Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Case of a Misleading Net...

When you are inching towards the end of the seventh decade of your life, and there are two days before the year ends, you not only look back at the year , but years, decades and half centuries. 

And somewhere you realize, that things have a habit of coming full circle.  Where living in a society of humans is concerned.

As a child , like today, our lives were lived in compartments like home, school, sports and other activities.  But interactions with other people were numerous. 

Beside interacting in predecided ways at school and other organized places,  we interacted with colony friends, neighbors, relatives , friends made in the pursuit of hobbies like music and sports etc. You did errands for neighbors without "documenting" the fact so to speak. Chit chatting with friends , arguing , fighting, ganging up, making up, consoling, celebrating were all things that happened in the natural course of living. You learned how to interact with friend's parents,  elders, seniors, small kids , and even rank strangers.  There was no TV, transistors were kind of looming on the horizon and were considered a huge luxury, if you had a telephone you were somebody, and by and large , you maintained  your individuality in a world where very little was standardized , except, what constituted goodness.

Things were pretty much similar way into the late seventies, early eighties.  Then came the computers and phones, and everything changed. In big cities, this kind of augmented,  societies taking to the "flat" culture , in a big way.

You didn't know who your neighbor was. Everyone had a cell phone.  People wore out index fingers tapping phone messages , which were earlier voice communications with instant responses and good laughs .  If you forgot your house key, you sat on the landing staircase  till someone turned up , while a neighbor's maid leaving the house gave you strange looks; where she lived, the neighbor would ask you in , offer tea or a meal , but then , they were old style, lived 7 to a room , and shared bathrooms, clothes and opinions.

You never really knew many relatives, and you basically exchanged standard polite greetings when prodded by parents on unavoidable social occasions.  Your closeting yourself in a room to pour over a screen, was defined as individuality, work, he-is-like-that-only etc.

Then someone came up with the Internet, or Net. You started speaking on Mail, or with images on computers. People introduced a kind of club on the Net and called it by different names, where you met and spoke to unknown people, and thought you were being really smart. The Internet started happening on Phones .

Till Facebook happened, and those who went through life very happily with, say 25-30 very good friends , suddenly got documented as someone with 1000 "friends"  and followers. Meeting few good friends over snacks and tea, a gossip session over a meal, or spending time listening  to something new somewhere got replaced by people being wished with expressive punctuation, sending automatic greetings to all and sundry who were listed as your friends, and even fighting and abusing on the Net.

In an earlier life, when you didnt know something, you badgered the hell out of some folks and pestered them to explain, visited the library, borrowed books from folks who were friends of friends, and ended up making many friends , and perhaps a few enemies. 

Today, you Google.  Social interaction is zilch, and you lose out on learning about human aspects of information , unless of course you have the time to read through one million links thrown up by Google.  Google will show maps, and a lady with an accent will tell you on your phone where to turn left or whatever, but it doesn't beat asking an old grandma in a rickshaw where some place was, she saying she is going the same way, and offering you a place alongside her,  chitchatting with you, she ending up knowing your aunt, and then offering you and the rickshaw driver a banana each from her shopping bag , at the end  of the ride before getting off.   


Now that you have been so greatly individualized, you must learn how to communicate with others. The circle is complete.

 A generous backslap has been replaced with standardized emoticons, a possible development of an ability to do verbal debates is replaced by Twittering and Facebooking,  and the new generations are being taught how to interact with other humans. By Liking, Commenting and Sharing.

We did that individually, in real life, with flesh and blood people . Since decades.  And have emerged with better perceptions of society and how to deal with humans.

Life clearly is coming full circle,  with a big exception. 

We used all our senses and lived.

Today's social media emphasizes majorly the sense of sight, and perhaps, at some point, hearing. With an ability to keep someone's response at bay.  And so we have lost our sense of reacting to people.

Young people,  jumping on with alacrity onto the bandwagon , react to situations with the same alacrity, and a lack of patient situation analysis.  Knee jerk reactions to negative responses, excessively violent behaviours towards the female friends,  and occasional deep and dangerous depressive responses in stressful situations.

