Saturday, June 16, 2018

Just another year ...

We keep saying "time flies" , "gosh I did not realize we are in 201X " , "wow we are already half way through the year, just feels like it started a few days ago". I have used this many times and have always got "I know right" or something on similar lines to indicate the other person also totally agrees with that thought.  To best of my knowledge, earth still rotates the same way it used to and goes around the sun the same way it used to ... but we are losing track of how things move, despite them moving as fast as they used to.

Speaking of things moving fast, it just seems like not so long ago that I moved to US for an year or so as I explained to others. I really had visa for just 8 months, so that was the story I went with  as one is never sure if visa will get renewed or not. Once it did get renewed, it was granted for exactly another 1 year. The story changed to just another year more. Somewhere in the middle of April this year it actually has been 5 years since I relocated from India. The milestone date, came and went without much fanfare. I should really be more surprised as I never expected to stay here so long really. Yes, really!

When I managed to land a project in the city of my first preference - Seattle, it was a great feeling. I knew I was going to a foreign land of unknown to take up a work assignment which was new to me in a new team and in totally new place. So many folks asked me why are you going away into such an unknown when I was doing really well at that point in my role and was in a good team and was primed for fast growth in India.  I somehow felt that for the industry I was in, it was very valuable to get an experience working in US for career progression.  So once my project and start date was confirmed, I called up my friend Ramki who was living in Seattle and was with the same company as me but worked for a different client. During our conversation on life in Seattle and how to adapt, what to get from India etc.. I think I must have mentioned a few times that this was a short visit and I meant to stay only for an year or two at max to pick up some international experience. Ramki stopped me there and added with a hint of smile in his voice, "Anush, no one who moves here goes back within an year. How much ever you insist that will be the case or you are different, I personally don't know anyone without visa issue or urgent personal issues needing them to be back in India ever going back voluntarily despite what they claim at first, and knowing you I don't think you will either." It did turn out to be prescient any way!

This is something I have heard from several others as well that they never thought they will be here so long, but ended up staying. So many friends mentioned that they never enrolled in 401k savings ( retirement fund to which employer also contributes) because they thought they had come for just an year or so and why take time to set-up all these things. That includes me as well, we all just left money on the table by not enrolling in retirement plans.  Another interesting conversation I had a few years back on this topic was when I traveled in a cab once in Dallas and the driver was from Nicaragua and we were chatting in general and he told me he had also come to US  a few decades back with exactly the same thoughts that he will come here for an year or two and make some money and head back home to be with family. He said every year he used to tell himself that just another year and he will go back to his home country. Apparently that was more than 30 years back. Now there is no immediate family left in his country to even go back to.However I told myself that he had come from a troubled country where there was not much prospects unlike my situation where the country I left is moving ahead rapidly.

This is a topic I bring up often when I meet up with old friends or have long conversations with them . Almost all of my friends are folks in IT who came to US on work visa from India and were working here . Most of them own and live in their own homes here in US. When I ask whether they intended to settle down here, the answer was either no probably not or I'm not sure. But they clearly don't have any immediate plan to wind up and head back to India even though it is there somewhere in the back of the mind somewhere. I don't own a home here, avoided that as that could be a huge grounding factor but no clear plans on return as of now either. So we all continue in a limbo, with no clear plan to stay or settle down anywhere. Which I think is fine and we keep saying just another year and then we will see!  

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

2017 - List of books

So its that time of the year when I come back to my much neglected blog and put up my reading list of previous year. Something I have been doing throughout this decade along with my cousins who have a much bigger and super interesting  year end book lists put up on their blogs here & here.

Well back to the list, this year all my reading was done on Kindle ebooks which has been a conscious decision and over the last 2-3 years I migrated to mostly ebooks and this is the first year it has been exclusively ebooks. I don't think its the future ( it may well be), but I think this makes it much easier to read as I do read using my laptop and even Mobile phone. So makes it much easier and reading on phone is one of the reasons I have been able to progress with my reading this year.

Enough of analysis, without further ado here is the list and some thoughts on a few books

1.Open - Andre Agassi

Really enjoyed this one. Like several books in this list, this was a book I wanted to read for a long time having seen most of the matches/tournaments described in the books during my childhood days. I was a huge Sampras fan but towards the later stages of his career I did not mind Agassi winning. The book is like its title, really open and was an entertaining read. I hope to read the one from Sampras this year to see how things stack up the other end of the court. I don't think anyone can match the colorful narration from Agassi though!

2.Things Fall Apart: African Trilogy, Book 1 by Chinua Achebe

Recommended by my friend Ramki, this was an excellent read and is a classic I guess. Story of clash of traditional/animist culture with Colonialism & christianity

3.Ghachar Ghochar  by Vivek Shaunbag & Srinath Perur

4.NW: A Novel by Zadie Smith

5. Moonglow: A Novel by Michael Chabon

6.A Farewell to Walmart by Carly J Hallman

I decided to try something different from usual fare and picked some Kindle singles - which is books from new/upcoming authors and this being set in rural Texas not very far from where I live made me pick it up. Was about growing up in small town America and the impact of Walmart on the local economy and life of folks there.

