Saturday, January 27, 2007

News That's Fit To Print

Earlier this week, on Monday January 22, the SRE1 launched by the ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation, for those who don't know) twelve days ago, was successfully recovered after being maneuvered to reenter the earth’s atmosphere and descend into Bay of Bengal. The ISRO issued a modest press statement outlining various technical details about the mission. What they did not mention was the fact that this makes India one of the few nations to return from orbit, a spacecraft that it had launched earlier. This is quite characteristic of humble technicians buried deep in research, who do not realize the significance of what they've achieved. I don't blame them one bit, and needless to say, applaud their feat wholeheartedly.

I waited patiently through the week to see what kind of coverage this got from the press. I haven't seen any yet that came out on its own and sought viewer / reader eyeballs in any of the dozen or so TV news channels / dozen or so newspapers. On searching around a bit on the Internet I found some coverage about the launch on Jan 10 but nothing on the recovery.

What I did get a lot of, and which was hard to miss, was coverage on 'Abhi and Ash' and the rest of the Bachchan family visiting temples and doing other family things. And on Navjot Sidhu and the Supreme Court decision on his conviction and sentence several years ago on a road rage case. And various people's opinions on Shilpa Shetty and reality shows. And several other news stories not worth mentioning here (or, frankly, anywhere else either).

It is appalling to see what people who launch campaigns like 'India Poised' focus on and what they don't.

Friday, January 26, 2007

A Phenomenon Called Paris Hilton

My life is divided into two parts: before Paris Hilton and after Paris Hilton. No, I don't know her and I've never met her, but the turning point that I am referring to, is my discovery of the phenomenon that she is - a celebrity celebrated just for being famous. She is the embodiment of what fame means in this highly evolved (socio-culturally speaking) state of human development as evidenced at present. She epitomises everything that someone wanting to be famous would aspire for. She's the zenith of glamour - the ultimate aspiration of all wannabes. Maybe some day, someone may achieve even more Paris Hilton-ness than her, but for now, she is as Paris Hilton as you can get.

Several people may be endowed with wealth and/or positioned within easy reach of celebrity status, right from the time they're born. Some, in fact, achieve it at conception itself (a la TomKat: Tom Cruise - Katie Holmes' baby, who has achieved celebrity status even before birth). However, not all can carry it well and make a lifestyle out of it. Paris Hilton has shown us that this is a serious business. You can fuck it up, or you can take it to new heights. This is not very different from taking a small business your granduncle set-up and making it a huge global conglomerate. Yes, you inherit some assets. But what you do with them is all up to you and you alone. Paris Hilton had the choice of being a nobody. Or of being a somebody. Or of being anybody. But no, she chose to be Paris Hilton - a unique phenomenon that remains unparalleled, unrivalled and unsurpassed.

All form, no content - what an amazingly profound concept! Whatever content there may be, is completely irrelevant at best, and at worst may even spoil the whole show. For instance, if she really had musical talent, she would have been known as a great musician; if she could act well she would have be known as a great actor; if she could write well she would be known for her books (speaking of which - it seems she has released a book titled 'Confessions of an Heiress: A Tongue-in-Chic Peek Behind the Pose' which guides aspirants with do's and don'ts of living her kind of life); if she was good at modeling she could have become a super-model; if she was a good designer ... etc., but the world would not have been presented with such a superb icon for super-chic fluff - a model non-product extraordinaire. A phenomenon such as this one can only meaningfully exist if meaningful content is non-existent. This concept itself is the hallmark of our times, and that precisely, is where Paris Hilton has contributed to the progress of mankind: she has given that concept a name, a face, a personality, a life. Apparently she will appear in the 2007 Guinness World Records as the world's "most overrated celebrity". Overrated? that sounds like she's not as good as she appears to be. Wrong benchmark used by people who have not understood the concept. Sadly, they're missing the point: she is by no means an overrated celebrity, she is famous for being Paris Hilton - a celebrity debutante, a cause celebre of all dilettantes. And she excels at being that!