In my time, someone in the family or friends , might have noticed, asked questions, mediated, or helped. 

Technology is good when it is appropriate.  It does not work,  away from the natural ethos of a given society.  One would get unexpected results.

Almost half a century ago, I learned a statement in school which i did not understand then .

"Man is a social animal".....

I do understand it now. Very well.

 I just wish Technology was a person and understood it too ....





Tuesday, December 15, 2015

SMART and smart....

The defintion of "Smart" changes with time. 

About half a century ago, we used to call some people,  Smart.  It didn't always have anything to do with their grey cells.

For most of the smart types, it was the outward impression they projected .

1. Well turned out, quick thinking, articulate and so on.

2. There were also situations and people , which were unsavoury,  and those who  emerged unscathed from them, ethically or unethically,  were also called Smart.  We have a surfeit of such folks today.

3. And then there were those, who regardless of looks, size and connections, simply exuded a certain inner smartness that had you gaping in awe.

For some reason, today "smart" is often misconstrued  to mean some kind of jugaad that someone indulges in ,  despite the system.  Sometimes at higher levels .

In the big rush to e-fy our lives,  screens and chattering printouts are considered more important than truth and simple security measures to maintain data integrity.

A big nationalised bank, at a major city branch, had a manager who blithely codified some new account number that was identical to mine. The new person with the account number was listed at the aforesaid branch's extension counter, and not main branch, and the manager , forgot to codify that. For 6 months , large sums would magically appear in my account and disappear the next day.  Till I demanded an explanation , and figured it out myself since no one including the manager had a clue.  In my old IT job 40 years ago, when "e" was not yet in fashion, they would have fired me for this.  When i explained to them what caused the error, the fact that the managers ignorance was exposed was more important than  the need for errorfree careful codification practices as per training manuals, and they couldn't wait for me to disappear .   Then i found out no one knew where the system user manual was. 

So smart.  

At a leading National Institute,  there is a careless attention to who can read and who can modify data pertaining to employees.  Normally, sensitive employee data is handled at the highest levels of HR , and modify rights are given to responsible well trained entities, who are conversant with the HR practices followed .  Perhaps a sense of euphoria at being e-fied has shut their eyes to the fact, that the security section folks, who are charged with creating identity cards for employees, have data modification rights which are sometimes used with ignorance of facts. They are oblivious to various new titles, posts, and their entitlements, thanks to a blissfully unaware  HR section, and have been known to ask questions for clarifications to those seeking a knew ID card.  Why security sections should , in the first place , be able to modify HR data is puzzling.  At most places, HR does the decisions and makes appropriate modifications , and others just read and follow procedures.   But we don't.

So smart .

 At another place, an employee  notices an error in the monthly e-salary slip, and brings it to the notice of the concerned staff.  A correction is requested.  Since salaries are processed in batch mode each month, the employee is told he will be issued a physical salary slip, reflecting the change.  (I am sure, the existing system is designed to cater to changing data, recalculating, and printing/uploading  the correct salary slip, but instead of being trained in the system, shortcuts rule , with a complete disregard for what will go in the archives.  ) .   Someone creates a screen shot, modifies some stuff, prints out the salary slip, which is blindly signed by some higher up, and carelessly sends it off. Very clearly, it has to pass through several upper levels before despatch . Maybe it did not. Because the person in question, got a slip showing the correct amounts, and a printout at the bottom, saying that the salary for June was being paid at the end of May (of the same year) !   A case of bad copy-paste careless jugaad. And Time Inversion.  Who cares ?

So smart .

There are endless examples.  

But then sometimes, a nondescript city office, understands it all.

