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Showing posts from May, 2009

Writing Syllabus

McSweeny's Internet Age Writing syllabus is a wonderfully wise commentary on the state of the art.
Students will acquire the tools needed to make their tweets glimmer with a complete lack of forethought, their Facebook updates ring with self-importance, and their blog entries shimmer with literary pithiness. All without the restraints of writing in complete sentences. w00t! w00t!
The essay as an art-form has been a lost cause for years now. Non-fiction is usually tedious and repetitious. You can read the introduction and epilogue to know everything you need to know about the book. The chapters in between merely rehash a few themes with no incremental value being added from page to page. Research material is frequently culled from on-line sources that is just a Google search away for the readers.

Used to be that a serious author spent years collecting his material and distilled its essence into a book. Average readers simply did not have the erudition or resources to do what such an…

Spelling Bee

As the risk of resorting to a terrible cliche, desi kids winning the Spelling Bee has become as predictable as a cherry on a sundae. It is about yet another contest and yet another desi winner who wants to become a neuro-surgeon when they grow up. We seem to have a little system going there. Blogosphere has been buzzing with desis ruminating on the topic and I figured it would not hurt to thrown my two cents at it.

I don't fully get the point of the Spelling Bee but then I don't get the point of quiz contests or trivia challenges either. It is something desis apparently get and get really good as well. I can understand why I might enjoy watching a figure staking contest or a tennis match - there is deep admiration for the talent the contestants have and amazement at their proficiency. Both are very positive feelings. With a Spelling Bee, my initial reaction is one of concern for the kids who will not win - as a parent I wonder how they will cope with the disappointment after …

Progressing Disease

This interactive map showing the disappearance of jobs all around America, is nothing short of scary. It reminds me of full color MRI scans of diseased body parts - with the progression from health to disease so pronounced that it simply cannot be missed. Then again when you consider the the short time-line for the series, it is possible that things may not be quite as dire as they appear or at least not trend in a precipitously negative direction forever. If the author's goal has been to extinguish any glimmer of hope that reader may have had about the future, this visual is the perfect vehicle.

For a message of hope and perhaps grace under pressure - a much larger time-line would have helped. It is amazing how the choice of book-ends for a set of data can make all the difference in what gets conveyed - I experience this in my line of work everyday. Numbers can be coaxed until they fit the story that needs to be told. Yet, the very same numbers can suggest many alternative version…

Seeking Balance

A few weeks ago, I was able to take J to her art class and spend the hour and a half sitting there watching the kids work on their project for the day. Used to be that J got along famously with just about any kid though she always took a little while to warm up to a new person. Since the last several months however, I have been concerned that she does not connect so well with her peers anymore. When I brought this up with her teacher at school, she was quick to tell me that J is well-adjusted and gets along well with everyone. All the kids like her. Basically, I had nothing to worry about. My point that this business of being well-adjusted and well-liked was a little superficial did not mean much to her.

Even with my worries being summarily dismissed, they refused to go away. I have wanted to be a fly on the wall watching J's interactions with her peers. Unfortunately, my schedule rarely allows such opportunities. I got a small one that evening and tried to make the most of it. I …

Alternative Movie Review

I heard about this rather amusing site called RunPee on NPR yesterday. It is most helpful to know when to take a break without missing a beat. Then there are those meticulously edited movies that must be watched end to end (almost in a state of breathlessness or suspended animation) to savor fully.

Thanks to all the traffic the site is getting in the wake of the NPR mention, it was hard to browse around. If they don't already have it, they might want to consider ranking movies by number of RunPee moments which would make for an interesting alternative to the traditional movie review. Just one number should tell you the most important thing you need to know about a movie i.e watch it or miss it. A ratio like number of RunPee moments to the duration of the flick should be a good way to stack movies up against each other.