Consider this: as Paris Hilton grew up, she could have become a junkie or an alcoholic, and got some nominal press coverage about that, but she would have been one of several thousands of rich folks getting in and out of rehab for substance abuse. She could have turned into an eccentric and got her outrageous antics written about, but then there are so many of those. She could have married a big shot and become his (or her) home-maker, shining in the reflected glory of her spouse / family. Clichéd as hell. She could have been a business woman or a professional and carved out a career all by herself, even larger than her legacy business. (Yawn - how boring!) However, she's done none of the above. This woman is fabulously famous for absolutely no reason at all. All she has is the ability to carry her heiress status in a way that makes people envy her, want her, want to be like her, want to be her. And what an ability that is! Every little thing she does attracts media attention, and she's mastered the art of doing those little things she does, and doing them in the most media-seductive style. This is a very fine art, and some people are born with it and others aren't.

If you're one of those who are born with it, you should try and emulate her: learn, implement, evolve - she's set the benchmark, see if you can even reach that height or die trying. And if you're not one of those who are born with it, keep wishing you were. Loser! Go become famous for something meaningful ... and become just another ordinary garden variety celebrity!

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Sheepish In The Wolf's Clothing Section

Last weekend my wife and I went shopping for new clothes for me. I should rephrase that as – my wife dragged me to the nearest clothes store, kicking and screaming (in fact ‘bleating’ may be the mot juste here). We don’t go shopping very frequently and the few times we do, it serves to remind us of the fact that we have antipodal views on what, where, when, why, how, how much, and any other possible criteria associated with (a) choice of items and (b) the process of shopping. Long ago (when I was single) in my small and cozy little world, there was not much to think about when it came to buying new clothes, and decisions were fairly easily taken the few times I needed to take them. The most agonizing decisions for me those days revolved around which white shirts I should buy and how many of them I should buy on this shopping expedition (i.e., this year). I used to be happy in that world ... but then in my wife's big wide world of several thousands of choices in matters sartorial, life is not so simple. Apparently, apparel is a complex affair. And according to my wife, I have the dress sense of an aardvark.

We've been married for a decade now, but know each other over two, and have gone shopping together for (my) clothes, several times over that period. Has anything changed over time? Well, yes. I am less reluctant now, to experiment with pinks or with checked patterns, than I used to be. But I draw the line somewhere, and she knows that. Differences are quickly aired and understood. Sometimes even this is redundant – a twitch of my upper lip, when shown a disagreeable sample, is enough, though I may nod with hastily mustered vigor while making some positive-sounding noises. We have learnt to conclude these sessions at the optimal level of happiness averaged out across both of us. We emerge from the store pleased with what we have achieved together as opposed to walking to the parking lot quarreling over my quirkiness. To give you an example of how this works – we settle for the bright red paisley patterned shirt once in 5 years, and that works for both of us.

While getting in and out of trial rooms (the part I hate the most) and at various other times in the shopping ‘experience’ when I'm by myself for small slices of time, I can't help reflecting on yet another truism about men and women: that men aim to be as consistently recognizable as possible at every appearance, while women aspire to present the most vividly unexpected apparition each time. Over the years, I have developed more and more conviction in the belief that I've found the key to this whole gender thing – my own version of 'women are from Venus and men are from Mars' (I hope I got that right). It is about consistency and variety … about the excitement, versus the insecurity, of change.

It is as though men are saying "Look, this is me - the same old me you knew yesterday and the day before that, and the same me that will be with you tomorrow and the day after". Men want to impress upon you the fact that they are consistent and steadfast. They want to provide security through the assurance of no-change, and make you comfortable by making everything about themselves predictable – to the point of being boringly so. Hence they lead structured, orderly lives and their wardrobes are full of white shirts and gray trousers neatly organized in a row. Deviations from normal plain white would be to the extent of cream / light blue / light gray / yellow shirts; some pin-stripes and some different collar styles or cuff styles perhaps, to break the monotony.

Women, on the other hand, seem to be saying "Hey! Guess who this is – it's me! Today's me. Not the woman you knew yesterday, not the one you knew the day before. Which do you prefer? Well it doesn't matter because I can be all of those and more." Women want to enchant you by presenting a variety of expressions. They want to surprise you with a refreshingly different look each time, hinting at the excitement of change. There are two sides to this message if you can read between the subliminal lines: (1) If you don’t recognize me, then good – I can be ‘the other woman’ and in fact be all the other women (2) If you do recognize me, then perhaps I’m looking different because I’ve moved on? You need to woo me all over again! And this is not just about clothes – it is more holistic: it is about the appearance per se. The range of tools available to a woman to do this is ... well almost infinite! I could go ahead and talk about different styles of clothing, make-up, hair styling choices etc. but this would only expose my abysmal ignorance in these areas (I referred to moisturizing lotion as make-up some time back and got an earful) and would confirm my stereotype. I'd rather ’fess up to it in so many words, than indulge fecklessly in malapropisms of a language I do not understand.

