Tuesday, November 15, 2011

21st Century Schizoid Man

21st Century Schizoid Man
One of the themes of technology and society as it has evolved recently, is the fact that it enables us to actualize our individuality. We now have to means to  be different and don’t have to follow the herd.  Thought I’d checklist some of these.
Recently I read an article about the use of facial recognition software for a variety of everyday things.  This includes digital billboards that can flash an ad depending on the profile of customer faces (shapes?) walking by and singles bars that flash current customer profiles to those choosing a venue. This is something happening commercially already in the US. Google and Facebook already have perfected this art of pushing material online that suits customer behavior and profile. Smart phones in an always-on internet mode are also doing this.
Psychographic profiling for potential employees is already the norm across the globe.  So some tests determine that your talents and inclinations intersect for a job.
The popular media is already working on tailoring programmes that suit viewers interests, I e, what they like. So its not unusual for  TV soaps, in India, to reinforce traditional roles in the home, women dressing up and cooking, the household help in a “kicked around” mode and the kids doing “cute” things or not featuring at all (seen not heard philosophy).
The K-12 schooling system works overtime to cut out all individuality in the pursuit of the grade. The ticket to happiness is cramming in the exponential growth in the world of science and arts into the same 12 years that kids did decades ago. The ticket to reducing grief are tests that establish whether you will be a potential Einstein or a Picasso to guide to applying for college education.  The fact that you are under-confident or under-exposed to some new area doesn’t enter this equation at all.
So between the above developments:
i)                    K-12 for school going age
ii)                   Aptitude tests based on the institutionalization process of K-12 for college
iii)                 Jobs that narrow down based on the above
iv)                 Social life that is reinforced electronically
The pressure to be politically correct is therefore on the up.  It isn’t done for Metallica to say that the organizers “screwed up” when a show was cancelled at the last minute in Delhi. They push out stuff like “safety of our fans is paramout”…..as if they have any control over who gets doped out at their concerts.  The West Indies team cannot say, “we aren’t too worried about Sachin Tendulkar, Viru and Dravid bother us more”. They’d get hammered in the media…and guess which country their endorsements come from? Home or here in India.
This is premised on the fact that you are affluent enough to go to school, college and get a well-paying job, enough to afford TV and the internet.  And go to Metallica concerts or cricket stadia.
In other words,  we have now speedily evolved into prisoners of the technology age.  It isn’t enough that your social peers are hammering you with conformist ideas, it’s now everywhere.

 So when and where do you get the chance to experience something new and different? Its called diversity I think. Even if you do, social pressure will brand you an outcast – if you’re just an average guy – or a “maverick” if you are Muhammad Ali, so good that it doesn’t matter if you don’t like him.  (Remember he went to jail for his anti-draft stand and standing up for his rights).
So what’s the way out of this?
Be poor to start with. It’s the only section that seems to fall outside the prison walls that are being constructed for the middle class. The advertisers won’t both you, TV can’t reach you, facial recognition will pitch you as a “needy” person and hopefully flash food shelter promotionals to you. Since you won’t be qualified for a job described above, you need to be an entrepreneur to make your way up the social ladder. By the time you make it big, it’ll be too late for anyone to change you or treat you as an outcast. Sounds like Ali?
Or be rich to start with.
21st Century Schizoid Man. We’re working so hard to be different…the same way.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The healthy and tolerant world

(This was something I wrote in July 2003.) 

A news item that caught the eye recently was the proposed tax in New Zealand on rectal emissions of farm animals, creatively labelled the Fart Tax. Apparent such end-of-pipe emissions contribute greenhouse gases and thus to global warming.

On the other end of the globe, at least as we view the earth as flat on our maps, an obesity tax is being proposed. Fat people are a great burden to the economy besides creating a lot of unhappiness around.

Ventilating animals and fat people can now join smokers as communities that are offending civilization today. While we are on a witchhunt, lets tally up some other criminal groups that are creating untold misery to human health and the environment.

The ugly – represent one such group. People with physical disfigurement or are just plain ugly frighten children, create panic in the minds of teenagers and cause considerable economic and psychological damage to society. Economic damage in that ugly people develop psychological problems or indulge in substance abuse or as the ads say on Indian television, families find it harder to marry their darker “ugly” daughters.

In fact, since these are issues that have considerable long term impact on civilization, we must fund some programmes through the United Nations Environmental Programme – lets call the UN PFAF (Programme Against Fat and Flatulence). International studies could be commissioned on consumption of items that create fat and flatulence – chocolate, onions and some such items will definitely be on top of the list.

Given vast differences in consumption baskets of developed and developing countries, obesity is a greater problem in rich countries. We could envisage a global trading mechanisms to reduce obesity or atleast restrict it – the net fat around the world does not increase. Undernourished and starving people in developing countries would overnight become possessors of rights (since they don’t eat much anyway and are thin) they can sell to fat people in the United States, who can then exceed their regulated quotas of food. The income from such sale of rights can be used by the poor for several purposes including food.

The flatulence issue will be more complicated. But we can commission studies by leading scientific institutions to evaluate levels present, key causes and develop a hit list of banned products.  Such studies could also recommend phasing out of farm animals that are gross violators of mandated emission levels.

