Sunday, December 27, 2009

Is Entrepreneurship a Cultural trait?

A friend of mine sent this New York Times article a few days back.
The article discussed the lack of entrepreneurship (it took me two minutes to type that) culture in India. It discusses the lack of venture funds and angel investors.
It starts out by saying:
Innovation is hard to measure, but academics who study it say India has the potential to create trend-setting products but is not yet doing so. Indians are granted about half as many American patents for inventions as people and firms in Israel and China. The country’s corporate and government spending on research and development significantly lags behind that of other nations. And venture capitalists finance far fewer companies here than they do elsewhere.

More later:
Mr. Raghavan and others say India is held back by a financial system that is reluctant to invest in unproven ideas, an education system that emphasizes rote learning over problem solving, and a culture that looks down on failure and unconventional career choices.

I found the article informative. But the friend who spoke to me about it seemed to focus on the last line above - the cultural angle. In fact, I think most people who read that article would find the cultural angle more easier to understand than the financial or educational.
Most of the people who talk about innovation in public also seem to prefer trying to influence this "cultural" factor. There are conferences and seminars focussed exclusively on innovation and the need for inspiration for innovators.
Unsurprisingly, this coincides with a slew of management books about innovation in the corporation.
The narrative seems to run as follows: India has a culture that looks down on investing in new products. Failure is not an option. Therefore Indians do not start companies that create new products. To change this, we have to motivate Indian future entrepreneurs with a lot of seminars and conferences which charge a minimum of Rs.1000 only.
I am completely prepared to believe that entrepreneurship is low in India and that India is not a source of many patents. What I do NOT trust is that there is a cultural angle to it.That is, I believe that there are perfectly rational economic reasons for Indians not to get involved in creating products - I don't think you have to bring culture into the mix.
I also believe (cynical bastard that I am) that the only reason culture is touted as a prime factor is this: that is the only way a lot of people can easily make money, offering to change the culture. If we were to go after the root causes, we may be required to fight the battle on the political, policy making front. That is truly in public interest and there is not a lot of money to make in that direction.

The Cult of the Entrepreneur

I think entrepreneurship is being elevated as something equivalent to superstardom by management gurus. To start a company, and to create a product - the decision is usually made based on evaluating marginal benefits, not based on good intentions.
Let me take the case of the software industry:
(By the way, The Indian Patent Act does not apply to software! That is, you cannot patent a software algorithm in India. Software is protected by copyright - not by Patent Law in India. )
If you start a software company in India, you have two choices - start a company that creates an innovative product (remember, you cannot patent software innovations in India); or perform coding services for American, Japanese or European clients. Which option would you choose?
Purely going by marginal benefits, I would prefer a services company unless I am rich already. This is because with no outside investment, getting a software services company up and running is easy in India. Not only that, if I had just a couple of clients, I can break even pretty fast. The market for software services is high and has stayed high for the past fifteen years. Even under a bad recession, the market has been able to accomodate thousands of small companies.
Now, you may ask me, why would I do this? There are a thousand small and medium services companies - wouldn't I rather start a product company that I feel passionate about?
But people run businesses not just out of nobility. They run businesses because they want to make a lot of money as fast as possible. I know that we are all supposed to believe in passion, innovation and all that - but has anyone considered the true state of the Indian economy?

1. Our healthcare costs are skyrocketing
2. IT workers have no government mandated pension
3. There is no real social security net - unemployment benefits are abysmal and difficult to secure.
4. The public education system is bad and private education costs are soaring.
5. It is not easy to go into bankruptcy and come out of it.

Let me highlight the final point - the European Corporate Governance Institute had a paper out (pdf can be downloaded here)on Bankruptcy law and Entrepreneurship in 2008. The authors, John Armour and Douglas Cumming found a link between countries that support a "fresh start" through personal bankruptcy laws and entrepreneurship. The USA, for example, enables such a fresh start through Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Countries that allow such fresh starts have significantly more entrepreneurial activity.
What is the status of Indian law on this? The Indian Insolvency laws are dated. But more than anything, going to the a court managed bankruptcy in India will drain all your energy and time away.

Unlike Western countries, a person living in India cannot depend on government if he gets sick, for his children's education or for his retirement. Meanwhile it is obvious that all our costs are increasing exponentially. Would I be trying to make as much money as possible or would I be passionate about a product that may never work? The answer is clear.
So, my question is why don't all the innovation gurus turn their attention to a better bankruptcy law that actually works? Why don't they focus on a social security net? Why don't they focus on pension schemes?
Well, there is no money in such fights. You will likely lose over and over fighting policy changes.
Therefore, we are all back to wondering what the devil is in the Indian culture preventing risk taking. We are back to organizing seminars and conferences on innovation.

(By the way, I believe that people who create products also use the same marginal benefits analysis. They are not guided by nobility or pure passion either. They may see a niche market opening or a way to get funding. My point is that we can discuss innovation and entrepreneurship purely as economic decisions, without bringing in cultural angles.)

Those of you who find this article interesting may also read more about its background here.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

James Bond talks to Taxi Driver

In most American Action movies involving foreign countries you have these well-dressed military men and politicians pondering life and death decisions. Meanwhile a surveillance plane is tracking a terrorist 10000 miles away. Sometimes this plane even picks up the terrorist's conversations. The all-upright military men place the decisions on their civilian leaders. And then the drama goes on.
There have been so many movies showing the dramatic reach and power of American (and British) intelligence organizations and military in very subtle ways. In the movie "The Bourne Supremacy", CIA tracks (from their headquarters in the USA), the movements of Jason Bourne in a train station in London. At one point, they ROTATE the camera in the London train station FROM VIRGINIA.
There is an immense sophistication projected by these movies that, to an extent, you are subconciously awed by Western power. You forget that these movies have a propaganda element.
Bob Woodward, in his book on the Iraq war and the Bush administration describes a scene: Donald Rumsfeld, Defense Secretary at that time, is meeting the Saudi Prince along with Dick Cheney. The Prince is concerned about the fallout of the proposed invasion. Rumsfeld shows a map of Iraq with army positions and sweeps his arm across. "All of these will be gone" says Rumsfeld.
Seven years later these guys are still fighting an insurgency in Iraq.
The propaganda of American movies is not just directed at foreigners - it also misleads the American people; it makes them believe that their army is full of upright men who do not torture (see Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, Rendition) and who do not engage in criminal acts (see the Haditha rape).
Which brings us to the Taxi Driver of Baghdad.

James Bond and the Taxi Driver
One of the key elements of the Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) canard perpetrated by Bush and Blair was the "45 minute to deploy" story. Sometime during 2002-2003, during the run up to the invasion of Iraq, Tony Blair released a dossier to public which claimed that Saddam Huseein could release WMD within 45 minutes.
Remember that Saddam Hussein had no WMD, but where did this 45 minute claim come from?
A British investigation shows that the claim came from a Taxi driver in Baghdad.
Here is what happened (you can find details here):
MI6 was asked to find some dirt on Saddam and WMD. They put some pressure on an Iraqi official. That guy said that a Taxi driver had overheard a conversation between two Saddam officials in which they discussed the 45-minute-to-deploy nugget.
That is, the claim that Blair showed in his public dossier came from a third hand hearsay through a taxi driver!
The Iraq war has killed at least a hundred thousand people - the war was based on a claim of WMD that could be operationalised in 45 minutes. Yet Blair got into this war FULLY KNOWING that his sources were taxi drivers.
Isn't this criminal?

What does this illustrate for democracy? It means that people in power in the USA and UK could get away with murder. All that a democracy has to do is provide good local services - as long as that is done, the leaders of those countries can "Manufacture Consent" for any of their pet wars.
But, more importantly, none of this has shaken the American or British public from their absolute belief in their politicians or their military or their intelligence services. The people who voted Bush out now have Obama escalating the war in Afghanistan. There are a few powerful people clamouring for a new war with Iran.

Smart Bombs
Just as many American people believe in the noble intentions of their leaders in dropping bombs on foreigners, they also believe in specific concepts that helps them deal with this.
For example, the idea that you can target bombs so effectively with their missiles that they will kill only the evil guy and not the innocents in the surrounding street or city.
This idea of smart bombs is not new - American media was talking about smart bombs in World War II! Whenever a new war comes up, their media starts talking about how accurate their bombs are - they did it during the Vietnam war, during the first Gulf war and the Iraq invasion.
During the Iraq invasion, some of these smart bombs actually missed the entire country of Iraq and fell on Jordan.
But, you see, you do not need real smart bombs - you just need to bring that up as an abstract concept. That is enough for civilians to approve of any aerial war. This time, this current debate is going on about the drone strikes in Pakistan. And people are talking about smart bombs again.
America uses her bombs so freely that all that you have to say, to be known as Serious Foreign Policy Expert is "Targeted Military Srikes". If you just say military strikes, then you come across as a warmonger. Instead, just say "targeted military strikes". It makes the experts sound intelligent and eases the fears in American minds about getting civilians killed.

So, the next time you see, in an American movie, a bunch of honorable men in military unfiorms discussing Very Important War Decisions, remember that there is probably a taxi driver who is helping them out.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

My son and my music

I have already said here, that I am going to make sure my son becomes a singer. I decided to take his training myself and the below is the result.
He seems to show a keen interest in getting away from me when I sing, but I think that is because of the bad acoustics.

