Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Growing Software

Full disclaimer before I write about Louis Testa's book Growing Software. I rarely read IT management books and am almost always underwhelmed by the management-speak that goes for advise on the subject any time that I do. It seems that the authors who dispense wisdom either do not inhabit the real world or believe they have a magic potion which would automagically right all that ails it.

I like Testa's book for a couple reasons. First, he acknowledges that IT organizations can be fundamentally flawed and dysfunctional. What is more he does not pretend he knows how to cure it. Second, he cites several real-life examples of the said dysfunctionality throughout the book and suggests commonsense ways to work around them.

Whereas a Seth Godin might recommend that you fire that one IT superhero who is the data and information black hole in the company, Testa would take a less extreme measure and suggest ways to wheedle some of the precious knowledge from this person. While we may be in complete agreement with Godin's remedy , we might find more use for Testa's advise simply because making the best call is often not an option in most organizations.

I also like it that he devotes and entire chapter to release management - something that is not considered nearly as glamorous as product development in most shops. If there was only one thing I could take away from the book, it would be the excellent Venn diagram on page 100 which shows the intersection of product perception by the three entities that determine its ultimate failure or success - Customer, Sales & Marketing and Engineering. He offers a terrific explanation of what lies at the intersection of these sets and why it is important to understand each of them well.

In summary, there is a lot of good material in the book that will appeal to a fairly diverse audience.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Death Of News

A lot is being said about the demise of the newspaper of late. In this Guardian article the producer of The Wire argues that corruption in high places will rise without newspapers being around to be the watchdogs and whistleblowers. That idea is worth some pondering. While everyone with a blog or Twitter account can report on what they see happening in their vicinity - be it covering a natural or man-made disaster or inside workplace information - it does not substitute or replace old-fashioned news-reporting. Though lot of what citizen journalists are able to provide is useful, it has its limits.

Without a professional editorial team to ensure quality and credibility of what is being published, the legions of self-styled journalists just cannot command the same cachet as the the writers of op-ed pieces in respected publications. Then there is also the whole business of serious investigative journalism which falls to the wayside.

He scoffs at the notion that amateur "citizen journalism", or new online-only outlets, might take the place of newspaper reporters: "The internet does froth and commentary very well, but you don't meet many internet reporters down at the courthouse."

Newspapers may have to go more online than ever and make a lot their content available freely to readers who are reluctant to pay for their news consumption. However, without having some paid content, it would be hard for them to successfully report news that matters and in as such, it would become impossible for blogosphere and twitterscape to froth and fulminate over it.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Absurdistan

Recently, I labored over Absurdistan for a few weeks before throwing in the towel. Note to self - stay away from the -istan genre because nothing but disappointment can come from it. This is speaking from experience borne out by Londonstani to Kite-Runner by way of Absurdistan. Belonging to one place and trying to escape or fit into another is a theme that the ABCD brethren have already flogged to death many times over. I had imagined that in the hands on a non-desi, a different outcome might result. Not so, as it turns out.

Shteyngart just reduces the reader to tears of ennui with his gratingly repetitious references to the the hero's sex organ and his chronic obesity - there is no credible third dimension to his character. The author appears to borrow some ingredients from John Kennedy Toole's Confederacy of Dunces (a book I absolutely loved for its over the top absurdity and cleverness) and adds to it the standard -istan genre must-haves to create something that makes for painful reading. There might be a tiny dash of Philip Roth's iconic Portnoy but that only serves to perciptate the disaster this recipe turns out to be.

This is possibly a book with a grand-design gone horribly wrong in execution. You see the remnants of themes scattered like many stumps of a fire-gutted building.

I will admit that I am not the most patient reader but I did persevere with Shteyngart given all the hype around this book. Tried to see if he got his groove ten chapters out but sadly he just does not. The sex is crude, out of context and mostly unnecessary in as far as adding heft to the storyline. As for the cultural references - I am sure the natives would find them as contrived and deprecating as I do the botched ABCD attempts to pimp India and Indianness to the world.

I am amazed that this book once made it to NYT's top-ten list. In a sense the novel could not have a more fitting name - it does belong to the Absuristan bin where readers toss books that were an absurd waste of time to read.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Science In Religion

When there is no respite from discussions on war and the fantastic unraveling of the economy wherever you turn to, it is a relief to come across something different - as in a report on Buddhist monks at Sarnath learning science. The friendship between science and religion is obviously helpful and something one wishes would spread to faiths other than Buddhism. To quote The Dalai Lama :

"It is all too evident that our moral thinking simply has not been able to keep pace with such rapid progress in our acquisition of knowledge and power"

Then there is a Carl Sagan's perspective on the same subject :

In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Shoes And Men

Sensibly chic shoes without heels are nearly impossible to come by so it is wonderful to see these beautiful Cinderella shoes. The lack of offerings in this segment never bothered me back in the day all I cared about was appearances. If they looked nice, I was willing to buy and suffer in the name of fashion. My closet over-flowed with cute, impractical, uncomfortable and generally cheap shoes - and I was a very proud owner. I would visit the cobbler with bags full of this stuff to have them repaired and that happened frequently given their poor quality. But who cared about quality when there was so much by way of quantity.

