Friday, July 31, 2009

Atrophied By Fear

Through the pores of idle moments
I breathe thoughts of you.
Some hopelessly fallow,
others ripe with anticipation.
I run for cover
from the shrapnel words of lust
drowning in unguent flood of desire.
You don't own me -
not yet, not now
not ever I want to say.
I want
it all to be true and not,
all of you and none,
give myself up and not,
love and not,
hate and not.
Show me a sign,
this is real,
you will stay,
you won't hurt.
You say
Yes, Yes and Yes
to all that.
When you leave,
blue turns to black
gathering the night in it
cold and dank.
I throb to a pulse
I cannot see or stop.
I want you gone and not.
I want you now and never.
I want to stay and run.
You say this is really love,
that life spark you have desired.
I wonder why I can't
see it quite that way.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Fading Away

In reaction to one blogger's post about the demise of blogging - or more correctly the fading relevance of the medium, one reader speculates that there will be a new discipline of internet archeology. The practitoners of this discipline will presumably trudge through dead and defunct blogs that by then only live in the Wayback Machine and try to reconstruct a sense of the people and the times that the blogs once thrived in. If you are an individual blogger without the clout of the "A Listers", perhaps the only thing that will keep you going is your own desire to write just for the sake of it.

This is almost as thankless and unrewarding as a starving artist toiling away in solitude in a musty basement - sans clientèle, patrons, fame or money. All they have is the compulsive need to create art (in the case of the bloggers, share their thoughts and ideas with the world) and as long as that is strong enough they will continue to produce against all odds. Some will be able to strike it big, most of the others will move on from art to more mundane things that will pay the bills and the like. A very small minority will soldier on without any tangible incentive to do so. It is much the same with individual bloggers.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Bedroom Voice

I have known S for a little over a year now. While that is enough time to form some impressions it is not nearly enough to know anyone with any degree of clarity. S is an over-achiever, a new mother, a corporate climber and a nagging know-it-all. Her denouncements can be as scathing as her praise can be over-the-top. She has a big voice and a bigger personality. With a combination like that, S is a not too easy to get along with and I have found it best to keep myself at safe distance. This is her public face.

Then there is the one she shows when her husband calls her and that can be upwards of ten times in a day. No matter what her frame of mind, or the external circumstances at the time of the call, she will answer his call in what can only be described as a bedroom voice. The conversation goes on for a few minutes each time and she snaps right back into Virago mode after she is done.

We have always watched this transformation back and forth with complete amazement. The less subtle among us have looked at her with open-jawed astonishment. We wonder why she would not get some privacy if she needed to whisper that low and in that suggestive tone of voice. The majority of folks in our vicinity are married or in relationships for various lengths of time. They too have their spouses and significant others calling every once in a while but S is the only one who responds to these calls in the very special the way she does.

We go through our life gathering experiences along the way, some of us having the opportunity to see a lot more than the others. Yet in all of our collective knowledge of the ways of the world, S is clearly a lesson we have yet to learn. We look away from her and at each other, uncomfortably, as she engages in her "quickie" bedroom-voice conversations - it is like being a voyeur except it is not of our own free will. We have no idea how to deal with our discomfort and can't imagine why she would feel none whatsoever.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Freedom From Clock

Many of us have seen women past a certain age make poor (even irrational) choices in as far as selecting a partner to have a child with. The ticking biological clock reaches a crescendo in their lives and they figure it was now or never as far as motherhood. Once that wish is fulfilled and their sanity restored, they are left wondering about who they have partnered for life with and why.

To have a limited set of resources be fully depleted in less than four decades of a her life is possibly the single biggest inequality that a woman has to contend with as she goes through relationships. The men are not similarly constrained and in as such enjoy far higher degrees of freedom. If this study reported in the Washington Post turns out to be for real, that may change that forever.

Scientists have produced strong new evidence challenging one of the most fundamental assumptions in biology: that female mammals, including women, are born with all the eggs they will ever have.

Motherhood without an expiration date will give women the biological parity with men which they have never had before and this should enable then to achieve true equality in their partnerships.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Imagined Reality

After watching the movie 21 recently, I was intrigued by the story and read a little about the real life events on which the movie is based. The first thing I ran into was that in reality, the team of Blackjack players from MIT who made millions in Vegas by devising a system for counting cards, was predominantly Asian. In the movie, there are a couple of Asians in supporting roles on the team and not the big players that they were in truth. The composition of the math classes at MIT was no reflection of reality either with Asian students being pretty hard to spot. The Angry Asian Man has this to say about Hollywood :

As we all know, Hollywood studios seem to have a great of resistance to creating interesting, fully-fleshed, three-dimensional roles for Asian American actors. They seem to think we can't carry a movie, and more often than not, will instead create roles and stories for pretty white people instead.

For similar reasons, American desis ends up being caricatured as a cultural stereotype on the rare occasion they get to share screen space with the mainstream white actors in a Hollywood flick.

