Thursday, April 30, 2009

RSS/News/Feed Aggregators - Why they aren't good enough

I have been sifting through the Internet in search of a good RSS news aggregator (something to organise my panic attacks about not having enough hours in a day to read all the news and articles out there). Before I get into the ones I tried and dropped (or on the verge of doing that), let me specify what exactly I want in a feed aggregator (other terms would be "RSS aggregator", "feed readers", "RSS readers", "news feeds", "news aggregators", etc.). I searched for everything ranging from "best news aggregators" to "comparing RSS readers" and was able to gather information, screenshots and feature lists for a lot of them. Let me list what I think I need from a RSS aggregator.

  1. Reliability: If a feed is updated, I should know about it nearly immediately or within whatever duration I deem appropriate.
  2. Scalability: To manage a growing number of feed subscriptions well and without bloating horribly.
  3. Usability: A clean, elegant and luring interface which doesn't bore me in seconds. Under this category come several things:
  • I don't want a million buttons
  • I don't want to click more than once for anything as simple as adding a feed
  • I don't want the service to push things down my throat (this is where Feedly fails or perhaps is poorly-suited to my needs)
  • I don't want a mere list of feeds which I need to scroll through endlessly
  • I don't want a million panes and windows making quick reading enormously difficult
  • I want an entirely new way of looking at and presenting news.
  • I want the ability to share (through email or through the service's network), include (blogs, personal newspapers, etc.) and manage (save entirely locally, clip, tag, index etc.) feeds, news items and individual webpages.
  • I want to see some intelligence in the service (based on the articles I have read, the tags I create, the kind of links I seem to click on, the nature of news that attracts me, the kind of articles I share etc.) without making an assumption that I am retarded and incapable of picking for myself.
  • I want the ability to customise my daily view (or as is called landing page, startpage, etc.) without having to write scripts or CSS.
  • I want the ability to rate my content and annotate it
I am tired of every single news reader giving me nothing more than the same thumbnail view of news or the "river of news" view. They actually think they are creative by changing the colour of the header and the like!Clueless
Before I proceed, I am not a Net-addict and hence, solutions like Twitter do not work for me. I don't have a Twitter account and don't see myself getting one. I like being educated and not being filled with gossip and pointless lines of info like "I am bored", "Dropped a pizza slice on my lap" or "Wow! Saw the hottest girl in town" because I am not interested in your boredom, I hate wasting food and where I work and live there aren't any hot girls so I don't know what that means!
One can go here to get a list of available news readers.
I will focus on 3 categories of RSS readers:
  1. Web-Based: This would include Bloglines, Google Reader and Newsgator
  2. Desktop: FeedDemon, GreatNews, Omea
  3. Browser-Based: Feedly, FireFox, Opera, Flock, Snackr
WB solutions have one big problem - no offline viewing (though Google Gears might partially help as far as GR is concerned). All of them require me to be connected else they are useless. The concept of offline mode is usually only for the feeds and not for the webpage itself. So the notion of picking a few news items (and maybe feeds) and clicking on a "Prefetch" or "Retrieve" or "Offline Mode" where those news items will be fetched and I can read through them while on my flight or while shuttling between locations in a horrible traffic (like the curfew days in Bangalore) does not exist. What am I going to do with just the feeds? Fine, that looks like an interesting piece, let me read all of it, but no! We aren't connected!
Another big problem is the inability to design my view (though Bloglines Beta is kinda changing that). Google Reader is plainly pathetic in the straight line of news that it throws to the screen. I simply have to keep scrolling on and on forever. Another super big problem is the inability to organise my favourite webpages. I can Star, Tag or Flag a news item but if my news item contains multiple links (as does the feed from Arts and Letters Daily) then I cannot mark individual items. Newsgator does permit me to organise clippings and websites that I like but the method is not simple or straightforward. Google Reader only allows you to Star them or Share them as long as that is a feed. If the feed links to an external article, you can't do anything with it. What if I wished to organise them for future reading and/or reference? Hence, I think GR is really not good enough for all the hype surrounding it. When I have to compare these 3, I would rate Newsgator better than Bloglines which is nearly as good (if not better) than Google Reader. Newsgator lets me import from other places and OPML files without having to go through the export-import routine. I need to do that to get my Bloglines feeds into GR. Too circuitous. Bloglines has a concept of clipping and more and hence that could be better than GR. Otherwise, they are pretty much alike and this whole thing about keyboard shortcuts is only for those who are vying to be some feed-racer! Bloglines Beta is better than the earlier version of Bloglines.

Amongst Desktop apps, I would rate FeedDemon great because it lets me sync up with NewsGator and Bloglines. FD lets me organise individual weblinks in my clippings folder so that I can view them later. FD allows for pre-fetching and offline viewing (again, only of the feed snippets). I can assign tags to my news items. I think FD has it all except for unreliable syncing (my folder on my desktop app shows 46 unread and the one in Newsgator shows 31) and some accessibility issues (scrolling on top pane is frigid). The good facilities include simple dragging and dropping articles (and not merely news items or feeds (the granularity is higher)) into the clippings folder, leaving them with me. I can organise all of these based on what I deem logical. All of this syncs with my online NewsGator account and hence, they are available for viewing from anywhere. GreatNews is also good but doesn't have a clippings management facility and sometimes doesn't sync up well. I had used Omea Reader/Pro for long and I thought it was really good. Some minor glitches exist and the problem of trying to do too many things with one piece of software plagues this one. It tries to integrate with Outlook, ICQ, NNTP etc. One can always disable these, but it still adds to the clutter. Startup times and memory footprints are nearly in the same range though GreatNews is better and there is no point comparing with Omea as it seems to launch only one news item in the pane (one can launch endless external browsers but that is a pain). That is Omea's biggest problem. It doesn't allow launching several news items at one go. There is a panel where all the titles are available but you can't launch many articles and read them at your convenience. FeedDemon and GreatNews lets you launch as many reading panes as you want though they are all tightly integrated with IE and FD does a better job. On a crash and restart, FD remembers and starts from where you left (though it truncates the number of panes you had opened). GreatNews simply forgets! Omea has but one to remember! That is big enough to push Omea to 2nd place when compared with FD. FD integrates well with Bloglines and Newsgator and has provisions for clippings and sharing but none for annotation, indexing and saving for offline reading. Still, FD is the best one can find as of now. If only Omea could manage multiple articles, it would beat FD by a huge margin. All of them have a feature similar to FD's Panic button, which lets you sweep over your feeds and mark them read based on chronology.

Browser-Based solutions tend to resemble the old email feeds or are merely wrappers around web-based readers. In spite of all the hype around Feedly, I find it largely useless. It hardly gives me anything more than a wrapper over GR though perhaps the "social feeding" might be its sole focus (and I am not yet interested in that. I don't have time to read my own feeds!). I like what Opera has (with 9.64) but again, it is just a table of news items. Snackr seems to do something interesting with randomising feeds but you need AIR for it and that makes things rather complicated for something as simple as what it provides.
Other interesting services include ClipMarks, EverNote, Voyage and ShareFire though not one of them is the answer (and Voyage is rather weird though looks cool). I think the best thing would be to have a marriage of some of these. I think I am going to sit down to develop one for myself (and I am surely going to use Flex+Flash for my UI!!). Any ideas welcome.
At the end of the day I am left disappointed and dejected with my options (I feel the same when in the poll booth going over the list of available parties). I think I will have to do with FD+NewsGator+Bloglines till my own solution comes up and is functional. Only those who give me damn cool ideas will get an account on that! ;-)

