Sunday, October 29, 2017

Idle reflection - Mark Zuckerberg and Travis Kalanick



I was thinking how Travis Kalanick founded what is now (circa 2017) the most valuable startup in the world, but couldn't see fast enough that his personal sexist behavior would end up getting him chucked out of his life's work. Mark Zuckerberg on the other hand strikes me as a guy who has a superhuman capacity to see and ward off an oncoming crisis. (My understanding of him is based primarily on what I read in the news, and that wonderful movie "The Social Network". So my logic is dependent on the accuracy of the movie in capturing Mark's personality, even if not getting all the facts correct). In the movie Zuckerberg is so conscious of crises. When Eduardo Saverin cuts off the payment to the servers hosting Facebook, Zuckerberg goes ballistic (and perhaps that's when he decided to dump Saverin). And at the end when Sean Parker causes another crisis. The movie doesn't show how Zuckerberg resolves the crisis, but clearly he does, since FB is around and thriving. My sense is that its not just external crises. Internally too Zuckerberg is adept at reinventing himself. He started off with the bad-boy antics at Harvard and his early days in the Valley where he humiliates a VC egged on by Sean Parker. Today's he's a model corporate executive atleast to public knowledge. And its not just a facade.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Analysing "Orange is the new Black"




I just finished watching 3 seasons of OTNB and its pretty amazing. It feels like there's enough meat in the show to make it worthy of a Masters' thesis, if not a Ph.D.

The characterisation is pretty amazing. There are no black/whites, its all gray, and superbly done. Nobody, but nobody on the show is without genuinely dark parts in their personality. And those who start off as assholes acquire acquire majorly redeeming qualities as the show progresses.



The show has real empathy for the women in the prison, and teaches subtly and beautifully, the disaster that a modern prison is, as a humane way of dealing with those who chase the law. At the same time, it doesn't offer any simplistic solutions for how to improve the system. I found the show really eye-opening and hopefully altered my worldview permanently. 

In its flashbacks to the lives of the inmates before they ended up in prison, it paints a picture of the the huge struggle that life is for those coming from underpriviledged backgrounds, or dysfunctional families.

It also beautifully plays off the black, white and Latino sub-cultures beautifully. In particular, it does a great job of viewing the world from a black person's perspective, and there is some hilarious skewering of  (for want of a better description) 'white culture'.  "Really quiet sex" :-))). In this aspect the lead character Piper Chapman is really a 'Trojan Horse' to start an exploration of women from a whole host of different backgrounds. The show genuinely does not use the other characters as a background for the lead in a really praiseworthy way. Piper Chapman is peripheral to the social life of the prison and hardly the soul of the party - she is a loner and doesn't participate actively in any of the social groups. Quite a remarkable feat that the show's creators and directors manage to pull off.

As a guy its pretty interesting to see (a version of) how women talk about guys and sex among themselves. It feels pretty authentic.


One of the characters is an anti-abortion activist and it gives the show an opportunity to explore this issue. Its one of the few topics on which the show is one-sided; there is no sympathetic portrayal of a pro-abortion stance.


At one point Piper (the putative lead character) starts  a business of selling used women criminals' panties on the Internet.  I love the deadpan way this thing is handled with no judging of the guys who want to buy these things, or the women who set out to satisfy their kink. The rationale is simple and direct; to paraphrase what's said on the show - some creepy guys want this stuff, and we need the money so lets go for it.

There's some really hilarious skewering of the corporate culture when a private company takes over the prison from the government.















I'm planning to stop watching the show now however. I'm judging that its falling into the usual trap of milking success and extending beyond what's natural. And its time to get back to real life too.

Friday, March 31, 2017

English Vinglish

Notes from teaching English:


I taught English to a small class in February of 2017 at Timbaktu Collective (www.timbaktu.org) in Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh.  This was part of the new career I'm carving out in skilling and training. 

The trainees was employees of Timbaktu. They were either senior staff, for whom improved knowledge of English had become important over time, in addition to their domain understanding, and office staff who had more need of English usage.  They varied in level but in general had trouble speaking English. They had a certain level of understanding of the language. They knew the alphabet, They had quite good domain-specific English vocabulary in NGO work and their domain. 

