Sunday, September 30, 2007

Speech Held

I sort of like some of the Ram Gopal Varma movies which is a far cry from being a fan. Even with that, I approach his work without a great deal of expectations and am most often not too disappointed.

I am on the fence as far as Nishabd. Lolita comes to India by way of Brisbane in this one. A child of divorced parents who have since found other partners, she seems to act from her need for a father figure which at eighteen is combined with need for male attention and physical desire. This child-woman, a heady cauldron of rebellion, uninhibited sexuality, anger and confusion takes an older man's (her friend's father, played by Amitabh Bacchan) life by storm. He acts primarily out of lust but wants to mistake it for "true" love - only if to sanctify his feelings.

It is generally acknowledged that a young woman with issues of self-esteem will seek empowerment in being able to sexually allure "unavailable" men.Jia, the child-woman in this movie does the same. The lover-lorn suitor from high-school days is not interesting enough because he is neither a conquest nor a father figure. There is a subtle form of jealously at play in how Jia revels in leading a married man astray - specially in that he is her friend's father. It is almost as if she does not want someone to have the family that she herself does not have.

I like the theme in isolation from the movie itself. It is the kind of story that makes you wonder about motivations, conscious and subconscious actions, about how human beings are creatures of circumstance. The potential of the story is not fully realized mainly because of Bacchan's lackluster performance. His face is more death mask than the complex canvass of emotions that such a role demands. Jiah "Lolita" Khan does a pretty decent job but it does takes two to tango.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Voting Lines

Some time ago, J wanted to know about who was running for President and who I would vote for. I explained to her that I did not having voting rights in her country but introduced her to the candidates in the fray via YouTube. After she had listened to everyone, I asked her who she might vote for if she were the right age. J was sure she wanted a President who would end the war. Interestingly, Barack Obama was her favorite.

She thought he was very "cool". I had to ask her why she did not care about a woman President - that would be a significant first too. Apparently, being a ethnic minority scores way above everything else. J loved his name in how it is different from everyone else's. She was able to identify more readily with ethnic minority than with being a woman. Being that I have an Obama fan in my house, I have wondered about who his grassroots supporters are. Besides the usual suspects (left leaning liberal types, ethnic minorities etc) he seems to have tapped into an unlikely pool -
singles looking to find like-minded dates.

Now, this is a substantial demographic that comes from across the political spectrum. Chances are that they may end up voting for him after the singles-mixer rallies are done. There is something Woodstockian (if not altogether cult-ish) about this movement. Clearly, the role of Facebook et al in the shaping and reshaping of voting lines cannot be underestimated specially with the young, wired and connected generation. You wonder if traditional pollsters and spin-doctors can even figure what all of this is going to mean for any given candidate.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Staying Sharp

37 Signals answers the question that has always bothered programmers. In order to be good at what you do, do you need to stop having a life outside of keeping up with technology ? While I agree with the answer (in principle) 37s provides, the industry does not seem to value understanding of core concepts on whose foundation all languages and application development tools are built.

When time and money are in short supply (which is almost always the case), they need someone whose skills are fresh even if their grasp of fundamental concepts of programming and design and seriously deficient. Therefore, it is commonplace to have a twenty four year old kid with two years of experience in whatever "flavor of the month technology" business has decided to go with be responsible for a substantial development effort.

While he/she maybe highly fluent in the language, their grammar is lacking and aesthetics is most often completely absent. To land the job, even a seasoned programmer has to demonstrate comparable fluency. Her facility with design patterns will most likely not cut it at the typical job interview where the focus is on tactical needs i.e. being able to hit the ground running and churn reams of code in a specific language. Once on the job, they may be able to demonstrate what other value they bring to the table.

From having been a programmer once and seen many others in that role, I don't think learning on the job is anywhere near sufficient if you want your coding skills to be sharp enough to pay the bills. Sadly, the industry does not seek programming mavens or a superior quality product. They are quite happy with skilled labor if that will ensure a short time to market.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Ratting Out Neighbors

This is an intriguing concept - ratting out your rotten neighbors so newcomers in the community know to stay away from trouble. Anonymity plus connectivity allows us to speak about the guy next door to the whole world with complete candor. Unlike the village gossip whose reputation traveled ahead of her, I can rant about my uncouth neighbors on the net all I like without so much as having my identity revealed let alone have it have it sullied.

Online reputation is something that takes managing these days because we are all equally able to spoil it for someone else. The purveyors of such services may be able to keep some of the bad press at bay but an universal opt-out would be hard to achieve. In the end, it is up to the individual to keep their online avatars and real identity as far apart from each other as possible so the two worlds never collide to cause embarassment or worse.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Modern Housecalls

This NYC doctor doing e-housecalls is definitely looking and thinking forward. This kind of thing seems poised to take off in a big way given the rising cost of health-care and diminishing employer medical benefits. It may be possible to have a kits along the lines of a blood sugar monitor that a patient can use to do basic lab work at home and send the results to the doctor. Robots are already conducting surgery and then there was Operation Lindbergh.

It should only be a matter of time before the common person is able to benefit from such innovative technology. Reforming the health care system in this country may be cleaning the Aegean stables, but there is a gold mine of opportunity in that mess for medical device and high technology companies not to mention tech-savvy doctors.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Sheep's Cheese by Jane Hirshfield

In the cellar, sheep's milk cheeses
soak in cold brine.
Once a week, a man comes to turn them.
Sixty pounds lifted like child after child,
lain back and re-wrapped
in their cloths on the wooden shelves.
The shelves are nameless, without opinion or varnish.
The wheels are only sheep's milk, not ripening souls.
He sings no lullabye to them. But his arms know the weight.

