Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Tracing Roots

The idea of tracing back one's ancestors to 60,000 years ago is a fascinating one. This is a research in progress at National Geographic. To participate the first step involves purchasing a kit that allows the participant to send back a check swab for DNA analysis. Your anonymity is guaranteed. The success of the project clearly depends on the size and diversity of the database and it seems with a kit priced at $100 + that may be the biggest obstacle on the way to success.

In the exhaustive list of FAQs, I did not find one that asks how this project could be viable if the only way to get data were to be people willing and able to spend $100 to trace their ancestry. I would imagine there is large amounts of existing data - collected at low or no cost to the participant.

Now that it exists, this the monetization opportunity by appealing to the curiosity of the those who don't mind paying as much as they would need to in order to satiate it. This is a lot like paying for a seat on a space-craft though the price tags are orders of magnitude apart. It may not be too long before DIY DNA Analyzers become affordable enough for a lot of people - that combined with public databases could do make the business of ancestry tracing far more egalitarian and in the process more accurate.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Shouting Fire

HBO's Shouting Fire is a collection of stories about Free Speech under attack in America held together by the narrative of Martin Garbus, the film-maker's father who is also a First Amendment attorney. One of the most powerful moments in the film comes when Garbus explains that the protecting people's freedom of speech requires protecting that of those who hate you and can potentially cause you harm. It drives home the point about true freedom being absolute rather than relative - the only kind of that is worth fighting for.

The stories come from across the political spectrum which proves that voices of dissent are not safe no matter what side of the ideological divide they come from. There is Lebanese-American Debbie Almontaser who is attacked because of a convoluted association some people found between her and an offensive tee shirt, a young man named Chase Harper who is suspended from his high school because he wore a tee shirt proclaiming homosexuality to be shameful.In both cases, the individual's right to free speech came under fire.

Liz Garbus presents each story in context of the time and surrounding circumstances which give the viewer a keen appreciation for what the average American is up against in today's world. Her father reminds us that the right to free speech cannot be taken for granted merely because it is guaranteed in the American constitution ; history has borne witness to many occasions where the right was temporary suspended ostensibly for the "greater good". He believes Americans must be prepared to fight every day for preserving this most fundamental of all rights.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

A Poem By Eeva Kipli

Read a beautiful, short poem by Finnish poet Eeva Kipli :

When sorrow fades
Come the memories,
And each of them
Hurts uniquely.

I wonder what comes at the cusp of fading sorrow and the rising swell of memories. I know I have felt strangely numb, it feels as if time is tied by a tourniquet. You seek respite and want it to loosen - for things to start flowing once more. Then after memories have been relieved in full-color, they recede too. Finally, there comes a time when there is room left behind by departed sorrow and memory - a place of stark emptiness that nothing seems to fill.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Talent And Effort

If what I have seen within my own extended family is part of a broader trend, I would agree completely with the author of the book Talent Is Overrated. I have quite a few relatives with quirky, sometimes eccentric personalities and one or more serious talents. Almost all of them were too lazy or complacent to apply themselves, put the hard-work necessary to achieve anything remarkable from those natural gifts. Most if not all of them were openly disdainful of those of us who were not nearly as brilliant but persevered to achieve whatever it was we wanted to. It was as if hard-work was the exclusive domain of the dim-witted and we were wearing our badge of feeble-mindedness by being so hard-working.

As it turns out, the more "average" of the lot who put in the relentless hours of "deliberate practice" the author refers to, ended up faring better than the extremely talented. That said, I am big believer in the virtue of hard-work. While one cannot control the amount of innate talent one has (or does not have), effort is entirely in one's control and that should confer a feeling of empowerment, in my mind. One of the first things I taught J was the Thomas Edison quotation "Genius is one per-cent inspiration and ninety-nine per-cent perspiration". Needless to say, the hare and tortoise parable has been repeated a gazillion times in our household to ensure the lesson is well learned and never forgotten.

Friday, June 26, 2009

For The Kids

Reading about this scientific study that proves that staying married for the sake of the kids does not always result in the desired outcome for the children, is vindication for parents who have decided to go solo. Several years ago when my marriage turned into this cesspool of anger, conflict and bitterness, leaving with J seemed like the best option. We have had more than our fair share of challenges as direct consequence of that decision but J has not lacked peace and quiet in the house.

In high conflict households, children go about their lives with a sense of rudderlessness. They have no one to take direction from or look up to, no one who is always emotionally available to address their problems. Some marriages take a lot of work to keep them viable - when spouses need to invest disproportionately into their relationship, their ability to attend to the needs of the children suffers. Single parent households have no such distractions and this often works out to the child's advantange.

