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Showing posts from June, 2008

Accidental Crafter

Anytime I am out of ideas for what J might do to occupy her time, we refer to her big craft activity book. Some ideas are quite easy to implement but most require some planning and having the supplies at hand. So I will cut corners and substitute to the point that the project looks nothing like the pictures in the book much to J's disappointment.

I have always approached craft projects as I do cooking. Something lying around the house or the fridge will provide the initial inspiration. I will start getting the ingredients with one idea in mind but improvise as I go so there is always a huge difference between what I intended to cook and what ends up on the table; between the idea for a collage or piece of bead jewelry and what ends up being created.

There are resources for cooks who want to know what they can get done with the odds and ends they have in the house. There should be just such a thing for the accident crafter as well. In the meanwhile, I find these lovely grocery bag …

Ganja Queen

HBO's Ganja Queen is a documentary about incarceration of Schapelle Corby, an Australian woman at Bali, Indonesia on a charge of smuggling 4.2 kilos of marijuana inside her boogie-board bag. Her protestations of innocence fail to impress the Balinese authorities, commute or even reduce her life sentence. The efforts of her sizable legal team and supporters are likewise in vain.

But the story of Schapelle Corby is not nearly black and white as that summary might suggest. The viewer is left with a host of unanswered questions until the end. Is she guilty as the Balinese prosecution team claims (even without having established their case beyond reasonable doubt - the defense team accuses them of tampering and then destroying key evidence), was she set up by a family member (she has a jailed brother, a father who had drug problem and a family friend who was arrested for growing marijuana), is she a very smooth and clever drug ring operative, veteran of many smuggling forays into Indon…

Woman As Man

Found this fascinating NYT article by way of Mefi about an ancient Albanian custom, described thusly :

If the family patriarch died with no male heirs, unmarried women in the family could find themselves alone and powerless. By taking an oath of virginity, women could take on the role of men as head of the family, carry a weapon, own property and move freely.

They dressed like men and spent their lives in the company of other men, even though most kept their female given names. They were not ridiculed, but accepted in public life, even adulated. For some the choice was a way for a woman to assert her autonomy or to avoid an arranged marriage.

The idea of being able to overlay their feminine identity with a masculine one by making some fundamental lifestyle choices (concessions perhaps) is intriguing to say the least. It makes you consider gender and sexuality in a whole different light. The subtext of this arrangement seems to suggest that a woman who lives and dies childless and a virgi…

Running And Writing

One of my favorite writers, Haruki Murakami (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle) talks about parallels between running the marathon and writing - specially writing a novel.

Most of what I know about writing I've learned through running every day. How much can I push myself? How much rest is appropriate - and how much is too much? How far can I take something and still keep it decent and consistent? When does it become narrow-minded and inflexible? How much should I be aware of the world outside, and how much should I focus on my inner world? To what extent should I be confident in my abilities, and when should I start doubting myself? I know that if I hadn't become a long-distance runner when I became a novelist, my work would have been vastly different.

In his interview with Salon on The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, he talks about how the story germinated :

When I started to write, the idea was very small, just an image, not an idea actually. A man who is 30, cooking spaghetti in the kitchen…

Cram Junkies

I am not familiar with a Korean cram school equivalent in India though the unscrupulous coaching centers come pretty close. That said, the cram school sounds like torture that even Indian kids don't go through and that is saying a lot. When the stakes are so incredibly high, often the end justifies the means - be it by cramming without understanding, analysis or reflection or by obtaining "valuable suggestions" from a leaked IIT entrance exam paper. The end as it turns out, is not the education itself but scoring a coveted seat in an elite university.

Irrespective of the means, fair (cramming) or foul(access to leaked questions), the aspirants to these institution have to work horrendously hard because everyone else in the fray has the same advantages that they have and the acceptance rates of the colleges in question are among the lowest in the world. It takes woefully little to get eliminated and have your life's course altered for ever - or at least that is how the…

Branding Personalities

Read this interesting article on why Hillary Clinton lost - because of bad brand management. When the mind and imagination of the public is in the stranglehold of mainstream media, those in the spotlight can no longer afford to just be. Instead they must come packaged neatly not unlike an attractive consumer product.