As with relationships, so it was with shoes. Used to be that if a man was witty, intelligent and attractive all other considerations were thrown to the wind. I was interested and would not flinch even if the terms of engagement required that he always lead and I only followed. I would not be deterred by obnoxious behavior and be perpetually ready to make excuses for any and all of his lapses.

Like those grotesquely shaped heels that threatened to permanently deform my feet, these men were deeply damaging for my self-esteem but I did not care. By when I had abandoned all my "fashionable" shoes for the ultra-stolid ones that I wear today, I had also had an epiphany about the wrong kind of relationship - and it was not a moment too soon. Like the shoes, these apparently fun, quirky and interesting men as its turns out are quite common place - there is nothing unique, distinctive or classic about them.

While they appealing from a distance, you always ended disappointed up close. They are an uncomfortable fit in the relationship and not meant for the long haul. There is I believe the classically beautiful and simple relationship just like these “Glue Cinderella” Kartell shoes by .normaluisa. How appropriate then that these perfect shoes invoke the Cinderella name.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Romance and Science

Romantic love can and has been explained in a myriad of ways and now there is the clinical one :

At a different APA forum, "Sex, Sexuality, and Serotonin," Dr Fisher warned that antidepressants may jeopardize romantic love. As well as high dopamine and norepinephrine, she said, romantic love is characterized by low serotonin. Low serotonin would explain the obsessive thinking attached to romantic love. In her MRI study, her subjects reported that they thought about their loved one 95 percent of the day and couldn’t stop thinking about them. This kind of obsessive thinking is comparable to OCD, she said, also characterized by low serotonin.

Serotonin-enhancing antidepressants, she said, blunt the emotions, including the elation of romance, and suppress obsessive thinking, a critical component of romance.

Without trying to understand any of the technical detail, it seems that in order to fully experience romantic love you would need to be a little depressed (cloudy skies, incessant rain and a general sense of boredom can only help) and stay away for anything that provides a serotonin high - sex (which would makes sense being be more about lust and less about romantic love) and chocolate (I am not quite able to make the connection with this one - why would a decadent bar of chocolate be a deterrent to romance specially when gifting chocolate is one of the most common expressions of love) are the well-knows ones but there must be a bunch of others.

If all it took for parents to cure their infatuated teens of their unsuitable and often harmful romances was to keep feeding them a lot of dark chocolate, life would be incredibly simplified. For some reason, I don't believe that is either true or even possible.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Making Connections

At first glance Aka-Aki seems to just another social network application that untethers from your computer. You can network while you are out and about. While that is nice, it is not particularly clever at least at first glance. I checked out the FAQ to see what was different. The answer seems to be in logging your encounters with other Aka-Aki users that you did not know existed in your vicinity and therefore did not try to meet with.

The idea of using technology to bring back an element of serendipity back to our complicated lives is a really welcome one. This is the good old Craigslist Missed Connections ads on steroids. I used to wonder about the chances of connections actually happening by way of those posts. Lovely idea like a message in a bottle but not much practical use. With Aka-Aki, you have a much better shot at connecting with those you missed by a bit. Even more interesting is the idea of becoming aware of connections that you did not seek out but do exist all the same. You can act on the coincidences in you life that you now have knowledge of.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Giving Back

Giving back to community is always a wonderful thought specially when you get back a little more from it than good karma. This story about Chinese senior citizens exercising to generate power for the poor to use is an interesting idea.

Variations of the idea have been used elsewhere - the human-powered car, generator and other fun applications but the Chinese have taken it a step further. They have combined innovation with community development which is something every over-populated developing country can learn from.

This news story about a human-powered future cites some criticism of the commercial viability of such power :

"It's a very good marketing tool for businesses, but in terms of economics it does not make sense at all."

The main reason it was being used was because companies wanted to "look green, taste green and smell green", he said.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Kite Runner

Reading The Kite Runner has been on my to-do list for a few years now. Needless to say, after all that I have heard about the book from those who have read it, my expectations were high. This is a pitfall of waiting too long to read a much raved about book - there is the danger of asking too much from it and being disappointed as a result.

When I started reading The Kite Runner, I was convinced this was going to be one of the best books I had read in a long while. Hosseni explores the relationship between Amir, the protagonist and Hassan his servant with tremendous sensitivity. Their's is an unequal friendship with Hassan giving much more than he receives in return - atleast that is what it would appear to be on the surface.

Yet there is the brooding sense of guilt in Amir for having failed Hassan as a friend that almost redeems him. You are tempted to forgive him his lack of courage, for the imperfections of his character seeing how much he suffers as a consequence. Amir makes you acutely aware of the gap between who you truly are when no one is watching and who you wished you had been.

The two main forces in Amir's life - Hassan's unwavering love and loyalty and his father's aloofness towards him shape the defining events of his childhood. Up to this point, the book is nothing short of brilliant. The prose is lyrical without being uneconomical, sensitive without being maudlin.

