Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Alternatives To College

My friend A became father for the second time recently. We were catching up after a while and conversation turned to the cost of college education for our kids. His oldest is a few years younger than J. While I thought that there would be an array of cheaper, more innovative options in education and I may not need to hock an arm and leg to see J through school, A thought that the time-tested conventional way was still going to be the best - today or ten years from now.

That said, I would be wise to start a college fund for J and brace myself for the big expenses when the time came. Having studied in India's government subsidized university system, I am completely unfamiliar with the notion of having to pay for my education.When I hear what my peers who studied in America owe in student loans, I am petrified. There is no way, I would spend that much for a degree which really means little in the real world.

A passport to the job market in a non-specialized field such as the one I work in in should not cost nearly that much. Reading about StraighterLine makes me hopeful that J and her peers will have sensibly priced education options. There seems no reason why this model of $99 a month for any number of courses that you are able to complete in that time will not work. This is a great option for students who are able to work through the material at a fast clip but don't have the ability to pay extra for the accelerated pace.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Car Washing

Before the world was connected by the Web, there used to be a certain lag time in cultural trends moving across borders of countries and continents. As a result, college kids in India were reading The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in the 80s and 90s - it was just one of those books that you had to read because everyone else you knew had. I picked it up from a room-mate and even managed to complete reading it - a feat in itself given the subject matter.

The only thing that has remained with me of the book is the luscious prose Prising employed to describe everything it took to keep a piece of machinery in top condition. The passion was palpable. The only thing I have ever owned is a car and while I follow the service schedule meticulously, I can't really be bothered with making it looking shiny and new all the time. I figure I can get that taken care of professionally when it is time for me to sell or trade in my car.

My parents are visiting these days and dad can't bear the car's exterior neglect. So one weekend, J, grandpa and I spent a few hours washing and cleaning the car. It was hard work and took up a whole morning but I could not deny the sense of satisfaction I felt after we were done. My neighbor downstairs cleans his late model Infinti religiously almost every other Saturday.

Sometimes I watch him at work and think about that Prising book I read a long time ago. He goes about the job with a single-mindedness that is hard to miss. It is like the whole world has coalesced into the orb that contains him and his car. Meditation could not look a lot different than this. I can get that way when I am spring cleaning my apartment or putting some order back into my chaotic kitchen or book shelves. Auto maintenance may not be my thing but the Zen of cleaning and caring for things is undeniable.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Saving Conversations

I am yet to fully grasp the value of real-time web, but learning the Twitter saves all its tweets and will make them search-able in the future makes it easier to see the value. Google's Sidewiki could likewise give search the point-in-time flavor it is currently missing. Browsing through tweets or comments on significant events after the effect will allow people to get a sense of history is an intensely personal way that is not possible merely by browsing through news articles and op-ed pieces.

Filtering signal from noise out of all this commentary and tweets (which can be horribly spam-ridden) will probably be an industry in itself. Given that most unmoderated discussions online degenerate into free for all slanging matches with people hiding behind their handles, it will be interesting to see how facts and opinions on any issue are weighed and valued relative to each other and in absolute terms.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Enabling

Recently at a meeting with a client's team, the head of marketing walked us through what she termed an "niche and untested" product that would help connect the elderly and disabled with an assortment of service providers. I was there to help assess what it would take to set up data analytics for the program but as she went through her presentation, I found my mind drifting further and further away from what was expected from me.

The health care reform debate is on in sober earnest in America and apparently there are many who believe there is nothing broken so bad that needs to be fixed. In that conference room, a group of savvy people had found an opportunity that would feed effortlessly off of a broken system - a slew of such gravy trains abound in this business. They had found a way to wrap the inherently dysfunctional in pretty brochure ware and now they needed a way to measure success and profitability of the enterprise. This is where folks like me came in.

Images of old people pushed to the brink of poverty and general helplessness rushed to mind. Under the pretext of easing their health care burdens we would probably only add to their miseries. Suddenly data and calculations did not feel so sterile anymore. What would constitute success for this group may be at the cost of great hardship to someone who was fighting daily to live as age and disease made it more and more complicated and expensive.

I wondered if I really wanted to a part of this, wondered why such questions would bother me suddenly. It's not like I have worked for charitable and non-profit organizations all my life supporting only virtuous causes. It was not like I was suddenly crossing over to the dark side. I have possibly been there for as long as I have consulted playing my small part in an orchestration of enablement.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Absent Chemistry

Recently my friend K asked if it were possible to judge if there was chemistry or not based on one picture. I was quick to say yes - it has happened to me. Now K is a very attractive young woman who does some modeling on the side. Clearly for an "average-looking" man to tell her "awfully sorry but I am not feeling any chemistry at all" based on a picture from her portfolio is an affront. Had it been the other way around, K would have not called to ask me the question she did. I am certain she has summarily dismissed prospects based on a picture or two - as have many of us women.