At least, one more UN secretariat, several regional bodies, large sums of funds to research institutions and civil society organizations, could be the end result of such an effort. International media will, of course, cover such events with great gusto. Its an economic win-win for several organizations.

Apparently, while we are promoting various global institutions that preserve plants, animals, bacteria and disease at the cost of human beings our tolerance of the diversity of human beings and the things they do to live are reducing.

There is a selective weeding of non-conforming social behaviour. Such behaviour is built into a large scale villain with the help of omnipresent media often a willing partner to cover the next big fight.  One Oprah Winfrey show had an audience gasping “NOO!”, while she asked them if they could imagine a world without toilet paper. Another had a shocked audience viewing a photo where she displayed underarm hair while she presented the defence of the one-off case. Clearly promoting toilet paper and shaving women’s underarm hair could potentially be a global priority. Civil society organizations form to propogate the idea and seek legislative action at the national level. Eventually, if these moves are in more affluent nations, there are moves to make an international law.

As a result of these laws, some of the world’s finest minds – economic, political, social and scientific – will spend their time in debating and trying to resolve fairly low priority items compared to starvation, disease and general deprivation that afflict at least 30-40% of the world’s population.

If we take these moves to their logical extreme, we are looking at a human society that will be homogenous - talk, dress, think and behave alike – within some narrow pre-ordained parameters. Does this sound a bit like cloning? Or did some bloke called Adolf  have similar views (wonder what happened to him?). Maybe the anti-cloning groups must rethink their stance.

Back to School - III

Democracy and the Rule of Law

An Iranian American has been arrested for an alleged terrorist plot to whack the Saudi ambassador in the US outsourcing the deal to whom he thought was a member of the Mexican drug cartel. If true, he assumed that the lucrative drug dealing murderous cartel isn’t making enough money on the main business and needed to diversify.  The newspapers report it as an act of war (not the govt).  The government says “terrorist” attack on its soil.  Iran meanwhile says that the US is fed up with “Occupy Wall Street” protests and the sub-prime blowout and is looking to divert attention. It points out in turn, the deaths (assassinations) of its top nuclear scientists over the past few years by the Zionist conspiracy.
An American passport holding Al Qaeda terrorist got whacked in a drone attack in Yemen. The grand debate is whether he should have been read his Miranda warning before being droned.  Osama Bin Laden didn’t hold an American passport, so he has no human rights.  Both haven’t been “tried” in any formal sense.
Closer home three youth belonging to a right wing group physically assault an advocate of the Supreme Court – in his chambers, with the media watching. The spectrum of responses from “responsible” political parties includes “….but he shouldn’t have said that about Kashmir”.
Prasanna, a 12 year old boy in school, is contemplating life. The Indian cricket team has been hammered all summer in England and that’s off the list. IPL and the Champions League are over.  Its holiday season and the exams lurk (let’s just all pretend this is true for the time being).  Following a discussion with friends on Facebook  (forget the under 13 law or whatever, these control-freak adults) and arrives at some conclusions:
1.       Rules are made to support your point of view. Why?
a.       A “hit” in a foreign land can be a blow for global security or a terrorist act.
b.      Rights can be debated if you are on “my team”. To hell with the other guys
c.       To hell with the rules, if I don’t like you, I’ll beat you up. Its called an exercise of democratic rights and see….all those politicians support my point of view. And we can go and beat anyone up in the national capital and Supreme Court as part of this “exercise”.
2.       Don’t get caught
a.       The Saudi “hit” guy got caught. The issue of contemplating murder is not the debate,  but how to call it. You see, a drug cartel hit that kills 10 bystanders is not an act of terror or a school kid going beserk with a rifle in school.
b.      The “youth” in the Supreme Court lawlessness were seen and captured on camera. The issue is classifying this as plain and simple assault or a political statement.
All this went into his school project entitled – “Democracy and the Rule of Law – how it promotes an equitable society”. He flunked.  

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Back to School : Just Kidding - Part II

This has been prompted by an article in The Economist titled the “The Great School Revolution”. It cites examples of innovation (and disasters) including assessment reports on educational attainment (McKinsey also features, God Bless them, they have a report for everything in life, so their place in Heaven is assured as God’s Consultant...er Advisor).

It got one thinking about basics.

The Ball Game

The presumption of such featured articles is that the K-12 structure of school education is okay. The surveys cited only reinforce this view plus relative academic attainment. The reality of life is that you don't need all of K-12 or that level of prowess most of the time. Reading, riting and rithmetic (as a surrogate for logic) is deemed basic for comprehension, the end objective of basic education. Comprehension is first base, experimentation / experiece as second, understanding as third (“...oh..that’s what’s really going on).... and exercise of understanding (nirvana, The Way, peace blah bah) means your home. But we’ll leave that part out over here.

Comprehension is first base because it leaves you in a position to learn anything more, depending on choice and circumstance. Re-learning through life is something now being regarded as needed to survive economically as well, not just everything else in life. As a parent, you need to relearn what its like to be a child in a new environment altogether. Now all that stuff’s needed at work too. Ask engineers, doctors, accountants, drivers, house cleaners.

