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Showing posts from January, 2009

Change of Guard

Read this article by Anand Girdhardas on the change of guard in India and the breaking of traditional class barriers, in which he says :

In the Indian offices of, say, Goldman Sachs or McKinsey, the paychecks are fat and the intellects razor-sharp. But they seldom speak English in the old, affected British way. They are coarser and yet more confident. They feel the world is theirs, but are less obsessed than the earlier elites with emulating the West. They are proudly indigenous, often preferring Indian food, music and movies to the alternatives.

While the observation is not off the mark, the analysis may not be entirely right. The faux-British accent has lapsed over the years simply because the vast majority of school teachers in India have not been taught English by the British. Having learned the language from desis, they naturally speak like desis do. To make up for that, there is now a rash of accent trained young people who can speak like Americans. The neutral English accent is t…

Solastalgia

It used to be that you could come home to where you were born and raised after however many years and still find the world you had left behind. Then there were changes, people you knew were displaced for reasons often beyond their control, new landmarks had begun to replace the old. Friends from long ago were harder to find, as were other memories of childhood - the school, the corner-store, a tree outside your window that had been around for longer than anyone could remember. So, there was no place that was truly home.

For those of us who have lived the better parts of our lives as vagabonds without a permanent address, this lack of of a real home and the associated pain is a familiar one. We look forward to putting roots down someplace just so we have place to come back to, be comforted by the presence of familiar things around us. That may be harder to come by with time. There is now a word to describe the complex emotions associated with this.

Tweeting Zombies

This hilarious post on the ubiquitous social media experts is a must read for anyone who has a Twitter and Facebook account because everyone else has one but is largely clueless otherwise. They follow and get followed, get stuff written up on their walls - send and receive invites on occasion. Even with all that, they don't get the warm and fuzzy of being with the program. They are pretty sure there is a method to the madness and it is only a matter of time before they figure it out too.

That description by the way, describes my forays into the world of social media almost exactly. The author of the post Micheal Pinto, describes a common malaise of the highly networked individuals - the “social media deafness" :

a state that occurs when a person’s social graph exceeds 500+ virtual friends. The result is that the person is a mile wide, but an inch deep.

I have never got the point of the 500+ friends either. By six degrees of separation some of these 500+ people must know every…

John Updike

One of my favorite authors, John Updike died yesterday. I have read most of his books and have several favorites. But one Updike book, Hugging The Shore, changed my life. This was the book that opened up a whole new world of reading to me in my teens, which lead to other interesting discoveries along the way. The author of this obit writes of Updike :

On purely literary grounds, he was attacked by Norman Mailer as the kind of author appreciated by readers who knew nothing about writing.

Even if Mailer is right, I am proud to be the kind of plebeian reader who knows nothing about writing. Thanks to my ignorance, I have some of my fondest reading memories. I would never trade them for the knowledge or appreciation of good writing by strict literary standards. It is sad to think that there will never be another new Updike book to anticipate or enjoy.

Real And Normal

J is healthy but petite and that has been a source of much heartache for her from the time she has been able to compare herself to her peers. Up until a year ago, I had found it easy enough to explain that race has a lot to do with it. I would tell J, we are Indian but most of your friends are Caucasian. Just as I am smaller than most of their moms, it is likely you will be smaller than your friends as an adult. However, I am taller than average for an Indian woman of my age so it is likely you will be too compared to Indian girls of your generation. She had found this largely acceptable.

Increasingly, the later part of my explanation is failing to hold water. The desi kids she knows are bigger than her at three years younger. The average desi second grader of her acquaintance looks several years older than her. It becomes a matter of great embarrassment to J if a parent assumes she is a pre-schooler and lumps her along with the 4-5 year olds on a social occasion.

It does not help when …

Electronic Paper

The first thing that comes to mind reading this article about paper thin electronic screens that can be rolled like paper is the possibility of print and electronic media merging to become indistinguishable from each other. If newspaper and magazine could be printed in bulk on such screens, they would bring the best of both worlds together. The tactile satisfaction of a real newspaper along with the power of electronic media seems more than perfect.