He also laughs at weird words. Here is the video:

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Some advice on Arranged Marriages

I was married eight years back. It was an arranged marriage; people think (especially abroad) that arranged marriages are very easy and that you do not have to make any effort. Let me narrate my experience and you can judge for yourself:

The very first problem I faced was managing my hair. I had it all nicely turned and everything so that I had the 50s samathu payyan (good boy) look. I spent atleast two hours before the mirror trying to adjust every individual strand of hair. I had no idea how my potential future wife would judge my looks. I knew vaguely that they did not like the Albert Einstein hairstyle.
Well, after this struggle, I got into the car and sat, stupidly, in the window seat. So my hair ended up looking, indeed, like Einstein. I hoped that the woman liked physics.

It is best, in my mind, to keep the affair as low-key as possible. I was sure that the girl would not like me. I would be lucky if she did not throw up on seeing me and hated every word that I spoke. So, I did not want one of the huge movie style episode in which a bunch of my relatives and a bunch of her relatives, plus all her neighbors show up to watch me getting rejected.
I actually wanted to meet her in a restaurant in a remote corner of the city so that only the waiters would know, but no one would leak the matter to the press. But when I asked for this specifically, I was accused by my parents of being an un-Indian brat. Her parents did not like the idea either - they thought I would kidnap their daughter. They wanted the full glory.

Thus, my ONE attempt at trying to influence the course of my own marriage and life failed. I stopped trying after that.

So, we ended up at her home. Luckily there were not too many people around. I got out of the car and ran in before the tabloids could take photographs.
I sat in a nice elevated chair and kept my head down. Her brother sat in a corner and kept looking at me with an impassive face. Let me tell you what he reminded me of: In American movies they show a secret CIA interrogation room where one inscrutable American sits silently in the corner while they try to get information from the terrorist. At the end he usually walked over and banged the terrorist's head on the table until he revealed the location of the bomb.
Her brother never took his eyes off me the whole time and never said anything. He rarely says anything to me even after 8 years of the marriage.

Her mother and sister buzzed about and we all tried to make conversation. I tried a few jokes. But I was waiting for my future wife to show up.
I had spent a lot of time (the previous day) in front of the mirror trying to see the angle in which I looked good. I was sure that there must be atleast one angle out of the 360 degrees where my face would show up handsome. So I tried each one of those angles until I found that there was one particular way, if I raised my head and bent my face to the left - I looked absolutely dashing. Turn a little bit to the right or left and the "effect" was gone. I could see myself only from a corner of my eye in the mirror, but I was sure I had hit upon the ideal way to present myself to my future wife.

Now, sitting in front of her whole family, I tried to find that angle again. I was almost there when the door opened and my future wife walked in. She did not look at me at all. She sat in a chair and studiously avoided looking at me.
So we both sat like statues while the rest of them had fun.
The one advice I would give you, the future arranged marriager, is to AVOID eating mixtures (this is a south-indian dish), while you are on a "girl-seeing" episode. It is a nasty trick played by the bride's family. They are trying to judge your mechanical competence. There is absolutely NO way to eat the mixture without a)looking uncool or b) spilling most of it on oneself. If they offer you the mixture, politely say no. If they insist, tell them you know their dirty trick.
Do not drink coffee either. They will offer a very full cup of coffee and figure out how scared you are when your hand shakes. Ask for half a cup; if they offer anymore, throw it on your brother-in-law. That will teach them.

There are several misconceptions about arranged marriages. Movies show the guy and the girl falling in love immediately; then pining for each other while the evil villain takes the girl to a mountain cave. The truth is that you don't really feel anything when you look at her. Your goal at that point is to get out of a really awkward situation. There is no place for love. It is a tough world out there.

After some time, they suggested that we talk to each other. This is the most liberal advancement in the institution of arranged marriages in the last two thousand years - they allow us people to talk.
So, me and her went to the terrace. It was evening time and the terrace was cool. It was very romantic except for the airport close by. There were flights zipping over us every five minutes.

I had prepared a long speech to her. It went something like this:
"I do not have much experience in this. I like your family. Let me say something about myself. But before that, I want you to be assured that you may say no to me without any reservations. You do not have to marry me out of compulsion. But that does not mean that your family compels you. I am just saying, if your family is of the type that comples daughters, then if they compel you to marry me, you can freely say no. This does not mean that I suspect your family of tyranny. No, no, on the other hand I like your family a lot. But it is all circumstances. Instead if you say yes to me because of compulsion, then our life may not be that happy. No, I am not saying that I will torture you. But I am just saying that if I do...."

I forgot most of the speech when I sat there. It sounded like a PhD dissertation.
Anyway, I started with "I don't have much experience in this"
My wife said, "It is not as if we are all sitting here with lots of experience."

That was it. We ended up chatting for an hour and by the end of it, I wanted to stay at their home.

PS: Apparently there is a rule as to the decent time when you can get back to the girl's family and let them know you like her. Say you see the girl on Monday evening at around 6 PM. Then the decent interval is to let their family know Tuesday afternoon at 3 PM. If you do it any sooner, they think you are too needy. If you do later, the girl may be married off to someone else. The optimum time interval is the above.
I did not know this. We got into the car and I started badgering my family about the marriage date.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Encounters in "A Wednesday"

I watched the movie "A Wednesday" very late, last week. I had heard much about the movie and Kamal Hasan had remade it in Tamil.
I did not like the movie at all. This is a belated analysis of the movie. This is just my opinion, I am not claiming to be a connoiseur of fine movies.

(By the way, if you have not seen the movie, please be aware that this is NOT a proper review. It reveals everything about the ending. I am taking this liberty because I think the movie has been out for more than six months now. Don't read further if you want to watch the movie. This analysis is more about political beliefs than anything else.)

Before you stat reading this post, please visit the link - The Hindu -Ishrat Jehan's encounter.

The Story
The Police Commissioner of Mumbai gets a call warning him about five bombs set to explode at 6 PM unless he fulfills certain demands. We are introduced to a couple of second level police men. One of them is Arif Khan, who seems to enjoy bashing up people. He is with the ATS and the police themselves call him a psycho and a problem guy.
The guy who set the bombs, Naseeruddin Shah, then proceeds to demand the shipping of four terrorism suspects to the Juhu airport. In an abandoned runway, amid lots of drama with cell phones, three of the suspects are killed by Shah's bombs. The fourth one escapes, but then the police shoot him on the request of Shah.
Why did Shah do this? He explains in a lengthy dialog with the commissioner that he is just a common man and is tired of being killed by terrorists.
In the final shot of the movie, the commissioner does find Shah, but then leaves him free after shaking his hand.

The Writer and his stand
I have seen that in India, directors create movies with dubious moral stands (such as demeaning women). Then when questioned about such stands they ask us to enjoy the movie as a story. That is, they ask us not to attach any "meaning" to the movie.
Thus, a director like Parthiban can show a movie in which a raped woman ends up seeking and marrying her own rapist. Rajinikanth or Surya or Vijay can insult women's dresses and teach women how to behave all the time. But when confronted, they claim that it is just a story.
So, the first question to ask is if writers take stands about social issues or not in movies. It is recognised throughout the world that this is, indeed, the case, most of the time. A story in a movie is a point of view. It is somewhat like an argument. The writer positions characters around the argument and shows them in a bad or good or gray lights. This is particularly true of "commercial" stories. It is certainly true that when a shrew is shown to be slapped in a movie, the writer is guiding you towards certain judgements about women.
This is NOT the case with every story. I am not saying that stories are written with bad and good people in mind. But I think we are all intelligent enough to know when a writer is trying to guide us.
In this light, who are the "heroes" in "A Wednesday" and who are the bad people? What does the writer guide us toward?
The movie is not at all subtle in this regard. Naseeruddin Shah is shown as a "common" man again and again. He calls himself as a represntative. At the end of the movie, the commissioner lets him go (in spite of him killing three people) with a proud handshake.
So, the writer expects us to identify with Shah. He wants us to sympathise with the commissioner. And he wants us to spare no thoughts to the men killed for "terrorism".
Now that we are clear about what the writer is saying, is that a moral stand? I will not ask this question of every movie, but this movie, clearly, tries to make a political statement. It is not "just" a story. The writer is writing about contemporary events and asks us to judge a consequence of that.
This is where I had a big problem with the movie (I had other, more aesthetic issues which I discuss later).
The idea that some vague "terrorist" can be encountered at any point of time, without a trial, is morally abhorrent. And in this movie there is not enough shown to "judge" these guys.
At one point, Naseeruddin Shah says that people are kept in jails for ten years without a judgement - but that happens with EVERY case in India. By that logic, why shouldn't we be killing murder suspects? Why only "terrorists"? There have been serial, mass killers who have killed more people than some terrorists. Shouldn't we be killing people in the streets?
Once you have decided that a trial is just a bureaucratic requirement, then why stop with terrorists?
In fact, the cruel arm of the Indian state punishes more innocent people, by keeping them without trial in jails for as much as seven or eight years. Why didn't anyone make a movie out of THAT?
If Shah, the common man, has to be angry with someone, anyone at all, it should be the delayed justice system. Instead focussing on a formless "terrorist" who can be killed just like that, how morally repugnant is that?
To me, it is clear that Shah is the murderer in the movie. At least he should have been showed as deranged. This is why I could like the Tamil movie "Evano Oruvan" ("Dombivli Fast" in Marathi) better than this movie.
The director is not required to give a solution - but at least do not PERVERT the original issue.
The most revolting scene in the movie was the policemen killing Ibrahim in cold blood. Do people really think encounters are fun hunting of "terrorists"?
If you have not visited the link above yet, here it is, again: The Hindu -Ishrat Jehan's encounter.