The Wall is too high as you can see

In such a context, the system needs to be broken from K-12 to many smaller modules with a basic (3R) tier as the "must-do" and the rest being options to pursue at any stage in life. Entrance tests for courses (any) will filter who makes the cut instead of a K-12 diploma. So lack of K-12 at high attainment levels, that discriminates against the less privileged (I couldn’t go to school, my grades weren’t good enough at that one-time exam etc.), is broken into an entrance test.

A live example is that of driving licences - that require ability to manipulate a vehicle, comprehend road signs (rules) and observe traffic etiquette (not rules, but good practices)-that bring to bear the 3Rs plus skills (driving) plus life skills (maturity to realise you're driving a one-ton weapon). There is no 50% driver or 80% driver just as there are no 50% surgeons or 90% surgeons.
Additional education modules can be tailored to life contexts. A farming community may prefer children to work on the science of farming as opposed to sub-terranean life and astronomy.

Such a modular, broken up, "do-the-other-stuff-depending...and at your convenience/need" makes it more people friendly plus links the additional doses to some reality - jobs, interests (arts, writing, sports), vocations etc.

The K-12 system in an industrial era legacy of outsourcing that an entrenched bureaucracy has upped into a considerable empire, often in the mistaken belief that everyone should leave school aspiring to be Einstein. Do we bother checking school grades of Usain Bolt or the millions of people around the world who make excellent homemakers and create family contexts that produce Einstein?

The K-12 system inherently works like a production line. If you can’t hack it in those 12 years (maybe 14/15 as variants thereof) you’re rejected forever....much like the defective chips on a silicon wafer line. Sure, many come back but for most, its too difficult and too complicated. The purpose of providing basic education to all is to equip them to fully realize their abilities (potential).

"There must be some mistake
I didn't mean to let them take 
away my soul,
Am I too old?
Is too late?" 

What rule of nature says that it must happen by age 18? Nature does provide some natural barriers but.... Boris Becker won Wimbledon at age 17 and Roger Federer at nearly 22. The world is a better place for having the opportunity to see these two gifted young people play great tennis. Or Judith Polgar or a Victor Korchnoi mount serious title bids at different ages in life.

K 12 has de facto become a system that pressures our young people to make the cut, instantly; not different from the 10 minutes of fame assured in media. It’s time to reconstruct the whole process. Instead of just looking for the patch that will make us feel good about "giving" education to all, how about looking at it as assisting a person deal with life with a sense of joy? 

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Just Kidding

The travails of being young

Kids in the US don’t seem to have any sense of what constitutes morality or values. Seems they think everything’s cool and its up to the individual to choose. Plenty of upset adults with, “isn’t there something called a xxxxxxxx?”. Replace xxxxxxx with “values”, “social fabric”, “collective good” etc. This is from an article featuring a study in the New York Times this week.

In the UK, parents are spending money buying kids stuff, so they don’t feel “not cool” with their peers. The kids wants their parents to spend time with them instead. So by age 15, the kids have gotten drunk, tried drugs, have been in a relationship etc. Britain’s the worst place in the industrialised world for a kid to grow up. UNICEF report reviewed in The Telegraph, this week.

Three kids committed suicide in Benguluru yesterday. (the newspapers). One was a twelve year old upset that she couldn’t watch TV. Her parent apparently told her that she must study as her grades in the last tests weren’t up to it. I’m quite sure that the it wasn’t the show that was worth dying for. The Wall Street Journal avers that the new thing in Asia is not going to be excellent math but good meth. Young people in Bangalore tell me its pretty routine for kids to do acid trips.

The media is rife with remarks about the impersonalization of life. Facebook is the new hangout place (forget meeting in the flesh), serious communications is 140 characters long and its cool if you don’t have a family or friends......”i’ve got my tablet”.

What to make of all this? Let’s review the cheerful future that awaits if only the kids could get more disciplined:-

The global economy is in the dumps and the integrated world is going to be struggling together. Uncle Sam’s debts exceed GDP, and the EU will stay together “till debt do us apart”.
Competition is at an all time high. Cut-offs for admission to a good college are now at 100% - anything less than perfect..you’re nothing.
Parents when they make money, encourage the kids to smell the roses......especially if they are a six hour flight away in another continent.
“Classic” now means something that happened last year.

Is anything very different really? Let’s take a snapshot of an urban affluent India that I grew up in :
1973 or sometime around then
The global economy is in the dumps. They raised the frigging oil prices overnight! The Indian economy has a budget surplus but you have to stand in queues for your rations of rice, wheat, bread, milk, sugar..........
Competition is at an all time high. Parents telling kids to study hard or.....! Try finding people to play soccer with on exam eve? Only the kids not in school are game.
Parents when they make money, encourage kids to smell the roses......in London or a six hour train / car journey away (ok I’m exaggerating this).
CLassic means something that happened five or seven years ago. “Gee, you listen to that old stuff? (ie Cliff Richard, Chuck Berry, Elvis, Manna Dey) haven’t you heard of Led Zeppelin, Kishore Kumar, Hendrix”

Eavesdropping parents’ conversation:
“.......children are not responsible any more.......”
“.....how to get admission unless they get good marks....”
“...do you know that the Chopras went to Paris for a holiday.....”

