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Showing posts from July, 2008

Coached And Primed

Having gone through the drill in my time, I strongly believe that the engineering college entrance exams in India are quite useless in identifying the best and the brightest. All it does is reward the proficient test-taker at the cost of those who lack exam savvy but more than make up for it by "raw intelligence". Just as it is unable to identify innate talent, it is not recognize passion or aptitude for technology either.

Had the system been able to identify candidates of best fit and highest potential, people like me would have never made it. With enough practice we just got a hang of the test and that was probably our only qualification. Some of us figured it out on our own but the vast majority depended on coaching classes. It is heartening to see the dean of IIT-Madras echo the same sentiment.

"I am looking for students with raw intelligence and not those with a mind prepared by coaching class tutors. The coaching classes only help students in mastering (question p…

Devil In The Details

My recent experience with a couple of Indian vendors made me chuckle at this line I read in a blog post about why India will never be China.

Seriously, if you think the French penchant for arguing philosophical points to absurd lengths is maddening, wait until you have to deal with an Indian IT professional who literally buries you in a barrage of questions on details so minute as to be utterly inane. And then come the price negotiations. Indians make a Persian bazaar or an Arab souk feel like a cakewalk or a sleigh ride on a snowy winter's eve.

Case in point - a painful hour-long call (thankfully at vendor's expense) to Bangalore to discuss to death the exact mechanics of the Save and Save As function of a fairly complex application. They were in the process of responding to our RFP. We had provided a web-based simulation of the business requirements along with a detailed written document.

In return, all we expected was a level of effort estimate within a plus or minus 25% accu…

Showy Consumption

Nice article in The Atlantic Monthly on consumption patterns and under what conditions it one would chase after external trappings of "wealth". The theory is :

Since strangers tend to lump people together by race, the lower your racial group’s income, the more valuable it is to demonstrate your personal buying power.

To that end, the richer your peer group the lesser your need for conspicuous, public consumption. Virginia Postrel writes: As peer groups get richer, the balance between private pleasure and publicly visible consumption shifts.

My grandmother was barely literate and could not spell economics to save her life, but she knew what research has uncovered. Her theory was that the people with old money live luxuriously but they are rarely flashy. In fact, they are often extremely tight-fisted. It is only the nouveau riche that flaunt what little they have lest anyone imagine they are still poor - they are often very generous when lavishing friends and family with gifts.

W…

Tough Choices

If you've ever felt like your head hurts running through complex decision trees in your mind, here is the scientific explanation. Now I know why I hate long restaurant menus and shopping for a basic black skirt. Who in their right mind needs to have twenty five salad options to select from for a workday lunch or just as many kinds of black skirts only to find none of them meet your understanding of "basic". It seems that a lot of life's aggravations result from having to plow through too many choices - it weakens your brain and leaves it less useful for other work (or play)

Why is making a determination so taxing? Evidence implicates two important components: commitment and tradeoff resolution. The first is predicated on the notion that committing to a given course requires switching from a state of deliberation to one of implementation. In other words, you have to make a transition from thinking about options to actually following through on a decision. This switch, …

Smart Or Not

Apropos of something (I forget exactly what) J recently said to me "Indian kids are smarter". I was completely taken aback by that statement coming from her. She has a few desi friends from her Hindustani music class and a couple in the neighborhood. Every once in a while, we run into some friends I have. In all, its not a whole lot of desi interaction so I was not sure where exactly she had picked up that idea.

At any rate, I made haste to disabuse her of her notion that desis are inherently smarter than everyone else, offering plenty of evidence to the contrary to prove my point. I explained to her how race, culture and color of skin have nothing to do with intelligence and she would turn out to be a particularly retarded person if she held such beliefs. By now, J was close to tears. She had no idea one innocuous line from her would stir up such a huge hornet's nest.

We have reviewed the facts a few times since then just to make sure J really understands that mental abil…

Bowels And Relationships

I have had well meaning friends and family tell me at different times over the last few years that my yen for a relationship (the more conservative among them call this marriage) is not nearly strong enough or I would have been in one by now. I don't know about "strong enough" yen but I compare my need for a man (or the lack of one more appropriately) in my life to that of that of bowel movements (or the lack of them).

