Monday, June 30, 2008

Accidental Crafter

Anytime I am out of ideas for what J might do to occupy her time, we refer to her big craft activity book. Some ideas are quite easy to implement but most require some planning and having the supplies at hand. So I will cut corners and substitute to the point that the project looks nothing like the pictures in the book much to J's disappointment.

I have always approached craft projects as I do cooking. Something lying around the house or the fridge will provide the initial inspiration. I will start getting the ingredients with one idea in mind but improvise as I go so there is always a huge difference between what I intended to cook and what ends up on the table; between the idea for a collage or piece of bead jewelry and what ends up being created.

There are resources for cooks who want to know what they can get done with the odds and ends they have in the house. There should be just such a thing for the accident crafter as well. In the meanwhile, I find these lovely grocery bag projects very inspiring and there is definitely no dearth of them in the house. It would be an artful way of recycling an reusing them.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Ganja Queen

HBO's Ganja Queen is a documentary about incarceration of Schapelle Corby, an Australian woman at Bali, Indonesia on a charge of smuggling 4.2 kilos of marijuana inside her boogie-board bag. Her protestations of innocence fail to impress the Balinese authorities, commute or even reduce her life sentence. The efforts of her sizable legal team and supporters are likewise in vain.

But the story of Schapelle Corby is not nearly black and white as that summary might suggest. The viewer is left with a host of unanswered questions until the end. Is she guilty as the Balinese prosecution team claims (even without having established their case beyond reasonable doubt - the defense team accuses them of tampering and then destroying key evidence), was she set up by a family member (she has a jailed brother, a father who had drug problem and a family friend who was arrested for growing marijuana), is she a very smooth and clever drug ring operative, veteran of many smuggling forays into Indonesia or is she completely innocent - a helpless creature of circumstance, victim of a random event in which she played no part.

Schapelle's case unfolds like a well-written whodunit story. Every character appears suspect when viewed through the lens of the prosecution team. However, if you put yourself in the shoes of an average visitor to Bali who finds herself on the wrong side of law just because someone stuffed marijuana into their unlocked bag, a terrifying picture emerges. Schapelle's is a nerve-wracking tale of how such a person would be considered guilty until proven innocent, to how the system would change the rules of engagement at will to make it impossible for them to establish their innocence.

There is something Kafkaesque about the whole situation if you believe that Schapelle is not guilty as she claims. The Australian government is not able to successfully intercede on her behalf even though an overwhelming majority of her countrymen believe her version of the events. At some point even her most ardent supporters begin to question her story, they wonder if she is not really who she claims to be - just another regular tourist to Bali. The film leaves you with disturbing questions about standards of jurisprudence and the legal rights of a individual in a foreign country.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Woman As Man

Found this fascinating NYT article by way of Mefi about an ancient Albanian custom, described thusly :

If the family patriarch died with no male heirs, unmarried women in the family could find themselves alone and powerless. By taking an oath of virginity, women could take on the role of men as head of the family, carry a weapon, own property and move freely.

They dressed like men and spent their lives in the company of other men, even though most kept their female given names. They were not ridiculed, but accepted in public life, even adulated. For some the choice was a way for a woman to assert her autonomy or to avoid an arranged marriage.

The idea of being able to overlay their feminine identity with a masculine one by making some fundamental lifestyle choices (concessions perhaps) is intriguing to say the least. It makes you consider gender and sexuality in a whole different light. The subtext of this arrangement seems to suggest that a woman who lives and dies childless and a virgin is not a "true" woman and can be as such "deemed" to be a man.

You wonder if the same rationale applies to the acceptance of virgins in many religious orders - if forsaking their sexuality and motherhood is the only way for women to transcend the "limitations" of their sex and attain parity with men.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Running And Writing

One of my favorite writers, Haruki Murakami (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle) talks about parallels between running the marathon and writing - specially writing a novel.

Most of what I know about writing I've learned through running every day. How much can I push myself? How much rest is appropriate - and how much is too much? How far can I take something and still keep it decent and consistent? When does it become narrow-minded and inflexible? How much should I be aware of the world outside, and how much should I focus on my inner world? To what extent should I be confident in my abilities, and when should I start doubting myself? I know that if I hadn't become a long-distance runner when I became a novelist, my work would have been vastly different.

In his interview with Salon on The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, he talks about how the story germinated :

When I started to write, the idea was very small, just an image, not an idea actually. A man who is 30, cooking spaghetti in the kitchen, and the telephone rings -- that's it. It's so simple, but I had the feeling that something was happening there.

It is how he concludes his essay on running and writing :

I didn't start running because somebody asked me to become a runner. Just like I didn't become a novelist because someone asked me to. One day, out of the blue, I wanted to write a novel. And one day, out of the blue, I started to run. Simply because I wanted to.

One day, the image of a 30 year old man cooking spaghetti in the kitchen when the phone rings would turn into an iconic work of literature in the hands of this fantastic writer. "Out of the blue" as he puts it.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Cram Junkies

I am not familiar with a Korean cram school equivalent in India though the unscrupulous coaching centers come pretty close. That said, the cram school sounds like torture that even Indian kids don't go through and that is saying a lot. When the stakes are so incredibly high, often the end justifies the means - be it by cramming without understanding, analysis or reflection or by obtaining "valuable suggestions" from a leaked IIT entrance exam paper. The end as it turns out, is not the education itself but scoring a coveted seat in an elite university.