My interest was particularly in seeing if I could do 'breakthrough' teaching of some sort (inspired by my participation in Landmark courses) ie. enable people to go beyond some barrier that they might have had. I wasn't so interested in incremental teaching of the language like improving their grammer. In any case, once I started, I found that as far as incremental teaching of the language went, I mysef was quite at sea. I went to grammer textbooks and found the whole thing horribly confusing. It was rather discouraging and I started feeling like learning English is actually very difficult. Which is somewhat of a disempowering position from which to teach! So I didn't go down that path much. 

The class was structured as 4 one-hour sessions that happened during consecutive weeks. So actually the class time was very limited. There were challenges in logistics, particularly in having people keep coming back to the class week on week, as their schedules were unpredictable and this class was not so directly relevant to them. I started with 10 trainees, and was down to 
5 by the end.

I did some things that have promise as English training tools and so sharing about them. 

My fundamental premise was that people can speak/communicate in English at whatever level of mastery of grammer and vocabulary they currently are. What's holding them back is more a confidence/lack of practice/shyness/worry about making mistakes. So I was primarily interested in addressing this. And my experience with these students bore this out - they were able to communicate a lot and get their thoughts out. Good grammer and vocabulary is secondary for this purpose of communication. 
So my approach was - how far can you go in speaking English , with exactly your current level of skill in the language, by just working on mental barriers instead.

1.) Getting people to speak as much as possible is crucial.I believe this is very important and finding effective ways to do this can be a challenge.

 Having people speak only in English in the class, is a well-known technique and I used it.
I got people to do an introduction of themselves in English at the beginning of the first class.
As assignment, I asked people to prepare and do a better introduction of themselves at the second class. I believe the improvement they saw for themselves between the first and second classes was a positive reinforcement. 
Another important practice was dividing them into pairs and having the pair have a conversation. This is something that could be done in every class if enough good topics are there that people are interested in conversing in. Some of the topics we used were:
- someone calls the organisation asking for more information about the organisation or wanting to visit
- a job interview
- talking to your vegetable vendor
- having an argument with your spouse :-)

2.) One new idea I came up with was as follows. It was to schedule a half hour slot individually with each of the class participants and speak English 1-1 with each of them continuously for that half hour. None of them have had to have a conversation in English for that duration in the past. So my hypothesis was that doing the conversation would build their confidence in their ability to speak English. Having such a conversation can be difficult for the trainer - you have to find something that the trainee is interested in talking about or the conversation peters away. Ideally also, you need to have the trainee very present and focussed in the conversation - they need to be just talking, talking, talking, not thinking or having their attention wander. Done well, at the end the trainee is amazed by his/her ability to speak the language.

3.) A third idea I had was to have them prepare a poem or song or other performance piece and deliver it to the class. I did this over two rounds of practice, ie. they delivered it once and then prepared and delivered it again at a succeeding class.  The idea here is that with enough preparation they can deliver it pretty fluently and that gives you an emotional high and builds your confidence and leaves you with a positive feeling about the language, which is important for any later progress to happen. "When I can speak a particular English poem or song like a pro, then I should be able to talk English in general like a pro, right?"  I give them a choice of pieces, pop songs, poems, things that might strike a chord with them and also let them pick anything else that they might want to do. I videotaped the final performance so that they would have it to keep with them. Another way of doing it might be to do it in front of an audience of their peers, which would heighten the emotional impact. 

4.) I experimented with playing songs from the internet (YouTube) with subtitles. Example: "Everything at Once" by Lenka ,"Its a Wonderful Life". The idea was to communicate to them a certain joy and fun in the languge. I don't think it worked very well this time, but fundamentally I think its a good idea, and I need to find the context in which it would be more effective. 

5.) Ashok Ganguly, one of the people at Timbaktu is enthusiastic about English teaching and I had good discussions with him. At one of the classes he made a presentation of some more useful points and ideas around speaking English..roots of words, how languages evolved, how much of a vocabulary the trainees already had etc. I think this was a good interlude, and done well, can add value.

6.) I found one very interesting mobile application called "Hello English". I don't know how effective it is in practice, but was designed very well with lots of games and tools as part of the learning process. There were some videos on YouTube though nothing that was a game-changer.  