The real question is therefore, should men be held to a different standard than women. Does it behoove them to declare they find a woman attractive even if they really don't - is it merely good manners like holding the door. Are they out of acceptable standards of behavior if they tell what they actually think. I suggested to K that she shrug it off and move on. It should not be so easy for a random man to come along and displace her confidence in her physical appearance.

There are enough guys fawning over K at any given time - and that alone should be enough to undo the damage one had done. As long as youth is on her side she can count on that. When it is gone she will need have enough self-worth built so she no longer needs validation and affirmation from men. She should be in a place where she can be amused at the remark and be able tell this man she appreciates his candor and wishes him luck.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Sacrifice And Completion

My friend D is always brimming with ideas. Many of these would be "projects" cook in her head for years but never see light of day. We chat about them sometimes, I throw in my two cents on how it get it off the ground, she mulls over it for a bit and then retreats into her comfort zone - that of idea hibernation. A year later, her plans may have evolved even more but it still hasn't become something tangible.

D can get deeply frustrated over her inability to give birth to her babies (as we call them) - the gestation period is as painful as it is interminable. We have often wondered why it is that she can't take the final plunge and end up attributing it to her paralyzing fear of failure. Read this blog the other day where the author talks about the need to make some real sacrifice to create the time in which to finish a project. Giving up food, vacations, TV or whatever it is that is important to you and feels like a big deal going without.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Beautiful Women

Tyler Cowen's article on why some countries have a disproportionately higher number of beautiful women has several interesting comments from readers. Rather than the usual suspects of ethnicity, genetics, diet, life-style and such which might result in a certain group of women (and men) looking more appealing than others, readers suggest a whole slew of other factors - repeated conquests of a country by foreigners (assuming these foreigners almost always were better looking than the natives, this makes sense), incentives for women to look their best in societies where there the available pool of potential husbands is small and more.

The
other theory is that women are getting more and more beautiful over the generations while men remain at the same level of aesthetic appeal as their cavemen ancestors. Ouch ! If that were really true, women would not kill themselves trying to look skinny and plastic beautiful. After all, it should not be that hard to appeal to cavemen. Yet, the fashion, surgical and cosmetic enhancement business is flourishing like never before.

Just to throw yet another random theory out there, I would suggest that women today are going overboard with this whole beauty business because they are increasingly moving away from their gender stereotype. There is no longer anything a man can do that an woman cannot as well. Merely her gender, does not make her feel feminine so she needs something more to reaffirm it to herself and the world at large - so looking beautiful is as important as it is.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Master Of Nothing

'Partly by design and partly happenstance, I do happen to be a Jack of All Trades professionally. By extension it must imply (to most people at least) that I am the master of none. Being a generalist has for the most part worked out for me, but I do find it hard to slot my resume into the specific cubbyhole of a "job description". That said, it was nice to read this take on the virtues of being a Jack of All Trades. Could not agree more with Tim Ferriss when he says :

The jack of all trades maximizes his number of peak experiences in life and learns to enjoy the pursuit of excellence unrelated to material gain, all while finding the few things he is truly uniquely suited to dominate.

I have stumbled on to the most interesting and valuable work experiences by taking on projects that were underfunded or not all in my spare cycles. There was no material gain from any of them - though some peer appreciation resulted at times. Between my "real" job and all these other things that I picked along the way, at some point I was able to discern my real strengths and inclinations. That learning is important and stood me in good stead. While I don't claim mastery over any subject area but dabbling in a bunch of things did not come in the way of acquiring it.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Musipedia

Musipedia has got to be best relief for earworms that I have come across so far. Love the idea of searching for a tune that is lodged in your head for months (it happens with me once too often) and you have no idea what the lyrics may be, who sang it - or anything at all that may help you find the song on the internets.

The greater the abundance of helper resources online, the more stubborn my earworms tend to become - not much different from viral strains that become resistant to drugs used to fight them.The song that has been troubling me most recently did not show up in the database based on the tap sequence I entered. Maybe I did not get it quite right or the database is still its nascent stages. At any rate I plan on returning to try my luck again. This time I could try play the notes on the piano and see if that results in a better outcome.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Words To Ponder

I have been reading Paul Starobin's After America. There is a lot to write about the book but I will save that for another time. In the Introduction chapter, he writes :

Both human beings and civilizations can be less dangerous with a sensible realization of their limits. In the affairs of humankind, there is no such thing as a pure actor as a driver of events : Even the biggest of actors is acted upon. Subject and object dissolve into an unfolding tale whose conclusion is elusive, a matter of probabilities rather than certainties.