Nothing’s really changed. Somehow the adults manage to screw things up all the time and expect that
the kids should stop being kids but resemble Socrates at age 12
disregard curiousity about life, themselves, adolescence etc
adapt to a different world with better technology, better life (isn’t that what we all slave for...so the kids can have more fun growing up)

So I’m not too worried. There’s one thing we tend forget about the children. They alway adapt and figure a way out. They somehow manage. We did too.

Batting 55 and counting...!

On their wedding anniversary, Appa and Amma hacking it.....the cake, I meant!!
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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Moral Compass

Part One - OUT THERE

News of the World (NOW) has become the hacker engaging Newspaper (THEN). Ok, I stretched the acronyms a bit. But the following scorecard emerged on the Good guys, Bad guys tally:

Good Guys
Bad Guys

Other papers have been doing it too
Private Eye

Benefit of doubt. Their work is on the edge of the law

Ok, so not all. But plenty

Not all
 Bad Guys win 5-0.

Meanwhile, in South Korea and Turkey, the soccer leagues have been match-fixing, bribe ridden. Closer home we have politicians in jail (no one’s surprised),  corporate honchos in jail (greedy money makers),  athletes caught doping (yet again),  etc. CWG, 3G, fodder etc etc. In the US, major banks and financial institutions under investigations for shady dealings and practices leading up to The Big Bang in 2008 to the global economy.

So  corruption, breaking the law, cheating and everything accompanying such activities is a truly global religion with equitable following across race, nation, economic status, gender, profession      etc. Miraculously through all this the public are perceived to be honest.

The counter-argument against the above view : not all people are corrupt, just a few bad apples. Replace “people” with any other human classification and it turns out basically everyone’s okay.

How come that all of us okay people conspire to bring misery in varying scales to self, family, community, profession, nation and planet with such regularity?  Is there something wrong IN HERE?

Part Two - IN HERE

There used to a subject called “Moral Science” that was taught in my school upto Class X.  There were even exams. In junior classes for the 10 and under, the issues posed included “Ram was from a poor family. He didn’t have enough to eat for two days. He stole his friend’s lunch in school and ate. Was Ram right? Why do you think so?”. An expanded version of “No. It wasn’t his lunch.” Assured excellent marks, other answers weren’t really entertained though everyone passed (this part I know). This was through schools in Mumbai.  In Delhi, the Moral Science class was a free period, de facto. The teachers did their other work, students did homework in class to expand play time or just chatted.  The exam had students regularly scoring 90% plus while regularly copying in other exams and frequently beating up other kids outside class.

College didn’t have moral science classes.  However, real life issues were discussed threadbare by very enlightened faculty when making any decisions – including gems like “why should the student caught doping not be suspended from college?”.  Post-grad entailed about one course that was about the social environment and one session in another course on “business ethics”.

So about 5 years out of about 20 years in the education system actually paid some attention to contemplating life and one’s role in it, society etc and that too because of an enlightened management and faculty that did this off-line, the system didn’t require anything at all.

To succeed, you must get good grades. Everything else is touchy-feely dreamy stuff captured quite beautifully in a character called “Masterji” who graces Bollywood cinema. He’s the bloke who gets knocked off in reel two while trying to convince a knife-wielding villain (who’s just raped and killed) about the virtues of community participation, gender sensitivity and the nation’s potential to become “swarg”. Of course, his kid (Vijay/Rahul/Sonny) and the revenge comprise the rest of the film and the part we all want to see. There may even be an item number for the guys.

All of us have grown  up through a system that evaluates us periodically and, as a system, disdains introspection about self, society, humanity etc (will it earn you earn money, stupid boy – translate to your own language, and you’ve heard it many times).

At some point, we become GROWN UPs and in some capacity or the other, significant players in shaping the rules.  Is it very surprising – what happens OUT THERE?  


But don’t we all really develop moral values and ethics at home through parents and family? I mean, what can the school do if your dad and mom are crooks; they can’t change it.

The school values good academic results. Home values good academic results. Outcome – kids generally end up trying their best to obtain good academic results.  What’s happening OUT THERE (school) and IN HERE (home) reinforce the same values (Academic results) to a young mind. Like it or not, you grow up convinced that this matters.

When you pay attention enough to something, it reaches a point where you don’t really have to pay attention anymore…not so much. Its just second nature after that. Its this quality that earns you the title of  B.E/B.A and later in life “expert”.  If you don’t have to pay attention and you don’t, then a mix of a plenty of things emerge……just like garbage. Its all jake (thank Raymond Chandler for my using this term, he's dead so a prayer will have to do) as long as it doesn’t interfere with priority.

"But man, why give a damn? I mean...I'm going for the yoga and meditation classes and Saturday afternoon is "The Road to Happiness" session by  U. R. Special, spiritual guru. And i'm paying for it, so its not a joke. I am paying attention!"

“WHO? ME????! NO, NEVER!”

Moral Science is similar. Reinforcement at both ends burrows a though deep at a formative stage in life till it becomes a part of you. More importantly, OUT THERE becomes a valuable counterpoint to whatever happens IN HERE, and the contradictions actually help the development of a capacity to reason. As  people IN HERE we will never take the “dreamy” stuff head on, as we all like to believe we are a closet Gandhiji or Mother Theresa. I haven’t heard too many people acknowledge that they have their dark side and may have reinforced unethical behavior.

And the “bits” of wisdom of the IT world holds true -  In-Out-Garbage (use combo to suit philosophy, no seasoning required).  