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Establishing Rightness

It all started with that conversation. Actually, it all started several decades ago when I was born, but that is not how we mark events.
R: "Don't tell me, E! Seriously? Yuck! Such horrible people!"
E (that is me): "True."
R: "I can't believe such people and families exist."
E: "Now you can."
R: "What happens next? What will he do?"
And I began sharing the plans that our common friend had made before embarking on the need to establish Rightness. Commonly, one mixes Rightness with Truth, Honesty, Protocol and a few other things and is lost in the tangle of words and connotations.
Few days later, a friend of mine complained that instead of dropping a Rs. 2 coin he had dropped a Rs. 5 coin into a beggar's bowl. He apologised to the beggar and asked him to return it in exchange of what was originally intended. The beggar refused to return what he had gotten out of chance.
He: "Damn it, E! I know I was being stupid, but isn't it decency for him to return it?"
E: "You expected a beggar to return what is not his?"
He: "Yes!"
E: "Then why did you seek to give it to him in the first place?"
He: "Pity, good will, the need to share."
E: "Then you will always have to pay more."
These two conversations and my meditation on a facet of life, leads me to ponder aloud.
Often one is faced with the concern of establishing the Right in various spheres of our lives. A Zen Master might wonder about how the Right can ever be established by anything other than the Divine/Tao/Rightness, which makes sense. Nevertheless, the land has her laws and people have rules because one cannot count on the Divine taking matters into Its hands and with this world having a generous proportion of vulgar scoundrels one is often faced with the need to establish justice and uniformity. There will be thieves who will walk into your house, act sweet and steal from under your nose and then claim that the goods actually belong to them. How many people have the patience to let the Divine resolve this? The Middle East would have those thieves decapitated and to some that is perhaps fair punishment. One could wait for Divine intervention and then find none, for which the Hindu scheme of thought has created the notion of Kali Yuga (Age of Iron): nothing will be as it should be. This justifies or rather seeks to explain the humiliation of the fair and righteous and the prosperity of smugglers and rapists, this justifies an early widowhood to a good girl and the pimping out of one's own daughter for a handful of gold (we often call them gold-diggers), this justifies the destruction of a Howard Roark and the pedestal for the Elsworth Tooheys.

I am frequently lost in the question: Can Rightness ever be established? Is there a point to it? Can we, while living in the midst of beggars and thieves and looters (Ayn Rand's choice for the worst amongst human beings), subscribe to Rightness and adhere to it? How common is the occurrence of a good intention, an ethical intention, an honest action gone wrong and twisted around by vulgar snakes forcing us to seek refuge in the intelligence and honesty of others? One would build a road with the genuine intention of creating easy travel and transport only to be condemned by the villagers of having ulterior motives and castigated. I have personally encountered horrible people who have twisted their inaction, laziness, lack of concern, lack of moral fibre into a virtue and into the oft used weapon of "being human". Such lowly people are a misfit in an ethical world. They resort to sweet words, drama, lies and falsehood in order to survive. They will take and keep taking (literally and figuratively) for they are looters who do not care for Rightness.

While fairness and justice can reveal a course of action, Destiny can choose another, though that choice doesn't mitigate the Rightness of things. Often one mistakes Destiny's ways to be a sanction of one's choices. I love the Sandman series where Destiny's role is beautifully sketched. Destiny is blind (and I like that volume where Rose tries to clarify to Dream that it is not Destiny that is blind but Love) and ensures that what is meant to happen will happen irrespective of the pleasantness or lack thereof. While one can carefully reveal the Rightness of things one cannot expect Fate to take sides. I think this is often the greatest torment man faces - the inability to come to terms with the actions of Fate which seem to come about irrespective of the course of action one takes and the underlying intent.

Allow me to consider each question independently and in an order that makes sense to me.
  • Why should Rightness be established?
  • What is the most vital context in which Rightness must be established?
  • How could/should we respond to the environment?
  • Is all the effort worth it?
  • Can it ever be done?

Rightness is not negotiable. Rightness needs to be established because the absence of itIt is fair! is pure chaos which the human race cannot manage (which is not necessarily bad and at least, as The Joker puts it, "Oh, and you know the thing about chaos? It's fair!"). It is perhaps out of the fear of the absence of Rightness that Rightness is sought, but Rightness lends a flavour which is unlike that which arises from achievement or cunning. The only reason for establishing Rightness is itself. One can list a million reasons for why we need sunlight or water but Rightness doesn't find in human beings a necessity to quench. Nevertheless, Rightness is vital to the harmonious coexistence with Nature.

The context is the self transforming into the Self. Hence, Rightness can never be sought in an entity outside of oneself else Rightness would cease to be so and morph into a gimmick or a realisation based on popularity votes. It would be tragic and defeatist if one had to seek votes to decide whether something was right or not. Hence, Rightness cannot be sought or demanded outside of oneself. This doesn't mean one refuses to recognise its role in the common spaces between human beings, but the self is most vital context. This might sound like an escape from the seemingly original intent of this post to arrive at a strategy for establishing Rightness, but no, Rightness must be established and the most vital context is the self. Once it is established in the self, there is a channel for Rightness to permeate the space around that Self. When an individual acts as an impediment to or an inappropriate carafe for Rightness, what then is there to expect of the world outside such an error?

By observing oneself. To observe oneself is to rid oneself of the need to measure, to compare, to tally, to seek approval. When we truly observe ourselves, we watch our ways afresh. We do not compare it with an ideal, or with our beliefs or with norms. We simply watch and understand what is it that drives an action. I can watch my decisions and realise that my choice of taking a hard stance is simply my need to refuse looters to have things their way. My discomfort with liars and knaves leaves me with a visceral want to oust them from my life. I don't see it as good or bad nor wonder whether it is politically correct or what will others say or will I have as many supporters as the looters do or anything along those lines. This doesn't make for a justification for knee-jerk reactions but to be able to observe a sequence of actions and be able to realise where it all springs from lends clarity and with clarity, one has an opportunity to adhere to Rightness. Clarity alone is impotent esp. in the world of human beings. A friend often said that clarity to a person should be like a flame shown to butter - there is no choice, transformation is inevitable. Unfortunately, that is not true as far as human beings are concerned. One can heap facts and figures in front of a person but fail to convince a liar of the truth in them. They will stick to their illusions and condemn you for pursuing them with facts and truth. They will even resort to escapes and drama and blame you for "numbing" their senses with incessant calls to Rightness. Human beings can never be butter (and perhaps that is what encouraged the Vedic rishis to offer butter to the sacrificial fire). Hence, by observing oneself one has the opportunity to befriend Rightness.
One would have to get over one's fears, one's hubris, one's false spine, one's ego to be able to walk the path of Rightness with the clarity gained. How should one drop one's fears or pride? There is no step by step procedure for that though the best means is to observe the world. One should observe it to see what is, what was and hence, how the world accommodates the transition from what was to what is. In this, there is great learning especially about the impermanence of things and ideals. There will be no man-made object that will outlive this world yet the world gently accommodates all mistakes and misunderstandings. In watching and observing Nature there is a lot to learn, esp. that our fears our primarily imaginary or irrelevant in the grand scheme of this world. That our pride achieves nothing on its own and it doesn't serve as sufficient trophy after we have created something.
So, in observing the self and Nature one gathers the rudimentary equipment to adhere to Rightness. Those who aren't interested in Rightness will only talk, and lie and invent more lies to justify their inconsistent stories and play this silly game of them against themselves and clap hands in having won the game although there was no one else playing. They will create movements and expend energy in extolling the virtues of mediocrity and vulgarity because only in such a world can every rat be virtuous. They will appeal to your sympathy and not your respect for one can be gained through coercion and cunning while the other can only be gained by mettle and intellect.
For one who is established in Rightness, there is no guidance necessary to establish that Rightness outside of him. His is a fire that will burn wrongdoers or himself - because in death there is no loss and with death ends the journey of the Right. That fire which has burned Right till the death of the torch is a true flame. Such a man refuses to accept injustice and will not comply. Laws of the land might bind him from fear of facing Truth. People might ostracise him out of fear of having to look into their own souls. But Nature will nurture him. The only way to establish Rightness is by:
  • Sharpening the blade of the self by observing
  • Refusing to accept the vulgarity of anyone around us
  • Sticking to truth and honesty
  • Sticking to a ruthless pursuit of fairness
  • Standing up for what is Right
  • Considering no loss greater than the loss of kinship with Rightness
  • Never giving a man more or less than his due
  • Never accommodating a vile individual
  • Never gaining from the association or favour of a vile individual
  • Never acting on pity
  • Never supporting a parasite
  • Preferring wisdom to mental intelligence
  • Preferring mental intelligence to emotional hooks
  • Preferring nurturing and support to parasitical coercion
  • Understanding the difference between being alone and being lonely
  • Comfort with being alone (for there is no greater companion than the Self)
  • Willingness to educate a seeker about the path to Rightness
Please note that none of this is a decision. As long as it is a decision it is in the play of the mind and thoughts which can cunningly sway this way or that. When the individual is transformed into an instinctive response along these lines, he is free and Right.

