Saturday, January 31, 2009

Change of Guard

Read this article by Anand Girdhardas on the change of guard in India and the breaking of traditional class barriers, in which he says :

In the Indian offices of, say, Goldman Sachs or McKinsey, the paychecks are fat and the intellects razor-sharp. But they seldom speak English in the old, affected British way. They are coarser and yet more confident. They feel the world is theirs, but are less obsessed than the earlier elites with emulating the West. They are proudly indigenous, often preferring Indian food, music and movies to the alternatives.

While the observation is not off the mark, the analysis may not be entirely right. The faux-British accent has lapsed over the years simply because the vast majority of school teachers in India have not been taught English by the British. Having learned the language from desis, they naturally speak like desis do. To make up for that, there is now a rash of accent trained young people who can speak like Americans. The neutral English accent is the in thing and is something both the old elite and new meritocracy are learning equally.

British colonization has long ended in India so emulation of their way of life is no longer relevant or important. The parents and grandparents who had the faux-British upbringing have likely passed on some of their learned traits to their children and grandchildren. However, in the world outside, these young people need to fit in with their mainstream peers and any old school British mannerisms would be considered quite odd in that social mileu. The world has moved on a great deal since the days of the Raj and everyone recognizes that.

While effete Western-style refinement has given way to the more wholesome, down-home coarseness at home, when desis comes to live and work abroad (which they continue to do in large numbers), they find the transition to be easiest if they are able to blend in. The neutral English accent helps a great deal as does some familiarity with the culture of their domicile country.

While it being proudly indigenous in India is more possible and acceptable now than ever before, the rules change quite a bit once they step outside the country. The thick desi accent along with involuntary lapses into vernacular continues to be a source of embarrassment and the cause of many a social faux-pas. Non-English speaking Europeans for instance are hardly bothered by their lack of facility with English. Such is unfortunately not quite the case with desis even today - we still have some distance to travel before we grow that comfortable in our skin.

Instead of celebrating the demise of the old elite in India as the Hinglish speaking, small town high-achievers take over the reins, it might be useful to consider how each may help the other to become more assertive and productive citizens of the world. In the end, in all cultures there will be those who are considered the elite and those who are not. The parameters for both classifications can and will change over time but intellect and achievement alone cannot confer class.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Solastalgia

It used to be that you could come home to where you were born and raised after however many years and still find the world you had left behind. Then there were changes, people you knew were displaced for reasons often beyond their control, new landmarks had begun to replace the old. Friends from long ago were harder to find, as were other memories of childhood - the school, the corner-store, a tree outside your window that had been around for longer than anyone could remember. So, there was no place that was truly home.

For those of us who have lived the better parts of our lives as vagabonds without a permanent address, this lack of of a real home and the associated pain is a familiar one. We look forward to putting roots down someplace just so we have place to come back to, be comforted by the presence of familiar things around us. That may be harder to come by with time. There is now a word to describe the
complex emotions associated with this.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Tweeting Zombies

This hilarious post on the ubiquitous social media experts is a must read for anyone who has a Twitter and Facebook account because everyone else has one but is largely clueless otherwise. They follow and get followed, get stuff written up on their walls - send and receive invites on occasion. Even with all that, they don't get the warm and fuzzy of being with the program. They are pretty sure there is a method to the madness and it is only a matter of time before they figure it out too.

That description by the way, describes my forays into the world of social media almost exactly. The author of the post Micheal Pinto, describes a common malaise of the highly networked individuals - the “social media deafness" :

a state that occurs when a person’s social graph exceeds 500+ virtual friends. The result is that the person is a mile wide, but an inch deep.

I have never got the point of the 500+ friends either. By six degrees of separation some of these 500+ people must know everyone in world that has an Internet connection - that's a whole lot of friends to keep up with. But it gets even better after that. Pinto says, there is a Ponzi scheme where the social media deaf zombies lead each other into.

Like any good Ponzi scheme the lead zombies can make a good living feeding the hopes and aspirations of the worker level drones who parrot their every blog entry.

This line reminds of something J said a few days ago. She had seen me sign into my Twitter account and asked to know what it was. I am pretty sure the image of the bird got her thinking it must be a cool kid-friendly site I had discovered for her to check out. Anyways, I tried to give her the best second grade level definition of micro-blogging and she had this summary by the time I was done.

"So one person types 'I saw a bird on the tree'. Send Tweet. The other person types 'I saw a bird on the tree too'. Send Tweet. They do that all day long. How boring !!" I had to explain to her that adults can sometimes do the silliest things and believe it is cool. I am sure she lost a good deal of respect for me just knowing I Tweet too. So much for making an effort to stay with the times.

Of Twitter zombies and anyone who is at risk of becoming of one, Pinto says :

Like drugs, social media can be a good thing in the right hands. But there are too many people out there who don’t know what they’re doing and just get carried away. Sadly most people just lack the good old fashioned discipline to keep their worse instincts in check.

I figure, I must be at risk because I just blogged about his blog and had nothing useful to add of my own.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

John Updike

One of my favorite authors, John Updike died yesterday. I have read most of his books and have several favorites. But one Updike book, Hugging The Shore, changed my life. This was the book that opened up a whole new world of reading to me in my teens, which lead to other interesting discoveries along the way. The author of this obit writes of Updike :

On purely literary grounds, he was attacked by Norman Mailer as the kind of author appreciated by readers who knew nothing about writing.

Even if Mailer is right, I am proud to be the kind of plebeian reader who knows nothing about writing. Thanks to my ignorance, I have some of my fondest reading memories. I would never trade them for the knowledge or appreciation of good writing by strict literary standards. It is sad to think that there will never be another new Updike book to anticipate or enjoy.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Real And Normal

J is healthy but petite and that has been a source of much heartache for her from the time she has been able to compare herself to her peers. Up until a year ago, I had found it easy enough to explain that race has a lot to do with it. I would tell J, we are Indian but most of your friends are Caucasian. Just as I am smaller than most of their moms, it is likely you will be smaller than your friends as an adult. However, I am taller than average for an Indian woman of my age so it is likely you will be too compared to Indian girls of your generation. She had found this largely acceptable.

Increasingly, the later part of my explanation is failing to hold water. The desi kids she knows are bigger than her at three years younger. The average desi second grader of her acquaintance looks several years older than her. It becomes a matter of great embarrassment to J if a parent assumes she is a pre-schooler and lumps her along with the 4-5 year olds on a social occasion.