The Revenge story
Now, we all enjoy revenge movies, of course. We all like it when a single man takes revenge for his family or lover. But there is a difference between that and this movie.
You see, in a revenge movie, the director has already shown US the viewers, who is responsible for the crime. At that point there is a direct, personal line of connection between the crime, the murderers and the vigilante.
In "A Wednesday" I saw no such connection -
1. There was no personal connection between Shah and the "terrorists"
2. There is no connection between the CRIME and the terrorists either.
So what the hell?
This is why I felt that the movie was deeply dishonest. I felt they had made it to exploit the resentments of people after the Mumbai attacks while really coming up with no innovative stand.

The Aesthetics of the movie
1. I told my friend that this could have been made as a telefilm or something more appropriate for television. The big twist in the movie was just the revealing of Shah's intentions. I did not think that was so mind-blowing that they make a movie out of it.
2. There are ZERO other innovations in the story. The entire "detection" process was a cop-out with a contrived "cool" hacker solving everything.
3. What is with Hindi movies and pretentious characters? I have heard NOBODY in my entire life saying "I love you" and "I love you too" over the phone. Only American television characters talk that way.
4. The movie also shows people in very predictable wooden stereotypes - the hacker, for example. This idea of a "cool" young computer geek is so stupid. I am in the industry and I can tell you I have never seen such people.

I would actually suggest that these guys make real Indian movies instead of thinking they will make an "almost Hollywood movie" as they say in reviews.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Airtel Super Singer 2009 Junior

Is this the group of singers that they selected after going through every city in Tamil Nadu? Most of these young singers should not be on TV singing - they need lots of training.
Zee Tamil had a far better show last year.
Chithra as a judge is too much for this show. She is carrying on gamely.
I only like the girl Alka's singing - she is a star. There are a couple of others who are good too.
Anyway here is a classy performance:

Saturday, October 24, 2009

History, Race and Politics

A couple of years back, one of my friends wrote a post on logic, science and nature. I commented on that post and in the ensuing discussion, my friend mentioned that the Rig Veda could be 6000 years old! You can read the whole exchange here.
To support this he mentioned a few authors.
I also used to participate in debates in the forum at Most discussions veered into history automatically. I noticed that people had lots of historical theories of themselves. One guy posted an image of a Babylonian bronze statue and said it looked like Thiruvalluvar and therefore Dravidians were Babylonians or some such weird theory. Many of the forums devolved into wild theories about Aryans and Dravidians. (Many of these threads are still active in Karuthu - for three years!).
I have always wondered about a couple of things:
1. Why do people have a need to invent dates more and more ancient for their cultures? I read a Tamil language history book long back which basically said Tamils were some of the earliest descendants from apes, and they were the first civilization. It also linked with the debunked "Lemuria" continent and so on. And this is a history book. Of course, Hindu fundamentalists keep tracing their history to Harappa, even though that civilization shows no traces of ancient Hinduism. Tamil fanatics trace to Harappa too.
2. Why do people think a thousand years is a short time? The Rig Veda's earliest parts are dated to around 1200 BC. Isn't that ancient enough? Why dump another 5000 years on top of it?

History is a Science
I believe one of the reasons we see this kind of extensions to timelines is this: people think anyone can reason out history. That is, the perception is that History is not as exact a science as, say, Physics. I don't think a non-physicist would go in and say one day, "Oh, special relativity is really wrong.". They don't dare to because in their minds Physics needs rigour and mathematics.
On the other hand, the way we are taught History, historians seem like a bunch of imaginative people who can just sit around cooking up theories. We do not see any rigour in History, even though historians go through as much peer review as other scientists.
(If you want to explore rigour in history, just take a look at the books dealing with Microlithic era(Later Stone Age). The level of detail and scholarship is amazing).
If we are asked about specific heat capacity or photoelectric effect, we do not volunteer our own theories. We refer to text books.
The text books say that the Rig Veda is 3000 years old. Why don't we just accept that?

History and Identity Politics
There is of course, another reason, the primary motivator: amateur intellectuals in India are not really happy about our present condition. We tend to glorify our past so that the recent humiliation of colonialism goes away. We blame our present condition on obscure historical roots and try to trace history to a "Garden of Eden" long back.
I noticed that RSS and VHP supporters think we were enslaved a thousand years back - that is, even before the British, they say, the Muslims were "occupying" our country. Thus their freedom struggle started in 1000 AD, not after 1857.
Believing this is a stretch - because these people are corrupting the definition of colonialism. The British were colonialists, who (because of reasons related to economics), kept the relationship suited for exploitation. The Muslim invaders, on the other hand, were basically migrants. Their system of exploitation was no different from, say, the Mauryans or the Guptas. India had endured such waves of migration - the north-west border was porous.
To call Prithviraj Chauhan's fight against Ghazni as a freedom struggle and equate it with our fights with the British is just not accurate.
Yet this myth has a very profound impact for Hindu nationalists. It fueled crazy acts such as the Babri Masjid demolition.

The Tamil Political Tool
One of the worst uses of history as a political tool was the Dravidar Kazhagam (DK) propaganda in Tamil Nadu.
when I was in college, I asked one of my friends what he wanted most to clean up the country. He said he wanted to clean up the Aryan people from Tamil Nadu.
I was surprised by this, because I had no idea what he meant by Aryan people. Then one of my father's colleagues visited home and ranted for a long time about how Aryans worshipped Vishnu, while Shiva is a Dravidian god. A brahmin friend of mine said he wanted to learn German because that is where Aryans were from!
Now, if you took any standard reference book (such as Romila Thapar's Early History of India), you would understand that Aryan is a language grouping. For example, Hebrew is an Aryan language. NOBODY would call Jews an Aryan people. In fact six million Jews were killed during WWII because they were considered NOT Aryan.
Both the term Dravidian and Aryan are used as language groupings. Yet nobody can deny that they have been used as racial terms - without any basis.
I have read several books on Tamil History. Anna, a former CM of Tamil Nadu wrote an entire book on the "Aryan Maya". Almost none of these people were historians! That is, these people were doing the same thing that Hindu fanatics were doing - using History as a political tool, and basically revising history to suit their needs.

Race as a Social Construct
Modern historians consider Race as a social construct. Romila Thapar calls Race as an European concept.
Let us think about that for some time.
When people talk about race, they usually mean biological distinctions - when we call white people or black people as a "race" we mean they are identifiable by looks. Or atleast we imply a genetic distinction.
When Karunanidhi talks about the Tamil "race" he is not talking about Tamil speaking people. When the DK leader Veeramani or Periyaar talk about the Dravidian "race" what they mean is a biologically distinct set of people. If they just meant Dravidian language speaking people, there is no reason to exclude Brahmins from it.
Yet, NO such biological distinction exists in nature.
The whole idea of a biological race - whites or blacks or mongoloid or semitic or Aryan is a concept created by European society in the 17th and 18th centuries to deal with differences. It has no independent "scientific" meaning.
The only meaning race has is as a social idea. Because we all believe in race, it has an effect on society. It has no independent biological role.
Mind you, I am not saying that the caste system is good (people tend to make such jumps in reasoning) or that the Brahmin caste is an innocent bystander. By all means, let us condemn the caste system; let us undo this brahmanical order. But let us look for sociological reasons for such differences (if at all we are concerned about the origins). Caste has an independent social meaning - it is not necessarily identical as race. If you picked up a standard sociology text book, you will see that caste system is given a separate section. That is because it is a unique oppressive system.
The idea that "race" exists is very deep in our psychology. The first time I read about race being just a social construct, I had difficulty assimilating what that means. I had been trained to see the world as composed of different races, some of which "achieved" while others were also-rans. It took me some time to get my brain around the fact that this whole view is a myth.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Tenth Standard Exams

I will write more about our examination system later. I am trying to inteview one of my nephews.
Meanwhile, someone wrote in my comments (among lots of abuses), that the Indian education system is ideal because it separates good students from bad students.
That is, of course, not the goal of an education system. The goal should be to educate, not eliminate people from the job pool.
But then I remembered a few details about the 10th standard exam when I took it, back in 1987. I don't think much has changed till now.

You start preparing for the 10th standard exam when you are in the 9th holidays. From then on, if you go out to play, neighboring aunts frown at you and complain to your mother. So you stay at home the entire year.
Here was the list of things we had to endure going into the exams:
1. Geography - you had to remember the imports and exports of a dozen countries. Most of them had the same imports and exports except for one particular item. For example Cambodia would export rubber, rice, teakwood and coffee while Laos would export rubber, rice, teakwood and tea. So you had to remember that little change. Somehow the question paper writers loved to ask about the imports and exports.
So you ended up preparing acronyms and match them like this:
Laos - rrtt
Cambodia - rrtc
and so on. The day of the exam you tried to mug all these down.
Doesn't this sound pathetic? I have more below.