So much for now. There’s a cop approaching the car looking like he’s gonna be on my case for using the cell phone while driving. I dictated these thoughts on the phone recorder. Need to pull a 100 bucks from my wallet to square this up, he won’t believe that I’m not on a phone call. (okay, so I made this last bit up….but you know, it could have been true.).

PS: This isn't intended to be the self-actualization of the Gandhi in me. But just stuff to chew on, in between some laughs (i hope!). So send your hate mail to my aim.com address, they have unlimited storage. 

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Insightful Wordsmithing

Recently, the US and China got into a spat because a US warship patrolling the waters off the Chinese coast drifted too close to some sensitive establishments. The Chinese government reported stated that it may have been on a secret mission. The US response (a killer line) is that the warship was investigating "mysteries" not "secrets".

Some time ago, I came across a quotation on the web with several complimentary comments from readers. It went "There was never a good war or a bad peace". I was wowed too. For a little while. Then some thoughts propelled themselves through my head:

Would Papa Doc's tenure in Haiti qualify as "good peace"?
Would fighting Adolf Hitler qualify as a "bad war"?
Would a genocidal and oppressive regime qualify as "peace" or a "a war on humanity".

Whilst the pacifist intentions of the person credited with the quote above are obviously clear, everything else is up in the air. But it sounds really good and insightful.

Why if one were to make such insightful communication available to all?! Imagine the rich vein of conversation that would pervade life.

This is what resulted:

Use "good" and "bad" with combination situations closely associated with each other in a context:

PERFORMANCE REWARDS: There was never a good bonus or a bad promotion

CITY LIFE: There was never good traffic or a bad greenlight 

LEADERSHIP : There was never a good politician or a bad statesman. 

If we replace Good/bad with another combination, say Noble/evil

There was never a noble investment banker or an evil worker (post 2008 world). 

Now try some of your own. It isn't so difficult is it? You've become a philosopher. Ph.D. (Bullshitting). Time to file your papers for elections.

There was never noble wordsmith-ing or evil straight-talking!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly - Living the Unearned Life

2008 - the global economy took a dive that it is still recovering from. Among the straws (more like iron girders) the broke the camel's back was the real estate and housing finance. People borrowed on enhanced property values and / or enhanced share values and invested waiting for the next buyer or just plain spent it. The premise of a housing loan is the expected earnings over a significant part of a lifetime. 

Closer to daily life, there is something called a credit card. Roll-over credit enables you to spend beyond this month's income. Credit limits permitted are often based on a factor of income plus spending pattern during a month.

Great stuff. You don't have to sacrifice today's pleasures of life and wait till you are 60 to live the good life. Build and decorate your own house, buy the red-hot car, party on Friday nights after a week's hard work and watch the large screen LED on a lazy Sunday. Somewhere in between there is time to discuss global warming and conservation - so ultra-expensive temperature insulation for the home, fuel effiency for the oversized car, minimizing tissue paper use at the discotheque and energy efficient television will feature. Succeeding generations will remember the sacrifice. Why wait till the heart is on the blink, muscular atrophy sets it and reading glasses are mandatory.......live the good life, NOW!

The folding in of future income also means that within a short span of time you've moved from Kanghaalpur, India (Brokesville) to FastLane, India. Wearing budget T-shirts from export reject sales, second hand garments from big brother / sister and the bus journey on the World's-worst-public-transport-system (its always in your town) gives way to designer sunglasses, Nike Air-tech and the pulsating mobike. Interim steps to the promised land that will happen in two years. Of course, the cellphone must be changed every 12 months so that one can SMS, play mindless video games and drool over sleazy sex-videos of errant teenagers. In summary, plenty of bad spending choices creep in with the new found affluence.

Coupled with the fold-in of future income is the great big dynamic of the free-market. Its called expectations of income. Expected individual income growth enhances loan lmits. Call centre selling money chase customers relentlessly. Miraculously, everyone become the stock market wizard offering tips and insights. The good times are here. The world's largest legal transnational casino discounts the expectations into today's stock prices, based on something called "fundamentals". The prime fundamental its based on is greed, and how one can sex the sale price to the next greedy moron who walks in with gold bars shining in his pupils.  This is the forward enegineered giant Ponzi scheme (read about Carlo Ponzi at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Ponzi). You may well be taking money that isn't going to be earned to pay for today.

At some point, an honest, naive, or just plain lucky kid sees the Emperor's new clothes on the attractive looking economy. The naked trust emerges. Its the day the earth stood still. Crash, everything collapes. Game Over. No extensions. The imminent wealth just hiked to the next galaxy. Distress sales, job losses, unemployment, disturbed homes trying to make ends meet. The Ugly Truth.

Its going to be a long haul back, because we just didn't blow the income we are earning but what we thought we could be earning for the next decade or two.   Meanwhile, let's blame the immigrants (who did the jobs we didn't want to do), relocation of manufacturing (so dirty factories aren't in our neighbourhood), the off-shoring of jobs to places like India and cheap Chinese imports. All the things that worked towards making the good life, now represent the ugly face of shitty free-market economics. 