Applying for copies of a death certificate , one submitted paperwork relating to the doctor's certificate, cremation office certificate and so on. On checking back on the appointed day,  one is told that there is a descrepancy between the date of death as seen on the doctor's certificate and as mentioned on the cremation certificate. It is clear that someone at the cremation office has been careless.  One is then told, that data as it is submitted has been uploaded, the system has pointed out the mismatch, the particular city office is not empowered to make corrective changes, and one needs to go to a specific office at the Corporation Main Office, with specified timings. One rushes there with the  requisite paperwork and application letter,  the modification is done , recorded and signed by a person with the requisite authority, and one rushes back to the original regional office,  where the work is done.

Someone , somewhere has applied thought, and trained folks regarding that. Kudos.

It is admirable, that despite so many places that have other considerations before someone at a window presses "Enter" and generates a paper , this place continues to follow the original definition of "service" , in the face of e-fication of lives. 

And so I actually shudder at the thought of  cities becoming smart.  It is all fine to hanker after catching up with the world.   But we need a citizenry that understands and respects rules.  And by extension, leaders who also follow rules themselves.

And thereby lies the catch . 

 For some strange reason, this business of Smart Cities,  keeps bringing to mind, this concept we have, of Sister Cities. Mumbai has 7 sister cities .  Berlin (GER), London(UK), Los Angeles(USA), St Petersburg(Russia), Stuttgart(GER), Busan( and Yokohama.

Two mayors meet, present to each other the "keys" to the cities, someone signs some memorandum, they shake hands and voila! we have sister cities.  And no one learns anything from the other. 

Perhaps we need Guru-Shishya cities .....

I wish everything was as simple........

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Swachh and Safe .... ?

"Always go to the bathroom when you have a chance".
                                                                     .....  King George V
(While this is something all mothers might approve, he might have paid a bit more attention to the situation in his then  empire ...      Just saying !)

We are almost at the end of 2015.

162 years since trains began in India , and counting.

And then one  reads  this.

"Senior Citizen's leg gets stuck in commode of train toilet for 10 hours".

It is an Indian Style toilet.  And the pictures across social media show her ankle visible  from outside the eventually detached train compartment,  when engineers had to use gas cutters to cut the toilet contraption  to free her .

Which leads one to ponder about the design and development of railway toilets over the last century and more.

The first train ran from Mumbai to Thane in 1853. By 1867, the Allahabad-Jabalpur line was started  and by 1875, 95 million pound sterling was invested in Railways by the British , most of it in expanding the reach. By 1900 , we had the government getting in, with the Great Indian Penninsular Railway, and the network expanded , with the first electric train arriving in 1908.

Like in many other aspects, development happened, as if people did not matter.

The story goes that one Okhil Babu, got completely cheesed off and fired of a letter as below :

 and this was the precursor to the railways seriously incorporating toilets in trains.

A peculiar problem, native to India, was the need for Indian Style toilets; more beneficial to our anatomy, clearly more hygienic to use,  and which the native population preferred to use.

(The propensity to gravitate to a western form of toilet, housing that needs a special request to incorporate an Indian Style toilet , and approvals given to government office buildings with all western style toilets with scant regard for the user profile is perhaps a subject for a separate post .  I wrote something about Progress and Sanitation in 2009.  NOTHING has changed. )

And so they introduced very simple toilets , with minimum maintenance costs. Hole in the floor style. 

The Railways expanded, millions of miles were added, speeds of trains increased, freight train systems were developed, air conditioning happened ;  as of 2012 , a population of approximately 25 million  was transported by Indian Railways daily which amounts to around 9 billion a year,  but alas,  by and large the Indian Style train toilets, or Hooper Toilets, remained unchanged. 

There is something alarming about the design, where a simple glance down in a running train toilet, shows you the rails and ground rushing by at great speed accompanied by rhythmic loud sounds.

I've been witness  to the trauma, of a toilet trained 3 year old , travelling from Mumbai to new Delhi in the early 80's, in in one of the Indian Railways highly touted trains, trying to use the toilet, getting alarmed with the hole in the floor, the noise, and the view of the rushing ground below the train, and then trying to escape , while still desperately trying to use the toilet. You could not use the toilet when the train was stationary, when  there was zero alarming noise and disappearing tracks.   Cajoling parents, approving other passengers, fear, unavoidable body procedures, the discomfort,  it was like a performance, trying to find a mean between finishing up your stuff soon, and not inconveniencing other passengers, in a train with an alarming  passenger-bathroom ratio.