Irrespective of the means, fair (cramming) or foul(access to leaked questions), the aspirants to these institution have to work horrendously hard because everyone else in the fray has the same advantages that they have and the acceptance rates of the colleges in question are among the lowest in the world. It takes woefully little to get eliminated and have your life's course altered for ever - or at least that is how these kid are made to believe.

So after giving every ounce of themselves to the brutal system, and snagging the college admission, very few are left with any energy or enthusiasm for the education itself - the relentless pursuit of excellence ironically ends right at the point of entry. While the entrance exams are like sprints to the marathon of actual education and learning that will follow it, most are too exhausted to even remain in the running.

On the contrary, the average kids without the capacity or ambition to cram and slog their way into top-ranking colleges end up doing quite well where ever end up after being rejected by many if not all elite colleges. They actually learn something in college and are better prepared for the life that lays ahead. Most importantly, since they never depended on crutches like coaching centers to get them in, they go through their academic lives and after much more self-reliant and confident. Having learned to swim without a life-jacket and survived they are the ready for the treacherous waters that they must navigate outside the cocoon of college and university.

It is common to see bright and talented high-schoolers dissipate over four years into mediocrity at engineering school. They recover from the tortures of entrance exam preparations for the first year only to discover that the education for which they had nearly lost their lives and sanity was way over-rated. They slide into the trough of delusion and disinterest only to recover in the final year when they are getting ready to find a job.

The cram mode sets in once again. Interview and screening test questions are quarried, group discussion topics are foraged and final sememster dissertations
are bloated and polished with plagiarized material.After living in a daze for four years and not having acquired more than a smattering of understanding of the subjects that were taught in that period, these "meritorious" students scheme and scam their way into their first job and that probably sets the tone for the rest of their professional lives.

It is no wonder then that they are notoriously inept at managing time and priorities, applying a disciplined approach to learning anything new, putting together a coherent presentation, displaying a common sense approach to problem-solving, being able to grow with slowly acquired on the job experience. All their adult lives they have absorbed only when under tremendous pressure to do so. Therefore, the 12-14 hour working days (weekends often included) and the lack of creativity and innovation. Since there is nothing in the real world that remotely resembles a cram school or coaching shop, it often becomes necessary to simulate the vibe just to be able to survive.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Branding Personalities

Read this interesting article on why Hillary Clinton lost - because of bad brand management. When the mind and imagination of the public is in the stranglehold of mainstream media, those in the spotlight can no longer afford to just be. Instead they must come packaged neatly not unlike an attractive consumer product.

A bottle of Coke is best identified by its iconic color and font. Trying something completely different with it would dilute the power of the brand. In this case, the other side was apparently the more compelling (not to mention steadfast) brand and they stayed true to one distinct message. Just as tub of ice-cream, a credit card or a handbag can be just the one thing, similarly public figures must be only one thing described in one sentence or less.

You have to wonder if we the consumers of media are indeed so limited in our capacity to absorb and process information. The implication is that unless we have a set of sound bytes and images hit us relentlessly, we will not be able to grasp the message being conveyed. That a more complex or nuanced delivery would be lost on us. To that end, it is best (indeed safest) to stick to one line to the bitter end.

Somehow, all this reminds me of the argument that a lot of mainstream Bollywood movie directors make about the poor quality of the fare they produce. The popular notion is that they can serve only what the market has the ability to accept. They argue that the "average" audience of a typical Bollywood flick is not evolved enough to take in a sophisticated plot line. However, the same audience has always been able to navigate effortlessly through the Byzantine plots of epics such as Ramayan and Mahabharat.

Surely, the purveyors of sub-par cinema in Bollywood cannot conceive of anything even remotely as complex. Just like their case against the average Bollywood movie goer does not makes sense, similarly the idea of converting a public personality into an easy to digest brand is counter-intuitive.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Odd Request

A girl may have her share of issues and then some when she's trying to keep her head above the water being a single-mom, a cubicle and domestic drone even as she tries (mostly in vain) to look sort of well put together but erectile dysfunction is not one of them.

Since I started blogging, I have been contacted every once in a while with requests for plugs for stuff on my website. However, this is the very first time I've been asked to kick the tires of a contraption for an anatomical part I don't possess along with the most generous offer to keep the "product" after having "reviewed" it. In this context, I wonder if there is any other option. The link below may be NSFW.


My name is Pietro Joaquin and I'm the webmaster of http://peloop.com/

I wanted to know if by any chance you would be interested in doing an unbiased review of one of our products.

If you agree, we will send you a product sample so that you can try it and then write a review about it. Please note you won't have to return the product sample after publishing the review.

Please let me know if you are interested.