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Weight loss ideas from Rujuta Diwekar


In my work on myself on losing weight, I've become convinced by, and adopted the diet ideas of Rujuta Diwekar, from her book "Don't lose your mind, lose your weight". (It was her first book and she's written more after that. You can also follow her on FB).  I believe the book expresses international-level thought leadership in this area, which is rife with fashions and fads.

I summarize key practices from the book:

Eat something as soon as possible after waking up.  It does not have to be a full meal, fruit or nuts will do.  Breakfast can follow. DONT start the day with tea or coffee, postpone them to after the breakfast meal.
Eat smaller, frequent meals, not large meals. Eat fat and sugary stuff between meals. DON'T have fat and sugar along with meals like dessert after dinner.
Tune your eating to activity level - eat more when you are active and less when you are not.
Finish your last meal atleast 2 hours prior to sleeping.

And some more:
Eat with attention. You will see when your stomach is full and you can stop eating then
Eating fresh fruit is much better than eating juices
Essentially everything processed is a pain in the ass (or a pain in the stomach). Biscuits, cakes, pizza, potato chips, puffs all of that stuff. Avoid as much as possible. If you're going to have it anyway, homecooked is better than commercial.
Eat protein before and after vigorous exercise - the body needs it to repair the micro-damage that occurs to muscles during expercise

There's a lot more to the book including the explanations for the above practices. Read the book.

My personal experiences:
Cutting down majorly on sugar (other than fruits) has been an eye-opening experience. After cutting down, I realized that sugar was causing lots of ups-and-downs in my mood. I would crave sugar (typically in the afternoon, in anticipation of the evening snack) and then get a sugar high with the snack. After giving up sugar, I found my day to be more peaceful and energetic.

I've compensated for giving up on all the delicious sugar treats by exploring dried fruit instead. I've developed a taste for dates, figs and apricots. They're pretty delicious and give a decent sugar high. I splurge on high quality dried fruit and enjoy them. The intention is to be become a connoisseur of these things, like the wine-lovers, haha! 

I do miss sugar, but not so badly that I give in frequently. I have very little sugar at home, so that gives some leeway during social occasions, where there may be social pressure or the temptation is high. Having those occasional treats keep the cravings manageable.During a recent streneous hike, I hogged on cream biscuits and chikki. And after that indulgence, the thought of sugar made
me queasy for a couple of days!

Overall, life has become a lot more SIMPLE.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Coming clean


I molested a woman once. 

I did it when I was in college (in Chennai). I was travelling on a bus, a crowded public transport bus. I used my knee to brush the bottom of the lady sitting on the seat in front of me (the seats then were designed differently then, as two parts that had a gap between them). More than once. She rushed out precipitately at the next stop.

I was overcome by shame by the next day. I’ve regretted it deeply ever since. It must have ruined her day, and left its mark on her permanently. I wish I could do something about it. 

I did it as a act of hormone-fuelled bravado, telling myself that I saw some chemistry with her. Far from it. 


I’ve been reading the postings from the women’s groups in response to the Bangalore New Year Eve molestation incidents. And then remembered suddenly that I was (once) ‘that guy’. By writing about the incident, I hope to contribute in a small way to a honest dialogue.

To my women friends - I ask forgiveness for the incident. If you want to talk me to about it (berate, condemn, whatever), please do. It would be useful for me too. 


Friday, November 04, 2016

Being organised - Bullet journalling



I posted earlier about things I do to keep organised. 

http://despoki.blogspot.in/2016/09/organising-life-and-work.html

I'm delighted to have recently (re) discovered "The Bullet Journal" website. This is also a system to keep organised. It focuses around tasks and events: how to schedule them, reschedule them as needed, keep track of tasks in the distant future etc. Lots of people seem to find it very good. Check it out, www.bulletjournal.com. The homepage has a video and a text introduction that are good places to start.

One thing I see about it is that it doesn't explicitly include for is long-term goals, and deriving your short term and medium term tasks from the long-term goals.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Reviewing "Chef's Table"

I've been watching two series on Netflix - Chef's Table and Chef's Table - France. They're absolutely a joy to watch.
 

I'm not a big fan of food and cooking shows in general but I've really loved these. Each episode here profiles one chef and his restaurant. Typically these are modern Western restaurants. 
One of the things with conventional cooking shows is that you always have to end up with someone tasting the food and having an orgasm over it. "The money shot" as it were, borrowing a phrase from a more disreputable genre (perhaps there's a deeper logic for the phrase food porn). I've always found this problematic, and I assume they are even more problematic for the show producers. How to keep producing expressions of food ecstacy that will convince viewers ?
 