I love the way this poem starts with something as mundane as cheese and elevates in degrees to the profound. First an analogy between a ball of of cheese in brine to a child. My initial reaction was to imagine a fetus curled up in amniotic fluid but Hirsfield probably had in mind a swaddled newborn being changed and tucked away for the night. Finally, the reference to wheels and "ripening souls" which seems to suggest a Tibetan prayer wheel, karma, birth and rebirth. That was an amazing train of thought !

Monday, September 24, 2007

15 Park Avenue

I wish Aparna Sen had made 15 Park Avenue more multi-lingual than predominantly English. That would have made for a more accurate portrayal of urban India. Other than that one complaint, this is an excellent movie. Shabana Azmi is spectacular as the loving but authoritative older sister driven to the edge of despair by Konkona Sen's schizophrenia. Her role in Konkona's life leaves a long shadow upon her relationships with men. Understanding who she is and where she comes from is not exclusive of her struggle with her sister's illness.

She expects a man to accept her holistically and in that Kunal, played by Dhritiman Chatterjee (Konkona's psycharitrist and a married man) does much better than her significant other
Sanjeev (played by Kanwaljeet Singh) who is her co-worker and a professor. Both men are there for her in crisis involving Mithi (Konkona Sen) but Kunal has genuine empathy for her in a way Sanjeev does not. He is merely doing what he is expected to given their relationship.

Mithi's delusions about being married to Jojo (Rahul Bose) and being the mother of five children is beautifully done. She meanders between reality and delusion so seamlessly that it is hard to find the separation between the two. When Jojo (Rahul Bose) returns to Mithi's life quite unexpectedly years after breaking his engagement with her, his own sense of reality is challenged. He has a "real" wife and two kids and is now faced with a woman who is convinced she is married to him with kids. His inner conflict and struggle to reach closure and affirm what he knows to be true rakes up many old wounds and inflicts some new ones.

The end is probably the most satisfying part of the movie. It leaves you wondering about what is real and what is not and why one person's reality is any less real than another's even if they have been labeled schizophrenic by the establishment. Maybe there is more to the world than meets the eye of most of us "normal" people.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Peaceful and Promiscuous

The combination of peaceful and promiscuous has always been a compelling one. When inspiration comes from nature, the case is that much stronger. The role-model ape in question is the bonobo described thusly:

In newspaper columns and on the Internet, bonobos are routinely described as creatures that shun violence and live in egalitarian or female-dominated communities; more rarely, they are said to avoid meat. These behaviors are thought to be somehow linked to their unquenchable sexual appetites, often expressed in the missionary position. And because the bonobo is the “closest relative” of humans, its comportment is said to instruct us in the fundamentals of human nature. To underscore the bonobo’s status as a signpost species—a guide to human virtue, or at least modern dating—it is said to walk upright.

Better to have an enlightened ape be your life-coach than be harangued by another "professionally qualified" human who presumes to have figured it all out. If not anything else, you don't have to pay to deal with the condescension. When in doubt, all you have to do is answer "What would a bonobo do in my situation ?" and voila you are in doubt no more !

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Freedom To Be

I was familiar with Rita Golden Gelmen's name because More Spaghetti, I Say ! used to be J's very favorite book a couple of years ago. Recently I read her book Tales of a Female Nomad which is not a children's book. I liked it for a variety of reasons. It is a story about a woman coming out of the relatively secure cocoon of a long marriage unprepared for the solo life.

It is of course a fascinating travelogue written from the point of view of someone who wishes to immerse herself in different cultures, participate in the lives of strangers but not judge them; a journey of self-discovery that was prompted by difficult personal circumstances. As a woman, a single mother and an immigrant I found it easy to relate to all the themes that come across in this book. Needless to say it feeds my unsatiated wanderlust.

She says at the end of chapter three : And while I was in Mexico, I discovered something intriguing. Once I leave the U.S., I am not bound by the rules of my culture. And when I am a foreigner in another country, I am exempt from the local rules. This extraordinary situation means that there are no rules in my life. I am free to live by the standards and ideals and rules I create for myself.

That is exactly how I feel being by myself in a foreign country free from the social constraints my own home and culture would have imposed on me. I am at liberty to reject the mores of my native and domicile cultures and live by rules that might be considered odd by both. It is an exhilarating feeling and well worth the pain that such journeys tend to be.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Receding Fear

The news story read Congolese do not kiss anymore - because of Ebola. It reminded me of the 80s when people first heard about AIDS. Rock Hudson had made headline news from dying of it. People generally believed that as awareness grew, promiscuity would decline rapidly. Nature was restoring missing equilibrium in society through an act of cruel kindness.

Decades later, AIDS is no longer breaking news, there is a vaccine in place and the official statistics do not confirm the hypothesis of inverse proportion between AIDS awareness and promiscuity. There must have been an initial state of limbo when people hesitated to indulge in high risk behavior just as the fear of Ebola has the Congolese not kissing anymore. Even extreme fear yields to nonchalance over time. In its wake comes a little recklessness.

Someone will risk a one-night stand with an attractive stranger and throw protection to the winds, the Congolese will kiss when the emotional impulse is strong enough to overcome their better judgment. Some people will die as a direct consequence of their actions, most other will survive questioning the basis of their fear.

The struggle of human willfulness against the forces of nature is so like that of a recalcitrant child defying his mother. The lessons that she intends to teach and the means she adopts often work contrary to expectations. Like the mother, nature must constantly innovate.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Being Female

Entertaining account (even if steeped in cliche) of a man who tried to live like a woman for a week just to see what it was to be a woman. His observation about difference in shopping styles is interesting:

We shop like different species. Men, who are hunters, have their prey - whether it's a new hammer or a pair of shoes. They go to an appropriate place (a shop) and capture it. Women, as gatherers, wander randomly through the bright forest of retail aisles, waiting for something to attract their attention.