7.Paper or Plastic? : The grocery store chronicles by Ricky Bylina

Kindle pitched this to be based on the one above - its diary account of a person who recently retired and decided to work an year as night shift checkout clerk at a local big brand grocery store

8.Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

Had heard a lot about this one and it really was a page turner! Filmy yes but readable as well and glimpse into world of nouveau riche from Asia

9.Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike - by Phil Knight

10.Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier - by Edward Glaeser

11.River of Gods by Ian McDonald

Dystopian sci-fi set in future with AI out loose trying to escape humans and running amok, might seem standard stuff but what made this interesting for was this being set in India of 2047 ( a century after independence) which has split into several nations at war/conflict with each other over water. AI has progressed to attain consciousness and there is a squad to catch rogue AI called Krishna cops. The story is mainly set in Varanasi on the banks of river Ganga. He also introduces a new neutral gender ( nutes) and the story is a mismash of several characters and how their lives intersect which is standard potboiler stuff, but having this set in India  and incorporating some Indianness in the concept made it a really good read for me

12.A Walk in the woods - Bill Bryson

I read one book from Bill Bryson every year and this one was about his attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail . Interesting and hilarious with loads and loads of trivia and information tossed in as usual was a good read for me.

13.Consider Phlebas: Culture Series, Book 1 - by Iain M. Banks

Among the best stuff in science fiction perhaps, really liked this intro to culture series which I heard several times earlier and finally decided to start this year. Enjoyed this one and hope to read more of this series in 2018. Excellent stuff!

14.Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist's Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations - by Thomas L. Friedman

15.Streaming, Sharing, Stealing: Big Data and the Future of Entertainment - by Michael D. Smith

16. The second machine age - by Erik Brynjolfsson, Andrew McAfee

17. Digital Gold: Bitcoin and the Inside Story of the Misfits and Millionaires Trying to Reinvent Money - by  Nathaniel Popper

Good accessible primer on origins and history of the most discussed term of the year perhaps - Bitcoin. I thought it gave a good idea of how bitcoin originated and looked at its evolution and adoption through the people behind it from libertarians to cyberpunks and tech geeks to dark web pioneers to astute businessmen and silicon valley VCs who were able to see the future. The concept of bitcoin and 'blockchain' piqued my interest sometime in the middle of this year and I quickly realized learning about the fundamentals is more important that the price action and this was one the first books I read to learn more.

18. The Ivory Throne  by Manu S Pillai

Last year I read a book on Vijayanagar empire and decided to try and read at least one book every year related to South India. So it was Kerala this year and this book by Manu S Pillai on travancore royal family through last few centuries with focus on the ruling queen Sethu Lakshmi Bai. Very well researched and narrated and a good read for anyone interested in Kerala's history. Covers this mostly from ruler's perspective from 1500s onwards but also spends time covering the customs and practices as well especially the matrilineal system and how women had much better rights in the medieval society than modern one! Highly recommend this one

19. Fifty Inventions that shaped the modern economy by Tim Harford

Fascinating stuff, the only book from 2017 in this list. I had listened to Tim Harford on BBC podcasts talking about this and was sufficiently intrigued to pre-order this book. Was a good read

20. An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything - by Chris Hadfield

I had attended some training session in office and a guy played some cool videos and this was one the books the guy in the cool video suggested.

21. Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan

Having lived for 6 months in Dubai and having interacted with folks there I have heard about the life there first hand. By now most folks know that life in desert paradise is not easy for the immigrant worker with minimum rights and how they get fleeced and are 'kept in their place' even though they do end up earning several times what they make back home in Indian subcontinent. This book covers all that and explores what these identity-less/powerless temporary migrants to gulf nations (who are in fact majority of the population in those nations) go through but is told with inventive prose with dash of magical realism thrown liberally. Just like gleaming immaculate cities in desert nations which look fantastic at surface but you really peer closer you see all the inequalities, injustice and stuff. The book I think is not everyone's cup of tea, there is not a single straight forward story, but most of them are metaphorical takes. I think through the surreal stories he conveys the rigid hierarchical and racist society and the precarious world of a lowly migrant worker and covers some instances when these worlds clash and disastrous consequences. Knowledge of Malayalam was a big plus while reading

So that's the list, 21 this time. 

Did I say 21 books, may not be much but 20 was the lofty target I had set for myself for 2017 and glad I actually crossed it. I covered a lot of ground middle of the year when I was working from home and had relatively light work load between projects. I wanted to read a little more fiction this year as I was moving towards reading non-fiction by default and wanted to break that habit. So this time it was 8 fiction and 13 non-fiction which seems to be good ratio, since I don't get time to sit down and read mostly and get disturbed often. Except for 4 books, all the rest were borrowed from library for free so big thanks to US library system and their Kindle integration which made it really easy for me to put 'holds' get notified via email and click a link and add it to my Kindle effortlessly.