I am afraid this is something each person needs to evaluate for their own self. Often I am plagued with this question: All that I am doing, all the world that I am fighting against, all the relationships lost, all the enemies gained, all the rebuke, all of that, is it worth it? Why not be like any other average human being and have a snake for a brother, a rat for a friend, a fox for a peer, a leech for a wife and a wolf for parents, and laugh and be merry and live like nothing matters? Because it matters. Because it matters to me that I sleep with the confidence that I did not cheat nor did I accommodate a cheat. Because it matters that I have represented myself with utmost honesty and have shown liars their place. Because I have only kept with me what I have truly earned and castigated thieves and beggars from my life. Because when I walk down the road and someone comes up to me and says, "E, I know you'll tell me the truth. Is it safe to do this?" my entire being chimes with the bells of Rightness as I guide him with my entire being. Because when I look back over my life, I realise that for all the mistakes committed I have learnt and moved closer to Rightness. To me it is worth the acid-test. You need to figure it out for yourself.

It is and hence, we still have the world going good. Had the world been devoid of Rightness and people who strove to achieve that, then we would have liars and thieves attacking each other's throats for the little gold that clung to their neck and food that hadn't descended the gullet. Undoubtedly, the commonest form we find in the world is of people who are sporadically right and decent. But there are people who have mostly lived a Rightness which is commendable. My friend's father is an example of a man who has lived a life without giving a bribe, without accepting one, without tolerating a liar and cheat, without cheating anyone and a lot many items on the list above. Although he is fairly far from what I call Rightness, he is closer to it than most people I have met and interacted with. This post is dedicated to him.

Monday, April 27, 2009


Wait for me

For hours he watches
It slip up the tracks. He plucks
It at last and runs.



To a mind that holds
Faces, follies, feuds, fervour
The lake shows just me.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Punishment in Education

Shanno is dead. It is terribly sad that a child had to die due to unnatural causes. It is sickening to note that the teacher considered the physical torture commensurate with the inadequacy in remembering the alphabet. Somehow, it seemed all normal to me and I didn't feel a reaction in me surge and burn my brain into a wrath which usually culminates in a post. Perhaps I am becoming more of Earth having encountered great indecency and vulgarity in human beings - nothing seems to shock me anymore. As a friend quotes in her email signature: The opposite of love is not hate; it is indifference.

There were articles (1 and 2) in today's Sunday Magazine which dwelt upon the matter of physical abuse meted out to children in school. I wonder how the public response would have been had the mother of the child ordered her to stand in the sun. I agree with some points that they raise. One thing that I hold in spite of all that is said, thought and shared (including this post) is that children (who eventually grow into becoming human beings) are the most beautiful creatures around and there is so much to learn from them and share with them that all this coarse, irresponsible and ignorant behaviour towards them is appalling (and I am somewhat mild today).

Since enough has been written and telecast about the cruelty in the Indian education system, I do not wish to search my mind for related points. I would like to, instead, look at the source of this cruelty and toss in my hand the possibility that it is inevitable and actually encouraged by those who condemn it.

What was done with Shanno and the boy whose knuckles were rapped (and I always wondered why Rap music was called that) and the girl who was made to write the answer to a question 100 times are nothing more than examples of responses to deviations from the norm. Somehow, responses of the following sorts are considered acceptable:

  1. Writing an imposition
  2. Standing on the bench
  3. Standing in the corner of the room facing the wall
  4. Standing outside the class
  5. Passing on a complaint sheet from teacher to parent
  6. Having the parent accompany the child to meet teacher and parent
  7. Suspending the child for a while
  8. Demoting the child
  9. Expelling the child
These are considered "normal" until the child responds by being "overly" disturbed to any of these and committing suicide. They are considered normal because the school needs some means of ensuring and establishing order. One cannot run a school based on wisdom because such wisdom is rare to collect in one campus and children are rarely ever the keepers of wisdom. So one must have rules and the violation of rules must have clearly stated consequences in order to establish the value of those rules (else, who would respect those rules!?).
Presentism renders the following responses "barbaric":

  1. Physically striking the child (slaps, raps, kicks, pushes, etc.)
  2. Child performing physically exhausting tasks (running around the campus 100 times, 200 situps, etc.)
  3. Standing for hours in the sun
  4. Standing for hours in biting snow (a problem largely irrelevant to India)
  5. Contorted positions for long durations
The common thread amongst these is the physical damage/breakdown of the child. The earlier category targeted the psychological damage/breakdown of the child. I wonder which is more valuable: psychological damage, which might scar the child for life (as the doomsday child psychologists like to say), or the physical damage, which might lead to death (as demonstrated in certain incidents). One might say what is left if the child dies and the other might argue that what is left of life if the spirit is broken. Such debates can continue endlessly.

As I said earlier, I am not interested in presenting my views about the evils of punishment (physical or psychological) but about their inevitability in society as it stands today. You might claim that we need to always talk in terms of a society that we should strive for but the issue is that talk and that strife have been on for several millenia, sufficient for me to conclude that talking about anything beyond what is, is merely an escape from what we are faced with. It is like someone not caring about the pollution in the air today and planning on baking a cake on a Sunday when there will be no pollution at all. Sorry: yes pollution, no cake.

Social order is vital for society to function. Order is not a dirty communist word. Nature has order and that order is established and maintained effortlessly. Amongst humans, order can be established organically amongst like-minded individuals or delineated and enforced amongst a heterogeneous collection. The latter is most commonly found example of realising order. We have law, police, military and the judiciary system along with its prisons for establishing order. Surprisingly, we do not have a reward system for someone who has never broken the law. If we set aside that observation, we realise that society cannot function without laws and punishment for violation of that law.

If you start a business with a few other friends and soon one of them starts using business money for household expenses then what do the rest do? They can speak with him, help him understand it is not acceptable, warn him, oust him or hand him over to the police. Ramalinga Raju is an educated man. Why don't we consider speaking to him and explaining to him that what he did was wrong and that he should never repeat it and let him go?

How different is a school? No, I am not taking the cynical stance that a school is hardly different from a corporate enterprise. We can visit that later. A school too has an ecosystem which needs to be maintained. A child refuses to behave and hurts her classmates and lies and cheats and steals and what do you do? Patiently explain and attempt educating the child. Very well, and if it still doesn't help? You will turn strict. And still? You might call the parents and complain about the disruption caused. Here three things can happen - the child might be taken off the school records (which is nothing more than passing the responsibility to another entity, the parents would simply refuse to do anything since they are "paying" the school to educate the child (which is fair since the school always takes credit for the child's "successes" and hence should also be responsible for the "aberration") or the parents drag the child back home and spank the hell out of her. The latter might lead to death and we would hear about parenting being on the decline and possibly blame BPOs and the Nano for it.Punished

Given limited time (12 years) and limited resources (only so many teachers and facilities for scores of children) what is the solution? You might think that unruly children are merely an exception and cannot justify cruelty towards children. I am not calling for cruelty towards children. I am demanding a revisit of what drives us all. Secondly, Shanno's teacher might call her unruly which might justify her behaviour.

As I had stated elsewhere and often, I believe that the Right approach to education is not to constrain it with time. If the child takes 20 years to learn cooperative and constructive conduct as well as the rudiments of the world around us then so be it. If the child takes less, then that is fine too. The focus is the education of the child and not our metrics and externally imposed frameworks. Point is, not a single educator (even those who are concerned enough to write articles in newspapers) is willing to accept and adopt that. No parent will accept that for their child (it might seem wonderful for other children). They'd rather spank the child into straightness.

Hence, the reasons for such educational systems include the following:
  1. Our deep desire for conformance
  2. Society
  3. Limited resources, esp. patience
  4. Complete disregard to Rightness
Not surprisingly, (4) above features in every observation I have to make about the human specie. I think the assembly line and mass production is basically the most grand manifestation of the human want for conformance. Conformance has its benefits. There is lesser dissipation of energy and much lesser re-invention of the wheel. It would be weird and difficult to operate in a society where two individuals who have passed high school be as different as an apple and a pebble. What if one knew algebra and calculus and the other didn't know how to add? Or one could read and write while the other couldn't? Is education all about learning subjects? It is largely about learning and understanding the rudiments of life and the operating world around us. Hence, math and language and science count as do physical exercise and soft skills. Other subjects count too but we need to draw the line as to what are the basics and I think these suffice as a rudimentary foundation. Hence, we need some conforming amongst people who cohabit. Let me not dwell longer on the need for conformance. It should be clear to the intelligent reader.