The lady in the aforesaid mishap on the Konkan Railway, was 65, clearly used to train travel, was using it at 3 am,  and although this might have been one of her bad/unlucky  days, one wonders why the Hooper Toilet has not undergone any  hitherto noteworthy research and development, particularly , with respect to its hole-in-the-floor design.

Yes, the lady slipped while opening the door (the floor is always wet),  but has anyone thought of using some more metal/porcelain and making the waste path  stuff longer  as it is discharged, either out into the tracks, or into a tank ?  Why a straight down vertical drop ?  The lady's foot slipped inside, and went straight down , and could be seen from outside the compartment , when they isolated the train bogey.

Perhaps a longer horizontal path and a possible curved exit might have avoided this.

One wonders why , while efforts are made to figure out more civilized ways to manage  disposal of the waste products, by introducing chemical toilets, or other mechanical methods, why minimal attention has been paid to the shape and gradient of the disposal pipe, from the point of view of passenger safety.

But seriously, there appears to be a disconnect where railway toilets are concerned. 

And then you read about the amazing logic, dated Nov 2015,  used by no less than the Railway Board , to decide that NO TOILETS were needed on a DMU train in Odissa , (a Diesel Multiple Unit train where no separate engine is required as it is incorporated into the carriage itself) covering 160 kilometres,  presumed to be covered in 4 hours.  Furthermore , the train would be halted for 30 minutes between its origin and destination. 

The National Human Rights Commission has slapped a notice on the Railway Board to file a report on this absence of toilet facilities. Read about this here.

I assume the Railway Board is aware of senior citizens, old age health situations, small kids, ladies, all mostly compelled to traveling by passenger trains.  

While the Railway Board decides when and how peristalsis happens in a citizen's intestines, and how powerful his/her sphincter muscles should be, per kilometre of railway track ,  and letters and notifications are slapped on each other regarding this, perhaps it is time for someone to hold a nationwide/worldwide competition for an improved design for a safe Indian style train toilet ?   

Swachh , yes . How about , Safe ?


Friday, December 11, 2015

Commentaries on Correlations....

"Illness makes you unhappy but unhappiness itself doesn't make you ill, says study

This was the title of a news item posted  this morning and it referred to research undertaken in the UK, where a million British women were studied  to find out whether happiness or the lack of it was connected to mortality

Then  you suddenly see news items  like  "Text messages that end in a period seen as less sincere" based on a study carried out at the Psychology Department ,  SUNY Binghampton, NY.  The big excitement is that texts ending in, say, an exclamation mark  are seen as more sincere.  

Sometimes, it is "Eating to impress: Men eat more food when dining with women"  , something declared by research done at the Cornell University Food and Brand lab.

While one has the utmost respect for the type studies done and published  to define the use of certain medicines for patients of various ages/types etc, or the utility of certain diets/therapies  for people with unusual health conditions,   I often wonder whether common sense situations today are digitized simply because quick correlations are available thanks to computers.  Digitization, also gives a certain false  sense of "documenting" , which is what publishing papers in journals is all about.  

Happiness and unhappiness cannot be digitized regardless of how much Intel is Inside.  It would not bother me ,  if sickness causes unhappiness or vice versa.  

I've seen a little boy, forced to stay home from primary school, due to an infectious disease, feverish and sleepy, and he suddenly perks up when his best friend from the neighborhood, drops by with a bunch of Chacha Chowdhury comics collected by her at various Railway stations while travelling.  She isn't allowed to spend time with him, but for the next few hours, his room reverberates with guffaws and cackles.  Possibly his fever abates a bit.  He has a great nap post that, and the disease runs its normal course. His happiness has been a temporary mix of the happiness of having a friend visit, bring him his favourite books, and a temporary victory of Chacha Chowdhury and school bunking,  over a scratchy itchy skin and a mild fever.      
I've seen a lady  undergo a mastectomy 25 years ago, people visiting her in hospital over the next few days, with fruits and flowers,   she and  her caretaker relative deciding that the fruits might go waste, and then peeling and cutting them and mixing them with yogurt ordered from the hospital pantry. It doesn't end there. They offered a bowl of this to the doctor who came on his rounds the next morning, who remarked favourably on her cheerful frame of mind. 