While this technology has some distance to travel before it becomes readily available to the average consumer, there is no lack of ideas on what to do with it once it does. If conventional paper goes the way of stone tablets and papyrus in the future, handwriting might become obsolete along with arts like painting and sketching - a lot like photographic film has become with the dominance of digital cameras. Writing or painting something by hand on paper would become a quaint thing with some fringe enthusiasts. Yet there are other positives …

Parenting Balance

As a FOB desi parent, I will be the first to admit that I find the public school curriculum in America severely lacking and worry about J being left far behind her peers around the world thanks to the asinine No Child Left Behind policy.

I am also the kind of desi who feels vindicated in this opinion by documentaries like 2 Million Minutes. This film takes a deeper look at how the three superpowers of the 21st Century - China, India and the United States - are preparing their students for the future. As we follow two students - a boy and a girl - from each of these countries, we compose a global snapshot of education, from the viewpoint of kids preparing for their future.Our goal is to tell the broader story of the universal importance of education today, and address what many are calling a crisis for U.S. schools regarding chronically low scores in math and science indicators.

Knowing about this "crisis", I feel an urgent need to correct the gaps in my child's education…

Tall Tales

Ben Mezrich's Ugly Americans - The True Story of the Ivy League Cowboys who Raided the Asian Markets for Millions reads at a fast clip like any good thriller must. As Mezrich's rhapsodies on Ducatis, Ferraris and other trappings of good living turn cliche by frequent repeats, and his characters go about their business of being take-no-prisoners cowboys of the Asian financial markets, you wonder if his "true story" may be true in the manner of The Devil Wears Prada.

The events recounted in the book are old by now and the style of writing, makes it hard to separate fact from fiction, truth from exaggeration. Even with everything on the news these days, you almost want to believe there is a generous dose of make-believe in Mezrich's surreal story of hedge funds making ungodly sums of money without the encumbrances of morality, authority or regulation. Surely, things cannot be quite as bad. Because if they are, the legions of little guys paying for this bacchanalia a…

Truth Sorting

I love the intent and design of Politifact and could not help wondering what might happen if we "borrowed" this idea and applied it to politics in India. Internet access is fairly common now so a large part of the electorate can easily participate in this on-line truth sorting exercise. Instead of being the largest democracy in the world only by virtue of headcount, we could become the most significant one by level of energy and active participation in the political process.

Imagine having the ability to jam a politician's phone lines and in-boxes when they are seriously under-delivering on their promises. Better still have the truth-o-meter displayed prominently on major news channels so the citizenry is able to remain vigilant of the performance of their "public servants" at all times. Actions like these, would force elected representatives to emerge from the shadows they thrive in and account for the yawning gap between what they say and what they do.

You don…

Betting On Fear

Just before the peak of summer, I received an "enticement" from my power company. I could choose my pay my bill or lock in my bill at a blended-in, usage plus other esoterica driven number. I looked at the two numbers side by side and tried to understand the logic that might have driven the lock-in number which was about ten dollars higher than my bill for the month. At the very height of summer, my bill would likely go up some more and might even cross the magic lock-in figure but how was that an attractive proposition for me to sign up for a whole year.

Now, this company has known my consumption pattern for four years living in the same house. Obviously, the algorithm was lacking as far as I was concerned and I was not convinced. With the tide having turned (at least for the time being), it appears that I made the right call. They were at the time, basically asking me to hedge against runaway energy prices when indeed the prices were constantly on the rise.

MyGallons did to…

A Little Short

Read a short story by Hari Kunzru titled Raj, Bohemian. It revolves around monetizing social networks and is almost but not quite neatly done. That can be tantalizing or disappointing based on your perspective. Almost because you sense the potential in the idea but not quite because the ending is so underwhelming. This kind of writing is possibly the hardest to read. You would much rather go in without any expectations and come out none the worse for not having them met.