Society creates strata of respectability and utility and we can address this outside the purpose of this post. Punishment in school is primarily a response to aberrations from what society calls acceptable. In a society where questioning is evil a child is forbidden to do so. In a society where mathematical genius is treated as vulgar every Ramanujan will be considered an outlaw. Hence, in a society which doesn't tolerate inefficiency or slow learners, every Shanno will be punished. I still recall a friend of mine complain that he should have done his engineering as in Andhra Pradesh a groom without a B.E. or B.Tech or M.B.B.S is not wanted. Bihar seems to prefer people working for the government esp. IAS officers. Why does it surprise us that educated engineers and students commit suicide because they couldn't live up to the "standards"? Teachers don't wish to be blamed for not ensuring that the pupils lived up to the "standard" and hence, resort to any means in order to keep everyone in the straight line to respectability even if that requires beating the child. After all, the teacher has only this much energy and only few hours in school every day. He might instruct once, explain once more and then raise his cane. Why blame the teacher when what he is expected to deliver is a pack of students who score 100%? We never blame the assembly line worker for picking the bolts which are outside tolerance limits placed by customer and employer and casting them back into the furnace.

In the "alternate" or "wise" schools that I have visited, I have observed that even the so-called "good" teacher snap and lose her cool. I was once in a discussion with teachers, educators and fellow jobless folks like myself. One of the teachers, considered to be very wise and intelligent, lost her cool when I repeatedly asked a question because I simply did not understand. I would ask her a question, and she qould give me some circuitous answer (because not having an answer is a sign of incompetence) and then I would use her answer and present a doubt that continued to plague me and she would try once more before snapping for the third and asking me to shut up. Physically beating me is simply out of question for many people (though I have taken a beating from kids one-third my size) so the nearest to that is asking me to shut up. On lighter reflection I seem to have brought hell to a lot of people with my incessant questions and probing and stubborn refusal to accept half-hearted responses and in most cases the lies that accompanied them. I have lost friends and relationships due to that and I am relieved that I have lesser foxes to deal with! Back to the post, patience and genuine belief in education is vital but teachers being human and parents being parents do not have a good measure of either. Time and energy are limited. The teacher might have had a bad day with her family and/or colleagues. He might have faced a misfortune. She might have been cheated. Anything is possible and we need to understand that they are human too or we insist that people act objectively and leave their personal influences behind when they enter the school. I haven't seen one single school where the teachers are gathered in a room, before their teaching day starts, and are asked to meditate over certain issues and in complete silence so that they are mentally prepared to tackle the responsibility of teaching that day. This might create conformance which is good; conformance with the ideals of education if one needs ideals for something as fundamental as that. There are prayer sessions, 1 minute silences (where children are busy nudging each other and a teacher glares at them) and such excursions, but nothing exclusively for the teacher to allow them to leave the vulgar world behind. Why not? Do we have conscious sessions where a teacher reminds the others that there will be several occasions in that day when children will behave in ways which make them resort to "taming" them but physical assault should be avoided as that is not to be permitted in the school? No.
As an aside, I do not believe in sparing the rod. I think it is a useful tool in imprinting unacceptable and dangerous behaviours. Climbing over parapet walls, playing near snake pits, playing with sharp objects or fire all deserve a warning and a spank, for the child remembers such sharp responses and will not venture into such dangerous practices. When used as an escape from explaining instructions/decisions/thoughts/ideas/etc. to the child they are vulgar as is every form of escape from having to deal with realities.

Finally, we haven't a sense of Rightness. The child's education matters. The child's happiness matters. The child's well-being matters. The completeness of education matters. In the face of these truths what else should matter? These don't feature in the agenda of parents and teachers alike. Lazy teachers take this to another extreme and avoid guiding the child from the fear that they might come across as old-fashioned. Again, it is closely tied in with the earlier reasons because a teacher is often the product of society (unlike as in the Vedic ages when the teacher and his gurukul were situated far from the city/village usually in a forest where child and teacher can be one with Nature) and hence, cannot be expected to be radically different. Schools which claim to be "new-age" do not have the patience to employ such teachers and tend to staff their schools with those who can teach a subject and leave for the day. Most schools simply have a good martinet for a math or physics class and they live in the belief that they have a good school because the students always score more than 90% in a subject. If that is all that is required of an education system then Shanno and others would be collateral damage and we should come to terms with that.

My biggest concern is with the hypocrisy inherent in arguments against punishment in schools. Though everyone might agree with extreme punishment being excessive, punighment per se is part and parcel of society. Even if we establish a school where no one is punished and everyone is free to do whatever they please, how do they come out and coexist in a world of laws and prisons? They will be quite a misfit. Schools are not educating children on the need to conform as a basis for coexistence. They either take it to an extreme and make it a frightening matter or simply ignore it. In society, as it stands today, conformance is inevitable (esp. as long as human beings are going to remain essentially ignorant and incapable of aligning with the Divine Will) and aberrations have to be dealt with. Punishment is a response to deviations. If punishment should be removed, so must the need to conform and still further, the need for a society. Once society is abolished, the need to conform will crumble and so will the necessity to punish.

Making a case for less violent or consequentially less disastrous punishments is a matter of gambling with chance (which is a funny play of words). As mentioned earlier, making a boy stand on the bench for a homework he didn't complete could make him feel humiliated and lead to an asthma attack. Making her write an imposition could leave her so exhausted or utterly embarrassed that she jumped off the fourth floor and committed suicide. When will it stop? If the teachers shouldn't whack them who stops the parents from walloping them? Should we bring in laws like in the US which only aim at proving that human beings are incapable of doing anything right and hence it must be the government, police and law that will establish... what? Uniformity and conformance!!?

Punishment in human life and society is vital and inevitable as long as there is a need to make living and coexisting less tiresome and more organised. One doesn't have the time and/or energy to stop everything and carefully and patiently explain things to every single individual. If this is accepted then schools too would have their own form of punishment in order to establish uniformity and stability of the school ecosystem. It might help to have a Teacher of Punishment (though s/he would hardly be teaching anyone anything unless we are talking Abu Ghraib) to whom the students are sent to be punished. This teacher will consult medical records and other matters before deciding on the punishment commensurate with the fault. S/He will know how hard the rap should be and how long the imposition. Frankly, I am laughing my head off here. In the absence of Right education, how does anything matter? For anyone who doesn't believe in the Rightness of education, talking against punishment is ridiculous. Only the world of animals and Nature can be without punishment because in there is Rightness.

And still I am not impassioned enough to rebuke those who caused Shanno's death or the society in general. Perhaps between love and indifference lies impassioned caring (three points always lie in a plane and hence, the notion of "lying in between" can always be formulated).

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Cutest pound of flesh

Baby Paunch

I unearthed this picture shot few years ago at an exhibition where I picked up this baby and played with him for a long while. Just notice how his stomach folds over my fingers. Like dough!