Its going to be a long haul back, because we just didn't blow the income we are earning but what we thought we could be earning for the next decade or two.  Gambling on human greed is not free market economics. So our young people will pay the price for our greed.  For living the unearned life.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Chennai Incident

June 11-12, 2011. Sunil's 50th birthday bash. Some places, some people...........hope you like it.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Dark Thoughts ?

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My Marina Corps!

Nyla, Neena, Omar and Meenakshi at Marina Beach, Chennai
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You should be dancing.....

Nyla and Meenakshi at it on the beach....(or so it seems!)
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Tere Mere Beach Mein......!

There's something about some moments......

................Neena and Omar chatting..................
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A Magical Moment!

Left to Right: Omar, the magician, Nyla

Lunch @ Chennai, one murky afternoon in June

The Magician with his card trick!

No attention deficit disorder at this table! Just look at Omar and Nyla!

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Pillow Talk

A Skype call photograph!
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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Karnam Malleswari and Miss India

This was written in October 2003

Karnam Malleswari became the first south Asian woman to win a medal at the Olympics in the year 2000.  She is also one of very few Indians who have won a medal in an individual sport. The medal capped a glorious career at the top of her sport, a career that she’d interrupted for a couple of years to get married.

Karnam Malleswari competes in an unglamourous sport, weightlifting. But weightlifting, like any other sport requires hard work. The field of sport is uncompromising. You have to perform well enough on the day to win. When you win often enough you gain respect as being amongst the best. When you lose, you just go back, work harder at getting better and come back on win. In many cases, even if you get  better, the better is not good enough. Athletes such as Sriram Singh ran the fastest race of their life (at the 1976 Olympics) and still didn’t win a medal. Competitive sport values performance.

Karnam Malleswari never features in programmes about excellence or leadership. No media or corporate house takes her to colleges to talk about her long road to the top of her sport - a saga a commitment, hard work, the bureaucracy of Indian sports federations and an unkind media. The same media that had portrayed her as fat and overweight due to an overdose of fried food and beer just weeks before the Olympics. Add mental tenacity to the list of Malleswari’s qualities.

If performance, viz., investment of time and money in promoting people like Malleswari, is an index, the Indian media and the public have failed.

Lets compare this to the media and publicity generated by another largely failure oriented industry – the movie business. 90% of Bollywood movies fail. Many young actors and actresses are already proclaimed stars and are extensively covered in the media even before the first release. Some of the stars of today have a long history of flops behind them. The industry itself has done little to establish some objective parameter of what constitutes a hit. Apparently, everyone is quite happy playing with perception including the public.

Beauty contestants who win the Miss India title, win on a matter of judgement. A few judges rank the contestants on fairly subjective criteria. A plebiscite on who is the most beautiful woman in India might well throw up Madhuri Dixit or some other name than a Miss India contestant, and it would all still be subjective.

Kalpana Chawla earned the right to be on the space shuttle as a result of a lifetime of devotion and commitment to her interest in flying. It took the tragedy of the space shuttle crash, for Indian public to get to hear about one of its heroes. And she is stale news already.

So should media not cover beauty contests or movie openings? Let the coverage continue. But can we have more coverage of the real heroes and heroines of our era. The Karnam Malleswaris and Kalpana Chawla’s of the world provide inspiration to the masses. Unfortunately, a very small fraction of our young will end up in glamourous professions like movies or modelling and even fewer will be able to make a successful living from such professions. Malleswaris and Chawlas tell us that with pure hard work and dedication, it is possible to be at the top of whatever your chosen interest is. As long as you keep performing you have a fair chance of being at the top of your chosen field.

The desire to compete is not there at the root of Indian psyche. At least while we live in India. This reflects in the way our institutions and society functions. On objective “cut-off” percentage for college admissions will be ruthlessly circumvented by high powered telephone calls. A college principal says that they can help such callers only if the cut-off percentage has been reached not even realizing that objectivity of selection has already been killed by such a statement. Political parties will routinely dismiss their rout in the polls to vague explanations like anti-incumbency rather that objectively assess if they have performed. In fact, parties rarely set themselves any objectives at all that are measurable! This in a country where there is no dearth of problems for its citizens.

The public mind needs to b exposed to people who live and succeed by competing on performance. Leander Paes may never win a singles title at a Grand Slam event, but he survives as a professional tennis player based on performance. Performance that will surpass his own abilities in certain circumstances – like when he represents India.

We can then spend time looking at pretty faces and handsome men and  hearing what they have to say. But when we shut off the TV or close the newspaper, we can start thinking about how to be the best at doing something we like – modelling or tennis or aeronautics.

The Villains from Blue Line

This was written in October 2003

Blue line buses could have killed about three people during the five minutes (certainly less than ten) that I was waiting at a red light at a traffic intersection yesterday. The intersection in question is the first off the flyover at IIT at Aurobindo market. All three people were drivers of cars that were crashing the red signal to U turn into the path of the oncoming green signal traffic, that the Blue Line buses were part off. There were five other jumpers during this period. The eight jumpers included two student age boys on bikes, one woman driver, three male owner driven cars, one chauffer driven (owner in the back seat) and one autorickshaw. All this at 5:30 pm on a Monday evening, mid-summer.