Say you are the kind of person that goes potty first thing every morning, as long as the job gets done you don't spend any time thinking about. In my world, that would be equivalent of the ordinary (and man-less) days where my many preoccupations with J, housework, job and hobbies leave little time to ponder what I am missing. Being married or in a relationship is the emotional equivalent of regular, timely bowel movements in my mind.

Then there are days when one goes potty at the regular time but unaccountably, nothing happens. You are surprised at fi…

Joseph Addison On Humour

With essays on my mind lately, I re-read some by Joseph Addison that I had read when I was in high-school. It was nice to refresh my memory with Addison's definition of humor :

It is, indeed, much easier to describe what is not humour than what is; and very difficult to define it otherwise than as Cowley has done wit, by negatives. Were I to give my own notions of it, I would deliver them after Plato’s manner, in a kind of allegory, and, by supposing Humour to be a person, deduce to him all his qualifications, according to the following genealogy. Truth was the founder of the family, and the father of Good Sense. Good Sense was the father of Wit, who married a lady of a collateral line called Mirth, by whom he had issue Humour. Humour therefore being the youngest of this illustrious family, and descended from parents of such different dispositions, is very various and unequal in his temper; sometimes you see him putting on grave looks and a solemn habit, sometimes airy in his behav…

Vista Rant

My long suffering Sony Vaio gave up ghost a few months ago and I found myself back in the market for a low-end laptop. Everything has become a lot cheaper than it was five years ago when I had bought the Sony. That was the good news. There is plenty of bad news to compensate for it. For the money I was saving, I would saddled with Windows Vista - an abomination in the name of OS for which a couple of gig of RAM is not nearly good enough.

Like many others, I hate this thing with a passion and wish the Mac was cheaper so I could fit one in my low-end budget. When all I want to do with my laptop is check email, use the internet save pictures and documents, I wonder why I would need so much horsepower in my computer and still have it work so slow with this Vista thing running on it. This is just not right.

Now, to add insult to injury the sales dude at the store advised that I should pay their tech to optimize the software for me so it does not slow down to crawl pace. Apparently an "…

Sardari Begum

Watching Sardari Begum with my mother recently was a nostalgic experience. She had been my introduction to Indian parallel cinema in my teens and I have been a fan ever since. This was one movie we had both missed when it was first released and it has taken all of twelve years to get caught up. I've never been disappointed by a Benegal offering and this was no exception. The music which is central to the story was ethereal.

Sardari is a woman with a spirit that does not fit her time and social milieu. To feed her passion for music, she gives up the conventional life of a woman whose life's purpose is fulfilled by way of marriage. Instead, she becomes a courtesan and a professional singer.The movie traces her life in a series of flashbacks along with parallels between her life and that of her niece, Tehzeeb who is far more "respectably" employed as a journalist.

Even with the far greater empowerment and opportunities that Tehzeeb has enjoyed, her unconventional lifestyl…

Baghdad High

HBO's Baghdad High documents a year in the life of four high school boys in Baghdad as recorded by them. This is the world view of kids who have for the better part of their lives lived in a war-zone and have come to a weary acceptance of their circumstances. We see them try to live a "normal" boyhood. There is a wannabe songwriter who sings along with a Britney Spears number, an anxious boyfriend worried about the safety of his girl in a place where suicide bombs can go off anywhere at anytime and staying alive is almost a miracle.

They don't look a lot different from their Western peers - with their jeans, tee-shirts, sneakers, cell-phones and gelled hair they could blend into school yards in America or elsewhere in the world with kids whose lives are nothing like theirs. Yet beneath the superficial sameness, a whole lot is different. They wonder if a walk down a street in their neighborhood could be flirting with death, they have friends who get wounded by road-…

Word Espalier

Read some beautiful verses by Izumi shikibu among many others over at Kritya. Like all other poetry that I have read, re-read, remembered and loved, these verses create the espalier of words for emotions I have experienced but not been able to articulate.