As far as I am concerned, I got more than my time's worth from this book just for reading those lines. I found myself going over the words over and over again as I mulled over what it meant at the individual level, how this idea has played out in my life or those of others that I know closely, events that touched us (or not). Even if Starobin did not have another coherent thought in the remaining 300 plus pages of the book (which is most certainly not the case), it would not matter.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Good Incentive

Incentives for reading work with kids but they have to be sized and timed right. Up until last year, it was the AR tests at J's school - the bane of my life. The kids were reading a lot but not really expanding their horizons. Each book read and comprehended gave the child a certain number of point and they made a big fuss over the kids who scored the most. J stayed strictly within the comfort zone of her favorite genres. No amount of prodding from me was enough to make her take the leap of faith and venture into unknown territory. Books got rejected without a second thought let alone a good faith effort to try and like them.

This year they are trying something different. Kids will get small prizes if they read books from at least eight different genres and can talk about each book they read. Now J is on a mini-reading spree and is not saying no to anything. The magic number is eight and it takes her quite a distance from what she is most familiar and comfortable with. I like this a whole lot more than the AR tests.

As I consider the effectiveness of this strategy, I wondered why I did not try something similar at home. Chances are it would not have worked both for reasons for size and time. There is no competition at home which can be a huge damper on any incentive scheme. Then there is the matter of timing. She was probably not mature enough to go across eight different genres at less than eight years old.

At any rate I am glad to see my wish for her read what does not appeal to her immediately, stretch her mind and imagination in ways that they haven't been before, being fulfilled.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Mahalaya

It was Mahalaya yesterday. Had my parents not been visiting, I would have never known. Since they wanted to listen to the Chandi Path, I looked for the Birendra Krishna Bhadra recording we always heard back home on All India Radio, on YouTube. The familiar music from childhood nearly brought me to tears. It is associated with many happy memories of simpler more innocent times. The future (and adulthood) was a distant place and could be re-imagined endlessly.

The life I have today was certainly not something I had planned or wished for. While there is much that I am grateful for, there is much I wish would be different. The future is much harder to see or imagine than it was in those long ago days. The music made me long for the home I don't really have, a time that will never come back and memories that no longer have a place to live.

The town that I grew up in does not resemble how I remember it, the familiar landmarks have been obliterated, friends have scattered around the world. There is no one or nothing to return to - nostalgia needs the medium of familiar things to remain potent. That medium has all but evaporated for me. Yet the sound from the dawn of Mahalayas past returned to me in unexpectedly generous measure vignettes from childhood - a bounty I was completely unprepared for.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Irfan And Suniana

Irfan and Sunaina made the most unlikely pair and yet theirs was a very profound relationship. Beyond love, lust and friendship they had found a place where it was possible to be completely comfortable with each other, shed every artifice and pretension and just be. It was a familiarity that had mellowed over time to become this very special, indescribable thing that could neither name or afford to loose.

Then there was the business of life, individual goals, career aspirations and obligations to family. While they were not inherently different in what they wanted, it would be the where and how that would come to determine the fate of their future together. Irfan started out as an intern in an Delhi based consumer goods company and quite quickly came to the realization that his religions and cultural affiliations would come in the way of career growth. When he talked about this with Sunaina, she wondered if he was not being a little too over-sensitive. Maybe there were other factors at play, maybe he needed to be a better schmoozer.

This was going to be one of the things they would have to agree to disagree about and Sunaina was okay to leave it that way. She reasoned that she had no way of knowing how it felt to be in his shoes. Two years out of college and into their jobs, Irfan got an offer from a company based out of the Emirates. Would she accompany him there he asked ? Only a month ago he had proposed and she had said yes but wanted to wait until her career was on stable footing. She wanted to work in America and had been interviewing for jobs. How would that work out ? Sunaina had asked him in return.

How could they now live and work in two different countries while in a marriage. But can't you live and work where I do ? Irfan asked. There are plenty of jobs for your skills and they would pay very well too. Why does it have to be America ? he asked. Because I want to be in a free country, enjoy the right to be myself, do what I want and not have restrictions imposed on my way of life. You can have all of that and much more as my wife Irfan said. But I don't know if I can adjust to the culture of that country. And I don't want to viewed with constant suspicion and disrespect in America because of my name.

This would become the biggest stalemate in their relationship of over fifteen years. She wanted her freedom and he wanted his - it just so happened they could not have it living in the same place. So where do we go from here ? Irfan asked. I think you should go where you think you have a better future, where you will be valued for the work you do and not be judged because of your name. And you ? he asked. I think I should follow my own dreams too - because I cannot follow you to yours.