2. Apparently the guys who were correcting the answer papers were paid by how many papers they corrected every day. So, their incentive was to zip through your paper. So, you wanted to convince them by using - wait for it - color pencils. You had a bunch of color pencils and you had to underline key items in your answer. Supposedly the paper evaluator would then just look at the key words and award you marks.
Let us say the question was:
Write about the weather conditions in North America

You could write a learned tract about how the weather is shaped by the Rocky Mountains and the North Atlantic warm current. You could explain that weather moves from West to East in the plains and all that. Or, you could do this:
Weather of the Rocky of the Mountains of the Atlantic Ocean of the North of the America..of the.

And then underline the key words with red pencil and you will get full marks.
I am not sure if this was a myth or not, but we ALL had color pencils. All of them were sharpened and kept in boxes where the tip would not break off. Our own teachers said this was true and they should know.

3. If you skipped a question, you wanted to REALLY bring that to the attention of the evaluator. So, if you answered question numbers 1, 2, and then skipped 3 and went to 4, then unless you did something drastic, the evaluator would assume your answer to question 4 was really an answer to 3 and so on. So you would FAIL!!!
So when you skipped a question, you wrote the question number down and then struck through the paper twice. And then you pray.

4. The worst thing was the Science exam in 1987. It had 40 "one word" answers as the first section of the question paper. Since we were all focussing on saving time, our teachers suggested a classic method.
You see, as soon as you get the blank answer sheets, you have to draw margins. You should do this BEFORE they give you the question papers, because then the bell will ring and your countdown starts. You don't want to be drawing margins when the clock is ticking.
So you draw the margins. During the exam, you should write the question numbers down and then draw lines after every answer.
Well, our teachers taught us ANOTHER way to save time. You see, you know that there are going to be 40 "quick" questions in the Science exam. So, why not write the question numbers down and then draw the lines BEFORE they give the question papers?
So we were all trained to do that. Most of us got the answer papers and drew lines next to each other with the question numbers.
Unfortunately, that year the science paper setters wanted to create a "tough" question paper. Their idea of doing this was to ask questions that required long answers in the first 40.
So, we got completely messed up when we were given the question papers. Some of us bravely tried to "fit" the long answers within the existing lines. Some others started erasing the lines. But these left black marks on the white answer sheet and your answer sheet did not look "neat".

5. Again the science paper was supposed to be tough - so the idiot paper setters asked questions from remote corners in the text book. For example, there is a small "Do it yourself" section at the end of each lesson. They asked questions from that section, because no one notices it.

This is what passes for examinations in our education system. It is simply a way to play mind games with the students and torture them to paranoia. I do not remember a SINGLE thing I was taught in 10th - other than the sheer terror of the exams.
Remember we all have "exam nightmares"? The ones in which you dream about ending up in an exam without preparing? These are only next in horror to the "naked sprint" dreams in which you are walking outside nude.
(The worst dreams are ones in which you go to an exam unprepared AND nude).
I wonder if only Indians get these dreams...after our exam freak shows.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

The left-behind majority

I hear often that racism or casteism cuts both ways. That is, it affects the perpetrators as much as the victims. I have often wondered about that - how does majoritarianism affect the majority and how does casteism affect the forward castes?
Some clarity came when I was reading this excellent series of blogs by Joe Bageant, the American author of the book "Deer Hunting with Jesus". Going through the letters in his site makes it clear how assumptions of white superiority affects whites themselves.

You see, the majority of American poor are white people. The majority of social security recipients in America are white people. Yet, whenever people in the United States talk of a "welfare queen" what they typically mean is a reckless black single mother. At least that is the image they conjure up.
This has come to mean that debate about health care reform or "entitlement" programs have sought to revolve around subtle racial messages. When Republican voters in America protest "socialism", what they are protesting is really their money benefitting black people.
Yet, blacks are not the major recipients of welfare.
Thus liberals and conservatives in the United States are locked really in a fight about benefits to black people and Hispanics - with liberals accusing of racism and conservatives of socialism.
Meanwhile the white poor in America receive no attention.
You see my point here? It is as if the myths of racial superiority of the white people actually end up making poor white people INVISIBLE to the media and activists. While debating back and forth over racism, people have forgotten that not every white person is an investment banker with an Ivy League degree. For example, the trade policies of the past 20 years in America have devastated manufacturing jobs held by whites as well.

Back to my first statement above, THIS is how racism, casteism and cultural hegemony affect the perpetrators' cultures themselves. Racism ends up hiding the poverty of white people. Untouchability practiced in India hides the plight of middle and forward caste members with little or no land. It makes such members subservient to their own rich caste members.

That is, racism and casteism rarely benefit anyone other than the creepy people who directly make money out of such antagonisms.

In my own (although limited) experience, Casteism also forces forward caste members to confirm to social rules and career paths and peer pressures that they can neither ignore nor meet adequately. I have seen this in school and college - forward caste students were expected to perform extremely well by their families; expectations that these students could not meet most of the time.
Holding up caste based or race based differences does not help anyone.

In another view of this, take the majoritarian views of the Hindu nationalists or Hindi nationalists. Both these views end up covering substantial cultural differences in North India. Telugu actor Chiranjeevi once said that entire sub-cultures in North India (such as Bhojpuri) were being disappeared by the domination of Hindi. What Hindu nationalists are attempting is not a secret - their goal is to create a lockstep mono-culture throughout India. In such efforts, they end up causing the numerous sub-cultures that make up Hinduism to disappear - thus making Hinduism itself a colorless religion.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Myth of the Talented Few

Recently published an article discussing economic inequality in developing countries. Predictably, anything related to reducing inequality brings out the crackpot theories in people. I reproduce below a coherent comment. I think to a certain extent this sentiment is believed in by some educated people in India. Therefore, this post is simply a rebuttal of such opinions.

Comment below
This is what the comment says:
There is a huge demand and effort to achieve "equality" among our planners, politicians and economists. They would like nothing more than to greatly reduce the wealth disparities that exist in society.

Though it would be a noble goal or objective, these people are living in a fools paradise.

God has not designed all people to achieve equally in all fields. Creating wealth is also one of them.

The only way a society can create wealth is to allow the talented few among the population to pursue their goals in a legal manner. This created wealth then dissipates into the economy following sound economic principles.

This way, the entire population gets benefited, not just those select people.

The moment you start interfering with this formula and cast a jealous eye on the wealth creators who end up with huge fortunes(at least in the beginning), under the mistaken objective of creating equality and egalitarianism, you choke the development of that society. The economy goes into decline. You can then spread poverty equally !

So, wake up. If we have still not understood this very basic economic principle, then we have no hope for the future.

Let the Ambanis, Mittals and Murthys earn their wealth. It is bound to come back into the economy in time. Till then wait patiently and dont complain.

Economics and Personality Cults
There are several things wrong with the opinion above, but the main one is this: "talented few creating wealth" is not an economic principle. Economics does not talk about talent or the absence of it. The above is simply a variation of Ayn Rand's "objectivist" philosophy as explained in her "FountainHead" and "Atlas Shrugged" Ayn Rand was a cult leader and a classic analysis of her cult is here.
I will come back to Ayn Rand later, but what the above opinion does is, it takes a personality cult of the "talented few" and tries to push it off as an economic theory.
It is informative that in the above list the commenter includes the Ambanis. He would probably include the Tatas. But the current members of the Ambani clan or the Tatas have INHERITED their wealth. What is their talent other than being BORN to rich fathers?
Talent or the lack of it only plays a very slight role in being rich in India (or as the author puts it, "creating wealth"). India is anything but a meritocracy where the "talented few" and the untalented compete in a fair playing field and the winner wins a fair fight. The myth of India as a meritocracy is dangerous - because it ignores the most fundamental reasons why we have so many people in poverty. But I will come back to this.
The closest in economic theory in the above comment is the idea of "trickle-down" economics. But as any economist will tell you, they don't teach that in economics courses because, again, it has no theoretical foundation.
Also, the commenter above is not clear on how long we should all wait sitting on our butts while "the talented few" go out there and "create wealth". I would like a timeframe.

Economics and "Equality"
When economists talk about "equality" they are not, as the commenter above thinks, talking about suppressing "talent". Neither are they talking about "egalitarianism". They are simply talking about creating a system where every economic actor has a choice and role in making rational decisions about their investments and labor. Such an economic system is ideal, because it enables efficiency, growth and trade. It so HAPPENS that such an economic system only exists in politically free societies with a strong, fair legal administration; and where income disparities are minimized.
This is why economists focus on reducing disparity - it is the only way an ideal economic system can be created.
Let us take the top 10 countries in the Human Development Index list in the UN. I have written about this previously here. Sweden, Norway, Australia, Canada, New Zealand all figure in the top 10. All of these countries have minimum income disparity.
Thus, empirically, the world's most livable countries have minimum economic inequality. How did they get this way? Not by accident. From the early 20th century policies were explicitly designed to reduce economic inequality.
If they had sat around spewed forth about the "talented few" as an economic theory they would not be in this position today.
If a country has wide economic differences, as India does, you cannot explain it away saying the talented few are kicking butt. That is not science. That is simply a personal opinion. When an economist looks at a country like India, they talk about equality because only equality inducing policies can result in our development to a livable nation.
That is, the above commenter is putting the horse before the cart. There is no simple "economic principle" that claims that you have to allow inequality for development to occur. It is the other way round - the lesser the inequality, the more a country develops.
This is why economists focus on property rights and land reform. Most land in India is held by very few people. Did they acquire this land because they were talented? No, most of them inherited this from a colonial and feudal past where they could take over whatever they wanted by force. Land reform and redistribution in India is a focus not out of emotion or charitable reasons. That is the only way a middle class with proper legal rights over their property can be created. That is the only way an economy can become efficient.
If Tata or Ambanis can just take over private property whenever they want to with the collusion of the government, then you have a deeply flawed economic system. Such a system cannot grow.
What we call redistributive policies, such as Social Security or Universal Health Care are the MEANS to India's development. They are not discussed because of jealousy.