It does not help when in such a gathering, mothers begin to compare notes on the height and weight of their kids. I can see J withering away in acute embarrassment and self-consciousness. After we come home, she will ask in a tearful voice if she will ever grow any bigger and taller, if she will every catch up to the rest of them.

I have had to dig up pictures of myself at her age to convince her that she is perfectly normal and is not on her way to becoming a midget. I was a good deal skinnier than she is at seven and about as tall so the absolute worst case she will grow up be at least my height. Would that be such a terrible thing ? This argument I have found is a hard one to sell - her world is in the here and now and the future I am talking about is too far and intangible for her to grasp.

J does not know where bigger stops being healthier and stronger and starts to become obesity. She does not understand about processed and genetically modified food and its relationship to precocious puberty. As far as she is concerned, she is the only baby at seven in a peer-group that is almost verging on maturity.

It will become a lot more than the physical difference once the hormones start to kick in and drive emotional changes before their time. At this point the divergence would become impossible to bridge. With that, J will be "stuck" in a body and mind that is absolutely normal in medical terms for someone her age (as her pediatrician does not tire of pointing out me), but out of step as far as being equipped to keep up socially and emotionally with her peers.

From my vantage point, the gap between the medical text book and real-life "normal" seems really huge. As a mother, I am fighting a losing battle trying to reconcile the two in a meaningful way to J - I seem to be paying an unreasonable price for doing the right thing thing for my child's long-term health and well-being.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Electronic Paper

The first thing that comes to mind reading this article about paper thin electronic screens that can be rolled like paper is the possibility of print and electronic media merging to become indistinguishable from each other. If newspaper and magazine could be printed in bulk on such screens, they would bring the best of both worlds together. The tactile satisfaction of a real newspaper along with the power of electronic media seems more than perfect.

While this technology has some distance to travel before it becomes readily available to the average consumer, there is no lack of ideas on what to do with it once it does. If conventional paper goes the way of stone tablets and papyrus in the future, handwriting might become obsolete along with arts like painting and sketching - a lot like photographic film has become with the dominance of digital cameras. Writing or painting something by hand on paper would become a quaint thing with some fringe enthusiasts. Yet there are other positives to balance this loss - along with sparing millions of trees, we would truly be able to see the world in grain of sand.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Parenting Balance

As a FOB desi parent, I will be the first to admit that I find the public school curriculum in America severely lacking and worry about J being left far behind her peers around the world thanks to the asinine No Child Left Behind policy.

I am also the kind of desi who feels vindicated in this opinion by documentaries like 2 Million Minutes.

This film takes a deeper look at how the three superpowers of the 21st Century - China, India and the United States - are preparing their students for the future. As we follow two students - a boy and a girl - from each of these countries, we compose a global snapshot of education, from the viewpoint of kids preparing for their future.

Our goal is to tell the broader story of the universal importance of education today, and address what many are calling a crisis for U.S. schools regarding chronically low scores in math and science indicators.

Knowing about this "crisis", I feel an urgent need to correct the gaps in my child's education (which can only grow wider with time) without the wherewithal to do so.

But there is another America as well - the one that Alissa Quart talks about in her book Hothouse Kids. This America is terrified of falling behind and having the Asians dominate in the future. They are willing to do their utmost to give their kids a chance to thrive in a highly competitive and globalized world.

When you take the general feeling of dissatisfaction with your child's education, combine it with your inherently desi notion of what it should really be and find yourself in an environment where hothousing opportunities are plentiful, you need to tread with utmost caution.

While, I don't agree with everything Quart has to say on her subject, she is right on the money about some things. In the final chapter of her book, she says ;

Conveying to children that they are so "special" and putting them on public display can lead them to feel that any talent they have is bigger than they are and that. in a sense, they are a mere employee of their talent, that they work for the gift and must manage their endowment. It's as if they were employees of Prodigy Inc. If they can't maintain exceptional performance into adulthood, they may well end up feeling that they have little direction and perhaps their lives have little meaning.

Then there is a beautiful quote from Walter Benjamin, in the chapter titled The Baby Genius Edutainment Complex, in which he makes the case for boredom :

If sleep is the apogee of physical relaxation, boredom is the apogee of mental relaxation. Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience. A rustling in the leaves drives him away. His nesting places - the activities that are intimately associated with boredom - are already extinct in the cities and declining in the country as well.

Overall, this is an educative book for all parents who struggle to find the right balance between the desire to stimulate the creative energy in their children and the fear of becoming the much maligned extreme-parents who are driven by an all consuming agenda of keeping their kids ahead of the game. The line dividing the two can be tenuous sometimes. Like Quart puts it :

In a sense, the expansion of the culture of gifted children primed for accomplishment is yet another side effect of the growth of the middle class, and an attendant merit-based ethos. With so much competition for everything from preschool, to summer camp, to colleges, to impermanent jobs, children must work harder and train more extensively than ever. They do this not only to achieve class mobility but even just to maintain their family's place in the social strata, as they are confronted by avid, equally trained young rivals. Parents sometimes construct giftedness to lift their children and themselves above the fray.

The average middle class desi, who was born and educated in India will have no trouble grasping that line of reasoning or find much fault with it. We have been there, done that and are in know very well what it is to be under pressure to achieve from a very tender age. A lot of us long for our kids to have a different kind of childhood than we did in India and coming to America is in large part to fulfill that desire. Yet, ironically enough we find ourselves getting caught up in the very fray that we once so ardently wished to escape.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Tall Tales

Ben Mezrich's Ugly Americans - The True Story of the Ivy League Cowboys who Raided the Asian Markets for Millions reads at a fast clip like any good thriller must. As Mezrich's rhapsodies on Ducatis, Ferraris and other trappings of good living turn cliche by frequent repeats, and his characters go about their business of being take-no-prisoners cowboys of the Asian financial markets, you wonder if his "true story" may be true in the manner of The Devil Wears Prada.

The events recounted in the book are old by now and the style of writing, makes it hard to separate fact from fiction, truth from exaggeration. Even with everything on the news these days, you almost want to believe there is a generous dose of make-believe in
Mezrich's surreal story of hedge funds making ungodly sums of money without the encumbrances of morality, authority or regulation. Surely, things cannot be quite as bad. Because if they are, the legions of little guys paying for this bacchanalia are really toast.