(He signs off with full name and email address)

This is a note to Mr Joaquin and his ilk who are trying so desperately hard to jump on the bandwagon of using blogs and other social media to create buzz around their goods and services. A couple rules for the road would go a long way in getting the word out :

1. Spend a few minutes browsing the site where you are wanting to plant the plug. It seems to me that Mr Joaquin's product and my blog (for instance) don't jive that great. But that's just my opinion.

2. Find out whether the blogger is "physically" able to check out what you have to offer. This post would have not existed at all if Mr Joaquin had offered me a set of new Sephora lip colors to "try" and "keep".

and finally

3. Pause and think a little before hitting that send button to dispatch an outlandish request.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Hard Times at Douglass High

HBO's documentary Hard Times at Douglass High : A Report on No Child Left Behind, is a must see for everyone who is skeptical about the wisdom of the policy itself. The movie follows a group of ninth graders in a school with a long history but little hope of meeting the adequate yearly progress requirements of No Child Left Behind.

Ironically, for a school that led the way in non-segregation the student body is entirely composed of underprivileged African American kids.There are many ways to apportion blame for the "c
hronic problems of attendance, lateness and apathy among students" and an abysmal success rate of 3 out of 25. Ghetto like living conditions, grinding poverty, broken homes, dysfunctional parents and sub-standard and uninspiring teachers form a daunting set of hurdles that only the exceptionally determined students can overcome.

There are a few occasional glimmers of hope - a great basketball team, a couple of passionate teachers (some of whom are not able to withstand the pressure of seeing their class fail despite their most impassioned efforts to help them succeed) the Cab Calloway music program and the few kids who are able to beat the terrific odds and actually go to college. The teachers and the principal do what they can to help the kids in their charge and meet the demands of bureaucracy and legislation that are clearly out of touch with reality.

The most compelling argument against No Child Left Behind comes towards the end of the movie where teachers allow all manner of latitude to the graduating class so they can meet their "quota" of successful graduations. Tests can be retaken any number of times and be substituted by essays written at home - it is a win at any cost operation that does tremendous disservice to kids by arming them with a diploma that has no real-world value.

The premise of No Child Left Behind is that somehow the school system and the teachers are responsible for academic success of kids when in fact they are least empowered to control that outcome. Sanctioning a school for under-performing, instead of remediating the circumstances that conspire against these kids is absurd beyond belief as the story of Douglass High proves.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Asian Imagination

A few days ago, I was listening to an NPR story on recent books on India and China including Tarun Khanna's Billions of Entrepreneurs. Vishakha Desai talked about how it is important to take the cultural, political and economic in concert to be able to appreciate the challenges and opportunities India and China present to themselves and to the world. Desai lays particular emphasis on culture because both countries have cultures many thousands of years old even if they may be in their political and economic adolescence (perhaps youth).

The roots of big tent entrepreneurship that one finds in Asian countries may be cultural too. We as a people have learned to seek and find opportunity in the most unpromising even hopeless places. To that end, we make a bunch of illiterate village women solar power engineers, and lure birds to nest in cities to harvest them for birds nest soup by playing the sound of chirping females on hi-fidelity music systems. Elsewhere we make a hole in the wall and set up a computer behind it so poor kids can become computer literate on their own.

In his book Entrepreneurship in China, Keming Yang writes :

In the context of China, a popular but transient behavior of entrepreneurship is the practice of taking advantage of gaps in both markets and institutional structures. Seen in this light, entrepreneurship is everywhere in China's economic life.

..entrepreneurship in China come from all walks of life; he or she could be a powerful politician, a garbage collector, an individual household business starter, a village party secretary or even a military officer.To many people in China, being entrepreneurial is a way of life.

While there is a lot of buzz around start up and venture capital activity in India, yet another Facebook or Skype or Hulu clone that a lot of these tend to be, are not a true reflection of India's entrepreneurial capacity. They would most likely go through the boom and bust cycle of Silicon Valley with only the most differentiated and compelling ideas managing to survive. However, innovations like the e-Choupal where web technologies are brought to bear upon ancient traditions, would be far more organic and transformative - form the backbone of the so-called Asian Hemisphere.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Boredom

If the absence of having something terribly exciting to do all the time, then I am probably "bored" a lot and what's more not even able to tell that I am. However, as the article says, boredom is good for people. I particularly like the fact that boredom can stimulate creativity :

Boredom is nearly always essential to creativity. It isn’t true that creativity is mostly sparked by having a specific problem to be solved. It’s far more likely to arise because the person is bored with the way something has been done a thousand times before and wants to try something new. That’s why new movements in technology, the arts, and even public life usually start when there are still plenty of people polishing and refining the current approach. They don’t begin because what is being done now is totally played out; they begin because a few people decide that’s boring and start playing around with how to change it.

I sometimes find J playing with a few scraps of paper and "repurposed" toys for hours - J thrives on unconventional use for the few toys she has. Or she may sit in the balcony singing to herself or just looking around quietly. Unless I disturb her, she could be "sitting around" for a very long time. Though she does not say she is bored, I always wonder if she is and if there is anything I should be doing to get her busy. Maybe I should just leave good enough alone :

The next time you find yourself saying, or thinking, that you’re bored, be happy. You’ve just been handed a gift you can use in any of these ways. If you do, you’ll find that being bored is sometimes the very best state to be in.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Desi Brides

It was not too long ago when long suffering desi bachelors complained about how they were summarily rejected in the Indian marriage market if they expressed any desire to relocate to India or worse preferred never relocate from there at all. Apparently the tide has turned in the other direction now. Women don't want to give up everything they have going for them in Bangalore to become an H4 hausfrau and who can blame them. The tabloidy TOI story goes on breathlessly and one-dimensionally about the job opportunities in India that make the NRI dream not quite as desirable.