Unfortunately, the second part is a huge disappointment and is completely mismatched in quality to the first. Hosseni resorts to predictable plot elements and the story-line seems to dry up at pace. I wish Hosseni had put together a book of short stories instead with part one being the title story - he could have carried the book off on the strength of that one story alone.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Making Opportunity

In his interview with Jon Stewart, Nandan Nilekani gave a desi something to pause and think about when he said that population was once considered a liability for India but it is increasingly being viewed as an asset. That is quite the shift in perception and one that will take a while to resonate with the masses. For most of our lives we have heard how India's problems had no solution because there were far too many people.

We were condemned to being hamsters spinning endlessly in our wheels, never making any movement forward. Any gains we achieved would be negated promptly by the forever burgeoning population. In summary we had been conditioned to believe that it was a no-win situation until the "root cause" of all problems was corrected which is of course is no walk in the park to do.

Nilekani is possibly making a case for light at the end of this tunnel by turning conventional wisdom on its head - by seeing opportunity where no one saw it before. Coming from someone who helped make Infosys possible in India when few would have believed in the viability of such a venture, you can hardly dismiss this is moonshine.

He went on to add that the quality and education that children receive in the next couple of decades will determine how well and how much of his demographic dividend can be harnessed. Imagining India is definitely on my reading list - after being the inspiration for the theme and premise of The World Is Flat, it would be instructive to understand Nilekani's world view in his own words.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Praising Kids

Read this great article on praising your child and the associated pitfalls. In explaining the results of an experiment where a number of kids were praised for either being smart or working hard, the author quotes the researcher :

“When we praise children for their intelligence,” Dweck wrote in her study summary, “we tell them that this is the name of the game: Look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.” And that’s what the fifth-graders had done: They’d chosen to look smart and avoid the risk of being embarrassed.

Awareness of innate ability can be counterproductive even without the child being praised for it :

In follow-up interviews, Dweck discovered that those who think that innate intelligence is the key to success begin to discount the importance of effort. I am smart, the kids’ reasoning goes; I don’t need to put out effort. Expending effort becomes stigmatized—it’s public proof that you can’t cut it on your natural gifts.

The observations I found the most thought-provoking were:

Sincerity of praise is also crucial. Just as we can sniff out the true meaning of a backhanded compliment or a disingenuous apology, children, too, scrutinize praise for hidden agendas. Only young children—under the age of 7—take praise at face value: Older children are just as suspicious of it as adults.

In the opinion of cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham, a teacher who praises a child may be unwittingly sending the message that the student reached the limit of his innate ability, while a teacher who criticizes a pupil conveys the message that he can improve his performance even further.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Biohacking

I am more bio-challenged than bio-curious but this article on DYI biology for hobbyists makes for fascinating reading. The hobby in specific is described as : splicing DNA and reprogramming bacteria to create genetically engineered machinery. You could be working in a lab remotely from the comfort of your couch, collaborating on an experiment or doing grunt work for some scientist - Some of the people we're collaborating with are installing little wireless data loggers into pipettes that keep track of how many times you press the pipette button.

If such opportunities had existed back in my day, I might have actually understood biology instead of being terrified of it. The idea is to lower the barrier to enter the field of genetic engineering. A couple of PhDs is no longer required if you have abundant passion for biology.
It would clearly provide students great learning opportunities but as with everything else, in the wrong hands and driven by the bad intent the results would not be pretty.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Wanting More

It is helpful if a parent has a sense of satisfaction with their life's circumstances and where they find themselves in it. They have the much-needed breadcrumb trail that they can traverse back through to help their children learn from their own experiences. Most importantly, they can speak with a strong sense of conviction because they have lived the life they are setting forth as an example.

When you are a parent and do not think of your life as good enough for your children to emulate, parenting as a job becomes much far more challenging. You find yourself treading the delicate line between establishing the boundaries for your kids and keeping them from becoming another you - something you fear will disappoint them eventually.

You go with your aspirations and unfulfilled dreams to create a road map for them to follow - you believe this will serve them best. A lot of what you expect is not borne out by your own experience - you merely imagine it is possible or can be done, a lot of the obstacles your child will encounter along the way are not ones you know about or can easily remove.

I am the second kind of parent and often struggle to give J perspective to learn from my mistakes without becoming emotionally distant from her. I want her to be objective about me as her friend, confidant and guide along the course of her life. While I do want her take on the values that have helped me in mine, I do not want her to walk those paths that I have regretted walking.

It is difficult for a child to parse the two, accept one and reject the other. You are holding their hand and they trust you implicitly - it is their inherent in their nature to do so. When you tell them to watch out for pitfalls but continue to hold your hand and stay the general course, you are confusing them. They want to know if they should trust in your or strike out on their own, they want to know if you have the answers or you don't, they want to know if they can respect you or not.

Children are perhaps ill-equipped to handle shades of gray so a nuanced response to any of those questions does more harm than good. I realize that I have a good lot to offer to J and want her to accept that without reservation. I equally realize from mistakes I have made over the years that I want her to break from me on many things and do them much differently than I have and finally reject some things completely. I want her to live a more perfect life than I have been able to create for myself.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Waiting

Often for me, the days bleed from one to the next lending them all a common hue - one of sameness and boredom. Freedom from the clockwork of routine comes sometimes in unexpected even if somewhat unpleasant ways. Like it came yesterday when I watched the movement of the minute hand of the clock, waiting for the mailman to come.

