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.

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:

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.


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.

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

Friday, September 30, 2016

Teaching Graphs

I've been intensively tracking visitors to this blog using the tools Google provides. Vibhat kept seeing the usage graphs on the screen and asked me what was that funny picture. So I sat down with him to try to explain graphs. He got the basic funda in just a few minutes and was saying "Ok when there's a lot of visitors that's when there's a peak in the picture and when there's very few its low".  I was very surprised. I was expecting a painful process of him having to understand x-axis , y-axis, lengths along axes. But without talking much about axes, I was able to communicate the idea. 
In contrast, I remember how I learnt graphs - getting introduced to graph paper, then counting distance along axes, then plotting abstract points like (3,4) and so on. It must have happened over atleast a month or so. In retrospect it seems a painfully abstract and unnecessary process. 

So, is graphing much easier to understand when you do it with a 
real-world example ? 
Separately, I've been getting about 20 visitors per day to the blog, but there are two curious spikes in 2014 and 2016 as you can see in the graph which I am not able to explain. However, there seem to be a lot of spammers and other junk visits, so the actual numbers could be even lower :-( 

Sunday, September 25, 2016

On Stupidity

From my personal experiences with myself and other people, not being intelligent, or to put it bluntly, ‘Stupidity’, is a function of not being open to life and not participating in life. Life constantly throws stuff at us, and if you simply be and act in it, you will change and improve and get better at whatever it is. Of course that process of being in life comes with risks, possibility of failure and the possibility of looking like a fool. All of those are scary things. But, when we bow to them and ‘hide out’ from life we stay static and not learn and improve. We hide because of past experiences in that area that hurt us, so we don’t want to try again. 

Part of being open is doing what people tell/ask you to do. In my opinion, there is no fundamental reason *not to* do what people tell/ask/request you to do. Most people operate from there is no reason *to* do what other people ask you to do. Other people have their own life experiences and their own knowledge of life. When we do things according to their worldview, we get some benefit from it. When fear/ego/something else stops us from that, we don’t do something new and we pass up an opportunity to learn. An immediate question that might come to your mind will be on the lines of ‘If someone asks you to jump off the top of a building, will you do it ?” There are practical answers to that but a deeper answer is that the question itself is coming from doubt and resistance. The same doubt and resistance will come up even when you have an opportunity to do something that will genuinely enrich your life. It prevents you from trying new things in life and learning. 
‘Deep listening’ is another aspect here. When you’re listening you’re judging and filtering stuff. That causes you to constantly reject a lot of good stuff and you don’t learn and grow. Can you listen without judgement ? It doesn’t mean you sway to every opinion or idea you hear. As you practice deep listening and go through some ups and downs with it, you will reach your own new equilibriums  that are better than the old.

Friday, September 23, 2016

On Violence

My friend Deepak Menon has an abiding interest in non-violence. After a meeting with him yesterday where this came up for discussion (along with many other things), I thought I would write down my thoughts on it.

At the first level - violence is doing harm to someone and its a bad thing.

While its easy to identify and condemn physical violence, psychological violence is a more subtle thing. Constantly criticising someone. Not providing children the care and love they need. Organisational heads creating or allowing a toxic organisational atmosphere with back-biting and self-interested actions. These are example I would say, of psychological violence. Is it possible or desirable to completely eliminate psychological violence ?

Violence within oneself. Having a strong desire to inflict physical harm but suppressing will result in the violence showing up in other negative ways. I was struck by the fact that despite Gandhiji's strict adherence to non-violence, finally the country got independence through one of the most large-scale episodes of violence in its history (partition). One wonders if this is a symptom of suppression of violence engendered by Gandhiji, that finally burst out. But contrarily, Gandhi's genius in seeing how one could accomplish the goal of getting rid of an oppressor without violence, has to be acknowledged. It was the first time that it was tried, particularly on such a large scale, in the modern world. 
Other examples of internal violence: Feelings of hate and other strong negative emotions. Internal conflict, eg. pushing yourself very hard all the time.