On Writing

We were at the dinner table when a lovely lady of many wise years asked me what I did. We had discussed several topics in the days leading to this dinner but had hardly found it pertinent to discuss our daily occupation. Perhaps it was the dearth of topics that forced her to toss this one between the tub of chapatis and bowl of lentils. I wanted to summarise my occupation with a "I think". No matter how genuine that would be (and my visiting card designs contain a similar pair of words to describe what I do) it would at best appear like a shabby copy of Govinda's response to Kamala's query in Siddhartha or at worst a cheeky response. She meant a good deal to me and I couldn't afford to slight her.
I confessed to being a writer, sometimes of software code and sometimes of softer wares which come from the smoky recesses of one's thoughts and imagination.
"Aah! A writer. An artist."
One must add a British accent to that exclamation.
"Yes, indeed. I would love to make it all of what I do, but neither do circumstances allow me nor do my inner predelictions permit me confinement to only one mode of activity."
"You indulge in other art forms too?"
"Dabble with them and in other popularly non-art activities too."
We soon began discussing art and science and engineering. The table seated a truly international array of guests and added an age spectrum which was delightful too. The youngest was a girl recently out of high school though she didn't add a word beyond an occasional assent and the oldest was someone who was around when ships were means to arrive in India. The meanderings of the conversation came to a halt when I, unpremeditated, said the following:
"Writing is so unlike the other arts. Nearly every other art caters to a sense with a medium which is most intuitively coupled with that sense. Writing is different."
There was a pause and the reason couldn't be the wonderful taste of any of the elements in the dinner spread.
"Why would you think so?"
And I proceeded to explain. I cannot say that this thought is entirely mine. I recall reading Stephen King's "On Writing" where he hints at something similar. He doesn't compare it with other arts but that aspect stood out clearly. He doesn't even view it in terms of media and sensory effects. Before I proceed to that, allow me to carry your attention to an earlier post of mine. For the sake of some My Worldreaders, I shall reproduce some of the contents here:

The last word Damien spoke was "Dad", which was also his first one, five years ago; I was holding him then and now.

He sucked her tongue into his mouth, savouring the lust and definite completion of the the 3 million dollar contract, while she licked at his naivete'.

I was about to turn around & complain about not hearing a single bird in these woods, when he gunned his Hummer making it roar for a couple of seconds before shutting it suddenly; I got what I wanted and more.

I watched her eyes moisten to the news, softening the blue of her eyes to a painful shade of grey & as the tear tried to slip down the side of her face, she tilted her head slightly & brought it back within the wrinkled folds of her eyelid; her tears were hers.

He had to write to her, so he wrote the words "Dearest Erika", stopped and smiled at the sparkling ink on the words before licking the portions that made her name.

Every hair on my body stood and watched his wet finger trail down my neck to unchartered, but eager, grounds.

As we were positioned in the back of the truck with our sides pasted together, knees dovetailing into each other's crotches, unable to turn our heads around, I counted thirteen children in front of me and assumed the same number on each of the five benches I saw when I was hurled in, hence sixty-five; this was my first unofficial assignment in math which helped me work towards my doctoral thesis.

When Uncle Joe hugged me, rather crushed me against his barrel sized chest, it was cheap whiskey instead of the usual Armani which told me that he hadn't recovered from his wife's death; this was my cue to make him mine.

It is not an arrogant claim but each of these sentences designed and created to evoke a particular sense are potent enough to transport the reader to an imagined world of their own making. As King puts it, writing is pure telepathy. The writer has an idea in his mind and employs words to convey that scene. When a writer writes "a wilting red rose on white lace tablecloth" one is able to imagine the red rose and "see" the white lace tablecloth. If every reader is immediately asked to paint whatever he has read, the paintings might differ in details but carry forth the broad intent of the writer. The sheer possibility of such different paintings of a scene is the power of writing. The 4th line above (in the quoted section) is an example of rendering an emotional scene and also in showing you the character of the "she". Read the 6th line and close your eyes to the scene.

Writing employs visual cues (words on paper) to create an effect on different senses at different times. One commenter to the "Ode to the bamboo flute" sonnet mentioned the sound images that she could view. Writing about food and describing food can get the mouth to water. Writing about colours and textures can create a visual and palpitating delight. I recall what a friend had to say about this post. He was playful in his comments but did remark on feeling his mouth parch!

None of the other art forms seem to do this.

Dance: Visual means, Visual senses
Music: Audio, Auditory senses
Painting: Visual, Visual senses
Sculpting: Visual and touch, visual and touch senses
Theatre: Visual and audio, visual and audio

One might say that writing employs visual means and creates visual images in the mind and hence, they are the same. Well, they aren't the same because when I say "blue marble" neither is the word "blue" blue or shaped like blue nor is the word "marble" as hard or glassy as a round marble (did you imagine this marble or the slabs of marble!?). The music of the flute sounds like a flute and not like a violin. Fierce angry gestures in a dance performance indicate just that. What is employed and what is attained are very different in writing. Undoubtedly, each art form has its own beauty but this is something peculiar to writing. It is not something that makes it better or worse than other art forms but is surely something that lends it power of an unparalleled mettle.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Environment versus Education

This is something I've been wanting to write for a while. Recently, I had the good fortune of interacting closely with children and educators alike. The interaction was rather involved and I enjoyed the hours spent with the young students. Some of them grew attached and I enjoyed being included in their private world. This was an "alternate" school and hence, "teacher"-student interaction was not regulated beyond a point. This article is not about this school but about how many of us have misunderstood education by oscillating between extremes.

This school was proud of establishing a "system" where there was complete freedom given to children, fear was never used as a tool to achieve conformance or educational progress and finally, competition was not encouraged. On the face of it this is the perfect approach to educating someone. Wouldn't we all want our children to be educated in an environment devoid of fear, full of freedom and without the oppressive burden of competing? I suppose the answer would be yes.

While I was sitting on the lawns of this school, I was surrounded by some students from the 7th and 8th class. These young girls were curious to know who I was and what was I doing in their school. The typical questions started with enquiries into my height followed by my occupation and went into who my favourite actress was. I answered them patiently and enjoyed the company of these kids. I had the task of remembering all their names and they had very unique names (gone are the days when girls were simply named Priya, Sindhu, Rekha and so on). Once they were quieter I started asking them questions.

"Do you like studying here?"
[Chorus] Yes!
"Wow! Sounds like a good school. Why do you like studying here?"
[Sneha] Sir, because there is a lot of freedom for us.
(that would be an incorrect construction, but I didn't want to go down that path)
"Is that good or bad? I mean the freedom given to you."
[Chorus] Very good, Sir.
"Oh! Good. And what do you do with that freedom?"
I waited a while hoping that they would have something to offer and some of the braver ones attempted explaining the possibility of playing games and studying whenever they wanted to and whatever they wanted to. Turns out that most of them simply play games. We moved on to other matters.
"I am told that competition is not encouraged here."
[Chorus] Yes, sir.
"But then don't you guys compete in your games and have fights when someone cheats or feel hurt when you lose your bets and challenges?"
[Swati] That we do, but that is not the same as competing in studies, no?
"No? How?"
[Aparajita]In studies when we compete we aren't really learning anything but only mug up to score more marks. That is not good.
"And in sports you aren't really learning the game but only want to somehow take the ball to the goal and score that point so that you can stick out your tongue to the opponents. Is that good?"
We moved on to other topics which kept them interested as well. I got the sample I wanted and I had to interact with more to understand what these students had understood about the Utopian ideals of this school.
I spoke to the teachers and watched several of them conduct classes. Without much surprise I observed their falling back on "old" methodologies of scolding and silencing the children. Some teachers went to the other extreme of just hanging in there without consciously guiding the class because they didn't wish to be forceful or strict or contrary to the ideals of the school. Hence, they gave the students freedom to do whatever they wanted.
This school, like most alternate schools merges with mainstream schools from the 9th class. The CBSE or ICSE syllabus is followed and exams are conducted. Children are prepared for the board exams and other entrance exams. Life for a child from the 9th is like in most schools except that there is no crazy stress in the air. Children are rather comfortable with whatever they study and some of them score well and others don't.
Mainstream schools have results, pass rates, rankings to be proud of and the alternate schools have their ideologies to keep them contended.

In the individual stance adopted by each school, the child seems to be entirely forgotten. The child does not know what to do with freedom because the child is not aware of the power of freedom. Children believe they should condemn competition and use such notions to justify laziness. In a sense, mainstream schools at least are clear about what they represent and deliver what they stand by. Alternate schools neither produce deeply insightful or thinking youth nor do they produce excellence. The biggest problem with alternate schools is that the children are raised in a cocooned environment and after their 12th class are let out into the "real" world without much guidance or assistance. They enter the world assuming that everyone will readily give them freedom and that no one will try to employ fear and such base tactics to realise ends or that no one wants to compete with anyone else. There is a huge disconnect between what they see in school and what they meet in the "real" world. Finally, here is a snippet of the conversation that was started earlier:

"So all of you love this school?"
[Chorus]Yes, sir.
[Snigdha]I will feel very sad to leave this school.
"Oh! That's sweet. So how many of you plan on completing your studies and returning to this school?"