He concludes his essay with : Tammy Wynette was quite wrong when she sang 'Sometimes it's hard to be a woman'. It's not. It's always hard to be a woman. Especially if you're a man.

To that one might add, it's hard to be all that a woman is expected to be especially if you are a woman. Ironically enough, their quest for a perfect body may prove counter-productive.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Buying Green

I have frequently drooled over products in health food stores. Something about the earth-tone packaging, folksy copy, smell of incense and the sound of new age and world music impairs my ability to think like a savvy consumer. I no longer do that math, I merely submit to temptation.

I like my
greensource tee-shirt made from "organically grown" cotton specially for the product tracking feature. I actually took the trouble to check where the cotton for my shirt was grown and was actually rather pleased that I could. I can almost see a shepherd herding his goat past the field of "organic cotton" as the cotton pods nod gently in the breeze. There is no exploitation of the soil or of the farmers. Everyone did their bit bright and happy in making my floral printed white tee-shirt. Instead of being a mass produced commodity that came out a sweat-shop, this is a labor of love. While the vision is idyllic it is almost definitely very far from reality. They wanted to sell me this picture and they were able to.

I have often asked myself why I fail to use my best judgment in the face of over-priced "green" products. Why would I implicitly believe every claim to organic, free- range, natural and the like when I am prompt to dismiss any and all marketing for a comparable mainstream product.

When it comes to organic food it may have to do with growing up in small town India, fringed by villages. Vegetables, poultry and fish was organic because the villagers were too impoverished to buy pesticides or fertilizers. It is the taste that I am used to and cannot find in the American supermarket. Organic food tastes like more like what I grew up with. But even that does not explain why I ideally want everything that touches my life to have a "green" tag on it even at the risk of getting scammed. Maybe it feeds my illusion and desire of being a consumer with a sense of social and environmental responsibility.

Apparently what
motivates someone to buy organic is a question worth researching and writing books about. Small families are greener than big ones apparently.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Lessons In Failure

It was the third time within a month that I had completely lost it and gone off at J. From the outside looking in, I was a raging lunatic that needed to be put away for everyone's good. It had become a predictable pattern. J would commit her offense, I would begin by asking "Why ?" she would have nothing to say for herself. The more I insisted on knowing what she was thinking when she did what she did, the more inert she turned. Her inertness infuriated me.

The anger and decibel levels would mount, J would cower in fear. Then I would have my melt-down , say and do things that I would in normal circumstances find most unconscionable. The child would be screaming and crying in sheer terror. Then I would cool, look back upon the episode in shock and dismay; try to make it right. If only there was a way to turn the clock back, go back to the moment just before it all started.

As soon as I returned to some semblance of normalcy, J would go out of her way to forgive and forget, over-anxious to accept blame for the sake of peace. I realized her sense of powerlessness in the face of my fury made her willing to do anything to regain balance and equilibrium in our relationship. She was acting from her survival instincts and I was conveying a message that would hurt her for the rest of her life.

She was equating the demonstration of love to accepting abusive behavior without question. As she grew up, she would expect no better or different from any other significant relationship. If someone loved her dearly (or even said that they did so), she would give them carte blanche to treat her badly in a fit to rage and then claim temporary loss of sanity. I was not not doing much different and I was teaching her by example. To J, whatever Mommy does is right and by extension if someone else does the same, they are right too.

Of course, I could not undo the damage I had already done but thanks to my epiphany after the third episode I sat her down and explained how she had no reason to put up with my despicable behavior. I was in the wrong and she was within her rights to tell me so. I told her I would love and respect her so much more if she was bold, stood up for herself and spoke the truth without flinching. I explained to her why the way I had behaved with her was unacceptable no matter who it was from including her mother.

I explained to J that every human being has a God-given right to be treated with respect and dignity and anyone who tries to violate it is always culpable. There are no excuses. She must not try to make amends for them like she had done with me. I was wrong and I had to do whatever it took to earn her love and trust again. Never repeating the mistake was the first step in that direction. Despite my failings as a mother, I hope have had the sense teach J the importance of recognizing those failings for what they are not accept them as a part of unconditional love.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Kids Politics

The dividing line between child and adult concerns is already too blurred for comfort. Now they have books to explain politics to kids - i.e. depending on the parent's leanings what the case is against liberals or conservatives. I haven't seen any of these titles in the local public library yet and hopefully they will stay out of the school system. It is hard to fathom the need for such indoctrination at a tender age. Is this not a way to incubate extremism ?

The comments on MeFi on this are hilarious. I guess it is the best one can do - find humor in something painfully sad. It seems like present day adults have made it their life's purpose to take away from children their right to an innocent, uncomplicated childhood. Such attempts adultification of children could do more harm than good. We probably need a Greenpeace like organization to advocate and fight for the inviolable right of all children to their childhood. Constant involvement with kids is a relatively new concept and if that ends up depriving them of their opportunity to develop self-awareness maybe it is not a good thing.

You wonder why is no longer good enough for kids to be kids ? The Archbishop of Canterbury once gave an excellent sermon on this theme. He says among other things : childhood is most positively valued and fostered when we resist infantilism; when adults stop being infants, children can be children. That is perhaps the best summing up I have read of what ails us present day adults.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Type Mismatched

Back in the day, I was able to entertain a dozen people on a day's notice and did a pretty decent job. Today, I had a mini meltdown getting through J's birthday party with ten kids and about seven adults. The venue was a picnic shelter in the woods bordering a lake with a playground is tucked around the corner. My friend D baked J the most gorgeous looking cake. I had a couple of moms call me this morning to see if I needed any help and I graciously declined. Instead, I tore through the preparations like a possessed hell-cat. I was too stressed to receive any meaningful help. The party went well and without any major snafu.