A bottle of Coke is best identified by its iconic color and font. Trying something completely different with it would dilute the power of the brand. In this case, the other side was apparently the more compelling (not to mention steadfast) brand and they stayed true to one distinct message. Just as tub of ice-cream, a credit card or a handbag can be just the one thing, similarly public figures must be only one thing described in one sentence or less.

You have to wonder if we the consumers of media are indeed so limited in our capacity to absorb and process information. The implication is that unless we have a set of sound bytes and images hit us relentlessly, we will not b…

Odd Request

A girl may have her share of issues and then some when she's trying to keep her head above the water being a single-mom, a cubicle and domestic drone even as she tries (mostly in vain) to look sort of well put together but erectile dysfunction is not one of them.

Since I started blogging, I have been contacted every once in a while with requests for plugs for stuff on my website. However, this is the very first time I've been asked to kick the tires of a contraption for an anatomical part I don't possess along with the most generous offer to keep the "product" after having "reviewed" it. In this context, I wonder if there is any other option. The link below may be NSFW.

My name is Pietro Joaquin and I'm the webmaster of http://peloop.com/

I wanted to know if by any chance you would be interested in doing an unbiased review of one of our products.

If you agree, we will send you a product sample so that you can try it and then write a review about it.…

Hard Times at Douglass High

HBO's documentary Hard Times at Douglass High : A Report on No Child Left Behind, is a must see for everyone who is skeptical about the wisdom of the policy itself. The movie follows a group of ninth graders in a school with a long history but little hope of meeting the adequate yearly progress requirements of No Child Left Behind.

Ironically, for a school that led the way in non-segregation the student body is entirely composed of underprivileged African American kids.There are many ways to apportion blame for the "chronic problems of attendance, lateness and apathy among students" and an abysmal success rate of 3 out of 25. Ghetto like living conditions, grinding poverty, broken homes, dysfunctional parents and sub-standard and uninspiring teachers form a daunting set of hurdles that only the exceptionally determined students can overcome.

There are a few occasional glimmers of hope - a great basketball team, a couple of passionate teachers (some of whom are not able to …

Asian Imagination

A few days ago, I was listening to an NPR story on recent books on India and China including Tarun Khanna's Billions of Entrepreneurs. Vishakha Desai talked about how it is important to take the cultural, political and economic in concert to be able to appreciate the challenges and opportunities India and China present to themselves and to the world. Desai lays particular emphasis on culture because both countries have cultures many thousands of years old even if they may be in their political and economic adolescence (perhaps youth).

The roots of big tent entrepreneurship that one finds in Asian countries may be cultural too. We as a people have learned to seek and find opportunity in the most unpromising even hopeless places. To that end, we make a bunch of illiterate village women solar power engineers, and lure birds to nest in cities to harvest them for birds nest soup by playing the sound of chirping females on hi-fidelity music systems. Elsewhere we make a hole in the wall…

Boredom

If the absence of having something terribly exciting to do all the time, then I am probably "bored" a lot and what's more not even able to tell that I am. However, as the article says, boredom is good for people. I particularly like the fact that boredom can stimulate creativity :

Boredom is nearly always essential to creativity. It isn’t true that creativity is mostly sparked by having a specific problem to be solved. It’s far more likely to arise because the person is bored with the way something has been done a thousand times before and wants to try something new. That’s why new movements in technology, the arts, and even public life usually start when there are still plenty of people polishing and refining the current approach. They don’t begin because what is being done now is totally played out; they begin because a few people decide that’s boring and start playing around with how to change it.