Yet when you read this NYT op-ed piece or other accounts of the ongoing financial meltdown, Mezrich's story does not seem all that improbable.Truth can be stranger than fiction and therefore much harder to believe unless you happen to be close enough to the action to know the score.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Truth Sorting

I love the intent and design of Politifact and could not help wondering what might happen if we "borrowed" this idea and applied it to politics in India. Internet access is fairly common now so a large part of the electorate can easily participate in this on-line truth sorting exercise. Instead of being the largest democracy in the world only by virtue of headcount, we could become the most significant one by level of energy and active participation in the political process.

Imagine having the ability to jam a politician's phone lines and in-boxes when they are seriously under-delivering on their promises.
Better still have the truth-o-meter displayed prominently on major news channels so the citizenry is able to remain vigilant of the performance of their "public servants" at all times. Actions like these, would force elected representatives to emerge from the shadows they thrive in and account for the yawning gap between what they say and what they do.

You don't need any talking heads to parse the events of the day ad nauseum to help you get to the truth - the data should say it all. Besides, a visual is worth a thousand words and makes for a consistent story that cannot be spun for either entertainment or edification. For a country whose national motto is Satyameva Jayate (Truth Alone Triumphs), what better way to empower truth and get it to work for the people.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Betting On Fear

Just before the peak of summer, I received an "enticement" from my power company. I could choose my pay my bill or lock in my bill at a blended-in, usage plus other esoterica driven number. I looked at the two numbers side by side and tried to understand the logic that might have driven the lock-in number which was about ten dollars higher than my bill for the month. At the very height of summer, my bill would likely go up some more and might even cross the magic lock-in figure but how was that an attractive proposition for me to sign up for a whole year.

Now, this company has known my consumption pattern for four years living in the same house. Obviously, the algorithm was lacking as far as I was concerned and I was not convinced. With the tide having turned (at least for the time being), it appears that I made the right call. They were at the time, basically asking me to hedge against runaway energy prices when indeed the prices were constantly on the rise.


MyGallons did took the same idea to gasoline prices - basically a business model that feeds on consumer angst and therefore the increased likelihood of making the wrong call. The idea is for the consumer to trust one or more of these companies to have a magic eight ball with which they can see clearly into the future that regular people cannot. Furthermore, we need to believe that with their extraordinary vision they would have only our best interests in mind.

Maybe there is a third option - they are generally right in assuming that the prices will go up but they have the exact figure of the peak wrong - they are under-estimating it and so you will win by signing up for the deal being offered. I am pretty positive that they have some fine print in the most mind-numbing legalese to take care of that situation should it come to pass.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A Little Short

Read a short story by Hari Kunzru titled Raj, Bohemian. It revolves around monetizing social networks and is almost but not quite neatly done. That can be tantalizing or disappointing based on your perspective. Almost because you sense the potential in the idea but not quite because the ending is so underwhelming. This kind of writing is possibly the hardest to read. You would much rather go in without any expectations and come out none the worse for not having them met.

In this Kunzru number, we have a bunch of artsy, talented, somewhat eccentric characters who form the narrator's social network. He makes a concerted effort to extend the reach of his story to an international audience. There is no smell of spices clinging to the walls of the kitchen - the desis in this story are cool and cosmopolitan. There are no pointers to their cultural provenance except their ethnic names. Plus there is Otto, the German to balance out Sunita the desi.

While all this makes for an interesting ambiance to support the story but that's about all there is to it. Nice atmosphere and style but somewhat short on substance. The last time I had read a book by Kunzru was a while ago and it seems like he is yet to find that one special thing which brings it all together.

Kunzru reminds me of Jhumpa Lahiri who like him has almost everything that it takes to make a wonderful writer except that special spark which most frustrating remains missing. You find a beautifully articulated thought here, a deftly sketched character there but when you add it all up, it does not amount to as much as you would expect it to.

Now, Chetan Bhagat on the other had is a good story-teller. He may not be nearly as literary as Kunzru or Lahiri but he does a very decent job of holding your attention as he unfolds his tale. When you bring the strengths of a natural raconteur like Bhagat together with the art and craft of say a Kunzru or Lahiri then you have a real winner - the new desi literary sensation.

I am a big fan of a story told lucidly and from the heart like R.K Narayan and Anita Desai have done time after time. Rushdie did it with Haroun and the Sea of Stories and Seth with The Golden Gate. Recently, I chanced upon a short story by Satyajit Ray titled Patol Babu which may lack in style but is a delightful read all the same. It would nice to have more of the current subcontinental literati return to such simplicity.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Homeschooling

I am a big believer in homeschooling and think it is the best solution for some kids and parents. Reading this list of famous home-schoolers is definitely interesting as are the comments on the article. There are several perspectives that I had never considered in the context of homeschooling. Escape to public school to escape a dreary, wretched home and family is one of them.

While it is great the the kid gets a break for a good part of the day everyday, they must inevitably return to that terrible place called home - until they are able to leave for good and strike out on their own.
To use public school to escape a deeper, more fundamental problem is like suppressing the symptoms without curing the disease.

If a parent is not dedicated to giving their child a good education the outcomes could be equally bad whether the kid is home-schooled or not. The ability of the parent to teach the material is obviously important and it would help the credibility of all home-schoolers if their primary educators were properly vetted and accredited before they started schooling their kids.

There is the constant refrain of social ineptitude among home-schoolers because they don't get as many opportunities to socialize. That is easily corrected by a slew of extra curricular activity options available to school age kids all year long. Any or all of those could be opportunities for social interaction. A lot of home-schoolers are actively engagement is such activities. I do know parents who send kids to public school and expect the system to take care of them from that point on. If the school or television does not provide it, the kids have to do without it.


The missing piece of the puzzle appears to be an assessment to determine if a parent and a child would be a good fit for and well served by homeschool. Based on that, parents can be offered guidance on their strengths and their weaknesses as the would be educators of their children. Clearly, this is not a one-size fits all kind of deal.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Limited Audience

A few days ago while chatting over tea with some Bong acquaintances, discussion turned to movies by Rituparno Ghosh. This is a crowd of urban, educated, professional (or not), middle-class Bengalis who have spent about equal parts of their lives in India and outside. As is usually the case in such gatherings, us ladies were seated in the informal dining area outside the kitchen whereas the men were in the living room.