I have long believed that using children to glue a bad marriage is the worst way to go about the job. Children are not supposed to and cannot mend the relationship between their parents. By placing them in a position where that is the desired effect, parents burden them with the most onerous kind of responsibility. Instead, they should take ownership of their problems and resolve it independently of their children. Sometimes, the only solution might be to end the marriage and that could be the best thing to do - specially for the sake of the kids.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Love Potion

Interesting experiment on the science and chemistry of love - in which a man takes an MRI to check if and how he loves his wife. The author who becomes guinea pig for scientists working in the field, asks readers to consider some implications of this research:

If love is simply chemicals, doesn't that change its meaning? And how soon before we create a scientifically valid love potion? (Already under study, by the way.) What about a love vaccine to help us from falling for the wrong person? And if you have to rely on chemical enhancements, do you get an asterisk next to your name in the book of love, like Barry Bonds?

All of that sounds straight out of science fiction though it could not hurt to be inoculated against falling in love with the wrong person - what a lot of time, energy and emotions saved and spared that would be ! According to the article, the odds are already stacked against us by nature - In a cruel twist of bioengineering, the romantic craving actually gets more intense post-dumping.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Interesting Times

Nice article on the the future of educational institutes as the hub of scientific research and technology innovation. The author points out :

While there are advanced capabilities that remain available only on campus, that boundary is rapidly receding.

This moment is akin to the turn of the last century, when philanthropists funded the spread of libraries to provide community access to the kinds of collections that had previously been available only to institutions and wealthy individuals. Fab labs are like libraries for a new kind of literacy, the reading and writing of objects rather than books. Instead of building a few big labs, it’s now possible to build a network of many more-accessible smaller labs that can be used for technical empowerment, training, incubation, and invention.

That is nothing short of fascinating. Today's children would probably have access to such labs by when they are adults. Besides the mind-boggling array possibilities that opens up for them, there is also unprecedented amount of choice and empowerment when it comes to education. One can easily imagine courses being tailored to exact individual needs and inclinations, students having the opportunity to create a curriculum for themselves that might require concurrent enrollment at several universities around the world for the best return on their investment of time and money. Instead of walking down the hallway from one lecture to the next, they may log in and out of university portals continents apart.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Love And Intellect

Thanks to a power-outage, I had watched about a fourth of Hitchcock's Spellbound in my teens before the screen went dark. They were showing the movie on television. I had meant to check out the rest of it at some point and it happened a few weeks ago when I came upon a copy at the public library. It has been nearly that long since I read some of the writings of Freud. My general recollection of the experience is comparable to the kind that reading Kafka's Metamorphosis left in it's wake. Visceral but not particularly pleasant.

As much as I admire Kafka as a writer, I find it very hard to read his writing because of its profoundly depressing quality. I pretty much never returned to Freud after the initial encounter. One quote by the character of Dr Brulov, a psychoanalyst in Spellbound "We both know that the mind of a woman in love is operating on the lowest level of intellect" got my attention. I don't know how a man's brain operates when he is in love, but I know from personal experience and that of many other women of my acquaintance, that Brulov is exactly right about women.

I have been appalled (not to mention ashamed) at my ability to completely take leave of commonsense, rationality and reason - faculties that becomes painfully acute after falling out of love. Innately smart and sensible women will act in ways incomprehensible to their family and friends when they are hopelessly in love. Often their behavior at the time is totally incompatible with their personality. It is only after they emerge from that phase of the relationship, they begin to display their more familiar traits.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Book Scanning

It's no big news that Google does some really cool stuff - be it getting goats to graze on their lawns instead of using a lawn-mower or rigging up some kind of infra-red contraption to scan books without opening them. While most of us may not be able to get goats to graze in our backyards, we would all find plenty of use for a portable camera book scanner.

First it was e-publishing and Kindle that was threatening the survival of the old fashioned book but with such a device, every customer browsing in a bookstore could mean lost revenue instead of a potential sale. Yet in every innovation that promises to be the death of the old way, there is often hidden opportunity waiting to be discovered and monetized. Inside a book-scanner there may be ways to generate buzz for goods and services relevant to text being scanned - and that is just the most obvious idea. It would only be a matter of time before much better ones came along.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

An Outside View

I have read way too much about Wendy Doniger to be read her books about Hinduism objectively. Up until reading this post in Marginal Revolution about the need to ask a non-Hindu about Hinduism, I was not particularly inclined to read anything by Doniger. Maybe there is something to be said of an outsider's view of a religion. While that view, may be completely unacceptable to the believers of the religion it could be helpful in other ways.