In the case of 21, I would guess there is a strong streak of denial as well. Denial of the disproportionately high math and science achievement among Asians in America. To deliberately under-represent them on an MIT campus specially in a math class cannot be attributed to anything else.

While cinema can present an alternate reality that finds favor with the biggest part of their audience (who perhaps want to believe this to be the "truth") it cannot extend it magic far enough. In real life, MIT's Blackjack teams and the composition of math, science and technology schools would remain predominantly Asian or Asian-American. It would take far more than wishful thinking to turn that into the alternative, imagined reality that Hollywood purveys.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Yes Men Fix The World

The outrageous antics of the Yes Men in HBO's The Yes Men Fix The World can leave the viewer in splits except when they pause to consider the message these two anti-corporate pranksters are trying to get across. There is nothing remotely funny about that. From doing right by the Bhopal tragedy victims, to getting the poorest Katrina victims back to their housing projects all the way to imagining a day where every news story is about having wrong set to right. Their methods are brazen, provocative not to mention incredibly creative. Even as you root for these guys wishing they can actually catalyze change, you are completely shocked at how easy it is for them to pull off their pranks.

When free marketeers run amok and greed gets to a point where otherwise rational people are no longer able to parse truth from farce, reality from pantomime the world becomes a dangerously unpredictable place to live in. In such a world, The Onion can become the most credible source of news, Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart can become the most astute political commentators of the day - the Yes Men can get away with their over the top creations like Gildas, SurvivaBalls and more.

It is hard to decide what is sadder - that Dow Chemicals spends several millions in an ad campaign to damage control Jude Finisterra (Andy Bichlbaum) going on air "representing" them to say that the right will be done by the Bhopal victims even if twenty years too late or business leaders taking the absurd SurvivaBalls business seriously enough to inquire for how much one might sell, who the potential customers might be for the product.

The Yes Men, all their efforts notwithstanding, do not manage to fix the world. But they do rattle a lot of chains as they go about their business, give ordinary folks like us who don't believe they have the wherewithal to fix or change anything in their world a potent shot of hope. This has to be one of the most enjoyable films I have watched in a while.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Mapping The Sins

It's hard to tell from these maps exactly what is going on in terms of the seven deadly sins in your neck of the woods in America (assuming that you agree with the operational definitions and the method of measuring each) but it is an interesting study all the same. Apparently, where I live there is a bit of lust and pride going on but everything else is just about average.

I guess that must be a good thing. It would be interesting to see what if any correlation existed between sins the big issues facing folks these days - unemployment, foreclosures, out of control health care costs and the like . A material disincentive to sin may work as a much better deterrent than simple censure or even punishment.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Hand Me Up

Learned a new phrase today - hand me up. Along with the learning came the realization that some of us are in an age group that does not get a hand me down or a hand me up. Instead of a seamless phase transition from one state to the other, we must pass through a waiting period. By when we start receiving hand me ups, we have officially stopped evolving with the times. The stream hand me downs on the contrary ends when those who were discarding their stuff stop outgrowing them.

When it comes to new technology, some things just cannot be handed up or down. Those that are not keeping with the times will not be able to adapt or find use for it but those who are still young and learning may not find it worth their while. The same is true of some potential hand me downs - some styles of clothing for instance will have no takers outside your generation.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Traffic Snafus

Those who have to endure long commutes are often familiar with traffic jams. Given their levels of stress when they find themseleves stuck in one, they would not likely be pondering the physics of traffic jams. They might find little consolation in learning that in scientific terms "A traffic jam is simply a solid made up of idling cars" or that if they could drive like ants they may have respite from traffic.

The triggers for traffic snarls can apparently range from plain old rubbernecking to
ghost sightings. The physics of gridlocks is a much written about topic - in this old Atlantic article, the author suggests that the surest remedy would require some 1984-esque measures.

Preventing flow breakdowns in a nonlinear, chaotic world could ultimately require realizing an Orwellian idea that has been suggested from time to time: directly controlling the speed and spacing of individual cars along a highway with central computers and sensors that communicate with each car's engine and brake controls.

Over at the Halfbakery idea factory someone has come up with the idea of laying conveyors over highways so the element of chaos and randomness in traffic patterns is eliminated and with it the bane of commuters around the world - the gridlock.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Joy And Inspiration

It might be hard to figure the Vaastu or Feng-shui of the disappearing dining room or bathroom but it sure is both clever and beautiful. With a mural painted on the the surface it would be impossible to tell what lies behind the facade - making the surprise element in the design even stronger. I love design and/or craft related blogs and Curbly is a delightful find - if you don't mind an hour (or more) disappearing on you as you check out page after page of great DIY project ideas.