The last time I waited with such manic intensity, bordering on desperation was when I was fourteen and infatuated beyond belief. I could spend a whole summer afternoon sitting by the window of my room hoping to catch a glimpse of him walking toward my home. Somehow watching him walk up the road was far more thrilling and gratifying than answering the knock on the door. I imagined in longing and dreaming of him all day, there was a magic energy generated that sparked a connection between us - a connection that would make him come to see me. I believed if I longed to see him intensely enough, he would just show up. Often he did though a lot of times he did not but that was no deterrent to daydreaming at all.

Yesterday, it was the far more mundane business of waiting for the mailman with an Express Mail package. The hours were pouring instead of trickling down the hourglass in my mind. A lot depended on being able to get that package on time - the waiting was anything but pleasurable. Though it was just as unbearable as those from a long time ago. Then I saw the USPS truck at the end of the road. The mailman made several stops before reaching me. He had stanched the flow of time simply by appearing.

The only person I knew who could do that was the object of my affection in my adolescence. The waiting was bitter-sweet then and made me aware of the minute details of my surroundings - the exact weave of the hand-loom curtains in my room, the sheen on the feathers of a crow perched on the guava tree,the exact moment when the sun retreated behind the clouds or when a my neighbor came out to water her plants. The rhythm of the ordinary day can be fascinating if watched closely and intensely. I had forgotten how that felt for a very long time.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Spices, Baking and Dreams

Was browsing through a really nice baking blog when I spotted this quote by Erma Bombeck

"Once you get a spice in your home, you have it forever. Women never throw out spices. The Egyptians were buried with their spices. I know which one I'm taking with me when I go."

I have spices from ten years ago still sitting in my kitchen waiting to be used. Every once in a while I will rearrange the order of the spice jars in my cabinets so I can reach the ones I have not used in a while more easily. As it turns out this strategy does not work - I will gravitate toward the familiar despite the obstacles placed along the way. I had always thought not having the heart to throw my decade old spices away is one among my many other oddities. I am relieved to learn that this is common affliction that many women suffer.

As for the baking lovely baking blog itself, I am in complete awe of the baking prowess of the blogger, Deeba Rajpal. I guess it takes some special kind of wiring in the brain to be a good baker - one that the Maker in his/her infinite wisdom did not choose to give me. I would be quite okay with that omission if I had likewise not been given this incurable yen to be a good baker. Why give people desires when you won't give them the wherewithal to fulfill them ?

What applies for baking is true for many other aspects of life as well. Maybe it is what keeps us striving to achieve Quioxtic goals and for our efforts we are sometimes rewarded with an unexpected surprise
.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Death On A Farm Factory

HBO's Death On A Factory Farm is not a easy film to watch but tells an important story that often gets pushed to the back-burner. The rationale is who has the time and resources to devote to the well-being of livestock on a farm when millions of human beings around the world are suffering incredible hardships - dying from poverty, famine, disease and war.

The film traces the work on an undercover animal rights investigator working on behalf of the
animal rights group The Humane Farming Association (HFA). The investigator signs up to work at the Wiles Hog Farm in Ohio with the objective of gathering evidence of cruel, inhumane treatment of pigs on the farm. The mission is successful in as far as being able to file a petition and get a court case against the farm.

However, justice ends up being no more than a token acknowledgement of the wrong done to the helpless animals. The questions are deeper than merely reviewing the evidence presented to judge right and wrong. They involve public perception of farm animal as a consumable commodity and in such not meriting the same love and affection that is bestowed upon pets such as cats and dogs.

The even more significant issue is probably that of credibility and moral high ground of those who come out and make these accusations. They simply cannot win. If they are meat-eaters, they have essentially co-opted into the inhumane practices they are railing against. Just because the meat in their grocery store has been sanitized to the point where it is impossible to imagine their sordid provenance, does not make them innocent. Being part of the problem, they cannot also demand a solution - they lack the necessary moral authority to win in this debate.

If however, there are vegan and opposed to killing animals for meat, they have no credibility. The argument would then be that eating meat is a choice that people should be free to make. To impose your world-view which is colored by your dietary preferences on those who do not agree is not acceptable. If you don't eat meat you can't really participate in a discussion on the best way to get it to your table.

Unless significant number of consumers are repelled by the sights of cruelty and torture that whistle-blower organizations like HFA try to make public and eschew meat en-masse, very little is likely to change for the hapless pig or turkey on the factory farm.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Uncool Words

Thanks to hanging out with some of the cooler second graders, J has taken to prefacing her almost all her sentences with a dramatic "Well...." and I have had to stopping her in her tracks by the time she commits the third offense. Needless to say, it cramps her style and renders her somewhat uncool but I could not care less. I am pretty sure she resents Mommy for language policing her.

I would add the leading Well in sentences to the list of the top-ten mist irritating phrases. The word "basically" is also a frequent offender but is yet to make to J's repertoire. The comments to the article contain many more irritants - it sure looks like a top hundred list is required to capture all of the offending words and phrases - clearly folks feel passionately about the office jargon and politically correct language.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Waiting To Die

My grandmother is old and dying - she has been this way for a few years now and lurches from one medical emergency to another. The grand kids who are in India are probably suffering from compassion and sympathy fatigue - not that they had a lot to begin with. So late last year while she lay in the hospital holding on to life by the slenderest thread, her youngest grandson was out at a dance club across town with his girlfriend celebrating Durga Puja.

