out of the question. He liked where he lived too much to consider that.

She wondered at her friend's judgment about the anticipated "click". He was fifteen years older, the highpoint of his weekends was his Netflix queue and he talked about an imaginary social life peopled with unnamed "friends" with whom he did a bunch of "stuff". So nebulous and angst-ridden were his accounts that Sheila wished he would not trouble himself on her behalf to choreograph a "life" that he did not have - it embarrased her.

Yet he made her ponder about her condition. He showed her who she might become fifteen years from now if she remained a creature of habit and ritual. Then there was Rajesh at work, who looked at her soulfully like a pet dog - a man starved of affection and attention, drifting away not quite sure where he was headed to and why. He represented to her, the spouse who has so much to offer in marriage that the partner is overwhelmed by the largesse and declines everything she is offered. Maybe it was all in her imagination but she feared she could become like him, if she ended up with a man who did not value her nearly enough.

She told Gagan that Anmol was impossible to communicate with - he lived in a fortress surrounded by a moat and she had no desire to wage epic wars to overcome the barriers to reach him. Gagan replied "He is worth it. Believe me. Give him time. I know it takes him much longer than most people but then he is not most people."

"And what I hate most about him is his habit of talking in parables. How p
retentious! But it's like they run in parallel with his reality. Why can't he talk about things without introducing a layer of abstraction - you know like normal people ?" Sheila complained.

"Didn't you mention the fortress and moat a minute ago ?" Gagan laughed at her. "He feels vulnerable around you and is trying to protect himself. It’s a good sign. He likes you and remember he's an outlier. Don't expect "regular" or "normal" with him" he said.

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Monday, July 17, 2006

Cost Of A Shirt

It is Indian summer this year and mangoes have been plentiful. I hope this is a sign that the fruit turning mainstream instead of being exotic and tropical (read expensive). It has been years since I visited India and I sorely miss the cotton dresses that I do not have. The bandhni and mirror work gypsy skirts, the Madras cotton blouses. I find myself craving pure white cotton nearly all the time which unlike the recently proletarianized mango is still obscenely expensive. Seeing the "Made in India" tag tells me exactly what the markup is and what the "real" cost of this name brand shirt is.

It brings to mind pictures of poor exploited women and children toiling away in sweatshops for a pittance - I used to know a woman like that once. Her husband was a wastrel and content with the family miring in poverty. The woman wanted a better life. She snipped extra thread from designer jeans other women had sewn ten to twelve hours every day. She was just an apprentice without any experience in the trade.

I remember the excitement in her voice when she told me that her supervisor had moved her up to sewing buttons - it meant more money. With the extra money she indulged herself in small ways. A strand of fresh jasmine on her hair, a lipstick, a new school uniform for her child. Her ability to earn money made her glow with an inward happiness.

I remember her knocking at my door well past midnight bruised and bloody, too broken for tears. Her husband suspected her of sleeping with her boss to get her "promotion". He wanted her to quit. "What shall I do ?" she asked me. All I could do was to hold her, tell her she was doing right by herself and the children, that she would overcome in the end.

Something changed shortly after this incident. The husband seemed to have lost his sting even she was growing in stature. Her collection of saris and trinkets was growing rather conspicuously and she wore them with much pride. It was out of curiosity that I asked her how she had managed to subdue her husband.

"I told him to his face that he hadn't been able to get it up for years. He should be grateful I was not bringing other men home. I found out that impotence is a ground for divorce" she answered. "Are you going to leave him ?" I asked. "Why should I ? I have a husband in name and my freedom as well" she said with a knowing smile. " I will tell the whole community that he's useless in bed if he ever lays a finger on me. He knows and that's why he'll stay quiet" she added contently.

When I add all that up, I wonder what is a fair price to pay for a "Made in India" tag.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Matrimonial Hoop Tricks

Who knew that lessons learnt from a dolphin trainer could save a woman's marriage. She recommends that women be like trainers of exotic animals to get their husbands closer to their notion of perfection and in as such easier to love.

Enlightened trainers learn all they can about a species, from anatomy to social structure, to understand how it thinks, what it likes and dislikes, what comes easily to it and what doesn't. For example, an elephant is a herd animal, so it responds to hierarchy. It cannot jump, but can stand on its head. It is a vegetarian.