I wondered why it was so hard for me to keep my sanity - it was only a kid's birthday party and J had picked who to invite. It must have had to do with the adults who I knew would be coming. They make a pretty odd mix. Except for Lindsey none of the others are very social. I knew my attempts to get them interacting with each other would fall flat on its face - and it sure did. While the kids had an exceptional time, I tried in vain to get the parents to at least acknowledge each other. I would have never invited this combination home for dinner but kids change everything. Or maybe they do not.

Recently, I was at another birthday party where the parents had invited their own friends - the kids that came along were incidental. We had a good time because we vibed well but the kids were bored to tears. The host and the hostess were relaxed and having a good time. Their child's birthday party was not in any way different from entertaining their friends. They did not end up feeling socially inadequate trying to get their guests to talk to each other.

Its interesting how an odd combination of people can have kids who love each other and conversely how a like-minded group of adults can have children who are poles apart in temperament. I see J putting me through many repeats of today in the years to come leaving me to deal with social interaction challenged parents.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Over The Hill

Reading this article on been there done that desi dudes reminded me of desi men I have met in the past. Each acquaintance was instructive in its own way. The author may be on to a microtrend here that Mark Penn's eponymous book neglected to capture.

Most of these men were back in the dating scene after a one or two year hiatus. After scouring the market for close to ten years preceding, they had finally found the trophy wife to take home. Unfortunately, the the marital state lasted all of ten months or less before they parted ways. So in their late 30's to mid 40s, with half their net-worth gone in the divorce settlement they are back in the market with some vengeance. They are candid about being "super-selective" and come armed with failure-proof checklists that are as exhaustive and they are exhausting.

One senses a certain pressure to make up for lost time. Career growth and investing are the dominant themes of their lives. A sporty coupe and a downtown loft are typical. They speak of their married siblings with more than a twinge of envy. Their gated communities, Indian association cultural events, PTA meetings are both trite and desirable. They often mention the ages and birthdays of nieces and nephews.

When it comes to relationships, they are determined not to let the horrific experiences of the past kill the youthful exuberance and romanticism of their late teens. Despite running several years late, they refuse to be precipitate and catch-up with their peers.

On the surface that might look like a winning combination - there is this perfect houseblend of ambition, determination, romance and an indomitable spirit. What's not to like ? Plus they are articulate, well-read, and well-traveled.
The long -suffering independent, successful, opinionated, confident desi woman who had despaired of ever finding a partner in her own community is bowled over by this Renaissance man who is as much in his element in a sherwani as he is in an Armani tux. He bakes almond cookies to die for and can toss up a mean green salsa. Tandoori chicken is so passe - he prefers variations on his grandmother's recipes.

Soon thereafter, the cookie crumbles. He wants the woman in her mid 30s, contending with a ticking biological clock, ovarian cysts, baggage from failed relationships and marriage, fighting cellulite and bulge not to mention social pressure to get hitched post haste to pretend she was sixteen all over again.

She needs to forget lessons learnt the hard way - that desi men have completely different standards for girlfriends and potential wives. They will make haste to sleep with the former but wait till the wedding night for the later. At sixteen everything is fresh and innocent, you go with the flow full of optimism and good cheer. Returning to that frame of mind more than sixteen years later takes more than a leap of faith and not many are able to make it.

Desi women routinely disappoint such men and in a variety of ways. She wants to jump right into marriage and we have not even been properly introduced yet. She is way slutty - too ready and much too soon. She is too demanding - i.e. she wants me to be emotionally available for her and stop shopping around for a bigger better deal. She's really nice but she'd not fit in with the rest of my family. She broke up with her ex for the wrong reasons. She is not serious enough. She's does not let her hair down and have fun. The list is endless.

They expect a lot from a relationship while having very little to offer unless you count their yen for being blatantly irresponsible in the name of an eternally "youthful spirit". In not being able to clearly envision the desired life partner, they idealize every last attribute until the end product is an unreal cesspool of contradiction. After a certain age youthfulness is more vice than virtue specially when its application is so selective. Youth is not consonant with an iron-clad prenup, with paranoia about emotional involvement and with being utterly jaded.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Honest Opinion

My manager recently sent us a survey to fill out. It was an anonymous questionnaire that would rate him as a leader. Among the data points being sought were What was his style - did he build consensus or merely seek followers, was he effective or inspirational, was his problem solving style innovative or run of the mill and so on. I could have been honest and said it like it was. This guy is very smart. He is equally comfortable being in weeds and pitching a business case to senior leadership. I have a lot of admiration for someone who can do that.

For the most part, the team likes him but we do have some feedback for him. Praise for work done well comes rarely if ever, even though he gets the big picture his decisions inevitably end up serving tactical objectives making longer term goals harder to achieve. Cultural awareness and sensitivity is not his strong suit. And finally we really want him to know that acting like a teenager is not cool for a man in his late thirties.

Yet judging from my response to the survey he would come across as being a stellar boss. I pride myself on being a straight shooter so I am not sure why I did what I did. Maybe I don't care enough to speak my mind. I wondered about the efficacy of such surveys if you are polling a group where the majority is uninterested in sharing their honest opinion.

There will some malcontents who will rate him as bad as they can, others like me would not care enough to be forthright. We will be extra nice to compensate for our disinterest. This team has a good amount of respect for its leader because he is capable, hard-working and smart but there is no human connection between him and us.