I find artistic talent and creativity very reassuring to so see - it tells me that there are people who see the world with really different eyes, find things of beauty where most would have said none existed. Most importantly, because of their special perspective, I am able to see what I would have never seen otherwise - for that I feel grateful. Then there is the bit about inspiration too - like this one about converting the maze of wires into decorative vines - sounds like a perfect weekend project for J and I.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Cultural Obscurity

Cultural obscurity is something I am all too familiar with not having the interest to keep up with "best-sellers" of any kind. Not having a television only exacerbates the situation. At least, I read the entire Harry Potter series on time unlike the author of this article in Paste Magazine. While I may be spared one kind of malaise thanks to committing my limited reading hours to Potter, per the author's definition, I am definitely going to be hit by midlife crisis.

I have tried to read Remembrance of Things Past without much luck. I have watched a Swann's Way and thought it came somewhere between Anna Karenina, Gigi , The Great Gatsby and Lolita - though there are no direct similarities. Even if none of that counts as reading Proust, hopefully it would make for a less than a full-blown crisis at midlife

Monday, July 20, 2009

Two Exiles

Books and movies based on first person accounts of war or revolution are almost always extremely visceral. Recently, I read Kien Nyugen's The Unwanted and watched Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis - two very different countries, cultures and wars but similar in atleast in their denouement - the protagonists get a lease of life outside their own country.

Reading Nyugen's book is like going over a raw wound with a bunch of salt - the horrors of war as well that his personal ordeals given a highly dysfunctional family are gut-wrenching to say the least. As a reader you long to see the rainbow at the end of the tunnel - for redemption, for all wrongs to be made right. Even if it takes exile to do so, it is the far better than any other alternative.

And so is the case with Persepolis. The movie takes a monochromatic, two-dimensional view of a life of a family in Iran by presenting the story as an animation. The reduction of individual choice and civil liberties to a set of black and white diktats could not have been better rendered. Satrapi's life is full of uncertaintlty, fear, confusion and hardship. Rent by revolution and war, the homeland no longer feels safe and secure as "homes" necessarily must.

There is a sense of time's arrow moving backward instead of forward when you consider the freedoms enjoyed by older generations to the more modern regime of constant policing of the citizenry.She drifts back and forth between seeking her place in the world outside Iran and accepting what Iran has become - and she finally leaves never to return. Nyugen does the same as well.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Prom Night In Mississippi

HBO's Prom Night In Mississippi tackles the sensitive subject of racism in present day America. While this is familiar territory, director Paul Saltzman's take is refreshingly different in that he proves is possible to be honest on this uncomfortable subject without being undignified. The film is about Morgan Freeman's offer to pay for the prom at Charleston High's if there is an integrated event. He first made this offer in 1997 and was turned down.

In 2008 Freeman tried again and this time he was successful though some white parents did organize a "whites-only" prom to protest their dissatisfaction. Interestingly enough, they never identify themselves or face the camera to talk about their position on an issue that are obviously very passionate about. Clearly, there is an universally acknowledged good and a bad side to the racism debate and people do not want to proclaim their bigotry to the world.

In many parts of America, people would find it impossible to believe that this film is depicting real events happening in 2008. Yet in other parts, where the under-current of racism is palpable even if not manifested as overtly as at Charleston High in Mississippi, minorities will be able to relate to their own experiences of being made to feel different and unwelcome in many subtle ways every single day.

The film is a brave examination of race relations in an America that believes it lives in a post-racial era having elected a black man to the nation's highest office. There are possibly many different kinds of America with varying degrees of acceptance of diversity. Saltzman shows us what goes on at one extreme of this wide spectrum.

The most heartening aspect of the story is even the kids who have grown up in an atmosphere fraught with anxiety and fear of the "other' race, are largely open minded. For the first time they are questioning the lessons that their parents have taught them and refusing to accept their ideology when it comes to race. Even in Charleston, Mississippi where an integrated prom is a dream in 2008, kids (black and white) want to break the cycle of hate and mistrust and value the individual over the color of their skin.

That is a positive sign for everywhere else in America where racism is a fact of life no matter how subtle the manifestations. America might be only a couple of generations away from becoming truly post-racial. Morgan Freeman talks about the need of a catalyst that would prompt greater social interaction between the black and white kids - the real key to deeper bonds between people who think they are different from each other. He provides just such a catalyst by paying for the first ever integrated prom in a school where such a thing had till then seemed impossible. With any luck, that should have set off the kind of positive reaction that can only grow stronger over time.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Training To Fit

Paul Graham's essay on nerds is good reading for almost anyone though middle and high school nerds might benefit most from it. The essay is all about them written by someone who has experienced the all to familiar pattern of ostracization that is their shared fate. Having seen several nerds in my own life, I believe parents can be a real help in filling the coolness gap that exists between the nerds and the hip crowd at school.

Consider for instance a thirteen year-old math geek who is pretty but has no time or interest in looking attractive. A mother could step in be her style guide, take matters into her own hands to make sure her daughter never looked anything but her best at all times. So the little geek could be number and pattern crunching to her heart's content all day long but she'd have her hair styled and face made-up perfectly thanks to her mother.

She'd have the best of both worlds specially because she is not making any effort to look attractive and yet she gets the attention that a young girl of her age needs. She would be far more appealing than the cool teenager who primps and preens in front of a mirror for hours and depends on her peers for validation. The geek is lucky in that she does not need any of that to begin with and yet has enough and more.A father can play a similar role in the life of a male geek.