People who have had some amount of corporeal punishment as children often grow up to say that it was a good thing and that the 'healthy fear' of the punishment put them on the right path. I've wondered about this. Is a small amount of physical punishment for children a bad thing? My feeling is that it is. When you do this, you are implicitly saying that under some circumstances its okay to be violent (and that its okay to use a position of superior strength to impose your will on somebody by force).  These kind of things (another example is violent toys) add up. They add up for example to an adult who is okay with war as a means of settling disputes.

Standing by while violence is happening is not so different from participating in it. In that way, we are all complicit in the matter of the many wars and other large-scale conflicts happening in the world . For another situation, consider World War 2. If a country had a choice of joining in the war or being neutral what is the right thing to do ? America did indeed have that choice. Personally, I am unable to see clearly what is the right thing to do in this situation. 

I think violence is sometimes an immediate or temporary tool for example in self-defence at different levels (single individual, community, country). But its continued or systematic use is not correct. 

On a personal level, I have to deal with how to address this issue in the context of my growing child. I have felt that society's casual acceptance of violence in the matter of toys (and in entertainment like TV and films) is a deep pathology.  Vibhat plays an online game called Clash of Clans which is about attacking other clans and capturing them.  He talks with casualness about bombs and so on.  He is also practising Karate now and I wonder what are the messages he is picking up in the process. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Organisation theory

One of the classes I took at LKY School was Organisation theory. The class was taken by Prof. Henry Wai-Hang Yee who's sincere, enthusiastic about his stuff and did a nice job. He’s now at the University of Hong Kong ( ).  

One definition of Organisation theory is “an attempt to explain and predict how organisations and the people in them will behave in varying organisational structures, cultures and circumstances”. However there is no theory of organisations, but a multitude of theories. The field of organisation theory is pretty fragmented with a variety of schools. “Each school is at odds with the others, each defends its own position, each claims that the others have major deficiencies”. Its a wonder that any progress gets made at all in this mess. I guess the variety of circumstances of human existence are wide enough to merit the range of theories and each has some sphere of validity. 

Reading academic papers in organisation theory can be pretty depressing work. There’s rarely any maths, so they’re wordy. They tend to be dense and theoretical with few examples. Things are pretty fuzzy and conceptual and usually not very convincing. The questions that they try to address in the first place are usually theoretical and not very interesting. 

I tried to crystallise some general things to say about Organisation theory for this post but found it difficult. So instead, I thought I would mention some of the seminal and better-written readings which might be of interest to the general reader. In this post I’ll cover some of the older readings and in a later post cover the more new-fangled stuff. You dear reader, should pick one of the articles below that fits your interest and download and read it. You might find it quite enriching.

For regular visitors to my blog here are my recommendations:
Deepak: Read the Potter and Herzberg articles
Amar: The Garbage Can model of Organisational Choice article
Suman: you should read all of them ! 

1.) Max Weber on bureaucracy: Max Weber is overwhelmingly the guy most associated with the study of bureaucracy and the guy considered the father of sociology. So I was excited to have the opportunity to study his stuff. But to my surprise it was underwhelming. The reading we had seemed pretty bland, with a collection of unexceptionable observations about bureaucracy (tasks are clearly divided, there is a hierarchy, bureaucrats are people with specialist knowledge, they get paid a salary). Finally I realised that this written in the early 19th century during the years when bureaucracy was a new phenomenon and he was the first person to pin down what differentiated it from what came before. Quite a nice read if you keep that in mind.

