Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Sculpture at the National Gallery

Four very different pieces of sculpture by the same artist at the National Gallery:

Sunday, January 31, 2016

On 'Art'

Many thoughts about art triggered by a visit to the National Gallery of Singapore. Since the thoughts are fairly disconnected, I cover them as numbered points below:

1.) Earlier I was a staunch defender of modern art, in the face of "My 4 year old can do the same thing" kind of arguments. My response to that argument by the way, is - not really. I don't think the average kid scribbling has the same quality as modern art. And occasionally when it does, I feel very good about that piece of work.  I don't feel that it drops the bottom out of the modern art argument. I felt really happy about some of Vibhu's scribblings. I think the modern artists strive to achieve the quality of children that enables them to scribble with spontaniety, while also including all the other good stuff that comes with adulthood and experience.

2.) I recently watched this video recently "Why is Modern Art so bad?"

and found that I could not really refute some of the arguments. There is this tendency in modern art to do something random and then challenge the viewer to consider it also as art. Like where the video  talks about a rock that is on show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in LA.


(Pix stolen from latimes.com )

There's a nice rebuttal to the video to the previous, appropriately titled, "Why is Classical Art so bad".

3) On the frustration that a lot of people have with abstraction in modern art: I don't have a real response to that. Except that I just like the abstract stuff too, alongwith the pretty pictures. The art books offer some explanations. One argument that I came up with, is that when painting life just got better and better, there was nothing more that could be done along those lines, and so artists started looking for some other way of expressing themselves, thus abstract art.

4.) One argument against modern art is lack of technique. While the rebuttal video above offers some counter-arguments, to wit, that art need not only be about aesthetics, I wonder if that is quite true. Like at the National Gallery there is a video of a guy painting himself yellow and taking a bath to wash it off. Apparently he was doing it as a protest against the lack of support for performance art compared to other forms of art. Fair enough. But, it was a really dull boring video. Come on - if you want to protest there are a whole host of interesting attention-grabbing things you can do. If you can't elevate your performance art to the level where the performance is atleast remarkable in some way, I think you're just incompetent as an artist. Or lazy, or a charlatan.

5.) Why can't art discussions be held in reasonable language? I suppose art, like any field of human endeavour has its own technical language. So the same way that you cannot understand a discussion between experts in molecular biology, its too much to expect that you can understand a discussion between art experts. However, art is publicly displayed and viewed. Art curators who talk about their work for the common man have got to tone it down. I would say, this is kind of a faultline and that resolving it would resolve a lot of things. You should only get to be a curator and have fancy museums if you can figure out how to talk about art to the non-specialist.

6.) Art is one of the few public 'goods' that highly elitist. For the amount of money that is put into institutions like the National Gallery, the return or the acceptance by the public is highly suspect.
I wonder how all the employees hanging around the museum feel about some of the more random works they guard.

7.) There is something about banks and art. A lot of modern art hangs in banks, and a lot of shows and exhibitions are sponsored by banks. I have a feeling the connection is not too savoury - the fakeness part of art is what the banks are picking up on, reflecting some of their own fakeness and lack of substance.

Will post some photos from the National Gallery later

Photos - various

Joint movie watching
 Vibhat's Diwali Card Painting

A Monitor lizard at the university accomadation we stay at

Lunch with Shyam Prabhakar, my IIT classmate who now lives in Singapore. We had an excellent discussion on economics and recessions. Shyam is supersmart and keeps up with things.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Dismal science

Just finished going through an economics paper Levine and Rennelt (1992), "A Sensitivity Analysis of Cross-country Growth Regressions".  To paraphrase, what they found was that a whole battery of papers that preceded them in trying to empirically correlate economic growth of countries with various factors were not rigourous enough, and that pretty much nothing could be found that could consistently explain the GDP of nations. This reinforces my notion that the world is far beyond what economists today are able to meaningfully describe. And yet the world goes on and gets more complex and (economic) decisions need to be made. So what to do ? The heuristics I can think of are:
- whatever you do, implement with high quality
- be pragmatic and change if things are not working. That requires good measurement
- Keep learning from what other people and countries have tried and found to work 
- be a 'systems thinker' and use ideas from different disciplines

Human potential and public service

One of the things that has occured to me here, is the waste of human resources in India. If you have a public-service mind in India, the first thing you would do is avoid the formal public service, either the bureaucracy or elected office. Some start NGOs and struggle through their lives to keep things going. Their massive capacity and dedication does not bear fruit in the absence of sufficient support and an enabling environment. Others give up and go into other professions. Likely they are always weighed down by visions of the path not travelled. They do some non-profit volunteering but it rarely leads to something that fulfills them. Personally, I spent some time in the private sector and then came to the NGO world. It has been a rewarding journey but it is also clear that I could have done much more.