Translating that lesson in the context of her husband Scott, she says:

The exotic animal known as Scott is a loner, but an alpha male. So hierarchy matters, but being in a group doesn't so much. He has the balance of a gymnast, but moves slowly, especially when getting dressed. Skiing comes naturally, but being on time does not. He's an omnivore, and what a trainer would call food-driven.

I can vouch for the efficacy of one particular lesson because I have seen it applied successfully by some women I know who are happily married. As the author recommends, they maintain inscrutable silence when offended by their husband's behavior and then go about their work like nothing happened.

When a dolphin does something wrong, the trainer doesn't respond in any way. He stands still for a few beats, careful not to look at the dolphin, and then returns to work. The idea is that any response, positive or negative, fuels a behavior. If a behavior provokes no response, it typically dies away.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Head Counts

Considering the per square feet density of desi programmers and testers in my current workplace, one would find it impossible to believe that these jobs are now extinct in the US and are almost completely outsourced. Some other places I have consulted in the recent past had likewise a mind boggling number of them - and all of these are well regarded Fortune 500 companies. I wonder where Gartner et al go to get their numbers and make predictions.

Most often these are offshore resources of the outsourcing vendor brought onsite to fulfill supposedly "tactical" objectives. The client usually has no role (or interest) in the interviewing and hiring process of these individuals. Their requirement is more like " 5 testers and 10 programmers required for 10 months onsite to work on X project at $xx an hour". The vendor goes about procuring the 15 bodies and ships them over to the client.

Barring a few exceptions, the average competence levels of these resources, is seriously appalling. The less said about their people and social skills the better. They herd close together, speak only when spoken do, have no desire to gain any business domain awareness, work very hard and very dumb, are bot-like about following instructions and obsequious to a fault.

When their 10 months are up the vendor usually carts them off to another client looking for a supply of programming/testing bodies. In a booming job market for mature IT professionals in India, the vendors take the time and effort to scrape at the bottom of the barrel to round these folks up. They naturally pay them in proportion to their worth.

Given the poor quality of work they provide (even if for very cheap) I find the incentives of paying ten low cost, low performing resources instead two high-end, expensive ones hard to fathom. I am yet to see an example of outsourcing done right and paying off long-term.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Kitchen Detour

It started with me picking up some ripe looking mangoes for really cheap. They were only tentatively sweet and positively tart around the seed. Seeing that they were quite useless as fruit, I put a couple of them into the pressure cooker along with some celery that was lying around the fridge, added an over-sized pinch of turmeric and dash of salt and let it steam. I had no idea where this was heading when I left for work.

Upon returning in the evening, I found myself craving for something devilishly spicy - must have been wearying of my bland everyday fare. The celery, mango and turmeric combination had turned into a bright yellow, pulpy mass - quite a promising candidate for gravy. My thoughts turned to a tray of mixed seafood that I was going to make a paella with and the red Thai curry paste bought a few weeks ago. Soon the seafood was sautéed with curry paste, grated coconut and then cooked in the gravy. In the middle of my clockwork existence, this was a total surprise of a dinner and a very satisfying one at that.

How a bunch of unrelated ingredients found their way together to make a meal was much like the way random and apparently unconnected incidents and people come into my life to fulfill a purpose that is much larger than any one of them. If I had the wisdom to understand how they played together, I would be able to orchestrate a beautiful life for myself. Unfortunately my talent for finding plausible connections and improvizing is limited only to cooking.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Renting The Earth

I was listening to a story by Kevin Kling on NPR about weaving the land into stories and history. Talking of his home in Minnesota, he says "I love my home but I often feel like I am more of a renter than a part of the earth". Kevin Kelly makes a similar point in his blog. He challenges our knowledge of the piece of land we live on and how it interoperates with the rest of the earth with a set of 30 questions.

Except for three, I could not answer any other. I guess I must be in the majority - very few people seem to have got 25 or more right judging from the small number of comments. I found all the questions thought provoking and my complete ignorance all the more so. I fared only marginally better when I took the quiz in the context of the town in India where I grew up.
Kling is absolutely right - we do have the attitude of a renter and not an owner.

To think that after years of learning about the wars waged by Ghenghis Khan and the Harappan civilization I could not answer a question as fundamental as:

Before your tribe lived here, what did the previous inhabitants eat and how did they sustain themselves?