I sometimes find J playing with a few scraps of paper and "repurpose…

Desi Brides

It was not too long ago when long suffering desi bachelors complained about how they were summarily rejected in the Indian marriage market if they expressed any desire to relocate to India or worse preferred never relocate from there at all. Apparently the tide has turned in the other direction now. Women don't want to give up everything they have going for them in Bangalore to become an H4 hausfrau and who can blame them. The tabloidy TOI story goes on breathlessly and one-dimensionally about the job opportunities in India that make the NRI dream not quite as desirable.

While that is clearly a factor, the other equally important one is the diminishing employment opportunities in the west combined with the weakening dollar. Back in the day, an NRI groom indentured with a desi-sweatshop to be a low-level code coolie, could command stratospheric dowries. The dollar-rupee conversion rate made his $42,000 a year look like a king's ransom. A bride with advanced degrees in Hindustan…

Silver Lining

Garrison Keillor finds some things to look forward to as gas prices cross $4 a gallon and show no signs of coming down.
So when gas passes five dollars and heads for eight and 10, we will learn to sit in dim light with our loved ones and talk about hunting and fishing adventures, about war and romance and times of consummate foolishness when we threw caution to the wind and flung ourselves over the Cliffs of Desire and did not land on the Sharp Rocks of Regret.I'll tell you about the motor home trip and how lovely it was, cruising the prairie at night and drinking beer, stopping by a little creek and grilling fish on a Coleman stove, listening to coyotes. The vanishing of the RV only makes your story more interesting. One thing lost, something else gained. Life is like that.I am looking forward to a compressed work-week and/or telecommuting as a matter of course rather than an occasional privilege. If people start working from home in large numbers, chances are that the daycare bu…

Diminshing Gratitude

One line from a post in MR "the memory of the favor-doing event gets distorted, and since people have the desire to see themselves in the best possible light, receivers may think they didn't need all that much help at the time, while givers may think they really went out of their way for the receiver." explains a whole lot of perplexing inter-personal relationship issues.

Often when we are bailed out in a crisis, our gratitude is deep and heartfelt but with time the poignancy of that event is diminished and to that extent the significance of the favor is reduced in our mind. If the favor-doer has likewise moved on and believes their response at the time was proportional to the crisis, there would be no mismatched expectations or broken friendships.

It is not always true that the recipient of the favor does not think they needed all the help that they got at the time. They may just be unable to rerun the intensity of emotions they experienced at the time and in as such be u…

Found Essays

I was about fourteen if memory serves when my English teacher, Mrs P made me read the Essays of Francis Bacon. Obviously it was not my first choice for summer vacation reading with so many tempting, far more contemporary options out there. I approached the volume as I would a chore and without a great deal of excitement but before long I was hooked. Not only did I enjoy reading Bacon, it was my introduction to a genre which is still among my favorites.

Finding Francis Bacon essays online and a list of famous essayists reminded me of Mrs. P and her relentless efforts to get us hooked on classics. I did not appreciate her enough back then, but I do know now how lucky I had been to be introduced to some of the best writing in the language at a fairly young age. Once she got me started, I made many more discoveries on my own but the power of that first push was truly priceless and for that I will always remain grateful.

Resolved

As the parent of a kindergartener, I am always interested in finding out what lies ahead in the school years yet to come, what to expect and what to be prepared for. A lot of news of about middle and high school in America is quite disconcerting. The system seems to create some big winners and more than a few big losers but the vast majority get left behind in all round mediocrity that is a recipe for failure in the globalized world that they will increasingly need to participate in.

HBO's Resolved is a movie about the winners - the story of the high-stakes, win at any cost high-school debate whose cornerstone is a technique called "the spread" which is defined as " speed speaking, was introduced in the 1960s, debate was primarily characterized by eloquence and persuasion. Since, debate has emphasized information and academic research, with persuasiveness taking a back seat. Debaters began using a densely-worded jargon that few people could understand, and crowds dwi…

Clumsy Brain

Gary Marcus in an interview with New Scientist would have us tinker our clumsy brains a bit to get more bang for the buck. He cites the memory as one example of such clumsiness

I think the clumsiest thing is human memory. We pull things out of our memory using context, or clues, that hint at what we're looking for. But it could pretty easily have been organised like computer memory, which would have been much more systematic, much more reliable.

