Thursday, December 27, 2007

Benazir Bhutto - making of the assassins, the poor choice to die

1948—Jan. 30: Gandhi, 78, shot dead in New Delhi, by Nathuram Vinayak Godse
1959—Sept. 25: Prime Min. Solomon Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka, by Buddhist monk in Colombo
1984—Oct. 31: Prime Min. Indira Gandhi shot and killed in New Delhi, by her body guards
1991—May 21: Ex Prime Min. Rajiv Gandhi killed in election rally, by a female suicide bomber
1993—May 1: Ranasinghe Premadasa, pres. of Sri Lanka, killed in a bomb blast in Colombo
2007—December 27: Benazir Bhutto shot dead in election rally in Rawalpindi

South Asian history has many assassins. From Hindu extremist to Budhist monk. From own security guards to female suicide bomber. From cyanide tablet worshipers to Islamic extremists. What makes them an assassin? What makes them loose everything they have in life in return of precious blood? Loose their spouses, loose their children and loose their family time around the dinner table? The reasons are plenty. But the underlying thread is the same. The poor choice to die for a cause than to live for the loved ones. Both the assassins and the assassinated!

This happened during the 90s in a 100% literate state of Kerala in a country when half of the country did not read or write. We were playing marbles or some thing like that in our courtyard. We had loud cries and commotion from a farm land a shout away. We all ran towards the field and what we saw was beyond narration. We saw pools of blood spilled all over the field while attackers chased one of my very distant cousin to death. People who reached before us told that he was lying in the middle of a drainage trench, carved in the middle of the field, soaked in blood. They saw 10-15 people running away from the scene with blood dripping weapons in their hands. He had 30 or so deep cuts all over him from knives, axes and other rudimentary weapons. His limbs were hanging off his body while people scurried him away to the hospital. Doctors spent hours in the operation room but could not save his life. Soon after his death, he became a 'Martyr' to his party and thousands thronged at his funeral. He was killed for an angry exchange with his opponent party workers some time in the past, 'I don't fear death for speaking out against your tyranny'. He died at the hands of the tyrants.

The people who killed the man belonged to a different political party. Thats is right. No ethnic cleansing, no religious riot, no communal violence. Political killings! Some past accounts of frivolous rivalry turned into a brutal killing. Those who got sentencing spent years in Jail. But they get heroic welcome by the party men when they came out on parole. Very young men, with simple desires like any other young men in the rural life. Watch a movie from a local theater, play cards with friends, get drunk over the weekend and find ways to get laid, which is forbidden until one is married. But they lost every thing in a jiffy. They lost precious years of their prime life inside the walls of the central jail. And they thought they were destined to be the heroes of the party which they foolishly served like herds. Martyr lost his life for nothing. But the party gained a 'Martyr'. The story repeated many times over. With parties trading places, some times creating martyr and some other time gaining one.

Every society celebrated martyrs. Martyrs who gave up their life for a cause larger than their life. Larger than their love for their spouse. Larger than their desire to hold their children's hands. Larger than their desire to get back home and share a meal with family after a day of back breaking chores of the day. People were told that their life is worth sacrificing for their religion. It is better to die for their country than live for their kids. The martyr's life after death is more tantalizing than a living man's struggle to live.

Societies do this to recruit volunteers to advance their organizational goals. When you need volunteers to kill, the reward can not just be monetary. Because you cant put a price on a man's life which will be taken away from him after he kills. So the price has to be higher. Something that is abstract and intangible. Something that can not be quantified. So the martyrdom is born.

The killed also contributes to the sense of dying for the cause than living for survivors. Three attempts on Gandhi's life in 1946 and 1947 did not mean much to Bappu. Indira Gandhi famously said, 'If I die today, every drop of my blood will invigorate the nation'. Rajiv Gandhi ignored threats to his life when he desperately tried to get back to the rank and file of ordinary people after loosing touch with them after the Bofors scandal. Benazir Bhutto told reporters few months before her death that she does not fear death and no one kill any one until his or her time to die. She almost got killed on her day of return to Pakistan. But she considered her life worthless put against the larger scheme of things. She preferred to be killed than watching Pakistan election on a TV screen from exile.

It took 78 years to make a Gandhi. Bhutto is no Gandhi, but she represented the best of Pakistan. With all the corruption charges against her and her family, she represented the moderate liberal and peace loving Muslims in a country where extremists thrive to impose a Wahhabi version of Islam on to its people. 54 years made into the making of the promise of Pakistan's democratic aspirations. All that years of work is shattered with her desire to emerge through the sun roof of her Land Cruiser or so says Pakistani establishment. Is she better off dead than alive with all her flaws and missteps? Is PPP better off now than before? Is Pakistan better off now than before? No. But she didn't see it when she was alive. But the assassins could see it. The sad part is that assassins were just living the fake glory of martyrdom, created by the society so that it could dispense some cheap lives to take away some pricey ones. Alas, the assassins doesn't see that trap.

Has death ever been better than life? Is there any cause that is worth trading one's life. If you ask me, I will say NO. Not only that I hate to be survived by wife and son but I hate to be survived by the cause!

Musharaf and Sharif - You shall not become the Law;Law is Blind!

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Dollar Vs Euro - Why Warren Buffet will be wrong on this or I wish he is...

Every time dollar hits a new low, I remember a discussion I had with my cousin brother, who works for Saudi govt, back in the winter of 2005. I argued that dollar will appreciate against Euro in 2006 due to the rate hikes by US Fed and expanding US economy. Indian Rupee will also weaken due to India's increasing energy bills to support expanding economy and maturing foreign investments in Indian stock market. In fact, both Euro and Rupee gained against dollar in most of 2006 (Dollar gained against rupee in the first half of 2006 but then started shedding value in the second half) . 2007 saw a steady erosion of Dollar against Rupee and most other currencies. So in the nutshell, if my cousin converted his US dollar pegged assets (Saudi Riyal is pegged to USD) into Euro in early 2006, he could have averted a 20% slide in value. If he had migrated to Euro in early 2003, he could have avoided a 30% slide. So clearly I was wrong and I feel partially guilty of directing him in a wrong direction.

Part of the reason for my lack of love for Euro was personal. We were in Europe for two weeks just before Europe adopted a single currency system. We were very excited to go to Europe and see first hand the mystery of Europe. The old port town and diamond capital of the world Antwerp, European Union's capital Brussels, The fun capital of the Europe Amsterdam and then of course the sophisticated Paris. We liked what we saw. High speed cross country train ride. Went to Louvre and saw Davinci Code! Had crape on the streets. Struggled to communicate to the French. Enjoyed the hospitality of the Brussels Business men at a very large brewery. Took a peek at the wax and sex museum in Amsterdam not to mention the lovely canal rides. Small cars and narrow cobble stone streets. Notre-Dame cathedral and Historic buildings. War memorials. Overall, a sense and sensibility of history guiding even a stroll to McDonalds. BTW, we were so homesick of US and ate McDonalds and Soda in Paris skipping famed Pinot Noir and breads!

Credit card rip off by a taxi driver in Antwerp who put an extra zero in the credit card slip, a scam artist at a Paris central station who buys non French speaking tourists one way train ticket saying that it is for a week unlimited travel, glass of water is billed the same as glass of soda, no free soda refill at restaurants, sleeping on small crammed beds, paying extra for having my wife as a guest in the room and paying lot more for everything else made us miss US so badly. It also taught us never to forget the boring common sense travel tips from grandma even if you are in Europe!

Putting it all together, we realized that Europe is no US in many good ways and many not so good ways. Just months before the Europe trip, we had a marathon tour in the US where we drove from Baltimore to DC to New York to Niagara. Got a free SUV upgrade from the rental counter (this is when the gasoline cost was $1.50 per gallon) from a compact car, Slept in oversize Eastern King beds, had free refills of extra large soda everywhere, almost always we could split a single meal into two, paid less than $50 per night at Sheraton through internet deal, over all we had a super sized experience. But the most historic places are not quite historic by European standards. Most historic down towns in US are as old or as recent, as a foreign tourist will say, as Route 66.

