Sunday, September 12, 2010

Two Million Minutes

As a parent who was educated in India and is now raising a child in America, the subject of Robert Compton's 2 Million Minutes is something I can relate to effortlessly. It is well documented how American kids are falling behind when compared to their peers elsewhere in the world. Compton brings those statistics to life, takes viewers into the lives of six above-average high school students from America, China and India.

The film depicts how kids from India and China spend the entirety of their high school years (two million minutes) preparing for the entrance exams to get into one of the premier institutes of learning. They have no life outside that and a decision about career is locked in at seventeen. What is more, that decision is most often made for them by their parents.

In both India and China students grow up in society that emphasizes academic success almost to the exclusion of anything else in a young person's life. Xiaoyuan, the Chinese girl in the movie, studies music but making a career out of it would be considered inconceivable. The boy from India, Rohit kicks a ball around when he is able to - in lieu of being coached professionally for football as his peer in America might be.

The American kids are a lot more self-assured - they have a full life outside the classroom and books. The social emphasis on academic success is almost absent. To that end, a community's spending on sports frequently exceeds that on education; parents don't expect kids to give everything they have into scholastic achievement. On the positive side, they are not required to know who they will be for the rest of their lives at seventeen. Trying several different things before they find their true calling is completely acceptable.

While Compton's exploration of what ails the American education system maybe a little one dimensional, he is certainly not off base. It is generally true that American kids (when compared to their peers around the world) don't work hard enough, they are not challenged enough and they are not nearly as ambitious. The expert commentators in the movie tackle the reasons why.The lack of cultural expectation in America for kids to excel academically is possibly the biggest contributor and that is not emphasized enough. The kids in India and China are a product of their enviornment, take them out of it and they would be no different from their American counterparts.

I am a product of the Indian education system and have an appreciation of where it has helped and how it has hurt me. I am now learning about the American system even if by proxy through my daughter. Two Million Minutes is aimed at shaking Americans out of their complacence about their assured preeminence  in a globalized world.

It is definitely a very timely wake-up call but to take away an all gloom and doom message for American kids is probably unwise. The ideal system of education would be somewhere between the Indian/Chinese and the American ones. It would emphasize academic rigor along with social skills, creativity, team work while nurturing emotional intelligence and an entrepreneurial spirit. With that combination, any kid would be set up for success in the world of the future.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Cooking For Geeks

If you are the kind of cook that thrives on improvisation and experimentation in the kitchen and cannot be bothered to follow recipes then Cooking For Geeks is be the kind of "cookbook" you will enjoy. On the other hand if you are the uber-geek who wants to get everything exactly right - this is a great book for you too.
Often the simplest things like a perfectly soft-boiled egg are hard to pull off with consistently high quality time after time. Traditional recipes simply don't get into the science of egg yolk and egg white phase transitions as a function of temperature. Jeff Potter takes the mystery out of this any a lot else by taking a scientific approach to cooking. Geek or not, you would likely find that more helpful than the inexactitude of conventional recipes that leave something to the cook's imagination and capabilities.
The ground this book covers is impressive - from your basic scrambled eggs and pancakes to making your own Earl Grey infused whipped cream, Mozzarella Cheese and Beurre Noisette Ice Cream. Along the way you find nuggets such as the "Optimal Cake-Cutting Algorithm for N People" and electrocuting a hot-dog.
Early in the book, Potter emphasizes the importance of knowing what type of cook you are to help simplify the learning process. His main division are the "cook" and the "baker". The cook being the kind of person who prefers the "intuitive toss it into the pot approach" and "course correct along the way". The bakers are much for methodical and organized. To the "cooks" among us, Potter says "A recipe isn't a strict protocol, but do understand the suggested protocol before deviating".
Cooking For Geeks is a lot more than a cookbook. Along with the recipes and how-to, it is also cultural commentary on modern American society obsessed with perfection. Being a "good enough" cook is not enough any more in a time where Martha Stewart-esque perfection is the gold standard to aspire for. The author encourages the reader to fail because "Failure in the kitchen is a better instructor than success".

The book defies a conventional genre definition and is a very refreshing detour from the over-crowded cook-book space.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

About Girls


In his book Girls On The Edge, the author Leonard Sax talks about who a nascent spiritual awakening in teenage girls if not given a chance to grow could result in them seeking the ultimate happiness and satisfaction through sex or romantic relationships. This is only one of the many valuable insights in this book which is a must read for anyone who has a daughter. 
Sax comes across as having a genuine empathy for girls - and concern for their overall well-being. After a long time, this is a book that kept me hooked all the way and I came away feeling like I learned things I did not know - things that may help me raise J better.
On empowerment and expression of sexuality he writes "As parents, we must reject the notion that girls have to take off their clothes to empower themselves. Boys don't have to take off their clothes to empower themselves. Girls shouldn't either." I wish Sax would write a book targeted at tweens and teens that conveyed the same message in a way that makes sense to them.
The book makes for scary reading - it would likely shake the most laid back parent out of their complacence.
There is a lot to learn and take away from this book for a parent of a young girl. For me the key learnings were :

1. The difference between the authoritative and authoritarian parent and the impacts on the child based on these parenting styles along with the risk of being a liberal parent.

2. The importance of initiating a young person into the world of adult-hood as opposed to leaving them to their own devices to find their way.

3. The threat of living in a "cyberbubble" where a girl is "hyper-connected with her peers" and "disconnected from herself".

4. Minimizing the intake and exposure to environmental toxins that cause girls to reach puberty ahead of time and bring a whole host of physical and emotional problems in the process.

Six Shorts

Cleaning my Inbox after a long time yielded this.
I
Swooping through
the far coast into the
heartland,  I wait
to turn  home by the bay.
My traverse a wide
crescent
Like your smile.
II
I remember the night
I turned twenty nine
with my womb full 
one half of me lay
cleaved on his side
of our bed. My eyes
turned rosebuds the
day after - tears
offered in prayer.
The night I most
needed your love.
III
The emptiness of
my workday coils
like a dreary boa
stuffed to the gills
yet loathe to rest. 
IV
On an early day in August
I made a note to myself
To  remain steadfast
In friendship and not let
Eros grime the way. Yet as
Summer turns to Fall I wonder
If sometimes its not just the same.
After many years again
in the feeling of love
or its approximation, I
fight my demons again.
Needing more than being
needed. Trying too hard
to please - to fathom -
to get under the other's
skin. To grow on you like
a graft to be one in soul.
All demons of pain that
I have fought down before.
Where are my lessons in love ?

VI

A wall of tears is building
up like before - and you
do not know to coax the
flood. He did not either.
you sit behind in silence
tell me through data lines
and seventeen hundred miles
that you are well. What of
me  ? What of the words of love
twisted like a taut co-ax ?
Do you care or want to know
what it takes to bring on
the deluge ? Or what that
means to me ? He did neither.
Quietness is inhaled and exhaled
interminable unbearable silence.
I am terse and vivacious
by turn not sure which will dull
the hollow numbing pain.