Is India a Meritocracy?
Fundamental to the commenter's above arguments is the idea that India is a country in which the meritorious succeed and those who succeed are meritorious. This is patently not true - our colleges or schools are not designed to tease out merit. They are mostly designed to make us pass exams. Secondly even primary education is not universally available, 60 years after independence. Most importantly lower middle classes and the poor are unable to trade freely in their labor, capital or land. They get no credit line. The rural poor are worse off - with no access to even electricity or running water.
May be all this is because the poor are untalented. May be they should have been born to the Tatas.
May we should also forget that there is this little thing caled the caste system.
Here we have running dynasties in politics and industry, yet people have no shame talking about merit.
As long as India is not a meritocracy, the very little that is done to improve economic inequality is completely justified.

The Personality Cult of Objectivism
For those of who are unfamiliar with Ayn Rand and her books:
Ayn Rand was a Russian immigrant to the United States who founded the philosophy of objectivism. She expounded on this in the very popular books, "The FountainHead" and "Atlas Shrugged". Usually people read these in college and it makes a heavy impression. Then you grow mature and realize that this whole "philosophy" is a personality cult. Ayn Rand herself was a cult leader (she also believed that a woman should always be subservient to her ideal man).
In "The FountainHead" Rand writes about the idea that society has a talented few who "innovate". Everyone else is a parasite who lives off of the talented. The whole book has erotic fantasies of submission and is just a complete rant.
By no means should these books be taken seriously by an adult. More dangerous is trying to fit these ideas into economics.

To a large extent the reason some people like Ayn Rand and talk about the talented few is because they think they are one of the talented few. This is basically a syndrome where you become oblivious to class differences and support the super rich for no reason than that you think you would become super-rich one day. This idea is pushed through by the media powerfully. In the process you tend to forget that you are also harmed by inequality.

What I am afraid of is that the above is not an isolated opinion. I have come across it repeatedly in discussions. One of the fundamental indications is that entrepreneurs (company founders) are glorified beyond reason in our media. The owner of a company such as Narayana Murthy or Ramalinga Raju are given incredible glory, and all success of their company is singularly attributed to them. Everyone who works in that company is discounted before the original "entrepreneurial" vision of Raju or Murthy - even though, Infosys or Satyam were neither pioneers in their field nor do they follow a unique business model. This glorification of company founders and businessmen is also a personality cult more than anything linked with actual economics.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Notes for freshers trying to get a job in IT

There is a recession and the market is bad for freshers trying to enter the software industry. Graduates who were offered jobs in campus interviews have been asked to wait by companies. Companies have dropped out of campus interviews for this year. I know that last year many freshers who were being trained were laid off (almost the entire batch in my last company).
Things are looking bad for people looking into stepping into the software industry for the first time. On the other hand, if you have a couple of years of software experience, things do not look so bad - companies still are recruting people with minimal experience.
In this post, I will try to give some advice on how to tide across these times. I will follow it up with a primer for freshers about the workings of an IT corporation and career paths.

My Credentials
I was a VP in a medium sized company for some time. Among other responsibilities I was one of the primary trainers for incoming freshers. I set up syllabus for such training, and also evaluated freshers regularly. I have been an interviewer on campus a few times. I have also evaluated computer training companies for outsourcing our training.

Why do Freshers fare worse in a recession?
Let us say I am running an IT company. I have projects coming in "pipelines". I have a set of current projects and they may be expanding or closing down. These projects may be in different technologies (such as Java, .NET) and therefore moving people around in these may be a problem.
An IT company constantly faces manpower issues. People tell us that the main reason is "employee turnover". That is, employees keep leaving companies in search of better jobs. But that is a small part of the problem.
Unlike manufacturing companies, software work cannot be transferred easily from one person to another. In manufacturing companies, producing a piece of a product (such as a telephone) takes the same amount of work for each telephone. Reproducing each product the same way is the main focus in manufacturing. Thus there is lots of manual, repetitive work.
But in a software company, reproducing a software or packaging it in a CD is trivial. It does not take any effort. The main problem in software is CREATING it according to specs.
Thus the avreage worker in IT needs to be much more qualified and intelligent than the average worker in other industries.
So, when a new project comes in, finding the RIGHT person for a role in that project is a big pain in software. Even if you have ten people sitting in bench, it may be difficult finding the right person.
I as an IT company owner, find staffing and recruitment difficult. I decide that I may run my business more profitably if I found smart people from college. The college already has a built in evaluation system, so I depend on that system to find smart people.
In India, seeking computer science engineers alone does not help me. A person passing as a computer science engineer, with high marks, still may have NO idea about what a company needs right away. I will come to this later, but that is the nature of the university degrees here. Particularly in computers. It is not so bad in electronics or in automobile industry. I joined an electronics company when I passed out of college. I got no training, but I was productive in two days, fixing circuit boards. That does not happen with software so much.
So companies end up seeking college grads, and then training them for two to three months. For an actual productive work, it takes upto 6 months of hand holding for a fresher - even if they are from a computer science background.
But companies still do it, because they can justify the costs. Freshers are likely to stay longer in a company. They are also paid less. And they are less dmeanding from the company. There are several advantages to investing in freshers.
But they all disappear in a recession - because the lack of projects and mass layoffs flood the market. All of the above advantages now also apply to experienced engineers in a recession. So, companies end up not recruting freshers.

Training Courses and Certifications
There are different modes in which companies recruit outside campus. They have walkins. They have a referral system - so if you know someone's friend, it helps (nothing wrong with that).
Meanwhile, you are sitting at home, trying to decide your next course of action. Your parents are worried and they want you to do something to get a job.
In this situation, I see many freshers take a standrad approach - they join computer courses to learn more. They write certifications or other exams.
My opinion is that these are useless. I can tell you right away that computer courses have ZERO value for a recruiter. In my opinion they are a waste of money.
So are certifications, unless you actually use that as an opportunity to learn. The certification that a fresher shows is simply a way for recruiters to ask questions in that direction. The certificate itself has no value.
I have evaluated software training companies to determine if we can outsource training from my last company. I interviewed people from some premium training companies. The trainers had NO idea about technology. They themselves had no grasp of concepts - they needed training themselves.
There are three types of training companies:
1. Top-tier like NIIT - In my opinion, these are bad too. But they may have some value because they have placement services. But they are costly.
2. Second tier - these guys want to be NIIT but they are really really bad. They are affected by the lack of good trainers.
3. Third grade scamsters - these guys will promise a job and have other scams up their sleeves. They are evil - stay away from them.
My advice is, do not spend money on computer training courses. Recruiters do not respect them. In fact there are people who even disrespect if you went to NIIT. If you have an engineering degree or an MCA, they are of much more value than computer training certs.

In times of recession, as I explained above, companies are not going to train you. They want someone they can put on a project and can be productive in atleast a week.
If you can prove that you can do that, you can get a job.
Let us assume there are walk-ins or you get a referral through a someone you know. The aptitude test part of it is over and you are about to face an interview. Let me tell you what I would like from a fresher.
I would like him/her NOT to be a fresher. (From now on we will assume the fresher is a female).

Seriously, I would look for proof of the following (much of this assumes a web development project):
1. She should know HTML, CSS and Javascript - no excuses. When I say HTML, I don't mean creating a list with a marquee flowing on top. Do NOT list plain HTML in your resume, without including CSS and Javascript. And learn CSS and Javascript.
Your BEST hope as a fresher is to know HTML, Javascript, CSS, and then ASP.NET or JSP or PHP. That is the correct combination for an entry level position without training.
2. That she knows a language such as Java, C#, Visual Basic .NET or PHP. It is not acceptable to say you know C or C++. You are unlikely to get a job with C or C++. Don't even list C in your resume if you know one of the other languages.
3. That she has worked in a project that makes "business sense". Address Book is NOT a project we like to hear. Instead if you said you worked in creating a website for you college library, it is slightly better. If you had created a web application for managing your syllabus and project work at college, still better. If you had actually built a website for someone's electronic store, you are ideal.
That means you understand the complexity of a actual web application. Hopefully all that you are saying can be justified when the recruiter further questions you.

