July 31, 2007

MIT’s Intellectual philanthropy

Must thank The Hindu and Vijaysree Venkatraman for a lucid write-up on the OpenCourseWare (OCW), a website that provides free and unstinted access to material on some 1600 courses taught at MIT, Cambridge. Those who created OCW believe knowledge should be free and open to all; and that innovation and discovery are possible only if resources are shared. Highlights of the article:

NGOs have translated OCW content into many languages, widening its reach.

Some 150 like-minded universities, including those in China, Japan and Spain, have formed s consortium to publish their educational material online.

A Chennai user, 35-year-old businessman, is quoted as saying, “Some of the first courses I looked up were from the Sloan’s School of Management" (was then an MBA student at Madras University)”. He visits the site to learn about relativity, robotics or any topic he fancies.

The MIT initiative helps self-learners and the intellectually curious to acquire knowledge that would otherwise be possible only by joining a regular university course that every one, everywhere, cannot afford. . .Read The Hindu article . .

July 28, 2007

India of his dreams

It is not as if Indians aren’t dreamers; it’s just that parental, peer and social pressures wouldn’t let our brilliant minds deviate, in pursuit of their dream, from a straight-jacket education system.Writing in The Hindu Open Page E C Thomas poses the question: Have you come across any young person who is prepared to drop out of an IIT or IIM to throw himself into unknown waters to follow a dream?

These institutions produce excellent managers, to execute other people’s dreams, elsewhere in the world. Mr Thomas would like to know if India in recent times has invented any product that can be said to have revolutionized the world scene ? We are emerging as the biggest market for cell phone, a product that we haven’t created. Nor have we created digital camera, plasma TV, iPod or DVD. In engineering India makes products engineered by others. Our IT majors, says Thomas, are in effect sub-contractors to elite corporations. We haven’t created an innovative company such as Google, Apple or Microsoft. But Indians are prized for their execution of designs of foreign innovators. The Hindu article cites the instance of Google chief scientist Krishna Bharat who joined the company in 1999.

Mr Thomas would like to see, what he terms, a holly alliance of parents, universities, private enterprise and the state, with a hidden agenda to keep the fire of innovative spirit burning in our brilliant young minds. We must ensure that the best of us do not become available to the highest bidder... More on thes lines in Open Page.. . .

July 25, 2007

My take on Mira Nair’s Namesake

Gogol Ganguly. It takes half the run of the film for the character to come to terms with his name. Gogol. The guy who so named his son is dead and gone mid-way through the movie; and the son, so named, grown up and married, lives on to face ridicule from the partying American friends of his wife, an ABCD (America born confused desi).

Gogol, initially frustrated and, even angry, at his father, comes to accept his name, particularly after his father’s death. He gives up on his wife, who opted to retain her pre-wedding name. Presumably, she doesn’t feel comfortable with being addressed as Mrs Gogol.

What’s there in a name? Nobody seems to ask Gogol this, in the movie. His father, Ashoke had to come up with a name for his new-born on the spur of the moment and Gogol was the first name that came to his mind. He couldn’t think of any other, quickly enough; and mom Ashima, who had ‘Nikhil’ in mind, wouldn’t however name her kid without the sanction of elders in the family in India.

She tries to explain to the doctor at a New York hospital that she had written to her parents and a reply was awaited from Calcutta. Presumably, there was no e-mail then. The doctor cites the hospital rule – no name, no discharge. And that is how Gogol came to be so named by his father. Ashima accepts it in the belief that the family could always give him a better and proper name at the namakaran. .

How was Ashima to know that, unlike in her native Calcutta, a name-change wasn’t that simple a proposition in America? So the lad was stuck with Gogol, much to the amusement of his classmates at school. Years later when his son asks, “why did you do this to me, dad?” Ashoke explains the rationale for naming his son after his favorite Russian author, Nikolay Gogol.

I couldn’t catch what transpires here between father and son. I have problem with accented English, spoken at high speed. Besides, some characters in the movie mumble their lines or speak in whispers on occasions. I don’t know if many others have this problem with the Namesake soundtrack. English-speaking desis such as yours truly, who are not quite with-it with the English spoken in the US, could do with English sub-titles.

Mira Nair’s Namesake is a film with which NRIs can relate. Namesake storyline shuttles between Kolkota and New York. What happens to Ashoke and Ashima could happen to any NRI who sets up family in the U S. The film brings out the critical little concerns of desi parents with growing teenagers who have closer affinity with their American peers than their tradition-bound parents.

Mira Nair’s treatment is nuanced. How does a desi nari living in New York react to her college-going son phoning in to say he has a girl friend and that he would like to bring her home? How do parents cope when Gogol and his American girl turn up for dinner? The director brings out the discernable discomfort of Ashima at seeing her son’s gentle resistance to his girl-friend’s advances to place her hand on his lap or to give him a peck in the cheek in excitement.

It has his mother worried when Gogol’s home visits from the college hostel become less regular and his phone calls get briefer, fewer and far between. Her fears for her son were,presumably, unfounded. On learning of his father’s death Gogol has his head shaved off, as a mark of respect to the departed. When his otherwise orthodox mother tells him, “You need not have done this, son” Gogol responds, “I wanted to do it, mother”. One may read in this a social statement that the NRI youths in the US are all not totally lost to our sanskrithi.