A conservative estimate would put the number of “jumpers” at about 20-25 an hour at the signal in question, virtually all through the day from 9 am to 11 pm. Assuming each jumper was fined a modest Rs 1000 for endangering a lot of lives including their own, the Aurobindo Market traffic intersection has revenue potential of about  Rs 300,000 per day. Such a revenue stream would justify permanent manning with remote controlled digital cameras with power back ups – the works.

Delhi has very high instances of road accidents and fatalities because of road accidents (over 2000 deaths a year). Traffic violation is a level playing field and completely secular sport in Delhi (I once travelled with a senior bureaucrat in his car, who instructed the driver to drive on the wrong side of a fairly busy road for about 200 metres). The only constraints to access on account of gender and caste is the ability to be in the driver’s seat of a vehicle (though you could be in back seat and instruct the driver). Under age kids and senior citizens participate with equal vigour.

As a dangerous sport (people die everyday), it is viewed with same restraint as mountaineering. Deaths and disabilities happen elsewhere, not here, to us.

However, three types of accidents bring about public outcry:

·         Night-time high impact crash featuring a truck/bus and high-profile passengers in a car. The villains here are, of course, the truck drivers who must have been driving rashly
·         High profile kids who drive badly after getting drunk at a party and kill street dwellers. This category provides exciting pixels for the electronic media including talk shows on “The Indian middle-class’s deteriorating values : is this because of globalization”
·         Blue Line buses

Rich spoilt kids and working class males (with no connections and political constituency on this count) make popular villains.

Of the three categories, Blue Line buses spend the most time commuting the road. The drivers function in an environment that encourages them to drive fast and increase passenger throughput. This is directly linked to the basis of their permits to operate services. (we’ll examine the schemes that encourage private operators to drive buses faster and with more passenger load at another time). Fixed route and time services that buses provide, means that buses spend more km and time on the road every day than any category of user. By this yardstick, buses should cause more accidents than any other type of vehicle on the Delhi roads. There is no statistical analysis that suggests that buses are more dangerous than other vehicles in Delhi given the relative km per day travelled. (airlines routinely track mortality risks on passenger km, not on number of aircrafts). My guess is that buses are no more culpable than other forms of transport. We’ve already established, albeit anecdotally, that there is a secular distribution of a “death wish” amongst Delhi’s road users.

The traffic police has and will lament about:

o   Shortage of staff to man every junction
o   Abuse of traffic cops powers by “connected” Delhi citizenry
o   Inadequate resources given the pressing needs for VIP movement

The government and will lament about:

o   Lack of fiscal resources to improve traffic enforcement
o   A few incidents should not be used to highlight bad traffic discipline

More ambitious politicians and civil society organizations will comment about the fiscal crunch being caused by anti-people policies of globalization, privatisation and liberalization promoted by the World Bank. For this group, if the Blue Lines at my neighbourhood intersection had notched up three more kills, we could just head straight to the World Bank office at Lodi Estate and arrest its senior executive.

Lets examine the traffic police laments. We’ve already established that given the level of traffic violations, traffic enforcement is a self-sustaining and profitable enterprise. In a country that can for the most part compile a census every ten years (of 1.2 billion people), and issue voter ID card to most of them within a year, lowering the boom on traffic violators and managing the logistics should be a walk in the park. Simply, the traffic police has to put together a business plan on traffic enforcement and borrow money from commercial banks to implement the plan. This would also help the banks who are running out of ideas on how to use all the money they have. Funding the traffic police would be more profitable than trying to telemarket the “nth no-collateral required” loan to the professional executive.

This also addresses the governments laments of funds. Though another win-win would be to tell the “blame the World Bank” gang to seek soft funding from the Bank for traffic improvement. This also gets the Bank off the hook for deteriorating traffic conditions in Delhi.

If there is a clear cut case of a business opportunity that will have good economic and social repercussions why isn’t it happening?

There are investment restrictions. The government (centre, state and civic) will have to agree as to who can invest if it isn’t them.
Pricing restrictions will be debated in the state legislature and Parliament. (Somehow Delhi’s woes merit Parliamentary debate from time-to-time as a national issue.)

Vested interests will oppose change.(This is sounding more and more like the economic reforms scenario).  Such vested interests include:

·         VIPs, who can claim unfair privileges and consider themselves above the traffic law,
·         Delhis affluent middle class, who feel free to reduce a four lane road into a single lane road, through gross double parking violations
·         Delhi’s youth, who like youth in many places, enjoy the thrill of breaking the law

All these categories have successfully negotiated their way out of spots
with the traffic beat cop and / or citizen concerned. Why deny themselves these several pleasurable moments of traffic violations (and getting ahead of the dumb law abiding idiots) for just a few incidents.

Those traffic cops who are corrupt, as the incremental revenue from proper enforcement will all go the government and not themselves. Better to keep traffic cops in short supply.

The Blue Line owners aren’t too worried. They run a business and cant afford to be distracted by such events. Plus, they know it’s a matter of time before some politician or his/ her alleged partner are murdered as part of some sleazy love triangle or business deal. Or better still the cricket team will get back on the road. They’re off the headlines then.

Enforcing traffic regulations will save lives, save several others from permanent disability, smoothen traffic flow and contribute to reducing pollution through better motor speeds and reduced traffic snarls. Enabling it to happen will require some reforms on the structures that are responsible for enforcement. The tools for enforcement in a transparent and legally acceptable manner already exist.