In this Kunzru number, we have a bunch of artsy, talented, somewhat eccentric characters who form the narrator's social network. He makes a concerted effort to extend the reach of his story to an international audience. There is no smell of spices clinging to the walls of the kitchen - the desis in this story are cool and cosmopolitan. There are no pointers to their cultural provenance except their ethnic names. Plus there is Otto, the German to balance out Sunita the desi.

While all this makes for an interesting…

Homeschooling

I am a big believer in homeschooling and think it is the best solution for some kids and parents. Reading this list of famous home-schoolers is definitely interesting as are the comments on the article. There are several perspectives that I had never considered in the context of homeschooling. Escape to public school to escape a dreary, wretched home and family is one of them.

While it is great the the kid gets a break for a good part of the day everyday, they must inevitably return to that terrible place called home - until they are able to leave for good and strike out on their own. To use public school to escape a deeper, more fundamental problem is like suppressing the symptoms without curing the disease.

If a parent is not dedicated to giving their child a good education the outcomes could be equally bad whether the kid is home-schooled or not. The ability of the parent to teach the material is obviously important and it would help the credibility of all home-schoolers if their p…

Limited Audience

A few days ago while chatting over tea with some Bong acquaintances, discussion turned to movies by Rituparno Ghosh. This is a crowd of urban, educated, professional (or not), middle-class Bengalis who have spent about equal parts of their lives in India and outside. As is usually the case in such gatherings, us ladies were seated in the informal dining area outside the kitchen whereas the men were in the living room.

Ghosh has been more graphic in depicting sexuality than most other contemporary Bengali directors and these ladies took issue with that. The popular opinion was - if you do have something different and unusual to say via cinema, you don't need to resort to nudity and adult language to say it.

After all, Satyajit Ray never had to do either and still made world-class cinema. All his movies can be watched with family without fear of outraging anyone's innocence. The ladies had a long list of Ghosh movies that had offended their sensibilities with Antar Mahal and Dosar

Learning From J

While getting dinner ready a few days ago in the context of something J said, I explained that Indians believe in Athithi Deva Bhavo and so in our culture we attach a great deal of importance to being gracious and hospitable to our guests - invited and uninvited alike. That in serving them we are serving God.

So here I was feeling good about myself, making my little speech that would further the cause of our "culture" and "tradition" , when J interrupted to say "All parents should treat their children as God too". How is that I inquired failing to make the connection with the discussion at hand.

"When children come out their mother's tummy, they become the guest of the parents. A guest who just stays for a very long time. A life-over instead of just a sleep-over". I had to agree that would be a valid parallel and therefore by the standards of treating your guest like they were God, parents need to do the same with their children.

J clarified t…

Indianness Anxiety

I have often blogged about the exotification of India by Indian writers who write in English. As an Indian, I find myself cringing at a precious turn of phrase or lush prose style that appear to be the bane of these writers. I have to ask myself what would remain of such a piece of writing once all the Indian ambiance elements are removed from it. Does the story remain worth telling after that ? That I can't imagine One Hundred Years of Solitude set anywhere else but Macondo is a perfect of example of blatant double standards.

Knowing fully well that the act of parsing a piece of writing into its style and substance components is the best way to kill the joy of reading and appreciating the real merits of a work, I just can't seem to help myself when the locale happens to be India. Whenever I read an Indian author whose writing fails to transcend his or her cultural identity, I tend to question the authenticity of that identity itself and the clarity of the voice in which it i…

Innocence On The Block

I could not help thinking how far womankind has come along as I read this story about a twenty two year old auctioning her virginity off for $3.7 m and that's just the highest bid so far. It is hard to think of the men engaged in this bidding war as anything but the most pathetic losers.

Not only is Ms Dylan the mistress of her own destiny with that kind of money at her young age, she has also in control of the terms of engagement in this multi-million dollar deal. Most importantly she has challenged the relevance of female virginity in contemporary society while making a mockery of the male obsession with it. In exchange for something that obviously has great cachet with a certain stripe of men, she will be laughing all the way to the bank.