While that is clearly a factor, the other equally important one is the diminishing employment opportunities in the west combined with the weakening dollar. Back in the day, an NRI groom indentured with a desi-sweatshop to be a low-level code coolie, could command stratospheric dowries. The dollar-rupee conversion rate made his $42,000 a year look like a king's ransom. A bride with advanced degrees in Hindustani classical music and chemistry could be turned into a programmer on a dime.

So while she did come in on an H4 visa, she was able to join the workforce in short order, establish her own identity and become a double income family fairly quickly. The conversion math looked super-attractive at $84,000 a year when compared with their peers working in India. With the Y2K and dotcom delirium long past, the H4 wife has no job prospects and can count on staying in green card limbo for the best years of her life. By the time she has the right legal status to work, she is no longer viable in the job market. Needless to say, the conversion is not nearly as good plus they are raking in the moolah back in India.

The bar is therefore very high for the prospective NRI groom and so are the rejection rates. H1s no longer cut it and neither do the average salaries. A debt-free, US citizen husband making over $200,000 a year, having a nice house and a fancy car is still a great catch by most standards. Maybe the desi bride opting to go the arranged marriage route has always followed the opportunities for professional and personal growth. It just turns out that what she seeks is much easier to find in India these days than used to be before.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Silver Lining

Garrison Keillor finds some things to look forward to as gas prices cross $4 a gallon and show no signs of coming down.

So when gas passes five dollars and heads for eight and 10, we will learn to sit in dim light with our loved ones and talk about hunting and fishing adventures, about war and romance and times of consummate foolishness when we threw caution to the wind and flung ourselves over the Cliffs of Desire and did not land on the Sharp Rocks of Regret.

I'll tell you about the motor home trip and how lovely it was, cruising the prairie at night and drinking beer, stopping by a little creek and grilling fish on a Coleman stove, listening to coyotes. The vanishing of the RV only makes your story more interesting. One thing lost, something else gained. Life is like that.

I am looking forward to a compressed work-week and/or telecommuting as a matter of course rather than an occasional privilege. If people start working from home in large numbers, chances are that the daycare business will suffer. The local farm stand will be able to compete against much larger grocery chains and even beat their prices when the transportation becomes the biggest component of cost. While the negatives from high gas prices are too numerous to count, in some ways it is as Keillor points out "One thing lost, something else gained. Life is like that."

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Diminshing Gratitude

One line from a post in MR "the memory of the favor-doing event gets distorted, and since people have the desire to see themselves in the best possible light, receivers may think they didn't need all that much help at the time, while givers may think they really went out of their way for the receiver." explains a whole lot of perplexing inter-personal relationship issues.

Often when we are bailed out in a crisis, our gratitude is deep and heartfelt but with time the poignancy of that event is diminished and to that extent the significance of the favor is reduced in our mind. If the favor-doer has likewise moved on and believes their response at the time was proportional to the crisis, there would be no mismatched expectations or broken friendships.

It is not always true that the recipient of the favor does not think they needed all the help that they got at the time. They may just be unable to rerun the intensity of emotions they experienced at the time and in as such be unable to express (and feel) the gratitude quite the same way. For the favor-doer this implies ingratitude when in fact such is not the case.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Found Essays

I was about fourteen if memory serves when my English teacher, Mrs P made me read the Essays of Francis Bacon. Obviously it was not my first choice for summer vacation reading with so many tempting, far more contemporary options out there. I approached the volume as I would a chore and without a great deal of excitement but before long I was hooked. Not only did I enjoy reading Bacon, it was my introduction to a genre which is still among my favorites.

Finding Francis Bacon essays online and a list of famous essayists reminded me of Mrs. P and her relentless efforts to get us hooked on classics. I did not appreciate her enough back then, but I do know now how lucky I had been to be introduced to some of the best writing in the language at a fairly young age. Once she got me started, I made many more discoveries on my own but the power of that first push was truly priceless and for that I will always remain grateful.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Resolved

As the parent of a kindergartener, I am always interested in finding out what lies ahead in the school years yet to come, what to expect and what to be prepared for. A lot of news of about middle and high school in America is quite disconcerting. The system seems to create some big winners and more than a few big losers but the vast majority get left behind in all round mediocrity that is a recipe for failure in the globalized world that they will increasingly need to participate in.