Why stay behind in Delhi, where all our memories are. I would be miserable everyday without you. In America, I could start fresh. I will miss you always but maybe the change of scenery will make it hurt less. They stay in touch - long distance calls are not as expensive as they used to be and that is such a blessing. They time their trips back to India so they get to meet even if for a few days. Emotionally they are just as close as they always were but increasingly it is becoming clear to them that they have hit the fork on their road together. They can delay the goodbye but it is inevitable.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Under Advisement

Recently a desi dude who is more acquaintance less friend called to check in on me. Those who have read this blog before might know that such calls tend to make me anxious. Depending on how far back we go, there are sets of FAQs that I brace myself to answer. The trick is to be sufficiently evasive without being downright offensive - a fine balancing act given the provocative nature of questions involved. I look at these calls as opportunities for building patience and tolerance both of which I seriously lack. Basically, they are very desirous of finding out how I am doing in my personal and professional life to be sure that they have me correctly categorized and filed for future reference.

The major buckets appear to be loser, struggling, average, arrived, superstar and uncategorizable. My goal needless to say, is to be in the last bucket - the unknown, unquantifiable and therefore uninteresting entity. Their aim is to pull me into something more tangible. So anyways, the dude in question asked to find out what kind of technology I was working on these days. After some hemming and hawing at my end and some serious prodding on his, I confessed that I was doing business intelligence and web analytics stuff among other things.

Right away, he tells me that in my line of work I would find it impossible to stay employed stateside. The jobs are drying up fast and furious and only the most enterprising and technology savvy would survive. If I decided to head home to India (as I may very well need to in short order), the competition would so intense that I would need to work for peanuts if I even hoped to find a job. The cost of living in Indian metros being what it is, that would make for a very difficult life. In essence I was burrowing my way into my professional grave as I data mined my days away.

Now, cloud computing ( which is what said dude did for a living) was an area where a man could name his price home (America in his case as he had recently become a citizen) and abroad. There was a huge demand for his skills and no supply to speak of. Only recently a client in India had put him up at the Hyatt Regency for a couple of years so he could consult for them. They also paid him obscene amounts of money for his trouble. Just in case I was hoping to jump on the cloud computing gravy train, he was quick to point out that the chances of one such as myself being able to dig myself out of the hole that I was in were fairly slim. You get set in your ways and become incapable of staying on the bleeding edge of technology.

Each time I am subjected to one of these things, I wonder why I go through it in the first place. Part of the reason is curiosity - I am completely fascinated by how some desi bros think. They simply don't know when to stop once they get in the flow of self-aggrandization, specially when they can tell a sister she has it all wrong. I love to see if they have any limits at all. This dude went on for a full hour and to my credit I gave him my complete and undivided attention. If not anything else, I made a bro feel like king of the world.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Print And Electronic

Love the idea of embedding video in a print magazine. Now if the thing is foldable (and there is technology to support this already) there is no reason why the entire magazine cannot be a combination of print and electronic blurring the distinction between the two media almost entirely. Once the economies of scale kicks in, the idea will carry over to brochure ware and marketing collateral material of all stripes.

An assortment of sounds will commingle as you go through your junk mail. The collage minded can take these video chips from all over the place and create interesting mashups - that would be a much better way to dispose of these things than tossing them into the dumpster. Books coming to life will take on a whole new meaning with this kind of technology.

Be it livening up some dry academic tome or bringing to life a work of fiction a picture (specially a moving one) is worth well over a thousand words. It will be interesting to see if this is a trend that will catch on or if it will just be a one-hit wonder with much untapped potential.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Being Scheherazade

Sheila was sitting with the girls in the cafeteria working her way through a pathetic looking bowl of salad. This time of the day anything else took much too long to order – the lines snaked into the hallway. “Check out that cute guy near the cash register” Jen said excitedly pointing to a tall, dark-haired man in khakis and a white linen shirt. “Yeah, he’s nice” Sheila agreed. Heather threw in her technical assessment of his butt for good measure which made all three of them laugh.

In a few minutes he was at their table asking “Do you ladies mind if I join you ?” . Sheila had to wonder if he had overheard them discussing him earlier. Over lunch they learned quite a bit about the “cute” guy. He was born in Malaysia but was of Indian descent. He grew up in Indonesia and New Zealand, attended Cornell and was here on a consulting assignment for a couple of weeks. Most importantly he was all of twenty one.

Business cards were exchanged, Heather promised they’d do lunch again – maybe take him to the Asian fusion food place that had recently sprouted downtown, and then it was time to leave. Later that afternoon, Sheila received a call from Umang Mehta. He came to the point quite promptly. “I really enjoyed talking with you earlier. Can we meet again this evening after work if you are free ?” Though more than a little astounded by the suddenness of it all, she decided to go with flow having no plans for the evening.

Besides after the four hour team work-out session (the benefit of had never been evident to her – they continued to remain just as dysfunctional as a group after as they had been before) a drink or three could not hurt. “Sounds good. Where would you like to go ?” she asked. “I don’t know much about here. You tell me” . “Let’s go to the White Gerbera. It’s really nice and it’s not too far from here” Sheila suggested. “I have no shame in admitting that I’ve been lost despite the Garmin unit. Can I follow you ?” Umang said with a laugh.