Ambition and Ability

While talking of parenting challenges, a desi of my acquaintance told me about her experience getting her son into the gifted and talented program at his public school. Apparently, she coached the kid for close to a year before he took the identification test. Her husband was not convinced that their child was truly gifted and actually frowned upon her efforts to force fit him where he probably did not belong. She persisted because she did not think her son was any less able than a lot of other kids she knew who were in the program. Her efforts paid off - she was rather proud of her accomplishment.

The boy has now acquired the coveted label of "gifted" something that enjoys cachet in desi social circles. Her husband, despite his initial reservations is happy for the kid. I was quick to attribute such over-zealousness to her being desi given our cultural predisposition to push kids a little too hard to achieve academic excellence. I found out that I was very wrong in that as…

Cultural Insensitivity

J's class has spent the last month learning about China and I was really happy to see them do so. Up until now, their world has been limited to the state they live in with occasional forays into the country. The kids got interesting projects with themes related to China assigned to them and if they were willing to look deeper and further than Wikipedia or Google's first ten results per key word search, they could learn quite a lot. I wished they had rounded off the month with some Chinese food and music in the classroom - it would make for a lovely finale.

This is exactly the kind of learning I never got to enjoy as a child and really wanted J to have. The kids were challenged to come up with the most unusual facts on the subject they were researching on a given week. This required looking beyond the easy to find sources of information, reading books instead of browsing web sites and generally stoking the urge to discover more.

So, it came as a surprise and more than a little d…

Less A Person

I was hooked on the Internet almost as soon as I first came into contact with more than fifteen years ago. It was a slow dial up connection in a British Council Library in Kolkata and you paid for your use by the hour. It was not horribly expensive but you just did not sit around forever. I guess new users like myself, were yet to understand the full potential of the medium to determine what we might do with unlimited, unfettered access to it.

You came with a plan and stuck to it the best you could given the many temptations to stray via hyper-links. I remember tearing through Bulfinch's Greek Mythology as quickly as I could and emailing chapters of text to myself for reading later. This was the first time that I had been experienced reading for pleasure without needing a physical book. It would be hard to describe the sense of exhilaration that I felt - suddenly the world had acquired a dimension that had till then not existed. All this over a lethargic and rather capricious dial-…

Cooking Aids

Cleaning the stove-top after cooking has got to among the most unrewarding household chores. I love this utterly beautiful roll-up stove that I am sure make the cleaner feel a little better rewarded because of its looks. The idea of a drawer style fridge is nice too - less space taken, easier to find and use things before they turn into science experiments and hopefully not as much of an energy hog as the old-fashioned refrigerator.

What is a nice kitchen without a state-of-the-art indoor composter (I have blogged about this one before and the technology has progressed since then) Taking the trash out for me is a constant battle between good intention and laziness. It helps that J wastes no time to let me know that kitchen is "stinky" - she is a little neat freak. Some of the most creative gadget ideas for the kitchen are to serve the cooking for one need.

College and for several years after that I cooked for one and it was enough to kill the pleasure I found in cooking. No nu…

Keeping Libraries Alive

If there was one part of my immigrant experience I could choose to love best it would be the public libraries in America. The first time I walked into one, I felt like I was in Aladdin's cave and this was even before I had found out that I could check out upwards of twenty items including music and movies. My wonderment has not reduced over the years. I still count my blessings each time I visit a public library.

When I tell J about the thrill I experience l walking into the library, she looks perplexed. Though going to the library is among her favorite things to do, it is a natural element of her environment - no more remarkable that the air she breathes or the water she drinks. To her this is one among Mommy's many eccentricities - harmless but rather quaint.

She does not know that there is a different way of life too. One in which you slip your library card through a small window in a wall, select a book from a type-written catalog and wait for the the guy at the window to br…

Open Source and Desis

It is very heartening to see that 101 Indian students made it to the Google Summer of Code 2009 program. Hopefully, this and other forays into the world of open-source development by desi techies will shake off the code-coolie stereotype that has come to be associated with the majority of the tribe. Many have bemoaned the lack of Indian contribution to the open source cause and tried to understand this phenomenon.