I haven't seen my grandmother in a long time and don't find myself thinking about her until I hear of a crisis. I have some pleasant childhood memories of her but not nearly as many since coming of age. Until it blows over, she remains in my thoughts and fades away once again. the last event was a fairly serious one and we had braced ourselves for the worst.

As she drifted between wakefulness and unconsciousness, I found myself thinking about the life she has lead so far and how it came to be that she does not matter very much to anyone anymore; how it came to be that her children and grandchildren would much rather get on with their own lives than wait on hers to ebb out. Do people simply get too busy to care, or it is something the individual does or does not do in the prime of their lives that leaves them in my grandmother's sorry state. I wondered what would it take for someone to not end up the way she has.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Inspiration

Read a nice quote today :

"People often say to me, 'Zig, motivation is great but it doesn't last.' I just tell them, Bathing doesn't last either, that's why I recommend it daily" - Zig Ziglar

You think you know the few simple rules to live by : Be grateful for what you have, know that you cannot wish your wishes and that change is inevitable however long or endless the cycle seems. Yet to put to practice these few things is really very hard for me.

I forget to be grateful and pine for what I don't have, never had or once had and then lost. I wish ardently for something and when the wish does comes true, I wonder if it was worth the waiting or the trouble. The last thing about change is possibly the hardest of all. Nature's cycle of change never coincides even slightly with mine - we are in perpetual asynchronous motion.

The question When? is apparently the most difficult to answer and that one hinge on which your life's entire misery can easily rest. How true, a little bit of motivation each day is as essential as the shower.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Old Connections

Found this blog while looking for a website for India's interior decor magazine Inside Outside - one of my favorite things to browse through growing up. I was in my teens then and dreamed about having a home of my own, decorated just how I wanted. In my mind, I would do and re-do the imaginary living room of the future hundreds of times, inspired by the high glossy images of interiors from Inside Outside magazine. I knew then that I had the homemaking gene which would dominate any other inclinations I had.

When I did get a chance to home-make, I plunged in with gusto only to meet an obstacle course on the way. I persisted nevertheless, knowing it to be my true calling - homemaking and motherhood was all that I sought and desired. I figure I do a little of both but making a living has become the over-arching theme of my life - something I had not really counted upon.

So every once in a while, I look for ways to nurture my homemaker cravings. Being able to browse through Inside Outside once again like I did in the old days would be deeply fulfilling.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Severed Roots

Increasingly culture shock is what strikes when you go east from west and not the other way around as it used to be. The desi from Bhatinda or Kakinada lands in JFK and feels like they have been hit by a ton of bricks - this is the well-worn culture shock cliche that has been played out in cinema and literature for a long time now. It seems that this dated script needs to be replaced by something more relevant to current reality.

I have been out of India for a bit now and have not had many opportunities to go back and spend quality time there during this period. When I watch a movie like Amra - A 90-minute film by New York-based Mainak Bhaumik about several confused people in pre and extra marital relationships, and read reports on the increasing prevalence and acceptance of pre-marital sex in urban India, I have to admit I am the one that is left behind having lived abroad.

Even after allowing for Bhaumik's expat sensibilities in his choice of theme, the premise has to be somewhat plausible to garner any local participation or audience. He thought the film would appeal to youngsters from the city. But he was surprised to see college-goers from Burdwan University enjoying the film too. He says, “Amra was able to draw huge audiences." Even the most unflattering reviews of the movie in the local press do not question the validity of the subject itself.

I usually pay special attention to the goings on in Kolkata because it is not where the action is in India is these days and as a result slower to catch on to significant urban trends. What is new here is old news elsewhere in the country. To that extent movies like Amra are revealing and instructive to me.

Some retired Bengali empty-nesters I know in the US, have made several abortive attempts to return to Kolkata as they are not able to find the place their nostalgia for India seeks. The urban youth of today do not resemble who they were over forty years ago. The city may be in its death throes and yet a lot about it has changed past recognition. These senior citizen expats gravitate toward gated communities where they can find others like themselves and in doing so they feel trapped in a re-created American experience which is not what they want at all.

The people of their generation (like my parents) who stayed back in India do not understand their expat friends and relatives anymore and neither to do they feel particularly perturbed by the Indian youth culture of today. Having experienced change in a gradual, organic way , there is no great shock value in it for them. They have come to accept it just as they have the call-centers, cyber-cafes and ATM kiosks.

In having kids settled abroad, they are also able to see how life is outside their home and country. As a result, they are better equipped to handle a globalized world than many of their expat peers who for a variety of reasons have largely missed being part of India's growth spurt in the last ten or more years. Even before that, they visited but never fully participated in the Indian experience from the time they emigrated.

The more I see of the rapidly evolving socio-cultural fabric of India, the greater is my need not to get left behind. India would not be much of a "home" for me, if I was not able to fit in there twenty, thirty years out. The chances of it being a viable home for J - something I strongly desire for her to have, are even slimmer.