If parents get their nerdy kids into the habit of presenting themselves in the best possible way at all times, eventually it will become second nature for them - at some point they will learn to cruise independently without the parental training wheels. Attire and grooming is one part of presentation where parents can easily help. They can also help nerds polish their social and people skills in a home setting and as they gain confidence encourage them to expand their comfort zone.


Parental support can ease a lot of the awkwardness these kids feel around their peers and as Graham points out they value other things in life much more than fitting in. While that is true, being a misfit is fraught with anxiety and it really does not have to be.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Chance Answer

While comparing notes on elementary schools with another mom, I might have stumbled on a possible answer to a question that has bothered me for a while now. I had always thought the the approach that American schools take to early education was wonderfully liberating and creative as compared to what I had experienced in India as a child. In large part it the reason I decided to raise J in America even if it meant I had to do so alone. That said, it is deeply frustrating for me when reality does not even come close to what my expectations. Maybe I held too romantic a notion about the whole thing and so disappointment was inevitable.

The method and style of instruction in the American elementary school requires a very low student to teacher ratio to be successful. The focus is on individuality and the ability to use learning in creative and untutored ways. All the things that I think are very important to a well-rounded education and were completely missing in my own. No amount of rote learning and mastery of process (as required in the Indian system) can replace the value of these skills.

My question had been why am I so disillusioned with a system that is doing just what I had wanted. It maybe because of class size. There are twenty five kids in J's class and have been about that many since her kindergarten days. One teacher is simply not going to be able to provide the one-on-one time to that many children. In as such, the method of instruction is no longer suitable. When the student to teacher ratio gets sufficiently high, there is a need to change it substantially. At the far end of the scale with forty plus kids to a teacher as I had growing up, the only viable way is to get kids to cram and regurgitate so they don't fail in their tests. Anything beyond that is merely nice to have.

As public schools get their budgets slashed and grow over-crowded the old way of teaching in America is probably just not working out. It does not help either to live in a neighborhood with a sizable transient population causing the class size to vary quite a bit over the school year. J's had teachers who love their job and have excellent ideas to make learning fun for children but their style simply does not scale well. They could have worked miracles with ten to twelve kids in their care but such is simply not the case.So we have these pockets of disruptive or jaded kids in the classroom while the rest get a lot less than they deserve from their school.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Mortality

When you connect with an old friend after a couple of years and ask the question "How have you been ?", there are several kinds of responses you are prepared to hear and there is one that you are never quite ready for "Lots. Let's see now, where do I begin. I was diagnosed with cancer and have been busy taking care of that situation for the most part". This is exactly what happened with me recently.

I had to excuse myself from the phone, go away where I could be alone so I could process what I had heard. A few hours later, I emailed and asked if we could meet for lunch one day. We ended up talking a little about her illness but we mostly pretended that it was not there. I am always quick to go into denial when faced with situations like this. There is no other way I know to process sorrow or pain. As long as I can do it, I will go on like nothing has changed.

We will get back to our old pattern of meeting for lunch somewhere between our workplaces, chat about her crazy in-laws, the latest in J's world and mine, her newest home improvement projects among a host of other things. I will measure time from one meeting to the next and refuse to look any further, scrub out all information that trends negative and supplant it with my imagination where everything is perfectly fine.

Reading these last few lines of a poem titled Biopsy made me want to cry

as the needle enters the vein,
And we search for any possible constellation, something

Familiar to name.

Yet to give in to that impulse would be to accept that my friend is ill so the tears will simply need to wait.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Ideal Job

For anyone who loves Venn diagrams and has pondered over the question what exactly does it take to be happy at work, Bud Cadell over at What Consumes Me has an answer. The analysis is amazing for its sheer simplicity - the clean presentation only makes it better. It got me thinking about how this graphic can come in handy while describing one's ideal position to a prospective employer or even to ourselves.

What We Do Well : This would obviously be the skills, competencies and experience we bring to the organization and the job.

What We Want To Do : This would describe the role in which we believe we can be most successful.

What We Can Be Paid To Do : While we may have a lot of interesting ideas, the organization may not be able to support the incubation (and eventual fruition) of most. This would therefore describe what we will be paid to do and how much.

Learn To Monetize It : This might include venturing on our own with those ideas that we can't get an employer to pay us to implement or perhaps expand the scope of our job (or find another one) to help us do so. The room for horizontal growth in a role is worth investigating during an interview.

Learn To Say 'No' : This needs no further explanation but is possibly the most tricky one to solve. In an interview situation this may entail finding out if the culture of the organization values compliance over dissent under all costs, all circumstances because if such is the case you may never be able to say 'No'.