As Dr Deepak Pathak, chair professor KReSIT, IIT Bombay puts it, Indians have been "net-takers" rather than "net-givers" to open-source and knowledge generation in general. He goes on to add that culturally, desis are not likely to contribute to any significant cause unless they stand to gain something from it as well. In this article written by Ryan Norbauer on his experience working with Indian developers, the author offers his perspective on disproportionate lack of contribution to open-source by desi developers :

Indian employers don’t allow their deve…

Brain Gym

Recently a friend and I were chatting about how irrelevant our education has been as far as the work we do for a living. When you consider the cost of acquiring the degrees we need to enter the job market, you have to wonder if the time and effort (and in many cases also a great deal of money) would not have been better spent learning vocational skills that we could have found some practical use of. For a lot of people, after a number of years in the workforce, their academic degree becomes more ornamental than functional.

Of course there is education that is worth acquiring simply because we want to broaden our horizons or have a passion for a certain subject and want to immerse ourselves in it. With those goals, it may be entirely acceptable to not find any "material" application of the learning - as would most likely be the case with some of the stranger courses offered by American universities.

The worst casualty of not being able to use or apply your education in the work…

Technology Flubs

Interesting list of top ten disappointments in technology. I had all but forgotten about Northern Light - my favorite search engine before Google became mainstay. The article mentions it among other search engines that were in currency before the dot-com bust. Both Ubuntu (the OS that I use on my home computer) and Vista (the OS that came pre-installed on the said machine and which I ardently dislike) make the list. Between the two "disappointments", I prefer Ubuntu.

Then is there is the list of technology that burnt early adopters - I used to own an Iomega Zip Disk many moons ago. With that, technology has burnt me once and disappointed a couple of times - by conservative estimates. That is sobering news and timely as well I might add being that I am in the market for a digital camcorder in time for J's dance recital - this might be when I get burnt plus disappointed while paying too much for the thing. While on the topic of technology messing with my life, computers are…

Keeping Faith

Faith can be a tenuous thing sometimes. A few days ago, J and I were watching the movie The Secret Of The Magic Gourd. The lessons it teaches are important ones - having all your wishes granted can often lead to unforeseen trouble and working hard to earn something is the best reward possible. As luck would have it earlier in the day, J's faith was put to a little test.

She had done her homework and put it away in the homework folder which also happens to be the folder in which her teacher sends a battery of paperwork home each day. One of my daily chores is to sift through those papers, attend to any that need attending and trash the rest. But it gets even more complicated. Often classwork is sent home without anything to indicate that the teacher had reviewed or graded it - in the self-same folder. I can't imagine why it would be horribly difficult to have three color-coded folders for the three different types of paper-work.

So, the previous night, while going through the th…

Name Unrecognized

It is nice to see someone who has been through the system say it like it is about the JEE entrance exam and why it is such a terrible means to a good (?) end - a post I happened by long after it was written. I think that IIT kids were really brilliant at one stage, but a mind numbing system like the IIT, mind numbing profs and meaningless societal expectations just robs people out of their real passion for life.

Finally, very few in the US even today have heard of the IIT’s. The only companies who know are those hiring massive armies of coders. Its time people get over the IIT hype and start living a life. I have lived and worked in several cities working for small to large companies in the US and am yet to meet a non-desi who is even familiar with any Indian universities, IITs included. To most of them us desis are this homogeneous glob of brown techies who can write reams of code and sometimes function in other roles within the technology business. Some of us are really good at wha…

Shocked Out Of Buzzwords

Though the idea may be a bit Pavlovian, the usefulness of the Buzzword shocker bracelet in undeniable. Maybe all companies should hand these to everyone whose job description might involve copious amounts management-speak - if only as a favor to those who have to listen to them. The best part has got to be the USB connected wristband that allows you to download buzzword data from your computer. The technology business generates an obscene amount of them every day so the notion of being able to expand the list of offending words is particularly thoughtful.