After some back and forth they were able to work out each other’s co-ordinates and how he might find and follow her to Gerbera. After hanging up, Sheila came to the sobering realization that she had just agreed to go out on a date with someone ten years younger than herself and that would be a first. “Out on a date, Shell ? You look very nice” Barry observed with his signature evil grin as she swiped her badge at the main entrance on her way out.

“Thanks, Barry” Sheila smiled back. She had slipped into her stand-by black pumps, freshened up her make up and God forbid even dry shampooed her hair. Clearly the preparation spoke for itself. Why she would go to such lengths for some random cute kid she had no idea.

Flipping through the menu, Sheila asked Umang “Do you realize I am ten years older than you ?”. “Honestly, I would not have guessed that. You don’t look much older than me. But I have to admit, I have this thing for older women” he replied. “What kind of thing exactly ?” she asked looking up at him with mock concern. “You know the young male kind of thing. I’ve always wanted to be in a relationship with someone your age” he replied sheepishly as he fussed with his napkin. “Interesting” Sheila observed sagely.

“Would you be interested ?” he asked hopefully. “Interested in what ?” she asked as she sipped her drink. “In something discreet and intimate with me” Umang replied. “Wow, it does not take much to get to the point, does it ?” Sheila managed to say. “Appreciate the candor, by the way” she added. “Thanks” Umang said relieved. “Since you’ve been so upfront about the nature of this thing you have for older woman, do you mind me asking what exactly might be involved in this arrangement you have in mind” Sheila asked more curious now than offended as she had been a few minutes ago.

“I’d like it to be a relationship but I am really interested in the physical side of it – this will be my first experience” Umang explained. “If I am understanding this right, you are asking that I help you lose your virginity” Sheila said matter-of-factly. “Now I am really embarrassed” Umang muttered. “I would have never guessed. Thanks for telling me” Sheila said laughing, making him smile as well. “Yes, that’s kind of what I am asking for” he admitted. “That, Umang is a lot to ask for” Sheila said almost seriously making him choke over his food. “Why do you say that ?” he asked.

“For one thing it’s a pretty big responsibility. You are going into this thing based on what you imagine it will be like. There is only one first time and one virginity to lose. If it does not quite work out the way you imagine it will, you’ll be very disappointed. That’s the kind of disappointment that sticks for life. I'd hate to have any part of that deal” she explained.

“But I really don’t care. I mean this whole virginity business does not mean anything to me. I have been sort of saving myself but I have no idea for what and even why. Right now, I just want it over with. ” he said.

“That’s what you think now. You may feel very different about it in ten years. And also before I forget to mention it, this is the most bizarre conversation I’ve ever had when meeting for a drink after work. I can’t even imagine I am sitting here talking this stuff with you” Sheila said as rummaged in her bag for her ringing cellphone.

After she had checked her voicemail, she said “Look Umang, I can’t really help as far as the thing you have for older women. You’ll need to find someone else to deflower you so to speak. But there is something I can do for you”.

“You know, Sheila, I think I rather like you. You could be a lot of fun to just hang out with – even if as you say it does end up with me getting deflowered” he laughed. “Are you already in a relationship ? Sorry if I sound too inquisitive but I am really curious” he asked.

“Sure, we could hang out sometimes. As for the question, the answer is yes and no. Does that satisfy your curiosity ?” Sheila smiled at him.

“Makes it worse but I can deal with it.” Umang replied. “ So tell me about what you could do for me”

“I will tell you a story about a guy who like you had a thing for older women. Got started at age nineteen with someone seven years older than him. He is in his mid thirties now. You know hindsight is a wonderful thing when you can stand on someone’s shoulder and look back at the life they’ve lead, learn from the mistakes they’ve made without having had to live through those experiences or suffer the consequences. I could share his story with you. Maybe there is a lesson there that may give you something to think about.” Sheila answered.

“One check please” Umang said firmly refusing to let Sheila split the tab. “Gives me an excuse to meet you again. Now you owe me a dinner” he explained. “Thanks, Umang. Next time, I will tell you about MJ” she said.

“This is like Scheherazade and the Thousand Nights – a small part of the story every time we meet” Umang said with a laugh as they headed out.

“Hey, it was nice meeting you. Thanks for the dinner. Call me later in the week and we’ll plan something for story-time. In the meanwhile, try not to get deflowered. Wait at least until I’m done telling you the story. I promise it won't take a thousand nights” Sheila said.

“Great meeting you too, Sheila. I can’t wait to see you again.” Umang replied.


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Monday, September 14, 2009

Speech And Action

J's school principal left us parents a message on the eve of the president's address to school students to let us know the kids would be tuning in to the speech in their classrooms and it would be incorporated into the curriculum over the next couple of days. I thought it was a wonderful speech and if it touched the hearts and minds of some students, it might actually change their lives in a positive way.