We couldn't care less if he moved on to another job. I may have responded with more sincerity if I was able to relate to him as a person outside his job description. Maybe surveys trying to gauge the pulse of a team should probe to see if there is any human connection at all. That would be a lot more revealing.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

About Nothing

This is my 1001th post. It must be for a reason that I have been listening to Ron Goodwin's Music for and Arabian Night lately - that used to my childhood favorite album. Talking of childhood, I was recently surprised by two emails that came within a few days of each other. One from a boy who had a crush on me when we were fourteen and another from my best friend who had moved out of town in our eight grade. They are not mutually acquainted.

She and I have been in touch episodically since then but I had not heard from her for several years until last month. The boy is now a married man with a daughter slightly younger than mine. I deleted his mail without replying and could not help remembering those far away days when I may have read, re-read, bisected and dissected every word he had written, injected the serum of meaning into the most innocuous remark or gesture until it turned into a thing of incredible significance. The passage of time is a powerful thing.

My childhood best friend has a two year old son. He was sick on his second birthday and that prompted her to write this to me :

I feel empty right now and I know that's not good. I have this compelling urge to mend this and make it up to myself, my husband, my parents and my in-laws. Gosh I want to relive this day and do it all differently. So trivial you might think as compared to the battles most others fight every day. I am not proud of it but I still feel it and I am writing about it. So please bear with it till I find better causes to fight for, dear friend. God, its good to have you back.

Our life's circumstances once very similar are far apart now and yet I feel her pain and hope my note in response helped :

Yes, there is world hunger to solve and more pressing concerns but for you as a mother, your son is your world; the center of your universe and you want everything in it to be perfect. There is nothing wrong about that - it just shows you are wonderful mom and he is very lucky child. Always stay this way :)

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Business Requirements

I have been in the IT industry for about thirteen years now. Thanks to my haphazard career planning and often the complete lack of it, I have changed just as many jobs during that time.Not content with merely job hopping every year, I have also worked in all kinds of roles and not in any chronological order. So for instance, I may have managed a program for a year and then found a business analyst gig for a change of scene. Coming out of that I have done a few months of testing followed by a spot of database design or process re-engineering work.

Since recruiters had no idea what the heck I had been doing and were not able to find a concentration of keywords to help them navigate through my resume, I ended up in random places assigned to do whatever came in handy. I went with the flow because it gave me an unique opportunity to gain first hand experience of things I would have had no idea of if I had followed any defined career path.

The most significant gain from all this has been my empathy for the different roles that have to work together to make an undertaking in the IT world successful. Unless you have been a tester working like a bot with no idea of the application, how it interacts with external systems and been actively discouraged to learn more, you have little appreciation for what it is to be in that person's shoes. Calling this test-bot person obtuse is easy.

Likewise only a developer who has had horribly non-technical business analysts throw vague requirements at him will know of the nightmares building that system entailed. They learn the hard way to pad their level of effort estimates by three hundred percent.

Of all the things that I have been, the business analyst role has probably taught me most about how the organization works or more accurately dysfunctions. Everyone who thinks they have what it takes to make it to the big league and snag the coveted corner office tends to highly disdainful of anyone who "gets too much into the weeds". They let the techs work that shit out and make sure to stay as far away from it as possible.

When you hang out in these circles the words that you hear repeated ad nauseum include strategic direction, architectural direction, organizational goals, vision statement, big picture and high-level objectives. If you get into a meeting with a few of these types hoping to figure out what problem they are looking to solve, chances are you would waste three hours and come back with a zilch.

Since they are determined to not get into the weeds like the lowly tech drones, the problem cannot even be articulated let alone solved. You need to tune out all the bombast and glean the couple of key pieces of information to arrive at the requirements pretty much independently because they will most likely not be able to vet what you present because it is way too "detailed". They struggle with the retarded, vision challenged worker-bees who fail to see how the big pieces of the puzzle fit to make this castle in the air which is the CIO's Utopian vision defined in his one line vision statement.

I could not agree more with David Meggison that business requirements often become the weakest link. Organizations still follow the age-old adage "Don't define how in the business requirements. Confine it to the what alone. How will be defined in design ". As Meggison points out this approach in inherently waterfall and that most people agree is not the wave of the future. Sometimes thinking of the how spurs discussions around the what and if wanting a certain piece of functionality is even realistic.

Considering the what in isolation from the how is like signing up to build a jet-plane while having the wherewithal to build only a bicycle. Sure you can always de-scope requirements that don't prove viable at the design phase. You may just as easily deliver the jet-plane without the engine and wings. Common sense would say it may be better to get a fully functional bicycle out of several man-months of work than an inoperable jet-plane. Somehow, this premise does not hold true in the realm of IT.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Democracy Lite

Seven, eight years ago, the idea of website scraping was as cool as it got but it was the beginning of things like Netvibes and an array of mashup tools. The technology that made it all possible also caused a shift it how we think about an relate to web applications.

Increasingly, it is not good enough to be handed the mass produced stuff with indifferent to aggravating user experience. We want to tweak and personalize it - preferably have our own portal that gives us our daily media diet balanced the way we like it best.

Apparently, this is kind of user-generated innovation is merely "democracy-lite" according to NYT columnist G. Pascal Zachary. The hoi polloi for all its web and tech savviness still does not get a piece of the action where it really counts. He writes:

For all the hoopla over the power and promise of user-generated content, consumer-directed design and other hallmarks of our new golden era of democratized innovation, one of the iconic products of our times — the iPod — can’t be customized (no, I’m not counting putting on different-colored protective jackets). There is an unbroken line between Henry Ford (with his Model T) and Steve Jobs. The new iPhone similarly reflects the elite, corporate innovator’s drive to find one size that fits many.