She said: "I get some men who are obviously looking for a girlfriend but I try and make it clear that this is a one-night-only offer.

Apparently the deal does not make good business sense. Caveat emptor, but more power to the young lady…

Treading Egg Shells

A few weeks ago when the Satyam scandal was just breaking on the airwaves in India, my dad called in at work to check how I was doing. I could not make the connection and was really perplexed. Apparently other desis like myself who are also completely unrelated to Satyam had received similar inquiries from home. I figure this is our national malaise of treading on egg-shells, manifesting itself in a time of crisis.

We realize the truth about how government and corporations run in India, is often unpalatable but we don't necessarily want to have our dirty linen washed and aired in public. Home and abroad, desis have benefited enormously from the companies like Infosys, TCS, Wipro and yes Satyam. They have swank campuses, state of the art technology, armies of English-speaking technology workers and international presence.

Together they form the fancy facade behind which we gather as a people while projecting ourselves to the world outside. They act as a shield and barrier against u…

Instructive Reading

Read this nice article on the virtues of reading seriously ill-written books. The author argues for persisting with reading a novel so bad that after 10 minutes' reading it's almost impossible not to fire it across the room like a 112-page Howitzer shell.
I recognize that feeling and have almost always given up past page 50 with books that unbearable. I have a couple of acquaintances who have published their work - one through a vanity press and the other through a slightly mainstream publisher. Both works were years in the making and finally did see light of day. One of these authors described the process from concept to publication as a five year gestation.
I received a complimentary copy of each book. The vanity press number was a volume of poems - a mix of good and mediocre but readable enough even if not worth revisiting. The other one was a work of autobiographical fiction and an amazingly tedious read. Needless to say, I never made it past page ten. I wondered what made…

Trusting Like A Child

Since times are tough and people are losing their jobs at an alarming rate, I thought it would be a good idea to get J familiar with the idea of surviving difficult times as a family. Kit Kittredge turned out to be a perfect vehicle for this lesson. She took away from the movie the important ideas I wanted her to.

A few days after she had watched the movie, I mentioned to her than many people in my acquaintance had either lost their job or were likely to do so in the near future, that things could change for me too though we can hope for the best. She absorbed this seriously and after some thought asked "Mommy, it this worse than the Great Depression ?" and I answered that some people think so.

Her follow-up question caught me a little off-guard "Will we come out of it before I die ?" I hastened to assure her that it would all blow over very soon, maybe within a year. Everyone would be back working, no one would have to lose their home. I was making this up on as I…

Slumdog Millionaire

Watched Slumdog Millionaire and not sure exactly how I felt about it. Among the slew of reviews of the movie a couple made the most sense to me. One is by Shobha De and the other by Scott Mendelson. I found myself agreeing with some of the things the two have said though they approach the movie and react to it in completely different ways

Mendelson gets to the heart of the matter - the business of knowledge, the new tools available to acquire and recall it at will and therefore the revelance of knowledge itself. The protagonist of Slumdog Millionaire learned everything he did merely trying to stay alive in unrelentingly harsh circumstances.He had no real education but that did not stop him from acing the biggest trivia challenge - Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. So Mendelson poses a few questions :

There has been an ongoing debate for the last several years about the very concept of knowledge. With the advances of the internet and billions of people literally having any piece of informat…

Languages and Geek Stuff

Found this really funny post comparing programming languages to religions. Once the religion is taken care of, the geek can presumably go about upgrading the fixtures around the house - where they prefer to communion with their chosen God. A keyboard waffle together with an off-on coffee mug would be a great way to get a good conversation going. 
After a long time, I have been hanging out with a bunch of people whose conversation frequently lapses into their technical argot leaving the rest of us quite befuddled. A very long time ago, I used to be one of them but clearly time and distance have taken their toll. A world with which I was once very familiar seems rather strange now. That said, I can see how L, the technical lead would salivate over the off-on coffee mug, his own has a computer keyboard painted on it - I love the on-off mug too and hope it works just as well for tea. Thanks to residual geek-ness perhaps, I think the monkey-picked tea definitely worth trying.