2.) Fredrick Herzerg’s  “One more time: How do you motivate employees” : On that question that all managers struggle with, Fredrick Herzberg seemed to have laid a solid foundation for the answer back in the 1960s.  This is a well-written, interesting and a relevant read for most of us. As the article summary nicely and succinctly captures it: 
“The things that makes people satisfied and motivated on the job are different from the things that make them dissatisfied. Ask workers what makes them unhappy at work and you’ll hear about a bad boss, a low salary, an uncomfortable workspace or stupid rules. Managed badly, environmental factors make people miserable, and they can certainly be demotivating. But even if managed brilliantly, they don’t motivate anyone to work much harder or smarter. People are motivated instead by interesting work, challenging and increasing responsibility. These intrinsic factors answer peoples’ deep-seated need for growth and achievement. 
Herzberg’s work influenced a generation of scholars and managers - but his conclusions don’t seem to have fully penetrated the American workplace, if the extraordinary attention still placed to compensation and incentive packages is anything to go by."

3.) “Choices, Values, Frames” by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky : Kahneman is the winner of a Nobel Prize and one of the founders of the hot new fields of behavioural economics and behavioural nudges. In this seminal paper they introduce some key behavioural biases: like how we prefer a small certain gain, to a larger gain associated with uncertainty, and how the way a choice is stated can influence the option we make. 
It doesn’t suffer from the usual vagueness and theoriticalness of organisation theory papers, but runs at a high-ish level intellectually so can be hard to grasp. But really worth the read the quality of the ideas and exposition. 

4.) Michael Porter on Strategy: This is a landmark management paper and would be familiar to MBA types. Potter lays out pretty compelling vision for what 'strategy' is in business organisations (the ideas are applicable to other kind of organisations). Again well worth a read 

5.) "A Garbage Can Model of Organisational Choice": This is an idiosyncratic paper. It attempts to create a model of a type of organisation the authors call “Organised anarchies”. The authors (all academics) propose universities as a prime example of such an organisation. Its clear that they don’t have a high opinion of how universities are run - the model is one of major randomness; of problems, and actors floating, a set of actors coalescing to try to address a problem, then coming up with a random solution… or something like that. Its been a while since I read it. If you’re a cynic with some understanding of computer simulation, this is the perfect paper for you! 

The quotes are from the introduction to the book "Classic Readings in Organisation Theory" by Ott, Shafritz and Yong

For a compilation of resources on studying public policy in general and at the LKY School, see: 

Monday, September 19, 2016

Elements of a life philosophy 3 - "Empty and meaningless"

Sartre said “Life is empty and meaningless” and Landmark clarified that to “Life is empty and meaningless and its empty and meaningless that its empty and meaningless” 

One way to look at this is something like: 
You are a speck of a human being among billions of others , billions before, and billions after. And all this on planet Earth with the vastness of the Universe around us. Can you try to say our lives have meaning in the face of all this ?

If you’re very conscious of this insignificance all the time, you might freeze into inaction. Or surprisingly, you might find it very liberating and free yourself up to do whatever you want. 

Even if you don’t get into the cosmological analogies above, you can see the meaninglessness in other ways: we are all born, we go through whatever we go through and then die. That’s all that actually happens. Everything else is our attempt to make sense of this and give us courage to live in the face of the apparent pointlessness. Religion and morality are prime examples. 

Going further into this, all our opinions and judgements are ultimately invalid. We may respect someone, love somebody, dislike someone, hate someone. But if you look into it, all those judgements don’t have objectivity in them. There is always another opinion or judgement you can have that it equally valid. This is best illustrated by a practical example, I'll add one in when a good one comes to mind! In the meantime, you could just try it yourself taking some situation or person that you really feel negative about. Then see if there is a valid other way to view it. 
There is no way to have a truly ‘correct’ or ’objective’ opinion about something. 

I believe that the ‘Maya’ idea of Indian philosophy was trying to express the same idea.

“Empty and meaningless’ can be understood as a theory but to really impact how you live life, it has to be experienced. That experience can be pretty discomfiting - a feeling of the ground giving way under your feet. 

How does ‘empty and meaningless’ influence me? I have a tendency to make negative judgements about people and create elaborate justifications in my mind to support that. 
Having internalised ‘empty and meaningless’ I’m able to catch myself often in this process and drop it and accept that its just my judgement and its up to me to stand by the judgement or not irrespective of the justification.  