In an extreme oversimplification, if Doniger can be taken to represent the a certain culture and ethnicity, her views could serve as a proxy for their view of Hindus and Hinduism. Having this external cultural perspective on something as personal as religion can be instructive even if it is not agreeable. Instead we have a lot of earnest people who believe passionately about ensuring the facts present are right, and agonize over the accuracy of the interpretation.

If we could instead view the material as a creative writing and not assign to it any gravitas, we might get a lot more value out of it. I would almost equate it to an inoculation against the full-blown disease. Thanks to Tyler Cowen, Doniger is now on my reading list.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Happy Learning

I am yet to be convinced of the benefits of video games for children unless they happen to be of the mind-calming variety ( I did not know that they even existed until hearing a story on NPR about the genre). There is enough stress and excitement in a modern day kid's day to need an additional surge by way of a fast paced on-screen game.

I'd much rather they expend the energy in a physical sport. If their minds need a work-out there are many time-tested ways to do that as well - strategy games, logic puzzles, creative DIY projects come to mind.
Littlebits sounds like the happy medium between off-line and online world for learning while having fun. As the technology matures, it can only become more accessible and hopefully easy enough for young kids to work with.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Doing Free Right

Recently while researching a technology solution for a client, I came across a vendor who touted their application as "commercial open source". That oxymoron (to my mind at least) had me stumped at first. After reading round a little, I realized that the chassis and the platform they had used to build their product was open-source but the solution they had developed using it was proprietary. So, all of the code would would not be freely available plus you would need to pay a licensing fee to use their product.

Compared to the purely commercial applications in the same space, their pricing was attractive but there was not a great deal of track-record to go by either. With the rising number of offerings in the open-source arena, anyone with a good idea and the perseverance to bring it to fruition can do so at little to no cost and that sounds wonderful in theory. While many are attempting to do just this not every enterprise hits pay dirt. This article in Techdirt titled Free Gone Wrong..Or Free Done Wrong may have an answer to why that may be the case.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Doodle Bar

The idea of a doodle bar is both simple and clever as the best ideas often are. This would be heaven to those prone to doodling and might introduce its joys even to those who are not. Per one of the creators of the concept, Serge Seidlitz "The aim is to make The DoodleBar into a walk-in, constantly evolving work of art, created as a collaboration between all those who visit,"

The idea of a collaborative art projects is not new - SITO has been around for years. Then there are sites like Haiku For You that take an idea submitted by a visitor and turn it into an illustrated Haiku. A more controlled art experiment with twelve artists working together on a themed quilt can result is some beautiful creations.

Doodle Bar is almost a throwback to a time when the walls of a cave served as a canvas to chronicle events of life big and small - in that it is a little different from other contemporary collaborative art projects.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Intangible Possessions

A friend was asking me a few days ago what I do for backing up my digital pictures. He is considering a couple of commercial service providers who will back up images with multiple redundancy. Obviously, pictures equal memories and are incredibly valuable. My friend has a toddler so the picture-taking is non-stop. I know having been through that phase with J.

I don't do anything for backup I said and he expressed both surprise and concern at that. The pictures I like very much, I print and put in a physical album. The rest are all over the place. I don't find myself feeling attached to digital images. They are special only when they tangible. Obviously, there is a limit to how much I can turn "tangible" or would even consider worthwhile to do so. This essay on the the transient nature of digital collections in The Morning News deals with just this idea. The author says :

Old formats ooze historical significance; new ones are deleted with a tap.

Just that makes digital media rather difficult to get attached to. Besides everything that is digital is probably recoverable as well - specially if you did not produce it yourself. You can just plug in to the universal repository of media via the web and all at once you can have everything you lost back again. Sure some things are easier to find than others but with some persistence and patience an accidentally wiped out music collection such even as esoteric as the author's can be rebuilt.

It makes sense then that I have notebooks, cards and letters from twenty years ago to this day but have very little by way for digital memories. The time-stamp on an email even ten years old never triggers that rush of nostalgia that the date on an hand-written letter can.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Baby Strollers

J's days on the stroller ended a while ago but I still remember the first time I put her on one. She'd start to cry almost immediately because the stroller faced away from me. I would need to step in front and show her I was around for her to stop. In a few months she grew more comfortable but there was still some residual anxiety. I would peer down at her from the the window on the canopy, she would smile a little, gesture excitedly and want me to carry her.