HBO's Resolved is a movie about the winners - the story of the high-stakes, win at any cost high-school debate whose cornerstone is a technique called "the spread" which is defined as " speed speaking, was introduced in the 1960s, debate was primarily characterized by eloquence and persuasion. Since, debate has emphasized information and academic research, with persuasiveness taking a back seat. Debaters began using a densely-worded jargon that few people could understand, and crowds dwindled. Where once high school debates filled auditoriums, they now take place in small rooms, sparsely populated by the few people who can understand what is being said and the even fewer people who have the ability to participate"

The movie traces the journey for a few debaters though several rounds of competition until they make or fail to make the all important
TOC (Tournament of Champions). The heroes in this story are a couple of black kids from a struggling inner city school in Long Beach, CA. They decide to challenge the format that high-school debating has come to assume and question its merits given how biased it is against those who lack the time and money to carry out exhaustive research in the area that they will be debating only to regurgitate as much as they can, and as fast as they can. They question the very premise of rewarding information collection as opposed to critical reasoning and original thinking.

It was a surreal experience watching these kids frothing in the mouth as they fired away without even pausing for breath in affirmative or negative of the resolution. No debate in the real world resembles even remotely what they were doing and just for that reason you wonder why kids and the adults involved in this activity would expend so much time and effort toward something that has questionable practical value.

While the facts and figures were rattled off at break neck speed, the response to questions from the opponents or the general ability of the debaters to hold and present a well considered independent opiniona on the subject was largely lacking. This is particularly disappointing in light of the fact that high-school debating supposedly attracts top talent. It was like the kids were crippled without the fifty tubs full of research material that they had gathered so painstakingly.

The two spirited kids from the Long Beach school make an impassioned case for restoring the true spirit of debate and not have it set up so that it would be impossible for the underprivileged and minorities to compete on an equal footing. In the end it is the one with the most powerful and convincing argument that should win and not the one with the most access to expensive research materials to buttress an otherwise non-descript argument.

It was sad to see the duo not able to change the style and substance of high school debate despite their heroic efforts. The system briefly acknowledges that it is imperfect but it seems to have a life of its own and rolls on like a juggernaut over two revolutionaries who tried to stand in its way.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Clumsy Brain

Gary Marcus in an interview with New Scientist would have us tinker our clumsy brains a bit to get more bang for the buck. He cites the memory as one example of such clumsiness

I think the clumsiest thing is human memory. We pull things out of our memory using context, or clues, that hint at what we're looking for. But it could pretty easily have been organised like computer memory, which would have been much more systematic, much more reliable.

I don't know about design perfection or optimization but am very grateful for the clumsiness that makes it easy to forget so much both the good and the bad. What a terrible fate it would be able to recall events with equal clarity irrespective of what point in time they occurred.

It is also nice that "lot of our thinking gets contaminated because our memories aren't very systematic". Maybe its best for the brain to be left just so, so we could still remain "human"

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Rah Rah

Now there is scientific evidence to back what we've known all along - the suits in the big corner offices make some of the most dumb-ass decisions. Then of course to add insult to injury, they take off in their golden parachutes while the rest are just let go with or without a few weeks of severance. Apparently, the big rah-rahs that happen when a project goes to "Mission Accomplished" stage is at the root of all evil.

The esteem-boosting feedback backfired, the research suggests, because it was so closely linked to the particular skills that should have prevented the questionable decision in the first place.

“The more that people’s feelings of self-worth are wrapped up in a poor decision they’ve made, the greater their impulse will be to justify it in some way,” said Daniel C. Molden, assistant professor of psychology at Northwestern and one of the researchers.


We all know from experience that the accomplished mission comes unraveled at alarming pace right after the awards and promotions are given to they key players. While they move on to better things, the hoi-polloi get on with the business of poop cleaning after them and often run out of doggie bags. In scientific terms this is :


In contemporary organizational life, many people feel threatened by their poor decisions and end up escalating their commitment to them, wasting additional time and resources and creating even worse outcomes, the studies suggest. The research provides a framework for how organizations might most effectively bolster their employees’ self-esteem as well as the bottom line

Friday, June 13, 2008

Contradictions

Could not but help ponder the myraid of contradictions reading about blu-ray makeup and the concept of Pooristan on the same day. The author makes a compelling case for the nation of the "Bottom Billion"

“What the world needs is an economic superpower that represents the interests of the world’s poor: Call it Pooristan.”

Elsewhere however, life happens in high definition and to that end, Cargo Cosmetics has created a blush/highlighter that "contains Photochromatic Pigments that adjust to all lighting conditions"

When you consider the Blu-Ray make-up wearing, high-powered, semi-celibrity news reader recounting the horrific circumstances in Darfur or flood-ravanged Yangoon, the need for a Pooristan becomes self-evident. The author quotes writer Lant Pritchett while concluding the essay :

Pritchett calls the world’s least fortunate countries “zombies.” Because their people are trapped by the lack of economic prospects, they are the equivalent of the living dead.Pooristan would change all that. It would allow the poor to break out of the little prisons that masquerade as nation-states. And eventually the world’s rich would clamor to get in.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Parents Of Teens

Barabara Ellen takes exception with non-parents and parents of young children who take it upon themselves to advice POTs (Parents Of Teenagers) on the errors of their parenting ways - which is quite understandable.