As first time immigrants we believe (often naively) that we will have a place in two worlds and be able to go back and forth between them effortlessly. We were born and raised in one and took the time and effort to make the other a "home" after a fashion. Neither job was easy.It is almost like we are "owed" these two homes for our many troubles.

A lot of us repatriate money home to help those among our loved ones who did not take the chances we did. Often this money does not come to the expat very easily. The least we expect in return for our "sacrifices" is the comfort of a familiar home where we will feel well-loved and welcome, a homeland that will resemble at least at tangent the image we have etched in memory.

When all of those premises turn out to be false we become one of those expats in their 70s shuttling back and forth between their janmabhoomi (land of birth) and karmabhoomi (literally, the land where you do karma or work) wondering when (if ever) they will be able to rest. The ideal of Vanaprastha remains an elusive dream for them. They are not able to stop working because their life abroad is defined primarily by the work they do there - to not have work is to lose their identity. India remains tantalizingly out of reach - familiar yet strangely alien.

I would love to not become one of these people but it may well be the inevitable fate of those of us who are not able to divide their time and lives in the two worlds and homes they seek to call their own. The fortunate few who are able to achieve this difficult equilibrium, will have their roots span cultures and continents allowing them the luxury of two homes instead of one, the rest of us will have to come to terms with having them severed from one if not both.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Eating Out

I used to enjoy eating out every once in a while when I first came to America. The sheer number of cuisine choices was quite amazing and I wanted try everything at least once. Eating out in India was not quite as commonplace even a few years ago as it is today so this was a new experience for me. Once the newness wore off, I found myself growing jaded not with the endless options but with what happened once I am inside the establishment.

I realized quickly that there was a correlation between how much the meal cost me and the treatment I received from the wait-staff. If I was going to waste their time leisurely sampling a little bit of this and that to savor a new kind of food, chances are I was occupying the table which could have been given to a better spending customer. I felt rushed, slighted and generally unwelcome. Even at a twenty percent, my tip did not amount to much because the bill was too small.

If I was in a rush and wanted to grab something on the go, I had to deal with surly food preparation staff who mumbled the litany of options I could choose from and almost never gave me what I ordered. I found myself struggling between letting it go and throwing a fit as I paid up for something put together half-heartedly and not to my taste or liking. Racial prejudice has also been a recurring theme and naturally lead to indifferent or downright bad service.

Between such experiences, I have been almost completely weaned off the desire to eat out. I will go out with friends and co-workers on occasion, to a place of their choice and try to find something on the menu that I will like. Being part of a large crowd I have found is the best cover for someone like me.
Enjoying a meal cooked supposedly for your pleasure should not be this hard.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Justice Done

It was most gratifying to see that justice was finally done in the case of the serial killer from Noida - a horrific story that made headlines in India a couple of years ago. The way this story dropped off the news cycles within a few weeks of it making headlines, it had you wonder if a collective main stream media amnesia had taken over it. This has happened in India one too many times and the average desi tends to be cynical about the guilty in any crime being punished adequately (if at all). Such apparently has not been the case in this instance.

Maybe we owe it to the power of citizen journalism which had played a crucial role in getting the details of this crime out in the first place. Merinews, India's First Citizen Journalism News Portal captures the value and importance of this form of reportage in a country like India in its About Us section :

Burgeoning population, while on one hand champions India as the world's largest democracy, it sets forth newer challenges for us as a nation, towards building a responsible society. Evolution of technology and emergence of new modes of communication add bigger dimensions to this daunting task – raising the expectations and information needs of the people on one hand while facilitating instant and seamless flow of information. Thus People to People (P2P) interaction is of paramount importance and rather inevitable.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Paperless Mail

For a little bit, I was not able to understand the point of a digital mailbox that mapped to you physical address. I had my epiphany when I started to read the About Section of the Zumbox web-site. It makes perfect sense and is a really clever idea if you consider the obviousness and simplicity.

The neatest thing about the way it is designed is that everyone's potential customer's address is already mapped and mail can be waiting for them to read long before they even sign-up. All kinds of interesting collaborations between service providers become possible with this model.

If it catches on, this could fundamentally transform the way direct mail marketing campaigns are done by businesses. On a cautionary note, your physical mailbox is now just as vulnerable as the electronic one to spamming and scamming.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Toy Crazy

A few days ago, my co-worker B showed us the new iPod Touch she had bought as a birthday present for her boyfriend. Super-sleek device that it is, everyone around was most eager to take a look. The guys were visibly salivating over it though I'd be lying if I claimed us girls did not drool as well. We just had the grace to await our turn to check out the cool new toy and not grab at it right away. Everyone agreed that B's significant other was a really lucky man.

Watching our collective reaction to the iPod reminded me of children on a playdate. One of them opens their bag to reveal a cool new video game, doll or some greatly sought after toy and all at once the center of gravity shifts towards them. Everyone else wants to take a look, the younger kids who are still unaware of the social etiquette of sharing toys turn petulant and want to play with it. At any rate, the cool toy has everyone's attention as the owner grows increasingly anxious that someone may do it harm. The iPod had turned us into overgrown kids and B looked visibly relieved to have it back.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Staying Cool

I am the kind of parent that struggles to find the right answers even in the best of circumstances. My omissions are too numerous to be counted - lessons learned in childhood are long forgotten or worse misremembered, I am not particularly patient and incapable of remaining dispassionate when it is most required. Just that list in itself should make mothering a formidable challenge except that I am blessed with an easy-going, even-keeled, low-maintenance child.