I don't know about design perfection or optimization but am very grateful for the clumsiness that makes it easy to forget so much both the good and the bad. What a terrible fate it would be able to recall events with equal clarity irrespective of what point in time they occurred.

It is also nice that "lot of our thinking gets contaminated because our memories aren't very systematic". Maybe its best for the brain to be left just so, so we could still remain "human"

Rah Rah

Now there is scientific evidence to back what we've known all along - the suits in the big corner offices make some of the most dumb-ass decisions. Then of course to add insult to injury, they take off in their golden parachutes while the rest are just let go with or without a few weeks of severance. Apparently, the big rah-rahs that happen when a project goes to "Mission Accomplished" stage is at the root of all evil.

The esteem-boosting feedback backfired, the research suggests, because it was so closely linked to the particular skills that should have prevented the questionable decision in the first place.

“The more that people’s feelings of self-worth are wrapped up in a poor decision they’ve made, the greater their impulse will be to justify it in some way,” said Daniel C. Molden, assistant professor of psychology at Northwestern and one of the researchers.


We all know from experience that the accomplished mission comes unraveled at alarming pace right after the awards…

Contradictions

Could not but help ponder the myraid of contradictions reading about blu-ray makeup and the concept of Pooristan on the same day. The author makes a compelling case for the nation of the "Bottom Billion"

“What the world needs is an economic superpower that represents the interests of the world’s poor: Call it Pooristan.”

Elsewhere however, life happens in high definition and to that end, Cargo Cosmetics has created a blush/highlighter that "contains Photochromatic Pigments that adjust to all lighting conditions"

When you consider the Blu-Ray make-up wearing, high-powered, semi-celibrity news reader recounting the horrific circumstances in Darfur or flood-ravanged Yangoon, the need for a Pooristan becomes self-evident. The author quotes writer Lant Pritchett while concluding the essay :

Pritchett calls the world’s least fortunate countries “zombies.” Because their people are trapped by the lack of economic prospects, they are the equivalent of the living dead.Pooristan …

Parents Of Teens

Barabara Ellen takes exception with non-parents and parents of young children who take it upon themselves to advice POTs (Parents Of Teenagers) on the errors of their parenting ways - which is quite understandable.

However, she neglects to mention another kind of POT - the ones who have very good natured and well-behaved teens - the kinds that score straight As, go to church regularly, are engaged in a plethora of activities and have a clear plan for their future. In other words, the complete antithesis of kids who host and attend the wild Facebook parties Ellen writes about.
It is typical of the other POTs to tell such parents that their kids are over-compensating for some hidden (and obviously dreadful) issues by being so abnormally perfect. The fact they don't drip attitude like a "normal" teen is enough evidence of something being very wrong. They try to imply that unbeknownst to them, these clueless parents are harboring a severely disturbed kid who could snap sudde…

Teaching Outliers

In a recent conference with J's teacher I discovered the importance of working smart even at the first grade level. The skills that will be useful to her as an adult are not unlike those she needs to thrive in elementary school. As it turns out, the quality of work is not nearly as important as speed of completion when measuring the ability of a student. No one has the time or interest to understand why a child's comprehension varies dramatically between two books at the same reading level.

In summary, how you appear is far more important than who you really are - style reigns over substance. Though we chatted about J, what I heard from the teacher and later from the guidance counselor and the principal, helped me understand why a kid in my neighborhood who is also in J's class is being sent to behavior school like he were a wild animal in need of taming.