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Ignoring Aggravation

When I first started working, someone much older and wiser had taught me the importance of a) not allowing situations at the workplace to cause aggravation and b) in event of (a) happening despite best faith efforts, not bringing the aggravation home. I have for the most part been quite good about following both rules. The last week however posed quite a challenge for my resolve.

F used to be an ordained minister before he turned into a technology professional. A bad career transition by all accounts given his repulsive personality and total ineptitude at all things technology. The only way he knows to get any work done is to rave and rant at people causing them public humiliation. One woman I know was reduced to tears and had to leave a meeting when he did his thing to her. How he manages not to get laid off is a matter of much speculation and there are several "interesting" theories around that. I have one of my own.

This week was my turn. I think I fared a lot better than the other woman because of how the team rallied around me. The moment he was out of earshot, they started joking about him until they got me to see the humor in the situation. Since that incident, I am always offered company if I need to talk with F. Most often the "company" does the talking on my behalf. F has backed off seeing that I have a strong support system. Despite all that, I was very aggravated by his crude, unprofessional and in retrospect demented behavior. Even as I realized that I had no way of knowing how to deal with someone who was possibly mentally ill, it stayed on my mind all day. I failed on rule (a) and had to try very hard to follow at least (b)

It took some words of wisdom from J to shake me out of my funk. "Miss C says when people act up you're supposed to gnore them. We gnore Bryce when he calls Susan Caitlin. He thinks its funny to keep saying her name wrong. Miss C said its not funny and he's just acting up" F had acted up too and like Bryce had misrepresented who I was.

Unlike the kids in J's class, we were collectively perpetuating his bad behavior by not ignoring him. I realized he must be chomping at the bit to get at me again seeing how I came "armed" to face him. What we learn in kindergarten is meant to help us all our lives - if only we would remember that.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

A Defiant Age

I was thirteen when my father found a copy of The Fan Club lying around in my room. To him it represented ultimate decadence of my literary tastes. I remember being amused at how he walked out in a huff to consult with my mother in the kitchen in exaggerated undertones.

To his credit, while he expressed disapproval over a lot he rarely ever embargoed anything. So, that summer I was reading a lot of Thomas Hardy and Lawrence Sanders instead of working on my math and science like he would have preferred - Sanders in defiance of parental authority and Hardy because he completely enthralled me. I continued to consume a combination of literature and "trash" (as my father called it) voraciously through my teens and think it turned out to be a good thing in the end.

J and I have been listening to Teasure Island on CD the last few days. I am not sure how much (if anything) she follows of the story but I am more hooked than I was the first time I read it - a few years before the infamous Fan Club episode. It got me thinking about the lasting impressions that classics leave behind and why returning to an old favorite is such a pleasure.

I can't wait to see J get hooked to reading - introduce her to Erica Jong and Simone de Beauvoir when she reaches the age of defiance. That would be the best inoculation against all things "decadent" and "trashy" that she will doubtless pick up along the way.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Much Too Perfect

Today, I was asked for my opinion on a matter that people assume I have some "subject matter expertise" on. Presumed knowledge like a little of it can be a rather dangerous thing.

Juthica is a very attractive 28 year old with a charming personality- the kind that could be described in a desi matrimonial ad as "exquisitely beautiful" and not be overstating the case at all. She is an accomplished Hindustani vocalist, frequently performs on stage, has a masters in microbiology and teaches at a well known university in India. The family is affluent - her father's business is prospering. Her only other sibling is a younger brother who is attending a premier engineering school. Most importantly, she has always been the model daughter - a source of pride, joy and comfort to her family.

Yet the parents are very concerned about her. They have not been able to find her a husband yet and its been eight years since they first started match-making. Much to their confusion and consternation she is always rejected by the men and their families that they try to forge alliances with. I was asked if I thought it might be a good idea for her to come to the US so she may advance her career and hopefully find a husband. They have given up any hope of being able to find her a husband in India.

First off, I tell Mrs. B that the rejections come from the insecurity of desi males and is no way a reflection on their daughter. She is just too much of a good thing. If she had looked plainer, had no special talents, was not nearly as smart and came from a less affluent family she would have had little trouble getting hitched. Mrs. B is old school and has much trouble comprehending this line of reasoning. I tell her she is like the car salesman trying to pitch a Lamborghini to someone with the budget and taste for cheap Japanese autos.