To summarize: Men provide an image of consistency and predictability to women because they believe it keeps women secure and comfortable, and women present an image of variety and unpredictability to men because they believe it keeps men excited and in anticipation. If you want to test this out, try telling a woman that she’s predictable to the point of being boring, and a man that he’s inconsistent and unpredictable (caveat: don’t try this at home). Then try the reverse. Tell me what you get.

P.S. In case you’re wondering why we never go shopping for her clothes and you want to tell me what a chauvinist you think I am, let me take that hit up-front and meekly accept all of it, rather than present my (typically male) PoV and hopelessly try to explain why that is an even more challenging experience for me. What I do enjoy is shopping for things for her when I’m traveling, but that’s an entirely different story …

Monday, January 08, 2007

The Great Indian Con - Ideas vs. Myths

Some time back, when I heard that Shashi Tharoor was a candidate for UN Secretary General, I took great pride in the fact that a compatriot of mine had risen to a level where he was being considered for the post. I had neither read his books nor seen the impact of his work, but over the years formed an impression of him that could best be characterized by two parameters: erudition and achievement (and I may be right on both counts). However, I had by extension, also attributed to him additional qualities that should be natural corollaries, such as a keen and sharp mind (that wouldn't easily be fooled by clever sophistry), deep insights into the Indian socio-economic context, and above all the wisdom of a philosopher. In short, I used to think he was an intellectual and I was favorably disposed to accept his views, generally speaking. (Not his fault, really, that I developed this image of him - mea culpa.) And so, when I read his recent article "Looking to the future with Brand IIT" this last New Year's eve in the Times, it was an eye-opener. Check it out:

His article is based on his address to a gathering of IIT alumni from the all over the world at the recent PanIIT 2006 global meet ( Either he felt obliged to say nice things to please his hosts, or he genuinely believes that the IITs are doing a great job. If he felt obliged but didn't have too many nice things to say, he ought to have declined the invitation altogether. But he didn't do that - he came, he talked and he submitted. This is a case of diplomacy over substance if not form over substance. It is one thing to believe that the IITs are doing a great job simply because it is generally believed by all to be true. It is altogether another thing to have dug out facts and figures, thought it through and placed it all together and then to assert firmly and with conviction that they are. And then go beyond that and assert that they hold a lot of promise for India's future. Mr Tharoor has done the latter, which in my opinion is inexcusably foolish for a man of his stature and station. According to me, the IITs have failed to deliver and it is not at all difficult to see why and how.

Let me step back for just one moment, to present the background to my own assertion that the IITs have failed. This is not directly connected with Mr Tharoor and his views, but more of a quick recap of the genesis of the IITs and their original raison d'être. Back in those days, Nehru and his team had a vision of India as a self-sufficient economy. The key to real freedom, they realized, was economic independence, and this could only come about if we were self-reliant as a nation. I have no quarrel with this thesis, in very broad and general terms. Some highlights of this school of thought include the "non-aligned" policy, "mixed economics" (our own brand of socialism), etc., all of which, incidentally, I am certain that Mr Tharoor has studied in far more detail than I have (he's written books about it). The establishment of the IITs needs to be seen in this context: they were created so that India could build our own cadre of engineers who should engage in the noble task of nation building, thus making us self-reliant through not only indigenous technological development but also development of indigenous technologies. These institutions were funded partly through international aid (initially) and on a more sustained basis by Indian tax payers - it seemed logical that tax payers should pay towards building a bigger brighter better India, a stronger India, a richer India. And all this, by achieving self-reliance - particularly in technology, which was clearly the weapon of the future: not mastered, it would threaten India for ever, through the prospect of economic and/or military domination by technologically superior foreign powers.