As soon as I felt comfortable, I stopped using the stroller and carried her in a backpack slung in front of me. She would fall asleep in minutes. It was a remarkable change in behavior and so it is easy for me to believe this study that suggests children can feel emotionally impoverished if they are placed in strollers that face away from the mother. It made a huge difference for me as well to have her sleeping and close to me - maybe there is an element of emotional impoverishment for the mother too.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Boys Left Behind

While the author does not explain why the current education system is not serving boys well (if at all), the numbers she presents are concerning. She argues that No Child Left Behind equals All Boys Left Behind. This WSJ article on the same topic has some insights into why this may be happening :

The lifestyles and habits that worked so well for men in more dangerous times may not be working so well for them in the information age. In every age from the caves right on through the second World War, it worked for men to take big risks, have short attention spans and be driven by ego. These days, those things are more likely to get in the way of doing a good job. Hunting wild boar and hunting through Wikipedia require a different set of skills.

That makes a great deal of sense in a workplace situation and can possibly be tied to a the process of learning even at the grade school level. Taking big-risks, short attention spans and being driven by ego don't seem to be the most valuable characteristics for success there either. The challenge for educators and parents must then be how to instruct boys in a way that is compatible with their natural traits in a world that appears not have much use for them.

Old Benchmark

Divorce has made me stronger in more ways than I can count and for the most part, I am grateful for the opportunity (however difficult it has been) to become a more self-assured, independent and confident person than I had been before. But I envy any woman of my age, who has been married anywhere between ten to fifteen years, never needed to seek and find approval of her physical appearance from random men. She can relax, put on a few pounds were she so inclined, not worry about how she stacked up against twenty year olds who were also in the same meat market as herself.
As the years pass, I become increasingly unwilling to be viewed as commodity whose value is determined almost entirely by the packaging. I want to believe I am a lot more than that. I will freely admit being far more superficial back in the day - if a guy did not make my pulse race, he was not attractive enough to make the grade. Today, I am interested in a man's mind, his integrity and the generosity of his spirit - that to me is a sign of maturity.
That said, I have reached out to some who come quite imperfectly packaged if I believed they had the qualities that are important to me. Unfortunately, the standards have not changed reciprocally. For as long as I was in the singles market, seeking a potential match, more often than not, I have run into men who are not interested in me the person. They would have me compete will women ten or more years younger to get their attention based on external appearance only. My life experiences in that period of time and my hard earned emotional maturity don't count for anything at all. A girl in her twenties with dreams in her eyes that can all come true, a future extending to infinity where anything and everything is still possible will look nothing like a a woman who has been through what I have.
When I see pictures of myself from ten or more years ago, it could be an entirely different person - despite the fact that I have changed very little physically in all this time. The person inside has transformed to the point that the old and new me only vaguely resemble each other. I would have found the person I was then quite boring today but amazingly enough men even older than I would find her far more acceptable than the present me. If I were to apply the same standards of physical attractiveness that I had ten or more years ago, it would be impossible for me to consider the overwhelming men in the singles marketplace that are of my age group. Even knowing that rejection based on superficiality is an unpleasant feeling.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Trapped By Trash

While explaining why we are where are with garbage in space, columnist Johann Hari writes :

This wall of garbage orbiting us all seems like a symbol of the great dilemmas facing humanity in the twenty-first century. We have become capable of the most stunning technological breakthroughs – but we are sabotaging them by proving ourselves incapable of the most basic forms of self-restraint. At the moment of victory, we regress. The achievements of our frontal lobes are undermined by the backwardness of our adrenal glands.

He is exactly right in that observation. He closes his article with a statement and a question :

Individuals restrain themselves all the time; why can’t we do it collectively?

I don't know if I could agree that individuals restrain themselves all the time. For the most part, people act out of fear of consequences when they are acting alone as individuals. True restraint would require them to act in the same way even when no one was looking, there were no societal norms or law enforcement. It is possible that we are emboldened by numbers when act as a collective and hence don't feel obliged to be restrained in any way. Also, nature is inherently chaotic so perhaps as humans restraint just does not come to us naturally.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Divided House

Back in my school days, history lessons taught us how the people of India have always lacked unity allowing foreign invaders to divide, conquer and rule over us for hundreds of years. Our teacher's favorite line used to be "History is important because it helps us learn from mistakes we made in our past so we know not to repeat them" She almost always ended her lesson on that note and would encourage us to find ways to apply lessons from Indian history in our daily lives.