I personally believe that schools, educators, parents and the media make too much of the environment in which education should take place and often believe that attaining that environment is sufficient condition for calling a particular school a good school. Undoubtedly, the lack of such an environment makes true learning and education extremely difficult. All of us were raised in such mainstream schools and it is us who have gone ahead and created industries, NGOs, civil movements and alternate schools. The proportion of alternate school students who entered the world and mobilised something vital and passionate is negligible (based on whatever quick research I did). The IIM and IIT finish is quite starkly visible in most of the cases. When one meets a graduate from these institutes and discusses a particular topic with them, they do demonstrate the ability to go into them deeper and reflect on them. I can never recognise the product of an alternate school. The reason might be that the alternate school effect is lost in college. Then what is the point of having gone to an alternate school? I asked a senior teacher a similar question: "If I meet 2 gentlemen, aged 35, in an airport do you think that one of them from your school would have conducted his life differently and present himself differently from the other? If they are most likely going to be alike, does it not convince us to rather conform than confuse the child with notions of ideals at a younger age and have them all confiscated over time?" The teacher admitted to the higher possibility of finding them alike in their career choices (not the exact job but in what might have guided them) and in other ways. He nevertheless felt that the seed that was dropped earlier might grow and thrive in his students.
"How many students ponder over deep things that haven't been encountered in their life?"
"Very few"
"Safe to say about 1 per batch of students?"
"Too pessimistic."
"But accurate enough? Shall we settle for 2?"
"Numbers are irrelevant unless that is your point."
"Numbers are relevant once we realise that eventually at the age of 30 nearly the same number of students from mainstream schools would also be pondering over life and other matters. Hence, if the effect, over time, is the same then how has an environment helped?"
We left the matter there as there was nothing to say. He did raise a valid point that the success of a methodology doesn't establish its rightness. I agreed with him as I believe in it too, but if a methodology is being picked to influence someone else's life entrusted in your hands to be transformed into something beautiful, then the success of the methodology matters. If it was merely a lifestyle I chose for myself, then its success doesn't matter. I can pick up bitter gourd soup for myself and control my nauseous urges, but I cannot recommend the same to another person without understanding that person and the responsibility that we owe him.

Hence, environment, though vital, is not a sufficient condition for holistic education, or as Sri Aurobindo says, Integral Education. I prefer conscious education. Conscious education is where the child is placed at the centre without giving her the feeling of being important.

As Jiddu Krishnamurti hints, the teacher is possibly the most vital element in a school. A school is the most vital component in the education of a child. Schools that hire teachers merely to fill positions can never do justice whether they are alternate or mainstream schools.

Let me break the issue I wish to discuss into 3 parts:

1. Environment suitable for conscious education
2. Participants suitable for conscious education
3. Education techniques suitable for conscious education

I will discuss the 1st in this post. A good environment is one where the child continuously learns, assimilates, connects and applies. Continuous learning can only happen in an environment where the child can enquire and seek an understanding of the world around her. For a child to be able to enquire he must be interested in the various phenomena and relationships human beings share amongst themselves as well as with the various entities that surround them. Without interest, no amount of freedom and fearlessness can help. When a child possesses the interest the environment shouldn't introduce reasons to be afraid. When the child is assured and often that she can explore and enquire into anything then the child will learn. To make that learning continuous, it is vital to have the environment provide interesting opportunities and challenges to better understand the world that surrounds the child. This requires guidance and not indiscriminate freedom. To let the child lose and then claim that they have been given their freedom is as silly as handing over the keys of your Mercedes to your 4 year old. Would you do it without joining him in the passenger seat? Freedom is senseless without guidance and careful support. When the child is guided carefully the child can learn continuously and assimilate in a coherent manner.
Connecting information, observations, insights and conjectures requires an environment where the child is encouraged to return to the birds-eye view of the world. Often one is lost in the details of what one learns and forgets that all this learning is primarily to make sense of the world around us. To connect physical phenomena (like the flow of fluids from points of high potential energy to those of low) to their instances in life (human body, rivers, cyclones, etc.) is what makes the learning and assimilation relevant. An environment must provide support to identify various aspects of daily life and repeatedly and continuously connect them with what the child has learnt and back.
Finally, the child should be encouraged to take this learning one step further and apply them to demonstrate, solve and modify circumstances and situations. This is where creativity (from the student) is nourished. An environment which doesn't facilitate creativity can hardly ever produce a thinking man. Creativity is not merely the "aha" but also the "Oh". Often people misunderstand creativity especially when juxtaposed with the need for repetitive tasks and seemingly mechanical activities (this article in The Hindu is one such example of a rather misguided POV. E.g. I couldn't understand how she went from standardised tests to blood tests. One helps assess the familiarity with a subject and the other helps identify based on standard responses to discriminatory procedures. None of her anecdotes seemed to represent creativity!). Children like games but hate having to be creative in solving a problem which they are not connected to. This is where the environment comes in by encouraging creative extrapolations to every single task. Simplest example is to imagine that we are all trapped in a spacecraft and we have to come up with some games based on the props available.
If we are to break this understanding into rudimentary parts, then we could come up with a list of "traits" as follows:
  1. Fear not a means for educating
  2. Creativity not a nice-to-have but a vital element in every activity of the day
  3. Guided freedom
  4. Keeping the big picture (understanding the world around us) in mind
  5. Continuous learning, assimilation, connecting and application
In addition to this, striving for excellence has to be encouraged. Those who say that "it is sad that this world only rewards performers" are missing the point. Performers will be rewarded and will be worshiped. Performers didn't get there by chance or by craft. They have surely put in several hours of disciplined practice to improve and better themselves. That doesn't make them a vile bunch. That doesn't mean striving for excellence is something cheap and only done by those who wish to be worshiped. Striving for excellence is a noble trait like having the courage to be honest. An environment for educating a child must inculcate the same in them. Sloppiness is not what a child should be educated in. Hence, it is vital to educate the child in the rightness of excelling oneself and continuously and organically striving to do better.
A recent CNN Money article brought out some good points about the path to greatness and success. I was reminded of a HBR article about Making of an Expert. Not surprisingly, the researcher in both of them is the same K A Ericsson. Both of them highlight the need to strive for excellence. In such an endeavour, competition takes on a very different expansive meaning. Yoshio Tanabe is one such example of excelling without being driven by competition. An environment which can balance this is most suitable for education. Those at either extreme are missing the point and create non-performing debaters or hollow achievers. Mere unplanned striving for excellence is defeating. What one needs is an environment which can help the child reach the heights by continuously developing the base. The child should realise the seriousness that is due to a subject and consciously attend to the learning and betterment of the understanding of the subject. Hence, the traits now become

  1. Fear not a means for educating
  2. Creativity not a nice-to-have but a vital element in every activity of the day
  3. Guided freedom
  4. Keeping the big picture (understanding the world around us) in mind
  5. Continuous learning, assimilation, connecting and application
  6. Structured and planned striving for excellence
  7. Seriousness about learning
  8. Communion with the "outside" world
The last point is vital in ensuring that the child doesn't feel helpless when encountering the world outside school and home. Education is a never-ending endeavour to understand the world. To make it applicable only to one locale is immature. To make it binding (e.g. the child rejecting the world in favour of his comfortable and idealistic school) is dangerous. To be totally unprepared for the world (because I know physics and math but can't compute things of daily relevance) is a waste of time and most importantly, of a rich childhood.

Though these are vital elements one cannot forget the simple element of genuine caring and Love (for the subject, for learning, for the world). The reason I don't include it is because it is not merely a trait of an environment for education alone but of life itself. In the absence of genuine caring and Love, any extent of education is pointless.

These are the main points I wish to bring out about the environment in which education should be realised. These do not bring about education. Schools which believe that providing these should suffice, are mistaken at best and lazy in all other cases. The environment is closely tied in with the participants suitable for conscious education. Please note that the environment mentioned here is not merely in a school but the environment in which a child grows and hence, includes any and every place where she dwells. Hence, education becomes the responsibility of the world and not merely of the school.

I will discuss the other two parts in later posts.

And this doesn't scare you?