I'm hoping to read more varied list of books in 2018, I'm positive I may not make it to 20 with all the learning targets I have set for myself. Last year I spent a lot of time trying to reequip myself with more skills to succeed careeer-wise and enrolled in a few programs in Coursera. I hope to spend lot more time on those things this year and so setting myself a target of 15 books and also hoping to use Goodreads at least this year. At least it will make putting this list up easy!

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Dude, wheres my car?!

So it was warm  hot Saturday morning and that particular weekend was a 'Tax-Free' weekend ( yes its a real thing) in the state of Texas. So the wife and I decided to quickly head to the big mall nearby to visit a couple of large retail stores ( JCP, Macys etc) to do some quick shopping if we found something good. My wife's parents who had been with us for a few months in US were returning back to India and as is customary in Indian homes, wanted to get some small gifts for friends and family in India. So for men the safe bet usually is t-shirts and my wife wanted to pick a couple of good shirts for her dad as well.  Being able to buy stuff without paying taxes was a good deal and usually most stores top it off with good discounts to encourage people to buy more stuff. Shopping is US usually is  really easy but difficult. The easy part is being able to access stores easily and the hard part is that its a time consuming process mainly because there are too many choices all of them very similar and confusing. So we reached the mall , this being Texas with so much space available the whole mall was spread out over a large area and so was the parking. Plus it was a hot summer day so I dropped my wife very near the entrance to JC Penney store which was the first store we were planning to cover and then parked the car somewhat close to that store.

So we went in covered a few stores and bought the t-shirts. It was almost lunch time and we were hungry and wanted to get back quickly. So we came out and I walked straight to where I parked my car think I parked my car and could not spot it. It was almost mid day and was hot outside as I started walking through rows and rows of  exceptionally large parking lot pressing my car key hoping for my car to answer the call. Nothing, nothing at all.

Which reminds me this was not really the first time this had happened, this has happened many times earlier but within 5 mins I would find my car. Truth be told usually my wife would locate the car as she used to remember where we parked much better than me. Last time I really struggled was almost an year back in the exact same place by a strange coincidence. It was the Thanksgiving day 2016, the day means something to lot of people but for so many of us its the day for retail shopping where retailers give massive discounts on some products which some sensible careful shopper utilize well to get good deals, but most of us just go crazy and buy lot of junk. So on thanksgiving day 2016, here I was looking to buy suitcase for the trip to India that weekend. Rest of the family was already in India and since I did not have too many vacation leaves that year had to follow them after a few weeks. I did get a good deal and picked a big suitcase and a smaller suitcase. I was carrying both suitcases and came out to parking area and realized I had no clue where I had parked my car. I did walk around for 15 mins but it was November and the weather was beautiful and at no point was I unduly worried. I was frustrated at not being able to locate my car quickly and lugging two suitcases (even though they had wheels) did not make the matters easy. I had a rough idea about how much distance I would have walked to the door to the mall from where I parked so using that as guideline. I slowly started walking through each and every likely row of parked cars and kept pressing my car key and in sometime spotted my car. After getting back I started thinking won't it be wonderful if there was mobile app which tracks where you parked your car. Upon checking I was not surprised to find that there were hundreds of apps. But remembering to use it was always going to be a challenge unless you rely on google which for sure never stops tracking you ( Yeah I know you do track everything). The Google maps app lets you mark the place where you parked as well but was not very easy to use. Long story short there are apps if you feel you always forget so that's longer an excuse, but didn't seem to score well in easy of use.

Back to the present, initially it was amusing to start wandering in circles in exactly the same place as last year - proper DeJa Vu. Last time I was on my own but this time I had my wife who is usually better organized and composed in such situations. So I told her how I did it last time and mentioned how much distance approximately I would have walked from where I parked the car to the door through which I entered the mall today. So we split up and approached from opposite ends and started going through each row to identify the car.Then I saw another couple wandering around like me totally lost and pressing their key, they used the 'panic' button and few rows away their car started emitting loud beeps and owners and vehicle were reunited. I tried doing the same on my car key and again nothing, so maybe I was out of range. I kept doing this for a while now and completed all the rows where I suspected I could have parked. By now I was covered with sweat not just from  wandering under hot sun but more from dread as the panic button thing was the last step and usually always works as long as you are somewhere in the vicinity of the vehicle. By now I was seriously considering the possibility that someone could have stolen the car, I could feel my heart beating faster and things were getting a bit woozy as I could not think of any other possibility. Auto theft was supposed to very very rare here. It was open parking but this was a good decent suburb of Dallas and this city was supposed to be 2nd most safest city in the state and in top-20 safest cities in the country. So it did not really make any sense, maybe if I was dumb enough to leave my keys in ignition or drop it near the car someone could have tried to steal it. But stealing car in such a public place would be stupid but you never know maybe some dumb guys decided to try their luck and picking an ordinary everyday car might make sense. I started walking back into the mall thinking about what I need to do next. The first step I thought would be to go to the mall authorities and alert them and ask them to call cops maybe and then  book a cab for my wife to go back home and then ... Before I could go forward with that line of thought my wife came running towards me and told me we were not searching in the right place. She said she was positive we have come out of a different exit from the mall and we are nowhere near where we parked. Suddenly a feeling of relief washed over me within a second I felt better and from a worried frown sported a sheepish smile.