Chef's Table completely eschews this. There is almost nil on-screen tasting. Quite a audacious attempt for a food show, and they pull it off amazingly.  They however do fantastic videography of the food that almost makes up for it. The reason it works is that the show covers the best modern restaurants, and modern western cooking lays great emphasis on how the food is presented.
 

The other approach they take is to make it a story about the chef rather than the food. These stories are so fascinating and so well-captured. 
 

There is the story of Italian chef Massimo Bottura who dragged Italian cuisine into the modern era and whose restaurant is rated among the best in the world. There are several great vignettes in the episode, but I'll have to be satisfied with recounting a couple of the lesser ones, since the others are not so amenable to description. 

One of his dishes got created out of a near-disaster when one of two lemon tarts being served got dropped. They saved the day by breaking the other tart in exactly the same way so that it seemed like it was done deliberately. That became one of the signature dishes, later disarmingly titled "Oops, I dropped the Lemon Tart". Not a story to tell to those who don't like nouvelle cuisine! Some other dish names: "A Potato Waiting to Become a Truffle", "An Eel Swimming Up the Po River".

There is an interesting side-story that makes a point about modern art. Massimo's wife takes him to an art exhibition where one of the wacky exhibits is a bunch of pigeons on the rafters. The idea is that pigeons are pooping on the other works of art and that artwork included  imitation droppings on some of the artworks. Massimo is completely taken by the idea, and decides that the only way he can break through the resistance and make his point about modernizing Italian cuisine is by going out of his way to figuratively poop on the cuisine classics until people get it. So that's what he goes on to do (very successfully) in his restaurant. Perhaps a story to recount to those who complain about the meaninglessness of modern art.



One of the most remarkable stories is Alain Passard's. He is a Paris chef who at the height of his glory (three Michelin stars), walks away from everything he has done so far, to start completely afresh and create a vegetarian cuisine, a heresy in his native France (Michelin continued to rate him three stars for the new work). He goes to the extent of running two farms to produce the vegetables that the restaurant uses.

I'm amazed at how the show manages to get inside the skin of the chefs.  American Dan Barber honestly reflects on screen about how much his work is driven by his drive to fill the void left by the death of his mother when he was four. Massimo Bottura authentically reflects in his darling Italian-accented English: "If you have success, and if you live an incredible moment of happiness, the happiness is much more deep and big if you share with others and get to the point together; is like the happiness and feeling is exploding. Its double. This is the point".


Alain Passard talks so movingly about the joy the work gives him.  "My only ambition is to love what I do more every day. Just the idea of a job well done, no outside projects, needs or dreams. If this story exists today, its because I love my job more than anything. This place (the farms), its a space for myself. Its marvelous. I find in it a phenomenal comfort. I find love, happiness, a well-being. I find things I can't find anywhere else. My gardens saved my life."
 

That Netflix is producing content of this quality suggests that besides acquiring content, they also want to produce Oscar or Emmy-worthy stuff themselves. More power.   

Below are teasers for the two shows. Several episodes are currently pirated on YouTube, you can easily find them. I've given links in case the embedded versions don't work.






https://www.youtube.com/Z-yY6RmF-iE
 
https://www.youtube.com/qKqj85oo2wI

Thursday, October 06, 2016

Theorising change in India


I've been thinking to see if I can put together thoughts about how change could come about in India.There is a phrase that's become quite popular : 'theory of change'. So this is about theorising change in India.  

A series of articles I read recently on sand mining in Tamil Nadu offers an initial peg for exploring this. The first part of the three part article series is here, with links to the others:

http://scroll.in/article/815138/tamil-nadus-political-parties-are-making-money-from-sand-worth-a-whopping-rs-20000-crore-a-year


It explores the destructive practice of 'mining' of sand from river beds that is then used for construction. Sand mining is very bad for the groundwater, as the sand acts as a sponge to hold the river water and allow it to percolate into the ground. In the absence of sand this doesn't happen.

Observations:

Firstly the entire practice is driven by the huge amount of construction going on in TN and the rest of India. In the absence of sources elsewhere, the markets somehow find a way to access river sand. So the core push for illegal sand mining comes from economic development.