I am trying to imagine this thing on the wrists of some of the most verbose executives I have met over the years. Most of them would not be able to get a sentence in without receiving an electric shock. There is almost a sense of karmic retribution in that from the point of view of those who have been subjected to their buzzword-laden gibberish meeting after meeting.The idea is "Soon your subconscious is associating those words …

Tales Of The Wierd

My friend K emailed this to me with a note saying "I thought you'd get a chuckle out of it". The profile below belongs to a 53 year old man who is divorced with a couple of teen-aged kids and looking to get hitched again. That he would see it fit to express his interest in a woman who has never been married before and is just over half his age, would probably prompt a "WTF !" reaction in most people (it certainly did in me). But what he has to say is just too precious not to share.

I am looking for a partner who is willing to settle in US, India or South Africa. Beauty is a must. Must be good cook I am not looking for a partner can't make up her mind. I don't want my partner be negatively influenced by family. My partner must be happy all the time I don't need depressed or PMSY. Thank you and looking for your message.

I wrote K back asking her to humor this man for a just a little bit. Tell him that she is taking lessons in gourmet cooking and will t…

Tween Fashion Victims

This article on the diva-fication of today's tweens is good reading for parents of tweens. I have not failed to notice that J looks relatively gauche compared to her more fashionable peers. I figure the challenge for me is to build her self-esteem without allowing her to fall into the make-over trap. The author is right that 6-8 year old girls go to the salon to have their hair-styled. Pedicure and manicure sessions are common at sleepovers and birthday parties. It does not take them long to graduate from the "play" makeup to the real thing. It makes for a rather disconcerting sight to see a first grader with ironed hair and more than a dash of eye makeup.

While a lot can and is attributed to the portrayal of girls and women in their air-brushed perfection, parents play an equal if more greater role in allowing girls to become fashion victims while they are so young and impressionable. If a woman has a positive body image and is at peace with herself, chances are that she…

Opportunity In Potholes

Reading this report about KFC willing to fill pot-holes across America for free (if you don't count their stenciled logo on the patch of re-freshed road) reminded me of my home town in India. In the 80s there were more potholes than road in what used to be then called Calcutta. Things a slightly better now but not a whole lot. Unfortunately, the local businesses did not try and seize these gaping marketing opportunities and fill them up to their advantage.

While as of now not all cities in America are interested in taking up KFC on its offer, given enough pot holes and a crippling lack of resources to fill them, they may sing quite a different tune. KFC is reportedly part of a larger trend :

The magazine Advertising Age reports that the KFC campaign appears to be part of a growing effort by companies to build goodwill. It notes that this past holiday season, Charmin provided a public restroom in Times Square for the third year running. The company has also developed an application …

Teaching Exuberance

J, like kids of her age can alternate between being very happy about the here and now (as in saying my chicken with lemon-pepper seasoning and fresh rosemary is the best food in the whole world and should replace every other kind of food there is) and turning petulant for what she does not have (a "real" home, a sibling, extended family, a mom who can be home when she comes back from school in the afternoon and a dad - in that order).

Recently, she spent a miserable Saturday morning because we were not able to find her doll Junie - last seen a few years ago. Junie was of course not the real problem but became its representative. When J gets in these moods which is thankfully a rare occurrence, it takes quite a bit of work to make her snap out of it. We had our breakthrough that evening when I got her to help me make some "magic potion" - lemon juice, sugar and rosewater mixed in ice cold water. The recipe had been found in one of the Tales Alive ! books we have borr…

China's Unnatural Disaster

It was particularly heart-rending to watch HBO's China's Unnatural Disaster, The Tears of Sichuan Province on a Mother's Day weekend. All around me are the signs of celebration of the mother and her motherhood - which despite its Hallmark holiday status is still rather poignant. To watch greiving parents of dead children on such a day is extremely sobering. It forces you to count your blessings, treasure the children you are fortunate to be the parents of.

The film follows a group of villagers who lost their children (often the only one they had) in the Sichaun earthquake of 2007. The parents take their protest to the regional capital of Sichua after the local government officials turn a deaf ear to their demand of justice. They blame the disproprionately high death toll of children trapped and buried under school buildings to their shoddy construction and on local officials who allowed these buildings to pass inspection.