That is when the realization started sinking in. Europe represents the past and US the present and possibly the future. Europe is expensive and exclusive while US is efficient and inclusive. While America does not have the burden of history pulling it down, she also has no frame of reference about building great things. So she builds THE greatest! The greatest gold rush, greatest sub division madness in the west, greatest trading markets, greatest banks and investment companies, greatest technology companies, greatest movie industry, greatest universities and greatest junk food companies. On the flip side, even when they make blunders, that assume great proportions. Greatest market meltdowns, Greatest military blunders in Vietnam and now in Iraq, greatest corporate scandals, greatest automobile disaster brewing in Detroit, greatest sub prime credit crisis in modern day economics, greatest trade deficit by any country, the list goes on. When US makes a mistake, the world punish her very harshly. The Dollar hating going on in the world right now is no exception. It is a statement and warning by the world that they want US to make amends. Not an outright rejection, but because the world has higher standards for US.

It is no secret that us trade deficit with other countries would have an impact on the dollar value in the long run. The oracle of the US, Warren Buffet warned in 2003 of dire consequences if US did not act on reducing trade deficits in a war footing basis. (See the link below). But what is surprising is that Europe is not growing any faster than US and Europenas are not working any harder but still people have a new found love with euro. It is mostly sentimental and euro in the long run will not stand up to $. Not until the French unions stop acting like trade unions in Kerala (An India State where you pay workers to unload tiles for your kitchen or you pay them and do it your self if you are DoItYourself type). Europe's iconic Airbus engineers drew the wiring for A380 in 2-D and fell much short when they tried to wire the 3-D space. Engineering Drawing 101! (Read my previous post on Airbus A380's wiring problem)

Once the envy of the world, German cars are loosing market share to Lexus and Infinity. So from no angle, I see a resurgent Europe except in exchange rate graph. Euro is the new fashion statement to people who does not like US and Bush. But it will fade as new president takes charge in early 2009 and by that time US would have wiped out a lot of trade deficit simply by allowing dollar to sink. In fact that is a calculated move by the US to increase US exports and decrease imports and there by balancing decade long deficit spending. So this trend will continue for some more time until foreigners with excess forex like Chinese, Indians, Arabs and find US assets too cheap to resist and start buying them in bulk. Dubai poured in billions into Citi bank. Even Mahindra is buying a us auto plant. Believe it or not, I found a MADE IN USA TOY at target. Finally, manufacturing is making a come back to the US. US has the most advanced market in the world and as long as foreigners have a liking for us assets and properties, dollar will not melt down as many fear now. But another 20-25% slide in dollar will not be a surprise in the next couple of years. But that is my assessment and you know how I was wrong in the past and have no credentials on this subject :)

Dollar to rupee relation is much more complicated. If India continues to grow at the current rate (which might be difficult considering the impact of rising oil prices on india's growth) rupee has to appreciate to reflect the new wealth. But the reality is that rupee has gained unusual momentum in the last 6 months due to hedge fund and pension fund managers from the us pouring billions into Indian market riding BSE on steroids. With sub prime securities no longer an investment option, us investors are flocking into emerging market. The hedge funds are like herds. They go together and come back together. So there will be a coming back home time for all the us $ some time in the next two years and rupee will slide back to 45-47 range. Having said that, rupee will be around 25-30 in next 25 years because of the huge growth potential india has over US in the long run.

So brace for a stock market crash in India some time in 08-09 as the hedgies pull out with a huge sucking sound. It will give a temporary window of opportunity to transfer some $ denominated instruments to rupees similar to an opportunity when BJP govt fell and left backed govt came to power.

Long post. Let me stop by repeating the cliche, dont put all the eggs in one basket. You will never loose if you diversify. Have assets in many instruments. Some stocks, some forex, some dollar, some euro, some real estate, some cash, some gold. Even an emergency preparedness kit is million dollar worth when it matters the most.

Pardon my foolish audacity to write about something I can claim no authority. But one thing I can say with conviction is that a country which can produce Warren Buffet and Bill gates will not be an easy push over for centuries to come.

Warren Buffet's prediction: Growing Trade Deficit and Dollar Decline 2003 article

Monday, September 24, 2007

Dhoni’s Devils – Enjoy while it lasts!

Being an underdog is a good thing since it takes away the pressure of high expectations. Expectations can be a very bad thing for a team especially when you are not Aussies. Oops, you can’t say the same about even the Aussies after you see Dhoni’s devils steal the victory away from Aussies from the jaws of a certain defeat. ‘Chak De’ will play 24x7 on national TV with split screen images of Dhoni and Kapil lifting the world cups.

Enjoy while it lasts. Replay your recording many times over until you get bored of camera zoom to the ‘Chak De’ Khan. Because…. This may not happen again for a long time to come.

The newly found camaraderie and team work will slowly fade to individual records without team win. The ability to fight back will again be replaced by surrender of the herd. The courage to experiment will soon be replaced by reluctance to force follow-on. Last over thrillers will no longer be decided only in India’s favor. Another Miandad will send another Chetan Sharma for a last ball Sixer.

The young bloods like RP Sharma and Gautam Gambhir will start getting huge endorsements and become veterans and eventually loose form. The Captain will try to do a ‘Dravid on Virender’ on out of form player by saying ‘this chap made a triple century in the past’.

Having been such a cynic in this moment of joy, i must end this with a positive note. That is, Dhoni promises a lot of devilish acts in the years to come. Just like the original devil Kapil except that Dhoni became the devil little too early for any one to predict :)See my previous post on Cricket's dirty way of life

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Musharaf and Sharif - You shall not become the Law;Law is Blind!

As I write this, reports of Nawaz Sharif being forcefully deported back to Saudi are flashing the TV Screen. Regardless of what happens to him in the days ahead in Saudi one wonder what made him return to the troubled country amid the prospect of him deported back to Saudi or arrested by Musharaf's police. Is it the love for the people of Pakistan or is it his commitment to a democratic Pakistan? Or the astute politician in him sensed the right opportunity to stake claim to the higher office of the land, which was taken away from him by Musharaf in a bloodless coup.

Whatever might be the answer, this poses a bigger question. Is a country better off with a corrupt politician returning back from royal and luxurious exile or with a Military dictator who ousted the corrupt leader and promised to clean up the dirt from the public life? Nawaz accepted a deal to flee the country when the public opinion was against him and when the life in jail was a certainty. He chose to trade his power for a princely life in Saudi. Majority of Pakistani people then considered Nawaz's exile a victory for democracy. Having celebrated a Military dictator taking over the country from a democratically elected premier, Pakistan demonstrated one of the nuances of budding democracy in the third world. Now it is time again to demonstrate yet another contradiction by sympathizing for Sharif, who amassed disproportionate wealth while being in power at the expense of the poor Pakistani common folks. General Musharaf's public support is wafer thin and it is now seen as the victory of human soul against the military might that leader of the 7th largest military in the world find himself in the middle of a quicksand of loosing power and place in public imagination. It is not enough to be right. One has to be right at the right time, which is always in a land of eternal conflicts, physical and idealogical.

The US demonstrated their idea of democracy when they supported an Army General, who threw out a democratically elected Prime minister, when he promised to help the US crack down on Taliban. But it is not unusual for US to support undemocratic leaders when it helps the US interest. So there is no surprise. Condy Rice is probably working over time now to formulate a policy when Musharaf will have to give up the power to another civilian leader. But her concern over the Nukes will be of utmost interest to her than her love for democracy, when formulating US policy.

There are no simple answers to these contradictions. Democracy in neighboring India is much stable and is the most populous democratic country in the world. But even after 60 years of democratic institutions and exercises, India still tolerate very corrupt career politicians. Politicians routinely escape corruption charges amounting millions of rupees. Seldom a politician spent time in Jail for corruption charges. Unlike Pakistan army, Indian army resisted the temptation of taking over the executive. They tolerated corrupt and inefficient leaders. In some instances they adopted the policy 'If you cant beat them, join them'. Expensive military gears bought for the army men's use in world's tallest battle field, Siachen, were found in the local bazar for public to buy.

That is the lesson for the world. A country gets its leader they deserve. They get corrupt leader when the corruption is rampant in the society. They get inefficient leader when the entire system is inefficient. They get monarchy when they are loyal to the royal blood. They get military dictator when the civilian leadership fails.

When some one else try to impose ethics and efficiency and democratic values from outside, it wont last long. The country will fall back to the mean eventually. It is just a matter of time. There is a saying in my language. 'If you beat the fruit to ripen, it will never be sweet'. Hope Condi and Bush can learn from this lesson. Never beat IRAQ to ripen to the democratic fruit of the middle east!