I tell her that Juthica's matrimonial prospects will not be dramatically different in the US either. She is too smart to be mere arm candy to a "well-settled" husband. What she needs is an intellectual equal who is confident, secure and accomplished enough to take her in stride. From the little that I have seen, it would take an act of God to find such a desi male anywhere which is not the same as saying it is impossible.

However, if she is willing and able to branch out into the non-desi world, things could be quite different. She would naturally experience social liberation in the west. Being single is easier here than it is in India. She may also find greater fulfillment in her career - something I think Mr. and Mrs. B are not nearly as passionate about as they are about her marriage.

Juthica reminds me of my friend V - an exceptionally intelligent, independent and accomplished woman. She promised that she would never compromise and merely "settle" in marriage and kept her word until turning thirty. Maybe it was the biological clock that finally made her succumb. V choose to morph into a vegetable to get and stay married. It breaks my heart to see what marriage has done to her. Her husband did not think it healthy for her to be in touch with one such as myself so our friendship ended soon after my marriage did.

Women like V and Juthica are over-qualified and over-accomplished to make a wife for a desi man. It does not help that they have the looks to kill along with everything else. They are everything a desi can dream of in a wife and ironically they are fated to remain just that - a far distant dream that no one has the nerve to live in real life. I hope Juthica fares better than V did, that she finds a man who can accept all that she is with grace, pride and gratitude. I want to believe there is such a man (and a desi) out there for her.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Ten Years Later

It was a lovely summer day yesterday and I took the road less traveled with J on our way home. It wound through the countryside verdant after the recent rains. Our drive took us past a quaint church, an old tavern, a craft shop and finally a thrift store where we made our stop. An old man on a rocking chair sat in the porch. He welcomed us warmly and we were his only customers.

There were kitchen things, books, lamp shades among an assortment of curious odds and ends. Almost everything was very old. J spent her time skipping up and down the old wooden stairs while I browsed through the books. Paperbacks at 25 cents and hard-covers at 75 cents. I picked up one about the healing power of herbs. The old man rummaged through his pockets to find 75 cents to return for my dollar and thanked me profusely for my business.

On the way back home, we stopped at Bath and Body Works lured by the bright sale signs. What a complete contrast to the run down thrift store. I bought a deeply discounted bottle of aromatherapy oil - a heady concoction of Bergamot, Spearmint and Rosemary supposed to uplift and energize the spirits.

I found myself thinking about the effects of urbanization and the difference in my shopping experience at two stores only five miles apart. Ten years from now the tentacles of suburbia would have reached up to the idyllic thrift store. Instead of an old man on a rocking chair, a smartly dressed young woman would be enticing me to register online at their website to be notified about upcoming sales.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Focus And Serendipity

Recently, while talking about the importance of focus in achieving goals with someone, I was asked to recall one instance in my life where focus had made no difference to my real objective but at least lead to serendipitous discoveries.

From the time my friend M convinced me to try online dating, I must have interacted with a couple of hundred men – many of the "interactions" lasting only a couple of e-mails. I always had a good idea of what I was looking for. Given the lessons learned from being married before, I also knew what was negotiable and what was not. I was painfully aware of my limits and limitations. In time, I grew focused in my efforts to find "the one". Instead of waiting to be contacted by men who clearly did not get what I was all about, I took initiative. If a man could not put together a blurb that held my attention for thirty seconds chances of finding a lifetime of bliss with him were minimal. I had created a well-defined sort and filter criteria that I hoped would lead to the right man for me.

My focus resulted in meeting with a bizarre assortment of characters including (but not limited to) a married man, an affianced man, a man whose divorce had cost him $80K plus half his retirement and yet referred to his ex as “my wife”, a man who said that the sound of my voice gave him a hard-on, a man who on first speaking with me confessed that he had once overdosed on Paxil and had spent a night in the psych ward, a man who sent me a picture of his seven year old daughter in a bathtub covered only in bubbles and asked to see a picture of my child, a man with two PhDs who copiously dispensed wisdom and advice from a pedestal 50,000 feet high for months even as he impressed upon me my insignificance in his life beyond being a charitable project, a man who by way of introduction asked to know my IQ and said his was 160.