Learn To Do This Better : Also self-explanatory but in the context of a job search might imply finding out the employer's attitude towards people developing their skills and knowledge and if they actively support/reward such efforts.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Book Glutton

I checked out Book Glutton after hearing about this website on NPR. The idea of scribbling collaboratively on the margins of a book we are reading is interesting - and the website is designed beautifully to do this. Once the novelty has worn off, I wonder if this may not prove to a distraction from reading itself. Forming your impressions, arriving at conclusions independently and even imagining the atomsphere can become incredibly hard with a running commentary to contend with.

Where this may become really useful might be in understanding works that are not easily accessible. With collective commentary to help the less sophisticated readers, even one such as myself may be able to take a stab at James Joyce's Ulysesses. The same idea is transferrable to the reading of epics be it that of Gilgamesh or Ram - where understanding and appreciation is completely dependent on awareness of history and culture.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Short Cut To Reading

My first attempt to introduce J to Harriet The Spy fell flat on its face. She skimmed through a few pages and pronounced that she did not care for the book. This is an all too familiar theme in our household. I am the book scavenger and J is the "rejecter" of them. I read the book myself and really enjoyed it. My sense was, if J could be persuaded to stick with it for a bit she would like it too. I have had similar luck with Enid Blyton books that I have tried to get her interested in. I can't for the life of me understand how a curious kid like J may not enjoy stories of mystery, sleuthing and adventure. But again, I am yet to get a handle on the genres and authors that will click with her consistently.

Recently, I got the audio book version of Harriet The Spy and J is now in love with it - I don't easily give up on books that I believe have potential and will open doors to other worlds of reading. I have no talent for reading aloud and knowing that have never tried to - it makes all the difference to have a book read well or have it read in an insipid way (which is what I will be able to do).

Given the success with Harriet The Spy now,
The Little Prince, Treasure Island and Kidnapped in the past, I think I may have found a working solution to J's summary rejection of books I would really love for her to read. Maybe if she listens to the story and likes it enough, she may at some point end up reading it as well. And even she did not, she would have experienced the book in another form. This is not unlike the compromises I make in order to get her to eat healthy even the meal lacks in variety - one big serving of chicken stew with a bunch of vegetables thrown in it instead of trying to get her through a three course dinner.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Putting Twitter To Work

For any brick and mortar business wondering how Twitter can do for them, Naked Pizza may have the answer. Wonder how long it will take before a Twitter handle becomes a standard part of a billboard, appearing before web-site and phone information. After a while their combined promotional tweets will become tweet-spam and it will create a market for anti-spam tools for Twitter. Also, there are only so many companies anyone would care to follow. When the tweet-noise decibel is high enough, folks will probably find another quieter place to hang out.

I dream about a time when marketing departments in corporations will try to come up will better ideas than trying to grab their prospects and leads by the eyeball. Maybe they could become the mystery benefactors to the communities where they are located and thereby pique everyone's curiosity. Towns, cities and villages almost everywhere in the world could use a helping hand. Instead of emblazoning every inch of open space with their marketing and promotional materials when they sponsor something, they may try a lighter, subtler touch for a change.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Desis And Denial

Sometime ago, I had blogged about coaching centers in India and the reports of them having inside access to questions for the entrance exams to the top-ranking engineering schools in India. As expected, several Indian readers commented that I was making sweeping generalizations based on this one reported incident that I had linked to in my post. There have been other reports since besides reports of the inevitable brand dilution. The flaw is as systemic as it is old even if we don't want to believe it and look the other way.

At the risk of being accused of making yet another generalization, I will say that Desis are prone to being in the state of denial about far too much when it comes to India. Most recently this has been the economic meltdown and the notion that it will somehow leave India unscathed.This attitude is probably a proxy for patriotism that is not expressed in any other tangible way. In their minds, denial somehow equals non-existence and defending India against criticism (even when well-deserved) equals national pride. Maybe it has something do with what Dr Ambedkar said about our delusion of being a nation :

There is no nation of Indians in the real sense of the world, it is yet to be created. In believing we are a nation, we are cherishing a great delusion. How can people divided into thousand of castes be a nation? The sooner we realise that we are not yet a nation, in a social and psychological sense of the world, the better for us.

Maybe we try to over-compensate by posturing national pride when in fact we can't even fully articulate what our nation is in "a social and psychological sense". At any rate, for every hundred thousand desis claiming that our college entrance exams are completely sacrosanct, that our education system is able to help our best and brightest get ahead, that our hobbling infrastructure will not put the brakes on even the most powerful growth engine, that crimes against women are an aberration and not the rule, that women have just as much freedom in India as they do in the developed world and indeed the upward trajectory of growth that is helping the a very small minority of the country's population is completely win-win ; there is one desi who is taking a good hard look at what is really going on, calling a spade a spade and what's more doing his or her bit to bring about meaningful change in an organic way.

They would be the ones who will gladly give up a promising corporate career home or abroad to improve the lot of the poor, neglected and disenfranchised in some remote backwater. In my mind, they are the real patriots and unfortunately we have woefully few of them. I must make haste to point out that I do not claim to be in the model desi minority that I have just described though I have been fortunate enough to be acquainted with a few who truly are.