There is one more important lesson that shall not be forgotten. 'You shall not become the Law;Law is Blind'! Musharaf took the rule of the land in his hand when he ousted Sharif and took control of the country. Musharaf negotiated an unconstitutional deal with Nawaz to allow him escape from the law of the land. Sharif now questions the existence of the agreement which required him to stay in exile for 10 years. Musharaf forced the then president to retire and assumed the dual role of President and Army Chief. Musharaf threw out Supreme Court Chief justice only to be brought back under intense public anger. He now deported Nawaz Sharif back to Saudi against the Supreme Court order allowing Sharif brothers to come back to Pakistan. The official position is that technically they met Supreme court order 'allowing them to come back to Pakistan' citing that they allowed Sharif to land in Pakistani soil only to be deported in few hours of landing! What a silly argument to come from the head of a state. Musharaf is blind. He cant see what he has to be seeing now. His fall from grace to just another military dictator who lost love with the masses;albeit unfortunate. It does not matter if John Stewart would prefer to have High Tea with the General. He might just ask the staff not to sweeten it with the sugar from Sharif's questionable sugar mills.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Defending Subprime lending - case for democratic economy

There is not a single day goes by without the media do not report the subprime meltdown unfolding in the US credit market. As much as I admit my ignorance on the intricate details of how my mortgage is split into million little pieces and sold to million little investors around the globe, I want to share my own experience of subprime lending if I could call it that.

Years back, actually 15 years back, I was in charge of a rural financial investment and lending scheme that was setup for the mutual benefit of the rural labor class people who did not have enough means to do transaction with a commercial bank. Here is how it worked.

The setup is a small wooden bench, an accounting book and myself sitting at a public open place between 6:00 PM and 8:00 PM every Saturday. I was in college then and they thought that they could trust me with their hard earned money. The members brought a small share of their weekly earning and I made a proper record of the deposit. The amount varied between Rupees 2 (5 cents in today's rate) and Rupees 100 ($2.5 per week). You must be beginning to wonder what we did with the money. Well, we lend money to people who wont qualify for a loan from the traditional banks especially the then notoriously credit tight nationalized Banks. Remember, this is before Muhammad Yunus's Nobel win and days when many did not know much about the concept of micro credits.

The amount of loan varied too. We loaned as small as 5 cents and as high as few dollars. They come to loan to buy school supplies for their kids, to buy weekly ration or some times to pay for the doctor's fee which ran anywhere from 25 cents to a dollar. Doctors were very mean most of the time. They would prescribe the newest medicine concoction cooked up by the pharma companies and ask them to 'come back in a week after trying this medicine'. The poor men and women would go back next week after 'trying' the medicine for a week only to be given prescription for a new medicine. Medical issues apart, they would come for money to make donations to conduct a marriage in their neighborhood, to buy some glass bangles for their loved ones in the annual village festivals. And some other times to buy the coconut leaves to cover their leaking roofs.

Of course, there was credit risk. Some of the loans were never repaid. But we compensated it by charging higher interest rates to every one who borrowed. We did not know that it is called 'Sub prime' in the economic lexicon. But it was the wisdom prevailed among the villagers for decades if not centuries. Even those who made regular repayments knew about the defaulters name. But they did not mind since they knew about the circumstances that caused the person to default and hoped to hedge that risk with higher rate they charge for their lending. It was a social understanding. Some times, well to do families also put their money into the scheme. They would get higher return on their money through this scheme since we lend money at higher than normal interest rates. We charged higher interest rates than Yunus's Grameen Bank. But like grameen bank, the profits were shared by the members proportionately. The high interest rates went to finance the subprime credits.

So what is the difference between the subprime lending in my tiny village and the subprime lending that created unprecedented real estate wealth in the US in the last half decade? It is the scale and complexity of the enterprise. Apart from that, both represent the same intention. Finance credits that are not credit worthy by mainstream banking standards and potentially benefit from it. The investors benefit from it as well as the person took the loan. Sub prime loan enabled them to put a new thatch roof to their humble abode. It enabled people with less than 600 FICO score own a piece of the south land California who otherwise were told by the glass box bankers in the past that they were not worthy of credit. Credit was the privilege of the few but sub prime made it the passion of the many. Sub prime did what Internet did to information. Information is not the privilege of network TVs and syndicated journalists any more. It is the passion of Matt Drudge and Ariana Huffington and alike. Subprime allowed the free flow of capital and credit across the US landscape that created dreams, hopes and immense wealth. Sure few hiccups and defaults. The melt down may take Countrywide along with it plus many frothy real estate markets. After the bubble burst, a new sub prime lending will emerge. Quite like the Web 2.0, Sub prime 2.0! Never underestimate the power of YOULOAN.
TIME article - Real Estate's Fault Line

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The courage to return and fear of failure - Gandhi My Father

M.K Gandhi went to South Africa as a young lawyer to handle a law suit involving an Indian firm. He was supposed to work in South Africa for a year. But he stayed on and worked his way up in the profession. He bought a bungalow in the luxurious Cape Town suburb Fresnaye. He sent his eldest son to the best western style school in South Africa and eventually got a law degree from Oxford. Gandhi established one of the top law firms in South Africa and Harilal joined his law firm. Years later Harilal continued to create and amass wealth and professional clout that is unmatched by any other law firm in the history of common wealth.

Harilal, eldest son of Gandhi

You know the history, it did not turn out to be this way. Gandhi went back to India and liberated millions into a new world of freedom and liberty. But he paid a huge price for his return. Gandhi rebelled everything western and did not allow his son Harilal to study law as Gandhi's rebellion against western education. Harilal rebelled Mahatma. 'Gandhi My Father' is born.

Century later, in the new millennium, immigrant parents are grappling with the same dilemma. To go back or Not? This is the same question every first generation immigrant parent tussled with. Even when Bhagat Singh Thind and likes were fighting their right to naturalize in the US supreme court, many parents were fighting the internal urge to go back to the home land. The fundamental struggle was to find an answer to the nagging question. Will their sons and daughters rebel against the parents for taking them away from the land of opportunity to land of poverty, despair and ruins of the bygone glories of the ancient heritage and history.

Will their sons and daughters be better off with a western education in the west or do well in India? Will they ever be capable of being a world citizen that can match the best personalities of the world, if brought up in India? Could they have become
Bono? Could they have become Oprah? Gates or Warren Buffet? Page or Brin? Could he/she have ever overcome the grueling competition to get away from mediocrity without loosing the greater purpose in life? Can my son ever intern for John Stewards without worrying about IIT-JEE exam or GMAT?

That is the old story.
The times have changed. The table is turned upside down, well, almost. If you probe little deep, the anxiety of the current generation of immigrants, like myself, about the children's education and their personal development gives way to something that is more deeper and pervasive. The fear of failure in the emerging India! Once they were the best and brightest in their home country. The ones who dared to take on challenges. The ones who rose from the millions and became a few. Not any more. Many of my friends candidly admit that they will never make it it in new India if they go back. I tell myself that it will be incredibly challenging to survive, let alone succeed, in the new corporate India where the smartest, sharpest and most informed work force compete for triple digit salary hikes. And without those triple digit salary increases, one cant hope to make the payment on their three bed room flats in Koramangala, let alone dream of a dust in Malabar Hills or Chanakya Puri.

But the economic reasons to go back are ever stronger. The dollar is falling slowly and steadily. The salary in the US grows at lower single digit while in India it can double every 3-4 years. The net savings gap is closing in fast and furious. Triple digit real estate gains in India shame the US housing boom. Noida buyer bought a piece of land for 30 lakhs and sold for 165 lakhs in 3 years, a whopping 500% gain!

Your kid could be crushed aside by the millions of young and assertive Indian kids raving to prove their place in the world. 95% marks for your kid wont get you a place in Delhi University. It will be far easier to get into MIT than IITs. It will be far easier to win American Idol than Voice of India. It will be far easier to win Miss US than Miss India. Miss USA Tara Conner will never pass the first round of Miss India not because Indian girls are better but because they are smarter not to do the things Tara enjoyed doing. Bollywood will eclipse Hollywood by its sheer volume and billions of viewers it attracts across the world in a rush to prove to the world, 'Billion desis can not be wrong'!

Billion people are watching you, through the prism of thousands of years of artistic and intellectual excellence trying to find a reflection of the eternal greatness once achieved in this land. You simply cant walk away from the rigor with tight jeans and iPods. Gray matter needs to outweigh Gadgets. Your voice and your steps will be judged against the scriptures of Natyashastra of Vedic Times. There is no place for mediocrity. Period.