My girlfriends have come to conclude that I am the ultimate weird magnet. The stories of my dating misadventures are legion. Being that I have analyzed data for a living for many years and am considered to be pretty good at it, it was not long before I brought to bear upon my personal life the power of data analytics. I put together a spreadsheet with as much raw data on the men that I had encountered.

I did not question a priori, the relevance of any data (vital stats, age, location, profession, preferred colors, place of birth, length of longest relationship, years married, total cost of divorce settlement if known, number of previous relationships adjusted for the times three rule, shoe size, brand of cologne, date and time of birth, fantasies and sexual preferences if known, date of first connecting, number of e-mails exchanged, average length of phone conversation, length of acquaintance, timbre of voice, phone numbers, favorite food, any data on ex-wife etc) in my ability to recognize patterns and analyze trends for future reference.

From my experience having more data points has always been beneficial. I put together a crude algorithm for analysis and came up with some very interesting observations (a full discussion of which I will save for a later post). I would have doubtless thrown an industrial strength data mining/data discovery engine at my data set had the volumes warranted it. This is an example of focus not influencing my real objective (i.e. finding the man I can spend the rest of my life with) in any way but leading to many illuminating discoveries along the way.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Anna Karenina

I had read Anna Karenina in my teens and watched the movie this afternoon. Ofcourse I remember the famous opening sentence "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." That had set the tone for the rest of the book. It was a spectacular read - the kind that teaches you life lessons unawares.

Having grown in experience since my reading of the book, I was able to relate to the story at a more personal level as I watched the movie. Like Anna I have been mother trapped in a loveless marriage only I was fortunate to be able to escape it along with my child.

A Count Vronsky will irrupt into a woman's well-ordered life, dare her to follow her passions instead of convention. He will persist tenaciously until she gives in. Tolstoy's depiction of Anna's inner turmoil is relevant even in modern societies where woman don't face the censure and reprobation that Anna did.

For the brief period of time that there was a "Vronsky" in my life, I found myself being irrational, insecure and jealous just like Anna had been. It was only when this volatile and self destructive relationship ended that I found peace again. While my life grew richer for the experience, I was glad that I had not perpetuated it. I must have learnt from Anna.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

The Last Call

She wilts over the phone
absent form here.
I mean
not to pry on her
private
grief
but linger longer

than I should.
I watch her
body quaver
as words

choke soundlessly within
glass walls.
I want to tell her

I have been there.
Like
her diminished by pain.
my insides hollowed out,
gone about my day like a
shell without a soul.
But life
returns in the end.
It gives
back more
than it takes.

I walk on, wondering
about
the rest of her day,
about
how she will soldier on
like nothing happened.
Had I not seen her
when I had,

I would not have known
how
she had died
just a little bit
.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Mosquito Memories

Its not every day that extra-large mosquitoes make news and trigger nostalgia. There is a thunderstorm outside and when the monsoons set in back home. To complete the picture, I have a Lata Mangeshkar CD playing in the background and dinner is all the way Bengali - just the way J likes it.

Anyways, "super-mosquitoes" don't impress me much. I've grown up seeing much better than what they only now have in Athens. They should get some researchers over to the Kolkata suburb where my grandparents once lived. If memory serves right, the mosquitoes were about as large as bees and noisier. After each monsoon, they seemed to mutate to become even more vicious and virulent.
Children did their homework sitting under a mosquito net - this was before the mosquito coils became popular.

We as a people have a thing for mosquitoes - we have seen their teeming millions up close and personal.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Surreal Super Size Me

Last evening J watched Super Size Me along with me. Except for a couple of four letter words there was not much else that I had to worry about for her. I figured it would be a good lesson for her on the perils on eating fast food.

She was very impressed by the scene where two doctors perform a gastric bypass surgery on man. When I was her age, something like that would have made given me cold sweat and I would have had nightmares. But J apparently is made of sterner stuff. She watched without batting an eyelid and slept like a log.

This morning J asked me write on a piece of paper "I am going to eat McDonalds for 30 days" and "Super Size Me" below that. Soon after, a surrealistic drawing appeared below it. It depicts a woman who ate at Burger King for 100 days, a man who ate at McDonalds for 1000. The way to tell the two apart was of course the size of the tummy relative to number of days of binging and the big hoop earrings on the woman. They look totally blissed out with their big smiley faces and hair standing out "like the sun". Not sure where J was going with that.