I remembered the wisdom of Mrs. G recently when a client I work for, floated an RFP out to a few Indian vendors along with some near-shore ones in Mexico and Canada. The responses that came back were interesting and educative. The Canadian company did not offer any significant cost advantage over a local development shop but they tried to make up for it by going the extra mile to please. Even before we had asked for it, they came back with design and prototype demos to show us what to expect and of course showcase their capabilities. Everyone was very impressed and it put the vendor in the running despite their high price point. The Mexican outfit came up with a boiler-plate response that was viewed immediately as a testament to their greenness in the technology outsourcing business even if such may not have been the case.

Then there was the two well-known desi shops. There were exhaustive list of clarifying questions from both to make sure they had understood the RFP correctly. We liked the thoroughness and the fact that the questions were quite meaningful. However, it became clear within the next couple of meetings, that there was a significant gap between their initial estimate for the job and what was really involved. They had not been able to size the job right.

It did not help that both outfits lacked the technical maturity that matched the client's excellent architectural direction. Yet they had something to offer - for technology about ten internet years old and a very low cost we could get our job done. Clearly, the A-teams with technical chops to do the job right did not exist at either of these companies - they had most likely been poached by someone else with more money to offer or had started up ventures of their own. With the IT talent spread so thin across the business and no one shop having all the necessary pieces to solve the puzzle it, survival is that much more difficult for everyone.

All things considered, the client ended up picking the Canadian company. I tried to imagine a scenario where the desi shops each had a robust A-team fully conversant in cutting edge technology, demonstrated their ability to think strategic along with the tactical (and not become a victim of paralysis by analysis like they did with ten questions on the exact function of one Submit button) and not trying to under-cut each other on cost. It is likely that everyone would have all fared better, created a fruitful partnership and made more money in the end.

Unfortunately, we desis don't learn lessons from our history. In a very different way from the time of the British Raj we continue to be divided and ruled by foreigners albeit of a different stripe. They get to dictate the rules of engagement that Indian IT companies follow with servility comparable to the minor Rajas and
zamindars of the old days. Instead of starving their farmers to death to pay taxes to the Empire, the present day IT overlords are working our young generation to the far end of depression and disease. As they continue to under-cut each other with impunity, the tech drones end up working two shift days and through the Holiday season to make good on the reckless and unreasonable commitments made on their behalf.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Bookstore Customers

This article of the seven types of bookstore customers though a rambling rant is quite amusing and I could not help trying to see which type best described me. While could not find a fit among the seven types , a hybrid of a few of those types may be what I am. The Trufan sub-type under the Seeker category would be any writer's dream come true. They are described thusly :

Trufans. “I want the new book by Author X.” And sure, I’ll try to help you with that. The Trufan ignores three salient points: 1. the author may not have a new book; 2. despite ads or reviews or internet rumors, the author’s new book may not be coming out for another 3 months, or 6 months, or a year (or ever); & 3. the author may in fact be dead.

I have been guilty of being a Time Suck both at book stores and at libraries. Per the author, Time Sucks are those "who want help, and personal recommendations, and plot synopses and books just like their favorite author’s but not their favorite author’s because they’ve read all those" - this is exactly what I need to do when J has greatly enjoyed reading a certain book. If the book is a part of a series, the solution is simple - she can read the rest. If it's not then I have to become the "Time Suck".While bookstore employees may hate Time Sucks, we love them if they are knowledgeable and are able to lead us to what we seek.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Reading And Remembering

I have always wondered about children's books like A Very Hungry Caterpillar or The Mixed Up Chameleon (both by Eric Carle) and how they are are able to make such a deep and lasting impression on kids. Is it the simplicity of their theme, the lovely illustrations in all colors of the rainbow or is it something else that results in the impact. This Newsweek article on Eric Carle's life and it's influence on what he wrote could have some of those answers. Maybe going through very painful (and therefore trans-formative) life experiences gives writers that unique edge that cannot be matched by those who have not had comparably difficult circumstances.

So while cute, easy and well-illustrated children's books are a dime a dozen, a select few become iconic classics like Caterpillar.It seems the same rules apply for writers who write for adults too. When I think about authors who I admire most - almost each has been very intimately acquainted with pain and suffering. Then there are those whose lives are far shallower in comparison - those who have experienced minor privations and therefore have the luxury of aggrandizing them to compensate for the real thing. While great imagination can fill in a lot of gaps, the authenticity of voice is not one of those things.

What you have not experienced is hard to express with passion or conviction - you don't even have the material with which to create a fantastical, imagined world. From such writers you get well-crafted work that is steeped in mediocrity. You read and forget them with equal alacrity.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Homelessness

There is almost no news to hear, see or read these days that is not sombre. You build a certain level of resistance against it over time but this story on the plight of homeless people in America broke through it. I have grown up in a country where the homeless are out in the open and impossible to ignore. For the most part, no one does anything about them and life just goes on - for them and the rest of us. While there is a lot to be anxious about in India but the average person with an education, a job and a home to live is not worried about becoming homeless.