So what will make you return to modern and raving India? It will sure not be for an easier life. It will be very tough for you and your kids. You will never be able to make peace with the sub par material world . You will return only for some thing larger than our life.
Some thing that is worth trading the easy life in the west. Like the hope of freedom of the millions of fellow Indians that made Gandhi return. There is a new freedom struggle waiting to brew in India as you read this. That is the struggle of the rural India to be financially free from the dal roti grind. The boys and girls who never heard of IITs and NIFT. The parents who never ate a pav wrapped in paper with meat patty in between. The only motorized vehicle they ever rode was Tractor but no Camry.

It will take immense courage and determination to be part of the economic freedom movement. To sacrifice everything west has to offer and work to make a difference in millions of fellow Indians who are left out of the new found wealth. The courage to realize that the only fear we have to fear is fear itself. The kind of courage that was eventually ridiculed by his own Son when he took a new name 'Abdulla Gandhi'.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Bazar boys, GOOPPLE men and Selfish Me

Apple and Google are the coolest corporations in our life time and it is an irony that neither of them seems to be thrilled at the idea of open source development, which is the new religion of the coolest. It make me wonder why they don't develop their products in the 'bazar with ample eye balls to make the bugs shallow'. The reason might be simpler than you think. You don't wonder why religions prefer to cross swords than cross their paths to make friends.

It is religion at Apple. It is another religion at Google. They don't think that the bazar has any eye ball worthy of zeroing on the iPods and AdWords before rolling out to millions of people in near perfection. It is not easy to get a job with Jobs (Steve). It is not easy to keep that job with Jobs. They believe in the superiority of their team among two legged Homosapiens roaming the larger earth without any purpose other than to eat, mate and procreate. Same is with Google. They post math puzzles in billboards to challenge passers-by to solve complicated math problem that leads them to a website which eventually leads to Google web page asking to submit resume of the brainy ones who solved many complex puzzles in the process to get there. They don't believe that John Smith from the bazar is any good to make their perfect software or hardware. They are the chosen ones.

If you don't have a computer science degree from Stanford to work for Google, or don't have the iVision to work for Apple, then you have two choices.

The first one is obvious. To work for other companies who do not provide gourmet dinner and washing machine in the campus along with other services to let you live at work. Work for a company who does not make sexy products like iPod and iPhone.

The second option is tricky. With this option, you will not get free hair cut at work. You will not get free car wash and oil change while you are coding. You have to do your laundry at home. But you will be able to feel the emotional energy of the Apple employees working on the coolest products. But you will have to make the mortgage payments on PayPal donations. I am talking about open source developer if you have not guessed it already.

By no means I am downplaying the smartness of the open source programmers. In fact, they are probably the only ones who can challenge, and probably succeed, the infallibility of the GOOPPLE boys. But they are like the romantic communists of the bygone era. Remember Che? The smartest, youngest and brightest young man fought in Cuba and killed in Bolivia to bring justice and equality among mankind. Little did he know that his sweat and blood would later be used by Castro to amass power and wealth enough to be named among the world's richest heads of state by Forbes. Thousands of programmers spent sleep less nights to program Linux and now Red Hat is making money on it today. Sure they dreamed of a better software system and better world where every poor child in the world can run a computer without paying for Windows. Noble cause indeed; just like the cause to make a better world by spreading world's wealth among the starving poor and laboring men and woman. The world had seen cold war and walls crumbling. The world hasn't changed a bit since communist manifesto. The gap between the rich and poor is exponentially growing. Today, an average CEO makes 500 times more than his/her average worker. That is going up north with private investors luring the best of them with many fold higher compensation. So why do you think a bunch of bright bazar programmers can change the world this time around?

Meanwhile, mere mortals like me will forever be playing third fiddle to GOOPPLE and Bazar boys. But I get paid every other week for writing some code that is as good as the one written in sand. I rewrite the code pretty much every day to fix the bug that I created while fixing another. I swear to god that I would have never imagined something like an iPhone. My vision is limited to what I see today, not what the world will see tomorrow. I have no hopes of working for GOOPPLE. I have no smartness to build tabs in a web browser. So my only option is to work for a Non-GOOPPLE company and make a paycheck. And for that noble cause of survival, I consider the bazar boys to be threat No 1 to my existence.

If they wrote open source google, no one will use it. If they build open source iPhone, no one will buy it. But if they write open source software to compete with the software my company makes, people from France, Germany, Korea, Japan, India and host of other countries will use them instead of my company software. Software sales will plummet and my company will lay me off from the job. My mortgage payment will stop and bank will foreclose my house. My son will stop going to school. We will sell our cars and buy a cheap bike from Walmart. That is a very scary thought and my American dream will be in deep trouble.

Apart from selfish reasoning, like any other human being, I want better systems and better world. In fact, I am using Firefox to write this blog. I want to see the poor kids in Indian villages use computers and one day pull themselves out of the poverty and hopelessness. But I just don't know how open source model can be sustained in a world where millionaire investors pay few millions to hire the smartest AI brains to build web 3.0 a.k.a semantic web. People line up all day in front of Apple stores to get the first iPhones. Kids and parents sleep in front of book stores to get the first copies of Harry Potter. People are ready to pay for the stuff that originates in some one's brain. VCs are willing to invest in ideas in the hope of making manifold return of their investments. If everything is to be given away free, America as we know today as the hotbed of innovation is dead. In the US, people work for money and good life that comes with it. I just don't see how philanthropy and noble ideas can beat American's desire to make money. If only every one told the secret of mining gold to passers by on Route 66. That is what killed communism in the very early days when Engels wrote to Karl Marx that the discovery of gold was a case "not provided for in the Manifesto: the creation of large new markets out of nothing."

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Why I wont be a 'Happier' Billionaire

You may be thinking that I am a billionaire already and not very happy about that. No, that is not true. I am yet to become a millionaire let alone a billionaire. But every one is telling me that money does not buy happiness. The happiness research reveals that gross happiness income for a US family is 50K per year. Below 50K, you are unhappy and above that you are happy but no less happy than some one makes millions. So why bother making lot of money or at least that is my tortured logic on money matters.

But still, there must be some thing that the rich people love about money. What could be that?It is definitely not happiness because I have seen rich people cry in live TV. But sure, Larry King will talk to them for a full hour on live TV when they get in trouble. But then family friend Barbara Walters will say every thing about Paris Hilton getting into jail for violating the probation is "beneath me". Wealth does not seem to help the rich much in this country except that they can hire Johnny Cochran to say 'If the glove does not fit, you must acquit'. I am neither planning to drive drunk on the opposite direction of the freeway nor planning to write a book 'If I did it'!

So what is it then? Is it the charm of flying a Cessna? But that cant be much fun since I never enjoyed a ride in a much larger Boeing. I hate the plane toilets. But there are some benefits of flying your own jet. You don't have to take off your shoes at the security. Plus you don't need to cram the quart size zip lock bag with 3 oz shaving cream and gels.

It must be the exotic tropical islands the billionaires own. But then can you live in an island just by yourself? I thought it is pretty tough to be in a cast away island just talking to a valley ball all day all week all month all year! May be one could bring their friends and family to the island but then the whole point is to live exclusively in tropical islands.

Another possibility is that I could pay my way into space in a Russian rocket. I never had the courage to take one of the magic mountain rides yet fearing the zero gravity falls. Why would I then spend my millions to be crammed in a space that is perhaps narrower than the statue of liberty crown. I wont.

So my options are really limited. Oh I almost forgot that I could run for New York Mayor office using my own money. Then I realized that being an Indian national I cant even run for city council. I could run for higher office in India but there is no precedent in Indian history of a billionaire premier or a president. Having a degree from Oxford or London School of Economics is a much surer path to power than making lot of money.

The only option left is to give away money like Bill and Buffet. But that just reinforce what I have been hearing all along from happiness experts. Money does not buy happiness. In fact, they had to give away the the billions to be truly happy.

My first pay check, first car and first home; all gave me lot of happiness until I got to used to it soon. So getting the first million dollar will also pass just like any other material firsts. My best recollection of happiest moments had nothing to do with money. When my short story got published in a children's section of a magazine, when I scored then highest ever score for my school among the 1000+ students in the state exams, my cousin who came with me to check the admission list to IIT shouting to me, 'I see your name in the list!', weekend get aways to Sarojini Nagar market, first time I kissed my wife (of course after we got married; you stupid!) and first time I saw my son's face in ultra sound; these memories last a lifetime.