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Kaanda Batata Pohe

Also known as poha, this is quintessential Maharashtrian snack/breakfast. I suppose the Kannadigas would like to grab it as theirs too but they will simply have to sit back with their akki rotis and the like (anyway, the Maharashtrians have very few dishes to call their own so might as well be generous!). The Kannadigas call it Avalaaki making the dish sound quite complicated.
I wouldn't normally be writing about something that one might find anywhere (recipe, gyan, actual dish) but today I prepared this dish as a means to thank my neighbours. It was a sweet surprise when they made fried rice for me (mom's out and they thought I don't know how to cook) for lunch. In a world where creatures you think will help you shirk simple gestures with a "Just because I don't demonstrate my caring does it mean I don't?" and other lazy excuses for their simple incapacity to reach out and be affectionate, it did come as a surprise to me to find decent human beings right next door! :-) So I made this for them. I would have loved to prepare an elaborate meal for them but I had to rush elsewhere and gestures delayed (IMO) lose their value.
Pohe brings back memories of Pune to me. We had what was called Hostel Five Canteen or HCF. Most of us had our breakfast there and it was usually pohe and sometimes with sheera (maybe a post about that later). HCF was just a shack but we loved being there with the "annas" (or as we called the boys/men who ran the canteen). They would always load my pohe with extra roasted peanuts and they recognised our "gang" well. Somehow, we were like a family there.
What follows is one way of making pohe. As I would always say, improvise after you have understood the philosophy of the dish. One can make this without potatoes and/or onion but it is not called pohe then! :-)

Kaanda Batata Pohe
Poha (flattened rice. Here is a picture)
Turmeric powder
Mustard seeds
Jeera (Cumin seeds)
Whole peanuts
Urad dal
Green Chili
Curry leaves

Measures, you would need to figure out. Since I have never measured, it is unlikely I would be able to give you any.
Wash the pohe in a collander ensuring that any husk is washed away. Leave it aside for a while and then wash it again ensuring that the pohe don't clump together. Add turmeric powder to this (after 3-4 washes) and mix well. The pohe should be coated well with the turmeric powder. I usually wash the pohe once more after this but mildly (else all the turmeric will get washed off). Drain, add some salt, mix well and set aside.
In a wok heat mustard seeds, jeera and urad dal in oil. Once the mustard seeds start spluttering, add peanuts, torn curry leaves and chopped chili. Saute for a while and then add finely chopped onion. Once the onion becomes translucent, add a little salt and chopped potatoes (I leave the skin on). Saute for a while and then add a little water, cover and heat. This will allow the potato to cook. Once the water has all but evaporated, add the pohe in batches after squeezing out excess water (and this is important else your pohe will resemble upma). Keep stirring and ensuring that the pohe don't clump together. Mix well and ensure that the pohe get heated/cooked well. You must keep stirring continuously to get a dry texture for the pohe.
Variations include adding grated carrots, coconut and tomato. As I said, it is best that you understand the basics and then improvise.

Susan Boyle - I dreamed a dream

My morning was made (especially when it followed a wonderful Saturday evening and a night filled with delights) when I received an (apt) email from my friend Kartik. I actually woke up collecting my dreams of the night and was happy to see that they were all "fun-stuff". Then I see this email. I love this song for various reasons. One, it is a beautiful song. Two, the lyrics are very pertinent to most people I have met including myself and three, the original story by Victor Hugo was one of the first stories I recall from school (of course, I recall stories my mother told me of the cheating milkman and the crow and fox and the ones I read on my own). I still remember the sketch that was there on the left page of the book of a boat and people alighting/boarding and I loved that story. It taught me one thing: to respect a story completely before judging it and in the process I learnt that Les Miserables was not to be pronounced as Less Misarab-less but Lay Misayrab(l). I suspect my father helped me there and perhaps my sister joined in with her fledgling knowledge of French. That story taught me the need to give attention to detail and I love that story and this song.

Please listen to it here (though this is not the best rendition, perhaps, due to the applause interfering): The reason I ask you to listen to this rather than any other recording is that this video is far more touching than merely the beauty that the song provides.

I Dreamed A Dream (Les Miserables)Les Miserables

I dreamed a dream in times gone by
When hope was high
And life worth living
I dreamed that love would never die
I dreamed that God would be forgiving

Then I was young and unafraid
And dreams were made and used and wasted
There was no ransom to be paid
No song unsung
No wine untasted

But the tigers come at night
With their voices soft as thunder
As they tear your hope apart
And they turn your dream to shame

He slept a summer by my side
He filled my days with endless wonder
He took my childhood in his stride
But he was gone when autumn came

And still I dream he'll come to me
That we will live the years together
But there are dreams that cannot be
And there are storms we cannot weather

I had a dream my life would be
So different from this hell I'm living
So different now from what it seemed
Now life has killed
The dream I dreamed.

For a professional rendition, go here.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Painfully Yours

It is not a bed of rusted thorns
One mourns -
But the sleet of lies she'd spew
Beside you.

When deception precipitates evil
On an anvil.
And falsehood forges vacant armours
With caustic murmurs.

When violent beggary births greed -
Souls bleed,
And the ugliness of a stealing handOh! Wicked one...
In five digits spanned

Shall tell you the tale of abject misery
For none to bury
For her wake lent the sods sores
Though painfully yours.

Rise, Oh! brother leave such immoral shores
Though painfully yours.
Come, defect lands where the snake ignores
What's painfully yours.

Walk over hopes dashed to indecent floors
And cross seas pushing with honest oars
To lands where none with cunning implores
The virtuous heart that the Divine adores.

Come my brother, the day has finally burned
Those who never earned.
Let us smile and remember Fate's contours
Are neither painful nor yours.

*I imagine this being sung to the tune of the title track in Ghost in the shell. Frankly, this poem is an attempt to do something like that (based on the subtitles) without being a mere copy!

Monday, April 13, 2009


There is this particular brand of disinfectant called Domex. The catchline/byline/moto/credo/trademark line whatever it is called on the bottle is "Kills all known germs dead" and there is a "TM" rising above the last letter in that. My first thought when I saw that was "Where should the comma be?" We could have a:

  1. Kills, all known germs dead or
  2. Kills all, known germs dead or
  3. Kills all known, germs dead or
  4. Kills all known germs, dead

1. hopes that all known germs will be dead by the time you use Domex. Hence, (Domex) Kills, (assuming) all known germs dead. Now I understand why airlines don't allow toilet cleaning liquids. All the while I thought it was a class discrimination (we won't allow janitors on this flight) but now I appreciate the concern. Seems like the Taliban investing in disinfectants is not to do with poor sanitory conditions in the Afghan caves and mountains.

2. is objective and assures the death of everyone though the partiality is towards known germs. Unknown germs will survive, thrive and cause another economic downturn. There is of course, no clarity about whether we can specify germs known to us. Either it is germs known to Domex or germs popularly accepted as being known germs. If only they let us add to the list, I have a long list of germs in people's garb that I would love to see on their back with legs up in the air!

3. is less partial to germs. Germs and everything classified as germs will be dead and those who are known to Domex will be killed. Damn, that is surely not a good tone to have before the corporate party. Think of the invitation from Domex for their annual general body meeting: "All shareholders are invited; and then you will be known." Again, I am not sure whether I can add to the list (well, after all I am paying for it).

4. is weird. We are assured that all known germs will be killed dead. Wait a minute! Can I be killed alive? Or killed into Hawaiin bliss? I thought the only option was to be dead when killed and stay dead (resurrection can be fun, too). That is what I think Domex is trying to point to us with a twinkle in their eye: Unlike other cleaning liquids our lab germs stay dead!! This is the great clue into the Case of Killed but Undead Germs (Nancy Drew Issue #666) and I am told they are filing a suit against Domex for giving out the ending.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Mutation Over

I think I am done changing the look of the blog. As the reader might notice, the colours have changed! There is a label cloud to the right and the blog roll is gone (actually, lost! :-( ). That should be fixed shortly (and dusted). Most importantly, IE6.0 and IE8.0 might find the blog (esp. the right panel) poorly aligned. If your experience is such, it is about time to switch to Opera, Safari 4.0 (or higher), FF (> 3.0) and/or Chrome. If you insist on using IE Even.0 then please scroll to the bottom of the page to find the labels, archives, etc. Thank you for your patience although I am most likely speaking to an absentee audience! :-)

Thursday, April 09, 2009


Dear Reader,
This blog is currently mutating and I request you to act least surprised if your visit is unlike what it has usually been. Things might be weird (and I am not talking about the posts) so please be kind and return after a while.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

What is lost... is lost?