The parents fight as hard and as long as they can but…

Making Room

In the dark crevices
between tightly packed
old wounds and the memories
of them, there is a little room.
Room enough for
a droplet of compassion
to flow, maybe in time
to let the tide of forgiveness
to wash over
the pebbles of pain
turn them into glistening
beads strung on a tatty
string of old grudge.

Maybe you will feel them
one by one, for quality
and texture, ponder their
origin and value. Maybe
you will find most
are worthless trinkets,
baubles that mean
nothing anymore.
You will consider the string itself
and wonder if it will hold much longer.

You will struggle between
throwing it all away and
stringing the best beads
over - on a fresh twine of
revived grudge. In the end
you may find a lacquered
box of hardened sadness
to keep the beads that are
the most significant.

Yes, you will go over
them many times. The trickle
of compassion or the tide
of forgiveness can do your
box no harm. Such would be
the memories you will hoard
forever. On days that you are
hurt again, you will seek out
your box to count your beads,
add ne…

Partnership And Success

This review of the book Beside Every Successful Man intrigued me enough to read it. If you time-strapped reader like me, I would recommend reading up to the end of Chapter 1, skimming through the rest of the book which has the "let me show you how to get a grip on your life" delivered from on high ( I have very little patience for that kind of thing) and then reading the conclusion.

That should give you a good enough summary of the case Megan Basham is trying to make for women to come back home and walk beside (not behind) their husbands. The fatal flaw of her premise is that every husband has what it takes to achieve great professional success and that the wife would be better served helping him advance rather than doing so herself. As it turns out, mediocrity is rife in the real world and such sacrifice by women at the altar of their husband's "careers" can only lead to great disappointment to both parties not to mention the considerable financial hardship in…

Words For Our Times

Found this really neat blog about news words to describe the times we live in. I will be following this one for sure - what better way to understand the world around you than to build a contemporary vocabulary. That I think I can do even if I am lagging by several internet years as far as newest, coolest consumer technology.

Here I am lusting an iPhone only to read that it is so yesterday - Handsolo is the newest coolest thing to have. Clearly, this is not the lag that one catches up with over time - the gulf just grows wider until one such as myself is left behind in the darkness. Thanks to Schott's Vocab, at least I will speak the same language as those in the light.

Umami

Venky, Roma, Chaitali (not their real names) and I had been co-workers for a year about ten years ago. We have stayed in touch ever since. Venky had a crush on Roma but no one took it too seriously because he was incredibly funny and prone to having crushes that did not last more than a week.

Roma was fun and flirty herself but did not consider any of the "boys" we worked with worth her while. She had "higher standards" like the smooth-talking sales dude with gel-slicked hair who worked one floor below us. Uber-geek, Venky would not make the grade in a million years - or so we imagined.

He persisted with Roma all the same. What is more he remained interested in her for several months. Then the unthinkable happened - he proposed to her and wonder of wonders, she accepted without any fuss at all. Roma and Venky - they made the oddest couple who seemed to have absolutely nothing in common except being able to make each other laugh.

Chaitali was engaged to marry a good-lo…

The Alzheimer's Project

HBO's Alzheimer Project approaches the manifestations of the disease from the standpoint of everyone who is impacted or involved though the main narrative is that of the patient suffering from it.

The pain that comes from the gradual erasure of memory is one that is felt very deeply by loved ones - the spouse who becomes a stranger after years of being in a happy marriage, the children who can no longer shoulder the burden of care-giving and are forced to move the ailing parent to a nursing home facility and the grand kids who long for the love of the grandparent they once knew.

Then there are the ominous signs - forgetting words, lapses of memory, taking longer than usual to say something - that the people experience at the onset of the disease. At several points, hearing the patients describe the early signs you can't help wondering if we should not play closer attention to what we routinely dismiss as absent-mindedness specially when under stress.