So the consensus is that I will not be a happier billionaire than what I am today. Yes, I can use couple of millions to buy a condo overlooking the pacific coast. I really don't enjoy the inland heat waves in summer. But by the time I have a million, a bottle of coke will cost $1,000 thanks to the sky rocketing price of corn syrup. All the corn in the world by then would go into to making flex fuels. Along with that, bulging US treasury debt and gap in social security would drive the inflation and tax rates to unimaginable heights that I would be lucky of I could buy 10 GOOG with my million!

The Bet - Anton Chechov's short story on Million Dollar Bet

This Ethanol madness must stop

We are a nation that can be easily swayed in one way by Oreilly Factor at 8:00 PM and in exact opposite direction by John Stewart at 11:00 PM. In some instances we take longer to change our mind. We believed Saddam had weapons of mass destruction when we invaded Iraq. But not any more. We believed organic food was better few years ago. Now local food is the fashion. We believed that driving solo in Hummer is the coolest thing to do. Then it changed to alien looking European sized hybrids. Now the madness is ethanol fuel E85. Some people call it flip flop but some call it brilliant Harvard material course correction.

We all believe the infallibility of our belief when we believe in some thing. Then we go to war, line up at whole foods, hang out at farmers market to get local food, buy Lexus hybrids and send the corn harvest straight into ethanol refineries instead of Kellogg. At this point in time, we decided to take side with 800 million people who own automobiles against 2 billion low income people, many of whom already spend more than half their income on food.

Engel's law (for Ernst Engel, a 19th century statistician) states that as you get rich, you spend proportionately less to eat. So for the rich folks in the the US, 10% of the total expenditure goes towards buying food where as people in Thailand spends 29% for food. If you go to a village in Etawah district in Northern India, that percentage might shoot up beyond 50%. So sky rocketing prices for food grain is not really our problem. Our problem is to reduce the cost of automobile ownership against the billions of people who survive on US food aid. Good people like Bono and Angelina will continue to fight the raw hunger prevailing among the poorest of poor of the world. We no longer will have surplus corn to send to distressed part of the world. Soon we will see bumper stickers in Los Angeles that reads 'I skipped cereal to buy ethanol' or 'I would rather not eat Tortilla'.

I have no shame in admitting that I was bread on US food aid in the late seventies. Star and stripe paper bags full of corn, soy and wheat distributed in elementary schools. Big cans of Corn oil to make the lunch meal. Not that we were starving like other unfortunate kids in other parts of the country, but I went to a rural village where there were still some kids who would have dropped out of school lacking free meal. By later seventies, we were beginning to be self sufficient in food and no longer needed US food aid as much as it needed in the fifties.

But poverty and malnutrition is still an evil among mankind. We are reminded of that only when Angelina adopt a girl from Africa or Bono appears on the cover of TIME. Rest of the time, we are busy crushing corn and soy into something that we can use to fill up our dream machines. Alas, E85 days ahead of us!

Two necessities, fuel and food, create spiral of rising prices

My previous post on Organic and Local food

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Granite box and Bamboo Ceiling

If you thought sky is the limit, you were not born in an Asian home. For “those Asians”, we have granite box and bamboo ceiling for our dreams. Heavy and non-abrasive walls of granite and light but sturdy bamboo canopy for the roof; abode for our dreams. We looked at the moon through the bamboo ceiling, never thought of going there. We took pride in our ancient mathematics that formed the basis for the astronauts to compute their path to the moon. We took pride in inventing zero without which the computer revolution would not have been possible. We, for long, tried to take solace in the fact that most of the modern scientific and technological advances in the modern times had a Vedic past. Be it Atoms, be it medicine and surgery, be it mathematics and astronomy or be it the concept of flying an aircraft. We banked heavily on the foundations laid by our forefathers without really being successful in advancing them. We were boxed in a granite cage; each stone telling glorious stories dating back thousands of years.

If you are an Indian kid, lot of time and energy is spent to make sure that you think inside the box. Lot of work is done to train the kid to win spelling bee even before they are potty trained. They all get a “doctor’s kit” toy to entice them of the joy of becoming a doctor. They solve math puzzles with such an ease and joy which adults can’t derive playing Grand Theft Auto. At age 3 they all learn to count and add! By age 5, their report card will say ‘extra ordinary in math and science and average in verbal and social skills’. Even when the parent does not try to raise the kid the “Indian Way”, this will happen. I don’t know if it’s in the genes or gene mutated to accommodate the box.

But they all have bamboo lattice through which they look at the skies and starts. They all grow up to get higher degrees in Science, Engineering or Medicine. The handful will end up making Sixth Sense (M Night Shyamalan) against their parent’s wishes to become neurosurgeons. But most actually become neurosurgeons and some get to practice on live TV (Dr Sanjay Gupta). When a newly wed couple walks into a car dealership, the sales person asks them with an air of sarcasm, ‘you guys don’t test drive before owning, do you?’ For which most of us will nod our head east west and north south in a classical Indian nod of the head.

I grew up in India, before India opened up to the world; we were told that we could become a high ranking officer within the prestigious and highly competitive Indian Administrative Services (IAS), if studied hard. Nobody told us that we could become politicians whom the IAS officers worked for with subordination and expected servitude. We were not told to become leaders but were told to work for the leaders. That was the time when an Indian woman lost an Olympic medal by thousandth of a second. Nobody told us to become an Olympian. Other options presented to us were doctors and engineers. Everything else was considered the options for the failed ones. Nobody dared to dream to be different. The cost of being different was very steep for middle class boys and girls. If they failed, they not only failed themselves but also the family. It doesn’t matter whether we did not dream to become Abraham Lincoln or Beatles or the dreams faded within the granite walls we were boxed in. I can’t blame my parents for telling me what I had to become. They wanted me to be an IAS officer. I could also become a doctor or engineer, in that order and anything else would be deemed “failure”. I did not even think of any other goal in life. I worked hard to fulfill my parents’ dream of their son bringing monthly salary that exceeded manifold to theirs. I finally became an engineer, their third preference, and when I brought home my first month wage, it far exceeded their combined monthly wage after working 30 years for the government. They declared me “successful”. My siblings were not that lucky. They started working for the government almost at the same level as my parents at retirement. They were just short of declared “failure”. I declared victory and felt very happy to be successful not realizing the world of success waiting outside of the box. But I never saw them, never bothered to see them. It was not my world.

If you grew up in the US to an India parent, you may have similar stories to share. Replace “IAS” with “Neurosurgeon” or “Engineer” with “IV League”. Your dreams were assigned to you. You did not pick your dreams. Except if you are Night Shyamalan or Russel Peterson and few others. I can’t blame the parents. Their generation saw famine and starvation. They saw poverty and death. They saw people with college degrees pulling themselves out of the misery and hopelessness that prevailed all around them. They believed that education is the only way to succeed. Because an entire generation of doctors and engineers and other professionals pulled off break from conditions ranging from middle class agonies to abject poverty. That became the gold standard for them. They did not grow up seeing school drop outs starting up tech revolutions and becoming millionaires and billionaires in the process. They did not grow up seeing million dollar endorsements to players. They saw people working hard to make it big, not working smart. Plus all the hard work guaranteed to take them somewhere ahead and nothing else guaranteed that.

So they ran dry clean machines and gas stations 24 x 7. They did more surgery than they would want. They worked very hard and paid their kids school bills. Asian kids did not have to work at burger joints or car wash. Their parents made sure that they paid the college bills in time. That does not help much with the boxed kids. While white kids work at Star bucks and Whole foods, they are learning the most invaluable lesson that no IV League can offer. Social skills to seamlessly fit into the society! Some of the kids get frustrated so hard that they end up shooting other helpless kids locked up inside the class rooms. A bloody reminder that isolation can never be a pleasant thing whatever may be the reasons for the isolation.

I am not being an ungrateful kid to my parents. They did what they thought the best for their kids. Their economic condition influenced their parenting style in a big way. Now that our generation is financially on a better footing than our parents, we have an opportunity to raise our kids outside of the granite box. Their survival will not be threatened if they failed to become a singer or football player or a movie maker. But then, there are no set rules for parenting. It all depends on the kid. I am sure the Hilton's did not raise Paris Hilton to go to jail for driving drunk on the opposite direction in a freeway.

Sophomore's film suggests cultural differences impede Asians' success

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Capsicum Mushroom Chicken - Restaurant Style

I don't know if this is an Indian recipe or Indian Chinese recipe. May be a combination of both. In any case, this is one of my favorite party buster.