While his argument is entirely valid, maybe it is in the consumer's best interests to have a some degree of organization and control over design innovation so democracy does not degenerate into wholescale anarchy.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Staying On - Nirmal's Story (Part 1)

Nirmal has four older siblings and is eight years younger than the youngest of them. Money was already in short supply for this Mumbai family which lived in a lower-middle class neighborhood on the fringes of Dharavi when this unplanned addition happened.

His father's business was already failing and soon after Nirmal's birth he turned gravely ill. As soon as he was old enough to understand, his older siblings told him he was unlucky for the family - their mother was widowed by then. Even in their one and a half room tenement, the distance between him and the rest of his family was enormous. He felt like an intruder.

His oldest brother had graduated from an elite engineering school and was now working. He was the man of the family. There were debts to be paid off from their father's business obligations and long hospitalization. There were two younger sisters to be married off. The other brother was in high school and showed every sign of being able to make it to medical college. The girls were very bright too. Nirmal seemed to have fallen through the cracks as the rest of the family worked in lock-step to tide over difficult times.

In the years that followed, the oldest brother got married and moved out of the house, the younger one graduated from medical school and set up his practice in the half room of their house. The oldest sister had got a scholarship to graduate school in the US and was now living in Southern California. The other sister was finishing up law school and had already lined up a clerkship with a reputed attorney.

Nirmal's mother had much to be proud of considering how well her kids had rallied in the face of overwhelming odds. At least all except Nirmal.
Nirmal was her problem child. He wore his hair long, skipped classes in high-school, smoked and did drugs, brought home indifferent to failing grades. A majority of his friends were the sons of gangster types that lived in Dharavi. He got involved in Youth Congress the student wing of the largest democratic party in India. Along with it came opportunity to participate in vandalism and get arrested.

It was clear painfully clear to the family that Nirmal would never make like his older siblings had. His sister in the US came to the rescue and offered to bring him stateside and put him through college. She was able to get him enrolled in an undergrad math program and he was prompt to disappoint her by switching his major to English. And that was only the beginning.

By the end of his junior year, he had acquired a live-in white girlfriend Shelley, a serious drinking habit, some piercings and a yen to become a journalist.
As he came close to graduation, he sensed a paralyzing fear of the future. He had no job prospects and no desire to go to graduate school. Returning to India was not an option because he would never find work with his educational qualifications. The family had done what they could do to bail him out - there were not going to be any more handouts.

He felt desperate and alone with his fears.
When Shelley had started living with him there was never any talk of the future - neither imagined one existed. For both of them it was an act of defiance against their families. Shelley's family was ultra-conservative and given to stereotyping ethnic minorities. Nirmal's folks had thrown a huge fit when they first found out and it was just the reaction he had wanted. In his senior year, Nirmal mounted an aggressive campaign to shape the vision of a life together. Shelley was his one and only hope. Marrying her would give him the legal status to live and work in the US. He knew he had to stay on.

So at twenty three, united by their passion for clubbing and late-night parties, post-modern literature and liberal politics they were able to find enough reason to get married. Nirmal's mother and sister squirmed in discomfort as the wedding party got wilder and louder by the hour at the couple's favorite night club. This was the dollar beer night. At four in the morning some friends hauled the passed-out Nirmal into a cab. Shelley was sober enough to say goodbye to his family before joining him in the cab.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Tea Snobbery

I was never a tea snob even though I spent most of my life surrounded by the variety. The pot had to be bone china and unblemished by tea stain. It had to be rinsed in hot water before letting the leaves steep for exactly five minutes. The water had to come to a rolling boil but not scald the kettle. Black tea was always best. They were willing to jump through a lot of hoops to find the most fragrant Darjeeling tea and some of these teas were quite expensive.

You stood in the front stoop of the tea store and inhaled the beguiling aroma of different teas - Assam and Darjeeling with an occasional Nilgiri thrown in for good measure.
Tea shop owners were more often than not connoisseurs of tea and were able to introduce their patrons to a taste they would love and keep returning for. If you found a really good tea shop it was customary to spread the word among family and friends.

If you were a regular, the proprietor would have a special house blend that was exactly the thing your tea palate craved. It would be a six part leaf and four part fannings from two different estates. The second flush would have just arrived and would come highly recommended. Several packages would be made. The tea would be scooped out of wooden containers, mixed and poured into brown paper bags. The bags would be sealed around the edges and then wrapped in a couple of layers of silver foil.

In the pantry you did not keep these precious packages around spices, pickles or anything with a strong smell. A special guest or a favorite sibling would always be treated to the best tea that money could buy. Then there was that look of rapt anticipation as this person look their first sip. Eulogies would follow and often a second or third cup as well.

The sound of tea being poured from a tea pot into a cup always triggers nostalgia. Back in the day when the tea snobs did their thing, I was happy to have my cup of chai - the strong, sugary milky kind with cardamom, bay leaf, saffron and ginger. The snobs would not let me touch their precious Darjeeling teas to make my plebeian "concoction" with. I would have to settle for a Lipton Red Label.

I was their lost cause - a classic case of nurture not being enough to overcome the strength of nature. Maybe they were wrong or too hasty in their assessment. Now that it is nearly impossible for me to come by good Darjeeling tea, my soul craves for it. Good old chai just does not cut it.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Time Saving

It take me about seven minutes to walk from the parking deck to my desk on the fourth floor. If the elevator does not show up with fifteen seconds I am set back by a three or four minutes. On most days, a combination of factors like when I manage to leave, the height of my shoe heels, whether I get the elevator or miss it by a whisker and the exact spot where I park my car will decide whether I can make it to J's daycare by 6:00 p.m. I like to give myself a thirty minute buffer so I don't have to race against time to make it at 6:30 when the center closes. To make my six o'clock target every minute counts.