Employable Skills
As a fresher, your job is to learn employable skills. I mentioned above the knowledge that can get you a job. Let me break it down a little bit more below. Again, I am talking about a company mostly performing web or desktop development - not writing embedded software.
1. You should be familiar with an editor such as Eclipse, Netbeans or Visual Studio.NET. Eclipse is the best bet. It is also free.
2. Given a photoshop layout of a webpage, you should be able to lay it out in HTML. This is a key skill. It requires lots of work to learn.
3. You should be able to write a simple "Register" form and save it to the database in any platform such as .NET, Java or PHP. You don't need to know all of them - just one platform is fine.
4. You should know standard algorithms such as reversing a string or sorting a list in either Java, C#, VB.NET. I do not like to ask these myself, but people still ask these questions.
5. You should know how the web works - cookies, query strings, going from one page to another (redirects), session state and other ideas.
6. You should know how to design a couple of database tables with foreign key relations (normalization).
7. You should know basic SQL. Inserts, selects, updates, deletes and joins.
8. Try to know what source control or version controling system is. Knowing the concept or having someone demo it to you is enough.
9. You should be able to create "reusable" controls in ASP.NET or JSP or PHP.
10. You should know how to "validate" a form on the client side - making sure phone numbers are correct etc.

How do I gain these skills?
Here is my advice on how you can go about building these skills:
If you are in college or just out of college, prepare to do some learning of your own. Forget about computer courses and certifications. I will give you a small path for learning PHP. You need a computer at home or a friend's home.
1. Buy a book. You have to learn some things from books, no other way. Spend money and buy the Wrox press book "Apache, PHP and MYSQL".
2. Follow the instructions in the book to download Apache, PHP and MySQL and install them separately.
3. Follow the few examples in the book and build simple web pages.
4. Take a website you like. Choose a simple page in that site. It can be a complaint page or a contact us page. Even use my website When you view it, the images will be downloaded to your computer. Take them and use HTML and CSS to build the exact same page as it looks on your browser. Try this in IE and Firefox.
5. I think there is a Wrox press book called HTML, Javascript and CSS. Buy it and use it to learn CSS and Javascript.

After these steps, try to do a couple of simple projects - one is the famous Address Book. Others should be more complicated, such as a bookstore.
My point is this - if you have computer access, then get a couple of books and SELF-LEARN. There are numerous resources in the internet to help you learn programming. If you face a problem such as "How do I restart Apache?" just search in Google and you will find hundreds of pages.
Remember when you learnt how the television works in school? After that whenever you looked at a television you can understand how it works. Understanding websites is like that. Once you build a couple yourself, you can understand how any webaite works. Take a look at Google. Try to figure out how it works. How does Yahoo mail or gmail work? It is easy to figure this out from the bookstore example, believe me.
If you walked into an interview with the above skills under your belt and listed in your resume, it is likely you will get a job.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Myths on Careers

My nephew is doing post-grad in Aerospace. We were recently chatting, when he said that from the age of five, Astronomy had been his dream and he wanted to be an astronaut all his life.
I was somewhat skeptical - you see, I knew him from the time he was a baby. He does not even own a telescope at home (they can afford it). I have never heard him talking about astronomy; nor seen him read books related to that subject.
I think my nephew was falling into a trap laid by popular culture - which is the idea that people have "dreams" about their careers from very early in life and that they should "follow their dreams".
I know the message sounds all optimistic - but it makes no practical sense. Yet, in advertisements, Disney movies and media we find this meme - that we all have some kind of destiny and that we should strive to fulfill it.

Can We Decide When Young?2.
Increasingly, we are also told that we have to decide our careers very early in life. This is a repeated theme in Hollywood movies. Our advertisements nakedly exploit this - with children spouting lines about becoming a pilot or a computer programmer.
The idea that we have talents, I agree with. But those talents are more at the abstract level - it is impossible to decide very early on in life if you are going to be a computer programmer. Just as you cannot decide if you are going to be a lawyer or an auditor or an archaeologist.
At some level we all understand this when it comes to a career like law or accounting. But when it comes to "engineering" and other such romantic careers, we are told that we should "dream" and "follow our dreams".
There is an effort to make us believe that our dreams as children matter. I think that effort is simply putting more pressure on parents and children - on parents to "discover" their kid's talents very early on; and for children to decide their talents early and then stick to it, even though they may be completely wrong about it.
In one way, this is the age old game of trying to maintain a competitive advantage in our society - it has nothing to do with dreams or following those dreams.

The Truth about Career Dreams
The truth is this: most people decide their career based on financial reasons. This is true both in India and abroad. I know plenty of American programmers who are from finance, medicine, chemistry and other backgrounds. There is NOTHING wrong with deciding your career based on financial considerations.
Let us say, in spite of this, that we should follow our dreams. The question is, practically, for the majority of the population, at what point would you even know what your "dream" career is.
This is why I believe popular culture is sending the wrong message. I think it takes a long time, even into adulthood before you can understand what you are REALLY good at. And that is fine. Most people will end up working on something we are average at. That is fine too.
One of my cousins said she decided to be in the media very early on in life. Maybe. Did she even know what role she would play in the media? Doubtful. I mean, media includes roles from project management, production design, writing to several on-stage and off-stage roles. I think, instead, she decided to specialize in media when she entered adulthood, but then re-invented her passion for it and projected it to her childhood.

My Career
When I was in fifth standard I wanted to be an archaeologist. Then I wanted to be an astronomer, bus driver, wandering sanyasi, temple poojari, writer, reader (if someone would pay for it) and countless other professions.
It is obvious that I had no idea what a "profession" meant. I did have a talent for writing. But it was not very well-honed then.
Now, it would be absurd for me to say that I wanted to be in computers from when I was young. Why? Because I did not know what a computer was till my second year in college.
A bunch of my classmates were studying in NIIT at that time. Me and some friends were into Physics. We thought the guys studying computers were betraying Physics. We wouldn't talk to them.
This hatred for computers continued into engineering college. When it was time to choose what jobs we were interested in, I chose Elecronics and then Communications. I did not select computer software as a campus interview choice.
Then in my final year in engineering college, I realized something fundamental - I was an Electronics engineer, but I could not even solder two wires together. In fact, I sucked at building anything using electronics. Some of my classmates were building their own transistor radios and even micro computers. But I was a "theoretical electronics" guy.
This inability to handle anything mechanical must be an inherited bug in my genes. But as luck would have it, this bug pushed me into software.
When we had to choose our final year project, I had two choices. One was building some kind of electronic triggering system for cars or something. The other was a "simulation" project in which I had to program a communication system in a computer.
Since I knew that if I created any electronice triggering system, it would likely blow up when the car started, I decided to go for the simulation project.
Well, 15 years later, I am still programming.
Do I like it? Of course. I am free to make and break things while building them - without any cost consequences (atleast not compared to the real world). I like what I am doing.
But it took me many years to like it.
My point is that my story is far more typical. Getting a job you like is rare. The idea that you can "dream" about a specific career when you are young is just a myth. It takes well into adulthood to figure out what we like and why we like it.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Speaking "Indian" at work and public

When the Australian race attacks happened, as I noted here, commenters said that Austalians did not like Indians talking in their native languages in public.
In India itself, there is an uniquely Indian aspect to this controversy that refuses to die. This post is about that controversy and what it means for our society.

The Stereotype
When I left for the United States back in 1999, one of my HR briefers in India told me not to talk in Tamil at work. At that time I did not question that. I just accepted it.
In the States, some of my colleagues were from North India, and we fell into the habit of talking in Hindi when together(I learnt Hindi from them).
But I was surprised that in the online forums and chatrooms there was always an accusation that if a group of people speaking Indian language X got together they were very rude and continued to speak in language X at work (where X could be Tamil, Telugu, Hindi or Malayalam). That is, almost every Indian group was accusing other groups of talking in their own language at work.
When I came back to India I myself had an argument with a drunk guy who made the general accusation at Tamil speakers and I wrote about that here.
It was obvious to me, then, that like several other derogatory stereotypes about the diferent ethnic groups (such as North Indians smell or South Indians speak bad English), this was simply another stereotype. No particular ethnic group "uniquely" misbehaved at work and nor was any other ethnic group "well-behaved". Just as Telugu people are unfairly accused of faking resumes (everyone does it; it is a competitive country) similarly the stereotype is that when a bunch of Tamils or Bengalis get together at work, they talk in their native languages.
But stereotypes have consequences.

The English-Only company
Recently a company I know passed a HR "policy" that all conversations other than water-cooler types or at lunch time, should be in English. I have no idea how they would implement this in practice, without imposing a kinder-garten like atmosphere. But this post is not about that.
The question I have is this. Who decided that talking in your native language among other people who speak that same language is somehow "rude"?
India has 200 different languages and within every three or four hundred kilometers you encounter a new language. When we were growing up, there were people speaking different languages all around us. And this is definitely true in this day.
When you went to public places or in school, you always came across people who speak in different languages among themselves. It never "offended" anybody.
On the other hand countries like America and Australia have a "melting-pot" metaphor. In these countries racism takes different forms - ONE of those forms is the anger against people speaking in different languages among themselves.
That is, the INTOLERANCE that Americans, the British or Australians show to linguistic diversity is not a GOOD feature of their society. It is actually profoundly insensitive and xenophobic.
My point is that we have taken this remarkably stupid insensitivity and then tried to develop the same insensitivity in INDIA - which is against any common sense. This is a country which should be celebrating linguistic diversity. Instead, the modern Indian at work and in public is encouraged to frown on people speaking a different language among themselves. Why? Because they do so in the West.
So, now we have people turning up their collective noses when a few developers talk in Tamil or Telugu or Hindi.
What is the result? As I explained in this post, it is not as if we are all trained by super English teachers. Most of us talk bad English anyway. So we end up talking butler English at work just to prove someone's point and power.

If you are in a meeting and a bunch of people are talking in a language you don't know, then why not simply let them know you don't know the language? Why is that such a bad option?