July 15, 2007

Devi Shetty’s heart tips

Didn’t know Mother Teresa was Dr. Devi Shetty’s patient. What’s more, she inspired him to reach out to the poor and the needy. This was, presumably, why the renowned cardiac surgeon gave up his job at a corporate hospital to set up a notably patient-friendly Narayana Hrudayalaya, Bangalore. Where, it is said, no needy patient is turned away because he/she can’t afford the expensive surgery. Dr Shetty subsidises the deserving. An uncle of mine was a beneficiary of Dr Shetty’s benovelance.

According to him, Indians are three times more vulnerable than Americans to this expensive disease. Women needn’t worry till they are 45, because they enjoy till then nature’s protection. So said Dr Shetty in a Q & A with a group of Wipro employees at a meeting arranged by the company. IT professionals among them, who worked to the US time zone, found it reassuring to have it from the guru that those who work night shift were in no way more vulnerable to heart attack than those who do more earthly hours.

I had the transcript of Dr Shetty’s Q & A chain-mailed to me. A subsequent Google search revealed it has been doing the rounds in blogs for a while. I counted 30 and gave it up. Like all other bloggers, I found that the Shetty transcript made such a compelling read that I chose to blog it yet again here. After all, yeh dil ka mamla hai.

Dr Shetty responds to a spate of questions such as whether the incidence of heart disease is hereditary (yes); why walking is preferable to jogging; how irregular food habit impacts heart; how tricky it is to differentiate between an attack and common gastric trouble; and what the heart’s worst enemy is (oil). You know what, Dr Shetty’s junk food list includes samosa and masala dosa. Read the full transcript.

July 12, 2007

Rail travel notes

Do you know of anyone who might know of someone who has said he/she liked rail food? I have yet to come across one who relished – I mean, yummy-yummied – a meal in the train. That the train food is no good isn’t worth writing about. What intrigues me is capability of caterers to serve meals in trains that are so uniformly tasteless.

I had occasion to try out rail meal during my recent travel to Vizag from Bangalore and back by Prashanti Express. The menu varied, from brijal in the day to beatroot at night for curry. There was variety, such as sambar, morkozahbu, bhaji, puri and rice. But they all tasted the same, every time.

Sambar, rasam are the kind of items amenable to fluctuating taste, even if cooked by the same hands. It has to do with the masala mix; making it a bit too hot one day, a little less salted on the next, and, occasionally, even tasty, through sheer human error. But railway cooks, it appears, are trained never to err on the side of taste. And this is an aspect of catering management, I thought, the country’s best known rail management guru ought to highlight in his talks at IIM-A and management lectures to visiting students from Harvard, Stanford or wherever.

Prof. Lalu P Yadav can tell his Ivy League undergrad disciples how caterers in India’s vast rail network manage to maintain standards of tastelessness and still sustain the demand for their meals. The server in my compartment (AS1, July 6, Bubaneswar-bound Prasanthi) turned up with dinner at 10 p m because there were 500 meals to be served that night and there was no one other than him to serve them.

Another distinct feature of our rail system that might interest students of communication management is the working of public address system at Bangalore railway station. Our railways have public announcers who tend to betray supreme indifference to aspects of oral communication such as diction, phonetics and pronunciation. And then, from where I found myself on Platform-6, one heard a clash of voices emanating from two different P A systems.

As one announcer belted out scripted messages about delayed arrival of the Brindavan Express, there was a counter voice, from another system informing us about the status of the Mysore-bound train from Jaipur. The blare of announcements, delivered in Kannada, Hindi and English, not always in a conducive tone and accent, made less sense than noise.

Yet another feature of customer service communication pertains to availability of wheel-chairs at the Bangalore railway station. My source of information on it was through word-of-mouth. And licensed porters were willing to produce a wheel-chair for you, at a price that is directly proportionate to the level of your helplessness. I paid Rs.60, beating down the initial asking price of Rs.150, to move my handicapped mother from platform 7 to 5.

Later I learnt you could get a wheel-chair from the station manager’s office by producing an ID card. There is also provision for requisition of wheel-chair by incoming passengers who can ring up a designated number. One would have thought information on customer services such as availability of wheel-chairs and the contact phone number ought to be displayed on closed-circuit TV or electronic message boards and also announced through the public address system.

Cross-filed in Desicritics

July 3, 2007

Karnataka legislators for China ?

I wonder whose idea it was to plan a China trip for the entire lot of Karnataka legislators. They add up 300 members – 225 MLAs and 75 MLCs. Their mission: a study of economic development models adopted in China. No wonder the external affairs ministry has yet to clear the trip,proposed to be made in batches this September. The Karnataka assembly speaker is quoted as saying that the China trip would help our legislators “change their mindset” towards development models to be adopted in Karnataka.

Even if our foreign office buys this story, you and I may have problem figuring out why so many of our legislators need to go abroad for a change-of-mindset. Understandably, China appears to have made remarkable progress, development-wise. So can we, if we have the political will and can effectively implement projects. More importantly, unity of purpose among legislators, divided by their party or caste loyalties, can work wonders. If only they learn to put economic interest of Karnataka above the interests of their caste, community or political party, we can be in a position to tell China a thing or two about fast-track development.

I share the speaker’s contention that legislators need a change of mindset. But do they have to go to China for this? Can’t we accomplish this change at lesser than the Rs.6 crores the foreign trip would cost the Karnataka tax-payers? Mercifully, the CM and the deputy CM are reported to have opted out of the proposed trip. Their entourage of officials and security squad may have to forego an opportunity to visit the Great Wall.