There a far too many of the garden variety India Shinning Kool-Aid drinkers who will flip into denial-mode the moment someone shows them a blemish on this shining patina. They would love for all things that all ail India to be automagically set right. Until then, they could live in their picture-perfect walled off communities, waxing eloquent on the myriad of possibilities that India is and not have the dirt and grime in direct line of sight. I don't see find myself fitting in this demographic either.

Considered from a desi world view, denial seems to the next stage after resignation. When you believe there are no alternatives and that you have no control over things that determine the quality of your life and the future of your motherland, the best course of action might be to go into denial if only to ease the pain.

It is at this point that you read the news of women being molested in broad daylight everyday, of call-center workers being raped by their car drivers, of a five kilometer commute to work taking two hours each way or kids cheating their way into top-ranked schools and calls these incidents one-off and not representative of the state of India as a whole. You really believe this to be the case because the alternate hypothesis is too painful to bear or even consider possible - it shatters the very foundation of your existence.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Truth And Hypothesis

A July 2008 Wired cover story titled The End of Science, resonates with my own experience with data and analytics - specially in light of the battles that one has to wage with those who are convinced that there a priori needs to be a statistical model to proceed with analytics. Apparently, analysis means nothing without a hypothesis. I believe with the right tools, the data should speak for itself - the models are not necessary.

This is however a hard case to make for someone (like myself) who is approaching the problem from a common-sense and industry experience standpoint without a string of accreditations and doctorates appended to their name to lend gravitas to their perspective. Folks like us don't earn the respect of the pure math nerds very easily. They tend to view us as slackers who want to bypass the rigors of the scientific method. So we soldier on, hobbled by models and hypothesis that are not even directionally consistent with what the data says about itself.

It was heartening to see this idea echoed by Google's research director Peter Norvig who says of statistical models "All models are wrong, and increasingly you can succeed without them". The skills and talents of statisticians are much better served in finding the dominant patterns in sets of correlated data. They can help whittle the field from 100s of X's that result in a Y to a handful of the most high-value ones. Forcing a model on data is almost detrimental in that you can spend the bulk of your time disproving the hypothesis and search for one that will stick. What is more, you could miss out on the real story the data has to tell.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Needless Science

Got to love it when shrink and science come together to restate the obvious. This study seems to suggest the higher up you are socio-economically, the less likely you are to engage with your fellow humans. The simple one-word equivalent for the bunch scientific gobbledygook in the article is probably snobbish.

Then there is this other one that has scientific proof that women are attracted to manly men. It does not qualify the term "manly" so one assumes that definitions could be subjective. At any rate, the value of a scientific study to prove such a thing is just as hard to fathom as needing to establish that wealth and arrogance often go together.

Surely, nature has not run of mysteries to be solved that can keep the scientific community gainfully engaged and also do the rest of us some good. Maybe that is asking for too much.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Usability Lesson

Love this Swiss Army Knife style makeover of the kitchen knife. People often have kitchen drawers full of equipment to chop, cut, peel, pare and more and yet there is one knife that becomes the trusted favorite which gets used all the time - put to uses it was not even intended for. With a knife that is actually made to be multi-functional, we have design imitating and enabling the actual behavior of it's users. If this is not great usability, I don't know what is.That is concept and then there is reality-check. All of the commentators to this story say they would not like to use this knife because they fear it would injure them.

I find this idea and the reception to it most instructive because it translates to web usability as well. Copious amounts of time, effort and money is spent on usability by companies who want to do right by the users of their websites. Yet, when the site is made "right" to align with the perceived needs and preferences of the users, often the results are a complete disappointment to them. Maybe there is a gap between our desires and actions that simply cannot be measured and therefore never fully satisfied.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Information Ocean

J often gets homework assignments that involves researching for information to write a report or complete a project. The topics are fairly straight forward being that the "researchers" are only 6-8 years old. I usually help her find the information from credible sources on the Internet and will check out some books from the local library if time permits.

Watching this video about the role of a school librarian in the 21st century gave me much food for thought. Specially when the librarian featured in it talks about growing up in an information desert whereas kids today are in an information ocean and drowning in it. Information fluency is as she points out is a crucial survival skill in the world that J and her peers are growing up in. It is just as if not more important than learning to read for these kids.

There is just too much information out there and not knowing to navigate successfully can determine whether they will sink or swim in this "ocean". A big take away for me from watching this is to start teaching J to find her way around search engines and be able to tell good information apart from the bad. You can't emphasize to kids soon enough that credibility is not conferred on a piece of information just because it showed up in Google search.The importance of this had not fully registered with me until hearing from a vanguard of library science and its use in elementary schools.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Teen Relationships

Some years ago, after the book Rainbow Party was published, it fell to disgrace because the material was a little too sensationalist to have credibility - at least in the opinion of its critics. Once again the issue of oral sex becoming commonplace for pre-teens and teens in America, is making news and a documentary. Until parents start to become ostriches with heads buried in the sands of denial, this story will likely do its rounds, get discussed and commented on.