Self-parking cars are already on the road. As I was sprinting from the reception area to my car one evening, it crossed my mind that it may be possible (and not in the too distant future either) to drive your car up remotely from a far corner of a parking lot to a spot that has now cleared up. This would reduce the time it takes to get your car. You could be wrapping up the day's last meeting and scoping out the lot from you computer. If you are lucky there would be an open spot right outside the main entrance. A few clicks later your car has moved several minutes closer to you.

People with good hand eye co-ordination from their video gaming experience would be able to do this with consummate ease but someone like me would fail to adopt new technology. I would still be trying to squeeze an extra minute out of the eleven minutes like they did in the dark ages. The strangest thoughts cross my mind when I am on my way to get J at the end of the day and time seems to pour out instead of trickle. Maybe having recently watched Blade Runner had something to do with it as well.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Closet Groupie

I had opportunity to emcee a sitar recital recently. The artist was very young and extremely talented. Not being a full-blown celebrity yet, his audience was not hanging from the rafters. The setting was so intimate, it could have been a soirée at someone's house. Being backstage was a fascinating experience specially to see how the different the stage personality was from that of the one in the greenroom. I got to see a few groupies as well.

They have been following him around his tour. The blond in jeans and kurti had come with him from New York. Maybe she would follow him wherever he was headed next. The combination of prodigious talent combined with a somewhat devastating charm must make this young man quite irresistible to girls of a certain age.

The sitar and the tabla cases have been all over the world along with their owners and are covered with a colorful assortment of air cargo stickers. For a few hours I was transported to a world completely unlike the one I inhabit everyday. It is where beautiful music is created until midnight and met with a lot of adulation, ovation and applause. The magic is then wrapped up to be made in another city, often a different country.

While many are content with just a glimpse into the fascinating world of professional musicians, some must crave to immerse themselves in the ambience. I wondered if there was not a hint of a groupie in everyone who has a relatively mundane life even if they don't act on it.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Reverse Brain Drain

Even mainstream media outlets are waking up to the sorry plight of legal immigrants in America and it is about time too. The shrill headlines are bound to provoke reaction and often of the uninformed, knee-jerk kind. There are many conspiracy theories around the colossal bureaucratic ineptitude that has led to the log-jam in the employment based immigration process.

Maybe the government really wants to the high-skilled immigrants to pack up and leave so those jobs can be reclaimed by the "natives" who had been displaced by "cheap" (the most persistent myth about H1-B workers is that they are universally low paid) immigrant labor. Maybe the powers that be want the likes of Google, Cisco and Microsoft to wind up operations stateside and relocate to the third-world. There must be an grand design to explain this all. In the meanwhile, the hapless immigrant continues to wait for Godot.

There are many who think that it is in their country's best interest to allow status quo to prevail. Have the system completely befuddle and wear out the foreigner trying to plant roots in their homeland. They would have the slow bleeding continue and have immigrants find somewhere else to go. The common argument is that America has no obligation to better the lot of foreign nationals who are legally "alien" in their country. If they don't like it here, no one is forcing them to stay. The door to leave has always been open wide.

Analysts and researchers can conjure as many doomsday scenarios as they wish to illustrate the catastrophic effects of reverse brain drain but it is not likely to make an impression on the average person who is convinced immigrants take away disproportionately more than they give back to the system. It may take for the scenarios to fully play out and for most American jobs to be outsourced to countries where the immigrant talent is flowing out before anyone pays attention.

The magnificent chaos and disarray in the immigration system is a sad tale of the average person's fear of the unknown, inability to see the big picture combined with the unwillingness of their political leaders to look beyond what it takes to win the next election. The effects of myopia are telling.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007


Like the author, nothing surprises me these days - not even the idea of anal bleach. I figure if something as painful Brazilian waxing is largely mainstream, this is only the logical next step. Once there is bleach can tattoos and other embellishments be far behind ?

What purpose any of that would serve is beyond me but when have vanity and logic gone in tandem. For those who want to smell like a melon (odd choice of fragrance all things considered IMHO) after being waxed, bleached, pierced, tattooed and otherwise beautified, there is a way to do that too. Some of the reactions to this piece of news are quite hilarious.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Doing Good

For anyone who has felt the twinges of guilt about not being giving and generous enough here are some radical thoughts on philanthrophy to feel vindicated by. One paragraph forms the kernel of the author's argument:

Undoubtedly, most philanthropists mean to make the world a cleaner and more equitable place. Yet it’s like trying to reduce your sugar intake by eating 125 chocolate bars every day and then swearing off the occasional Pop-Tart. It’s as if the right hand has never met the left. But here is the punch line for this argument: We can all be good citizens much, much more effectively in the course of making money than in the course of giving money away.

It seems that philanthropy is ultimately bad in proportion to the grandness of its scale and design. The Gates foundation has ambitious, world-changing goals and without the right hand having met the left, the good is outweighed by the bad as Price describes. An average person giving away used clothes to a thrift store is helping no more than one poor family. The footprint of their charity is small and so is any associated harm done. At the very worst, this person is a conspicuous consumer and has more clothes than they need.

The summary is excellent :

A small part of the solution, and a huge part of the problem: that’s philanthropy in 2007. And yet giving away money cannot possibly be an irredeemable action. First, make sure you do no harm. Pay workers fairly for the wealth they help you accumulate, and don’t create and contribute to enormous environmental messes. Only then, think about handouts. Right hand, meet the left hand.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Whiting Out

The case for and against open-source software that allows you to white-out online ads is fairly nuanced. I find pop-ups as annonying as the next person but don't worry too much about watching an ad for Ralph Lauren in return for a day-pass to Salon. The annoyance is outweighed by what I get in return for it. Every individual must have specific criteria for what ads they would like to see or perhaps tolerate versus what they would white out without hesitation.