However, she neglects to mention another kind of POT - the ones who have very good natured and well-behaved teens - the kinds that score straight As, go to church regularly, are engaged in a plethora of activities and have a clear plan for their future. In other words, the complete antithesis of kids who host and attend the wild Facebook parties Ellen writes about.
It is typical of the other POTs to tell such parents that their kids are over-compensating for some hidden (and obviously dreadful) issues by being so abnormally perfect. The fact they don't drip attitude like a "normal" teen is enough evidence of something being very wrong. They try to imply that unbeknownst to them, these clueless parents are harboring a severely disturbed kid who could snap suddenly and do terrible things - it is a ticking timebomb.

The best-case scenario, the all-knowing parent of a totally unmanageable teen says, may be that this "normal" kid has been programmed out of spirit, spunk and personality by control freak parents and would sink without a trace in the real world. The implication is somehow that the wild Facebook party crowd would get their act together auto-magically and become the Masters of the Universe when the time comes to conquer the world. Too bad the two sets of POTs rarely get to compare notes when their kids are in their 20s and 30s to see how everyone fared.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Teaching Outliers

In a recent conference with J's teacher I discovered the importance of working smart even at the first grade level. The skills that will be useful to her as an adult are not unlike those she needs to thrive in elementary school. As it turns out, the quality of work is not nearly as important as speed of completion when measuring the ability of a student. No one has the time or interest to understand why a child's comprehension varies dramatically between two books at the same reading level.

In summary, how you appear is far more important than who you really are - style reigns over substance. Though we chatted about J, what I heard from the teacher and later from the guidance counselor and the principal, helped me understand why a kid in my neighborhood who is also in J's class is being sent to behavior school like he were a wild animal in need of taming.

I have seen T for a couple of years now and think he is very bright and inquisitive. His mother tells me that he loves taking things apart to figure how stuff works and can sometimes even put it back together. That's a lot for a child who is close to failing first grade. What this kid does not have is a compliant manner. He tells it like it is without fear of consequences. What's more the consequences leave him quite unperturbed. If he finds the work boring he refuses to touch it. His mother just can't get him to do his homework.

Now, instead of trying to discover what's special about this child and nurturing it, thanks to absurd regulations like No Child Left Behind, the teacher's only goal is to reach the targets that have been set for the school. This means leaving the potential of the outliers untapped and undiscovered. This also means repeating end of year assessment drills ad-nauseum.

Sure there are many alternate paths for J, T and many others like them to thrive but they definitely do not pass through public schools - even the ones that take pride in being among the best. In fact, the point of diminishing returns kicks in even before the end of elementary school. The more I see of the system, the more I feel inclined to pull J out of it. I just can't wait to start home-schooling - if only I had the luxury of staying home.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Fast Read

Just like my favorite kind of food is anything slow-cooked , I like my fiction to unfold languidly. To that end, Zhu Wen's I Love Dollars is not my kind of book, which is a pity because it is a very good one. In the title story "I Love Dollars" the protagonist in reaction to his father asking him to give up writing, says:

"I knew full well my tears were cheap, as were my emotions. I was a cheap person, in an age that burned to sell cheap, my natural habitat the clearance warehouse, pushed carelessly to one end of an empty shelf, happy to write for anyone who tossed me a couple of coins. I was ready and waiting: I'd even put my soul on special, on 70, 80 percent discount. But don't forget: I want to be paid in dollars - fucking dollars"

If I was able to adjust to the choppy pace and the general breathlessness about how the stories are told, I would have appreciated it so much more. After all fast food can be both delicious and filling. Some are actually a lot more ingenious that slow cooked fare.

If the first chapter of Salman Rushdie's newest book "The Enchantress of Florence" were any indication, it would be a comfortable pace for me.

The other drank deeply from the gourd. The water ran down from the edges of his mouth and hung on his shaven chin like a liquid beard. At length he handed back the empty gourd, gave a sigh of satisfaction, and wiped the beard away.

Maybe reading is my escape to a pace much slower than that of my own life and I feel cheated if a good story is told too briskly and without the benefit of languid word pictures I can linger over.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Inner Resilience

Nice article in the Financial Times on (at least) seven kinds of young Indians. The author concludes :

Indians are rightly proud that their country is one of the world’s only continuously democratic developing nations. In the six decades since independence, predictions that a country with India’s combination of extreme poverty and religious and ethnic diversity would fail to consolidate a nascent democratic culture have been as regular as the monsoon. They have been proved repeatedly wrong. Now, however, as India stands on the verge of the “bold advance” that Nehru predicted, it also faces its greatest test. There is no prospect of any generalised popular uprising against the state, but unless more of liberalisation’s children are invited to the party, the music to which the elites are so deliriously dancing will surely stop.

Quite improbably India thrives (after a fashion) despite the overwhelming odds. Some countries have infrastructural resilience that can take a lot of beating and still bounce back. That is not true about India - the country's resilience comes from within its people. They expect very little from the system, are capable of finding highly innovative ways around it and finally in the face of crushing odds, they are able to accept their lot with stoicism and a tinge of resignation.