Ghosh has been more graphic in depicting sexuality than most other contemporary Bengali directors and these ladies took issue with that. The popular opinion was - if you do have something different and unusual to say via cinema, you don't need to resort to nudity and adult language to say it.

After all, Satyajit Ray never had to do either and still made world-class cinema. All his movies can be watched with family without fear of outraging anyone's innocence. The ladies had a long list of Ghosh movies that had offended their sensibilities with Antar Mahal and Dosar being the top two.

I loved how the betrayed wife in Dosar played by Konkona Sen, says to her husband when he wants to talk to her his affair after the death of his lover "Sorry but I am plenty busy right now and can't take responsibility for your catharsis". To not take note of the little gems like this one scattered throughout the movie and instead focus to the more run of the mill depiction of sex was rather confusing to me. With all due respect, these sisters were completely missing the point of the story.

Besides Bollywood with its item-numbers and "smoldering" item-girls has raised the bar of acceptable level of vulgarity in family entertainment pretty high. The same ladies have no problem dancing to Kajra Re at a party with her little daughters joining in. It is not as if we are still gathered about the living room television, watching Mother India and Pakeezah when Ghosh came along with all his corruptible stuff.

So, I am not sure why he is required to be the upholder of Bengali morality - the movies are already rated as not suitable for immature audiences. What else is he supposed to do ? You wonder if the Bongs might be more distressed by his message than how it is delivered.

Anyway, hearing this indictment against one of my favorite Bengali directors, I had to wonder who then was Ghosh's audience ? The illiterate and semi-literate masses of Bengal would not find much to like about his modern, cosmopolitan characters, their complex motivations, subtle emotions and nuanced wordplay.

I have no reason to believe that the gentlemen over in the living room engaged in earnest discussions of politics and economy (topics they do not think the distaff side is able to contribute to) would have a dramatically different world-view than their wives specially with several women mentioning that their spouses found Ghosh's cinema distasteful as well.

If the husbands of these ladies felt similarly offended by Ghosh's take on love outside marriage and the state of the modern marriage itself, then that's a sizable chunk of his potential audience gone - what is Ghosh left with ? While everyone agrees that he is talented, they don't like it when he goes so far out of line from what is acceptable in bhadralok society. If these Bongs are a slice of the "average Bong" pie, it is bad news for Bong filmmakers who dare to provoke.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Learning From J

While getting dinner ready a few days ago in the context of something J said, I explained that Indians believe in Athithi Deva Bhavo and so in our culture we attach a great deal of importance to being gracious and hospitable to our guests - invited and uninvited alike. That in serving them we are serving God.

So here I was feeling good about myself, making my little speech that would further the cause of our "culture" and "tradition" , when J interrupted to say "All parents should treat their children as God too". How is that I inquired failing to make the connection with the discussion at hand.

"When children come out their mother's tummy, they become the guest of the parents. A guest who just stays for a very long time. A life-over instead of just a sleep-over". I had to agree that would be a valid parallel and therefore by the standards of treating your guest like they were God, parents need to do the same with their children.

J clarified that life-over was like sleep-over and also they children stayed with the parents until their (the parents) life was over. I thanked her for the clarification as I smiled to myself - teaching J has always been a learning experience.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Indianness Anxiety

I have often blogged about the exotification of India by Indian writers who write in English. As an Indian, I find myself cringing at a precious turn of phrase or lush prose style that appear to be the bane of these writers. I have to ask myself what would remain of such a piece of writing once all the Indian ambiance elements are removed from it. Does the story remain worth telling after that ? That I can't imagine One Hundred Years of Solitude set anywhere else but Macondo is a perfect of example of blatant double standards.

Knowing fully well that the act of parsing a piece of writing into its style and substance components is the best way to kill the joy of reading and appreciating the real merits of a work, I just can't seem to help myself when the locale happens to be India. Whenever I read an Indian author whose writing fails to transcend his or her cultural identity, I tend to question the authenticity of that identity itself and the clarity of the voice in which it is expressed.

While I am perfectly incapable of formulating what constitutes "The Real Indian Experience", it seems that being an Indian predisposes me towards having an opinion about another person's version of that experience and turning overly anxious about their ability to describe it correctly.

Vikram Chandra has a
great observation on this phenomenon :

I noticed the constant hum of this rhetoric, this anxiety about the anxiety of Indianness, this notion of a real reality that was being distorted by "Third World cosmopolitans," this fear of an all-devouring and all-distorting West. I heard it in conversations, in critical texts, in reviews. And Indians who wrote in English were the one of the prime locations for this rhetoric to test itself, to make its declarations of power and belonging, to announce its possession of certain territories and its right to delineate lines of control.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Innocence On The Block

I could not help thinking how far womankind has come along as I read this story about a twenty two year old auctioning her virginity off for $3.7 m and that's just the highest bid so far. It is hard to think of the men engaged in this bidding war as anything but the most pathetic losers.

Not only is Ms Dylan the mistress of her own destiny with that kind of money at her young age, she has also in control of the terms of engagement in this multi-million dollar deal. Most importantly she has challenged the relevance of female virginity in contemporary society while making a mockery of the male obsession with it. In exchange for something that obviously has great cachet with a certain stripe of men, she will be laughing all the way to the bank.

She said: "I get some men who are obviously looking for a girlfriend but I try and make it clear that this is a one-night-only offer.

Apparently the deal does not make good business sense. Caveat emptor, but more power to the young lady for being able to pull this off. You wonder,if this trend may catch on. Feminists are not going to be happy should that happen. Their objection is around women being treated as objects and submitting to such treatment because it makes equality with men (who are obviously not objects) a more difficult goal to achieve.

Men have sold their souls for less money than this woman would make in exchange for her chastity. If women were willing to pay nearly this much for a man's virginity, it would not doubt go on the block as well. So, that would make "objects" of both sexes and level the playing field.

Until that happens, the feminist argument will continue to be that Dylan is practicing only another form of prostitution - even if a very expensive form of it. In doing so, she is setting a bad precedent that others may follow to the detriment of the feminist agenda. In a sense they are right. This kind of auction has been prevalent around the world and has been been the beginning of a life of prostitution for women.