What is different about the American homelessness story is that a "regular" person with an all the trappings of a "normal" and "functional" life can suddenly find themselves homeless. Once they are there, the barrier to re-entering the ranks for "regular" people who have homes becomes very high. It seems like this terrifying line which once crossed can be forever. Simple things like going for a job interview can become an insurmountable problem if the job-seeker has no where to park his belongings, or has no money to commute to work until they get their first paycheck.

Listening to Eric Sheptock reminded me of the character of Chris Gardner played by Will Smith in the movie The Pursuit of Happyness. If one is super-talented and blessed with extraordinary will-power like Gardner , then no barrier is impossible to break - for most homeless people, however the obstacles in their way to economic and social recovery would be impossibly daunting. In light of all the bad news about the economy, growing joblessness, the rising tide of foreclosures and the like, this a chilling reminder of what can happen - potentially to anyone. A combination of circumstances in a bad time can be what it takes.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Sundae Inspiration

I don't know what it feels like to have a father check out on their child and act like she does not exist. That is the position R (my ex) has adopted with J. When she was younger, she would ask when she might have "a" father like the other kids. She did not seem overly concerned about it having to be R, but someone needed to fulfill that role in her life. Over time, she had developed a protective layer of indifference to help her from being hurt over his absence - disappointment over not having her wish for a father figure fulfilled.

I often tell J that I am the luckiest Mommy in the world because I have her. She wonders how it is that she could be so incredibly precious to me and mean nothing at all to her father who saw her last when she was four months old. How does he not want to know about her, talk to her or see what she looks like. If she was as precious and special as I claimed she was, would her father not be a little more interested in her. It just does not add up for her.

I have struggled to come up with a way to explain this dichotomy and inspiration came in the form of a fictive ice-cream sundae (one of J's favorite treats). I told J "Pretend two friends go to the ice-cream parlor on a Sunday morning. The shop is very crowded and by when it is their turn to order, there is only one ice-cream sundae left. One friend suggests that they get it and divide it in two because they both love it more than any other kind of ice-cream"

"The other friend says, that he would get something else instead so that way they won't have to share -he does not agree with the idea of a half a sundae. So the first friend has the whole ice-cream sundae and loves it. The second friend gets a flavor that he really does not like that much and ends up throwing it away in trash. On the way back, the first friend is really happy she got her favorite treat and did not even have to share it with anyone. The second friend is mad because he made a bad choice and could not enjoy any ice-cream at all.He wishes he had agreed to split the sundae but now it is too late"

"I am like the first friend, you are like the ice-cream sundae and your dad is the like the guy who had to have everything his way or nothing at all. He is the one who lost what was most important in life and will realize it t only when it is too late. So now you see why I say I am the luckiest Mommy in the whole world ?" My "sundae parable" brought a big smile to J's face.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Alternative Medicine

It is heartening to read that alternative medicine is going mainstream in America in that insurance companies are willing to pay for such treatment. My personal experience with the medical system in this country has been mixed at best and I try to stay away from it as far as possible. Then one hears the horror stories from those who have loved ones suffering from serious ailments - along with the predominant themes of out of control medical expenses, there is also the one of managing the symptoms without root cause analysis or complete cure.

To me the later is the terrifying part - it feels like once you fall into the system, you can't always come out of it. It is not surprising that people will seek a better, less expensive way to deal with their illnesses - one with a finite end point in terms of time, treatment and money spent. Considering all this in light of the fact that about
60% of the bankruptcies in America are a consequence of medical bills makes you really wary about the system. It is about time that customers were given a choice even if critics of that choice dub it Snake Oil Science.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Failed Innovation

Micheal Mandel blames where America is today on the failed promise of innovation in this Business Week article. Among the several indicators he cites that point to the lack of innovation is this really telling one :

The final piece of evidence is the financial crisis itself. After the 2001 tech bust, trillions of dollars flowed into the U.S.—but most of it went into government bonds and housing rather than into innovative sectors of the economy. While subprime mortgages boomed, venture capital investments have more or less stagnated since 2001, with few tech startups going public.

A lot of readers blame the paucity in innovation on the intellectual property litigation. While it's contribution cannot be denied, many would argue it is important to have the checks and balances in place so IP gets the protection it deserves. It does not help that that countries with lax or unenforced IP laws have not been the hotbed of innovation because it weakens the litigation argument somewhat.