The all or nothing approach would not bode well either for the seller or the potential consumer. Handing the controls over to the consumer would yeild valuable data for the advertizers and enable them to fine tune their campaigns. If the vast majority of a target group have a certain product on their white-out list, chances are that ad-space was not driving in any traffic even when the option to white-out did not exist. Instead of having to guess at the outcome and have to pay for it, there would now be a way to acertain a priori and get the formula right the very first time. That is certainly a good thing.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Informed Decisions

I get caught up with the goings-on back home when I chat with my mother. This happens on days when I call just to hear her voice but really have nothing specific to say. A few days ago she recounted something her friend Renuka had shared with her. Renuka, is the principal of a local high school. From meeting her a couple of times, I was struck by her erudition and progressiveness. She is a breath of fresh air in the slow, sleepy Kolkata suburb where my parents have made their post-retirement home.

A few weeks ago, Renuka was forced to have a conversation with a fourth grade teacher because her cellphone rang all day long and often she would interrupt her teaching to respond. During the course of the meeting, it became fairly obvious that the teacher in question was moonlighting as a call-girl and those phone calls were from prospective clients. Renuka had always assumed that this woman was independently wealthy judging from her expensive clothes and accessories that were quite incongruous with her meager salary.

That a woman might choose to pursue the oldest profession in the world came as no surprise to Renuka. In fact, she was genuinely concerned about the circumstances that would have led her to such a decision. Because she was completely non-judgmental, the woman was able to open up and share her story. Was there a big family depending on her to make ends meet ? Was there an ailing or invalid parent perhaps ? Renuka was looking for one compelling reason that would make prostitution the only viable option for this woman.

The point of Renuka's sharing this with my mother was that there was no such reason. The woman came from a middle class family. Her only other sibling was married several years ago and lived in Dubai. The father had a few more years to go before retirement. They owned a modest sized home. No one needed her to bring any money home.

She did not have the qualifications to get a better paying job and had no interest in furthering her education or training to get there. Her youth was available here and now to use and she preferred to do that instead of wasting opportunities that only come with youth. Had she thought about the consequences of what she was doing ? Renuka had asked. She said she was twenty four and had at least ten years to go before she stopped getting clients. What about life after thirty four ? What about marriage and children ? She said she would rather make as much money while she could because there were no guarantees in marriage anyways.

Women of my mother's and Renuka's age find it hard to accept that a woman may want to barter her body for money of her own free will without mitigating circumstances. So Renuka asks my mother Can you imagine a woman from a middle class family becoming a prostitute just because she wants things she cannot afford ? Is that how much designer wear is worth ?

It is hard equation to balance when you have fellatios performed on random strangers on one side and Gucci bags, money, gold and diamonds on the other. Back in the day, there was a abysmally poor family, terminally ill mother, alcoholic and physically abusive father and the like on the same side as all the material that provided equilibrium. It enabled everyone to feel that the poor woman was a creature of circumstance. Women don't appear to need either affirmation or excuses any more. They might feel more empowered but are not necessarily less contradicted.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Lost Memories

Like there are scientific explanations for why frightening and traumatic memories linger on for a long time, there must be others to account for the gouging of parts of memory until your recollection of the past is like a sieve. Most of the bad parts have been blanked out but along its periphery good memories have gone too.

My mother, J and I lived in the same house with R in the last and possibly the most painful months of my marriage. Between changing her diapers, feeding and bathing her I planned the logistics of our escape from hell. The emotional abuse was escalating rapidly to the point where I called the women's shelter for help.

A volunteer would check on me almost every other day to make sure we were doing alright and were on track to leave as soon as J's doctor deemed it safe for her to take the flight to India. Former co-workers were helping me in any way they could without drawing R's attention. Those were very frightening and stressful times.

Yet on the surface everything was normal, business as usual. Though my heart and soul were long departed from our marriage, I was still acting the part of a wife. I drew the line at sharing the conjugal bed because my body recoiled in horror at the thought of sleeping with a man who I felt absolutely no love for and feared could physically hurt me.

Recent childbirth was my "official" excuse and with every passing day it was getting harder to justify. J's pediatrician had given me a long list of shots she would need to take before she left the country. I begged him to reconsider some of them telling him I was taking her to urban India and not to the Amazonian rain-forest. He finally caved in. I begged J's forgiveness for putting her through so much pain so early in life. The shots were the easiest part. I promised I would make it right someday.

It is nearly six years, since the day we came home to Kolkata. Today, my recollection of the many fearful events leading up to my leaving R with the then newly born J is patchy at best. My mother seems to recall things with far greater clarity than she would like. Whereas the traumatic events of that time have transitioned to her long term memory, they seemed to have burnt my neurological circuitry. I am left with abrupt jumps from one time to another with entire sections missing in between.

I don't remember the day to day ordeal of living with R pretending all was well but I don't remember the many details of J's first few months either. The first time I gave her her bath, clipped her nails or combed her hair. What was she wearing the day I first took her out on her stroller. The exact sounds she made when she gurgled and cooed. I wrote down a lot of things as they happened because I was too preoccupied and stressed to fully savor my new motherhood. Our survival depended on my ability to plan and execute the escape flawlessly.

As I read back today, I can't seem to recall the moments in full-color vividness as I want to. I would gladly remember every last bad memory if it could give back to me the infinitely precious memories of J that I have lost forever. I wish Norepinephrine had done its thing for me too.