Sunday, May 13, 2012

Living in the US, I've heard the term "school district" thrown about quite often. Most married couples who have a kid move to a good school district. The fact that a good school district had good schools in it and hence families with children would want to move there was obvious. However an interesting thought across over coffee once. The local administration of a good school district spends a larger part of its tax revenue on schools than a mediocre one. More money into schools means better quality. This leads to the observation that if a family without a child moves to a good school district, the family's tax money goes to a facility (schools) which the family does not use. So basically the family pays for someone else's child at the cost of its benefits.

Does this logic apply in India? Should it apply in India? Does the tax paying middle class think of it?
I can flick through cricket matches, screaming cheerleaders, dancing starlets, discussions on national security, economic analysis and overly adorned, dying and weeping mother-in-laws. No wonder that I can devote a fraction of my attention to the truly important ones. I saw Amir Khan's show's first episode - too distracted by the audience wiping tears and then Amir wiping tears to focus on the real issue. Are we prioritizing our attention correctly?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Ignoring the social sciences

Exams in India always called for a visit from the holy ghost of maths. Maxing every maths exam for an averagely intelligent male child was a very reasonable societal expectation. The maths exam was the ultimate test of how intelligent you were, how successful you would be and how well you carried the family pride forward. Post the exam, the high school maths question paper would be solved fully by full grown adults with about a 30 years head start on you in life and a judgement be passed of how easy it was and how a great opportunity to max the exam had been missed. Despite this all important test of self worth, I never understood what it meant to study maths or practice it. To me, maths meant understanding the underlying concept and then trying to apply it creatively to solve problems thrown at you on the day of the exam. Practicing potential problems ad nauseum before the exam till it became purely mechanical on D day was a thought which never occurred to me. The end result was that the mythical 100/100 was never mine. The anxiety to achieve the 100 had some behavioral offshoots, though, such as repeating a popular song in the mind over and over again during the exam. Others included procrastinating studying the subject till the last moment.

To stave off an impending dread of studying maths, I used to study social sciences. Unfortunately, however, studying social sciences meant trying to read it and memorize it till I could spill it out exactly as is from the textbook on paper. Social studies never meant a visit to Lodi gardens which was in the backyard of a friend, or even a visit to the Hauz Khas monument which was in my back yard. Tantrums before exams as to how I am being forced to study drab history and civics when I'm never going to ever use it in the future as a budding engineer or a scientist were commonplace. In retrospect, though, these tantrums betrayed a weird fascination for the subject and a denial for the impending boredom of maths. Social science remains an uncharted, fascinating academic area which never got its due from me. Looking back on my 30 years, I feel that most of my decisions in my life have been taken with a heavy dose of society and cultural influences. However a big gap in my understanding of the society has led to a peculiarly prescriptive and predictable life. The cost of ignoring social sciences is mine to pay.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Swami by Ranjit Desai : A book review

"Swami" by Ranjit Desai is special as its the first Marathi book I have read. For me this is a start into a fascinating area of literature which I never explored. As I write this, I have finished about half the book, so some of my opinions may change as I finish it.

"Swami" is a historical account of the rule of Madhavrao Peshwe, based in Pune. The book remains focused on the character of Madhavrao, his rule and his various relationships - mainly focusing on his relationship with his wife Ramabai, his mother Gopikabai and his uncle Raghobadada.

The book progresses very quickly through the story line, keeping a firm grip on the plot. Within the first few pages of the book, Madhavrao's sense of justice is established through the scenes of his darbar in which he admonishes his uncle for not complying with the rules of the treasury. Madhavrao's love for Ramabai is explored through scenes of Theur where he orders that a garden be built for her pleasure. His love for his mother is described through letters exchanged with her. His relationship with his uncle remains defensive and then eventually goes south due to the constant competitiveness of his uncle. Madhavrao was severely compromised on several occasions due to his uncle's pettiness. Madhavrao's uncle was presented with many occasions when the choice was between his personal self and the Maratha empire. Most times he chose in favor of his own self causing severe damage to the Maratha empire.

Though quick in development, the book does stop and smell the roses through vivid descriptions. Most notable are the descriptions of the hunt that Madhavrao goes to along with his uncle and the Nizam while he is under arrest. The hunt is a metaphor for Madhavrao's state of mind while in his uncle's custody. The descriptions of the welcome party on Madhavarao's return to Pune from his battles offers a crescendo to an exciting first part of the book. The vividness of the "pangat" in the Shaniwarwada left me yearning for "varan bhat" with liberal toop on it with bhaji.