Having experienced the dot-com bust and some of the euphoria preceding, it appeared that public appetite for all innovation had vanished once the house of ill-conceived e-commerce venture cards came tumbling down. The malaise of the IT sector seemed to have tainted things that had nothing to do with it. Instead of finding the next cool thing to bet on, people simply stopped placing bets altogether. If anything, the average person learned to be wary of investing in technology and products that they did not quite understand or found too intangible to be comfortable with. In that sense the dot-com bubble preempted innovation in other sectors that may have otherwise happened.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Learning On Autopilot

I run into a bunch of desi kids (and parents) each week at J's music classes and each time I am amazed by the few things that they have in common. To begin with, they appear to be highly compliant - working diligently on their Kumon homework while waiting for their music lesson to begin or reading a book with such great concentration that one wonders if it only for pleasure. Right after music lesson, these kids will fan out to go to other activities - tennis, swimming, karate to name a few.

They usually come geared for the next thing on the calendar. They all look pretty serious for their age - even with a room full of 6-10 year olds, there is absolutely no noise or chaos. It is not as if their parents are monitoring them - the kids are pretty self-regulated. If their music lessons are any indication, they go through the motions of "learning" whatever it is their parents want them to on auto-pilot. They practice enough to have the tunes right, are well-prepared for tests and quizzes but you will be hard pressed to hear the sound of joy in their singing.

J used to look around in wonderment when she first started taking lessons. She has even asked me a few times if she should learn some of the other things that these kids were learning. I would guess it is about fitting in with a group that at least resembles her on the outside. I would imagine it would be hard for a desi kid who socializes with other desi kids almost on an exclusive basis to not feel like a loser if they were not learning at least five things at the same time besides getting straight A's at school.

Being a desi parent, I except I share the cultural genes with my brethren. So when, I try to buck the trend and take a different approach with raising J than is the norm in desidom, I do feel some level of anxiety. In taking the road less traveled, I am likely to encounter problems and obstacles for which there is no ready solution in the desi-parenting playbook. I will need to figure stuff out as I go and hope that I get it right. As for J, she has settled in the desi fringe content (as far as I can tell) to think of these kids more like her than not at least in outward appearance.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Synthetic Food

In his book In Defense Of Food , Micheal Pollan recommends not eating anything that our great grandmothers or great great grandmothers would not recognize to be food. That makes for good, common-sense, relatively easy to follow advise. I have recalled it while grocery shopping ever since I read the book. Following it seriously is a whole different thing.

The molecular gastronomy people on the other hand have created the first completely synthetic food. They have a worthy cause too :

"If you use pure compounds, you open up billions and billions of new possibilities,” Mr This said. “It's like a painter using primary colours or a musician composing note by note.”

He says compound cooking will enthral our taste buds — or, rather, our trigeminal nerve — and help to end food shortages and rural poverty because farmers could increase profitability by “fractioning their vegetables”.

I was listening to a story on NPR recently on the unraveling of Punjab's Green Revolution. I imagine, if synthetic food goes mainstream, those nutrient depleted, pesticide resistance fields would be replaced by chemical factories to produce the billions and billions of new possibilities in food Mr. This has in mind.

Whenever I read the phrases
end food shortage and rural poverty, the image of third world farmers being coerced into farming practices that they are not comfortable with comes to mind - the Green Revolution was once touted as the best thing that happened to Punjab.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

One Foul Job Ad

I have been following a thread on Immigration Voice for the last couple of days. It concerns a company posting an ad on Dice saying that the client is open to H1-B applicants as long as they are not Indians. No sugar coating there - those were the exact words used on the posting. Needless to say, there was a huge outcry over it and before the end of the day, the poor cog in the wheel sod who had posted the ad at the behest of the end client had been fired by his employer. Dice had pulled the ad off their site even before that had happened. At the time of this writing, the "end client" who had actually asked for non-Indian applicants only had not been touched by any of this.

The fact that stands out most prominently, at least in my mind, is that the company that posted the job ad on Dice is Indian owned and the recruiter in question is desi as as well. This is both a telling sign of the times as well as an example of abysmal depths companies like Abstar will sink to make a few quick bucks. It is no secret that shops like Abstar are owned and staffed by people who bring absolutely no skills to the table except having the legal status to set up shop in America - i.e the owner is typically a permanent resident or a naturalized citizen. Beyond that they operate like they were in an Indian sabzi-mandi selling vegetables (IT contractors) to customers ("end clients" and "preferred vendors to end client") at the best price they can get. Their business practices have about the same level of sophistication and require no better qualifications than what it takes a sabzi-wallah to set up shop at a mandi.