Not that this is a barometer for anything but I did have a chance to go out to dinner with a group of folks who have school age children just a couple of days after this speech. The kids in question range from age five to sixteen. I have socialized with groups such as this one many times in the past have noticed that conversation about kids tends to be limited to a few topics - daycare challenges, the last vacation, performance in sports and the funny things kids said or did.

If there was a college bound child the parent may talk about how many campuses they had visited, the long road trips and flights that involved and what they were doing to set them up in their new digs. The field of study would almost be mentioned as an afterthought if at all. You would be hard pressed to remember that these kids actually went to school, were getting an education (or not). The emphasis is so clearly absent that you cannot miss it. Post-speech none of this has changed.

I know several children who are really interested in learning but have completely nonchalant parents. They will gladly take them to Disneyland for vacation but will not drive them down the street to the public library even when the child is craving to read. While it is a great idea to ask children to take responsibility for their education and do their part but it may not go very far if the culture at home does not emphasize the importance of learning and hard-work nearly enough.

There are parents in America who are very involved with their children's education and are making the most of the resources the system has to offer and chipping in where it is lacking. The speech will serve to reinforce the message to the kids of such parents. While that is a good thing, they don't really need the extra reinforcement. The most vulnerable group however is one whose parents just do not value education as much as they do other things. These kids need a helping hand urgently but steering them in the right direction is a far more difficult proposition. It will be interesting to see how much the speech was able to influence them.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The School Yard

J's elementary school is just across the street from where we live. When my parents visit, we often take a walk to the school in the evenings, so they have the open space to walk while J plays. My mother loves to get on the swing set with J and her delight in the activity is no less than J's evening after evening.

They make a charming picture together - a petite gray-haired woman in a sari and a seven year old swinging joyfully in the school yard. My mother says, it takes her back to her childhood each time she gets on the swing. She grew up in Calcutta and the parks near her home were always too crowded for any child to get their heart's fill of swinging. They had to stand in line, wait their turn and then be urged to make way (altogether too soon) for the next child in line.

Having unfettered access to the swing had remained an unfulfilled childhood dream that is realized each evening at J's school - she can never have enough of it. Each time she is deeply thankful. When I see my mother in the school yard, return to her childhood for a bit, I think about my biggest unfulfilled dreams from childhood and youth. The thing that stands out most prominently is the desire to learn for the sheer pleasure of it without being tested and graded for ability to cram and regurgitate.I was never a good test taker but I always loved to learn - a combination that did not work so well for me in the Indian school system.

I am willing to wait any length of time to be able to return to school to be a full-time student and study one or more subjects I am passionate about knowing fully well there will be little to no return on investment. Like my mother, I may end up being the most enthusiastic grandmother in class of twenty year olds. When I picture myself in that context, it feels as if it is a blessing to have some dreams left unfulfilled - it makes the wait so worthwhile. Not every grandmother is able to become seven in a school yard.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Internet Casualties

Interesting list of things (fifty no less and not even counting those in the comments section) being killed by the internet. For those of us who clearly remember life before internet, we are able to tell the difference between then and now. It is not often that new technology so fundamentally alters our way of life, impacts almost every aspect of it. A lot in the list is facetious (perhaps deliberately so) but there are some interesting items too :

The dead art of politeness - the free for all style slanging matches that go one in the comments section of articles on hot button topics, would be impossible to imagine in the pre-internet time. Today it is the accepted standard of behavior on-line. You are not expected to hold back or be considerate of the feelings of other handles and avatars.

Dead time - Having nothing to do really does not exist for anyone with an internet connection. People will fiddle around on their Blackberrys and iPhones compulsively for the entire duration of their idle time - an elevator ride, waiting in the doctor's office or pauses in conversation. Engaging someone's attention for more than a few minutes is a battle that the internet almost always wins.

Lunch break - I know I have not had one in the workplace in the last ten years unless there was a team event or I went out someplace with co-workers. Lunch is when you get a little downtime to use the computer for leisure rather than work - that is the main event with eating relegated to a minor, supporting act.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Third Space

If it took upwards of ten minutes to charge an electric car what would that mean for the culture of instant gratification we live in and who is best positioned to make a quick buck in this space are some of the questions this article in Big Money deals with. The author Mathew DeBord suggests that Wal-Mart with their commodious parking lots could be a very good fit. They could make good use of their space and entice customers to step inside the store to shop while they are waiting for their car to be recharged.

The premise is clearly that people with ten or fifteen minutes of idle time will have no idea what to do with themselves and their pocket books. They will absolutely need stuff to do (that someone can monetize) to fill that time gainfully.