Which shouldn’t exist
In this world,
The one who forgets
Or the one Who is forgotten?

Which is better,
the distant lover you long for
Or the one you see daily
Without desire?

Why haven’t i
Thought of it before?
This body,
Remembering yours,
Is the keepsake you left.

Travel Lines

Mundane things like latitudes and longitudes upon intersection result in ideas that range from Confluence to Hitokoki - the later is about locations and not exact points. There is the figurative trip around the equator and then the real deal but along the prime meridian; books that inspire travel - around the world in twenty three days ; and Da Vinci Code trail. Or we go back in time to follow in the footsteps of Alexander the Great.

Every once in a while, when I feel the tension between the forces of rooting and the desire to wander the world, I find my thoughts turning to maps, geography, history and many ways the planet can be sliced and diced in our imagination to make for bite sized travel destinations.

Here in my little town, with one main street running though its heart, I have lived long enough to know the nondescript stores and restaurants nestled in obscure side roads that branch on both sides like feeble tendrils unable to draw the traffic, bustle or energy of the predominant…

Tokenism

J loves going to our local Hindu temple and I am sure she will be overjoyed to see a female priest there as this story reports is becoming common in America (via Salon).There is no evidence of multitudes of women being anointed as priests around the country in this story which introduces us to one such woman.

In contrast to this uplifting account(even if somewhat sensationalized story) of Indian women being able to arrive where their Western sisters are still struggling to reach is the one about Dalit scavengers participating in a fashion show possibly to demonstrate that even their lives need not be a dead end and that there is a world of possibilities (also via Salon)

Both stories are about tokenism that often stands in the way of efforts to do the right thing by Indian women (specially those who lack there wherewithal to do so for themselves). Shashi Tandon, the Hindu priest will let her fifteen minutes of fame, bask in the afterglow of limelight for that much longer; it would be bus…

Declining Value of Critics

I always look up book and movie recommendations on blogosphere trusting the weighted average opinion of the amateurs a lot more than that of the professional critics. A blogger would be less likely to hold back or do the politically correct thing if they were panning the work of an establishment favorite. Conversely, they would be more unrestrained when showering praise where they felt it was deserved.

Bloggers have no need to be objective in their opinion. It is quite often to their benefit to discuss their personal connection with a piece of music or literature because a vast majority of their readers are not impressed by the art and literary criticism dished out by main stream outlets. For all their expertise and informed opinions they are not able to help a reader, a movie-lover or theater goer navigate their way to finds they would truly enjoy and cherish.

In short, a random bloggers who is not being paid for their opinion are highly likely to have one that is helpful for someone w…

Moral Compass

This article would be very interesting reading for any woman who in her marriage or relationship has felt unaccountably weirded out by a close female relative of her man. There is of course a whole slew of comments both on the Times article and on Mefi from extreme ends of the moral compass. A few of the more interesting ones :

I got a very Penthouse feel from her description of her first night with her brother. It reads like some sort of male fantasy, being able to seduce and make every woman jealous, even his sister. She sort of glossed over the feelings of guilt that come with breaking such a strong cultural taboo. Even assuming that, abstractly, what they did was not intrinsically wrong, the fact that physical pleasure overrode any doubts is creepy. The ability to dispense with emotional baggage like that so easily reminds me of interviews with serial killers - geoff

What triggers my bullshit detector is a 14 year old girl and a 15 year old boy doing some drunken fondling and having…

I Will Not Be Broken

Jerry White tells a the most awe-inspiring tale of survival in his book I Will Not Be Broken. However, that is not the main point of his book - he shares his insights and quotes many others who have likewise known and overcome great adversity. This is not your run of the mill self-help book and is definitely about inspiring and leading by example.

That said , I find very it difficult to relate to his recommendations for others trying to cope with and survive tragedy in their lives. One of his central premises is the need of what he calls "social oxygen" to prevent us from suffocating in our own victimhood. True, pain and misery when dispersed widely enough hurts a lot less than something strictly one to one. Therefor war, famine and other socio-political upheavals while impacting entire generations do not make individuals feel like they were singled out for punishment - there are far too many victims of tragedy for them to luxuriate alone in their self-pity.