Film-maker Sharlene Azam hits the nail on its head when she traces back the behavior of these pretty girls from affluent backgrounds who by their own admission have had wonderful childhoods. In short, there is no reason for them to engage in casual prostitution. She believes that many of them have been hurt and in love and do what they do to protect themselves from bing hurt again.

Azam said she thinks the "no strings attached" romances could be a defense mechanism against a greater disappointment.

"A lot of girls are disappointed in love," she said. "And I think they believe they can hook up the way guys do and not care.

"But unfortunately, they do care."

Claire Shipman advises parents to be constantly engaged in the lives of their children to prevent them from engaging in such activities. That and open communication, rules and boundaries says Shipman should do the trick. While she is right on the importance of all of the above, it would not be enough to deter a young girl who has been hurt and wounded deeply enough to consider doing whatever it takes to protect herself.

The answer may be in getting girls to value themselves very highly and recognize that there are many other accomplishments in life that are worth pursuing besides being in a relationship - specially one that expects sexual favors to sustain. Needless to say, positive and empowering female role models are very important in the lives of young girls.

A sense of purpose, a healthy self-esteem and a generous dash of ambition can act as effective deterrents against such reckless behavior. A girl who is driven to achieve and excel is less likely to need validation from a boy. She is likely to get a lot of male attention even without seeking it because she exudes so much charm and confidence. That would do enough to boost her confidence as a desirable woman. Her goal should not be to be the one who is most willing to offer sexual favors to have boyfriend, instead she be so far above the fray that she would never need to settle for anything short of a deeply loving and respectful relationship.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Playing To Win

G is like my kid brother and is given to checking on me every once in a while. I wish he lived closer, so J could have a sense of extended family. His child is less than a year old and would fulfill J's strong desire to be someone's big sister.

He and his wife have tried to socialize with desis in their city (they have lived in several up to now) and have faced challenges not very unlike my own. I used to imagine that desis are very accepting of two parent families as they view this to be the normal family configuration. Apparently not.

G has lived in America since he came for grad school, worked almost every kind of odd job there is to help pay his bills as a student. He is not the lowest common denominator desi IT worker in that he has a wide variety of interests outside his day job and can carry on an intelligent conversation that has nothing to do with technology or immigration. He happens to be a Bengali who like me never lived in Kolkata. He would love to be part of something pan-Indian in America but that is not the easiest thing to find as he has come to realize.

The desi society here is fragmented in many different ways - FOBs, ABCDs, by region and language, by vintage (as defined by visa and citizenship status) and most importantly by net-worth. This is almost the modern day caste system only with different parameters to define the different stratas of the hierarchy. G says, the minute he encounters a desi, he can almost hear a the click of their mental calculator going on. He is asked the typical questions - Does he own or rent ? Which school district does he live in ? How far along is he in the immigration process ? Where did he go to school in India and America ? What does he do for a living ? Does his wife work ? What does he drive and so on.

By when he has completed the de regieur survey, the other desi has awarded him a composite score. This score would determine if he is in or out of their social circle. He could choose to be in and be treated with condescension if the desi in question rated him lower than themselves. Conversely he could have been rated higher than the other person in which case he would be treated like an interloper if he decided to butt into their circle.

The best outcome in this situation would be an equal score where he will be accepted without overt prejudice. But it gets tricky at this point. Every one is at the start line but desis don't just spend their life standing there smelling the roses. They dash off to reach their destinations and the race is brutally competitive. There is no aspect of life that is untouched by competition.

You either play the sport or step out to be a low caliber bench warmer who is unlikely to be called upon to play (this is exactly what I have chosen to do). G is not able to accept that option and yet he and his wife are simply not wired to thrive in hyper-competitive desi society. Being FOBs, they are not welcome in the "superior" ABCD circles. The locals if they are not overly prejudiced are polite but distant. They have their own lives and are not desperately seeking to befriend random FOBs that happen by.

G finds himself left with no good options. Like a man stranded on an alien planet he seeks signs of life - surely there are desis who think like him and his spouse. Surely they can find a community somewhere. He is not excited about raising a child in the isolation he and his wife find themselves in. While I am able to sympathize with him, I have no guidance to offer.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Saying Cheese

The intensity of smile, school yearbooks photos and successful marriages are correlated according to a study. I specially like that yearbook pictures could be a good predictor of a person's marriage.

Overall, the results indicate that people who frown in photos are five times more likely to get a divorce than people who smile.

While the connection is striking, the researchers stress that they can't conclude anything about the cause of the correlation.

Being a single-parent without so much as a father-figure in J's life, I do worry about what perspectives she might form about the institution of marriage. She has no memory of a two-parent household - it has always been the two of us. If I do a half-way competent job of parenting and housekeeping, would J come to think of marriage as optional or nice to have when it is time for her to find a partner ? Yet, failing to do my job is not even an option.