The difference between what Dylan is doing and for instance a mizuage that one read about in the Memoirs of a Giesha, is about who is in control and who is benefiting from the "trade". Then there is the length of the arrangement itself : a one-night-only offer. Clearly, the woman's side of the deflowerment equation has changed quite a bit here.

Used to be that the virgin (often a minor) was no more than a pawn in a game where monies were exchanged by others (usually men) and she had no say in who she would lose her virginity to.That continues to be the case in many parts of the world to this day where the forces of poverty, lawlessness and social oppression conspire against women.

The men vying for Dylan, however are acting out of the same motivations that they have since time immemorial - nothing has changed there. Makes you wonder if the male and female of the species have evolved at a totally different pace.

Men of certain means like to boast about the cost of their homes, their cars, and their yachts. Several people have paid tens of millions of dollars for a few days stay on the International Space Station. So why not be able to boast of paying two and a half million for a night of sex with a twenty two year old virgin? The allure is the fact that the man was able to do it.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Treading Egg Shells

A few weeks ago when the Satyam scandal was just breaking on the airwaves in India, my dad called in at work to check how I was doing. I could not make the connection and was really perplexed. Apparently other desis like myself who are also completely unrelated to Satyam had received similar inquiries from home. I figure this is our national malaise of treading on egg-shells, manifesting itself in a time of crisis.

We realize the truth about how government and corporations run in India, is often unpalatable but we don't necessarily want to have our dirty linen washed and aired in public. Home and abroad, desis have benefited enormously from the companies like Infosys, TCS, Wipro and yes Satyam. They have swank campuses, state of the art technology, armies of English-speaking technology workers and international presence.

Together they form the fancy facade behind which we gather as a people while projecting ourselves to the world outside. They act as a shield and barrier against ugliness that would have otherwise been impossible to hide. When a company (or any other entity) has the ability to elevate the stature of a country abroad, it becomes a de-facto holy cow in India. This one took a slaughtering and naturally there was collective dismay and disbelief.

What now ? Who is next in line ? Is this the beginning of a systemic collapse of the IT industry in India ? Is this Satyam business going to affect anyone close to me ? Naturally rumors were flying thick and fast and Ramalinga Raju was being made into this larger than life demon who played havoc with the lives and livelihoods of millions of innocents. It is like those fairy tales where the charming prince is suddenly transformed into a toad or worse an alligator with a nasty bite. As with fairy tales there are no shades of gray to this whole business - it is all black or white.

If this goes the way most headline news does in India, in a few days the Satyam story would have receded to the middle or end of the news papers. The talking heads would cease their collective hand-wringing and fulmination, the public would have found other issues to focus on - God knows there is no lack of burning issues in India at any given time. In the meanwhile, Raju et al would have gone into hibernation.

Once this has all faded from the public memory - which should not be too long considering we would be only too eager and anxious to see our pretty facade restored - he could be back in the action with a new name and legal entity for his company. This as we all know, is a tried and tested recipe home and abroad. He might want to steer clear of obvious giveaways like palindromes and such.

We the desi people for our part, can just pretend that all this never happened - toads have been known to turn right back into charming princes after all. Closer home, legend has it that Ratnakar became Valmiki - clearly we have a fine and long standing tradition of turning over a new leaf.

A few hefty fines, some high-voltage court-room drama and a dash of public humiliation would go a long way in easing this transition. A Ram Gopal Verma tell-all flick can only help. With all that taken care of, we could be sure that Raju has had his comeuppance and was going into this brand new venture full of contriteness and nothing but absolute moral uprightness to guide all his actions in the future.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Instructive Reading

Read this nice article on the virtues of reading seriously ill-written books. The author argues for persisting with reading a novel so bad that after 10 minutes' reading it's almost impossible not to fire it across the room like a 112-page Howitzer shell.

I recognize that feeling and have almost always given up past page 50 with books that unbearable. I have a couple of acquaintances who have published their work - one through a vanity press and the other through a slightly mainstream publisher. Both works were years in the making and finally did see light of day. One of these authors described the process from concept to publication as a five year gestation.

I received a complimentary copy of each book. The vanity press number was a volume of poems - a mix of good and mediocre but readable enough even if not worth revisiting. The other one was a work of autobiographical fiction and an amazingly tedious read. Needless to say, I never made it past page ten. I wondered what made it so impossible to read or like. I think I may have found an answer now :

It clearly believes itself a masterpiece of poetic prose (as the jacket claims), when in point of fact it reads like the frenzied scribblings of someone slowly choking on their own self-indulgence.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Trusting Like A Child

Since times are tough and people are losing their jobs at an alarming rate, I thought it would be a good idea to get J familiar with the idea of surviving difficult times as a family. Kit Kittredge turned out to be a perfect vehicle for this lesson. She took away from the movie the important ideas I wanted her to.

A few days after she had watched the movie, I mentioned to her than many people in my acquaintance had either lost their job or were likely to do so in the near future, that things could change for me too though we can hope for the best. She absorbed this seriously and after some thought asked "Mommy, it this worse than the Great Depression ?" and I answered that some people think so.

Her follow-up question caught me a little off-guard "Will we come out of it before I die ?" I hastened to assure her that it would all blow over very soon, maybe within a year. Everyone would be back working, no one would have to lose their home. I was making this up on as I went but J brightened up visibly so I figure I must have sounded convincing. Such, I guess is the power of optimism. Whether or not what I told her does come to pass, for the moment she is not worried about what the future holds for us and can go about her life as usual.

Adults are not that different from kids in how we react to bad news - specially when we know it might be true. When the experts start to project gloom and doom, the common person suffers in anticipation of what is to come. So we might prefer not to read what Nouriel Roubini has to say on the subject of the economy, we would much rather hear a more Pollyanna voice to soothe our anxiety. The difference between child and the grown-up is that the child implicitly trusts the optimistic view but the adult uses it to be in denial for as long as possible.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

Watched Slumdog Millionaire and not sure exactly how I felt about it. Among the slew of reviews of the movie a couple made the most sense to me. One is by Shobha De and the other by Scott Mendelson. I found myself agreeing with some of the things the two have said though they approach the movie and react to it in completely different ways

Mendelson gets to the heart of the matter - the business of knowledge, the new tools available to acquire and recall it at will and therefore the revelance of knowledge itself. The protagonist of Slumdog Millionaire learned everything he did merely trying to stay alive in unrelentingly harsh circumstances.He had no real education but that did not stop him from acing the biggest trivia challenge - Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. So Mendelson poses a few questions :

There has been an ongoing debate for the last several years about the very concept of knowledge. With the advances of the internet and billions of people literally having any piece of information at their fingertips, what is the real benefit of knowledge? Why teach children facts when they can look them up in five seconds on Wikipedia or Google?