Mind you, she ate only what was prescribed for her post surgical situation. No doubt,  she was yet coming to terms with her traumatic surgery and future, but what you saw was a sense of making the most of a tough situation. Even the doctor remarked favourably. I don't know if this qualifies under happy, unhappy, smart or anything more.  But what had to happen , later happened.  

And so it is really about a bringing up where you learned to ignore the troublemakers, and enjoy things that made you feel optimistic, albeit temporarily. Sometimes , it is about keeping busy , a ploy all mothers know.

About the research regarding text messages mentioned above, I so wish they had met my 3rd standard English teacher in school. So many things we have known over decades , and someone does correlation studies simply because some machines do them so fast,  and publishes them. And I wonder if there are studies forthcoming about the effect of colons and semicolons, not to mention question marks. 

It is naive to think being happy makes you less ill.  Or that if you are ill, you are going to be unhappy.  Happiness is a dynamic mix of a sense of physical well being, a sense of mental relaxation, and a feeling of being cared for. Happiness and unhappiness cannot cause mortality or survival.   What is physical well being for one person, maybe over-the-top fuss for someone else.   

Most of all , we need to stop digitizing life.  It isn't about being 0 or 1.   

But a great and fluid mixture of many fractions, having to do with hope, despair, cheer, anger, gratitude, and perhaps, relief.   Publishing such "research" in forums which also announce new pharmacological discoveries to treat cancers, hitherto considered untreatable, is downright wrong. 

And about that research about men eating more when dining with women to impress them, I wait with abated breath to read research studies,  about Statin usage by men vis a vis women, whether eating more is a function of happiness or vice versa,  whether the woman being a vegetarian mattered , whether the amount of alcoholic drinks imbibed has something to do with the temporary happiness, or once again, vice versa.....

But wait . Here is a new one. "Color affects ethical judgments of brands, research suggests.."  Companies choose colors are part of their brand identity. And University of Oregon folks did research on how color shapes our opinion about whether companies are eco-friendly and so on.  This was published in the Journal of Business Ethics.  Turns out that blue is greener than green where consumers are concerned about someone being eco-friendly. 

I so wish someone would come to India, and do research on Fairness Creams, the connections to ingredients banned abroad, Fairness , beauty, fairness, ethics ,  truth, lies, the ability to land a job,  and the making of money.  

The question is which multinational will be willing to fund the research.  

Publishing is दूर कि बात ......


Friday, December 04, 2015

Luci of Thiruvanathapuram

There is what one may call the Somersault Theory of Growing Up.

There is a time in your life, when being able to do somersaults is supreme.  You dont care what you are wearing, you dont care who is watching,  but you revel in doing somersaults; by yourself on bars,  gate railings,  carpets, anywhere. And you get a lot of joy.

Then there is a time in your life, when you start minding  p's amd q's , as they say.  You still somersault, but you are very conscious of what you are wearing, how you come across to people , and you sometimes worry about your peers and what they think.

Clearly,  there is again a final part of growing up, when somersaults are an indulgent history ,  which brings a smile to your now occasionally sagging face, and you wonder if you can somersault at all .  And if you could, would you somersault at all , traumatizing your downstairs neighbors , and cause untold breakages  at various places in your house ?

While it is very clear that I am firmly ensconced in the third category, I was greatly delighted recently , to meet Luci Shail, who, appears to be hovering at the cusp of the first two situations.