That may the only reason why the naysayers have been proven wrong in their predictions on the fate of our unlikely democracy. The day we lose our collective inner strength and our ability to be somewhat fatalistic about our circumstances, the odds will most likely defeat us.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Coffee Table

I have lived in my apartment for over three years when the stay was supposed to be no longer than six months when I first moved here. I abandoned my wanderlust and gave in to the forces of rooting and mostly for J.

Though we've been here quite long, there is little external evidence of it. The rooms are very sparsely furnished and we don't have a television. When I first moved, the idea had been to be functional and it has remained just that way. We have always looked like we could be ready to decamp in very short order.

Recently, thanks to the good graces of an acquaintance who happened by a discarded coffee table and immediately thought of me, I came into a piece of furniture for my living room. That afternoon when J returned from school and saw the newly installed table in front of our couch, she let out a huge squeal of delight. "Mommy, now I can put my foot up on the coffee table when I am sitting on the couch" she said gleefully.

The life changing qualities of the table became evident to her in within the next few minutes as she continued to list them at brisk pace - a place to keep Mommy's laptop, being able to eat dinner sitting on the couch, being able to keep the books we were reading on it and so on. She was quite amazed at the huge difference a humble table had made to our lives.

While I may have been amiss in providing J a high quality life (materially speaking), I am very glad to see her being able to find joy in life's minutiae. To me that smile on her face, and the sparkle in her eyes is not something money can buy with a trip to Disneyworld.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Raffling Homes

Winning an apartment in a raffle is sounds like a even better than buying a foreclosed home on the cheap. It makes good business sense for the homeowner stuck with an unsellable property :

Miguel Marina said he hopes to be able to pay off his mortgage, worth 80 percent of the value of his property, by selling 64,000 tickets at 5 euros each, promising his home as the single prize to the winner of a draw

The buyer wins big and the also rans are only poorer by 5 euros.

"For five euros, you can win a flat, and I'll be able to sleep again," said Marina.

The only catch is that raffling to sell houses may not be legal. Minor detail I am sure in desperate times needing desparate measures which a dash of ingenuity can work around.
One suggestion is to "have competitions involving 'skill and judgement'- like: 'what is the name of my dog Fido ?' " and sneak the raffle right in.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Memory By Judith Harris

Memory by Judith Harris was published in Slate a few days ago. It is a very appropriate poem for this time of year when we remember, thank and cherish our mothers.

So simple,
my mother,
home from the stenographer's pool,
starlings dangling like keys
over the rooftops,

the late hour pulling us in
like a magnet,
the moon baying,
the solitaire train of cards.

Nothing could budge us
from our own little island,
our own little cushions,
where we stayed,
eating tuna sandwiches,

just her and me,
floating on TV laughter,
her hand clasped over mine
like a first date's.

I could be that mother turning home from work at day's end, sitting on our couch eating a dinner that was cooked without a great deal of planning. J and I happy to be together and just that - it does not take a lot more than that to make our day. The moment is quite pedestrian while it happens - watching TV while eating tuna sandwiches but its value increases over time until it becomes worthy of poetic reminiscence.

Recently, someone I thought was a friend commented "It is good for mother and child to be close, but J sticks to you like glue. That's unhealthy. You need to ask her doctor what's going on". Needless to say, I was extremely hurt by that. The child does not have any family in the same continent, has no memory of a father and hungers to be with her grandparents.

All she's had in the six years of her life is me - the one constant amid many changes. If I were in her shoes, I would have stuck to my mother like Caulobacter crescentus cementing itself to a rock. Harris's poem helps me feel positive about the bond J and I share and the bond I share with my own mother - maybe a little too gluey by some standards but clearly not by all.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Dogs Of Kvetch

Sometimes commentary on what looks very much like recession or an impending one at least can make you chuckle as when Will Wilkinson says "And the upside of pain is complaining about it; a bona fide recession is a license to let slip the dogs of kvetch" Loved the dogs of kvetch and remembered the passage from Julius Caesar which inspires the line.

And Caesar's spirit, ranging for revenge,
With Ate by his side come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch's voice
Cry 'Havoc,' and let slip the dogs of war;

Maybe we Cry 'Recession At Last', when the punditry massage the numbers, read their tea leaves and do whatever other mumbo jumbo it takes to be a "bona-fide recession".

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Spurned

My friend A is old enough to be mother-in-law except that she is not one. Single and without any ties to her immediate family she has always been a drifter seeking friends and family among strangers. She is a very loving and generous woman and will put up with a lot from her large circle of acquaintances just so she may be part of their lives - or atleast be allowed in there. She expects to pitch in physically and materially where ever she happens to be so she is not considered an inconvenience.

The children will be lavished with many thoughtful gifts, the adults assisted in any way that they find useful - sitting the pets, throwing out the trash, eating your leftovers, cooking you a quick dinner, doing the laundry - you name it and A will do it and what's more you don't have to ask for a favor - they come pouring in fast and furious. She is attentive to the needs of everyone in her vicinity including those who are unaware of her existense.

I have know her for a few years now and don't meet that often these days as she has moved from my town. I found spending a weekend with her recently infinitely taxing and I felt ridden by guilt for feeling that way. Here she was going out of her way to make it an enjoyable vacation for all of us and all I wanted was for it to end, so I could go home and not have to be around her any more. I chided myself over and over again for being so thoughtless and prayed for patience - "This too shall pass" I kept telling myself each time I came close to snapping.