Overall it is a great waste of human resources. In Singapore, if you are service-minded, there is every opportunity to join the bureaucracy and be rewarded materially and in public respect for that. The payoff for the national interest is big.

Some great bureaucrats have given up and opted out early. People like Aruna Roy, Jayprakash Narayan and T.R. Raghunandan. In most cases, they would have contributed more within the bureaucracy had it not been so stultifying that they had to get out.

Exceptions are instructive:  Narayanamurthy, who was always very clear in his mind that his work in the market was primarily as a tool for wealth creation for other people. A remarkable man. Nilekani, who was able to make a successful transition from business to the bureaucracy/technocracy (though not to politics). 

Friday, January 08, 2016

Taking Stock - Vibhat

So how have the 4-odd months been so far for Vibhat?

He is settling into his new school. Its much more of a mainstream school, than the lovely Earth School back in Bangalore. Vibhat is managing that transition better than I am :-). It has been challenging for me to accept the way the new school works and proactively address some things that we could do something about. I did not find enough clarity in my own thinking about education.
Teaching here appears to be mechanical with less attention to individual children and where they are - the classic critique of mainstream schools. The school seem to be moving very fast in covering topics - I wonder if this is necessary or useful.
On the plus side, he's getting to play more and do physical stuff which he has been enjoying.
The new CBSE curriculum is also pretty impressive. The core subjects seem to be Maths, Language and Environmental Studies - where environmental studies is a catchall for a bunch of stuff like biology and geography, civics etc. It bodes well for the future for a syllabus to have Environmental Studies as a centerpiece.
Hindi is a challenge. I felt it was good for him to learn Hindi, but he has a lot to catch up on and neither Priya and I know Hindi well. The kid likes it quite a bit though and often asks me to work with him on it.

He's also reading a lot on his own ; visited the local government library today and picked up a ton of books. He's into Enid Blyton among other things. Amazing to see him absorbed in a book. Earlier we read to him a lot, and he enjoyed it immensely, and now he's graduating to being an independent reader. Very gratifying .

He has one very good friend Abdul Rahman at the place we stay, but that family moved home to Pakistan in December so that's sad. At school, he seems to have made friends and integrated well.

Sunday, January 03, 2016

An Institute for Water Data

During my 8 years of working at Arghyam, I was consistently struck by the feeling that there was no coherence to the data in the water sector. There was no organised body of knowledge - a newcomer could not find out quickly what kinds of data was there and what the data was saying. A lot of data is inaccessible in pdf files or hidden in government departments. The Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation has a whole lot of data up on their website, but impossibly opaque for anyone to try to come to grips with. The data there is also highly suspect, like when the Census 2011 came out, they found that there was massive overcounting of toilet coverage. There were a few people at organisations like UNICEF and the Water and Sanitation Programme (World Bank) who seemed to be somewhat on top of things, but they were as bad as the government on transparency and they kept getting transferred anyway. There also does not seem to be an organised body of researchers who are interested to keep on top of this area. When there's a new survey or new source of data coming out (like the census), there is no excitement in the sector to see what it has to say, how it compares to previous surveys and whether the government is on track or not in achieving water and sanitation goals.
Arghyam did some work here, including indiawaterportal.org/data , but for the most part, I think the comments above apply substantively today as they did 8 years back.

Among useful things to do:
- there is a lot that can be done by the ubiquitous engineering colleges in every district of the country. Much of the data of interest can be collected by students.
- there is a lot of verification of government data that can be done to hold government accountable

I suggest that an Institute for Water Data might be a fruitful initiative to start. The Institute could do things like:
 - keep indiawaterportal.org/data current and up-to-date
- unearth new data where possible from government departments
 - help get researchers the data they need, and help other people who could contribute like data specialists, the data and sector expertise they needed

(The comments above, while applying more to the drinking water and sanitation sector, are also more broadly applicable to water resources. I suspect they're applicable to other development sectors too like health and education)

Friday, January 01, 2016


The first three months was disengaging out of Arghyam. That was fairly uneventful. I did some useful things including transitioning to my successor, Vivek Sabnis; I wish more was asked of me in terms of knowledge capture . The farewell team meeting we had was great for me, I got to
express many things that I wanted to say. By the time I left, I was having lot of doubts about the effectiveness of the work we were doing at Arghyam and IWP so it was a good time to leave. I hope that with the 8 years of learning and experience, I can do even better at my next work than I did at Arghyam.