Here is how I go about doing it.
Get fresh cut whole chicken and cut into further small pieces. Wash until the blood is pretty much washed and marinate with salt, paprika, ginger powder, garlic powder, freshly ground black pepper, paprika and chicken masala powder. Adjust the amount to get desired taste.
Cut red onions into half rings and saute in a large skillet with desired oil. Once the onion turns brown, add ginger garlic paste, long cut green chili pepper and saute for a while. Then add cut tomato and saute until the mix becomes a pulp. Add marinated chicken pieces and cook in low flame until the juices start flowing. Add quarter cup of water if you don't see much juice. Cook for 20-30 minutes with a lid to cover. Remove the lid and add finely chopped spring onions and cilantro and cook in high flame for 5-10 minutes till the juice disappear.
Meanwhile, on a separate woke, stir fry cube cut red bell pepper (Capsicum) and sliced mushroom on high heat. Once the sides of the pepper and mushroom turns brown and you don't see any moisture in the pan, add salt and crushed chili to taste. Pour the contents to the chicken prepared in above step.
Serve in a large bowl. Squeeze half lemon and garnish with chopped spring onion and cilantro. (Curry leaves if you like south Indian flavor).
Note: The picture shown is taken today while we are vacationing in Seattle. our other have good reason to have us come over for a visit :)

Sunday, May 6, 2007

To save or use - that is the question about carbon credits

My parents never owned a car in their life time. They mostly walked to their schools and studied books during day light. They took public transportation to get to work and worked without fan and air condition on hot and humid days. Our annual electricity usage averaged below 30 KWH (US average is around 9000 KWH per year) when we were growing up. Even that was very high among our many neighbors. We did not have a refrigerator until we started going to college. Many families in my village still do not have refrigerator. We bought our first television when I was 20 years old. I am just 34 years old, Thank you very much if you thought I am a very old man!

When I got a job that paid well, I bought a car. It had three quarters of a liter engine, two cylinders and four crammed seats. It probably gave me 50mpg (miles per gallon). But that was too much petrol (gasoline) compared to the 150mpg I was getting from my old Vespa scooter. But it was worth the prestige and mark of success it brought to my otherwise lower middle class Indian life.

It was an opportunity of a life time to come to the US and see the prodigal life styles of baby boomers in the US. McMansions, Hummer Limousines, larger than wall TVs, 8 passenger SUVs for the soccer moms and 400 horses for the NASCAR dads, the list is end less. But it did not tempt me to buy a V8 as my first car. I went with the Asian bet on Honda Civic. It had four cylinders, 100 horses and five comfortable seats and gave 32 mpg. Not a bad upgrade from the two cylinders. I found my peace in my civic among the gas guzzling SUVs and roaring sporting machines crowding southern California freeways.

Then all of a sudden, the largest contributor of global warming (US) realized that the way of extravagant life at the expense of the unsustainable fossil fuel is at risk. Celebrities lined up at Prius dealerships until Toyota started making it in abundance. Al Gore bought a hybrid lexus SUV as a brand ambassador for inconvenient truth. He also bought carbon credits to offset the global warming caused by the energy costs of his Tennessee Mansion. Oscar went green by buying carbon credit.

That made me realize the pile of carbon credit I have been sitting on all my life. As a legal heir of carbon free ancestors, I inherited lots of carbon credits. I also managed to collect quite a lot of carbon credit on my own. I walked to work for many years until I moved to a place that was beyond walking distance. We used very little electricity to cool and very little gas to heat by continue to practice thermal management as in the old days. Thermal management is a fancy word for opening windows in summer nights and wearing warm clothes in winter. Thanks to Victoria Secret, sleeping with nice warm sweater in winter is so un-cool these days. We switched off lights when not in use. We bought CFLs in place of ordinary bulbs. We used home filtered water instead of the plastic bottles from Fiji. We banked online with paperless e-bill.

So we decided to use some of the carbon credit slowly but cautiously. We just didn’t want to run out of it in my life time. Using those credits, I decided to buy an SUV. I saved some credits by buying a super low emission vehicle (SLEV) with above average SUV mpg. Later I lost my Honda civic. So I had to use more of those credits once more to buy a Honda V6 instead of a 4 cylinder. But I believe I still have more credits left even to buy and heat a McMansion at some point in my life. So I have to be careful not to spend too much of my carbon credits. I would rather save the habitat for Sundarbans tigers than owning a McMansion habitat. But then that is what I though when I did not own a car. 'I would rather save the ozone than save a walk'. Saving planet is awfully difficult when you have the means, especially in a 'Super Size It' and indulging society. When some one is urging the public to ride public transportation, they mean what they say. The 'public' to ride public transportation so that there are less cars in the freeway when they cruise along in their Lexus RX 400h.

Friday, March 23, 2007

The cricket - the dangerous way of life

Pakistan team coach Bob Woolmer is found dead in his hotel room after some one strangulated him for reasons unknown at this point. The story is still unfolding with unbelievably sketchy details of corruption crime and betrayal. Entire cricketing fraternity is praying that the investigation does not lead to any one from cricketing world. Money corrupts cricket. Black money kills it.

When British first played cricket, they did not play a sport. It was a way of life for them. The pass time of the aristocracy. They broke for tea and lunch in between. They played days non-stop in the sun, clad in white. It is no longer a gentleman's game. It is a game of black money, match fixing and death. Yes, you can get killed if you coach a team or play cricket.

It was before the television popularized the game of cricket in erstwhile British colonies. My Chacha (Father's younger brother) introduced me to the wonderful game of cricket. I was not presented with a cricket bat and a kit by my rich Chacha on my birth day as you may have betted. My Chacha was a disabled person from childhood polio. He could walk but not without falling down frequently. So he preferred to sit down. In the verandah of the ancestral home, he sat on a wooden bench all day, from dawn to dusk. Waiting for a test to begin.

Cricket was his life. He would listen to BBC radio commentary of every single cricket match that was played. Back then, it was played in 5 days and players did not wear colorful outfits. They wore white trousers and T-shirts. Early mornings and evenings, they wore half sweaters. They broke for tea in the morning and evening. They took an hour lunch break. It was slow and boring at times. They played 5 days of 'outdoor chess' and still did not produce any result. But it was the real 'test' of patience, skills and mind game.

My Chacha went to school and all but dropped out early on after few falls in school. But he learned to understand the English commentary over the years. He could eventually count upto the highest score made by a test team in an innings. (952 by Sri Lanka against India).

Test cricket was his only solace in an otherwise lonely life. He had a small transistor radio and he tuned to BBC sports for English commentary. He took tea break when the test team broke for tea. He ate lunch when the team broke for lunch. When the cricket is played overseas, he quietly listened to the radio when every one was asleep.

India did not win all the time. In fact, they lost most of the times. But they were admired for their sincerity to the game of cricket. The days when the class of the batter is judged by the number of days he camps in the crease frustrating the pace batteries of the world. Sunni's copybook perfection and single minded determination to dominate the fearsome four;Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Malcolm Marshall and Joel Garner.

They were underdogs and they wanted to prove the world that they be taken seriously. Just like the Bangla boys of today. They did not make millions from endorsements but they made billion fans proud when they won the first ever world cup by upsetting the then mightiest West Indies. The image of Kapil clad in Blue blazer hoisting the world cup from the balcony to the fans, never repeated in like or kind.

My Chacha grew increasingly disengaged from life and eventually from Cricket too. The transistor radio stopped playing BBC. It lost its owner and operator. He is no longer in this world to witness India getting out of world cup cricket in the first round by one of the weakest campaigns in recent history. He is not there to hang his head in shame with a billion people. He would be happier dead than living through the times of betting, match fixing and murder in cricket field. Because the purity of cricket meant so much to him. He would prefer the slow boring days of test cricket than the glitz and glamour of celebrity cricketers of India who buckled under pressure every single time without fail since the (in)famous sixer by Miandad of Chetan Sharma. The days when Bollywood actresses flew to Sharjah to watch cricket sitting next to Dawood Ibrahim!

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Why organic is not cool any more; Local is the new organic - kitchen 150

Just when I am about to get cheap organic produce from Walmart and Costco, the game is changed on me. Organic is not good any more. Local is the new Organic!

All of a sudden, transporting organic fish from china and organic apple from New Zealand to far way places like US does not sound politically correct any more. For that matter organic salads from Salinas valley (Northern California) is not consumed in New York without feeling guilty of burning middle eastern oil.