But personal tr…

Fresh Air Fund

I am posting this on behalf of Sara Wilson, Outreach Co-ordinator at Fresh Air Fund

The Fresh Air Fund has provided free summer vacations to New York City children from disadvantaged communities since 1877. The end of July is growing closer and they still have 200 children who need to be placed with host families for this August. Unless all prospective host families are screened and vetted by the end of July, these 200 children may miss out on an invaluable experience. They are looking for families who want to extend an invitation to a 9-12 year old.

If you know of someone who might be interested in hosting a child for the summer, please have them contact Sara Wilson at sara@freshair.org

Some articles about the organization and the wonderful work they do from around the web :

NYT Archives
Public Opion Online

And also the amazing story of a seven year old boy who asked his friends to make donations to the Fresh Air Fund instead of giving him birthday presents this year

Staying Competitive

As the moderator of this Economist debate on the competitiveness of workers from rich countries in a globalized world points out, the topic touched an assortment of nerves. Both the pro and the con positions have been heard many times before so there are not any new ideas to ponder upon. But the comments are a whole different animal - lively, vigorous and refreshing. Here is a small sampling of the comments I found most thought-provoking :

As long as Western leaders of so-called "rich" countries keep producing wartime products that absolutely are destructive to human productivity, I'm afraid that the Western countries will waste their competitive talents,e.g highly skilled and highly (and diversely) educated people - nance45

Like it or not, globalization facilitates regression to the mean. Emerging economies like Brazil, Russia, India and China (BRIC) can, on a percentage-wise basis, ratchet up productivity gains far faster than highly productive workers in wealthier coun…

The Guru of Love

With The Love Guru has taken over over search engine rankings, Samrat Upadhyay 's The Guru of Love manages to pull up only a couple of matches on page one. Clearly Guru Maurice Pitka is drowning his meeker Nepali counterpart Ramchandra - the hero of Upadhyay's book. Ironically, the online search fate of this book matches if off-line one when you consider the quality of Upadhyay's work compared to that of other sub-continental writers in the context of fame and recognition it has brought them.

As I read The Guru of Love I could not help remembering Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss and of course the Booker that came in its wake. For any sub-continental readers there are many parallels between Darjeeling (Desai) and Kathmandu (Upadhyay ) where these stories are set. The pace at which the plot unfolds is comparable as well. Both are good story-tellers with a lucid prose style. What Pankaj Mishra says of Desai's book can apply almost verbatim to Upadhyay's :

&qu…

Glass Beads

I bought a glass bead necklace on my trip to Puri over fifteen years ago. It had four strands of tiny red, blue, green, orange, yellow, black and white beads sewn with cotton twine. Nothing fancy but it but the combination of color and the lack of a repeating pattern made it a versatile piece of jewelry. I could wear it with a number of outfits, pair it with metal or bead earrings not to mention glass bangles. Since then its always traveled with me.

The twine frayed over time and a couple of years ago it finally snapped. I tried to mend it but it was too big a project to undertake with thousands of little beads to string together. There was never enough time, never enough motivation. The remains of the necklace and the beads lay in a bowl in one of the kitchen cabinets.

A few weekends ago, I thought I'd give the necklace project a go -mainly to give J something to do. She loves helping me with whatever I am doing and this was definitely a lot more fun than cleaning the bathrooms. …

Bird And Other Poop

In hard times, even bird-poop can be export-worthy. Maybe at some point in the not too distant future, traders will speculate in the futures of guano and on the ground wars will be waged among poop collectors and their handlers. Dung including that of humans has a long history. At some extreme end of the organic food fadism lies the Ezekiel Breads - one real and the other in the author's imagination.

But the idea of of human excrement as fuel is not that far-fetched as this news story from eight years ago suggests. As it is, very little separates what we eat and what we excrete. Unless you are among the lucky few who get to quench their thirst from a mountain spring that runs through your backyard, chances are you might be drinking recycled water from your toilet. Whether we like it or not, we do seem to live in interesting times.