Well, its just another instance of a process of  reforms that have little to do with FDI, interest rates, WTO and globalization. It does have something to do with some elements of investments, pricing, management and technology.

But hey, why bother. Its easier to be able to influence and negotiate to identify contenders to take the blame, and gain a vote through the media than get into a fact based approach.

Lets get some more dope on the Blue Line drivers or better still, there’s this new sleazy story breaking in UP……. It sounds like more fun than trying to make Delhi’s roads safer for our families, friends and neighbours.  

The Rise of the Flyovers - Delhi

This was written in October 2003

The flyover network at the AIIMS junction in Delhi makes impressive viewing. As a child, I remember the photographs of the triple underpass in Dallas near the Texas Book Depository, made famous by the tragic assassination of a young American President. This site is just as impressive.

There are a lot of happy people in Delhi in recent years on account of the network of flyovers that have cropped up. Some, like those who stay in Greater Kailash II and Chittaranjan Park, have at last seen the sun set on the Savitri Bottleneck.

Some discussions and observations with a few others throw up some interesting points.

A frequent visitor to our house, changes bus at AIIMS. The flyover has lengthened her walk between bus stops at the intersection. Visual reconfirmation on the flyover network is that there is no footpath for pedestrians. Walkers take the narrow divider in centre of the road when walking across from AIIMS towards Safdarjung flyover. An extra 750 m of walking when the sun is 40 degrees C plus will throw up instant opportunities for refreshment counters at the ends of these flyovers. Pedestrians will use their own money to recover because of the publicly paid-for flyover.

These flyovers represent no particular joy for those commuting on their own motive power or those of animals. Cyclists, pushcarts, bullock-carts, cycle-rickshaws and pedestrians, not only have a longer walk, but must now climb uphill on what was earlier a flat track. So many instead chose to take the roads other than the flyover (and wait at the traffic light anyway).

Commuters in buses don’t really benefit from the flyovers since the buses have to halt every now and then for entry and exit of commuters. The pick up points are just off the flyover, before and after, where the deluge of buses clogs the traffic in any case. Some young friends who use contract buses don’t seem to experience any alteration in overall commuting time.

In the South Delhi area, the flyovers seem to have pushed the traffic problem to the next signal! In fact you can now speed off the IIT intersection flyover going towards Nehru Place and wait for a long time at the Panchsheel intersection.

Friends who work in Okhla Industrial Areas now have to plough through more signals to get in and out of work during peak hours.

So who have the flyovers really benefited if they haven’t really accelerated throughput for the bulk of road users and made things worse for pedestrians and users of public transport?

Immediate beneficiaries of flyovers are the owners of private transport vehicles and road users during off-peak hours. Peak hours in Delhi include morning office hours, evening office traffic and lunch time traffic. (try traveling around at 2 pm on most afternoons). Turns out these are the car-owning rich guys.

Flyovers don’t come cheap. In the city, they are paid for by the government (or by the citizens). It would be worthwhile evaluating (not just anecdotally like this article) the impact that flyovers have had on Delhi’s road users and the total costs of constructing these flyovers. We can then compare the cost of these flyovers with the cost of undertaking the following actions that could increase traffic flows:

1. Making residential areas and commercial areas on main roads find their own parking lots for their friends and customers. The Yusuf Sarai bottleneck is most often due to due to badly parked cars in addition to the almost two lanes of road on each side used up by parked vehicles. A similar situation exists on the stretch of road between Defence Colony and Kotla Mubarakpur and at Green Park market. This is use of public space (roads laid and maintained by the government) for a few private users, at no costs. This, in a city where real estate prices are extremely high. This is true for some residential areas as well.

2. Correcting errant drivers who cut across lanes, particularly at intersections. On perfectly symmetrical and wide roads at intersections, traffic throughput is almost disgracefully slow due to a few drivers who believe in following the shortest distant between two points, preventing other vehicles from going through.

3. Ensuring that proper and wide bus bays are built so that buses don’t end up clogging the road at bus stops. Enforcement of queuing of buses at these stops would help things further. We could factor in the costs of employing cops at major bus stops to enforce the rules.

4. Providing escalators to pedestrians on arterial roads and ensuring that pedestrians use them. Aggregate costs of such escalators could still work out cheaper than the flyovers.

5. Better quality studies of traffic flows and synchronizing lights on arterial roads to ensure smooth flows.

After we’ve costed this list and implemented them we can figure out where the flyovers are really needed. In the meanwhile, there are some categories of people who have definitely benefited from these flyovers : - the companies and contractors who won the bids to construct them and the subsequent contracts that will be handed out to maintain these flyovers. We can reasonably envisage a few corrupt civic officials also benefiting (they haven’t covered themselves with glory in recent times).

Another category that will benefit will be from amongst the poorest – Delhi’s homeless. Spaces under the flyover will provide shelter, atleast till some Union Minister of Urban development decides that such usage constitutes encroachment and is illegal. This will be lauded by many other citizens of Delhi. (At least one lady from an elite neighbourhood on nationally televised talk show suggesting we put up catchy posters at village bus stops and railway stations encouraging these people to stay at home.)

For car-borne commuters like me, well, we can safely park our cars on the main road and do our shopping.