We went back into the mall through JC Penney store which itself was very huge and had 5-6 different entry/exit doors, all doors and signs outside looked  alike but it didn't take much effort to find the section of the store through which we had originally entered a couple of hours back and I went out into the parking area and easily spotted my car and my breathing became normal again

I think I had wandered around for 20 mins looking for my car  and it was easy to laugh it off and with most problems we ignore when we solve it. I did try to take some positive steps like clicking a pic of the row number to spot where I park. I do the clicking pic part every time I park my car in airport multi-level parking as there is no way I will spot my car otherwise and it could take the whole day to locate the car in such places if you have no clue! What really scares me is the scenario where I forget to take the pic and then run around, though we all like to avoid being too dependent on technology I'm now veering towards grudgingly accepting some tech solution. I'm going to find some way for my phone to track where I park my vehicle and then to tell me how to get to my car when I ask it next time I forget where I parked. Maybe we will soon have a way to speak into your phone and say "Ok Google / Alexa / Siri where did I park my car?" ...At least until we get into autonomous cars or partially autonomous cars and that day does not seem to be very far away either!

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Lucky Break

The year 2011 was a stressful and tiring year for her. Throughout the year she remembers slogging hard at work, there was work and more work. Work kept her occupied till late in the day  during the week and most of the times on weekends as well. What made it worse was that the project was managed poorly and deadlines were arbitrary and the manager expected everyone to give up personal life and just focus on work. Speaking of personal life nothing much was moving well there as well, as most friends had drifted away into relationships or lived in other cities and for her an arranged marriage was on cards as well. Her parents had agreed to wait for a few years until as she wanted to focus on her career for a while and that time had run out. Not only the parents the whole extended family and well wishers were constantly talking about finding a suitable match for her. It did irk initially but now that she had settled into a routine of working till late in evening and arriving home by 10 pm, these things never bothered her. After all those long hours, something had to give and recognition came in form of a meeting with onsite manager in UK. He wanted to get her to UK soon and mentioned it will help her move further in career.
Back home the reaction was not all that great as she expected, parents were happy at her getting recognized as good performer and being offered opportunity to work abroad. But there was also fear that this may delay her marriage search but she had decided she was travelling and that was it. She was to travel in March of 2012 and towards end of Jan the visa interview was set-up. After a bleak and tiring year things seemed to have turned a corner in the  new year ... and then it happened a few days before the visa interview!
She cannot remember how exactly it happened but somehow while visiting her cousin's house two floors above in same apartment her foot slipped on the stairs and she landed awkwardly flight of stairs below with severe pain at the point of impact - her left hand. She was quickly taken to a specialist who took x-rays and confirmed it was a fracture.  Doctor advised taking 4 weeks break for the arm to heal. Suddenly all plans had gone for a toss and the UK trip was now out of question as the role had to be filled by next month so someone else will end up taking her place while she sat at home. Missing work for a whole month would mean she will fall back at work and will no longer be assured of the top rating that seemed to be in the bag. While she was lost in thoughts and feeling sad about herself, the doctor was chatting up with her parents and had discovered that she was in 'marriage market' and had suggested a few suitable boys he knew which drove her even more mad. Here she was in pain and ruing about the missed chance to do some exciting work abroad and all these guys can talk about is marriage. The doctor was not done yet, he delivered an epic closing line with a smile to her.  "Let this be a lucky break for you"

Lucky break indeed, sitting at home bored out of wits with an arm in cast she could not understand what was lucky in this. But the break from routine was welcome, spending time at home during the day was a good change. Not having to get up feeling sleepy and rushing off in hot Chennai morning in crowded bus and heavy traffic was a welcome change as well. Break allowed her to see things better in terms of life and career. And just as she was getting slightly tired and bored about confined at home a marriage proposal had come. Her mom passed the details of this boy they thought was ok based on profile and his family was interested as well and here was the phone number. The boy wants to talk on phone before taking anything further, that suited her as well. 