But there are challenges even with one such as J. I have come to realize that I have a significant credibility gap with her when it comes to social and cultural challenges resulting from being desi in a predominantly white, small-town (and closed-mind if I may add) community. Where I live, racism is a part of everyday life but expressed in ever so subtle ways - you get used to it after a while but it never completely ceases to bother you. J does not view me as a viable role-model because I have not walked in her shoes being a FOB. Often she feels her challenges are for her alone to deal with - that I will simply not know the answers. Unfortunately, she is probably right in her assessment of my abilities.

I had no idea what the inside of an elementary school in suburban America looked like until J started kindergarten. Similarly, I had no idea what goes on in the cafeteria, during PE or recess or even at a talent show. I learn what I can from J but it is a glowing testament of my lack of qualification to coach her on how deal with her peers. Reading to educate myself is no substitute for having first-hand experience. Learned wisdom tends to sound contrived and does not make the necessary impact. So I find myself working in reactive mode, never being able to anticipate what may come J's way like someone who was born and raised here can. This can be distressing for both of us.

I grew up having a strong female role model in my mother and that has always stood me in good stead. J is likely not going to find her role model in me. No matter what obstacles I have overcome in life, it will never have been Dan saying "Eew what's that disgusting thing you're eating for lunch" or her best friend Amanda commenting "You breath stinks". It will not be wondering if being petite, brown-skinned and dark-haired precludes being beautiful because every other girl you know is light-skinned and blond.

She has to make those journeys alone, often feel awkward and rejected, come back home and cry her heart out to me knowing that I can offer nothing more tangible than love and comfort. She learns and grows alone through these experiences. I am an empathetic bystander at best. I want for J to find a strong, reassuring role model sooner than later in life because I don't want her to flounder along without an anchor- I try to fill the gap in the interim.

She struggles to find balance between her natural gravitation towards the Indian world and her need to blend into the American one so she does not experience discomfort in what is a large part of her life. This is the story of most first generation immigrants. Given my single-parent status, our forays into the local desi society has been far from positive. It always helps to a firm toehold in one culture as you try to explore the other because you know you have a safe place to return to when you like. J lacks that primary social context. In that, her situation is somewhat unlike that of most first generation desis.

To complicate matters, J wants to feed her own interests which are rarely shared by her peers and yet longs to be well-liked by those with whom she very shares little common ground. She is too young to understand that she will have to give up a few things and she is younger still to be able to choose what to keep and what to let go.

There is a certain choppiness about her movements back and forth between the two worlds which cause a lot of the friction and frustration.Being a FOB, there is only so much I know to do as far as helping her navigate what is foreign to my own growing up experience. I for my part, would love for her to be able to transcend the mores of both cultural identities and define one of her own but I fear that is too much to ask or expect of a seven year old.

In time, J will have learned her way around the world - she has come a long way since the early kindergarten days. I doubt if I have been any help at all except letting her know that she had nothing and nobody to fear as long as she has been on the side of truth. If someone had made a comment that hurt or humiliated her, she was well within her rights to return the favor but with far greater finesse for lasting impact. If doing that got her into trouble, I would be totally cool with it.

Now, being cool with stuff is a concept I have recently wrapped my arms around thanks to J. While I am far from a perfect mom, hopefully I will have the sense to be and remain cool even when my first instinct is to get agitated and completely lose it.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Leeching And Gouging

A big layoff resembles a combination of gouging and leeching aimed at restoring the health of the organization. Management gouges out chunks of it that it believes is festering so bad that there is no hope left of improvement. Then there is blood-letting to the parts that remain ungouged. Teams are decimated and row upon row of empty cubicles remain silent reminders of what they once were.

I have witnessed more than a couple of layoffs and each time have seen a co-worker whose talents I respected let go to be replaced by someone much greener and hence cheaper. I have seen these people process the news with a sense of disbelief, their self-worth take a beating - atleast temporarily and then watched them pick up the remains of their dignity to prepare for life beyond this job.

As with leeching and the human body, the crew that is left behind to get the work done lacks the vitality of the pre-layoff organization. There is a pervasive sense of enervation all around which makes it challenging to function in a business as usual mode. Maybe they are all wondering what roll of dice determined they would get to stay and what after their streak of good luck runs out.

Then there is the business of people being forced to pick up responsibilities way out of their comfort zone with no concessions in expected performance in the new role. This is sometimes a steep price to pay for being choosen to remain. After all is said and done, the organization that remains is not able to achieve the agility or growth that is expected of it. It turns out that some of the gouging and blood-letting was a little unnecessary.