The book remains focused firmly on Madhavrao and the other characters remain subordinate in development. Most of the other characters are developed in response to Madhavarao's actions and decisions. The author has the tendency to introduce a large number of characters without clearly explaining their roles in the plot. The author has glossed over much of the details of wars with Madhavarao's opponents making his victories sound almost too easy and hence by consequence him almost divine in his military skills. Surely there must be some complexity of thought, some grey areas at play here which would have made interesting reading and presented a more complete and realistic picture of Madhavrao. Some of Madhavrao's controversial decisions are presented in very laconic, terse sentences such as his decision to appoint the Jadhavs (his uncles potential assassins) as Sardars or his over-reliance on rituals and religious ceremonies in the beginning of the book. Surely, some people would be at the receiving end of these decisions and would not view Madhavrao in the same divine spirit as did his supporters. Presenting these weaknesses would have painted a more complete picture of Madhavrao along with his fallacies making him a more human, believable character.

The complexity of thought of certain moments in the book could be explored a bit more. When Madhavrao decided to fine his uncle (Gopikabai's brother) when he allowed the Nizam to loot Pune, Gopikabai leaves Pune. At face value, this could be read as pure anger on her part. But she goes on to claim that her staying in her son's house when both Madhavrao and Ramabai were now adults would be inappropriate. This is interesting as extrapolating her train of thought one could conclude that she steps away not because she's angry but because her emotions and relationships should not influence Madhavrao's political decisions. Explorations of thought are lacking in the book and these remain exercises for the reader. Though I do believe that it being a historical novel, such explorations would have been conjectures on the author's part and would have compromised historical accuracy.

All in all, "Swami" keeps its promise of being a Marathi all weather classic.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Tyranny of the MBA application

I cannot believe the farce that the whole MBA application process has become!


Most schools apparently craft their class profiles so that they have a balanced cross section of society. This pretty much means that the poor Indian IT males are doomed - unless of course you are the CEO of your own company. But then doesn't that mean that among two exceptional individuals (lets say Einstein and Newton) from an Indian IT profile and an average third individual (Joe Schmo say an opera singer), chances are high that only Joe gets chosen? And then since the chances of Mr. Schmo becoming a CEO are high, if the school reports are to be believed, Schmo would eventually control the careers of Einteins and Newtons, wouldn't he?

Moreover the bar of diversity has now reached a prohibitively high level. Social service is no longer diverse. Most candidates who apply now have social service on their resumes - doesn't matter if it means serving soup at a soup kitchen for a day. This makes it very hard to distinguish between who has served soup for the sake of a line on the resume and who has spent real sweat.


Most essays center around having to wax eloquent about oneself through anecdotes. Most people I know have faked their way through this. Recurring applicants get to the extent of being able to precisely craft stories not only for themselves but for others too. Also, in most cases people who have suffered personal tragedies and issues have it made as it makes for impressive stories.

This also is a clear benefit to polished writers. Sure most people who have work experience should be able to communicate. But being successful at work does not necessarily mean that one would have superb writing skills as well.


Business schools apparently give you the unparalleled opportunity to network with CEOs and other successful individuals who may help you get jobs. Sure they may. But do they also ensure that you would do your job well? Merely getting a job because you can schmooze and have beer with the CEO does not mean that you are the right person for the job. Taking the wrong position not only affects your career but also all your subordinates careers as well.

In my opinion, the MBA is a huge industry to loot hundreds of thousands of dollars from largely mixed candidates (of course this is not a generalization) to land them in positions they may not deserve. These people then create a clique of exclusivity based on a false brand and ensure that the new people who get in are as randomly chosen as they were further propagating the mismatch of talent and jobs, jeopardizing careers and the economy.

Better off with Liberal arts

A few years back, while at Stony Brook, I found myself on a train next to an undergrad student. We got talking and he said that he wanted to get a degree in Business Administration. Since he was decided about this at the undergrad level itself, he had apparently considered studying business as a major. However, his professor advised him against it. The reasoning was that for people who want to make a career in business or law, reading, analyzing and processing vast amounts of text/information is an essential skill. A degree in liberal arts would be a perfect choice for him and hence he chose liberal arts as his major. He could always get an MBA later in life.

I think the above argument makes perfect sense. Now that I think back, had I been in the 12th standard at this point, choosing a career with my 84 percent, I would probably have chosen liberal arts in a branded college such as St Stepehen's or St Xaviers over an engineering degree from VIT Pune, which mostly nobody has heard about.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The most precious asset

Most companies in America pompously keep projecting how much they invest in their employees and how hard they work for them. Some even go so far as to say "people" are their best assets. Really? How come then whenever the stock market sneezes the headcounts of most organizations catches colds? And how can people be their best assets if the pool of people employed is not even constant?

Wouldn't it be a better strategy to not lay off people but just reduce the salaries of everybody across the board? Yes, everybody would have to live more frugally but wouldn't everybody get to eat and go to school? Wouldn't the economy be better if everybody earned less but more people remained employed?

Should companies be allowed to keep shareholders happy under any circumstance? even at the cost of larger economics?