I have seen T for a couple of years now and think he is very bright and inquisitive. His mother tells me that he loves …

Fast Read

Just like my favorite kind of food is anything slow-cooked , I like my fiction to unfold languidly. To that end, Zhu Wen's I Love Dollars is not my kind of book, which is a pity because it is a very good one. In the title story "I Love Dollars" the protagonist in reaction to his father asking him to give up writing, says:

"I knew full well my tears were cheap, as were my emotions. I was a cheap person, in an age that burned to sell cheap, my natural habitat the clearance warehouse, pushed carelessly to one end of an empty shelf, happy to write for anyone who tossed me a couple of coins. I was ready and waiting: I'd even put my soul on special, on 70, 80 percent discount. But don't forget: I want to be paid in dollars - fucking dollars"

If I was able to adjust to the choppy pace and the general breathlessness about how the stories are told, I would have appreciated it so much more. After all fast food can be both delicious and filling. Some are actually a …

Inner Resilience

Nice article in the Financial Times on (at least) seven kinds of young Indians. The author concludes :

Indians are rightly proud that their country is one of the world’s only continuously democratic developing nations. In the six decades since independence, predictions that a country with India’s combination of extreme poverty and religious and ethnic diversity would fail to consolidate a nascent democratic culture have been as regular as the monsoon. They have been proved repeatedly wrong. Now, however, as India stands on the verge of the “bold advance” that Nehru predicted, it also faces its greatest test. There is no prospect of any generalised popular uprising against the state, but unless more of liberalisation’s children are invited to the party, the music to which the elites are so deliriously dancing will surely stop.

Quite improbably India thrives (after a fashion) despite the overwhelming odds. Some countries have infrastructural resilience that can take a lot of beating and s…

Coffee Table

I have lived in my apartment for over three years when the stay was supposed to be no longer than six months when I first moved here. I abandoned my wanderlust and gave in to the forces of rooting and mostly for J.

Though we've been here quite long, there is little external evidence of it. The rooms are very sparsely furnished and we don't have a television. When I first moved, the idea had been to be functional and it has remained just that way. We have always looked like we could be ready to decamp in very short order.

Recently, thanks to the good graces of an acquaintance who happened by a discarded coffee table and immediately thought of me, I came into a piece of furniture for my living room. That afternoon when J returned from school and saw the newly installed table in front of our couch, she let out a huge squeal of delight. "Mommy, now I can put my foot up on the coffee table when I am sitting on the couch" she said gleefully.

The life changing qualities of t…

Raffling Homes

Winning an apartment in a raffle is sounds like a even better than buying a foreclosed home on the cheap. It makes good business sense for the homeowner stuck with an unsellable property :

Miguel Marina said he hopes to be able to pay off his mortgage, worth 80 percent of the value of his property, by selling 64,000 tickets at 5 euros each, promising his home as the single prize to the winner of a draw

The buyer wins big and the also rans are only poorer by 5 euros.

"For five euros, you can win a flat, and I'll be able to sleep again," said Marina.

The only catch is that raffling to sell houses may not be legal. Minor detail I am sure in desperate times needing desparate measures which a dash of ingenuity can work around.
One suggestion is to "have competitions involving 'skill and judgement'- like: 'what is the name of my dog Fido ?' " and sneak the raffle right in.

Memory By Judith Harris

Memory by Judith Harris was published in Slate a few days ago. It is a very appropriate poem for this time of year when we remember, thank and cherish our mothers.

So simple,
my mother,
home from the stenographer's pool,
starlings dangling like keys
over the rooftops,

the late hour pulling us in
like a magnet,
the moon baying,
the solitaire train of cards.

Nothing could budge us
from our own little island,
our own little cushions,
where we stayed,
eating tuna sandwiches,

just her and me,
floating on TV laughter,
her hand clasped over mine
like a first date's.

I could be that mother turning home from work at day's end, sitting on our couch eating a dinner that was cooked without a great deal of planning. J and I happy to be together and just that - it does not take a lot more than that to make our day. The moment is quite pedestrian while it happens - watching TV while eating tuna sandwiches but its value increases over time until it becomes worthy of poetic reminiscence.