It is also common to discover the real disease was never addressed or cured in this whole process and has now spread to consume what is left of the organization. My co-worker M says that my problem is I let get feelings come in the way of business - the two just don't go together. That may be true but there is such an outpouring of emotion all round before, during and after a layoff that it is impossible to stay clinically matter-of-fact about it.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Polite Criticism

Nicecritic is a lot like the self-destructing message I had blogged about a a while back. Several other services have appeared on the scene since. A message from Nicecritic is not always bad news - one category in the list is also Anonymous Praise

While the idea is a good one, it has the potential of being abused. Imagine, the school bully spamming a hapless kid with unkind messages and doing so anonymously. The site does have some safeguards to prevent that from happening.

The more connected we get and easier our communications tools become, the more we want seem to want to hide behind annonymizing services.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Snowed In

We had a huge snow-storm yesterday giving both J and I an unexpected Monday holiday. She has been waiting for a big pile of snow for years now - in my neck of the woods it is a big deal to get even half an inch of it. The kids in the neighborhood get all excited and try to go sledding on it. It is cute and sad sight to watch- sad because this place used to get a lot of snow even a few years ago but that was before most of these kids were born. They have no memories of snow in winter.

I don't know about the sceptics but this does look like climate change to me and one that is happening very rapidly. But today they had their longing for real snow answered. J's face lit up with joy when she looked outside her window in the morning and saw the thick pelt of white over everything - this was more snow than she has seen in a long while. It is like the stuff they have on Christmas cards and in movies. Now it was right outside her door-step to feel, touch and enjoy.

While she was out in the balcony playing in the snow, a couple of elderly neighbors walked by and asked if they could take her out for a walk with them. Turned out to be a perfect way for J to enjoy snow because I was not very anxious to go out in such blustery weather though I might have in the end for J's sake. Surprisingly enough, I did not see a single kid all day. After hoping, praying and dreaming of snow for years, I wondered why no one came out to make the most of the day's unexpected bounty.

Maybe they have the lackluster parents like myself to blame - but that seems implausible given the culture of fun that has pervaded my neighborhood for as long as I have lived here. Maybe it is the hard-times that have dampened people's spirits. People walked their dogs and took out their trash every once in a while I never saw a child all day long. Whatever the reason, I found it really odd not to see children outside playing in snow, building the snowmen they have wanted to for so long.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Old Favorite

After close to twenty years, I am returning to a volume of short stories by Somerset Maugham and it is amazing how little I have forgotten. I am even able to recall up to the words used in a sentence and anticipate the next one before having read it. The introduction to The Cosmopolitans by Micheal Wodd captures perfectly the essence of Maugham's writing and its enduring appeal

Maugham is not a difficult or complicated writer, and we can miss all the undercurrents in his prose and still enjoy him a great deal. But the undercurrents are likely to keep Maugham's writing alive when the simpler enjoyment has faded, and in any case I wonder whether anyone misses it entirely. They are like a nameless taste caught up in a taste we know well, a touch of bitterness in a sweet dish - or to be more precise, a touch of genuine bitterness in a bitter-seeming dish, a flavour of real, unnerving acrimony in the midst of calm and worldly cynicism.

I am back to Maugham for a second time to savor the flavors and undercurrents that I might have missed on my first reading a long time ago.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

New Indian Rope Trick

Every desi and their grand-uncle has an opinion about the Slumdog Oscar sweep. Desi- blogosphere is in over-drive mode with all the analysis and commentary. There is much hand-wringing over whether we should care about the Oscar or not, if we sold out as a people by allowing our country to be portrayed in such negative light by the West and then to add insult to injury have that depiction be so richly rewarded.

Then there are those who are simply happy about the formidable talent of A.R Rahman being acknowledged by Hollywood. To balance that out, there are just as many who say "Who cares ?" because they don't think he needs any Western validation. No matter what your position, if you are a desi you are almost required to have one on the subject of Slumdog (which by the way is not a box-office success in India)

If you happen to be a desi living in the backwaters of the Western world, you need to brace yourself for questions along the lines of "Do all Indians live in slums ?" from the locals - Slumdog is the new Indian rope trick. The implication seems that you have family back home that do, even if you have arrived in the civilized world and feign complete familiarity with the idea of having running water and sanitary toilets at home. Clearly this movie has created a bit of a fuss for and about desis including an US governor.

Then there is what Rushdie has to say which pretty much closes the over- battered subject for comments. His article has a far broader scope but Slumdog does come up for a little bit. He describes the kind of exoticism that used to be standard issue for movies about India made by First World directors and then goes on to say this:

Now that sort of exoticism has lost its appeal; people want, instead, enough grit and violence to convince themselves that what they are seeing is authentic; but it's still tourism. If the earlier films were raj tourism, maharajah-tourism, then we, today, have slum tourism instead.

He talks about his thoughts upon hearing Boyle's response to an interview question on the choice of subject as far as Slumdog :

In an interview conducted at the Telluride film festival last autumn, Boyle, when asked why he had chosen a project so different from his usual material, answered that he had never been to India and knew nothing about it, so he thought this project was a great opportunity. Listening to him, I imagined an Indian film director making a movie about New York low-life and saying that he had done so because he knew nothing about New York and had indeed never been there. He would have been torn limb from limb by critical opinion. But for a first world director to say that about the third world is considered praiseworthy, an indication of his artistic daring. The double standards of post-colonial attitudes have not yet wholly faded away.