Most of the time it is hard to say what is fashion and what is real. What is sustainable and what is not. What is healthy and what is carcinogenic. Do you trust a cow or a chemist? Do you protect your wallet or earth? What is more important, being able to grind Tellicherry pepper, shipped from half way across the globe, into your platter or use chili from farmers market? Answer is complicated and it changes from time to time and depends on whom you talk.

With food, it has always been very confusing. Some 60 years back, my parents from a small village in Kerala, India, ate whatever they got. Some times it was mangoes from the neighbors trees. Some times it was the rice and vegetables from the family farm. They made yogurt at home. They chased chicken and milked cows. They fished from the nearby creeks. They pulled crabs from the dirt holes next to the running water. They ate pretty much what they could get local and grown organic. But they did not know it had a name. For them it was FOOD.

Well, then they were born at the times of Bengal famine that killed 5 million people in British India. While economists disagree on the causes of the famine, the new government in free India decided to take on the mission of being self sufficient in food. The green revolution in India took roots and India started its mission on industrial scale agriculture with massive dams and canals for irrigation, genetically modified high yield rice and wheat and fertilisers and pesticides. The farming practises changed everywhere including our family rice farms. They used IR-8, high yield genetically modified rice variety. They used Urea and other fertilisers. They used pesticides that included some form of DDT. India started building food warehouses all across India with size larger than Walmart super centers. They transported food across the length and breadth of the country in coal burning rail engines. Famines became a dreadful thing of the past. India started exporting food grains and processed food. Government created a new agency to oversee Agricultural and Processed Food Export Development (APEDA). India became self sufficient in food and assured her children that their photographs will not end up winning the best photograph awards for showing rib cages of poor children in third world countries.

By the time I was a child, we started eating apples and grapes from far away himalayan states.
The food aid from US was beginning to taper. Still saw the stars and stripes for the first time. Vegetables came across the western ghats in the underbelly of the interstate bus routes that crossed mountain divides. We even ate dates shipped from Saudi Arabia.

Then I started reading books. Magazines. I read about vegans. I read how much energy is spent on a chicken before it gives back fraction of it as egg and meat. I was convinced that if we spend a fraction of that energy in producing vegetables, we can feed the entire starving people in the world. So I became a vegetarian. It was tough being a vegetarian in a home where fish is eaten for at least two meals a day. But I survived without chicken, egg and fish. I read about green movement in the western world and swore to god that I will never buy a car that pollutes the air we breath. It was easy for me to decide because I never had any prospect of having the money to buy one. Plus no one I knew owned a car except for the local doctor.

Then I moved to the big city Delhi. I saw people driving imported cars. Scoda Octavia, Opel Astra, Honda City and Even Mercedes. People in Delhi liked to eat at TGIF, McDonald and KFC. They were very impressed with the french fries from McDonald. They thought it was a wonder food. I could not afford McMeal back then! My friends asked me to throw a party at KFC after getting my first job. Fried chicken and biscuits. Meal for 5 cost me more than my month hostel bill. But to be honest, I felt very proud to be able to dine at KFC. It was cool to eat imported food at an imported food joint. Being a vegan did not sound cool in a country where even the predominantly vegetarian Hindus sneaked out and ate chicken nuggets . Being vegan was for the Santa Monica and Mountain View purists who searched for higher purpose in life than just eating good food.

My room mate used to buy pringles and used to give me a few discs. The cucumber from the farmers market did not look very sexy in front of the frozen packaged food the rich started buying in bulk. Traditional lentils curry and wheat roti could not be found in the IT campus cafeteria where hot pizzas were served for free to employees. Dal Roti were served just outside of the sprawling campus in a tin shed dhaba where rikshaw pullers and students ate. There was so much urge to consume everything that was offered in glittering shopping malls and food joints.

Then US dream came calling on me. It was time to come to the US. I told my friends that I will eat KFC when I land in the US. Little did I know about CPK. Shocked to learn that McDonald is a 'cheap' food chain in the US that offerred cheap and fattening fries and burgers. I saw people lined up at In-N-Out drive through. Farmers market was the coolest place to be. I saw people buying tomatoes and vegetables that had far from perfect shapes. The game is changed one me one more time.

Whole foods expanded like corn popping inside the burner. Organic is in and conventional is out. Scare of growth hormones triggering early puberty in kids. Scare of pesticides causing irrecoverable damages to childrens nervous systems. Finally people thought that they found an answer to what causes cancer. It appeared that the the conventional food we bought from Ralphs and Vons caused it all. But the price is steep to buy organic. More over USDA still did not not recognize any health benefits of eating organic. But what do they know about the health effects of chemicals.

For millions of scared parents, the good news came when Walmart announced that they are going to sell Organic produce at fraction of the Whole Foods price. Costco already started carrying organic milk and other produce at reduced price. Organic is beginning to loose its exclusivity. Organic is not romantic any more especially for visionaries like Google food service manager John Dickman who created 'Cafe 150' for googlers where they only cooked that were produced within 150 miles of mountain view. According to him, "Organic was cool at Google in 2004" and now it is local. They cant serve shrimp and scallops since they are not farmed within 150 miles. But that's a small price to pay for being cool.

As a kid growing up in a small village in India, I used to dive at the bottom of the river to collect clams. I never told this story to my US friends lest being ridiculed as Yahoo from third world country. Now I feel cool. I can tell that I ate at 'Cafe 1' that is my mom's kitchen within 1 mile where she cooked the bounty of clams that I collected from river bed. She cooked tapioca roots that I pulled on my way back from school. She grated the coconut that just fell from the tree. She did not know she was a locavore. She was just cooking.

Unlike my mom, Wolfgand Puck knew what he was doing when he served organic and humanely raised French Osetra Caviar for this year Oscar "after party". Next year it will be Oscar 150. That will not include the container of shrimp from China parked at Long Beach!

Local is the new organic TIME Magazine Article

Read my previous post on Organic food. Tips for buyers of conventional produce

Read my previous post on Tellicherry Pepper

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

New mexico professor finds world's hottest chili in Assam - Need any more proof that India is HOT?

Once I went to Santa Fe* and went to a local restaurant and placed an order for Chili Enchilada. The waitress asked me how do I like it; Red, Green or Christmas? Well, in the true Indian tradition of nodding the head in all directions, when confused, I ordered Christmas. I was pleasantly surprised when the platter came with one side green chili sauce and on the other red. Boy was it hot! Wait, its gonna get even hotter.

According to Guinness world records, New Mexico professor finds world's hottest chili pepper. Its called Bhut Jolokia (also called Naga Jolokia) from Assam, India and it rates at 1,001,304 Scoville heat units, which measures hotness (Number of times the chili extract needs to be diluted in sugar water before no trace of hotness is tasted). This chili pepper is nearly twice as hot as Red Savina, the variety it replaces. Professor Paul Bosland says Bhut Jolokia translates as ghost chili. The ghost chili grows mostly on hilly terrain and is considered a staple of every meal in the northeast. Next time you see Andhra chilli pickle in Indian grocery store, don't assume that its the "hottest" thing in the world.

After Guinness nod to Indian chili, woman to set record eating it

* Santa Fe is state capital of New Mexico and I drove past 'downtown' looking for it! Its amazing how they could maintain the low profile hamlet feel of this tiny state capital

Monday, February 12, 2007

Can Resveratrol help you age slower - Dont gulp the red wine yet

Resveratrol, a new medical fad? We thought it was anti oxidants that helps us fight the wrinkles.
David Sinclair of the Harvard Medical School has found that resveratrol increases the activity of a protein called SIRT1. Resveratrol significantly increases the lifespan of yeast and mice. There is hope that it could do the same for humans. A number of beneficial health effects, such as anti-cancer, antiviral, neuroprotective, anti-aging, anti-inflammatory and life-prolonging effects have been reported in non-human species (e.g. rats). Resveratrol is found in the skin of red grapes and as a constituent of red wine but based on extrapolation from animal trials, apparently not in sufficient amounts to explain the “French paradox” that the incidence of coronary heart disease is relatively low in southern France despite high dietary intake of saturated fats.

Millions of dollars are pouring in to the research of Resveratrol in the search of cure for "disease of aging" and Sinclair and his team is in the forefront of that research.
Wine molecule slows aging process

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Wahhabification of Kerala? - How a cultural melting pot is begining to show signs of boiling

Los Angeles Times ran a front page story today (Jan 28, 2007) about how migrants returning from the Persian Gulf with stricter views on Inslam are altering the melting pot in an Indian province of Kerala.