English Dialects

Having moved from state to state in India through my childhood, I am only too familiar with many flavors of English and how local languages add a distinct texture and tonal quality to it. As such, there is more that separates Tamlish, Binglish and Hinglish and Punjlish from each other than unites it. In this Wired article on the emergence of Chinglish as a distinct dialect of English, the analysis of how English came to take on so many different hues is spot on :

Any language is constantly evolving, so it's not surprising that English, transplanted to new soil, is bearing unusual fruit. Nor is it unique that a language, spread so far from its homelands, would begin to fracture. The obvious comparison is to Latin, which broke into mutually distinct languages over hundreds of years — French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian. A less familiar example is Arabic: The speakers of its myriad dialects are connected through the written language of the Koran and, more recently, through…

Year 2058

Each entry in this list of predictions about where we will be in 2058 is fascinating. The one's I liked best were :

6. Hand-held neuroimagers will reveal when people are lying - the socio-cultural implications of having such technology are immense. You wonder if this could our first brush with Satya Yug.

14. We may be able to add memory to human brains, just as we do to old computers, and download human memory into remote storage devices - which would mean storing unwanted, undesirable memories offline and also help for those who loose in the uneven struggle of memory over forgetfulness.

17. People can get artificial retinas that let them switch (simply by thinking) between "reality" mode and virtual reality, including the ability to see real events in other locations -- say, checking on Mom in the nursing home - imagine being able to see loved ones living in a different country or being able to "witness" important news events from the comfort of one's livin…

An Interview with Rajiv Satyal

Rajiv Satyal - Declared by Russell Peters as 1 of only 2 U.S.-based Indian "comics to watch," Rajiv is the small, bespectacled Indian guy from Ohio whose witty and TV-clean act covers everything from racial issues to soap bottles to his favorite topic - himself - "We all have some Rajiv in us, even if we don't want to admit it." He has repeatedly opened for Dave Chappelle, Kevin Nealon, and Russell Peters in sold-out shows across the U.S.
Source : Indian Invasion Comedy

Rajiv Satyal: Hello!HC: Hi there !

Rajiv Satyal: So I'm at my friend's place and HOPEFULLY the internet hangs in thereHC: If not, I would fully expect you to make a good desi joke about it :)
Rajiv Satyal: Of course something about how an Indian like me should be able to fix it post hasteHC: Absolutely, with all the desi stereotypes about spelling bee and Indian temples thrown in. So how did you find yourself in the comedy business - its not the desi thing to do at all
Rajiv Satyal: My brothe…

Signs of Decay

My mother's first visit to America was soon after 9/11. That Christmas, I took to a mall near where I lived at the time. J was only a few months old and I was not able to fit into any of my pre-pregnancy clothes yet. I remember wearing to the mall a black shalwar-kameez she had brought for me from India because it was the only outfit I could fit into comfortably. My mother wore a sari as she always does. So there we were, two dark-haired, brown-skinned, petite ethnic women in clothes that looked decidedly foreign. A group of white punks hurled racially charged abuse and insults upon us while we walking inside the mall. It was the first time I had experienced anything like that in the States and I had been here for a couple of years at the time.

Needless to say, I was terrified and thought they might harm J. There had been reports of racial violence and the targeting of Sikhs because of their turbans. I could tell these teens were educationally and culturally backward enough not to …

Household Bling

I hate the gooey soap gunk on soap dishes with a passion and just for that reason use soap cakes only in emergency - its liquid Castile soap otherwise. Reading the paeans about this perfect soap dish I am almost tempted to give it a shot and actually get to use the lovely lemongrass, tea tree, orange peel and oatmeal soap bar a friend gave me recently - right now it's being used a potpourri in my cabinet.

The Waterfall Soap Saver is a clever idea too but may not work when the cake turns small with use. On the plus side it’s a lot cheaper and requires no installation. Also on the same site, was a food dehydrator - a replacement for the abundant sunshine of my home where it was possible to dry seasonal vegetables, greens not to mention pickles all summer long and then enjoy them in winter. If you want to be green about food drying there is also a solar-powered option. Far less functional and much more attractive are Kyouei Design's products.