Then there is De who expresses the two conflicting emotions that any desi will feel watching this movie. Numbed by the brutal portrayal of the lives of India's slum-dwelling children and an urge to defend their country from being depicted in such sordid light by a foreigner. This a much like the reaction a lot of us had while watching City of Joy many years ago. To Danny Boyle's credit, he introduces a fairy-tale element which is greatly helped by A.R Rahman's magical music to blunt the edges of something inherently raw. To quote Ms De :

Mumbai's ugly secrets stand exposed... its many wounds are displayed right up there, for the world to see. One part of me said, ''I wish he hadn't made this film and stripped my city so cruelly.... revealed its nakedness..." The other part was protesting.... wildly protesting. I hated Boyle's portrayal of Mumbai .... felt protective, felt betrayed.... but also felt the truth. Which is why it hurt. Continues to hurt.

When it comes to movies like Slumdog or City of Joy it is specially hard for an Indian to remain completely objective while making their case for or against it. To a certain extent, we feel exposed, vulnerable and exploited by the West when they open up our country's underbelly for the world to see and recoil at. We want them to show a more balanced picture of India - our country does not begin and end in Dharavi we want to argue. We don't want to judged as a people by the rest of world based on impressions they form by watching such movies. We clamor for a resounding counterpoint and so there is India Shining.

I almost felt grateful to Boyle for ending the movie with a Bollywood style choreographed dance on the platform of a railway station - lending a sense of make-believe and fantastical to it all. Just that helped restore some dignity to an otherwise gut-wrenching depiction of a country whose poor live and die in conditions that the rest find too horrifying to even accept as reality.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Languages and Geek Stuff

Found this really funny post comparing programming languages to religions. Once the religion is taken care of, the geek can presumably go about upgrading the fixtures around the house - where they prefer to communion with their chosen God. A keyboard waffle together with an off-on coffee mug would be a great way to get a good conversation going. 

After a long time, I have been hanging out with a bunch of people whose conversation frequently lapses into their technical argot leaving the rest of us quite befuddled. A very long time ago, I used to be one of them but clearly time and distance have taken their toll. A world with which I was once very familiar seems rather strange now. That said, I can see how L, the technical lead would salivate over the off-on coffee mug, his own has a computer keyboard painted on it - I love the on-off mug too and hope it works just as well for tea. Thanks to residual geek-ness perhaps, I think the monkey-picked tea definitely worth trying.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Cashing Your Ride

Covering your car with advertising vinyl in lieu of gas coupons is the idea behind CashURDrive. Clients can locate their ads through the vehicle tracking system installed on the car. Sounds like a good idea and a win-win one at that.

I am thinking about the traffic congestion in Indian cities and trying to imagine streams of cars decked out in bright brand colors, tag-lines, images and more. It makes for a visually disturbing and chaotic scene. If drivers actually bother to read any of these mobile bill-boards that can only be unsafe for passenger and traffic alike. With so many parties clamoring for attention, it would be interesting to see if anyone gets any attention at all.

There will the initial novelty factor that would doubtless benefit early adopters. By when every car in town has signed up for CashURDrive the value proposition for both sides of the equation, advertiser and car-owner would be significantly diminished. Whereas at first, only a few cars would have been done up and hence catch the eye, as the trend caught on, it would be harder and harder to notice anything.

Of course there will be a slew of copy cat start-ups that will try to cash in on everything else in in sight leading to even greater fragmentation of advertisement space and yet more visual pollution. In the long run this might become a lose-lose situation. It would be nice instead if companies would sponsor whitespace or silence - those would be more likely to catch attention. Greening of public places is already done by some but it would not hurt to have more of the same.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Parental Expectations

I have been a frequent visitor at Stuff White People Like ever since I discovered this highly entertaining and frequently trenchant blog. For FOBs like myself who have not quite figured out the ways of the natives of their domicile, reading these posts can result in more than one aha moment. The particular post about everyone's child being gifted rings true from my own experience interacting with parents of other school-age kids. It is indeed a common refrain. The praise heaped on these kids is often disproportionately lavish in my observation.

But high-achieving desi parents (another demographic I am quite familiar with) are no different in this respect. Everyone's kid is the next business or technology leader in the making. If not that they are well on their way to path-breaking scientific research.
All this projected on the basis on their 8-10 year old being the gifted and talented program of their local school system. If the kid is artistically inclined, they will be signed up to learn all art forms known to man and will be displaying virtuosity in every one of them. In short, there is no desi kid who will grow up to stand in the sidelines, waving and clapping for the parade as it passes by - they will all be in that parade jockeying for lead positions.

God forbid if one of them wins some state level contest - word will travel fast and furious until every dark recess of desidom is enlightened and edified with this knowledge. The power and force of information dissemination can be an estimated by that even I get to know; despite being unacquainted with the parents of the kid in question, or anyone else with one to three degrees of separation from them. It is quite the amazing human network system that us desis have built.

Back in the day, desis used to be restrained in praising their kids. No matter how well they did, there was always room for improvement and someone else had always done better. If the kid got too vain, she would be admonished by the parents and encouraged to work even harder. It may not have helped the child's sense of self-importance but it most definitely built a desire to work hard and there is much to be said for the virtues of hard-work.