Also, I don’t get too much into ideology - all ideology is an intellectual exercise that can never capture the entirety of life. Use ideology as an aid to thinking, but realise that’s its temporary and provisional 

Saturday, September 17, 2016

My article on Solapur

I wrote an article for the Six Degrees  News website. Six Degrees is an international development news website that focusses on grassroots reports. My article was about a government programme called Jal Yukt Shivar in Maharashtra. Here it is:  

I’m excited about having done this. I’ve not been officially ‘published’ for a while now, if at all, though I guess there were opportunities at Arghyam that I’ve passed up due to other work. Six Degrees is founded by a friend, Binayak Das, so it didn’t require pitching from my side, and I didn’t get paid for it. 
Whatever I do (if I do anything at all!) in the next phase of my life, I hope writing will be a part of it. This blog has been a source of great fulfilment but time to grow beyond it. And it would be good to be able to generate some income from writing. 

I learnt some practicalities about journalism on the trip. One was the difficulty of really evaluating the success of a programme or initiative from a visit. Though I have a background in the water sector, I’m a generalist and not technically trained, so it was hard to really gauge. And for a large scale programme like this, unless you visit lots of locations, you can’t conclude anything with any degree of confidence. Your ideas about this will be appreciated. 

Anyway, on the visit to Solapur in Maharashtra, based on which I wrote the article, I had the opportunity to meet the current District Collector. It happened quite easily, after a couple of phone calls, which was quite surprising. At Arghyam, it was really painful getting meetings with IAS officers. He was a very cordial and a nice person. However the really interesting bit was about the previous Collector, Tukaram Munde. He really seems to be a larger-than-life person who managed to achieve spectacular results. I have some sense of administration from work at Arghyam, and this chap in my opinion is off the charts. The District Collector (or Commissioner as he is called in some districts) has a really difficult job. There’s just too much stuff, too many subjects to work on. There are around 30 government departments/programmes that he is the head for. The DC of Sholapur told me there are literally hundreds of committees that he  chairs. Then there is the lack of good quality and quantity of HR to work with, including corrupt people. And unlike the private sector, you can't fire people easily. There are many restrictions and rules to getting work done, much less flexibility than in the private sector. There is the political system to be managed, which could be quite formidable. And in the first place, many of the programmes are ill-designed and ‘dead-on-arrival’. So I’d say, as far as serious impact is concerned, the DC is also for the most part, ‘dead-on-arrival’. However, Mr. Mundhe somehow managed to crack the system and actually get it to deliver. For the life of me, I cannot visualise how he did it. He is now head of Navi Mumbai district and making waves there too. A man to watch (and you can watch some of his exploits by searching on the web). 

Back to the trip again. There is a ‘power’ element in the field trip portion of visits like these , the government staff down the line from the DC are very deferential. At the same time I also got the sense that they thought I did not understand the stuff, and were patronising. I also find it tiring to meet a large number of people in a short span - my comfort level certainly is in meeting fewer people and developing stronger connections with them. 

I wonder where Jalyukt Shivar is going. There seem to be many issues with the scheme, much more so in other districts. But it also seems to have huge potential from the Solapur experience. This programme seems to have the tantalising potential to be the ‘Holy Grail’ for water security in drought-affected districts. But many a slip between the cup and the lip. At the same time some other large scale success stories are emerging from other districts like Dewas in Madhya Pradesh. Is there a trend here ? In the past, it was always about NGO models and touting them, but there were very few examples of successes at scale. Are we entering a tipping point where we get more and and more successes at scale. I fervently hope so. 

An interesting side point is that Solapur district has 2 products with the GI (Geographical Indication) tag, Maldandi jowar and Sangoli pomogranate. Here is a full list of GI tagged products in India: 
It seems this idea is taking off in India.

Some more photos from the trip below:

Check dams storing water

Compartment bunds under construction

Dry open wells that are now recharged with water

A farm pond

Local farmer