The film follows several pati…

Holding A Child's Hand

Having grown up in a very liberal household where there were limited rules and fewer restrictions, I have no first-person experience being kept on a tight leash by my parents. I would have no doubt rebelled had they tried to impose their will on me and learned to evade detection if I was monitored and controlled. Now that I am a parent myself raising a child in a far more complex world than what I grew up in, it is my turn to figure out what if any rules would apply for J.

I cringe at the thought of remote controlling kids as this iApp allows parents to do. This can only degenerate into a cat and mouse game with kids being one step ahead at all times given their greater familiarity and comfort level with new technology. The parent is effectively letting them know that they do not trust them and that sentiment is fully reciprocal. Besides, it is impossible to love when there is no trust. There is no easier or more effective way to strain (often to the point of complete breakdown) the pa…

Elsewhere USA

I can't recall the last time, I read a piece of non-fiction and enjoyed it quite as much as I did Elsewhere, USA - How we got from the Company Man, Family Dinners, and the Affluent Society to the Home Office, Blackberry Moms, and Economic Anxiety. The book tackles a plethora of socio-economic themes of the day and uses the archetypal Mr. and Mrs 1959 to contrast against Mr and Mrs 2009 to tell the story.

Dalton Conley offers many interesting and fresh insights based on his analysis of facts that are fairly common knowledge. That he is able to do this chapter after chapter, theme after theme is what makes this book such a wonderful read.

I particularly enjoyed his take on the the current state of love, relationship and marriage. Conley attributes it to the rise of income inequality, the increase in the numbers of financially independent women and economic anxiety. In the chapter titled Polymorphous Perversity he writes :

We have come full circle : At one time we lived in tribes. Thes…

Facing The Mirror

I have sometimes been surprised by the mirror showing me a mood in my face that I was not aware of being in. When the difference between how I am feeling at the time versus how I appear to be feeling is sharp enough, I am not sure what to trust - the eye or the gut. When I focused on something intently J has asked "Mommy, you look mad, what's wrong ?" I have to explain to her that there is nothing wrong, I am just thinking and she will follow up with "What are you thinking that is making you mad ?". I guess it bothers her when she is not able to understand why I have the expression on my face that I do.

So until, I abandon my train of thought and whatever it is that I am doing, focus my attention on her, relax and smile, J is not quite convinced that I am not mad. From my own experience, I had been aware of lack of the agreement between mood and facial appearance but reading this article on how the mirror does not really tell us how we appear to the world taught…

Ghajini

Identical twins separated at birth and reunited by happenstance, loss of memory and the cascading (and ballooning) effects of a small misunderstanding have been among the most frequently occurring Bollywood story genres. Ghajini is around a sub-genre - a short-term lapse of memory resulting in a full-length movie. In that, it is quite a remarkable achievement.

The few stills and posters of the movie that I had seen online inevitably showed a shirtless, shaved and tattooed Aamir Khan looking violently angry - just the kind of imagery that makes the decision not to watch a movie a no brainer as far as I am concerned. I can think of at least a dozen ways to spend a couple of hours that are infinitely more fun than watching Aamir Khan flaunt his muscles and grimace in rage.

Then desis of all stripes started to urge me to check the movie out until my resistance wore out and I succumbed. The leading lady is the ultimate desi-male dream come true - cute, unselfish, vivacious, Pollyanna, self-s…

Drama And Groceries

A chance to watch a play unfolding in the aisle of a grocery store sounds like a really fun and clever idea. If you are in a rush and want to be out of there as quickly as you can, the gathering of actors and audience in the cereal aisle may prove to be an annoyance. Wonder when this newest marketing ploy, to make you linger longer that you need to and thereby increase your likelihood of spending more, will come to a grocery store near me. In the meanwhile, I can try to imagine the experience :

There are several cycles in the hour-long performance, allowing you to follow each set of characters around the shop. And even though you can shop at the same time, we doubt you'll want to split from the very engaging actors and their lovelorn plights; you'll be called upon for relationship advice while looking for toilet rolls. And you can't tell which staff are actors too, as the PA announcements seem to be in sonnet form..