So numbers were exchanged and they spoke to each other cautiously at first. She had lots of free time and was bored out of wits so was eager to talk to someone and they hit off really well very soon they were talking for a couple of hours daily. He would text whenever he got free and if she was free which she was for most part they would talk. Pretty soon it was becoming apparent that they were comfortable talking to each other and this moved to serious territory. But with like all things she wanted to keep hopes down so decided to approach this causally. After a few weeks, he suggested meeting up in person to decide if this will work. Meet-up for coffee was at mall nearby which was usually very crowded and the food court was a very noisy place as she remembered it. 
So the day arrived and she caught an auto and went there. The place looked super crowded and she still had pain in fractured arm and dreaded moving through the crowds.He was waiting outside and looked just like she expected. Though mall entrance was crowded, he had identified a different entrance which was not crowded and it had an elevator which they took to reach the intended floor and he marched her straight into a home furnishing and gift store which was odd. She was surprised to find a good coffee shop inside which gave them enough privacy to sit and talk. Sit and talk they did for a long time and finally it was time to leave. Standard operating procedure that she was aware for such meetings is to play it safe at the end of the meeting and part well. Whether you like the person or not was usually conveyed subsequently over phone or text. So as they were about to get up she mentioned the usual lines of lets think about how to proceed next and we can drop each other text message later today.

But she was met with a smile and he just got up and said "I don't know about you, but I like you a lot and I'm very much interested in proceeding. What do you think?". She had decided to keep the expectations low as she walked in and think later in the day. So this was a surprise and she is not sure how and or when she made up her mind but she found herself smiling back while saying "Its ok from my side as well". So they walked out together ...

Now 5 years later on warm summer morning in Texas as she wakes up next to him she has to admit that it was a lucky break indeed

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Mostly Tweetless

I have always been an information and trivia junkie and was an avid quizzer, so used to read magazines, newspapers and then blogs and various websites  and eventually social media to get regular feed of information.  Blogs and Social media just made it lot more convenient, and with a smart phone it was even easier consume all this information. 7 years back I started using twitter slowly over web and also on phone. After moving to  US with much better wifi access and 4G/LTE availability it became really easy to use twitter on phone. It was a treasure trove of information, insight and it was such a fun place initially. conventional media folks and opinion makers were less active. Of course it depends of the people you follow and the conversations they have but initially to me it appeared to be a gentler place with good meaningful conversations, lot of puns and certainly lot of fun. All sorts of topics were covered but it seemed more like extension of the world of blogging. Twitter replaced quickly replaced Facebook for me. Another big plus was people were polite and civil and respected others and courteous in interactions and totally cool guys you admired for their wit, knowledge or their ability to articulate their views and engage in good meaningful debates/discussions. I think I learnt a lot and got exposed to so many ideas and learnt a lot. Then twitter started getting more and more popular and slowly things changed

Lot of celebrities took to twitter with gusto and most journalists also joined in actively, followed by politicians and their followers and almost anyone who is someone. World over major events started getting covered well on twitter with news articles and opinion and discussions. Everyone famous was using twitter to reach out quickly to a huge audience. It totally replaced the newspaper and 'news' programs on TV to get my daily fix of latest news. My  Twitter TL was my window to the world and it was always accessible and fitted on my palm (almost). Even though I live in US, majority of my twitter feed was India based or events related to India. So twitter became source for my India news and helped me stay connected to the country and the latest trends and at the same time US and global news as well.

Somewhere around that time lot of things changed, as more and more people joined the quality of discourse dropped as well. From seeking and sharing interesting information, it moved to a platform for spreading and sharing information and setting or controlling opinion.  It became a mixture of facts ,opinion, interpretation and the line or difference between both blurred totally. The pull this medium exerts and its appeal is tremendous, I would put it down to combination of how easy it is to voice your viewpoint and no controls or checks and lack of consequence. Trolling and hatred became more common and widespread. Lines were drawn and folks were labelled quickly and people divided themselves into camps. It was like the sorting hat from Harry Potter universe suddenly appeared and divided everyone into clear groups. Instead of meaningful conversation or discussion, trolling, bullying and mob culture took over. Slowly I realized that I had also fallen down the rabbit hole. There was outrage every other day over something or other which no one will remember within a few months and I found myself joining them. This was like those reality shows, with constant fights which no one would even remember later but viewers turn up all the same.  It took some time to realize and gradually I think I learnt to come out the 'outrage' trap. Every one had 'expert' opinion on most topics which was ok but they also expected you to agree that what they state is correct and on the other side folks who do not agree not only disagree but display total hatred and anger not just at the opinion but at the person who shared the opinion and anyone who agrees to that opinion. The whole world was getting viewed as black or white and there was absence of nuance or consideration of other view points. I was searching for an apt metaphor or quote to capture this and I found one yesterday in one of the lectures I was listening to in a different context. But it easily applies for all the twitter conversations as well. People use statistics/data just like a drunk uses lamp post, for support rather than illumination

I had a conversation with a cousin about how addictive twitter  was and how crazy it has been and we both agreed that pruning the list of folks we follow and trying to keep controversial things like politics will help.  Clearly this was no longer the place for me to relax, get information about what was happening around me and get information to improve myself. None of that was happening as most of it was 'shout-fest' or people with extreme opinions. Also it seemed like someone was out there slipping some outrage worthy topics on regular basis and folks just go bat-shit crazy over them and real questions are never come up. Things that really matter and hard conversations never come up. Sure there was good stuff but the hatred and outrage was overwhelming and crowding out the good stuff. Sometime in January 2017, I un-followed lot of folks and also decided to cut the time I spend on twitter. Decided to check it only in the mornings just like how I used to read newspapers back in the days when I used to get daily newspapers and another 30 mins as I hit the bed at night. This arrangement seem to work and during the day the spare time available was channeled to other productive pursuits like reading and studying something useful on Coursera.