Cashing Your Ride

Covering your car with advertising vinyl in lieu of gas coupons is the idea behind CashURDrive. Clients can locate their ads through the vehicle tracking system installed on the car. Sounds like a good idea and a win-win one at that.

I am thinking about the traffic congestion in Indian cities and trying to imagine streams of cars decked out in bright brand colors, tag-lines, images and more. It makes for a visually disturbing and chaotic scene. If drivers actually bother to read any of these mobile bill-boards that can only be unsafe for passenger and traffic alike. With so many parties clamoring for attention, it would be interesting to see if anyone gets any attention at all.

There will the initial novelty factor that would doubtless benefit early adopters. By when every car in town has signed up for CashURDrive the value proposition for both sides of the equation, advertiser and car-owner would be significantly diminished. Whereas at first, only a few cars would have been done up and…

Parental Expectations

I have been a frequent visitor at Stuff White People Like ever since I discovered this highly entertaining and frequently trenchant blog. For FOBs like myself who have not quite figured out the ways of the natives of their domicile, reading these posts can result in more than one aha moment. The particular post about everyone's child being gifted rings true from my own experience interacting with parents of other school-age kids. It is indeed a common refrain. The praise heaped on these kids is often disproportionately lavish in my observation.

But high-achieving desi parents (another demographic I am quite familiar with) are no different in this respect. Everyone's kid is the next business or technology leader in the making. If not that they are well on their way to path-breaking scientific research. All this projected on the basis on their 8-10 year old being the gifted and talented program of their local school system. If the kid is artistically inclined, they will be signed…

Expensive Care

Women who pursue a ideal of beauty that is often uattainable, believe that it can be obtained for a price. The higher the price, the rarer the ingredients of this ultimate magic potion, the more convulted the preparation, the greater their faith in its efficacy. Even an economic downturn will not deter them from paying a high premium for beauty.
“The cosmetic business tends to be a place where customers can feel good about themselves, an uplifting and motivating focus on themselves, regardless of other aspects of their lives,” said Kay Mazza, Herberger’s store manager.
Per this IHT story vegetables are now being used to create skin-care products :
It takes 55 pounds, or 25 kilograms, of spinach to create one pound of extract, and PurGenesis has been working on the formula since 1999. The company hopes it will be available in face creams by the end of next year.
As with sending someone to scour the Amazon rainforest for the ultimate blend of herbs to rejuvenate the skin, the act of going t…

Barista Bride

When the US government came up with the idea of the H-1 and the companion H-4 visa, it is safe to assume that they did not intend for this to result in a cinema and literature genre. Columnists, bloggers and the rest naturally cannot stop bemoaning the fate of those who have had the course of their lives altered because of the H-1/H-4 visas. Read this WSJ version of the the oft-repeated story and learned a new phrase Barista Bride. In my mind I can see this becoming a new Chetan Bhagat title with movie rights snapped up by some Bollywood heavy weight.

It is the nature of things in India -everyone is in the middle of everyone else's personal business. To wit, the government publishes how-to guides on marrying NRIs safely and the soap opera-esque epics culled from the immigration and visas woes of our people end of up being enacted in the movie sets on Mumbai by all-local talent.

We all commiserate with each other, warn friends and family when they about to embark on the dread H-4 …

Hot Housing

Love the title of this Wired article on the questionable benefits of stuff like Baby Eisenstein for babies. When you take the business of enriching your kids very seriously you may even end up having an old supercomputer be the centerpiece of the child's bedroom.

Needless to say, hot-housing kids does not always end well, as this news story indicates - the gifted kid in question the the author notes effectively ended up in a strange purgatory between childhood and adulthood - and sadly cheated of both. Such is the fate of many a child who is tagged and labeled "gifted". It seems to me that the "gifts" if they truly exist, would become evident in due season of their own free will. But as parents we want to rush the denouement before its time and to help us there are hot-houses.