It was not long ago when hindus visited islamic shrines and offered prayer before a sufi saints. I was there in one of the jungle shrine on the way to a hindu temple called Mamanam Temple in North Malabar during my school days. The islamic shrine is called Nilamuttam (Courtyard of moon light) in the midst of green forests of western ghats. I stood with my parents infront of the shrine with equal if not more reverence and god fear with which we stood infront of the hindu diety we prayed an hour ago. It was mesmeric and was an early education to me about the organic harmony with which two religions coexisted in Kerala.

Last time I checked with my parents, the hindu visitors are not visiting the islamic shrine any more. I dont know the reasons. It could be that hindu extremists started spreading word that its an insult to their god that the hindu visitors stopping by an islamic shrine after the temple visit. It is also possible that doors of the shrine are closed for hindu visitors. Either ways, its a sad thing that happened to Kerala psyche. It looks like the trend is not singular. The pull to the extremes are getting stronger as years pass by. Los Angeles Times article chronicles the wahabi part of the story. But other side of the story deserves mention. When my cousin showed up at work in Saudi on Dec 7, 1992, the day after Hindu extremists demolished a disputed centuries old mosque-temple Babri Masjid, his arabic manager asked him, 'Are you guys getting more intolerant towards our brothers in India?'. He did not have an answer. Let us hope that Kerala find her answer by keeping its tradition of beinga true melting pot that never boils over.

Read the Los Angeles Times report

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Dor; a must see movie for every Indian - Nagesh Kukunoor's Jodhpur Blues

Nagesh is not the regular Bollywood type and you can always expect something special, something different from this chemical engineer from Georgia Institute of Technology.

A young man from Jodhpur dies in Saudi. Another man from Himachal is accussed of pushing the man from the balcony and waiting for a pardon from the victim's wife to avoid execution. Wife of the accused travels to far away jodhpur to find the victim's wife and convince her to get a pardon to save her husband's life.

From Merril Diniz in Rediff movie review:

"Dor is a must-watch for all Indians; the core message transcends religion, community, strata and gender and it has a superb anti-climax. The film is entertaining and also has multiple messages that are delivered in the subtlest manner. And there are many highlights. The film is aesthetically shot against picturesque locations in Himachal and Rajasthan and some of the scenes shot in Jodhpur simply take your breath away. The script is engaging; the dialogues entertaining, witty and yet quite profound. You also have several sub-plots that surround the main story. And every scene seems to have been well etched out."

If you wonder how the pardon letter can remain in the dessert sand after hours of dropping it, loosing hope of getting a pardon from the victim's wife, then you are not alone. If you wondered about the transformation of the con artist Behroopia from a bag stealer into a companion in the search of pardon, then also you are not alone. Even Kukunoor has his blues! He is too parallel for Bollywood and too bollywood for Satyajith Rai school. No wonder why he looks at a loss at Filmfare night. But no probs. What you show to us is worth all the pardon!

I am yet to see the Malayalam film Perumazhakkalam directed by Kamal, starring actresses Meera Jasmine and Kavya Madhavan, which inspired the storyline of this movie.

Read the review

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Longest ever speech delivered in the UN Security Council - 50 year anniversary of V.K Krishna Menon's speech

It was 50 years ago today (Jan 23 1957) V.K Krishna Menon started delivering a marathon 7 hour 48 minute speech in UN Security Council on Kashmir issue as a reponse to Pakistan Foreign Minsiter's speech a week earlier. Not Menon's flow of words but a single nyet (NO in Russian) uttered by Russia's Arkady Sobolev called a halt to the U.N.'s efforts to mediate in Kashmir, little over a month after his speech.

By casting the Soviet Union's 79th veto in the Security Council, Sobolev effectively killed a resolution, jointly sponsored by the U.S., Cuba. Britain and Australia, to send Council President Gunnar Jarring of Sweden to Kashmir as a step "toward the settlement of the dispute." The resolution did not mention plebiscite, but noted in passing that former U.N. resolutions calling for demilitarization and a plebiscite in Kashmir had so far been ignored.

If you have time to read the 8 hour long speech click the link below.

Read Krishna Menon's Speech at UN

Trivia: V.K Krishna Menon probably is the most famous tea drinker in the world. He used to drink as much as 30 cups of tea a day which made him collapse in a heap at UN. His doctor said he was "a very sick man" who had been working too hard while sustaining himself on "about 30 cups of tea a day, absorbing all of the salt in his body." If you want to know what happens when you drink too much fluid, read my previos blog.

Too much water?

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Pronunciation tips for Desi tongue - lucky you, if you are trained at a call center

The problem most desis (including me) face when speaking English has similar pattern. I am not talking about the accent or emphasis on certain sounds but something more basic. Most of the time the problem is in translating the English vowels into Devanagari. We mix up अ and ए for A, इ and ए for E, ऐ and इ for I and अ and ओ for O. Most of the time we get it right. But some times we mix up.

May be the examples below can be of help to you if you are like me who frequently gets
'I dont understand what you are saying' look from walmart associates when asking for pecan (p-ई-k--n) aisle (इ-l) :) OK I exaggerated a bit...but here are some samples that we often goof up.

Note - The dash is just to separate english letters from Hindi. Not to suggest any phonetic pause.

Aisle - Do not ask for an इ-l seat. Ask for -l seat
Apple - This is a classic mallu (thats me) issue. Do not eat आ-pple, eat ए-pple
Can't -Do not say K-आn't, say K-ए-n't
Configuration - Do not say k--nfiguration, say k-अ-nfiguration
Data - D-ए-ta and D-अ-ta are OK
Deposit - Do not D-ए-posit your money, D-इ-posit it.
Detail - Ask for D-इ-tails or D-ई-tails, you will get it either ways.
Dinosaur - D-ऐ-nos-ओ-r
Direction - Ask for D-इ-rection, not D--rection
Economy - Indian
इ-k-ओ-n-अ-my is booming. Not -k-ओ-n-अ-my
Feminine - Appreciate F-ए-m-इ-n-इ-n beuty NOT F-ए-m-इ-n-ऐ-n beuty
Finance - F-ऐ-nance OR F-इ-nance - bot are fine
Garbage - G-
आ-rb-ए-j NOT G-आ-rb--j
Garage - Your car is in the G
-अ-r-आ-j or G-अ-r-आ-sh NOT in G-अ-r--j
Hi - Say H-आइ NOT H
Hello - Say H-अ-llo NOT H-ए-llo
Manager - Ask for a M-
Naive - N
-अई-v. Dont be a N-ऐ-v
Narrate - N-ए-rr-ए-t a story. Dont N-आ-rrate
Oven - Heat in an -v-ए-n NOt in ओ-v-अ-n
Oscar - Watch ओ-sk-अ-r awards, NOT ओ-sk--r awards
Pecan - Never ever ask for buuter p-ई-k-ए-n icecream. You will NOTget it. Ask for p-इ-k-आ-n OR p-इ-k-ए-n OR p-ई-k-ए-n
Valet - Park your car with v-आ-l-ए or v-आ-l-एt. Both will park your car.
Vinyl - Do you have V
-ऐ-n-अ-l floor or V--n-अ-l floor? You have the first one.
Wallet - I have a long story to tell about this. I had to spell this to walmart associate. Never ask for v--llet ask for v-ओ-llet
Walnut -

Its really N
अts.. but cant help it :)

Colbert corrects himself to pick Amitabh - Why its all part of the plan to woo Indian audience

Colbert show did not become what it is now for nothing. He is smart and knows how to market his show. He highlighted the celebrity feud between Bollywood's King and Prince, Amitabh and Sharukh in his show. He picked Sharukh for his toe teasing dance using Bhangra-Meter. (Hint to webster: new word of the year??)

Read about the previous show

Now he does it again but this time picked Big B, citing his dancing performance in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (KKKG). He did this in an apparent attempt to cool the nerves of the edgy tech support guys in India, upset about his pick SRK in his previous show. Folks, it is all part of the plan. Don't be surprised if he invites Karan Johar to have Koffee in his show. He also dropped the 'H' word when mentioning about his Hindu audience. Little did he know that an Afghan muslim in Kabul and a Saudi Prince is equally hurt first and rejoiced later. Bollywood is secular (why do you think we have a Hindu King and Muslim Prince in Bollywood?). But we accept your aplogy Mr Colbert, since you are our well wisher and we like your show more than papa bear's.

Watch Video on Youtube