My sense is she realizes that I have a lot of responsibilities to juggle, conflicting priorities to balance and lack the helping hand of a partner. Hopefully, she can imagine the kind of mother I might have been if I had the support I am missing. Maybe by doing a somewhat decent job as a mother, I might kindle in her the desire to give more to her children than I have been able to give her. Hopefully, in time she will see that as a natural by-product to a good, happy marriage and want it. At any rate, I am glad J almost always has a big smile on her face in her pictures - yearbook included. I want to believe it is an accurate predictor of her marriage.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Hand Movements

According to this article in Scientific American hand gestures are correlated to our ability to understand and learn new concepts. The comments on the article make for interesting reading as well. In my culture, gesturing has never been a big part of communication. It would generally be viewed as distracting rather than helpful. I have noticed though that when giving discourses holy men and women do use hand gestures - they are few but highly eloquent. Likewise with artists, performers, musicians and dancers - gestures are part of their language.

At the other end of the spectrum, it is common to see socio-economically depressed people given to elaborate gestures involving hand and body to get their point across - and I say this in the context of Indian society. I would imagine some of the negative connotation associated with gesturing too much while talking stems from here. Folks probably don't want to come across as uncultured, uneducated or impoverished. If the findings reported in the article are correct, I wonder what that would mean for those of us who are culturally conditioned to gesture little or not at all.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Telling Too Much

The phrase confessional journalism maybe relatively new but the genre is definitely familiar. Hadley Freeman describes its characteristics with remarkable accuracy :

Here's how it goes: a female journalist describes her obsession with her weight/breasts/ageing face/food or alcohol problems/inability to have a happy relationship. The article is illustrated by the journalist looking as miserable as possible. There are tales of daily woe. It concludes with the writer still sufficiently unhappy to be commissionable for another very similar piece.

While online and print media are replete with example of such outpourings - kvetching is certainly not the exclusive realm of women. Men will chronicle just as faithfully their many problems with women, alcohol, career (or the lack of one) among a host of other topics. That Freeman considers confessional journalism a serious setback to "feminism" is a testament to the fragility (if not irrelevance) of the movement itself.

Aside from everything else, this kind of journalism sets feminism back by about 50 years, because not only does it perpetuate offensive stereotypes about women as needy, helpless, childlike narcissists, it suggests that the most interesting thing a woman can offer up to others is her own battered, starved, bloated, enhanced or reduced body. And that seems a lot sadder to me than any shocking revelation I ever read in a single piece of confessional journalism.

Confessional writing is often the interesting thing a man or a woman can write. Take away the designation of "journalism" and describe it as an "essay" and there is no problem at all.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Friends With Benefits

Friends with benefits is a relatively new concept in the annals of relationships and is getting to be fairly commonplace. In the on-line world, things are possibly much worse - there is no friendship involved in this type of short-term contact for sexual gratification. I find these ideas curious for several reasons and wonder what there might be in it for the woman.

Based on the sheer volume of literature and advice on the subject of how to find a man of your dreams, reel him in and get him to walk down the aisle, it seems like she is not getting a lot besides the "benefits" in the average relationship. When a man plays the field he is a player or a stud but a woman in similar circumstances is usually a slut. This is not to say any one characterization is better or worse that the other - but they are distinctly different.

If a woman is angling to catch a man and get married to him (and God forbid have his babies), she is way too needy and clingy but when a man turns his thoughts to marriage he is just a serious and sensitive guy that any woman should be overjoyed to have in her life. There are bridezillas but no equivalent term for grooms - apparently marriage still means a great deal more to women than it does to men. In short, this is not a gender-neutral issue.

If there is literature around how to find the woman of your dreams, more likely than not it is replete with wisdom on pick-up strategies that are most likely to succeed. In such books, a man will likely find advice on stalling techniques when being pursued by a woman determined to become his wife. At any rate, this whole friends with benefits business just makes things official so women can stop whining about their less than satisfactory state of affairs.

Is this then a way for her to avoid being hurt and betrayed by preempting the man's refusal to gratify her emotional needs. In calling a relationship "friendship with benefits" she is making sure that she has a friend past the expiration of the beneficial relationship - something that does not usually happen in the more traditional romantic involvement. A breakup is the end of both friendship and benefits at the same time.

This way she does not have to lose everything even after the man has moved on. For the man there is a huge advantage. Whereas he would at least be expected to provide some amount of emotional support in the relationship to enjoy the benefits, he is completely off the hook now. He gets everything he was getting before minus the obligation to be there for the woman emotionally. It is the best of both worlds as far as he is concerned.

It seems to me that women dig themselves into deeper and bigger holes as they go forth liberating themselves from the shackles of traditional gender stereotypes; in their misbegotten efforts at gender equality in relationships. Through their over-zealous efforts at parity with men, they end up ceding the real gains made by the gender over many generations in less "progressive" times.

Ironically (even if not directly related to the topic at hand), today's women are apparently
unhappier than ever.The first step in achieving any form of "equality" might be to stop thinking about how to get a man and keep him. As long as that is even a premise, all talk of equality is moot.