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Is the USA headed for civil war?

I wanted to get this out first.
Last year there was some commotion around the prediction of a Russian politician that the USA was headed for civil war. At that time the Sarah Palin nomination (as VP candidate for the Republican Party) had just split the country into unbelieving independents and democrats on the one side; and a fired up "conservative" base of Evangelicals and neo-conservatives. Still almost every commentator dismissed the civil war prediction as too far-fetched.
Fast-forward to this year - post the Obama inauguration, the Republican party and its base have been getting crazier and crazier. Unhinged is too mild a word for these lunatics. For any neutral observer, this is the current situation:
1. An array of right-wing pundits such as Rush Limbaugh(radio), Glenn Beck (Fox) and Bill O'Reilly (Fox) have been equating Obama's administration with the Nazis and have been talking about "driving a stake through the heart" of the admin. They have been calling any policy move by Obama and the progressive Democrats as "tyranny" and "socialism".
Any intelligent debate has been cancelled out by applying terms such as socialism and Marxism to policies such as healthcare. Right now, there is neither an attempt to debate nor any interest by the entire right-wing intelligentsia.
2. A set of "astro-turf" groups calling themselves Tea-baggers have become a channel for expressing incredible racism and anger against the democrats and Obama in particular. These groups have shown zero understanding of policy issues, but scream "tyranny" and "socialism" against a legitimately elected government.
3. Another group of people called the "Birthers" have been expressing the conspiracy theory that Obama is a Manchurian candidate and that he is not an American citizen. Apparently more than 60% of Republicans believe that the current President of the USA is not a citizen of the uSA and therefore consider his election illegitimate.
4. What is more shocking is that the Republican Party leadership falls in line with their party's most lunatic fringe. They show no interest in contradicting or controlling these conspiracy theories.
5. At present the Republican Party has the lowest approval rating in history. It has beocme a party of the American South, and has become a refuge for racists, white supremacists and Christian fundamentalists.
6. One of the starkest battles going on right now is the healthcare debate. The "public option" proposed by the progressives is neither out-of-the-world, nor is it socialism. The Democratic congressmen have been organizing town hall meetings to discuss the healthcare reform bill. Right-wing thugs such as Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh and a few Republican operatives have sought to disrupt these townhalls with screaming mobs who are not even there to discuss policy.

Right now, it seems the Republican party has been taken over by its ultra-right fringe. There have been several instances of lone gunmen shooting and killing innocent people since the election.
Both the deeply racist and fundamentalist crowds seem to have come together mainly because the Republican leadership is lost. At this point, particularly after the town hall meetings fiasco, it is obvious that the right-wing is taking more and more steps to push their agenda by fascist, violent means.
Thus, they consider the current president illegitimate for reasons of race; and because of a conspiracy theory that he was not born in the USA. They think Obama is a secret Marxist. They think the government is engaging in tyranny and have been advocating revolution.
At this point a civil war breaking out does not seem remote. I think we will see more acts of violence and more incitement to violence by right-wing leaders and their followers.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

A Profile of Eve Teasers

When I was living in Nungambakkam, around 1992, an incident happened in the road behind our house. A college girl was driving a scooter. Two guys saw her driving and decided to harass her. They drove near her and kept aggressively pushing her off the road. At one point, the girl lost balance and fell down. A passing bus hit and crushed her.
The guys were nowhere to be found and I am guessing nobody got caught.
This incident was one of the earliest incidents of "eve-teasing" (a very benign term describing a horrible murderous affliction in Indian cities) that burst into news. It was following this incident and the death of another girl near Ethiraj college that police started deploying women's brigades in plain clothes. Every year brought its own outrages - including the incident at Satyam theater a few years back - the daughter of an army officer was hit repeatedly in full public view; an intervening police man beaten up. In that incident the girl's family decided to drop all charges because the guy involved was a politician's son.
The problem of eve-teasing, is, of course, not specific to Chennai. Jammu and Delhi are said to be the worst in India.
Now, our society has dealt with this problem in different ways - the usual suspects have shown up and blamed the women themselves. Police, in their typical clueless way started harassing lovers sitting in parks and beaches. All these are known.
What is also known is that "star" dumb asses such as actors Vijay and Surya started justifying and promoting violence against women in their movies. They have hidden behind the usual excuse of "oh, the story writer wrote it - I just acted in the movie" while taking all praise and money for "their" movie successes. Whether movies influence society or it is the other way around is a separate topic. But there is no doubt that these guys tried to make money by appealing to chauvinism in "their" fans. I also have no doubt that the classic Indian rich guy defense of "I-can-do-anything-for-money" will be taken by these star clowns. I sometimes wish for militant feminism so that women chase these guys down the road with chappals and broomsticks.
Before I go on to the main purpose of this post, please take your time and read through the Blank Noise website. It has some of the most moving accounts of the victims of eveteasing. They are also trying to get something done about it. All help to them.

The Profiles of Eve-Teasers
You see, when I was in high school at Madurai, I had a few friends with whom I used to hang out. Generally we used to commute to school together. Some of these guys were interested in "eve-teasing". Because we were in the same class, I knew a lot about them.
I again came in contact with such guys in Chennai when I was in college.
In our media, just as "terrorist" (Theeviravaadhi) has become a term without any meaning, eve-teasing also has becme detached from the actual meaning. For example, an eve-teaser is treated as if he is a separate species (like a terrorist in a Vijaykanth movie). The true motives and psychology of such a person is not probed. This allows movie stars to harass women in their movies but at the same time punish "eve-teasers". The hypocrisy does not bother them. If a "good" guy, with "love" in his mind harasses "his" woman that is fine. It is just not proper for those eve-teaser bastards to do it.
In my contact with classmates and neighborhood little guys who engaged in eve-teasing, this is what I found:
1. First of all, the eve-teaser was extremely afraid of his parents. All these brave guys who whistle at women and yell at them - they usually had a father who would beat them in circles OUTSIDE their homes if the fathers found out what was going on.
2. The eve-teaser did not like to be alone. He was at his bravest when there were 10 big guys around him from his own college or school to protect him. If there were a lot of people, he would scream, whistle and "have fun". Instead if he was alone, all his bravery left him. He would sneak around with eyes averted. His courage comes from anonymity and the mob.
This is why you see guys who yell at women from a passing bus or motorbike.
3. What the eve-teaser values (from my observation and hindsight) is not really feminine contact. He values two things:
a. He wants desperately to be respected by his friends. His self-worth springs from his friends' approval. This is probably because his parents have not given enough self-worth to him. The female, in this case, is simply a tool - she is the best shortcut to win approval from his friends. Movies get this completely wrong - a guy who loves a woman does not go about whistling at her in public. In most cases, the eve-teaser's hope is to do something dangerous and win approval from his gang-brothers.
There were guys among my classmates who would dream up something new to impress friends every day. They would cackle loudly in public without having said anything remotely funny. In short, they were pathetic.
b. The second thing, in order, that some of them have, is a fear of women. It is hard to explain this - our society being very conservative, kids are brought up in boys-only or girls-only schools and colleges. For these guys (not all of them), women are a completely scary mystery. They get annoyed by women behaving normally in public places - somehow they see an unconnected woman laughing at a joke in a busstand as a threat to themselves.
I don't know what causes this great insecurity - but it is tragic for the guys and for the women who end up getting harassed.
I have seen some of my classmates show anger at something as simple as a woman walking confidently. It is an extreme resentment.
Again, this has nothing to do with the women themselves. Most of the time they are unaware that they are provoking this resentment just by being themselves.

Thus you see that BOTH the reasons why guys indulge in eve-teasing have little to do with sex, love or with the women's dress (as some magazines keep insinuating). It has to do with the inner demons in a teen-aged or even adult man in our society. It is very much a psychological issue.
Thus this problem can never be solved by compartmentalizing men and women further. In fact eve-teasing has somewhat gone down recently in Chennai mainly because men and women are working together more and more.
The only way to solve it is through education, particularly sex-education, and encouraging co-education schools. The more you are self-aware, the less you would engage in a mob-activity.

4. Now, from the above description, it may seem that the eve-teaser is a pathetic little guy. But we hear all the time (as in the Satyam complex incident) about powerful politicians' sons engaging in this "sport". How do we explain that?
From my observation, I would say 95% of guys who engage in eve-teasing have NO political or any other connection. What they are HOPING though, is that you would THINK they had such connections. As I said, a single call to one of their fathers would have them crapping in their pants.
But their approach seems to work. A couple of years back, my wife beat the hell out of a guy in a Chennai road. When we were narrating this to a woman colleague, she said, "what if he had come back with some goons?". This happens only in movies. Almost all the time the eve-teaser has no support from anyone. He is hoping that you would be scared of him, thinking he has political connections. But he has none.

5. What movies provide in the case of eve-teasing, is not (as some people think) a direct encouragement. By showing women in a belittled fashion and spouting comments about women's dresses, what "actors" like Vijay and Surya provide is a MORAL justification for guys who may feel squeamish about it. What they provide is a moral framework in which a random person can assault a woman and harass her. Eve-teasing will not stop if these movie actors stopped doing it - but at least society will not have to engage in these stupid arguments about women's dresses in a problem that has nothing to do with women.