I see uber-competitive parents all around me and hear about plenty more through friends and acquaintances and they prompt me to second-guess myself- my determination to let J enjoy learn…

Firing Away

I have run into all kinds at my apartment's fitness center. The mom with two boisterous tweens nipping at her heels as she tries to stay fit against all odds, the no-nonsense gym rats who exercise like they were machines, the frail old gentleman with a ready smile and ten times my endurance, the young couple enjoying their time together in companionable silence even as they sweat it out.

But this one guy is unlike anyone I've seen before. Everyday, he gets on the treadmill, flips open a self-help or technology book, talks on his cellphone while keeping any eye out on CNN on the television. He's exercising, reading, talking and possibly watching the news all at the same time. In true to form desi fashion he never acknowledges my existence which is just as well perhaps.

I marvel at this desi bro who comes each morning firing on all cylinders, earnestly improving his body, mind, awareness of the world around without skipping a beat.I am guessing this guy is a small town desi li…

Programming and Literature

Years ago, I cut my programming teeth on Bjarne Stroustrup's seminal C++ book and it was probably the quickest and most painless way for me to figure out that I was not meant to be a serious programmer. That said, it was highly instructive to try my hand at it, work with some exceptionally bright people and after a while learn to write functional even if inelegant code. Stroustrup hits the nail on the head in this article when he says :

Programming is part of software development. It doesn’t matter how fancy your code is unless it solves the right problem and you can explain it to others. So, brush up on your communication skills. Learn to listen, to ask good questions, to write clearly, and to present clearly. Serious programming is a team sport, brush up on your social skills. The sloppy fat geek computer genius semi-buried in a pile of pizza boxes and cola cans is a mythical creature, best buried deep, never to be seen again.

One commentator ( x@y.com) points out to a far more …

Friends of Friends

When it comes to socialization, I have always gravitated towards people whose friends I like. A celebration at someones home where most of their old friends and a few of their new ones are invited is usually a good gauge for whether I would blend in or clash in my host's social circle. Every time I have second guessed myself and decided to give it a shot despite feeling the clash vibes, I have been disappointed. Who knew there was a scientific basis for all of this.  Recent research shows that our moods are far more strongly influenced by those around us than we tend to think. Not only that, we are also beholden to the moods of friends of friends, and of friends of friends of friends - people three degrees of separation away from us who we have never met, but whose disposition can pass through our social network like a virus. I am totally willing to believe that there are certain personality types that will clash even if they don't interact directly. The influence rubs off on th…

Dream Desi Start Ups

It is always a delight to read about any Indian start-up that is not a desi-fied clone of a successful Western idea with no distinguishing unique local signature. Unfortunately, such delights are few and far between and often centered around ideas than are interesting rather than path-breaking in the India-specific context.

I have some pipe dreams that I would love to see come true with all the start-up frenzy back home. Education is one area where we could stand to use some major innovation and overhauling. What might it take for instance, for kids to have access to differentiated and personalized curriculum that they could work on at their own pace from the comfort of their homes. While this would not address the need to bring literacy to the poorest sections of society, it would certainly work for the large numbers of urban kids who do have the ability to be connected and online.

This combined with the ability to take nationally recognized tests at different grade levels whenever th…

Zen and Backups

The Tao of Backup is a wonderfully funny site that could be a model for explaining any and all manner of technology to those who are not technically inclined. The teaching and wisdom are very Zen but who knew you could even do that with a subject as arid as file backups :Does the dandelion drop all its seeds at the base of its stalk? Does the cuckoo lay its eggs in one nest? So long as your backups are in one place, you are vulnerable to the fortunes of the world."Being that the "fortunes of the world" this past year have not been that great, it may be a good New Year resolution to have a backup plan and actually follow it. But who wants to begin a brand new year with such a pessimistic outlook. It is so much easier and happier to throw caution to the winds and hope '09 will be all good and lucky all the way around.