The third article does a useful analysis on how different organs of society have failed to address this practice. The political system is directly collusive in this practice, partly fuelled by the need for big money to finance election campaigns. Citizens have not been able to come together and oppose it, the courts have not been effective, and media has not gone beyond a point in investigating this. This is a useful lens in general to explore the functioning of society - these (markets, political system the citizens themselves, the judiciary) are key parts of society and how well they are functioning individually and collectively tells us about how society as a whole is doing.

Looking at the discussion there regarding the role of the media some points stand out. Important media channels are controlled by political parties. While you can understand that the media controlled by the ruling party will not do much, the article is less clear on why the opposition-controlled media doesn't either. Possibly because none of the parties want to kill the golden goose of sand mining. There is also a fairly rich independent media but mostly controlled by large corporate groups which don't have an incentive to go strongly after the government.  The Hindu stands out as as exception that has enough muscle to buck the trend but hasn't. However that fits into a pattern, for all its strengths, the Hindu has regrettably never had the guts to do really hard-hitting oppositional journalism.

A difficulty in this issue is the problem of 'attribution'. The connection between sand mining in a river bed and the reduction in groundwater levels in the areas around is not so clear-cut and intuitive. Further,  overextraction of water from bore wells is already leading to falling levels of groundwater and separating this and other effects from that due to sand mining is not so easy. So the public isn't as concerned about sand mining as it might otherwise be. 

So what might we say then in terms of how to create change? 
I don't have very promising ideas but here are some thoughts:

A background context to the entire dysfunctionality is the power of money and the threat of violence. These combine to prevent corrective action from taking place. In my mind, most analyses finally come down to money and the hold it has on the current human, and Indian mind. At a deep, root-cause-analysis level then, one has to address what people are willing to do, and not do, in the quest for money.

In general there is dysfunctionality in all the institutions and society at large, as described above. The final end state we want to arrive at is healthy institutions and a healthy society. Working on particular problems like sand mining should be done keeping this broader context and goal in mind. In this case the dysfunctionality of media seems to be the proximate solution most amenable to improvement. Putting a better environment for media like separation of political parties from media and preventing media businesses from being a part of larger corporate groups are some immediate ideas. More serious study should certainly be able to come up with good practical solutions for a more useful watchdog media. 

An angle that occurred to me is the Cauvery dispute. Practices like sand mining are irresponsible in terms of water conservation. Therefore they weaken the case of the Tamil Nadu government in arguing water scarcity. The courts and tribunals dealing with the matter could bring water conservation into the ambit of the argument. They could say that the quantum of water you get is partly determined by how conscientious you are in general about conserving water. After all, if you are profligate with whatever water you have, why should hotly contested waters be allocated to you ? Such an approach could well have enough impact that it could overcome the formidable political economy of sand mining in Tamil Nadu. Needless to say , it is not as if TN is the villain of the piece, there would also be wasteful practices that are being followed in Karnataka which that state should be held accountable for.

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PS: Back from a good trip to Timbuktu and leaving immediately to Priya's mother's place in Tamil Nadu. 

Monday, October 03, 2016

Publishing on a lighter schedule



After coming back from Singapore, I picked up the blogging habit again in August and September. There were lot of pent up things in my mind that I wanted to express on paper. I'm glad to have written about a significant number of things I wanted to express. I'm also seeing that a new set of post ideas are coming up and this doesn't seem to be a process that is going to end so soon. While writing as a full time occupation has its attractions, other things are now crowding the mindspace and the energy for blogging is not as much as before. Earlier , especially in August, I didn't feel like doing much at all and spent a week or two hardly going out, with blogging being the main activity. Now other interests are catching up and September has been very rich in meeting people and having good conversations about what they and I are up to. So, net net, I've decided to 'officially' close the heavy blogging phase. I do hope to sit down occasionally and write a substantive post atleast every two weeks, if not more frequently, for the next three months. Lets see how it goes. The next couple of weeks I'm planning to travel to Timbuktu and then Priya's native village in Tamil Nadu. These should provide material for posts but also may not actually have time or connectivity to do much writing and posting for the next couple of weeks. 

For those who have been tuning in the past couple of months - thanks for reading! 

Saturday, October 01, 2016