Recently, someo…

Dogs Of Kvetch

Sometimes commentary on what looks very much like recession or an impending one at least can make you chuckle as when Will Wilkinson says "And the upside of pain is complaining about it; a bona fide recession is a license to let slip the dogs of kvetch" Loved the dogs of kvetch and remembered the passage from Julius Caesar which inspires the line.

And Caesar's spirit, ranging for revenge,
With Ate by his side come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch's voice
Cry 'Havoc,' and let slip the dogs of war;

Maybe we Cry 'Recession At Last', when the punditry massage the numbers, read their tea leaves and do whatever other mumbo jumbo it takes to be a "bona-fide recession".

Spurned

My friend A is old enough to be mother-in-law except that she is not one. Single and without any ties to her immediate family she has always been a drifter seeking friends and family among strangers. She is a very loving and generous woman and will put up with a lot from her large circle of acquaintances just so she may be part of their lives - or atleast be allowed in there. She expects to pitch in physically and materially where ever she happens to be so she is not considered an inconvenience.

The children will be lavished with many thoughtful gifts, the adults assisted in any way that they find useful - sitting the pets, throwing out the trash, eating your leftovers, cooking you a quick dinner, doing the laundry - you name it and A will do it and what's more you don't have to ask for a favor - they come pouring in fast and furious. She is attentive to the needs of everyone in her vicinity including those who are unaware of her existense.

I have know her for a few years now …

Oracles

Found a mail with this link in the Bulk Folder of my mailbox. I am glad I looked before hitting delete because I love reading about mystical occurrences that cannot be explained scientifically.

The sacred oracle (tamra pothi) of Achyutananda Das is a series of blank copper pages. Once a questioner has asked his questions, the answers mystically appear engraved on the blank pages. This is one of the few verifiable mystical occurrences in the world that can be seen by anyone, even today.

When the Dalai Lama was in the news a lot recently, I read about the apparent contradiction in his faith in Oracles and strong affinity for science and technology. To a Hindu, there is not much contradiction there. We learn that there are limits to what science and logic can explain and then there is what lies beyond its pale.

As such, there is no dichotomy in a cardiologist seeking her family astrologer's counsel for the most important decisions in her life outside work. Her job is grounded in science…

Innovative Interviewing

Heard two stories on unusual hiring techniques on NPR recently. One was about Zappos - they try to tempt new hires into quitting. The idea is to see if the employee is motivated by money or by work. While it is clever, I am not entirely sure if it can really weed out all the bad apples. The serial job-changer will not bite bait for $1000. They will likely hang around until they have learned enough to be able to update their resume and then scope the market for a bigger, better deal. A vast majority of people will want to stay employed in a down market. It would just not make sense for them to trade a regular income for $1000.

The other story was about a more promising technique. Instead reviewing piles of resumes to shortlist candidates and then going through a long drawn out interview process that yields iffy results at best, have candidates attend a random meeting that one or more of their prospective team members are in. Once they are done, ask them what they gathered from particap…

Overdone Kitchens

Very interesting article in the Economist on the changing face of the kitchen over time. The feminist movement, the scarcity of domestic help, Formica, time saving appliances and popular media have contrived to make the humble kitchen the piece de resistance that it has become today.

The smoke-filled, hot and cramped kitchens may not have been as inviting as what the McMansions of today have but the food that came of them had more soul perhaps. Modern day kitchens are like divas – they have spunk, attitude and pizzazz but when it comes to delivering a wholesome hot meal, the unattractive yet functional kitchen of yesteryears wins hands down.

Needless to say, the denizens of the kitchen have changed as much as their habitat. It is no longer a woman’s place –she has been liberated and moved on but the vacuum left in her wake has been filled by a patch work of ready made food and leftovers from restaurant dinners. The modern day kitchen in the family’s watering hole with everyone doing th…