That seems to have changed quite dramatically. The average desi parent these days, will sit you down and run through the details of their child's latest achievements within earshot of the kid. As with a myriad of other things, we are probably borrowing from the play-book of the white people where we might have been better served by sticking to our tried and tested desi ways.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Expensive Care

Women who pursue a ideal of beauty that is often uattainable, believe that it can be obtained for a price. The higher the price, the rarer the ingredients of this ultimate magic potion, the more convulted the preparation, the greater their faith in its efficacy. Even an economic downturn will not deter them from paying a high premium for beauty.
“The cosmetic business tends to be a place where customers can feel good about themselves, an uplifting and motivating focus on themselves, regardless of other aspects of their lives,” said Kay Mazza, Herberger’s store manager.
Per this IHT story vegetables are now being used to create skin-care products :
It takes 55 pounds, or 25 kilograms, of spinach to create one pound of extract, and PurGenesis has been working on the formula since 1999. The company hopes it will be available in face creams by the end of next year.
As with sending someone to scour the Amazon rainforest for the ultimate blend of herbs to rejuvenate the skin, the act of going through 55 pounds of spinach to extract a morsel of face cream, is about an arduous journey. The guarantee of beauty like dragon-slaying or finding the Philosopher's Stone, does not come easily and therefore the high price is quite justified in the minds of the customer.

I wonder what happens to the left over spinach and hope the answer is not it is rendered unfit for human consumption. It would be a real shame to waste so much food to create a face cream. If the cream is really any good for the skin, the buyer might want to save her money and buy the raw spinach to eat instead. However,
if this is true that is unlikely to happen :
"Women have a basic belief that they save on the things they have to buy in order to spend on the things they want to buy," said Julia Beardwood, principal at design shop Beardwood&Co., New York, who has worked for Bath & Body Works and Procter & Gamble. "It's like men and booze. The economy is not going to stop men drinking because that's how they relax. For women, cosmetic skin treatments are their counterpart to booze."

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Barista Bride

When the US government came up with the idea of the H-1 and the companion H-4 visa, it is safe to assume that they did not intend for this to result in a cinema and literature genre. Columnists, bloggers and the rest naturally cannot stop bemoaning the fate of those who have had the course of their lives altered because of the H-1/H-4 visas. Read this WSJ version of the the oft-repeated story and learned a new phrase Barista Bride. In my mind I can see this becoming a new Chetan Bhagat title with movie rights snapped up by some Bollywood heavy weight.

It is the nature of things in India -everyone is in the middle of everyone else's personal business. To wit, the government publishes how-to guides on marrying NRIs safely and the soap opera-esque epics culled from the immigration and visas woes of our people end of up being enacted in the movie sets on Mumbai by all-local talent.

We all commiserate with each other, warn friends and family when they about to embark on the dread H-4 visa journey but they imagine we are jealous of their good fortune and plunge right ahead to dispatch their daughters to such a horrific future. The girls themselves imagine that an employer or an university will come right along and rescue them from their H-4 status and upgrade it to H-1. Often times, such knights in shining armor do not come along even ten years into their marriage and the results are tragic to say the least.


A few months ago at a local fall festival I saw a desi woman who looked vaguely familiar. She was engrossed in helping her little girl on a craft project and did not notice me. In a bit, I recognized her. This was B, a friend and a co-worker from the days of my first job out of college in India. She is a year younger than me and had studied computer science at a reputed engineering school. She was a database developer and one of the brightest techies I have come across. We had been in touch until about five years ago but had drifted apart since. Hers is the H-4 story gone really bad.

She came to America at a time when the job market was very tight. There were no employers willing to sponsor an H-1 visa much less offer her employment. The husband was not able to afford to pay for her to go to graduate school as he was an H-1 himself with limited financial resources. After a couple of years she had her baby and could not focus on job-hunting nearly as much as she needed to. The last time we spoke, B said her technical skills were growing obsolete in the job market and she was not able to learn new ones and with her increasing domestic responsibilities - she was pregnant with her second one at the time. She had resigned herself to being a housewife for the foreseeable future.

Though we emailed and chatted on the phone sometimes, this was the first time I was seeing her after we we worked together in Bangalore. She looked years older than her real age - the ever present smile on her face was gone as was the bright twinkle in her eyes. She looked infinitely tired. B was the kind of person who just did not know how to feel down about anything in life and would not let anyone around her go around feeling low either. I did not have the heart to go introduce myself to what little remained of my once vivacious friend. B had been a Barista Bride too.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Hot Housing

Love the title of this Wired article on the questionable benefits of stuff like Baby Eisenstein for babies. When you take the business of enriching your kids very seriously you may even end up having an old supercomputer be the centerpiece of the child's bedroom.

Needless to say, hot-housing kids does not always end well, as
this news story indicates - the gifted kid in question the the author notes effectively ended up in a strange purgatory between childhood and adulthood - and sadly cheated of both. Such is the fate of many a child who is tagged and labeled "gifted". It seems to me that the "gifts" if they truly exist, would become evident in due season of their own free will. But as parents we want to rush the denouement before its time and to help us there are hot-houses.

I see uber-competitive parents all around me and hear about plenty more through friends and acquaintances and they prompt me to second-guess myself- my determination to let J enjoy learning and not want anything more. To add to my woes, J's second grade teacher has instituted an elaborate reward and incentive program for encourage children to accumulate AR test points by way of reading books. The class-room is full of books - many of which are at at the fourth and fifth grade levels. There a plenty of good readers in J's class and they are scrambling to get ahead of the pack on AR points, reading fast and furious.

It is almost impossible for me to keep J interested in good reading for the sheer pleasure of it when she can score kudos, pencils, brownies, home-work passes and more by reading an AR book and testing on it. If the book does not come with a certain number of AR points, J is not excited about reading it. It does not help that the selection of books in the AR listing leaves much to be desired. The kids talk about their AR points all the time but there is no discussion on the books themselves. That alone, I would imagine should be an indication to the teacher of something being wrong with this plan.

I have explained to the teacher how this scheme was being extremely counter-productive for my child and undoing all my efforts to introduce her to good literature. I don't want her to be a reading-comprehension bot. Of course it fell on deaf ears. So what if you don't hot-house your child, there will be an over-achieving teacher who will do it for you.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Firing Away

I have run into all kinds at my apartment's fitness center. The mom with two boisterous tweens nipping at her heels as she tries to stay fit against all odds, the no-nonsense gym rats who exercise like they were machines, the frail old gentleman with a ready smile and ten times my endurance, the young couple enjoying their time together in companionable silence even as they sweat it out.

But this one guy is unlike anyone I've seen before. Everyday, he gets on the treadmill, flips open a self-help or technology book, talks on his cellphone while keeping any eye out on CNN on the television. He's exercising, reading, talking and possibly watching the news all at the same time. In true to form desi fashion he never acknowledges my existence which is just as well perhaps.