Luci Shail,  all of four, is  the subject of a delightful canine blog, owned  by Shail Mohan, who is commonly referred to as her Mom.  I've been fortunate in being associated with  Bozo, another canine blogging friend in Mumbai,  and have very keenly followed Luci's activities and growing up as depicted by some lovely stories and photographs by Shail.

Luci, a powerhouse of energy, instant decisions, and  great determination, lives in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala.  We had the good fortune to visit the place recently, and my daughter and I decided we had to meet Luci.

Whatsapps, FB messages, telephone calls etc led to a great meeting one afternoon as we got a unplanned tour of Thiruvananthapuram, thanks to staying at a place far away from Shail's place.

A quiet lane, and we hesitantly pushed a latched gate.  The sound was so small , I am sure even our car driver did not hear it. But we could suddenly hear an almighty barking somewhere, and a smiling gentleman came out to welcome us.  It was kind of embarrasing that the first query we had was not about him and Shail, but about Luci, as  the barking continued in the background .

Very soon we were seated, and Shail came in with a harnessed Luci , who probably knew exactly what was happening. People had cameras, like her Mom, and she hoped the birds wouldn't be interfering during this visit.  She came to us, wagging away her tail in excitement, looking up to be scratched and rubbed, wandered in great excitement, and then quietly lay down, no doubt secretly listening to all of us waxing eloquent on her. Once in a while she would get up,  the excitement was too much, and then she would kind of move around a bit, and then rub her face against your feet, and asked to be  rubbed.  It was like she was participating in the meeting of the bloggers.

We had some great  tea and typical Kerala snacks, and Luci intially got up to inspect things , and then pretended not to be interested.  However, she did show interest when the daughter held some chips in her palm, and invited Luci to imbibe.  All the while, Luci was on her amazing exemplary behaviour.

I actually expected  jumps up to my shoulder, general excitement and shaking of the body as if  brushing off water drops , with Shail commanding her to get down, and stay down etc. Luci , as I have known from reading about her, is a very strong willed, determined, active,  and vocal person, who doesnt hide  her feelings, but simply tells it like it is, and lets go.  

But I think she is kind of growing up into the second somersault stage.  She knows who to ignore, who to worry about, and she is concerned about how she comes across. She doesn't throw herself around wildly in company, unless of course , she sees some neighborhood cat in the vicinity.   It is possible, that like all kids , she enjoys being troublesome in the house , and chewing up things , and running with mud feet on the clean floor.  But she is old enough not to do it when folks visit . She knows they may write about her.

Almost an hour of chit chat with Luci amidst us, and we get up to leave. We must have a keepsake foto with Luci. She reverts to her original self as we stand on the verandah steps. She has spied the gate, and someone outside, a vehicle too, and she needs to know whats going on. Shail has the harness on her , and makes her sit for the photograph.

A lovely canine teenager , now coming of age, surrounded  by folks who admire her.  The camera clicks, and we have lovely memories of our visit to store away and remember.  Shail presents us with a hamper of some excellent traditional kerala chips, made from banana and arbi, and Luci knows but pretends she does not. Earlier she might have got agitated, impatient and sniffed around the bag , and now she simply knew what was inside without sniffing. 

We had a cardboard cylinder packaging of some photoprints for Shail, and  since Luci tries to give the royal ignore to the butterflies (whose prints they were) ,  she then indulged in the favourite pastime of chewing up the packaging.  I am positive she reads the addresses before she decides where to chew. 

Very clearly, an exponent of the second somersault stage.  Not strong minded tantrums, no loud protest barking, and on her best behaviour in front of visiting folks.  In her first somersault life stage, she chewed spectacles .  I rest my case  :-)

We all think she  has a very royal demeanour.   She has that royal look in her eyes.

But like all royals, she knows where she must conform to rules, and where she can let her shiny golden hair down.   A pucca sign of being in the second somersault stage.

We drove back home to see the sunset from our balcony.  There was a ping on the phone.

I checked. 

A notification on facebook. 

Our visit with Luci was documented. And posted .

And we clicked and smiled as  someone poured a cup of tea.....