I search every cloud -
Would it rain those drops which once
In a lake, bathed me?

Monday, April 06, 2009

Fun with salads

Rainbow meals!This is the best way to get in as much colour into a healthy diet. Made with sauteed mushrooms, red bell peppers (capsicum), steamed corn and broccoli, kalamata olives, basil, rosemary, mint and grated paneer (cottage cheese) in a balsamic vinegar and lime juice vinaigrette. So we have black, white, green, yellow, browns and reds!! Ta-da!

Sunday, April 05, 2009


It is weird that both my previous posts have something to do with "10" which rhymes with Zen and they both do contain an element of Zen. Weird!!
Btw, the previous sonnet was inspired by my compilation of various Tibetan, Chinese and Japanese instrumental pieces which amount to 13 hours, 3 min and 31 seconds of playing time (as per Winamp). That would be 13:3:31 which reads the same backwards. Zen again! :-)

Sonnet 10 - Ode to the bamboo flute

Listen to the way of the reed
In the shakuhachi's quivering tone
I braid fingers to hold my heart within.
Music's fire stoked through a bamboo bone
While memories glide on a rusting fin.

He plays dulcet tunes of his village streams
And the many nubiles he loved from far.
He strains, trembles on tunes of splintered dreams
And in wanton tweets, drapes many a scar.

I meet a song's eye, and lo! mine are wet
It's the wind, the dust, the singing reed's play
That shakes the tree above, and sands upset,
Lest why'd I cry, Oh! stop your grave essay.

In breath you rise and in others, breath pause
In lack and surfeit you breeze Divine laws.

10 peculiar things I will teach my child

Teaching a child is a lot easier than teaching an adult. For one, you don't have to deal with too much of an ego. They implicitly trust you and you know that in such trust there can never be deception. How can one ever cheat a child!? Another reason why teaching a child is simpler is that everything is possible in their view of the world. One doesn't have to deal with cynicism.
But there end the reasons which make teaching children easier. Everything else makes it extremely difficult and strenuous to a person who doesn't love children. It involves to stick to the conviction of what is right and do whatever it takes to help the child learn, explore and reflect. As in the Glass Bead Game, reflecting on life's various twists and turns is vital.
I will explore education, learning, schools and much more in future articles but this one is for 10 peculiar things I will want to teach my child which are not to be found on the lists of most parents. I spoke to a lot of them and (when I asked them what their views were on education for their child) most of them fell into one of the 3 categories below:
  1. I will teach my child to respect others and be tolerant and seek his passion and blah and blah and blah. Politically correct answers which very few parents are able to stick to. I find this lot more annoying than the others. Herein fall people who give you the right answers but do not have the moral fibre to adhere to them. Not all of them, but most of them (leading a lazy man to safely say "nearly all of them").
  2. I will send my child to the best school. As if education is some circus trick that is taught only in schools. At least these people admit to not being able to handle the highly involved task of educating their child. They view a school as some summer camp (one which is active during the rest of the year) where children must be sent and something magical happens to them at the end of it all.
  3. "Children!?" And they grow saucer-eyed with predictable theatrics. Well, yes, children.
Hence, I feel that the 10 that follow are unlikely to be on anyone's list. If it is on your list, send me a note and we can discuss this more!! :-)

  1. Sleep Walking: Well, not really. It basically means someone else is sleeping and you do normal stuff without waking them up. I would teach my child to paint a moustache on me while I am sleeping without waking me up. Or walk around with a pair of anklets but not wake up the person. I used to practice similar things on my folks when I was young. I would try to take off my mom's specs when she fell asleep wearing them (completed it in a record of 7 minutes) or pull a magazine from under my grandmother. My sis and dad were easy because they slept like a log. I could remove the bed from under my sis and she wouldn't know! Opening a plastic bag to eat the cookies in there, was another test. It might sound simple but it is not. You need to be aware of the mobiles around, the chance of the doorbell ringing, a sneeze, your perspiration, a locked finger/knee joint and a lot more. Our house has a bell which rings whenever you open the door. I have successfully entered and exited the house (mechanical locks and iron grill doors) without waking up anyone who slept 3 feet away.
  2. Senseless: For a period of time, the child will be asked to stop usingOh! I love you... one of his/her senses (not nonsense and common-sense but sight, smell, touch, taste and auditory senses). Numbing of the tongue will be rather difficult and I don't like playing with chemicals, but for all the rest, we will work out schemes to disallow using any one of the senses. The child is then expected to cope with a normal life but without one of those senses. This should help him/her understand the purpose of each sensory faculty and not take them for granted. This exercise would also include visiting homes for the visually impaired, etc. not to pity the residents or feel superior but to observe how they manage life and learn from them. It will also include getting creative ideas to help work with them to mitigate their difficulties.
  3. 10 seconds: That's all s/he will get to note down all the items in a room/scene before having to list them all out (or as many as s/he can). This could be upon entering a restaurant, bookstore, a friend's place, a bus or just about any fairly enclosed unit of space. The request will be random and not upon every entry. We will share a keyword which upon uttering either of us will get down to noting down the details of the enclosure.
  4. Recommender: This is an exercise that goes on forever. It basically requires the child to gather all skills and information required to serve as a person who can recommend something for another person. This involves knowing another's preferences, patterns, taste, allergies, whims and moods and using all this and more to be able to recommend clothes, food, gifts, books, movies, holiday spots etc. The child is definitely allowed to keep notes but will be encouraged to drop that crutch over time.
  5. Cook: My child will surely learn how to cook. S/He will be definitely fed good food and will also learn how good food is prepared. S/He will start with learning to cut vegetables, maintaining vegetables, buying them and understanding their qualities. One task I imagine is cooking broccoli to 5 different textures. Smell is vital and I will expose them to the smell of too much/less masala, over/under-cooking, levels of salt, etc. They should be able to smell a dish and know whether it is done right and if not, then what went wrong. They should also be able to use their nose to pick good vegetables and fruits as well as feel them for goodness.
  6. Teacher: I would encourage my child to teach another child whatever s/he has learnt in school (or on that day/week) or subjects that are relevant to that child (if he is much younger). This will help him/her understand the difficulty of teaching as well as the need to vary approaches to educating another person. I would prefer (and hope that s/he does too over time) that s/he teaches poor children who cannot afford to go to schools. I totally believe in education piracy!
  7. Debater: Every month, I shall give him/her one ideology or perspective and make him/her the paladin of that. S/He will be required to learn about that ideology or perspective and build logical and sound basis for following that. These could be about finances, sociology, religion, philosophy, etc. We will have discussions about them and help the child develop the talents of thinking deeper and anticipating rebuttals.
  8. Surveyor: Occasionally, I would like my child to reflect on an issue and meet people from various walks of life and gain their opinion. The exercise is not for the child to arrive at a conclusion but be able to present a topic/issue to different people differently and simply gather their opinion/feedback without influencing them or paraphrasing them. This will hone his/her skills of interacting with different people without much introduction and come straight to the point in a manner that caters to the individual's ability and cognitive background.
  9. Comedian: I will teach my child to remember jokes and perform them. I will teach them the utility of exaggeration and how it can be employed to affect humour. I will watch several comedy serials, shows with them and help them understand how certain things work to create a laugh. I will encourage them to try it out on people who seemed to be sad and depressed. I will teach them the power of helping people see the possibility of life (without pep talk and Chicken Soup) by cheering them up with the power of lightness and humour.
  10. Zen Monk: I would love to expose my child to the beauty of Nature and abundance of it if we could only stop long enough to see. I would take them to forests and mountains, seashores and meandering rivers to observe the calmness of things as it has always been. I would love to take them on travels where we survive on the least possible preparation and then abruptly check-in to grand resorts and hotels and then back to the road hoping that they take to each like fish to water. I hope this exercise instills in them an appreciation for a falling leaf and to live life like a feather....
These of course will not be the only things taught nor will they be taught to a child who doesn't know his/her ABC. There is a time and place for everything and a way and manner for all.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Feathered Friends

I had to include the last pic because my nephew (and that is his hand) believes that his friend Theetha is also a bird (partly true)!