You don't expect the illiterate guy hawking potatoes in an Indian bazaar to have the discernment to judge what is appropriate to post on a public job board. So it does not surprise me at all that the recruiter had no qualms posting such a blatantly racist ad, I am very pleasantly surprised to see the desi brethren rise up in arms against it. We tend to far too accommodating, willing to look the other way and pretend what is happening does not touch us directly or generally be fatalistic about the hand dealt to us by Fate. It is reassuring to see that the we are still capable of collective outrage when outrage is the only acceptable response.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

The Manga Guide to Statistics

The Manga Guide to Statistics is a great way to introduce the subject to a young person who is math-smart but is not innately passionate about the subject and even those who are math-wary. A lot of bright kids don't enjoy math as much as they enjoy reading because they are not able to tie back math skills to real life experience.

Whereas, they realize that reading opens up whole new worlds of ideas and experiences, they are not quite able to see how the ability to solve challenging geometry riders enriches their lives. This disconnect is often hard to solve for, specially if the kid is an advance level reader. After a while, they tune out of math because the sense of empowerment they achieve by way of reading is far greater than being able to work out math problems based on a set of rules - o
nce they have achieved proficiency at problem solving they are bored.

The Manga guide uses simple examples from a kid's everyday life to introduce concepts in statistics. In doing so, it is able make math come alive and connect with real life. For a lot of kids, this would be a fascinating connection that they had not been able to make before. From being merely math smart, they may go to actually loving the subject. If you are looking either for a riveting comic book story-line or serious tome on statistics you will be disappointed. The book aims to shows the reader how real life problems can be framed and solved using elementary statistics - and it does a wonderful job of it.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Smile Pinki

HBO's Smile Pinki is the kind of movie that leaves you with a smile in your heart. It follows the efforts of a hospital to provide free cleft lip and palate surgery to the poor. One such patient is five year old Pinki, who could have had her radiant smile hidden behind her cleft lip forever. Her life is transformed when Pankaj, a social worker for the hospital, who travels from village to village to find children with cleft lips and palates, meets her father.

The parents worry about what the operation entails and if their children may be safe. A big part of Pankaj's job is to work soothe the anxious parents so they actually bring their children into the hospital. The surgery is beyond a miracle for these families who would have never been able to afford it. The children go from being stigmatized and isolated, to having a real childhood - they return to schools they had dropped out of, work and play like the rest of the kids.

In the developed world and also in the more affluent urban India, treating a child's cleft lip or palate is a routine procedure - these children have not gone through the experience of being afraid to look at their face in the mirror. It is amazing to see what a huge difference such a "small" corrective procedure can make in the lives of those who have woefully little. In an immensely complex world, Pinki's story is one of utter simplicity - it is one where giving a child the gift of a smile is among the best gifts a doctor can possibly give.

Smile Pinki premiers on HBO
Wednesday, June 3 at 7pm (ET/PT).Here is a trailer.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Colors In America

The response of two readers to Hua Hsu's article in The Atlantic The End of White America ? do a great job of explaining the assimilation experience of immigrants in America.

One reader Claude B. Fischer writes :

"Hsu gets it wrong by focusing on the cultural froth, like music, food and clothes. The real story, at the deeper level, is how much and how quickly the children of immigrants from many continents apart come to adopt WASP culture ..."

He goes on to cite the facets of WASP culture that have universal appeal to immigrants of all stripes. Marrying for love, the pursuit of personal success. He calls it "the culture of personal expression and personal salvation, material achievement, voluntarism in social matters, and egalitarianism"

Another reader Ryan Karerat who is Indian American, writes :

"There may be no "white culture" but white people still dictate our societal norms. To become a cultural elite in America, one has to whiten him-or herself."

I can't help comparing the non-white immigrant experience in America to the unique way in which Parsis have assimilated the local culture and enriched the lives of Indians they have come into contact with - some in small ways, other very profoundly. They have made good on their promise to be like sugar in milk, but have not given up their unique identity. While some Parsis may argue it has become too much of a good thing and their survival as a distinct race is at risk because of their ability to blend in a little too harmoniously.

If a people have lived in a foreign country for over thousand years and yet managed to preserve a distinctive character, that should in all fairness count as a good deal more than mere "survival". Apparently, the dragnet of WASP culture is America is far too strong for immigrants to resist. As a result none of the non-white ethnicities that come to make this country their "home" will be able to emulate what the Parsis have achieved as a community in India.
It is hard to tell whose loss will be greater - the milk's or that of the sugar and spices which failed improve the medium they were thrown into.