I marvel at this desi bro who comes each morning firing on all cylinders, earnestly improving his body, mind, awareness of the world around without skipping a beat.I am guessing this guy is a small town desi like myself, possibly overcompensating for the lack of exposure to the world earlier in life. When the likes of us come to the Land of Opportunity, we want to make the most of what it has to offer, hoping to catch up with those who had a head start in life. We figure if we worked hard and fast enough we may even end up ahead of them.

I don't have a kid brother but this guy is so young and so fired up that I feel protective towards him like an older sister might. I almost want to tell him to slow down a bit because there will all the time in the world to race against the clock constantly, squeeze more out of the day than the hours mathematically allow - he won't have the option to do otherwise.

From the windows of the fitness center you can see ducks paddling around in the lake, the powdery snow on the trees and the blushing morning sky. I want to tell him that these things are worth one's undivided attention while there is the time and the unburdened spirit to enjoy them. While I never did what this guy does, I guess he must in some way remind me of myself from long ago and make me want to share with him the hard lessons I learned along the way.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Programming and Literature

Years ago, I cut my programming teeth on Bjarne Stroustrup's seminal C++ book and it was probably the quickest and most painless way for me to figure out that I was not meant to be a serious programmer. That said, it was highly instructive to try my hand at it, work with some exceptionally bright people and after a while learn to write functional even if inelegant code. Stroustrup hits the nail on the head in this article when he says :

Programming is part of software development. It doesn’t matter how fancy your code is unless it solves the right problem and you can explain it to others. So, brush up on your communication skills. Learn to listen, to ask good questions, to write clearly, and to present clearly. Serious programming is a team sport, brush up on your social skills. The sloppy fat geek computer genius semi-buried in a pile of pizza boxes and cola cans is a mythical creature, best buried deep, never to be seen again.

One commentator ( x@y.com) points out to a far more fundamental flaw :

My thought is that for historical reasons, Computer Science has been sadly mis-categorized as an Engineering field. Computer Science is actually a Humanity with more in common with English Literature or History than Math or Electrical Engineering.

At the core, we need programmers who can start with a blank sheet of paper and logically and eloquently express their thoughts to others. Writing and communication skills are the key. The best programmers could easily perform well in an English department. This makes me wonder if there are undiscovered coders in the humanities who are unaware of their potential.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Friends of Friends

When it comes to socialization, I have always gravitated towards people whose friends I like. A celebration at someones home where most of their old friends and a few of their new ones are invited is usually a good gauge for whether I would blend in or clash in my host's social circle. Every time I have second guessed myself and decided to give it a shot despite feeling the clash vibes, I have been disappointed. Who knew there was a scientific basis for all of this
Recent research shows that our moods are far more strongly influenced by those around us than we tend to think. Not only that, we are also beholden to the moods of friends of friends, and of friends of friends of friends - people three degrees of separation away from us who we have never met, but whose disposition can pass through our social network like a virus.
I am totally willing to believe that there are certain personality types that will clash even if they don't interact directly. The influence rubs off on those with who they do and can manifest itself in the other person sometimes even without their knowledge.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Dream Desi Start Ups

It is always a delight to read about any Indian start-up that is not a desi-fied clone of a successful Western idea with no distinguishing unique local signature. Unfortunately, such delights are few and far between and often centered around ideas than are interesting rather than path-breaking in the India-specific context.

I have some pipe dreams that I would love to see come true with all the start-up frenzy back home. Education is one area where we could stand to use some major innovation and overhauling. What might it take for instance, for kids to have access to differentiated and personalized curriculum that they could work on at their own pace from the comfort of their homes. While this would not address the need to bring literacy to the poorest sections of society, it would certainly work for the large numbers of urban kids who do have the ability to be connected and online.

This combined with the ability to take nationally recognized tests at different grade levels whenever they are ready would make learning more fun and rewarding than instruction in over-crowded classrooms by largely uninspiring teachers teaching to a syllabus that does precious little to kindle independent thinking or creativity.

Besides, getting to school and back home from there, in any of the larger Indian cities is a commute arduous enough to drain most of a kid's energy. Why not give them a better option and allow them to enjoy a real childhood. It would likely free up some of their time that they can use to pursue non-academic passions.

The other area in Indian public life that 'teh internets' could really help is with shaking the middle-class out of it's reluctance to participate in the political process. Each time I read about the many millions who voted their preference for one Indian Idol or such like over the others via SMS, I wonder what it might take to use the same devise to get people to cast their vote on election day or better still make it glamorous to run for office. If all the educated youth and jaded middle-aged middle-class people in India had anywhere near the same enthusiasm for exercising their franchise, we might have elected representatives who actually speak for the people who voted them in.

Sure, the devil is in the details and it it would take some serious technology and entrepreneurial chops along with boatloads of Indian-system savvy to get any of this to work. It is child's play in comparison to come up with a dating, shop-bot, video-sharing, business-networking site. All you have to do is copy and never mind that your offering has no redeeming qualities to make up for lack of originality. Not so with going into the belly of the beast, wading to through bottom-less bureaucratic cesspools and emerging victoriously from it all. That is the real deal.

The last idea is much more trivial. There is a slew of matrimonial sites and each is the copy of a previous successful act. The worst offender is probably SecondShaadi with its utterly shameless knock-off name and appearance. None of them address the big void in this segment - namely the ability to authenticate in degrees and the ability to track and report scammers.

Two strangers meeting online may very well hesitate to share personal information with each other.It makes good sense for the site brokering the connection between the two to be able to confirm that basic information is verified and available for release on a gave and take basis. A fully searchable bad-egg database could well be a killer-app in the matri-site space.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Zen and Backups

The Tao of Backup is a wonderfully funny site that could be a model for explaining any and all manner of technology to those who are not technically inclined. The teaching and wisdom are very Zen but who knew you could even do that with a subject as arid as file backups :
Does the dandelion drop all its seeds at the base of its stalk? Does the cuckoo lay its eggs in one nest? So long as your backups are in one place, you are vulnerable to the fortunes of the world."
Being that the "fortunes of the world" this past year have not been that great, it may be a good New Year resolution to have a backup plan and actually follow it. But who wants to begin a brand new year with such a pessimistic outlook. It is so much easier and happier to throw caution to the winds and hope '09 will be all good and lucky all the way around.