After 3 months I realized it did help and I was no longer addicted to twitter and could even contemplate totally leaving it. I did read a lot of books, could finish books at twice the usual speed taken in last 3-4 years. Was able to devote more time for family and successfully completed my first course certificate on coursera. Again exiting twitter or social media totally  was never the aim. I do believe this is a very useful medium and you can learn a lot of useful stuff to improve your life as well. Over last 7 years I think my life has benefited a lot from all the information I gleamed off the platform. But fitting it into daily life was a challenge and this way it seemed to be working. Still I did have this question on how would it be if I totally went off social media for a week, just to see if it really matters that much? I could never know because it was impossible for me to resist checking Twitter or even FB during mornings on my phone last 3 months.

And then it happened ... just like that the twitter app on my phone asked me for password. I just did not remember and after couple of failed attempt decided this was a chance for me to take a break from twitter. It has been 5 days now and as of now I don't think I missed anything I have been sleeping okay and this whole week have gone for my morning walk/run without fail. Have also been able to focus enough to update this blog a few times. So hoping to extend this break from all social media (except whatsapp) for another 10 days just to see what happens ...

Update: The break did not extend as long as planned, I got my twitter password issue fixed on 19th, so at least I was out for about 10 days overall. I could get by for while without twitter, but as a side-effect I started using facebook on a daily basis. I used to check FB just once in a couple of months and last 1 week I used that twitter alternative as similar stuff is going there as well with people ranting for and against in various issues. The quality of discussions is much lower than twitter. So eventually I think getting back to twitter is better. But I did un-follow a lot of folks - removed 60 and added a few tech folks who tweet about things of interest to me. Decided not to engage at all on political topics, not because it does not matter. More so because this kind of debates don't interest me any longer as it is reduced to brawls, cheap point scoring, always finding faults and making snide remarks about those whose views/actions you don't agree. Its a good representation of the reality no doubt but for now I will let it go. So aim is to follow and engage with more meaningful topics and lets see if this approach makes any difference

Friday, May 12, 2017

Balakrishnan Sir and the Computer Class

I currently work in Digital product marketing/sales area and through out  my career I have been in IT related jobs. My generation grew up with technology which appeared out of nowhere and became ubiquitous. During the last 10 years things have moved at a rapid pace with ever increasing availability of computing power and internet through laptops, smartphone, tablets  into hands of a wide majority of population, more and more adoption of gadgets and these social media apps. For kids these days it must be impossible to imagine a world without internet, mobile phones and computers. But 25 years ago that's how the world was at least in the India I grew up in. Kids my age had a faint idea about computers and no one had any inkling of what is was for and let alone the world it could create

I'm reminded of an incident related to our first brush with computers around 25 years back in my Upper Primary school ( Middle school) in a small city in Kerala. My school was a Govt Aided Private school, so considered a good one in that area but was nowhere among top schools of the city. It was run by a private trust and charged only modest fees and so were the facilities. School to be honest did not really look like a school from outside, it had a large and long courtyard with lot of coconut trees leading up to a typical Kerala style tiled house with multiple levels. First building had 3-4 classrooms for class 5.Then right behind the main house was lot of space which doubled as another playground and then there was another tile roofed structure which was also a ramshackle building like the one in front and this one also had a few classrooms for Class 6. Then right next to it there was a 'proper' concrete building which looked nothing like all other buildings in that compound and was really neat and modern and it housed classrooms for 7th standard , staff room and headmaster's cabin.There was no proper playground but as it was a sprawling compound, there was enough space for kids to play as many as 4-5 cricket/football matches in that whole area. That was a typical school in small town attended by middle class/ lower middle class kids

All our teachers were ladies which was typical for most schools except for the headmaster. The Headmaster (HM) did not teach us any classes but gave us lot of advice during weekly morning school assembly. Another memory of the HM is that he hated kids playing during lunch break, maybe the problem was more with the noise couple of hundred kids talking, shouting and playing in a yard would produce. Once in a while HM will step out during lunch hour and ask folks to stop playing and making noise and go back to classes ( ya right, like we would). But sometimes HM would lose his head and will fly into rage when the warnings gets ignored and venture out with a cane and this time he meant business he will do a full round of the school yard and anyone who does not run away (which kids of that age do very well) would get proper thrashing. When we were in Class 6, the English teacher quit and for week or two other teachers would get assigned to cover other stuff or it was just a free period. A class full of 11 year olds cannot be expected to sit silently and usually a substitute teacher would invite some 'talented' folks to come up and sing a Bollywood number or dance to one or anything to keep the class occupied. It went on like this for a few days and the English period was something we looked forward to.