But what if the slow charing cars cause a general cultural shift toward slowness and people get comfortable having nothing to do while their cars juice up. That would be a good third space to have - a place to wait and watch the grass grow, maybe chat with a stranger who like yourself is has ten minutes weighing heavily on them. It would be really nice if some big box store did not jump and kill any chance there was to slow down the pace of our lives just a little bit.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Personas

The question of on-line identity is a challenging one and MIT's Media Lab tries to answer. I gave the site a shot first with my real name and then with the name of my blog. The results are both intriguing and funny which makes sense when you read the philosophy behind Personas.

In a world where fortunes are sought through data-mining vast information repositories, the computer is our indispensable but far from infallible assistant. Personas demonstrates the computer's uncanny insights and its inadvertent errors, such as the mischaracterizations caused by the inability to separate data from multiple owners of the same name.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Homing Pigeons

A desi of my acquaintance recently became a first time home-owner. Not content with making this leap of faith from renting to owning in these confusing times, he was determined to show me what his new home looked like. I was given a tour of all three floors of this brand new home, told how much the whole thing cost him, what he and his wife would be paying towards mortgage plus month and of course only an absolute dim-wit would still be renting.

He pointed out sagely that any money in the bank was good for toilet paper at best if the currency was USD. His brand new home in a small-town American suburb on the contrary was equity that would keep growing forever and more. How the two statements can mutually coexist and both be true was beyond my ultra-limited grasp of the subject matter so I held my peace and absorbed the bounty of knowledge that was so generously being bestowed upon me.

This is not the first time a desi had impressed on me their superior financial savvy not to mention innate intelligence. I am painfully aware that I am clueless about anything to do with money so it does not help for the well-meaning brethren to rub it in. Each time I have tried to make some financial decisions, the debating punditocracy on either side of the issue have confounded me to the point where I have retired hurt without making any choice at all.

The brethren clearly feel for me and try to illustrate by means of easy to understand examples. I appreciate their efforts and concerns but do also wish they would leave me to my devices as unsophisticated as they are.

Their eyes pop up wide with disbelief when I say I hate living in the sterile suburbs and would like to buy an old house somewhere downtown - in a vibrant neighborhood with some unique of character; that I don't think the so called "good schools" are worth spending all that money over in home prices and property taxes - I would rather save mine, buy a cheaper place and work-partime so I can take over J's education to some extent. They look at me like I have completely lost my mind and look at J like they feel sorry for a perfectly good kid like her to be stuck with an uber-crazy parent like myself. I absorb the pity and condescension the best I can and retreat to my corner until the next purposeful desi comes along to shepherd me along in the right direction.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Copasetic

Is one of the words I have learned within the last few years and now count it among my favorites. It seems like the rate of learning new words (let alone remembering them or having opportunity to use them in context) has diminished significantly for me. Until it is time for J to do vocab word flashcards and the like, it will probably remain this way.

Wordnik lets you look up words and tells you a bunch of stuff about it. It is still in beta and has several functions that are yet to be fully fleshed out. There is even a real time references to your word in Twitter - so you get a sense of how often and how many folks are using the word you just looked up.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Facts And Orginal Thought

Recently, I had opportunity to chat with someone who has been involved in elementary school education for well over thirty years. This post is prompted by one of her observations. W said that knowing facts or being well informed is not nearly as important for children as being able to take those facts and learned knowledge and apply it in unconventional ways. In effect she is suggesting there is no room for the average kid who is not particularly creative or original. While such a kid may be able to learn and reproduce the learning in its original context they may not be able to transfer it over to situations where it does not obviously belong.

I was almost prompted to ask if general knowledge and awareness of the world is not important because there is Google and also what percent of the kids she came across in her career were able to do what she thought was important. While creative and original thinking is undeniably important, it does seem like a tough (if not impossible) standard by which to measure every child's success in school. What I find hard to understand as well is how a mastery of the data is not important when success is measured by the ability to slice, dice and analyze it. In the article, I have referenced, Bamber Gascoigne, a well known quiz-master has this to say :

“In many ways modern education is much better, teaching people to think, but there is a disadvantage, which is that time is limited and if you spend time analysing you don’t have time to learn a basic structure or framework of facts.”

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Short List

Assuming the New York sidewalk hotdog is truly the apogee of one of the best things in the world, this long list of things that are even better is actually a pretty good one too. My favorites -

Your firstborn child - Holding J for the very first time is etched in memory. There is no other moment in my life that felt so overwhelmingly powerful or stirring. To this day (and maybe for ever) I can remember exactly how it felt.