Corporate Psychic

As improbable as it seems, there is actually a point of intersection between corporations and crystal gazers - it pays $10,000 a month according to this Newsweek story and the title is Corporate Intuitive. It's amazing what becomes possible in tough economic times :
The scale of Day's success would have been hard to imagine in the 1990s, when the Psychic Friends Network and a campy Jamaican psychic called Miss Cleo clotted the airwaves with low-rent infomercials, giving the P word a bad public image. Some stigma still remains. "The hedge funds would freak out" if they knew he consulted a psychic, says the Hollywood executive.But just as there are no atheists in foxholes, a bleak business climate can make believers out of anyone.

Perhaps when all the time tested recipes for success have fallen flat and wisdom of the high-powered management gurus have failed to turn the tide; looking to the metaphysical for answers may the the last resort for businesses in the West, just…

Strong Password

I was experiencing more than my usual share of challenges coming up with a new password that followed all the required rules - Nothing in common with the last 6 passwords, combination of alpha and numeric, atleast 2 numbers, no more than one special character and so on. When they make you go through this drill several times in a year, you wonder why they would not put you out of your misery, identify and autheticate you biometrically instead.

So after 10 or more attempts to come up with a password I might actually remember after I had created it, I made one that would be impossible to forget and bring back memories of love and loss from college days each time I typed it - or at least so I thought.

As it turns out, I am able to remember my password and each time I type it I am jolted out of the here and now to return to a place and time I can't fully remember anymore. The password has become a trigger for time-travel and acute yet nameless nostalgia. No specific memories come back …

Kids Online

Learned something new (and disturbing) about second life sites for kids like Webkinz and Whyville today. Though these sites are kid safe in terms of content, not much else is apparently:

On the playground, kids pilfer lunch money and push each other around. But in the cyber clubhouses they're filling by the millions, kids rig elections, sell fake products and scam each other out of every virtual-worldly possession.

Since these virtual worlds are modeled after a real world adult ones, the scams kids perpetrate on each other are anything but juvenile. Also, the degree bad behavior is several notches higher for reasons that mirror the online world of adults.

Like adults, many kids feel that behaving badly online has fewer repercussions than behaving badly in real life, where face-to-face interaction drives home the consequences. Just as they can jump off a virtual building and not feel a thing, they can steal from each other with no consequences.

It is a shame that in these adult-created…

Indian Food

With my mother visiting us, J and I are getting to eat authetic bengali food every day. When I am on my own, this is a very special treat reserved for days when I have time to cook the varied spread it takes to make a full, multi-course meal. Having lived in many other parts of India as well, I know the same is true of most regional Indian cuisine. A traditioal Indian meal is elaborate and takes a lot of work to put together. Our mothers and grandmothers took pride in following the recipes religiously and not cutting any corners. My generation and beyond often have to improvise for the sheer lack of time and resources to do things right. The results needless to say, speak for themselves.

Reading this Buddhadev Bose (an author revered by bengali literastes for his style, substance and erudition) essay on bengali gastronomy makes me wonder if there might a little more than nostalgia in what makes food from my part of the world so special. While he is on the theme of Bengali food, he als…

Without Hiatus

I often try to think back to the time when I was J’s age to see if I can remember who or what was at the center of my universe. While school and friends formed the substantial periphery of my world, parents were at its center.If memory serves, I felt the need for both yin and yang to define completely the dependence I had on my parents – emotionally and physically.In my mind they had different roles in my life and I could isolate the need of one from the other. So when I was down with high fever, I wanted my mother by my side all day long but if it was a bigger kid in the neighborhood bullying me, I preferred that my father set him straight though my mother might have just as easily been able to do so.

There was a division of labor in my mind, a clear separation in roles and responsibilities. So if they left me home with the domestic help and her kids to go to an occasional New Year party, I did not resent being left alone but got quite agitated if they did not return exactly when they…