Then one day HM turned up with another old man who was wearing a white shirt and dhoti ( Mundu in Malayalam) and this new person was introduced as Balakrishnan sir the new English teacher. We were told that Balakrishnan sir ( BS) was a retired teacher from a Govt school and had been teaching for more than 30 years and we are lucky to get an experienced teacher like him. We usually had lady teachers in early 20s as teaching in schools like this would be their first assignment before they move away into more secure Govt jobs or something better. So this was a different experience and everyone started liking his classes as well as he used teach well and like any 60 year old person he would add several stories/anecdotes of his own experiences. So it was fun initially attending his classes, we were spell bound kids listening to his well narrated yarns.

But like any senior citizen, while he could regale us with various tales and anecdotes, he would also not keep track of whether the incident he is narrating has already been narrated. Once the stories started getting repetitive kids also started murmuring and the attitude changed, the spell was sort of broken. But he did teach us well though he could never complete the entire syllabus on time as lot of time was spent talking about various other things. This meant attending extra/special class in evenings or during weekends towards end of year in the race to complete all lessons before final exams. That was something no one liked!

Next year we had a surprise in store for us, they had started building some additional space for some time now and at the start of year we were told that we are now having a computer lab and that we will have computer class as one of the subjects this year. It was only one or two of periods in a week but this early 90s none us even had seen a computer before and had only heard vaguely about it. This was an era of only Doordarshan channel on TV, occasional audio and video cassettes for entertainment and playing or games meant running around or cricket or football outside. Video game meant those rented consoles connected to TV or the handheld brick game. So this was huge for kids in small town from middle class families and something uncharacteristic for the school really. The computer was kept in an air-conditioned room which was kept dust-free. We had to take off our shoes before entering the lab. Initially we had some theory classes on computer and but were promised that we would  after some time be allowed to touch and even use the computer soon in groups and that was something we were all looking forward to. But being in that AC room with a wonder gadget from future was exciting enough

Then one day BS announced that this year we will avoid having additional classes to wrap up our portion before exams. That was something everyone liked to hear, but he was not done yet. He also added that we he will use the computer hour as well to cover his English lessons. For the board examination after 3 years only  the main subjects mattered and English was one of them computer science clearly was not, so that settled it as per him. We were told that arrangement is purely to help us but that ended that dream of computer classes and getting to see and operate a computer. Nobody dared to question a teacher's authority or wisdom and especially someone formidable like him and that seemed to be the end of computer class for us that year. Voicing our opinion or disagreement to a teach was unusual, so we had to bear with it...

...Until some boys started talking about after a few weeks, it was agreed that computer was a wonderful thing even though none of us knew anything about it or why it mattered. It must have seemed way cooler and more fun than those extra English lessons and a few boys went to meet the 'computer miss' to appraise her about this and appealed to her to restore these classes. She seemed to be in bigger dilemma, she could not confront a senior teacher who was close to  headmaster, at the same time she could not sit idle for a long time as lot of her teaching hours were taken over in this arrangement so perhaps the prospect of job loss loomed as well for her. She asked us to go check with HM and tell him what was happening as she cannot do it herself because she did not want to be disrespectful to BS

Prospect of meeting HM was not very enticing given that first thing that sprang to our mind was him chasing folks with a long cane. So that was ruled out and we sat through the extra English classes with sullen faces. I don't remember how it happened but eventually the murmuring changed to rumbling and it got louder and louder and eventually most of class was convinced this won't do. The plan was that we must just head to computer lab without waiting for BS to come to class. But planning was one execution was totally another ball game.

The situation sort of reminds me about the great spectacle in Masai Mara National Reserve in Tanzania and Kenya. There is this annual seasonal migration of wildebeest and zebra herds across the reserve as season changes. The animals migrate across the region following their food sources and the highlight is a part called 'Mara River Crossing'. Millions of animals need to cross Mara river, which happens at place where river itself is not particularly challenging. But the challenge is posed by dozens of crocodiles waiting to grab stragglers. This happens every year and animals clearly seem to know the danger that lies ahead but also know its in their best interest to cross the stream however dangerous it maybe. Wildebeests and Zebras start gathering in huge numbers until there is some critical point at which they all decide to make a dash across the river. In sight of clear and obvious danger the animals wait for a while and bide their time and then just like that they take the plunge because to move forward is a must to survive eventually and that is something hard wired inside them.