Believing in yourself - Finding out that I had the courage to take charge of my life and J's even after having suffered setbacks, having hopes belied. Being able to believe in seconds chances, the inherent goodness in people and learning to be vulnerable without feeling like a victim

A kiss in the rain - The first time that happenend was the day after R (my ex) and I got married. We went visiting my grandparents - a whole bunch of relatives were waiting there to welcome him into our family. After a while, it started to drizzle outside and R asked me if my folks would mind if we went out for a short walk. I said I did not think so. We left quietly, my uncle tried to get us to take an umbrella but we skipped down the stairs too qucikly for him to catch us. The roads were quite deserted that afternoon and at some point he kissed me as rain fell on my face and his. We were a pair of happy conspirators when we turned home happy and drenched.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

The Last Truck

Having grown up in a small factory town, it was only too easy to relate to the plight of the workers profiled in HBO's The Last Truck : Closing of a GM Plant. For a factory worker whose loyalty often spans many generations, the closing of a plant becomes much bigger than merely losing a job. It is a betrayal of trust almost akin to being disowned and disinherited from one's family.

The factory is an extension of home, co-workers are like kin, life at work and after it is often deeply intertwined. Many have not experienced life in the world outside the factory town and are fearful of being forced to take it on now that they are left with no options. Armed with a high-school diploma, decades of experience in a field where are no jobs anymore, they are ill-equipped for the challenges that lay ahead of them. The closing of a factory does not only deprive them of their livelihood but it destroys their sense of self.

Many if not all the workers the interviewer follows through the last few weeks before plant closing are in tears as they recall the life they have had so far and contemplate what it will be like once the last truck rolls off the assembly line. They wonder why their unyielding hard work, the pride and joy they felt in doing their part in building these trucks does not amount to anything in the end. They wonder why America refuses to do more to help its own. The media blames it all on the unions, the union workers don't agree with that assessment- even the money they are reported to make they say is hugely exaggerated.

This film is a stark and unadorned portrayal of what it means to have achieved the American Dream and then lose it, to have had a chance to better one's lot in life and then know that one's children and grandchildren will not have the same opportunities. As the factory breathes it last, so does a certain way of life for thousands of people who had come to depend on it for generations.

Here is a trailer for the film which will first air on HBO on Labor Day.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Food Miles

There are already too many points to ponder over what used to be the simple (and at one time in the distant past even pleasurable) act of shopping for produce in a grocery store. Paper or plastic, organic or conventional, GM or natural and the list goes on. Each choice is fraught with ambiguity because there is no black and white answer to the question of right or wrong - for who and what goes in to producing that food or for those who will consume it.

To add to our angst-ridden produce shopping experience is this new idea of calling out in the
how far the food has traveled. Is the consumer now expected to add the miles and use that total to feed their guilt about hurting the planet. Or they may have a way to pay their way out of it by shopping only stuff that was grown with a hundred mile radius.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Sensing Sentiment

Marketing types would love for technology like ContextSense to come of age so they can target their messages to even greater effect. As of now, the results it produces are only fairly interesting - the more culturally distant the theme of the writing is from mainstream America, the more unreliably (and incorrectly) the sentiment is analyzed. The context and the contextually similar links are therefore not meaningful.

One interesting application may be for the software to scan several chapters of a book and pick out the key themes and "sentiment" expressed in it. That can help a prospective buyer (or reader) of the book determine if it would be worth their while working through the whole book. The same is true about a lot of other material one has to read and assimilate. With so much to choose from and so little time to get through it all, help is always welcome.

Grading essays and case studies may be another area where this can be of assistance. If the theme, context and tags are significantly off the mark then clearly it is not a candidate for an A. Better still would be the ability for users to teach the software their personal preferences and worldview. If done really well, the application could play proxy for the real person, assess sentiment like they might have and even come quite close.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Bear Shaving

When Seth Godin writes about Bear shaving, I am reminded yet again why he is one of favorite bloggers. He says : Step one to eliminating bear shaving: call it when you see it.

I have tried step one many times in the workplace and most often have never made it to step two. Bear shaving is simply too easy for most people to be bothered with doing the right thing. Besides the right thing involves making a whole slew of people (often with conflicting interests and priorities) stop bear shaving in their individual areas of responsibility so that the organization can change for the better. So there will be many bear shaving alerts from all over but they don't amount to more than random spikes of noise that is drowned in the general hubbub of organizational chaos.

Maybe Godin will follow up this post with ideas on how to go from step one to two successfully.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Poorgeoise

Not to the same intent or cost but there have always been poorgeoisie in India. Empty nester, elderly couples left to fend for themselves in their rambling old homes are often far more affluent than they let on. They hesitate to look rich simply because it draws the attention of the wrong kind of people. Whereas the Wall Street types have gone underground in the aftermath of the economic meltdown, in the face of public wrath over their outrageous compensation packages, these folks have always lived under the radar.

They would not match Ben Schott's description
- Those who conceal their affluence with a (carefully crafted) down-at-heel look - particularly the "carefully crafted" part. They have been living the alternative reality of being folks of slender meams for so long that it becomes second nature. There is nothing to craft about it anymore.