A couple of strangers we met asked A if J was her grandchild and she smiled and said "I wish she was" and I know she speaks the truth when she says that. I have always recognized the aching void in her life - she has no one to call her own, her need for family is as intense as its glaring absence. I have always shared J and myself with her, tried to give her a sense of the "family" that she craves so much. It felt like the short-cut to earning some good Karma. I have now learned the hard way that you can't cut corners while looking to score beneficient Karma.

She reminds me of the kind of mother-in-law women absolutely detest and it is not because they are evil. They want to do too much, they smother you to the point of asphyxiation with love and affection long past it is no longer welcome. Their need to give is so consuming that they fail to recognize that the recipient is no longer interested and cannot make any more room for all that she has to offer in their lives. Someone needs to tell her that less is sometimes more. They don't be drowned under the million IOUs that come in the wake of spending a weekend with her. There has to be a balanced give and take in a relationship. With A it is the absolutely tryanny of the giver who refuses to stop.

I don't want anyone to help me with my laundry or wash dishes in my kitchen. It is not only about space and privacy - I don't want to feel obligated knowing fully well I will not be able to return the favor. I feel squished like an insect under the steamroller of her giving. A is a lesson for me in desperately seeking love and being spurned over and over again. If she had been a mother-in-law she would ask what more she could do to be loved and accepted by her daughter-in-law and grandchildren.

The answer is to not do quite so much, to expect something back and to love herself a whole lot more. Maybe in an entirely different context, that is something I need to learn myself.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Oracles

Found a mail with this link in the Bulk Folder of my mailbox. I am glad I looked before hitting delete because I love reading about mystical occurrences that cannot be explained scientifically.

The sacred oracle (tamra pothi) of Achyutananda Das is a series of blank copper pages. Once a questioner has asked his questions, the answers mystically appear engraved on the blank pages. This is one of the few verifiable mystical occurrences in the world that can be seen by anyone, even today.

When the Dalai Lama was in the news a lot recently, I read about the apparent contradiction in his faith in Oracles and strong affinity for science and technology. To a Hindu, there is not much contradiction there. We learn that there are limits to what science and logic can explain and then there is what lies beyond its pale.

As such, there is no dichotomy in a cardiologist seeking her family astrologer's counsel for the most important decisions in her life outside work. Her job is grounded in science, technology and reason, but the course of his life is guided by planets, stars and other unseen forces - two very unlike needs and therefore met in very different manners.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Innovative Interviewing

Heard two stories on unusual hiring techniques on NPR recently. One was about Zappos - they try to tempt new hires into quitting. The idea is to see if the employee is motivated by money or by work. While it is clever, I am not entirely sure if it can really weed out all the bad apples. The serial job-changer will not bite bait for $1000. They will likely hang around until they have learned enough to be able to update their resume and then scope the market for a bigger, better deal. A vast majority of people will want to stay employed in a down market. It would just not make sense for them to trade a regular income for $1000.

The other story was about a more promising technique. Instead reviewing piles of resumes to shortlist candidates and then going through a long drawn out interview process that yields iffy results at best, have candidates attend a random meeting that one or more of their prospective team members are in. Once they are done, ask them what they gathered from particapting and how they think they could contribute to the solving the problem at hand. This is something I can totally relate to. The ability to hit the ground running is specially critical for short term consulting engagements. You don't have the luxury of figuring the lay of the land out over a year or more.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Overdone Kitchens

Very interesting article in the Economist on the changing face of the kitchen over time. The feminist movement, the scarcity of domestic help, Formica, time saving appliances and popular media have contrived to make the humble kitchen the piece de resistance that it has become today.

The smoke-filled, hot and cramped kitchens may not have been as inviting as what the McMansions of today have but the food that came of them had more soul perhaps. Modern day kitchens are like divas – they have spunk, attitude and pizzazz but when it comes to delivering a wholesome hot meal, the unattractive yet functional kitchen of yesteryears wins hands down.

Needless to say, the denizens of the kitchen have changed as much as their habitat. It is no longer a woman’s place –she has been liberated and moved on but the vacuum left in her wake has been filled by a patch work of ready made food and leftovers from restaurant dinners. The modern day kitchen in the family’s watering hole with everyone doing their bit to put a meal on the table. Something is lost in the community endeavor.

Kitchens that look like an inspired work of modern art don't have the same cozy, intimate feel. They are meant to be admired not lived in and sullied. So we have the fanciest China, the coolest gadgets, recipe books from around the word not to mention an over-stocked spice rack and pantry but at the end of the day the answer to the question "What's for dinner tonight ?" is not likely to be a five course meal prepared in that spectacular kitchen.

What with wireless and digital entertainment zones, kitchens have come a long way from the era of the open fire and blackened pot. Kitchen designers plainly think that the lure of state-of-the-art multi-media gadgetry will pull more men into the kitchen in the future. And they may well be right. But whether they go there in order to stuff a mushroom, or rather to download music and stick a frozen chicken tikka in the microwave, is probably an open question.