Again, this problem is not going to go away with deterrence or punishment. It needs a systemic approach.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Notes to my new-born son

Welcome to the world. I thought I may as well let you know a few things about myself and this planet, in that order. It may help you understand me better, but it also makes for a good blog.
First of all, your father was not a genius growing up. This is important - because you may see my current IQ level and may conclude that your father has always been the smartest man on earth. This is not so - I had great difficulty crossing 50 marks in mathematics all through secondary school.
Nor was your father so ultra-cool growing up. It is hard to be ultra-cool when you are forced to wear "drawers" till 10th std. It leaves a scar all through your life.
How do I explain, then, the current super-coolness and super-smartness that I radiate on my person?
The answer is simple - coolness and smartness automatically are thrust on you when you cross 35. This is because no one expects you to be cool when you are 35.
So, the first lesson of life is this - do not worry about iPODs;or the latest mobile phone models. You will be cool when you are 35 and the coolness then grows with every year (along with your irritation factor).

You mayask what motivates your father's political views. I was a community organizer at 4th std. It is TRUE that I organized my fellow classmates, particularly the boys, against the tyranny of the class leader, Sri Vidhya. At one point, as a mark of protest, I wrote "Sri Vidhya Down Down" all over the blackboard. This shows that I was willing to seek peaceful means of disapproval.
Unfortunately, the teacher did not see it that way - she used violent means such as thrashing the hell out of me; and other forms of initimidation. I had to give up my protest at that point, but it was a strategic retreat.
There is no doubt that it was this early exposure to state power that has made me radical and still helps me protest injustice in peaceful ways. I consider myself a modern day Che Guevara, ever ready to protest the tyranny of class leaders and project managers. I fiercely fight entrenched interests by writing anonymous blogs.

Your father was interested in literature from the time he was in 5th std. One of his earliest poems (written in a fit of literary excitement) was this:
Today, one who is in sorrow
Comes to me tomorrow

I had the word "tomorrow" and then spent two hours searching for a rhyming word. Then I chose the title and the subject.
Poetry IS that simple. Start with a word and then find rhyming words. It is like a game.
I also was influenced heavily by the writer Sujatha. At one point I wrote a really complex detective story in which, just from some water near a dead body, the detective figures out that there is a giant conspiracy to overturn India's elected government. What really helped the detective was that I, the writer, knew exactly what happened.
Writing stories and poems is a family tradition - I want you to continue it. Do not worry about publishing them. Nobody would publish them anyway. We have something called the internet. We can always publish there.

The other art your father is very good at is singing. Our neighbors may not agree, but I sacrificed my whole childhood in singing practice. I am not going to rest until I get acknowledged as a good singer. If I can't, it is your turn - I am willing to sacrifice your childhood for the same purpose.
Unfortunately, the whole idea of "rhythm" is not helping me. I don't know why drums or mridangam have to start playing at the same time I am singing. I have tried to signal them to stop but it is of no use.
At least, I want you to be in the college orchestra or music troupe. I never succeeded in this. They always gave me really weird songs to sing. Such as the songs sung in movies by blind beggars or by drunk vagabonds. Maybe you can improve this situation.

What is your father's profession? What does he DO? How does he earn money?
Long before your father was born, someone discovered the software project manager. Then they invented the computer because the project manager wanted to manage something.
Technology stagnated at this point until someone found that Indians could write software programs for computers. Once they found that, a half a billion Indians jumped up and started learning the C language.
Your father was one of them.
Now, I know that you see your father pottering around the house ALL the time and never see him leave the house and go to "work" like other fathers. You may be wondering where the money comes from. You may be worried about your future purchases such as train toys and Deepavali firecrackers. Has your father been laid off?
No - your father does something that only people who work in computers can do - he works "from home". This means he is available ALL the time to change diapers. Isn't that fun?
No, you can't go to school "from home".

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Australian race attacks

This post is primarily concerning the media reaction to these hate-crime incidents in Australia.
The English media takes a theme and then runs after it like a pack of hounds without adding ANY insight into what is going on. Then some get tired of it, turn tail and start blaming ourselves.
This happened with the attacks in Australia.
I noticed two kinds of reactions - along the following lines:
1. Many people who had actually been in Australia started offering advice on how Indians should learn better English, have more white friends and not just have Indian friends and so on.
2. Then some started saying that Indians were racists too. Outlook ran an article titled "Aren't we racists too?". So, the "blame ourselves" phase had started.

Let us address each of these arguments:

Indians do not mingle well
Rediff solicited advice for escaping such attacks. Naturally, you would expect that you will get advice on avoiding some neighborhoods. One person suggested that you pull the door handles of all the cars parked in the road. Because the cars have theft alarms, they will raise a racket and you can run off safely. That is sound advice.
Instead many spent their time advicing that Indians should have white friends; that they only have Indian friends. That they have language issues. One frequent comment was that Indians spoke in Indian languages in public places.
In other words, Indians behaved normally like any other minority - and that is apparently a crime.
The reason such comments come up is because people fail to distinguish between actual crimes and what are, at worst, cultural transgressions. If Australians cannot tolerate people talking in different languages in public places, then the problem is with them - not with Indians. In these situations, some blame "ourselves" mainly because they think we somehow owe a lot to Australians for "letting" us into their precious country.
There is also a class issue here. Some of us do not like the "trash" that make it abroad. We want sophisticated English-speaking, "cool" upper class guys to "represent" India abroad. When we see ordinary people who struggle with English actually travelling with us in flights! Oh, the horror of it! How dare they!

Aren't we racists too?
So, then Outlook had this entire, confusing feature article on how Indians are racists too. I call it confused because most of the time they were talking about the Indian preference for fairness. How is that linked to race? I don't know.
What they WANTED to refer to was discrimination, not racism. It is nobody's argument that India is somehow a country with zero discrimination. In fact we have the ubiquitous caste system.
But these have nothing to do with the Australian race attacks. Why? Because we are talking about the distinction between hate CRIMES and hate speech or discrimination.

When we talk about an issue, we can discuss if it is correct or wrong using three levels:
1. Moral - if by commonly accepted logic, we can decide that an issue is right or wrong.
2. Ethical - if by ethical guidelines of a profession and individual behavior we can judge correct behavior.
3. Legal - if by the law of the land an issue is right or wrong.
Legal definitions are the narrowest and violations of legal standards are worst. This is because legal standards are the most objective and can be "judged" easily.

For example, take the case of adultery. It is held to be morally wrong in most societies. But it is not a crime by law. You cannot prosecute someone for adultery. This is because it is a matter of individual choice.
Recently two news organizations in North India "staged" a burning of Dhoni's effigy after the T20 World Cup loss. Then they filmed it and telecast it as if it were news. This is an ethical violation, but not a legal violation.
The issue of discrimination is similar. While some discrimination is punishable by law, Indians' preference for fairness is a MORAL issue. It is not a legal issue. There is no law that CAN govern a society's collective preferences. It can only be managed through education.
But the Australian attacks on Indians made it a LEGAL issue. By the Australian governing laws themselves, hate speech is different from hate crimes. Most hate speech in developed countries is protected by Freedom of Speech covenants. (Not so in India, but that is for later).
The reason why we are shocked by these attacks is not because Australians harbor racism in their minds or speech. It is because a few criminals actually violated common law and violently attacked other individuals. That is a CRIME - we cannot equate that with whatever we THINK about other people.
In Indian media, I see this confusion and blurring of moral vs legal issues happening all the time. When Ramalinga Raju was caught, some commentators thought this was an ethical issue. It was not. It was a legal issue. He violated the law, not some vaguely defined ethical guideline.
In fact we see this blurring lines all the time - with people confusing moral, subjective determinations with legal determinations. A few years back, an young Anglo-Indian woman was attacked and killed by a few guys in Chennai. She was killed while leaving a pub. This was enough for the magazine Kalki to opine that "while on the one hand the guys were wrong, on the other hand, she was wrong in going to a pub". You see what is wrong with this argument? The "one hand" action was a crime, while the "other hand" was at best a moral determination of Kalki editor. You cannot compare a moral violation with a legal violation.
So, in conclusion, you cannot say "we are racists too" as an answer to Australian crimes. We are not angry with Australians for being racists - we are angry because a few of them are actually committing crimes.

Section 295-A and the Indian Law on Hate Speech

I also believe that the Indian law on hate speech is highly restrictive. It should be more liberal and protect free speech. For example, I don't think Varun Gandhi should have been prosecuted for saying vile things on the campaign trail. Adding to this, was the fact that he was booked under the NSA. That made little sense - you cannot punish people under the National Security Act just for SAYING something.
Let us consider the text of Section 295-A of the Indian Penal Code:
Deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.-- Whoever, with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of 6[ citizens of India], 7[ by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise] insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to 8[ three years], or with fine, or with both.]

This is very broad. There are other sections which talk about punishing speech against ethnicities.
While Indian law should vigorously punish hate crimes, the above provision has led to harassment of liberal and secular commentators. For example, actress Kushboo was harassed for talking about pre-marital sex (a few years back) and dragged to the court by the above provision.

I believe that caste-based or color-based feelings can only be removed from a system by education on a long-term. Meanwhile, the only choice left to civil society is to prosecute EFFECTS of such discrimination, such as civil suits and criminal suits on attacks.
The least we can do is not to confuse the debate further by comparing actual crimes with vague thoughts we are supposed to feel guilty about.