The first 6 months of 2015 were a hurricane of ILP work. ILP is the Introduction Leaders Program at Landmark. It was an extraordinary ride. Since I didn't have a job from March onwards, I was primarily doing ILP so it concentrated the experience; ILP full on! I can hardly remember anything from those days but there were lots of ups and downs and breakthroughs. Now I see it as a very healthy experience - of giving myself fully to the work of self-development. ILP is about being an unabashed salesman for Landmark - such a bizarre thing to do, and yet while you were doing it, it seemed very natural (though not easy at all). The magic of the course. My mom and nephew among others did the Landmark Forum during that time. One thing I learnt from signing up many people to do the course - Some people get huge value , others don't. It is very gratifying to see the difference it made for some people. As I left before the course completed in Bangalore, I continued working on in here in Singapore in association with the Landmark Center here - a difficult experience. While the course provides benefit irrespective, there are some criteria to fulfill in order to qualify to the next level of work at Landmark. I didn't do that. So what next at Landmark for me ?

Settling into Singapore was challenging for many reasons:
- I was coming out of an intensive ILP experience and making a re-entry to normal life :-)
- I was coming off 8 years of being in the same place and the same job at Arghyam, Bangalore
- I was feeling self-conscious about being older
- Introversion is still a big part of my personality
- I badly wanted to do well academically, and put pressure on myself for this
- I badly wanted to 'fit in' and get along well with classmates
- Getting Priya and Vibhat their long term visa documentation and getting Vibhat into school and Priya a job

Academics were great at the LKY School. Extraordinarily stimulating being back at school and learning. The many talk and lectures here provided for out-of-class learning and stimulation. However, the coursework was too basic or too theoretical for direct use.
My grades were way below my expectations which was very disappointing. I started off wanting to be topper, then down to top 3 to top 10 but finally it was top 20 if at all. I very comfortably met the requirements for keeping my scholarship, so I guess I didn't do badly by the school's standards.

My relationship with Priya continues to be turbulent. During ILP we had breakthroughs, but back to normal life has been bumpy. I think we will achieve harmony at some point, but what will we do to each other's spirits in the meantime ?!

A great disappointment has been in my relating to my classmates. There is a lack of ease and spontaneity and intimacy in this. And I haven't shown any leadership whatsoever.

Vibhu has been doing very well. Many people say he is very cute, and he is also quite gentle and well-mannered. His school work is good and he adjusted well to a quite different school environment and learning Hindi. He is progressing very well in reading. He reads for pleasure by himself which is a big deal. He is enjoying Enid Blytons, once he starts a book, finds it difficult to put it down! He also enjoys reading about the world and other non-fiction. He is enormously lovable. The challenges of child-rearing are certainly there though! He wants to watch a lot of online entertainment and we have a tough time limiting it.

We got off to a slow start on tourism and sightseeing in Singapore and South East Asia. Went to several parks here in Singapore, dabbled in the cuisine, went to Marina Bay Sands, the Zoo, and Johor Bahru and Melaka in Malaysia. And I went to Thailand as part of school work.
 We hope to do more in 2016.

Health news has not been so good. I'm not getting much exercise. My knees are giving me trouble. Priya has attacks of hives but we have not been able to find the cause. I had a filling fall out from one of my teeth. My weight is still excessive.

The future is unclear. Whether I will get a job so we will stay on Singapore. What I will do next. What's next on the self-development or spirit journeys ? I feel disinclined and unqualified to take up a mainstream job. There is a degree of freedom in thinking about these things which is very gratifying. I feel less obligated to do things for money, or for 'looking good' or to prove something or achieve something.

I've spent many hours thinking about these things during the months here and made progress.

I acknowledge myself for: taking on the ILP and playing fully, for throwing myself fully into coursework here at Lee Kuan Yew School. For our family making the transition to Singapore and settling in. For my big dreams for life. For being a good father.
I acknowledge Sudha Bhat, my ILP leader, Gautam, my ILP coach and all the coaches and participants of ILP for that incredible journey.
I acknowledge my mom for doing the Landmark Forum
I acknowledge Priya for all the hard work she put in this year in winding up in Bangalore, setting up in Singapore, taking care of the house, taking care of Vibhat's stuff at school and his homework.
I acknowledge my classmates at LKY for being a great bunch of people

I hereby declare myself complete with 2015 and take on 2016!

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Bukit Timah campus photos

The gorgeous Angsana tree - the highlight of the campus - at night

Football on the Upper Quad

 And cricket!

Romano Prodi, ex-PM of Italy with Dean of the School Kishore Mahbubani. Prodi speech was titled "Has the European Experiment Failed?"