Just like those wildebeests, I'm not sure how we got courage or what was the tipping factor but  maybe somewhere within our heads we all knew this was important and it mattered. But even now I cannot think of how and why we thought that way. Long story short, BS was late for that particular forced English class, some folks finally got up and decided this was the best chance as we can pretend he is not coming and more folks agreed and joined and eventually the entire class decided to make a run for it and quickly went to the Computer Lab and settled in. Computer miss was delighted at normalcy being restored and even offered to put in a word to HM about this so that we are safe. But none of us were sure how it will turn  out. BS was certainly not amused the next day when he came to our class. He made it clear that he was disappointed with us and explained that what he did was for our benefit. Learning English well was more important as class 10 school leaving exam only has English as a subject and not computer. He was of the view that there is nothing major to be gained with this so called computer class for kids like us. That time can be better utilized for other subjects and he felt kids in this school had no use for something like this. He added that most of us will not even see let alone use a computer as live in India and not America or Britain. Sure some bright kids will finish school and college well and do higher studies where computers will be used for research and stuff he added.  He added that it was good on school management to introduce new things, but for folks who will be  in high school next year focus should turn more into core subjects which matter for the class 10 board exam which is the real deal . He seemed quite certain about this whole computer thing and made it amply clear that we were silly to waste time with computer class when we were running out of time to cover our lessons properly. With that he picked up the English textbook and continued as usual. All of us were relieved that we did not get punished as some folks feared, unknowingly we had made a statement for technology perhaps. We did get our computer class every week after that and we moved on cleared that school attended bigger ones, college and so on

Interestingly I never really learnt computers formally in school after that as I switched schools next year and the new school did not even have that as a subject. In college I studied Electrical and Electronics Engineering but strangely we did not have any computer exposure. Still around 10 years after incident I mentioned after I finished my college, my first job was as a software programmer. Things had changed very quickly in India by the time I was in college the most desired jobs were in IT sector and it did give a wonderful opportunity and ability to earn well and interact with folks across the world. But even as I embarked on this career in early 2000s, at least in the initial years I met my fair share of skeptics everywhere who were not impressed by IT industry or computers. One was my college lecturer and another was a family friend who was in big corporate job, they both shared exactly same sentiment about this nascent IT industry when I told them about landing my first job. They mentioned they were happy to hear I got a job in nice and well known IT company paying decent money, but hoped I will not just stay with an IT company but will try hard and get into some proper 'old world' engineering related jobs as IT sector and jobs might not last too long!

Now in 2017, I see technology mostly via smartphone omnipresent in all walks of life. People book train/flight tickets, taxis, order books, food or just about anything online, they find marriage partners, get new degree , watch new movies online. Technology companies have created more and more jobs and are going strong both globally and especially in India. There are frequent hiccups and challenges, but it is here to stay. It is estimated that IT & ITES industry employs around 10 million people in India and is believed to contribute close to 10% of India's GDP. Globally this is referred to as digital era, with Information technology companies leading charge into everything and are doing so well that the tech titans - Google, Amazon, Apple, MS and Facebook are the most valuable listed firms in the world. In fact a recent article I read mentioned that several factories in US now require workers to have gone to college as computer knowledge is a must even for factory jobs. As we gradually adopt automation and AI this is going to be more common everywhere.

The point of this post is not to mock or blame my good old English teacher or my lecturer  or anyone else who was either skeptical or did not take computers and internet seriously. Old world skills like language, basic sciences, arithmetic are still extremely important, but computer science and applied technology got adopted and grew at unbelievable pace. I don't think any of us even today can comprehend how massively big and transformative this is and how much computers, internet and smartphones have changed the way we live. I'm sure my teachers as well as those skeptics had the best interests of their students or whoever they were advising in mind when they said that.

Quarter of a century is a long time indeed and the world around us has changed and how!

Friday, April 21, 2017

Another small milestone

While on the topic of  anniversaries ( psst, I just blogged about one recently), I recently marked another small milestone. Completed first year at my current work place. The Indian companies I worked in past treated work anniversaries differently, the companies I worked in my first 7 years did not really seem to care. Later I worked for Cognizant which is technically a US headquartered company (but full of Indians) and maybe that could be the reason they used to send out anniversary notification to my manager who would share it with entire team with some good words tossed in for added motivation. Once I joined this grand old company, I could see that 'service' with company mattered  to folks a lot. Service anniversary was a big deal indeed. Once I went for a mandatory training at my city arranged for folks from various different roles/work stream and they had us introduce ourselves by stating, name, which city we work, what role and how long we have been with the company. When a team member has an anniversary we all get notified and there is a usual round of applause and congrats emails which floats around regularly. Several folks in my side of the organization have work anniversaries with the company higher than my age.  The emails are really fun especially for the anniversaries of veterans in the org, usually there is lot of self deprecating humor involved and the mails and huge fun. People spoke about being happy and sounded happy when we talk about their service anniversary, all of which is good to know for someone in their first year at the company. I could understand why the company featured in great places to work list

So the day arrived and as soon as I logged in I got a very nice email  from my manager and several others chimed in as well with good words and predictions of a long successful journey ahead. To be honest this was a job which on paper looked very easy and comfortable one for me given my previous work background. But as lone Indian employee in a team full of Americans I was not sure if I will fit in well and there were lots of doubts if I truly belong or if I can belong. Of course there were minor cultural differences, and I had to look stuff up online to understand some references/quotes but it also had to do with the fact that I was lot younger than most people around me. Before I knew it an year was up and it was up so fast that I hardly noticed. Only when I walked into office one day in April and after noticing my name up on the board for service anniversaries did it really sink in