However over the years, this vision has blurred, become foggy and vanished altogether. Perhaps it is obsolete? In that case we must change it and have the right vision in place for the IITs. Perhaps it is still relevant? In that case we must ensure that everything we do continues to be aligned with it. Alas, we seem to be doing neither. Again, this is Failure. The first failure of the IITs was that of not meeting the objectives they were set up for. The second, of not recognizing and correcting the first failure. And Mr Tharoor's failure? Of missing both! Or perhaps, like I said earlier, he was being the eternal diplomat or the natural yea-sayer (see my post "What part of No don't you understand?" in the archives of this blog), conveniently brushing the bad news under the carpet.

Consider an analysis along the following lines. To keep it simple, let me select one area - let's say, Civil Engineering. First take the Life-To-Date number of IIT graduates in Civil Engineering - the grand total number of Civil Engineers which all the IITs put together have ever produced. Of these, let x be the number of Civil Engineers who, after graduating from an IIT, have continued to live in India to work as Civil Engineers. Let y be the number of Civil Engineers who, after graduation, have continued to live in India, but did not / do not work as Civil Engineers. And lastly, let z be the number of Civil Engineering graduates who left India for greener pastures in foreign lands (of this number there could be three components: z1 - those who are still overseas, z2 - those who have returned to India but are not working here as Civil Engineers, and z3 - those who have returned to India and work here as Civil Engineers). I am willing to bet that of all these numbers, x would be far lower than y which would be far lower than z, to the extent that z would come close to equaling the sum of x and y. Further, I would wager that z3 would be lower than z2, which would be lower than z1, and that z1 would be greater than or equal to z2 plus z3. If instead of Life-to-Date one were to take a base of the last, say, 20 years, the results would be even more skewed in favour of the point I am trying to make. Which means the deviation of the outcome from the intent is even more in the last few years. From another perspective, there could be departments where the trend is more pronounced one way or another. However, my point is not about departments; it is about the institution as a whole. If someone has actual real data on this, I would LOVE to see it. I would also LOVE to be proved wrong about this. Quite simply put, the IITs have been contributing more to the technological and economic progress of other countries (such as the US, for which they have been formally recognized - read on) than to India. This is like a poor man who sets out to cook food for himself but because he is such a good cook, ends up cooking for the rich man, only to be left with a few crumbs for himself. If it happens once, it's happenstance, and if it happens twice it's coincidence. But to allow this to happen on a sustained basis, over several years, without doing anything about it and in fact not even recognizing it is as a problem, is downright foolish. And it is outrageously foolish on the part of the poor man's friend, to compliment such behavior with a pat on the back for earning the beneficence and goodwill of the rich man while starving himself to death, almost.

Apparently an IIT alumnus is writing a book on 101 IITians who've made it big, globally. Why doesn't someone make a list of 101 IITians who've made it big in India? A few years ago, someone mailed me a copy of House Resolution 227 of the 1st session of the 109th Congress of the United States of Amercia, which formally acknowledged the role of IITians in building a more robust US economy. Why has nothing like that happened here? We can put it down to the apathy of Indian administrators / bureaucrats / politicians etc. (as we usually do in the case of Indians who become stars abroad and get no recognition at home). But hey .. could the problem be somewhere else? Could it be that someone compiling a list of 101 great IITians who have contributed to the Indian economy may not find more than a dozen or so entries of merit? Could it be that the Indian govt. has not formally recognised the contribution of IITians simply because there hasnt been anything significant that IITians have done for the Indian economy?

Mr Tharoor's point seems to be that IITians have spread their wings, gone all over the world and achieved a lot, and in doing so have acted as brand ambassadors for India. But I ask: was that what the IITs were set-up for - to create brand ambassadors? Here's something Mr Tharoor says in his article: "Nehru's establishment of the IITs (and the spur they provided to other institutions like Birla Institutes of Technology and Indian Institutes of Management) have produced many of the finest minds in America's Silicon Valley and Fortune-1000 Corporations." Tell me again, Mr Tharoor, was this Nehru's vision? To create institutions that feed Silicon Valley and Fortune 1000 Corporations? Was that the idea? No, my dear sir - it's a myth. Worse still, a con. I am disappointed that someone like you cannot see it. Someone like you, who is best placed to call the bluff; to let everyone know the truth about the Emperor's new clothes.