Further afield, a square with an M on top represented McDonalds and there was a similar depiction of Burger King in B. Servers and customers at the two stores were represented by circles positioned front and rear appropriately.

An interesting touch was a box connecting the two stores where a stick figure lay prone with her intestines being pulled out by a couple of doctors. Apparently that procedure would fix the tummy bulge and make them stop going to either M or B. I am assuming J prefers her intestines stayed in and will not be asking to be taken to McD anytime soon.

At a prominent spot at the bottom of the drawing was something that looked like an EKG. J says that shows what's inside the heads of the man and the woman. I wish Morgan Spurlock had made a similar documentary on his post McBinge detoxification diet and its salubrious effects on his body and soul. I am sure it would impress J a whole lot more than my daily hectoring on the subject.

Monday, July 03, 2006

A Piece Of Work

J has learnt a lot of objectionable things from other kids at daycare. Since I have no control over the elements she is exposed to, I have decided it best to allow her to bring everything home and demonstrate to me what she knows. There is no censure or reprimand.

The rules of engagement are Mommy will decide if something is good or bad. If it is good she can take it outside home, but if it is not but J still wants to say or do it she has to keep it home until she gets over it.

The latest entrant into her repertoire is a particularly crass booty shake. J knows she can shake her booty all she wants at home in front of Mommy but this show does not go on the road. She has been quite happy with that arrangement and is slowly weaning out of it too. However, there was some residual and lingering discontent as I found out this morning.

"Guess what Mommy" says J excitedly while eating her breakfast. I know from experience this is one of the J-epiphany moments. She has just figured something out.

"There was one place where I could shake my booty all the time and even Mommy could not see me" she announces proudly.

"Where could you do that ?" I asked.

" When I was really teeny-weeny and lived inside your tummy, I shook my booty all day long and even you could not see me" she says very proud of herself.

Being that she had been working on her small breakfast for close to an hour without any significant progress I was too frustrated to appreciate the ingenuity of this discovery.

"At the going rate J, you'll be so skinny that you won't have any booty left to shake anyways" I said.

"Would my booty disappear if I did not eat well ?" she asks me, her eyes wide open in concern.

"Exactly. So stop talking and starting eating" I replied testily. We got done with breakfast shortly thereafter.

I was out to lunch with my friend D this afternoon and told her about this incident. She burst out laughing and said "That J of yours is a piece of work" I could not agree more.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Devolved Standards

This has been a wonderful Tennessee Williams weekend. Watched The Roman Spring Of Mrs. Stone and Baby Doll - ended up loving the second movie. Without showing anything explicitly sexual, the movie manages to be highly erotic. The sensual gives way to comic relief seamlessly and without any loss of tension - a very odd and interesting genre.

By today's standards it would be considered pretty bland fare and would likely not merit even a PG rating. However, in its time religious organizations in America denounced it. Young audiences are so blasé today that the erotic suggestiveness of Baby Doll would escape them and in as such they would fail to appreciate Elia Kazan's artistry. It is like the palate's inability to appreciate the nuances of haute cuisine after being subjected to junk food for a long time.
Our standards of decency have probably devolved. We are so desensitized by graphic vulgarity that we are no longer titillated by mere suggestion. It was redeeming for me that I found Baby Doll as erotic as I did.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Buyer Paradise

A cure of buyer's remorse is at hand. Actually better - with a data enabled phone at hand the remorse can be prevented. Not quite the silver bullet yet as the author of the CSM article points out.

Scanbuy, however, does have a few shortcomings. Not every cellphone is compatible with the service. And spending too much time on your cellphone conducting price searches can be costly, depending on the terms of your cellphone contract. Other people who have reviewed Scanbuy have written that many retailers use proprietary bar-code systems that don't show up in any of the search engines used by Scanbuy - at least not at the moment.

But as I mentioned earlier, some people see bigger things in Scanbuy's future, particularly working with the search industry's 800-pound gorilla, Google.

To have such technology turn mainstream and prompt a buyer to go elsewhere to buy the tomatoes they are eyeing in one store sounds really nice. It would also be nice to be able to input a shopping list to the software and have it figure out the best buys, the optimal route (so you don't spend on gas what you save on tomatoes) and print out the lowest cost itinerary. It would be a service well worth paying for - both for sellers and buyers.